Friday, January 28, 2011

Think About Corporations

If you work for a local or small (or even medium-sized?) company, I'm envious. I once (over 15 years ago) worked at a family-owned grocery store. It was a low-paying job, but it was a satisfying place to work. It was a large store, but the management made sure we employees all felt as though we were part of a community. There was a monthly (or quarterly?) newsletter, an annual Christmas party, and an annual summer picnic. It was a family-friendly and happy place.

People keep telling me that I should be thankful to have a job. And, I know they're right, and I am thankful. At the same time, though, I wish I worked at a place more like that grocery store, a place where the "head honchos" were not just names people drop (as a reason or a threat) but real people who worked hard and also actually knew what their employees did.

Instead, though, I work for a large corporation that, at one time, was a small family business. The business thrived, so the company decided to grow. And then they grew and grew and grew and grew. Much of this expansion and change has taken place in the last 10 or 15 years. I've been with the company for nearly 8 years, long enough to see that they are not the same company I started working for. Instead, they've become like many large corporations--cold and inefficient, with a large disconnect between the people who do the work and the people who assign the work.

I can only speak for retail corporations, mind you, and I've only been a part of two of them, so yes, my knowledge and experience is limited.

In the first big corporation I worked for, Borders Group, Inc. (you may have heard of it), I was the manager of one of their Waldenbooks stores. Even with the limited communication we had at that time (no email or internet access in the store), as the manager I didn't feel like I was alone or out of any sort of loop; my job was simple, in fact, to the point that it became monotonous. As manager, I had little control over the business--no say in the books we carried, no say in book-signings, no say in...well, pretty much anything. We had specific directions to follow, specific promotions to advertise, specific bestsellers to display. Most Waldenbooks stores would look the same (to some extent, at least). The main thing that managers had to do was to produce Preferred Reader numbers. This was the main evidence to me that the "big bosses" (who set these goals) were out of touch with how our particular store worked. When you have regular and faithful customers who already have Preferred Reader cards, you can't make them buy another card (especially after raising the price of the card!). Likewise, international customers (our second biggest clientele at my particular store) had no use for one. As far as I know, the Preferred Reader program was discontinued shortly after I left the company. And, I don't think Waldenbooks even exists anymore now (?), possibly due to the inability of the corporation to change with the times. That may have involved individualizing each store and, *gasp*, listening to the store managers.

The job I have now as a retail store manager is much more complicated. I have a lot more responsibility, and this responsibility gets added to almost daily. At the same time that I (and my dear dear employees...who are wonderful, even though they are as underpaid and overworked as I am) have more and more work to do (dictated by people who have not worked as store managers in this company), we get less and less support from the corporate office. My guess is that this is because every other department is equally overworked and underpaid. That's most likely because the people in charge come up with ideas and policies (and implement these ideas and policies) without trying them out or running them by the people who will have to actually bear the brunt of these ideas and policies. Additionally, they usually do not allow the hiring of additional people in these various departments; in fact, in the stores, they ask us to keep cutting employee hours. So, the average response time from my corporate office (for an urgent situation) is three weeks; that's IF we get a response at all. Ironically, one of this corporation's values is accountability. They also, supposedly, value each and every associate.

I have ideas on how to bridge this disconnect between the overpaid bosses and the underpaid workers; namely, communication. I have made multiple (non-anonymous) suggestions over the years (via an e-suggestion box) regarding both communication and efficiency in this corporation, and each time I have received a reply for why the suggestion is not possible. These were mostly meager excuses, defensive in nature--asinine refutations. Sometimes the replies went in circles so many times that I was dizzy after reading them. Once I received the reply that I had a great suggestion and it "was already being worked on." That was four years ago; they apparently never finished "working on" it. Oh, and this corporation also says that it values innovation.

(Yes, I'm thankful I have a job. That's why I didn't name the corporation I work for.)

I'd love to hear your comments; please leave them below!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Think About the Self

I am only myself;
I cannot be
anybody else.

Lately, I've been consumed in my research on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, studying her life and her writing in order to write the 10+ page critical essay that I need to submit as part of my grad school application. I originally picked her for a subject because I wrote a paper on her a couple of years ago; I thought I could merely expand on my previous research. That sounds fairly simple, doesn't it?

There certainly is a wealth of information about Gilman, and I've become so fascinated by her that I want to read as much of it as I can. I've taken many pages of notes and marked up and highlighted several books (the ones I own). But, as I was sitting down at my computer yesterday to finally compose a rough draft of the essay, I was suddenly overwhelmed at the largeness of this project. So many possibilities.... But, as I tell the student I tutor at Read For Literacy, "Don't look at the whole [word, story, newspaper] all at once; just take one part at a time." My student often forgets to do this, and so do I.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was known in her time (late 1800s/early 1900s) as a writer, poet, and lecturer. In the twenty-first century, she is best known for her story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," and her book, Women and Economics, the latter sometimes referred to as a culmination of her life's work, as it contains most of her ideas regarding society, education, and work that she most often lectured about.

Looking at the overwhelming "whole" of Gilman, one might say that she had a lot of "issues." But, in following my own advice, I will explore just one "part" of her here.

Much of Gilman's struggle throughout her life focused on her sense of self. When she married the first time, she felt that she had lost who she was as a person. This was partly because of the pressures of that particular era, which required many women to choose between having a career or getting married. In general, wives were expected to be docile and submissive. Gilman was not these things; still, she tried to be somewhat of the person her husband expected her to be. But, she could not be who she was not. When she left her husband after just a few years of marriage, she felt relieved.

On her own (and with a young daughter to support), she finally became who she had been becoming before she married. She re-found the important things in [her] life--exercise, both physical and mental; writing; reading; art; and expressing her thoughts of social reform (which she did via the lecture circuit).

When she married the second (and final) time, the result was much happier. Her second husband was sensitive to her needs, which included letting her support herself after they were married (one of her stipulations of marriage). The two of them were intellectual equals as well, which was possibly what Gilman considered the most important aspect of a marriage. They pursued their hobbies and careers in a bliss of equality. She loved and respected him; he loved and respected her. They were the dearest sort of friends and lovers, which seems to me the best sort of marital union. That kind of union, though, can rarely be met if each partner has not realized his/her true sense of self. One needs to know who she is and what she wants to do before entering into a relationship where she will, hopefully, be allowed to continue to be who she is: herself.

Although I think Charlotte Perkins Gilman would be pleased at how some aspects of our society have changed since her death in 1935, I think she would be appalled at other aspects. Among the things I think she would be pleased about is this organization: Hardy Girls Healthy Women. Not only does this organization stress physical activity for girls (which Gilman was a major proponent of), it also lets girls be themselves and discover who they are in healthy ways.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Think About Slowing Down

I debated with myself about what to call this post. There are so many ideas and thoughts in my head, and I've been so busy this week that I haven't been able to get them down in blog form--and, in my mind, I kept trying to figure out how to get them all out in one post.

But, wait. Why the rush?

At one point, I wanted to call this "Think About Rudeness," but that sounded too negative. So, I thought, what about "...Manners"? My brain went off on a long tangent on that one--when you work retail, you tend to wonder sometimes why other people weren't brought up as well as you were (thanks, Mom!). But, I forget my manners at times. I'm rude at times. I don't always do it purposely; there are so many factors that can affect a moment. But, without a doubt, one of these factors is rushing. When we're in a hurry, we tend to do disrespectful things (flip off another driver, cut in line, cut someone off in mid-sentence, etc.) that we wouldn't ordinarily mean to do.

So, really...what's the rush?

About fifteen years ago I wrote a poem about a scene I witnessed while I was working as a cashier in a grocery store. I will save you from my early poetic efforts and just summarize the poem here. It was about the impatience of customers in line. A retired man was testy because two people were ahead of him in line. A mother and a young child were right behind him. The child was moseying behind his mother, looking at either the toy train running on a track hanging from the ceiling or a curious spot on the floor, I'm not sure which--maybe both. In any case, the child was enjoying his time in line, taking in the sights and sounds around him. When the grumpy man was through the line and the woman stepped up, her boy tried to show her something. The woman dismissed him with a nod, quickly made her purchase, and headed for the door. "Hurry, hurry!" she said to her son, without noting his enjoyment of his surroundings, his enjoyment of the moment, of life. Obediently, he ran up to her, and, as they walked out the door, he repeated (without irony), "Hurry, hurry!"

I know there are times when we're all in legitimate rushes, but sometimes things just don't move any faster. When there's nothing you can do about it, why not stop? Stop. Think. Observe. Relax. Take the time to write a blog entry!

Slow down.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Think About Solitude

lonely haiku 
a star lost in the night
even while many surround her

One of my favorite activities is going to a coffee house or cafe (Biggby's or Chandler's usually) to drink coffee, possibly nibble a treat, and read or write. I love being in a cafe full of people who are talking, laughing, studying, or reading. I watch them, smile and nod at them (they're often the same people I see time and again), maybe even small-talk (though I'm not much good at small talk).

I usually go to these places alone (although I've tried to recruit others before). I think sitting and reading with another who is sitting and reading is a great way to spend time together. Alone but not alone. But, this is also a concept I've struggled with. While I enjoy solitude, I also crave being around others. I often wish I had a good friend to sit and read with me--not because I mind being alone--but because I want to share my "story"--the story that unfolds as Life--with someone else, so that it is not just my story. Experiencing something--whether it be reading or traveling--with another person makes the activity even more special.

I'm not the type of person who longs for a lot of friends. I'd rather have just a few true and close friends to spend my time with. Like a lot of writers, I'm not a "social butterfly." Think Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger--though I'm not (and hope never to be) as reclusive as those two are (Lee)/were (Salinger).

It is natural for humans to need others. When one is alone, she can get lost in her own mind. I know that when I think too much, for too long, I can see how easy it would be for one's mind to unravel. I think of the Unabomber, in his alone-ness in his cabin.

Yet too many people and too much noise can be distracting. We live in a fast-paced world--too fast sometimes. We need to savor moments. A few years ago I started reading about the art of haiku poetry. It's not easy to write, but it's beautiful to read. I struggled with expressing my thoughts so succinctly and put the book away. Recently, though, I've tried again. Although I'm still learning, it is my understanding that haiku is used to express a single ordinary moment or thought. It's meant to cause us to explore our surroundings and our relationships with nature or people. We need time to think, to look inside, to see who we are, and who we want to be, in order to then look outside of ourselves and see who we can help and how we can make a difference. Since I started reading about haiku, I jot down notes constantly--anything I think of--to go back to later and form into a stanza. It helps me notice things I might not ordinarily notice. Solitude does this as well. This is why it's important to have time to ourselves periodically.

I think I would go crazy with too much solitude, too much silence. If something happened and all computer networks and phone lines shut down indefinitely, I would feel utterly cut off from the rest of the world. Still, there has to be a "happy-medium" (pardon the cliche). I once overheard two girls at a coffee house--they were talking so fast that it was like listening to a verbal ping-pong game. Although I could understand their words, I couldn't keep up with their conversation. It was too overwhelming.

Me--I want to enjoy another person's company, not be stressed by it. After all, there is a "time for everything," solitude and loneliness included.