Friday, January 22, 2010
I have never been one of those people who can go to work every day just for sake of a paycheck. This is the essence of why I hung up my Navy boots in the first place, and it's why I took a job in emergency management after the book store went south. Well, let me back up. At least ostensibly, my current job is in emergency management. What it actually is, is an administrative position. It's herding cats, it's separating salt from water by hand. In other words, it's customer service. My job brings to mind that quote from Office Space. "What would you say you do here?" To which I say, "I take the specifications from the customers and bring them to the instructors." And the efficiency experts go on to grill me until I flip out and scream that I deal with the goddamn customers so the instructors don't have to! Not that there's anything wrong with that. I work with some outstanding people. I have a good, meaningful job. I know that what I do is important. I coordinate Emergency Management training for the state of Virginia and I work very hard to make the program better, with the idea that the next time disaster inevitably strikes, the collective "we" might just be a little better prepared. I try to think of and implement ways to make the training more relevant, more real-world, more immediate. But admin is admin is admin, and at the end of the day, I'm hard pressed to tell anyone the tangible results that were purchased by my exhausted state. I may have enrolled five people in a class, fixed six administrative errors, flawlessly accounted for 47 course completions, written a better checklist. But when it comes down to what I'd say I do here? I don't have much to say.
I have a friend who sells valves for a living: ball valves, butterfly valves, big industrial gate valves. And that is so incongruent with the thoughtful, well-read, intellectually brilliant person she is that I periodically can't stop myself from asking her whether she gets tired of doing it. She invariably replies that her job doesn't define her and that she's happy in this economy to have a job. That resets my cognitive dissonance until the next time I can't reconcile it in my mind and we repeat the cycle.
But as for me, I want to apply my efforts somewhere where the results are immediately apparent. Where I KNOW beyond the shadow of a doubt that I'm helping someone. So I say to the Navy, send me. Send me somewhere where I can do some good. I'm hoping to be gone by this time three weeks from now.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
I have a hard time buying Tim Tebow. I want to like him, I want to believe he is all he seems to be. No one can dispute that he puts his faith out for public consumption unashamedly, and an athlete of his age who will make that kind of public stand is both rare and commendable. But the cynic in me finds him just a little too studiously polished. Take, for instance, his crying jag at the end of the SEC championship game. I found it unnecessarily dramatic and self-consciously showy, like much of the rest of what he does, especially since the outcome of the game wasn't really in doubt for most of the fourth quarter. I don't begrudge the man some tears--it's a tough way to end an exceptional college career. I have an issue with the public spectacle of it. He's played on national television enough times to know what grabs the cameras. It looked to me to be one more opportunity for him to draw attention to himself. Look at me, ESPN, I'm man enough to cry on national television! Thank ya, Jeezus.
And since I'm on a tear, I'm also not quite sure why the media raves about Tebow's leadership. If leadership consists of screaming, double fist pumping and head butting, then yes, he's the second coming of Nelson Mandela. But forgive me if I'm less than impressed by the theatrics. I've seen televangelists who were calmer. Maybe it's a personal preference, but I've always been drawn to leaders who exude a quiet confidence. There's no disputing that Tebow has picked his team up and put them on his back more than a few times. His improvisation, his tough running, his clutch plays--all very impressive. But let's not confuse performance with leadership. If I'm an NFL coach, do I really want my quarterback bursting a vein in his neck screaming at his teammates on the sidelines? Or giving himself a concussion when he head butts a helmeted player? Or would I rather have the calm, confident field general who lets those around him jump around and do the flashy stuff while he directs the winning drive? I think I'd rather have the latter, and I think Tebow's Sundays in the future will probably be best spent in church.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
I got to thinking what a groundbreaking show it was and how, for generations of poor rural kids in pre-Internet days, it was our first exposure to multiculturalism. I thought about how brave the producers had been to push the envelope and insist on a representative cast and crew. I thought about how the program had shown kids like me regular Hispanic and African-American people interacting in perfectly normal ways with those around them at a time when television characters were overwhelmingly WASP. In fact, the show was banned for a brief time in Mississippi because the state thought its audiences weren't ready for the integrated crew and the presence of so many strong, single women.
The show has addressed ethics; emotions; and real-life situations of love, marriage, birth and death. It discussed the 9/11 attacks and featured an HIV-positive character. It found a way to talk about child abuse and disabilities. It adapted and stayed relevant even with the technology boom of the 1990's. Oscar the Grouch may have gotten a cell phone, but he keeps on teaching millions of kids not only ABCs and spelling and basic math, but how to grow up to be better adults. So happy birthday, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and many more returns.
Friday, November 6, 2009
About a year before I arrived at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to begin my new job as a training resource coordinator, the HelLMS train started making preps to pull out of the Richmond station, bound for all points Virginia. By the time I arrived, it was at a full chug, belching and bellowing and picking up speed, and I was left with little choice except to get on board, or get run over. Or, in some cases, a little of both. Now, HelLMS is not unique to Virginia, nor is the concept even new. Virtually every training entity of any scale has it or a system like it: to manage course and facility information, track student enrollments, generate course-associated documents and provide a single repository for training records. Because my office manages, schedules and tracks all Emergency Management training for the state, the title of LMS content administrator was written into my job description and my fate was sealed.
Here's the rub: until October 1, people were accustomed to a certain low-tech ease in signing up for courses and receiving documentation of their completion. What used to happen was this: people would find a course they wanted to take in a location that was convenient for them, get a form from Frank or Bubba or the office file, fill it out and fax or mail it to my office. Alternately, they would fill the form out online and an automated system would email it to an address in my office. The office schmucks before me would then take each form and force feed it (manually re-type all the information) to the doddering and barely functional old Training Management System, which was the predecessor to HelLMS. At the end of the course, some poor schmoe would have to manually print out single certificates of completion for each student and mail them to the location where the training was held. Lather, rinse and repeat...about 4,000 times over the course of a year.
To further complicate matters, the old TMS system was designed to work with Windows 95 and was never upgraded past the point of a few software patches. The system is almost 15 years old and tech support for it had long since run out, so there are all of two computers remaining that will actually still RUN the program (and those only if you're holding your mouth just right). Divide the number of hours in the day by the number of vacant positions by the amount of manhours it takes to nurse the old system along. Throw in a 30% budget cut this year alone. And all that added up to: past time for a change.
I came in right in the middle of all this and inherited the job of, for example, selling the concept to the good ole boy volunteer firefighter out in Buchanan County, whose chief told him he has to take an Incident Command System course next weekend so the County can keep getting its federal money. Firefighter Jones probably has only a vague idea that the Commonwealth of Virginia is operating under budgetary constraints that make the frugality of my childhood seem like a hedonistic Vegas splurge. He probably would not care, if he knew, that yours truly was reduced to scuttling along behind departing conference attendees after this week's Blacksburg Coordinators Brief, stealthily picking up leftover Dasani bottles like some Dickensian street urchin. He is not the slightest bit affected by the fact that, as a schoolhouse, we cannot print manuals without the express written permission of the Secretary of Public Safety. He only wants to sign up for his required course with the least amount of hassle possible, sit through the damn thing, get his piece of paper, and then get back to his day job, his family and all the other pressing concerns of his life. I can't say that I blame him. It's hard for him to see a connection between fighting fires and the Internet. He does not want some yahoo in Richmond, however well intentioned, telling him he's got to make an account in LMS, enroll for the course through the Knowledge Center, negotiate to a certain screen, reconfigure his print settings and print out his own certificate for a course that is already an imposition on his time. And all this on dial-up access. So it's a hard sell.
The other harsh reality is the data migration process from TMS to LMS. This is an ugly for which there appears to be no cure. The TMS system is replete with corrupt data: duplicate accounts, incorrect social security numbers, fake social security numbers, no social security numbers. The state gets two data uploads for free each year. But in eighteen months of trying, even with accounts that seem to be "good" accounts, we have yet to successfully upload a single user account from TMS to LMS. We finally started manually inputting archival information into the LMS from hard copy rosters, but it proved so labor intensive that we were only able to get through about eighteen months before we had to put it down and pick up the current rosters that were piling up around us. Even this system wasn't perfect, as there were names that could not be read on the rosters, line-outs, changed names and email addresses.
All that to say this: it's become apparent to me that the government teat ain't nearly as ample as it used to be. And it's become further apparent that you'd better be prepared to take the rest of the ugly body that comes with it.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
For each of the past three years, Emergency Management personnel from the Republic of Korea have made the long trip to Virginia for a training exchange program of sorts. I say "of sorts," because the Commonwealth has yet to actually send anyone to Korea to complete the exchange and, given the austerity of the current budgetary climate, probably will not. The group typically stays a couple of weeks and wedges as much sightseeing and shopping in between the training as the schedule will stand. In other words, the schedule is little more than a point of departure for a whirlwind tour of as many points U.S. as can be logistically managed. This year, it was a fateful day, indeed, when new girl Kristy volunteered to be the point person for the visit.
The trouble began when the Korean coordinator from the previous two years was pulled for another project. She spoke very good English and had a firm grasp on the cultural differences and their implications, so her loss was a blow to communications. Without her, the coordination conference calls between Seoul and Richmond became two hour ordeals that stretched late into the night. After a time, we were able to establish tenuous communications with the translator from the previous two years and she ran a kind of long-distance interference in between other translating jobs. After one particularly long call in which nearly everything had to be translated to Hangul to English and back again, I thought we had an understanding on a schedule and a way ahead for the visit to proceed.
It turned out the schedule was not firm, the group wasn't happy with the hotel arrangements, and they were not at all enamored of the rate they were getting on a translator. We met Na Song, the translator, in person for lunch on the Thursday before they were due to arrive on Tuesday and (much to my relief) clarified most details of the visit. By Thursday night at 9:30, there was no more Na Song. Instead, the Korean-based travel agency found a guide over the Internet based on his Korean-language blog that said he lived in Midlothian. This and his day job as a shoe store manager was apparently enough to qualify him. The new guide, in turn, hired a new translator who was all of nineteen and had been in the U.S. for most of her life. There were no contracts, there was no money exchanged ahead of time, and the group had never met either the guide or the translator. When the group of twelve angry men arrived after a day on the west coast and an all-night flight into Richmond, the scene was set for a heavy-duty culture clash seen previously only in a Ha Jin novel.
By way of background, the delegation's senior guy was a fellow named Mr. Wan Taek Jung. But the senior guy in Korean culture doesn't actually take charge of anything. The group's coordinator was his second in command, Gil Dong. Wan Taek, Gil Dong, et al, managed to elude our representative at the airport, slip by and get loose on the town before I was able to reach the new translator. They promptly went for Korean food, although I tried to tell them we were having a luncheon reception in their honor not two hours hence. According to Ha Young, the new translator, (see how confusing this could be?), they had been without Korean food for two days and were insistent on having some. I thought it ironic that they'd come all this way to eat Korean, but I shrugged it off and told her to get them to the hotel as soon as she could.
When the boys arrived, the hotel met them with a contract (the same one we'd been trying to get signed for over a month, mind you) and an insistence that they pony up a payment method. The lobby was instantly filled with garrulous Korean men alternately demanding their keys, expressing outrage over the way they were being treated and denying any responsiblity for payment. Granted, I do not speak Hangul and they only speak limited English, so some of this was inferred and some of it was filtered through the translator. Finally, Han Lee, the guide, said he would sign the contract and provide his personal credit card as payment guarantee until he could coordinate with the Korean travel agency to wire money to him for payment.
After this near-debacle, I thought everything was running along fine (famous last words) until one afternoon when Gil Dong came to get me and insisted that I make Han Lee give him his identification. Apparently, Gil had gotten it in his head that Han was not who he said he was, that he didn't have a contract and he was just some guy trying to swindle the group. Some of this was a result of the fact that all prices in Korea are inclusive (tax and tip included), whereas all prices here are obviously not. So when the boys went to a restaurant and assumed that $5.99 meant $5.99, they were extremely displeased when Han went around to collect tax and tip money. Some of it was because one of the money wires from overseas had not arrived and Han was concerned about having money to cover the visit. Gil got wind of this and was more convinced than ever that Han was just some guy bent to make money off of him and his cohorts. It was extraordinarily difficult to get all of this out, as we couldn't go through the swindler guide and his in-cahoots translator. So Gil and I went back and forth in broken English until I thought I understood. I then had to go back and forth between Gil and Han to get both sides of the story. This was taking too long for Gil's taste, so there ensued a huge scene in the hotel driveway that featured fifteen participants: Gil Dong and Han Lee alternately arguing and talking on their cell phones to Korea; me trying to make peace; the translator in a huff because the guys had told her to sit down and shut up; and eleven Korean men standing, smoking and looking off into the distance and trying to listen without becoming involved. In retrospect, it was a fascinating dynamic. The senior guy at some point finally stepped in and tried to calm Gil down, to little effect. Han Lee at some point said he was leaving and a couple of other members went after him and begged him to stay. This caused Gil to lose face with the group so he became even more upset. I finally stepped in when Gil and Beom Sik Kim almost came to blows.
Needless to say, there was no recovering from that. The group retained Han Lee's services just long enough to get to northern Virginia and then they let him go. I heard about this when the new guide called me during my drill weekend to try to get information about the schedule. I gave him the information and told him he needed to call Han Lee, as that was the only contact we had with the group. And that was how Han Lee found out he was being let go.
He sent me an email that night expressing his great relief.
And so the twelve angry men arrived in Hampton for our statewide coordinators briefing on Tuesday with yet another translator and guide. We got them rounded up and where they needed to be for that day and the next. They departed Richmond on Wednesday morning for a FEMA tour and some last minute shopping time in D.C. Their parting shot was a luggage van that was two hours late (the 15 passenger van they were riding in did not have room for luggage). We ended up schlepping their luggage out of our classroom where it was temporarily stowed and onto the tour agency van. Last I heard, my boss was having some difficulty trying to get them into FEMA on Thursday morning. He sent me an email to remind him to tell me about the experience. I replied that I already knew.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
But was Carter really off the mark? It used to be that a certain level of formal respect was afforded the office of the Presidency, period. There was a sacred and inviolable decorum required of and around our highest levels of government, period. Opponents may not have agreed with the decisions made, may not have even respected the man himself, but one of our country's strengths has traditionally been our ability to debate our differences and then respect the decisions made by the majority of our countryment. Our government has always been one built on civil discourse and compromise. That's why the level of disdain shown our President over the past couple of months has been both unprecedented and unconscionable.
Granted, many of the issues that have been debated recently have been the most divisive in my personal memory. The country faces deep philosophical rifts in many areas, not the least of which is health care. But when the President WE elected to office not nine months ago is blocked from speaking to school children about such an innocuous topic as responsible behavior, ostensibly because certain groups don't want to risk politicizing the schools; when an elected Congressman feels justified in calling the President a liar in a joint session of Congress ostensibly because he passionately disagrees with what is being said, WE have a serious problem the root cause of which no one besides Jimmy Carter seems to want to admit. What other President has ever been blocked from speaking to school children as if he were some common pedophiliac who couldn't be trusted alone with our children? What other President has been called a liar in a joint session of Congress, in front of a national television audience? What else has changed? What other conclusion can be drawn? That these public displays of utter disrespect are somehow justified because the country is facing more challenges than ever before? Please, refer to the Great Depression and World War II See also Vietnam and energy crisis of the 1970's. More likely, it is the 2 ton elephant of a racially divided past that we're still not ready to honestly confront. That elephant may be covered in a cloak of policy disagreement, but it's still a big damn elephant.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Thursday morning at 8 o'clock, the thrift store employees who were supposed to be taking all the used books away decided they couldn't manage it. It was just too much. Never mind that I had very carefully explained the scope of the task beforehand. Never mind that the same guy had vehemently insisted that not only could they do it, but that it would be done in time for the book case people to show up at 10:30. Never mind that he had shown up at the store at 7:45 with two guys and a truck, and I had someone there to meet them as we had discussed. I made it to work at 8 a.m. only to get the call that my carefully laid plan had just fallen apart.
A melee of frantic book and shelf moving, a too-long truck, a busted light on the building across the alley, denials by the truck driver over the light, many hours and much sweat later, I said goodbye to the book cases. It was striking how much care had gone into placing them, just so, into the building, contrasted with how little care had gone into slinging them willy nilly into the back of a semi to jostle across Virginia to their new home in West Virginia. I was left with 6500 books stacked on the floor, so I decided to open the store ONE MORE TIME on that Saturday to try to rid myself of as many of them as possible.
So what does this have to do with fish, fishing, or the price of tea in China? After this flurry of late-week activity, we got up early Sunday morning and went out on the Swift Creek reservoir for some much-needed relaxation. I've never really been much of a fisherman as an adult--somehow it seems kind of self-serving. Who am I to kill worms and inflict pain on a fish just to amuse myself? It doesn't seem fair. So mostly I just lay around, drive the boat, look at the wildlife or swim and let other, less moonbeamy people fish.
But on Sunday, moody thing that I was, suffering from the collective exhaustion of several weeks of doing two jobs, and the recipient of a brand new bream buster pole, I decided I'd do some fishing. My book-weary hands were too stupid to do anything that required manual dexterity, plus I hadn't seriously fished in several years, so it took some doing to set myself up with a rig. By the time I settled down to fish, Beth had already gone around the bend to fish her own spot.
I experienced a minor moral crisis when it came time to put the worm on the hook. I am not a vegetarian, but I have a hard time inflicting pain on any living thing when there's no good reason. I managed to reconcile myself with that concept by promising the worm that his life would not end in vain. I spoke it out loud: I would take any legal sized fish I caught home, clean it and eat it.
I only had a few minutes to wait. I felt a tug, saw the cork disappear, and snatched up a little bluegill about the size of half my hand. I pulled it on into the kayak and saw, to my horror, that the poor bastard had swallowed the hook. An existential crisis ensued. I tugged on the hook. I looked again, it was still buried. I searched my limited tackle for pliers. None. I tried emergency surgery with a fish stringer. To no avail. I burst into tears. The fish stared at me accusingly. I had, after all, promised. I trailed the poor fish behind me and set out across the lake for where Beth had disappeared. It was like the canoe chase scene from Last Of the Mohicans. I was crying and rowing for all I was worth. By the time I reached her, all I could do was sputter and bring the hooked fish (with its accusing eyes) around for her to look at. She shook her head and said she couldn't do anything for it.
I do not recommend having a breakdown in a kayak. After I cut the line and let the fish go to what I am sure was a starvation death, I drifted out in the middle of the lake and cried me a river. Not only for the fish, but for the bookstore, and for the realization that I, like so many others, can't always keep my promises.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Like most aspects of being in business for myself, the bookstore's denouement has been both more time-consuming and more costly than I anticipated. When I decided to close the doors, I didn't really stop to consider that I could be left with, literally, thousands of books on the shelves. I was too proud to discount the new books any more than 50%, reasoning that I could send them back, and refusing to give the vultures who were circling, waiting for the 90%-off fire sale, the satisfaction. And this is, on a theoretical level, true. I CAN send the books back for credit from my distributor. The question is, when exactly do I plan on doing that? Since I started my new job, I've begun a 40 minute daily commute, dove headlong into a demanding new position, and tried to deal with 9-5 type bookstore issues before 8 or after 6. This weekend, I'm in Norfolk for drill. It reminds me a lot of my shipboard days, during which I grew to resent such normal, mundane tasks as laundry and toenail maintenance. I've got a buyer for the shelves who wants to come pick them up Thursday night, but no buyer for the books. And as much as I would love to recover the money I've hemorraghed over the past 18 months, I'm going to draw the line at dragging several thousand books into our basement.
I called this week to set up a haircut appointment with a woman who used to cut my hair at the Navy Exchange when I was stationed in Norfolk on active duty. She was a lively little Filipino woman who bantered constantly and almost always cut my hair too short. Still, I knew what to expect, and I liked having a regular "stylist." She had left the Navy Exchange just before I left active duty to establish a salon with her sister in a little shopping center in Virginia Beach. When I called, her sister said she didn't work there and hadn't for several months. She wouldn't tell me where the woman had gone, but I already knew where to find her. I got my hair cut by her this evening at the Norfolk Navy Exchange. She'd gone back to her normal, and I understood it perfectly.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
But enter the offer of free books for teachers, and things reached the kind of fevered pitch seen only approximately twice in retail America: Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle-me-Elmo. Okay, maybe the X-box too. Last Saturday was my first day of the offer, and it was the first time I'd ever had more cars in the parking lot than the tattoo parlor during mutual business hours. If statements to the effect of, "I'm sorry I didn't know about this sooner," were nickels, there would be no reason for me to go out of business. In fact, if only half the people who came in the store last Saturday, yesterday and today had come in even once during the 15 months I was open and bought one or two books, there would be no reason for me to go out of business. This in spite of the fact that I sent multiple emails, flyers and announcements out to all Petersburg teachers through the same channels that I sent the free offer. This in spite of the fact that I offered through those same channels teacher and student discounts, multiple free literacy programs for kids and over 6,000 used books at bargain prices. Either something about the word "free" really makes people sit up and take notice, people regularly ignore emails from the school district's administrative offices, or the what's in it for me factor wasn't high enough before.
I get that opportunism is common to all mankind. It's part of what makes us human, kind of like opposable thumbs. And Lord knows I would do some of the same things--in fact, I did, when I was getting ready to open the bookstore. I scoured the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area for the best bargains, went to all the big sales and loaded up with as much for as little as I could. I know this on a cerebral level. That didn't stop me from having a sick feeling in my gut as people gleefully rummaged through the bargain bins of my children's room, picked out their free books and rolled out, seemingly without a second thought. I couldn't help but wonder if they stopped to consider the cause and effect of, hey, if I had come here a couple of times, maybe this little store could have really made a difference in our community. Not once, as a sort of going out of business swan song, but repeatedly. There are a lot of people in Petersburg who got that. I will miss them as if they were family. But there are a whole lot more who did not. And that's why my doors are closed.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
So, now that the end is in sight, the need to marry the good books up with good owners has become increasingly pressing. I have no compunction about the only so-so books that make up half my stock. They can go wherever, and I couldn't care less. But the good ones, I consider it my job to find them homes. One of my book club members came in yesterday and said her mother was looking for some specific children's books, and I just about fell all over myself trying to cajole her to tell her mother about two of my favorites. I just can't imagine shipping Giraffes Can't Dance and The Two Bobbies back to the cold, impersonal distribution warehouse. Some kid HERE needs those books! They need to be handled, read, loved, drooled on. So I've adopted something of a used car salesman tactic of shamelessly promoting my personal favorites. So what if he came in for a vampire novel? Surely he has a niece who is starting school next month and will need to have Splat the Cat read to her to help calm her fears. Splat the Cat, by the way, has a mouse for a best friend, which I find very cool. That babygrandmama who came in for a couple of classics? Please, take this interactive Dog book. One of the pull tabs makes a dog lift his leg and pee, for God's sake! Don't even get me started on the art section and cook books.
In the last few days, I've been trying to come up with ways to get people to come down and let me do a psychic reading of their literary tastes and pair them up with books that they need. This may or may not involve a Vulcan mindmeld, and I am only half-kidding. A regular customer suggested that I run a book adoption promotion yesterday. If the animal shelters can do it, why not? Anybody out there have any other ideas?
Ideally, someone from the community would make me an offer on the whole store--inventory, fixtures and all--take it out to the main street and reopen. They'd have to take their lumps for a year or two, but I believe they'd then move on to firmer ground. I think this idea can make it under that scenario, and I do believe Petersburg needs a book store. The combination of main street visibility, historical tourism, a pedestrian friendly downtown and the BRAC influx would eventually stabilize the money in-money out ratio. I just don't have it in me to start over like that. But if anyone out there knows someone interested in that scenario, I'd love to talk with them.