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Sexual Dealings

“The hearings ripped open the subject of sexual harassment like some long-festering sore.”

Nina Totenberg

 

The U.S. Senate hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court have gone from the mundane (replete with the standard and predictable inquiries into the candidate’s judiciary paper trail) to the hyper-dramatic.  Not since Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation has an otherwise routine and constitutionally required procedure descended into the chaos normally reserved for daytime melodramas.

The Thomas fiasco was a ready-made soap opera.  Gossip columnists and entertainment industry executives all felt they’d died and gone to ‘Trash TV Heaven.’  In general, only the nerdiest of academic scholars viewed SCOTUS hearings with rapt attention.  But the Thomas proceedings quickly devolved into a media event when the Senate discovered – among the slew of Thomas documents – a complaint by one of his former colleagues, Anita Hill, accusing the judge of sexual harassment on the job.  Hill had worked for Thomas in the early 1980s, when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.  The hearings had technically concluded, and a vote was about to take place.  Then Nina Totenberg, a correspondent with National Public Radio (NPR), received a copy of an affidavit Hill had completed several weeks earlier in response to a Senate request for any and all information regarding her dealings with Thomas.  Such requests are standard for Supreme Court nominations, as well as other high-level government positions.  The vote on Thomas most likely would have taken place without further discussion had the Hill affidavit not appeared.  (The source of the leak to Totenberg has never been revealed.)

The vote was delayed, and the soap opera commenced.  Hill described in graphic detail how Thomas asked her out repeatedly during their time working together.  She made it clear, however, that he never touched her and never threatened her.  But his behavior made her uncomfortable, and she was concerned for her job.  Apparently, he got the message and stopped.  Hill wasn’t the only woman to file a formal complaint against Thomas, but she had been the first.  And she was the only one called to testify before the Senate during Thomas’ hearing.  Despite her testimony, Thomas was confirmed 52-48, in one of the narrowest Supreme Court votes in history.

The controversy – especially the sight of an all-male Senate committee questioning Hill – prompted a feminist backlash.  Months later, 1992 was dubbed the “Year of the Woman”.  It also happened to be an election year, which subsequently saw large numbers of women elected to public office across the nation.  It also put Bill Clinton into the White House.  As anyone of a certain age might recall, Clinton became the focus of his own sexual indiscretions.  Ironically, many of the same people who demonized Clarence Thomas championed Bill Clinton and proclaimed accusations of his flirtatious peccadillos were simply good old-fashioned sludge politics.  Or what Hilary Clinton deemed a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Apparently, the New Feminist Order didn’t include the likes of Gennifer Flowers or Paula Jones.  I recall plenty of women scoffing at the news that – in 1990 – Jones visited then-Governor Bill Clinton in his hotel room late at night on the promise of a job offer.

“What a dumb broad!” my mother told me one day.  She, as well as some of my female friends and colleagues, laughed at the idea that Jones believed Clinton would invite her to his hotel room at 11:00 p.m. wanting to conduct a job interview.  Right-wing sycophants portrayed Jones as a naïve 20-something who didn’t know any better.  James Carville, Clinton’s campaign manager, remarked, “Drag a $100 bill through a trailer camp and there’s no telling what you will find.”

When Clinton’s sexual tryst with Monica Lewinsky came to light, self-righteous conservatives actually tried to impeach him for lying about it under oath.  But again, no word came from the feminist camp.  In fact, they were suspiciously silent throughout the entire ordeal.  Clinton supported abortion, so I guess that’s all some women’s rights activists cared about.

Personally, I always liked Bill Clinton (Hilary not so much) and didn’t appreciate the news media focused so much attention on his hormonally-driven conquests.  Yes, he likes women.  He’s also one of the smartest and most verbally eloquent men ever to serve as Chief Executive.  What a stark contrast to his immediate successor or the buffoon currently in the White House!  But, if character counts – as so many social and religious conservatives proclaim – why are sexual indiscretions more important than, say, financial irregularities?  Conservatives were quick to defend Thomas and just as quick to defend Trump.  But they championed the ousting of Clinton because he got a blow-job from some unknown overweight intern.  Conversely, liberals were quick to defend Clinton, but had no problems dragging Thomas through the mud.  Character may be important for public officials, but politics keeps interfering.

All of that came back – like another “Rocky” sequel – recently with the Kavanaugh ordeal.  This situation is different, however, but much more disturbing.  Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward about her traumatizing encounter with Kavanaugh in the summer of 1982, when both were high school students.  Whereas Clarence Thomas allegedly asked Anita Hill out on dates repeatedly and made one too many off-color jokes, Blasey Ford claims Kavanaugh and another teenage boy ambushed her at a house, dragged her into a bedroom and tried to rape her.  If true, Blasey Ford is recounting an incident that goes far beyond mere uncouth behavior.  It’s a harrowing tale of a felonious assault; one where she literally felt she could die at the age of 15.

I know first-hand what both sexual harassment and general bullying-type harassment on the job can do to a person’s sense of self-worth.  I know it happens.  I’ve experienced it from men AND women.  In the fall of 1985, I was a naïve 21-year-old working at a country club when my openly gay male supervisor admitted to me one night that he’d “really like to suck your dick off.”  It startled me more than it offended, but I didn’t know what to do.  Working at a retail store just a few years later, I got into a verbal altercation with my immediate supervisor who threatened to “bounce me right out of here.”  We eventually made amends, realizing it was just a bad misunderstanding.

While working at a large bank in downtown Dallas a few years after that, a woman came up behind me as I stood at a copier and literally jabbed a well-manicured fingernail into my back.  We’d had an ongoing dispute about some otherwise small business matter.

“Oh please tell me you didn’t just poke me in the back like that!” I said to her.

She promptly jabbed me in the chest with that same finger and said something like, “I’ll stick it up your ass…”

Whereupon I literally shoved her back and told her never to touch me again.  She marched out of the room and had someone call security on me.  When I relayed what all had happened, attention turned back to her; she had merely said I’d “physically accosted” her in the copier room for “no good reason.”  I informed management that, if I lost my job because of that, she’d “better come out with me” or the bank will buy me a new vehicle and give me an early retirement.

In 2006, while laboring as a contractor at a government agency elsewhere in downtown Dallas, a woman with the security division deliberately ran into me, as I and a male colleague started to enter through a secure doorway.  I didn’t see her approach; she’d moved in on me that quick.  She then grabbed my upper left arm and demanded to see my badge.  When I told her (shouted at her) never to touch me again, she threatened to walk me out of the building.  My immediate supervisor was more upset with me for talking back to her than the fact she’d literally attacked me.  Again, I threatened legal action.

“I can be a real asshole about this,” I told him, “and tell everyone she hit me and tried punch and scratch me.”

My constituent vouched for the veracity of what happened.  I suppose if he hadn’t been with me, I might have lost that job.  But I had no fear of that.  I would have ensured the same happened to her.  But the matter quietly (amazingly) went away.  Still, my supervisor and a few others seemed to be more upset that I’d actually had the nerve to talk back to a woman and not that she grabbed my arm.

I’m aware that, in this politically correct society, gender politics has taken an ugly turn.  And it seems, whenever men are accused of sexual abuse and harassment of females, they are presumed guilty until proven innocent and the burden of proof lies with them.  In other words, the standard protocol of due process is undermined.  But only in those cases where a female – especially an adult White female – is victimized.  Or claims to be have been victimized.

It was with all of that in mind that I viewed the life story scuffles between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford.  I compelled myself to view it all with an open mind and hear both sides of each tale.  I noted that Anita Hill had been subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, but that Dr. Blasey Ford had written to her local congresswoman about a one-time incident with Kavanaugh five presidents ago.  And, when the Senate asked Blasey Ford to testify under oath, she agreed (via her attorneys), but only after a long list of conditions were met.

Who is she, I asked myself.  Why is JUST NOW coming forward with this?  And how pertinent is it to Kavanugh’s confirmation?  His judicial record opposing abortion and gay rights, while recklessly supporting large corporations is more critical.

Even after listening to Blasey Ford’s statement and all the vitriolic after-effects, I wondered where this would lead.  Then I witnessed with some degree of amusement Kavanaugh literally lose it, as he tried to defend himself and rebut Blasey Ford’s claims.  The once-stoic, almost bland, jurist melted into near hysteria.  His loudly defensive behavior was telling.  I’ve been around long enough to know that people who grow hostile in such a manner are most likely guilty of the accusations laid before them.

But then, I realized something even more important; something about Blasey Ford.  She had stated repeatedly that, while her involuntary interaction with a teenage Kavanaugh was a “sexual assault,” it didn’t culminate (apparently) in an actual rape.  Neither Kavanaugh nor his friend managed to penetrate any part of her body with some part of theirs.  She credits much of that to the fact she fought so hard – terrified for her life – and that she had on a one-piece bathing suit, which would be more difficult to tear off.

Yet, if she had fabricated this entire story, or at least had embellished it, there would be no such ending.  If the story was born from the mind of a bitter middle-age female, both boys would have penetrated her somehow or another.  In fact, there probably would have been more assailants.  She would have ended up bruised and bloodied; stumbling out of the house naked and screaming.  But that’s not what she says happened.  That’s what made me realize she can’t be lying about this.

It’s not that I doubted her altogether.  I didn’t have an opinion either way about the alleged incident.  I’ve become accustomed to seeing male public figures – politicians and sports stars alike – be targeted by supposedly scorned women.  Almost every man who has entered public life (at least here in the U.S.) has fallen victim to a plethora of accusations from a gallery of victims.  And, once again, understand that men accused of sexual violence in this country aren’t always accorded due process.

But now, I realize Blasey Ford can’t be lying.  It’s still odd that she wrote to her local congresswoman about Kavanaugh just this past summer.  Yet, I’m certainly glad she did.  Now other stories about Kavanaugh are coming to light; stories of his alleged drunken binges in high school and college; of verbal slurs and physical attacks.  The accusers are both women and men.  It’s not that the men are more believable – at least not to me.

Kavanaugh had portrayed himself as a studious, virginal, choir boy-type puppy dog in his youth; a kid who volunteered to help old women cross the street and attended church as he was headed for the priesthood.  He proclaimed as much before the Judiciary Committee.  Under oath.  In public.  With his wife and daughters seated behind him.  Now all of that’s in question.

If character really does count – and we know it does sometimes – then people like Kavanaugh don’t stand a chance.  And it’s fair game to dredge up their past indiscretions the way archaeologists dredge up ancient coins.

Sadly, this fiasco is not quite over.  It will continue into this coming week.  Sometimes, true-life soap operas are just too overbearing.  Stay tuned.

 

Supreme Court Historical Society

Image: Rob Rogers

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No Defense Here

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At some point in the late 1960s, a Mexican-American guy got arrested in Dallas for a series of robberies.  The incident garnered some media attention, but was pretty much a non-event.  Until someone at my father’s workplace mentioned it.

An older White man approached my father and said something to the effect that the police had arrested “your brother Rodriguez.”  He knew what the old man was talking about.  My father promptly reminded the man “my name isn’t Rodriguez, and that guy isn’t my brother.  Now shut your ass and leave me alone!”

The old man apparently was offended at my father’s brusque language and complained to the company owner, another old White (albeit Jewish) man who said something to the effect of, ‘What did you expect?’

My father often found himself in such uncomfortable situations; where some Hispanic individual would do something stupid and / or criminal enough to get media attention, and some non-Hispanics would assume my father was guilty by association.  It actually still happens.  A lot.  Just ask Black men when other Black men get arrested.  Or Hispanic men.  Or Native American men.  Even in this second decade of the 21st century, in a post-civil rights America, crime still often bears a Black, Brown or Red face.

That mess stormed into the public conscious last week when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump dismissed a 2005 conversation with an entertainment journalist as “locker room banter.”  With a monster hurricane having just ripped through the Caribbean and the U.S. east coast and the Zika virus still a threat to public health, this is what the American media and much of the American public has focused on: eleven-year-old verbiage from two old men trash-talking on a bus.

The dialogue hasn’t discouraged Trump who is roaring ahead with his campaign – undoubtedly one of the most bizarre in recent memory – even as one woman after another jumps forward to proclaim they’ve fallen victim to the type of actions the business tycoon describes in that brief snippet.

There’s no getting around it: what Trump said in that piece is deplorable, and his attempt at an apology is as sincere as a 13-dollar bill.  Even before then, I didn’t like him.  But, aside from the rancor bubbling over this mess, it’s amazing the number of men who are also publicly proclaiming their ardent respect for women and disdain for Trump.  Athletic coaches at the high school and college levels are gathering their young male acolytes to warn them that such talk about females will not be tolerated.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to refute Trump’s so-called “locker room banter.”  I don’t have a guilt complex over it and I’m not hopping up and down trying to convince any female within ten feet of me that I’d never talk that way about them.  And neither should any other man.

Since high school, I’ve spent time in men’s locker rooms and can say without wincing that I’ve never heard men talk like that about women.  Men say all sorts of stupid shit in locker rooms, but I cannot recall anything of that sort.  As a writer, I’m prone to listen in on other people’s conversations.  I’ve always wanted my characters to speak and behave as normal as possible, so they’ll be more realistic.  Yes, men do talk about sex in locker rooms.  (And, in other Earth-shattering news, the sun rises in the east.)  I’m certain women engage in similar talk, even though most won’t admit it.  Men also talk about body parts.  Mainly their own body parts.  Usually, though, we talk about work, home, family, cars, sports, our individual exercise routines – but never something so vile as sexually assaulting or molesting women.  I know some men have talked openly like that.  I’ve just never heard it.

But it’s not enough to point out that most men don’t talk in such a debasing manner about women.  It’s more important to realize that most men don’t act that way either.  The vast majority of men don’t harass and / or sexually assault women.  I know that contradicts feminist ideology, but it’s painfully true.  Men are much more likely to assault other men or even themselves than they are women.

Yet, while plenty of people like Trump think their wealth and power make them better than the rest of us, there are others who latch onto the Trumps of the world in the hopes of improving their own station in life.  Trump surely has no genuine respect for women overall, but a number of women swoon over men like him daily.  This is one thing that upsets most average men.  Women often claim they want a man who is honest and fair-minded.  But, as some men view it, women really just want a man with lots of money.  Even some of the most successful and well-educated women often still expect the men in their lives to earn more than them.  Why?  Just in case said woman decides she’s tired of working?  I don’t know.

Women, on the other hand, often say their lack of opportunities in life put them in a position where they’ve had to find men who have money, or at least a job that pays above minimum wage.  On average, women still earn less than men, but women are superseding men on the educational front.  If you break that down from a racial viewpoint, the gaps grow even larger.  Gender politics, like racial politics, is ugly, and no one wins the argument.

I’ve heard more than a few women engage in “locker room banter” – in public – in front of me and other men.  I’ve endured my share of harassment from both women and men.  It was never caught on video or audio.  And I rarely complained out loud about it.  I knew few would believe me, especially because I’m a man.  Therefore, I understand how some women feel about life in the work place during years gone by – long before the term “sexual harassment” was ever created.

Former Texas Governor Ann Richards once advised young women to complete their education and not depend on a man to take care of them; “when the Prince is middle aged with a pot belly and a wandering eye, you’ll be glad you have a degree and can support yourself if you have to.”  As expected, social and religious conservative across the state and the nation dumped their snarky bile on Richards; denouncing her as anti-family and anti-marriage.  Richards shrugged it off, even after losing her 1994 reelection bid.

Trump is in a class all his own – and I don’t mean that in a good way.  He’s harking back to those golden years gone by; when people didn’t have to be politically correct, especially White male people.  But, as part of that elite and much-reviled 1%, he obviously believes his wealth and power give him license to say and do whatever he wants.  Plenty of people in his social class possess such self-righteous haughtiness.  Despite all his money, Trump is still little more than a loud-mouthed bum.  He’s a disgrace to all men – White or not.

My paternal grandfather once said you can dress a donkey up in silk and satin, like a thoroughbred horse, but eventually it’ll start bucking and kicking like the animal it truly is.  Now, I don’t mean to disrespect donkeys by comparing them to Trump.  Talk about being disrespectful!  But I think you get the idea.

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Dumb Luck

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During the first semester of my senior year in high school, I took an Advanced Placement (AP) English course.  I’d always been good in English; having learned to read and write even before I entered kindergarten.  Reading and writing were two means to deal with the intense shyness that plagued my youth.  I’d always earned A’s in English classes, even going back to grade school.  Until that AP class.  I ended up with a B+, which – to me – was depressing.  Towards the end of the course, the teacher urged me to take a regular English class for my final semester; saying something about the next AP English course dealing with poetry, which “takes it to a whole new level.”  Translation: you’re too big of a dumb ass to handle it.  Her and I hadn’t really connected anyway, which had made me feel ostracized.  In retrospect, she reminds me Hillary Clinton; you could tell she’d lead a really hard life, but still have off fake smiles to get through the day.

For that final half of my senior year, I took a “regular” English class (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) and ended up with an A+.  I’d had that particular teacher (another Hillary Clinton predecessor) before and didn’t have any problems with her.  But another student in that class did.  As the spring semester wound down, and all of us seniors became more eager to leave, that one student was in peril.  The teacher had openly informed him (and everyone else) that he might not pass, which meant he wouldn’t be able to graduate on time.  One day she loudly proclaimed that she was going through all of his previous coursework to see if she’d made any mistakes in grading.  I could see the mortified look on his normally gregarious face.  It was a good thing he was seated at the very back of the room.  The rest of us remained silent.  When the class ended that day, the teacher told him to stay.

I encountered him in a boys’ restroom later and asked him “if everything was okay.”  He said yes; that he’d just barely passed the course and would be able to graduate as scheduled.  I told him it was “chicken shit” that the teacher had publicly humiliated him and virtually announced to everybody that he was a potential failure.  A couple of other guys in that class happened to show up and overheard our conversation.  They agreed with me.  That one guy (I can’t remember his name) then mentioned something I thought was odd at the time.  He said he’d always had trouble with reading and writing; that letters and words sometimes looked “mixed up” to him.  Thinking about that now makes me realize he was probably dyslexic; a neurological condition that impacts people (usually males) at a young age.

I’ve known other boys and young men who had trouble reading and writing and remember the open ridicule they’d face at the hands of teachers and other students.  Calling out someone in public like that and telling them they’re about to fail is cruel and unethical.  But people do it anyway.  It happens all the time in schools – and in the workforce.  It’s a form of bullying.

In the summer of 2009, the supervisors at my job decided upon a new tactic to educate associates en masse should we encounter a work-related problem.  They would email everyone at once and try to get a resolution as quickly as possible.  The genesis was time constraints.  They didn’t want to deal with telling people one by one how to handle a troublesome issue.  The plan bombed as soon as it was implemented; thanks to yours truly.

I had a question about something, so the supervisor, Monica*, emailed everyone (copying our project manager, Dave*, and her own assistant, Diana*) about it.  She initially didn’t mention that it was me who had started the inquiry.  Monica gave us all an hour to figure it out.  When I thought I’d gotten it, I asked Diana who merely responded with a shrug.  “Oh, so you’re gonna play this chicken shit little game, too, huh?” I said.

“It’s not a game,” she muttered.

“It’s also not a game when you ridicule someone publicly.  Go back to sleep.”  I left her office, which she shared with Monica and another supervisor.

Moments later Monica sent out another group email telling everyone that I need help with this problem – to which I replied (only to Monica, Dave, Diana and the other supervisor): “I don’t know who came up with this idea, but it’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen.”

Dave wasn’t on site that day, and Monica reacted with her usual dismissive demeanor when I finally confronted her.  “Well, we didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” she said, still staring at her monitor.  The comment had prompted a barely-audible chuckled from Diana.

“Oh, no!” I replied.  “I don’t have feelings for you or anyone else in this dump.  None of you are worth that much trouble, so don’t impress yourselves too goddamned much.”

She still wouldn’t look at me and started talking to Diana.

I reached behind and slammed the office door with enough force to cause the wall to vibrate.  It startled the other supervisor.  “Do I have your attention now?” I said to Monica.

Her and I had engaged in verbal battles before.  That wasn’t the first time she’d called me out publicly.  I’d confronted her afterwards, and she said she’d say whatever she wanted whenever she wanted.  I informed my then-supervisor, Robert*, telling him Monica and I “had words.”

Monica had the habit of ridiculing people in public.  I recall another nasty situation about two years earlier than the group email stunt where she’d loudly gone off on a woman about the standard operating procedures (SOP) manual.  People on the other side of the office – with stacks of metal shelves and a slew of paper-laden boxes between us – could hear her.  Robert called Dave who was in another location.  I don’t know what exactly happened next, but a security official showed up several minutes later.  By the end of that year, Robert left the company.  Speaking with another colleague, James*, months later, I learned Robert had had it with Monica.  He had apparently been unable to reason with her on any level and – unwilling to tolerate it – found another job.

James (who remains a good friend to this day), a female colleague, Andrea*, and I then all fell under the group supervised by Monica.  For Andrea, it was a veritable death sentence.  Israelis and Palestinians get along better than those two did.  I chalked it up initially to the usual drama that erupts between people in the workplace.  But the two women literally despised one another.  The following year Andrea took a leave of absence – and never came back.

A few months after the group email mess Monica got her comeuppance.  Late one Friday afternoon she’d marched up to the office of our company’s liaison to the government agency with which we contracted (our client in other words) and unleashed a verbal tirade.  The incident started the liaison, an older woman who was bound to a motorized scooter.  That other company supervisor happened to accompany Monica; unaware, as she later told me, that Monica would “go off like that.”

A security official happened to overhear the exchange and promptly ordered Monica and the other supervisor to leave the office.  Someone then called Dave who was at a client site a few miles away.  He hurried to downtown Dallas in evening rush-hour traffic – which often moves slower than fat people walking through a cactus field – and ultimately walked Monica out of the building.  She was gone.  The rest of us didn’t find out until the following Monday morning, when Dave called us into a meeting.  “If you have any questions, get with me privately,” he added.

The only question James and I had was whether or not they had to escort Monica out in handcuffs or a straight-jacket.  It was somewhat of a relief.  The big, evil, loud-ass witch had evaporated from our lives.

I hate to see anyone to lose their job.  Most anyone.  Some people just beg for it in a way, either through their own incompetence or because of brutish behavior.

If I try to count the times someone ridiculed me during my school years, I’d have to break out a calculator.  If I try to do the same with work-related fiascos, the stories would include more than a few arguments.  Not long after landing in the corporate world, I discovered that schoolyard bullies and cranky teachers reappear in corner offices with designated titles and self-righteous dispositions.

I’m a firm believer, though, in that what goes around comes around.  The proverbial karma is a bitch theory.

In early 1990, I had a temporary job at a financial company’s lock box division.  One of the assistant supervisors was an older woman who seemed to relish pointing out the mistakes of everyone in the unit.  At weekly meetings she’d call out people’s names like a headmistress admonishing disobedient school children.  The tactic was supposed to enlighten and help educate the group, thus guarding against future costly errors.  It had the opposite effect.  Aside from generating extreme animosity against the woman, it impacted morale.  Then, salvation arrived in the most unlikely of circumstances.  That woman made an error, a really egregious error that cost the company some money.  It was a serious offense.  The unit manager, an older man with a seesaw personality, gathered everyone around to announce publicly the nature of the mistake.  In a perverse form of emotional rioting, the entire crowd – including me – reacted with unabashed joy.  The old hag got a healthy dose of her own self-righteousness.  Hurts, doesn’t it, I thought, to be shamed and humiliated in front of everybody.  A few weeks later I found a job at a bank, just as the assignment was scheduled to end.

Humiliating someone publicly just doesn’t turn out well in either school or work.  Cooperation and private consultations may sound like bleeding-heart liberal ideology, but it’s much more of a productive approach in both business and education.  Think about it.  How many times have you been part of a group where members constantly bickered, and everything still came out wonderfully?  Wonderfully, that is, without any break in the hostilities.  I never have.  Competition and debates are inevitable – and good.  Good most of the time.  People will disagree and argue.  But, unless they eventually come to some sort of understanding, nothing positive will come of it.  We only have to look at the centuries-old battle between Israelis and Palestinians to see what a lack of solid communication and mutual agreement can do to a society.

It may have taken me decades before I finally completed my college education, but I’m no idiot and I’m no fool.  If anything, I’ve been naïve in believing that people can work together all of the time.

Another thing I’ve learned – perhaps, the most critical lesson of all – is that hard work isn’t equal to luck or good fortune.  It really is difficult and generally pays off – whether in an actual workplace or in your own personal endeavors.  I haven’t achieved success yet with my fictional writing career.  But I’ll never give up on it because that’s pretty much all I’ve ever wanted to do with myself and I know I’m good at it.  And I’m good because I really enjoy the craft of reading.

Regardless, I don’t need the approval of haggard English teachers or cantankerous managers to succeed in anything.

*Name changed.

 

Image courtesy of Marc Phares / Epic Studios.

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Daymares

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Within the same week a few months ago my parents had nightmares about their former jobs. It’s unsettling because they’ve both been retired for a while. My mother worked in the insurance business for nearly 51 years before retiring in 2003 at age 70. My father worked for two different printing shops; starting when he was 17. He got laid off in 1994 from the last one. They’re old school; in their day, you went to work for a company and stayed there for decades. Thus, I’ve had some trouble explaining my career as a freelance technical writer to them. They each worked roughly the same number of years I’ve now been alive.

But why, after all these years, they have occasional bad dreams about work is beyond my comprehension. I suppose they gave so much of their time and energy to those places that it’s dug an emotional trench in their respective souls like a gunshot wound.

I’ve only had three dreams about work. The first occurred in the late 1980s, when I worked for a retail store. I was being harassed by a manager who already had a nasty reputation. Strangely, though, (and what dream isn’t strange?) my parents were at the store with me. They knew I’d been having a tough time with that asshole of a manager and had come to help me out. When he shouted at them, I lost my temper and screamed at him. My own yelling woke me up. Not long afterwards, that manager was transferred to another store. I guess someone in the company’s echelons of power heard me yelling.

The other two dreams came within months of losing my job at an engineering firm in the fall of 2010. I had been so stressed out there in the last few months it was almost a relief to get laid off. It even cost me a back tooth. Just a few weeks earlier I had begun experiencing pain on the left side of my mouth. I didn’t know what to think when I realized that tooth was loose. Neither did my dentist. But, by the time I visited him, I knew my job was the crux of the agony.

“You have two choices,” he told me. “I can pull it or try to do a root canal.”

“Pull the bitch,” I calmly told him, thinking of my then-supervisor and then-manager. As he wrangled it from my jaw, I tried to think of ways to make it look like that supervisor and that manager had freak accidents. At work. On the same day. With no one else around.

Stress does that to a person – especially work-related stress. It makes them physically ill and emotionally drained. At various times during my eleven years working for a large bank, I felt the impact of job-induced stress. Back aches and short bursts of rage were the most common for me. Back then, though, I was able to fight it off because of my strict exercise regimen: pushups and crunch sit-ups in the morning; weight-lifting; jogging; and taekwondo. In one martial arts session, I almost beat the crap out of a close friend. We were fully padded up, so neither of us felt much. But he told me afterwards that I literally scared him. I apologized, but he just laughed. I explained to him what was happening to me at the bank, and he understood. Still, at that moment, I felt angry enough to send Chuck Norris screaming from the room. Despite my tenure at the bank and all the crap I endured, I never once dreamed of the place.

So, it’s still a mystery why I let my eight-year stint at the engineering company affect me in the nocturnal hours.

In the first dream, I was at corporate headquarters in Southern California with my former project manager, Dagwood*, who had hired me in 2002. He was a quirky character who’d joined the company right out of college. But I liked him and stood up for him, whenever I felt another associate was disrespecting him. In the dream, the building sat right along the coastline, separated from the water only by a strip of sand and a road. Dagwood had been there many times, but this was my first visit. And everyone was on edge. A major quake had pummeled the seabed a few miles offshore, and local officials anticipated an equally massive tsunami. The coastal areas had already been evacuated, and building management had informed us they were monitoring the situation closely. When the first wave approached, they’d sound the alarms, and everyone on the lower levels would flee upwards, which in real tsunami reactions, is known as vertical evacuation.

I’ve always been fascinated by the more extreme elements of the natural world and recall being fascinated with the prospect of witnessing a tsunami up close. But I was also frightened, since I’d never been through something like that. Dagwood had, though; a similar incident had occurred a few years earlier, he told me, before I started with the company. A massive seaquake had struck, and a tsunami was expected. But it was almost a false alarm; the tsunami waves turned out to be merely inches. This time, however, officials anticipated a real disaster.

“Don’t worry,” Dagwood reassured me. “Just stay with me, and you’ll be alright. When those alarms go off, we’ll just head upstairs.”

Cool, I thought. I felt better.

Then, as I labored over my laptop, seated right beside a window overlooking the beachfront, the alarms went off. I heard a loud thundering sound and looked out the window to see the first monstrous wall of water rushing towards us. I panicked, as I leapt to my feet and began looking for Dagwood. He was nowhere. Some people started screaming in fear, as others headed towards the stairwell. Where was Dagwood? I kept asking. He’s supposed to be here. Good God! Did he just abandon me?

I ran from one office to another, searching for him, thinking surely he wouldn’t be so cruel towards me. Several other people were also scrambling around; consumed more with hysteria. But I still couldn’t find Dagwood. Finally, I just stopped and, as the sound of the encroaching tsunami drowned out every other noise, I turned to the ceiling and said, “Fuck him.”

I proceeded towards a stairwell, and – amazingly – everyone else stopped screaming and followed me up the stairs. We all made it safely and could only watch as the water rumbled over the sand and the road, before tearing into the building’s ground floor.

But I kept asking myself that question over and over: where was Dagwood? He was nowhere to be found. What had been trepidation just moments earlier turned to anger. He really did abandon me.

I woke up.

In the second dream, I was back in downtown Dallas, at the government agency where I’d worked most of the time I was with the company. We had an important meeting; one where we’d learn our fate under the new contract. I simply couldn’t be late. As the meeting time approached, I was trying desperately to finish a critical task. I finally tore myself from my computer and headed towards a nearby meeting room. No one was there. I darted to another conference room. It, too, was empty. Where is everyone? Where is this damn meeting being held? I can’t be late!

I began scampering about the building; running into every conference room I could find. They were either empty or occupied by someone else. But, by then, I’d realized something even more disconcerting: I was stark naked. At some point, my clothes had come off. That usually happens only to porn stars and politicians, not to technical writers. And not in a government building! No one seemed to care, though, and I was only slightly bothered by it. I was more concerned with finding out where that damn meeting was being held. I finally gave up and sauntered into the break room. I dropped into a chair, still butt-naked, and resigned myself to an uncertain fate.

I woke up.

Both dreams are rife with symbolism. I know what they mean to me, but you can make your own inferences. Yet, once I recovered from that second dream, I vowed never to dream about work again. It wasn’t worth the aggravation. No job is. After years of dealing with bully bosses, hostile coworkers, office gossip, impossible deadlines and paltry raises, I want to occupy my mind with something far more significant and meaningful than a fucking job.

And it’s worked. I haven’t dreamed about the engineering company again. I told my parents they need to let go of their old jobs. “That was years ago,” I said. Those places shouldn’t hold such a strong grip on their minds.

We spend so much of our lives at work, or doing something work-related, and we don’t always get something positive after expending all that time and energy. People, especially men, have often defined themselves by what type of career they had. Blue collar, white collar, no collar. Whatever they did to make a living is who they were. One of the first questions people ask when they meet someone for the first time is, “What do you do?” And, of course, they don’t really mean, ‘What do you do in your spare time?’ Or, ‘What do you do every third Saturday of the month?’ They mean, ‘How do you make yourself a valuable part of your community?’

But I know people are generally worth more than the way they earn money. I define myself as a writer; always have and always will. So I proudly tell people I’m a technical writer. That’s how I currently earn my living. Eventually, I hope to make a living from my creative writing. Regardless, I know for damn sure that slaving over a hot keyboard is not all that I am. And whatever type of job or career you have, dear readers, should not be all who you are. We’re worth a hell of a lot more than that.

And, next time I’m on the west coast, I may see a real live tsunami, but I won’t be thinking of Dagwood.

*Name changed.

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Laborious

Finally – some good news!

Finally – some good news!

A few years ago – about a year after I got laid off from an engineering company and while I struggled to find even a temporary job while trying to launch my freelance writing career – I told a close friend of mine via email that, when the economy improves, people will start switching jobs without giving much, if any, notice to their employers.

“True,” he replied.

It’s starting to happen. The recent economic crisis – the worst in this nation’s history since the Great Depression – almost completely destroyed our financial stability. Multiple factors were responsible for it: broad-based tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations; further deregulation of banking and housing; and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Between December 2007 (when the recession officially commenced) and June 2009 (when it officially ended), the U.S. economy shed roughly 8.7 million jobs. Employers began to add jobs in 2010. Only recently, however, have we regained all those lost jobs.

There’s no real cause for celebration. The after effects of such a prolonged economic debacle are as varied as the causes. People lost accumulated personal wealth; state and local economies suffered decreased tax revenue; and home values dropped. Wages, however, remain stagnant, despite increased productivity. People have always worked too damn hard for their money. Of course, everyone feels they’re overworked and underpaid. But now, we have statistical proof. But, according to Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, the “Great Recession” actually was worse than the Great Depression. In a statement filed on August 22 with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, as part of a response to a lawsuit over the 2008 bailout of insurance giant American International Group (AIG), Bernanke said:

“September and October of 2008 was the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.” Of the 13 “most important financial institutions in the United States, 12 were at risk of failure within a period of a week or two.”

When asked why he thought it was critical for the U.S. government to rescue AIG, Bernanke replied:

“AIG’s demise would be a catastrophe” and “could have resulted in a 1930s-style global financial and economic meltdown, with catastrophic implications for production, income, and jobs.”

Obviously, too-big-to-fail truly has become too big to fail! The Great Depression was exacerbated by the fact the Federal Reserve System didn’t take command of the banks. Billionaire financier Andrew Mellon was the U.S. Treasury Secretary during the Hoover Administration and – like a typical conservative Republican – believed the nation’s banks had gotten themselves into trouble and needed to get themselves out of it, even if that meant they failed and took their customers’ money with them. Which they did, of course, in very large numbers. At the time, though, we didn’t have a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to safeguard people’s financial assets. The federal government’s lackadaisical attitude at the onset of the Great Depression forced Republicans to lose both houses of Congress during the 1930 midterm elections and shoved Hoover out of the White House two years later. That same kind of ineptitude is probably what caused them to lose both houses of Congress in 2006.

Yet, as the economy continues to recover and employers continue adding jobs, I see my aforementioned prediction materializing. During sluggish markets, employers can afford to be picky on who they hire and can freeze wages and salaries at will. It’s almost cruel and inhumane the way some can behave. And, what’s the average worker to do? With children, mortgages, car payments and other debts, they’re often stuck. They have little power.

But, from January to June of this year, more than 14 million people quit their jobs. I would like to think they left for better jobs. And, I’d like to believe they gave little notice to their employers. After all, companies don’t have to give employees any real notice when they plan to let someone go; albeit, quite often, people can feel it. In 2009, there were approximately seven people for every job opening. As of June 2014, the ratio had dropped to 2-to-1. Overall, the number of unemployed has dropped by 5 million, while the number of new jobs has grown by 2.5 million. Now, there’s talk of a problem we haven’t seen in a while: labor shortage. Companies are starting to feel one of the adverse effects of an improving economy; there aren’t enough people, or at least not enough qualified people, to fill certain positions. Thus, it’s employees and jobseekers who can be picky.

And, that’s a good thing. It’s really the way it should be. Only once in my life have I had the pleasure of quitting a job I hate; in January 1989, I left a retail position, which I’d held for nearly three years. I just walked into the place and gave my immediate supervisor a typewritten note announcing my resignation. But, I’ve known a few people who, in recent years, essentially gave their boss the middle finger and walked out of a company. They recounted their experiences with glee. We spend a great deal of time at work; often more than with our own families. Work gives people personal value and a sense of accomplishment, and everyone who makes an effort to complete a job should be respected. Whether that person answers the phones in a call center; digs ditches for sewer lines; programs a voice mail system; or rings up items at a cash register, they should be considered important. They pay taxes and insurance and they put the rest of their money back into the economy as consumers.

Last week, an executive in the company where I’m working as a contract technical writer staged an impromptu meeting to announce a major organizational change. After presenting a variety of business details, he said something that I’d never heard from someone at his level: “Family is more important than work.” He emphasized that everyone needs to place greater value on their loved ones than on their careers; noting that he hadn’t done that and almost paid the price for it. I’ve heard some executives tell people on an individual basis the same thing – but never in such a large setting. He’s right. A company won’t collapse because you can’t make it to a business conference. You won’t necessarily recall that training seminar. But, you most likely will remember a child’s sports event. And, you’ll cherish it forever.

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My Time in a Locked Box

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Up until mid-March, I had a temporary position at a lock-box facility with a major financial institution. I won’t name the company or the staffing firm that found me the job, but I will emphasize that it was one of the worst places I’ve ever worked. I took the position as a filler job amidst my freelance writing gigs. In a way, I’m glad I did, though, because it gave me a clearer view of just how bad things are in the U.S. right now. If our elected officials could experience such drudgery, matters would change in no time.

A lock-box is an intermediary between a company and the bank that handles their accounts. You might notice a post office box listed as the mailing address on bills for telephone and water utilities. That box number simply steers the payments to a separate facility where they’re processed on behalf of the bank. It’s beneficial for the bank from a time efficiency standpoint. But, they’re also breeding grounds for fraud. The workers – many of them contract or temporary – handle countless personal checks and documents with sensitive information that can then be purloined or photocopied.

The place where I worked handles immigration applications on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. My specific job was to analyze packets of applications and ensure they contained the proper documentation. Security procedures are tight. Every employee – even temporaries – must wear a slave tag, or what they call “badges.” The badge bears the individual’s picture; tiny image that make driver’s license photos look like glamour shots. The badges also have digital codes that would trigger doors to open. To enter the actual location where the documentation was handled, associates had to swipe their badges and then apply an index fingertip to a scanner beneath the electronic locks. For some reason, the lock always had trouble identifying my fingertip. No, I wasn’t using my middle finger – although seems more appropriate now. But, I’d often stand in front of that stupid lock pressing my finger down like a rogue political leader reaching for a nuke button.

The job was monotonous and dull. I get bored easily anyway, so it was difficult for me to stay interested. But, I noticed a number of things. Most of the associates were female and / or non-White. Yet, the bulk of the supervisors and managers were composed of the usual suspects: older White males. None of that really surprised me. Women, non-Whites, the disabled and immigrants now hold the bulk of temporary and part-time jobs in the U.S. These groups have always resided at the lower rungs of the American work force. But, the 2007 – 08 financial crisis intensified those numbers. But, gender and race only tell part of the story.

Between 2007 and 2009, the American labor force lost 8.4 million jobs, or 6.1% of all employment. Since then, most of the newly-created jobs have been temporary or contract. Last year the U.S. added 2.8 million temporary or contract employees to the national payroll. After the previous two recessions, American companies increased employment by adding temporary workers. In fact, an increase in temporary and contract work generally signifies overall economic improvement. But, this recession is something new; most of the good-paying jobs that delineated the American middle class have been replaced with low-wage positions. Temporary jobs aren’t a sign of better times ahead; they’re a sign of the new (pathetically, dismal) normal.

In early 1990, I had a temporary position at a lock-box facility in Dallas. Back then, as now, the bulk of the workforce was female and non-White, while most of the managers and supervisors were White males. My immediate supervisor, however, was a Panamanian-born woman who once made an employee remove 37 seconds from her time card because she said the latter had been late that much when returning from break. Her manager was an older White male who had a quirky Napoleonic complex, but whom I liked much better. He didn’t work well under pressure; something that made observing him the highlight of the day. But, that was almost a quarter-century ago. And, from a workforce standpoint, not much has changed.

When I told my parents the paltry pay rate I earned at this last job, they were shocked. It was the same amount my father had earned as a contract employee of a printing shop in the early 1990s. He had worked for the company for nearly 30 years before he got laid off in 1989; he was then, rehired as a contractor.

The issue of salaries and pay rates has been staring the slow economic recovery square in its ugly face. Mid-wage jobs – those averaging between $13 and $22 hourly –made up about 60% of the jobs lost during the recession. But, those same mid-wage jobs comprised about 27% of the jobs created since 2010. However, lower-paying jobs have dominated the job recovery – roughly 58%. Nearly 40%, or 1.7 million of the jobs gained during the recovery, are in three of the lowest-paying categories: food services, retail and employment services (e.g. office clerks, customer service representatives). All of this has not only decimated the American middle class, but has pushed the U.S. below Canada regarding middle class affluence.

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Graph courtesy U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A few other things bothered me about the facility where I worked. Because of the number of documents that arrive on a daily basis, the amount of paper is overwhelming. Should a fire break out, I thought, it could be catastrophic – and mainly because of one simple device: cell phones. People aren’t allowed to bring cell phones into the main production area. The reason is obvious: most cell phones now have camera features, and it would be easy for someone to snap a picture of classified documents. Therefore, anyone who enters the production area has to leave their cell phone in their vehicle, in a designated locker in the same building, or with security. But, along with the odd juxtaposition of desks, I also noticed fire exits weren’t clearly marked. People would be safe in the building should a tornado descend upon the property. But, if a fire erupted, I’m certain many people would head towards their lockers to grab their cell phones. Such a scenario reminds me of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 people (mostly women and immigrants) perished.

I arrived home from work one Friday to find a voice mail message on my cell phone from the staffing agency, telling me to call them immediately. The lock-box firm had pulled the job from me. The unit manager had accused me of being consistently late. His idea of “late” apparently is one or two minutes past the hour. I pointed that out to the staffing agency; emphasizing, though, that I made up the one, two or three minutes I arrived late. Moreover, I said, I’d already attained a 100% accuracy rate on the job. None of that seemed to matter. The agency was in a bind; they couldn’t refute whatever chicken-shit opinion the manager had of me.

It’s no great personal loss. I won’t exactly be seeking therapy because of it. Some things just aren’t worth the trouble. As this May Day comes to a close, it’s important to remember that people usually work too damn hard for their money. As the wealth gap in the U.S. widens, I don’t know how much longer this, or any truly democratic society, can deem itself civilized.

Image courtesy Compare Business Products.

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Happy May Day 2014!

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“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

 

May Day.

Image courtesy Lucyria.

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