Make America Moderately Functional Again
There is much to decide in what direction our country heads this election season, and choices in this general election are so discouraging that I’m not sure I’ll find a suitable third party to vote for (besides Sid Yiddish).
But coinciding with the degradation of our politics is a crumbling of general competence across the country. This was driven home recently by a few incidents where people and systems just didn’t work and no one really cared.
One was the recent birth of my newest daughter. My wife had the baby at what is a very good hospital by all measures and standards. It is very highly rated and overall we’ve had excellent care there. Mother and baby are home and healthy, but not without extensive delays that could have been avoided altogether.
Our new baby was judged to have low blood sugar, but this was exacerbated by being tongue tied, which my wife thought was the case right away as one of our older girls was born tongue-tied as well. It was days before our daughter saw the right specialist to correct that despite my wife’s alerting people early and consistently.
The first night fell into a familiar pattern. The baby would show signs of being hungry and we would buzz the nurses’ station to ask them to test her blood sugar. “OK, I’ll tell your nurse,” the nurse over the intercom would say. Twenty minutes late the nurse would arrive. “How can I help you?” the nurse would say. We’d tell her about the blood sugar test. The other nurses didn’t tell her what this was for so she’d have to go get her blood testing kit. By the time she’d return with her testing machine and wash her hands, the baby would be too hysteric and miserable to latch onto a boob.
My wife was hooked up to an IV that gave her fluids. It was important for her to get fluids, but not life threatening. The IV bag was on a stand with a machine attached to it that would blare a loud and obnoxious alarm whenever it detected something irregular. If my wife moved her arm a certain way and pinched the IV tube, the alarm would go off. This alarm didn’t alert the nurses’ station or any doctors, it only annoyed us and in one case woke the baby up at four in the morning. We would alert the nurses to this, but it would take a while for them to react and by then the alarm would have gone off again despite our efforts to stop it.
The nurses were very friendly but that’s not adequate compensation for things not getting done. All the smiles in the world can’t replace professionalism.
While we were dealing with this, I would journey home from the hospital to try to take care of business on the home front, including getting UPS to pick up a package. We ordered something from Amazon that arrived missing parts (there was a big hole in the package when we got it). Well after UPS showing up at random times when no one was home, I left a note when I stepped out so we could be alerted and dash home to effect the pickup.
However, when I got home, the UPS driver had stuck the latest notice on top of my note, declaring proudly that he had seen these instructions and was blatantly ignoring them and screwing us over. There was chicken scratch writing on the note, which I interpreted as indicating a package had been left in “Apartment Y” (there is no such apartment in our building). I called UPS to let them know this wasn’t acceptable, and the representative who called me back told me that it was too bad and that this was the final attempt at a pick up (the note had not indicated that even though there is a box to check off if that’s the case). They had it in their system that they had made three attempts, and they refused to try again.
It was an act of taking pride in their own incompetence, of being purposely bad at their job because they don’t like it or because jobs make people expect things from them. I understand the sentiment completely, but I and many (most?) others have a concept of dignity that means we want to be good at our jobs because we take pride in ourselves and our own abilities, not because we like dealing with people. I do not like having to deal with other people; I’d rather sit alone and write things and make millions of dollars doing it. But no matter what job you have, even if you achieve your dream job, it means dealing with people and meeting other people’s expectations. There’s no way around it unless you want to be a hermit in the woods.
I know because I’ve been there. I’ve worked lots of jobs I hated and resented the masses of slack-jawed idiots who demanded and expected my service. But I learned that I didn’t have to bow and scrape to get by. People wanted me to kiss their ass, and needy and entitled people make any job dealing with the general public difficult.
But until you become a self-made billionaire, having to please other people never really ends. I work in an office and deal with professional people about high level things, and at least eight times a day I might as well be saying, “Would you like fries with that?” The company I work for has clients (client is a fancy way of saying “customer” FYI) and they pay us to write things for them and liaise with the media and they also pay us to listen to them bitch at us and for us to be there for them to throw under the bus when it’s professionally convenient.
No matter how high you rise in life, you’re going to have to answer to some asshole and be nice about it. You’ll feel better about yourself if you stay professional. People who want to make a dramatic show of being a customer and bossing you around are counting on an emotional reaction from you or gaining some kind of moral high ground; don’t give it to them.
You don’t have to stay at every job forever, but have the personal integrity and dignity to be good at your job and see to it to the best of your ability that things are done right. You will be glad you did, believe me.
Loss of Laughter and Singing: RIP Lizzy O’Donnell
My father is one of seven children born and raised in the Bronx. Growing up with many aunts and uncles is great. Aunts and uncles are adults who are not your parents and so they are automatically cool and interesting from the time you are a kid. Being taken to see ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ off-Broadway by my uncle Tim remains one of my happiest childhood memories.
Our family lost my aunt Liz this past week. She suffered a massive stroke one morning and never regained consciousness. She was only 55.
We are lucky to come from a very creative family. My family is saturated with musicians, writers, actors and lots of people for whom creativity is second nature.
Liz loved to sing and had a beautiful singing voice. One of my earliest memory of my Aunt Liz is going to see her play music. This was back when my grandparents and several of my aunts still lived in The Bronx. There was a street fair of some kind going on. There were rides and games, and music. Liz sang and she was great. I remember watching her sing and thinking how cool it was that a relative of mine was so loud and awesome out here in front of all these people.
Years later, she was driving me to the train after a family visit and she popped a CD of a recent recording of her singing into the car stereo. She hadn’t lost a thing in the 20+ intervening years. It was a comfort knowing that whatever else was going on in our lives, contending with the routine hassles of raising families, paying bills, staying employed, we remained true to the creativity in our blood.
Liz dealt with a lot of the usual unpleasant crap that abounds in the modern age: divorce, being a working single mother, unemployment, underemployment, illness and the like. But through it all I never remember going to a family gathering where I couldn’t share a laugh with her at some point.
She and my other aunts made a habit of playing Scrabble together whenever they could. Years ago at a family party I joined them and since I was new to the game, asked for leniency in how we judged words. Liz noted that “Fffft!” was not a word. We all had a good laugh at that, and since then whenever I play Scrabble, Words with Friends or any similar word game, I can’t help but think of Lizzy’s admonition that “Fffft!” is not a word.
Liz never lost the joy of singing and making music. A few years ago, Liz’s band, Coyote, got back together for a reunion. They played in The Bronx and the show was packed. It was wall-to-wall people and my wife and I managed to scrap our way through the crowd to be close to the stage area. Before Coyote played, Liz and my Uncle Danny (who plays guitar) did a short set. It was great to see them play together again. I remember being a very young child watching them sing and play guitar at a family party. Coyote was true to form and seeing my aunt play to a packed crowd made for another great family memory.
The news of her death was a shock. Lizzy’s passing came suddenly and too soon. There were seven brothers and sisters my father’s side of the family and now there are six. Six: the number seems obscene now, unfair.
But where my family has been unlucky it has also been strong. Liz’s daughter, my cousin Kerry, is a rock. I hope I can raise my daughters as well so that they love me as much Kerry loved her mother. And if they are half as strong as my cousin, they will be set for life.
My awesome Grandmother should not have had to bury a daughter, but her resolve to comfort others in the midst of her grief proves we are made from stern stuff.
If my family has any official spokesman or representative, I’m glad it is my father. He has been the one to most eloquently voice our grief and our pride both this time and years ago when we lost my Grandfather.
My Dad recounted his happiness in seeing my aunt sing in the Bronx at the street fair and described her contagious laughter, generous spirit and her incredibly tenacious nature. When Liz caught a pickpocket trying to steal something from her bag on the subway, the police had to pry her fingers from the would-be thief’s arm.
Seeing my father and cousin speak about my departed aunt was as proud a moment as it was sad. In the midst of this tremendous loss, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have had an aunt like Liz but also how lucky I am to come from a family that produces such people.
And true to form, the last thing my father heard from my aunt was a joke that he declined to repeat in church. But anyone who asked outside of church was granted the wish of hearing it. I heard it at the restaurant later where we all gathered for lunch. It was topical and funny, and completely in line with the good humor of Aunt Liz.
No family gathering will feel the same without Lizzy’s laughter, but her passing has served as a reminder of what a great family we have.
Taking Care of Business
Labor Day is a day when most American workers have a day off and spend it being thankful that we have a job, if we have one. Any power the day once held to fire up a meaningful organized labor movement in the U.S. has long been stripped away. For the vast majority of us, work is something we do because we have to do something that makes money.
I’d love to be able to say that I’m an independently wealthy writer who can generate income through the genius of every creative whim, but the truth is I work in an office doing work that doesn’t really interest me. I like being good at my job because I refuse to be a lazy slug and need to make a living. But I’m working for The Man like everyone else.
I find it to be a benefit to have worked many different jobs over the last two decades. I have been a grocery bagger, house painter, video store assistant manager, immigration inspector, security guard, line cook, telemarketer, retail sales clerk and financial journalist.
By far the job I hated the most was as the assistant manager of a video store. This was in suburban Atlanta in the late 1990s when I was living a miserable, impoverished life among the relative wealth and ease of the Atlanta suburbs. Even though I love watching films and getting to rent movies for free was a chief perk of the job, having to answer to the entitled whims of overfed suburbanites grated on my nerves unmercifully. There were a few very nice customers there, but I hated that job so much that when I saw a bug skitter across the floor one night, I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. If a bug can find happiness in this miserable place, then good for him.
Having worked a large variety of jobs has given me a lot of different perspectives I otherwise would not have had. I like to think it shows in my daily interactions with people. I was that awkward teenager pushing his Dad’s lawnmower. I was the pimply kid behind the counter at McDonald’s on Labor Day. I was the unlucky immigration inspector stamping passports on Christmas and getting stuck working overtime.
Sometimes, even among very intelligent and good-natured friends, it becomes startlingly clear those who haven’t worked many of these jobs. The way someone treats a waitress or a bartender will tell you more about their life and attitude than any online profile or paper trail.
There’s a missing value that hasn’t been instilled in much of the population: that there is dignity in work, all work. Just because you don’t like your job or don’t like the people you work with or have to serve doesn’t mean you should feel comfortable behaving without dignity or purpose. All working people have dignity and deserve respect. Working for a living is beneath no one. And when you think about it, we are all a lot closer to the unemployment line than we like to think we are.
It’s a wisdom I’ve come to more recently and wish that I had had when I was bagging groceries and fielding the nonsensical complaints from entitled suburbanites. I felt the anger and resentment that comes with being treated like a servant. I let the opinion of others get to me, and it reflected a low opinion I had of myself. But dignity is not anything that anyone can grant you. If you’re in the right state of mind, you’ll have as much dignity shining shoes as you will being a movie star.
This Labor Day, resolve to take dignity in whatever job you do, and remember that no matter what the job is, everyone working for a living deserves your respect.
Happy Labor Day.