Category Archives: Unemployment Diary

Unemployment Diary: Foxes and Hedgehogs

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Archilochus, by way of The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History by Isaiah Berlin

March 23, 2009

At an out-placement services orientation I attended recently, the moderator asked us to raise our hands if we consider ourselves “detail-oriented.” Easily 80% of the attendees shot up a hand; I didn’t.

The moderator’s point was that we shouldn’t put stock phrases like “detail-oriented” on our resumes; if 80% of the resumes coming through a hiring manager tout attention to detail, then that’s a wasted piece of information that does nothing to differentiate one from the other. And that’s certainly true enough; but I found the preponderance of self-confessed detail-oriented people in the room to be the more interesting fact.

I’ve met a lot of people in IT whould would consider themselves detail-oriented: they like the nitty-gritty, bit-by-bit parts of technology, the hardware switches and minutiae of XML and the finer points of Struts configuration. This audience, though, wasn’t predominantly IT; at my table, there was a medical supplies salesman, an HR specialist, and a project manager; they all raised their hands. An interest in detail appears to cut across professions. It may be related to the specialization and compartmentalization of the modern world, or perhaps it’s a symptom of a flight from complexity.

Isiah Berlin writes about the “hedgehog” and the “fox.” The hedgehog knows one big thing; the fox knows many small things.

At first glance, it might seem that the fox is detail oriented, and the hedgehog is the big-picture thinker. But in fact, it’s just the opposite; the hedgehog is so narrowly focused on his one big thing, his unary vision of the world, that his interest is really in the details. His world is highly vertical, with the fine details tied to the cosmic plane in a neat and constrained chain of being. Indeed, I would argue, his cosmic understanding is derived entirely from the earthly details that draw his attention: the hedgehog’s god lives in a glorious burrow and dispenses tasty roots to his faithful, because those are the things that concern terrestrial hedgehogs.

The fox is less concerned about the details of things. He’s constantly moving, curious, and ruthlessly practical in his thinking. The fox doesn’t commit himself to a grand unified theory; instead, he borrows bits and pieces of theories based on their utility, and doesn’t worry too much about how, or even whether, they make any consistent sense. A theory is only as valuable as its utility: if an idea gets the fox fed, or lets him escape the hounds, then it’s a good idea and might go into the toolbox for another day.

Most of the job descriptions I see in my field call for hedgehogs. They’re looking for long and deep experience in a few technologies, and in interviews there’s a lot of attention on detailed (I might almost say trivial) knowledge. A fox’s approach to this conundrum is to tailor the resume to the job, omitting the pieces that don’t apply to the specific job at hand, and to do some last minute cramming on the details that didn’t prove useful in actually using the technology.

How a fox actually does the job, though, can be very different from the hedgehog’s approach. Foxes are messy. They pull things in from a variety of sources, try and discard several approaches, and don’t ever quite clean up after themselves. They are easily distracted by shiny things, but occasionally discover a solution that the hedgehog in all his tedious burrowing would never find. They can never claim complete mastery of a thing; instead, they know what is useful about something and leave the details to work themselves out.

I can’t claim that the fox’s approach to things is the best, even though it’s the one that resonates with me. It sacrifices mastery and perfection for speed and creativity, and often results in a solution that’s too clever by half (Rube Goldberg was probably a fox). But in conjunction with hedgehogs who can keep things grounded and work out the details, it’s an approach that can add a little pizzaz to an otherwise deadly dull project.

Unemployment Diary: Plenitude and Whoopie Pies

If fingers can cling resolutely to a cliff, the soul can easily extend beyond a mere Babbitt. We’ve reached a point in which we must take chances and throw ourselves into the wild briny patches of innovation. But why accept a world in which free thinking is replaced by a sad search for cues from someone who people think has a clue? Why believe that any one person is right all the time? Why celebrate a culture of entitlement and honor those who feel obliged to their spoils?

Edward Champion, A Call for Plenitude

March 19, 2009

Today was the boys’ last day at Minneapolis Kids, their after-school program. We love the staff there, and the kids have a great time with all the activities–an annual musical, “clubs” dedicated to rocks and science, craft projects–but since I’ve got my early afternoons free, it’s an expense we can cut. I’ve also got a super-secret project that requires some assistance from the boys, so they’re excited about “working” after school.

For their last day, I made a batch of whoopie pies. When I told the staff about my planned treat, they looked a little confused, and slightly concerned; they had never heard of whoopie pies. Which makes sense: they’re my “ethnic” food, and unless you’re Amish or Yankee (I’m the latter), or travelled in the wilder regions of Maine and New Hampshire, you’ve probably never run into this wonderful confection.

Whoopie pies are made up of a sandwich of soft chocolate cake cookies around a creamy filling; you can buy them at many gas stations, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants in western Maine, New Hampshire, and northern Massachussetts. The filling contains a “healthy” (I use the word guardedly…) dose of Marshmallow Fluff–and really, nothing will do but the real Marshmallow Fluff as produced in Lynn, Massachussetts, which is rare outside New England (my local Rainbow has been carrying it lately, so I haven’t had to substitute inferior marshmallow products). As I understand the history, whoopie pies (also called “gob cakes”) were an Amish dessert native to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; they were included in a free Marshmallow Fluff catalog put out in the 1920s, which is how they came to establish themselves in New England (where Marshmallow Fluff is almost a staple: try it on your peanut butter sandwich for a “fluffer-nutter” and you’ll see why).

I’ve always closely guarded my whoopie pie recipe. It’s my Aunt Edna’s version; my mother grew up in the Downeast coastal region of Maine, and though she passed on family recipes for brown bread, gingerbread, and penuche, whoopie pies weren’t in the Walls’ repertoire: that’s how localized the whoopie pie phenomenon is. My recipe has a couple of secret ingredients–sour milk in the batter, and a cooked filling–that sets it apart from the pies you can buy in the store.

I was inspired, though, by the example of Edward Champion to share this recipe. He shared a wonderful recipe for corn chowder (which was a crowd pleaser at my house), preceded by a very affecting “call for plenitude“:

Tangible happiness expressed and received. A smile to a stranger. Five minutes to listen. Efforts to establish common ground. The burying of hatchets. A fey risk.

So in that spirit, I’m opening up the vaults and letting Aunt Edna’s whoopie pie recipe into the wild. This is “soul food,” Yankee-style, as nourishing in its way as collard greens, crusty baguettes, or vegetable corn chowder; I hope they bring you as much joy as they’ve brought me.

Aunt Edna’s Whoopie Pies

Cookies

  • 1 cup shortening
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup sour milk (add 1 tbs distilled vinegar to milk and let it start to curdle)
  • 1 cup cocoa
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 5 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder

Cream shortening, sugar, and vanilla. Mix hot water and cocoa. Sift dry ingredients and add sour milk, cocoa, and eggs. Blend until creamy.

Drop generous spoonfuls of batter onto an ungreased cookie sheet to form round cookies.

Bake at 350 degrees, 12-15 minutes. Let cool before filling.

Filling

  • 8 tbs flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Cook milk, flour, and salt over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly. Chill for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups shortening
  • 4 tsp vanilla
  • 8 tbs Marshmallow Fluff

Combine sugar, shortening, vanilla, and Marshmallow Fluff with the milk mixture, and beat until fluffy.

Assembly

Spread a generous tablespoon of the filling on the flat side of a cookie, and add a second cookie to make a sandwich.

Useful tips:

  • When you cream the shortening and sugar, cream it like you mean it. Your cakes will be much lighter if the sugar makes lots of air pockets in the shortening; insufficient creaming results in dense, flat, poorly-textured cookies.
  • If you’re cooking with small assistants, don’t let them dip their fingers into the cocoa/water mixture for a taste; it looks inviting, but it’s very bitter. Or, alternately, encourage them to sample it, as a lesson in the ways of the world.
  • Remember to lick the beaters and bowl. Yes, it’s unsanitary; yes, the raw eggs will probably kill you; but there’s nothing that says comfort like the taste of whoopie pie batter while the cookies bake.
  • “Generous spoonfuls” means “generous spoonfuls”; this is not a time to be frugal–make those cookies big!
  • Do not grease the cookie sheet; there’s more than enough lard in these cookies that they’re not going to stick to anything. I made this mistake once, and got a gooey mass of whoopie sheets coating my cookie sheet and oven.
  • The filling needs to be thoroughly beaten until fluffy; the pleasure in this treat is the fluffiness of the filling.
  • Assembling the sandwiches is a good task for kids. They take great pleasure in plopping the goop on, and finding matching lids.
  • I always wrap each whoopie pie in Saran Wrap; this is certainly not environmentally sound, but it aids greatly in storage and transportation; they’re a messy treat.
  • The whoopie pies can be frozen; in fact, they benefit greatly from being chilled, as this firms up the filling. Of course, they’re also good fresh out of the oven with the filling melting all over your hands; have a good supply of napkins.
  • No matter how generous you are with the filling, you’ll have some left over. You could whip up another batch of the cookies, spread the filling on graham crackers, use it as a pretzel dip, or just plant yourself on the couch with the mixing bowl and a spoon, so long as no one is watching you.

Unemployment Diary: The Office

To begin with, its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak. The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece —everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.

George Orwell, The Moon Under Water

March 18, 2009

My office requirements are simple: good lighting, a little buzz of activity for my concentration to push against, wireless Internet access, a comfortable seat, and access to beverages.

Home, of course, offers most of these things. I can work upstairs on my desktop computer, or sit downstairs with my little netbook; the kitchen has a good coffee machine, and I’ve got full control over the lights and shades. Alas, there’s precious little activity, except for the dog sighing in her sleep and the occasional interruption from the telephone or the mailman. If I worked all day from home, I’d go slowly but surely insane from the isolation.

The neighborhood library is my favorite place to escape the house. It’s small enough that the bustle of the children’s section trickles out to my window seat, the chairs are comfortable, there are stacks of books to browse, and the water fountain is free. I’m not able to do FTP puts over the wi-fi, but that’s a minor annoyance.

The library isn’t open on Mondays, so I head over to the Blue Moon Cafe a couple times a week. The barristas know me–I’ve been getting my morning coffee there for years–and there’s a wonderful hum of people working, reading, and playing games. The light is a little bit bright, but if I get a seat perpendicular to the windows it’s acceptable, and the background music depends on the barrista on duty–Zoe Baird and Neko Case on good days, dreadful German techno-pop on less-good days.

But the one office that is almost ideal, and which I must avoid at all cost, is Merlin’s Rest. Merlin’s is a pub run by John Dingley, who was the proprietor of the Irish Well, where I learned a little Irish and met my wife. A couple years ago, the building was occupied by Popeye’s, the epitome of a dive bar: the windows were walled over, the sidewalk overflowed with scary characters, and the structure was held up by an accumulation of tobacco smoke and bad mojo. Now it’s a clean, well-lighted place, with cozy booths, eleven premium beers and ciders on tap, a tasty menu, free wi-fi, a blog, and regular meetings of bird watchers, Doctor Who fans, knitters, Irish musicians, and two weekly pub quizzes. (Full disclosure: they also have a link to my photoblog on their web site.) If George Orwell were writing and visiting pubs today, The Moon Under Water would resemble Merlin’s Rest.

On St. Patrick’s Day, I went to the Blue Moon and finished translating a Michael Davitt poem. Then I packed up my kit and marched up Lake Street to Merlin’s. It was past noon, and a blessed high holy day, so I settled into a stool at the bar and ordered a pint. There was a lull in the St. Patrick’s Day festivities–I counted a little over a dozen patrons–and it was the perfect office setting: good lighting, a buzz of chatter and clinking glasses, a good wireless connection, a padded bar stool, and a Guinness.

And it was a productive hour that I spent there. I did some writing, and did some drinking, paying for one of my pints with a silver coin that Mr. Dingley handed me as he scurried through, preparing for the inevitable crush of green-painted Irish-for-the-day revelers. He’s a veteran of more than few St. Patrick’s Days, at the Well and Molly Quinn’s before Merlin’s opened, and on the make-or-break day he’s all business, no chatter. I was at the Well for its last St. Patrick’s Day–a grim affair, with leftover Irish stew–and on its last night, which was that strange mixture of bathos and revelry that is a true Irish wake–so I was glad to see him busy.

Three pints is the limit for my brain and bladder, and I shut down my netbook just as a bus load of Finnegan’s” partiers started to pour in with their shamrock sunglasses and green plastic beads. The magical hour was over. And if I ever go back, I may never leave, like the man in the folk tale who tarries too long in the tomb of his friend on his wedding day.

Unemployment Diary: Leading from the Middle

Long ago, Baden-Powell suggested that, on a hike, the patrol leader should “lead” from the middle. Here he will be in contact with all his Scouts. Here he will know exactly what is going on ahead and in the rear. Here he can have the new Scout close to him, giving him a chance to know the boy, giving the new Scout a chance to know his patrol leader.

Boy Scouts of America, The Official Patrol Leader Handbook

March 16, 2009

The recent uproar over retention bonuses and executive compensation at AIG and other financial firms implicated in the economic catastrophe has given us an opportunity to talk about how people are paid for their work; if all we do is sharpen our pitchforks and light our torches while descending on the enclaves of power, though, we’ll have wasted this conversation. Though outrage is certainly cathartic, and justified, it’s not sufficient to make serious change.

We have in the United States the steepest slope in pay scales in the industrial world. The AFL-CIO has an interesting tool that lets you see the compensation of publicly-traded corporations’ CEOs in stark terms: we can see, for example, that AIG’s last president, Martin Sullivan, made about as much in 2008 as 8 Nobel laureates, 34 U.S. presidents, 472 average workers, or 1,024 minimum-wage workers. My former CEO certainly isn’t in the same stratospheric range as Mr. Sullivan was, but he does make enough to cover my former salary 31 times over.

There’s a similar pattern elsewhere in the developed countries, though there are often caps placed on executive pay. We have a sharply hierarchical distribution of wages, implying that the work of the person at the top is worth many times the work of the person at the bottom, and that the corporation depends on the CEO’s specialized talents for its survival. It’s an unexamined assumption that we would do well to consider.

Stever Robbins gives a succinct job description for the CEO position: the CEO sets strategy and vision, establishes the corporation’s culture, fosters teamwork, and sets priorities through fiscal allocation. These are obviously important jobs, but are they 472 (or 31 or 703) times more valuable than the work done by the people who implement the vision? Should the CEO really be the highest paid person in the corporation?

Recently, a few executives have opted for the “$1 a year” compensation package; I find this insulting. It’s an obvious stunt: the paycheck is a tiny part of the executive’s total compensation, and it’s unlikely that I’d bump into a $1/year CEO at Saver’s, or share coupon tips with him in the checkout lane at Rainbow. There’s far more public relations than true leadership in this sort of trick.

I’d like to see a CEO with real vision and leadership try something that my old Boy Scout Patrol Leader Handbook suggested: lead from the middle.

When I was a Boy Scout, I did my stint as a Patrol Leader. It was my job to set the strategy, culture, teamwork, and priorities of a group of four to ten Scouts, though our resources amounted to a few tents, an axe and saw, a box of cookware, and a cooler of food. A successful patrol leader doesn’t rush out ahead of the patrol and blaze new trails; he delegates that to the Scout with a knack for pathfinding. And he doesn’t set up a nice Springbar tent on top of a hill while the rest of the patrol struggles with moldy green canvas; he uses the same tent as the rest of the team, and if he’s smart he puts it right in the middle so he’s available to advise and lead whenever his input is required. In the middle, he knows what’s going on, and he can lead his patrol on a successful outing.

How interesting it would be to see a corporate leader model a Scout. Gone would be the corner office upstairs with a cherry desk suite; instead, the patrol leader CEO would have a cubicle (maybe with high walls, even a door) on the same floor as his employees. He could hear the buzz of the office, participate in the water cooler chatter, and know first hand if his vision is working instead of having the news filtered through his minions. He could set an example of teamwork by using the same spartan conference rooms as the regular workers when he needs to call a meeting; if he truly requires an updated conference table with leather chairs, then he can share the improved amenities with the accounting or web development team when they have their meetings. When he delegates work, he can actually see it done, and when employees have questions, they can ask him directly rather than through one of those seldom-monitored suggestion boxes.

And for pay, rather than making a mockery of the “common touch” on a dollar a year, he could accept compensation that’s the average wage of the team that he’s leading. By taking a salary somewhere between the lowliest help desk drone and the most esoteric of financial wizards, his fortunes would be truly tied to the corporation’s. If he wants a pay increase, or better benefits, then he would have to extend the same to everyone; and if he decides that pay and benefit cuts are the path to economic prosperity, then his own salary is trimmed in proportion to everyone else’s. A leader need not be a king.

Of course, CEOs are clever people–you don’t climb the slippery pole unless you’ve got no compunctions about stepping on some hands and heads and hearts to get to the top–so our current crop of corner office holders would find many ways to subvert this subversive idea. They could simply outsource all of the low wage workers, or create a special management corporation made up of just the top echelon of employees; they could opt for an office-less office, encourage everyone to telecommute, and work from their mansion or penthouse to avoid the hoi polloi; they could devise some alternative forms of compensation (there are so many ways to spell “bonus”) to keep themselves in the regal manner to which they’ve become accustomed. Leading from the middle would require a completely different kind of person–an actual leader, who recognizes that his skills in vision and team building don’t set him apart and above, but actually require him to be within and among–than what we install into power today.

Which is a shame, because leadership is what we’re lacking most, and most desperately need.

Unemployment Diary: I am Lazarus

I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot

March 12, 2009

What the culture of looming layoffs does to those who lose their jobs is obvious enough: abrupt financial turmoil, devastating loss of self-esteem, the feeling of having been cast out of society for no good reason. But what about those who are left behind after the tide rushes out?

I’ve survived quite a few down-sizings, right-sizings, smart-sizings, and other such euphemistic rounds of firings. They’re almost always conducted with a good amount of secrecy and uncomfortable silence, though there are always enough hints that they’re coming: the all-company meeting called abruptly with no published agenda, the closed-door meetings among managers, the not-so-cryptic hints from the corner office of “a change in direction” or “these difficult economic times” that call for “new thinking” and “unprecedented actions.” There’s more than a whiff of theater to it all: despite what management may think, workers aren’t so easily fooled, and are quite good at reading the corporate tea leaves.

We respond to these uncomfortable lulls between bloodlettings in a variety of ways. When I was going through a major merger, where overlapping functions and departments were being evaluated for their efficacy in the “new enterprise,” I was subjected to far more meetings than anyone should have to attend. The purpose of these meetings, always called by people who were most concerned about their place in the organization, was never to move a project along or get a problem solved. These meetings, which always resulted in more meetings, with ever-growing lists of attendees until, like a collapsing star, they were subsumed into black holes by their own density, were all about demonstrating the moderator’s importance to the company. The worst offenders sounded like that old BASIC program “Eliza,” the virtual therapist: they would say, in response to a technical answer to the real problem at hand, “I hear you saying …”; they would insist on recapping the sense of the meeting in detail no old Quaker scribe ever dreamed of providing, in e-mails strategically copied to the most important managers (but always excluding anyone who could challenge the content); and they inevitably called for a series of follow-up sessions so the topic could be further regurgitated. The strategy was clearly to present a vision of busyness: someone with a full calendar is clearly someone who is important to the organization, and important people must be retained.

These days, though, that kind of strategy is no guarantee of a job. It still happens–there are always people who need to be certain you’ve heard their voice so you know they’ve contributed something, being sure to get their cards punched–but it hasn’t proved to be a successful methodology. Today, the axe falls on the dead limb as swiftly as on the green, following its own inexorable logic of cost and benefit. It’s a more random universe than we’ve seen in a long time, and our cleverest magical thinking is no defense.

Before the axe landed on me, I saw a lot of gallows humor as the main coping mechanism. It was clear that cuts were coming–there had been cuts before, and all the right kinds of noises were flowing from the corner offices to expect more–and, what’s more, it wasn’t hard to predict when they would come. A glance at the fiscal calendar was a better predictor than all the cat entrails you could burn. The only thing that we couldn’t predict was who would feel the bit, or how many; we hoped our office would be spared, but knew that it wouldn’t. So we traded comments on the most unfortunate bits of news that Digg and del.icio.us could turn up, railed against the stupidity of the Wall Street wizards who got us in these straits, and joked about the growth opportunities in part-time service-sector jobs.

Under the joking, though, is an existential anxiety. We hope that we won’t be the one to go, but (at least in a functional work environment) we hope our co-workers will dodge the axe as well. We’d like to think we’d step up to the chopping block with aplomb, but hope that our sang froid won’t be tested. Every afternoon came with a certain relief, but with a knot at the pit of the stomach.

One of my former co-workers came by this afternoon to deliver the Girl Scout cookies I ordered back in Janunary; she had bought a Cub Scout wreath from me, so I had to take the Do-Si-Dos and Tagalongs. She told me that the morning after the cuts, in the all-company meeting I didn’t attend, they had been warned that more cuts were likely in the next quarter unless the economy changes significantly. Given the way we’ve chosen to respond to the recession, it’s doubtful that it will, at least for the better. And what does that do for morale and productivity in the office?

Obviously, it’s devastating. The certainty of cuts against the uncertainty of one’s own future is an impossible situation; the ambitious will spend their spare time checking Monster.com, and the fearful will spend their energies on occult prognostication. Excess energies will hardly go toward advancing the work that one should be doing. No better method of quashing productivity could possibly be devised.

Is there a way out of this conumdrum? Perhaps.

First, as one who speaks from the other side of the veil, I’d admonish not courage, but rather a cheerful resignation. Just as we cannot know the hour of our death, we can’t know the hour of our unemployment. And much like death, but really so much less traumatically, it’s the initial blow that hurts the most; once you’ve crossed over into the light, it isn’t so bad. A little dull, occasionally scary, but not so bad.

But most importantly, and seriously, I’d implore our corporate leaders to think seriously about how they handle these situations. The way they handle things now has all the earmarks of an untalented high school jazz band trying to improvise: they hesitate, fearful of making a misstep or showing their hand, then rush headlong into a wild flurry of notes before stopping short, absolutely clueless as to how to proceed. Perhaps there’s more method than madness in how layoffs are done, but from down here it isn’t clear.

If layoffs are absolutely necessary–if you really can’t see beyond short-sighted, penny-wise-but-pound-foolish tactics–then you at least owe it to your employees to treat them like adults. We know that layoffs are coming, and that these things require a certain amount of planning to pull off. Let us in on the plans, and on the outcome; rather than dropping the guillotine in the afternoon and expecting the beheaded to pack themselves out in half an hour, give them the same two-weeks notice they’d give you if they were switching jobs. Respect them enough not to scribble graffiti on the white board or infect the network with exotic worms; if they’re rational creatures (which they must be or you wouldn’t have hired them in the first place), they won’t be in a rush to burn bridges that might carry them over this gaping gorge.

Secrecy breeds fear and dissension; abrupt firings encourage fear and disrupt real work. We won’t soon dig ourselves out of this hole if we don’t treat each other with the decency we all deserve.

Unemployment Diary: About suffering they were never wrong

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

Mus&eaccute;e des Beaux Arts, W. H. Auden

March 10, 2009

I went back to the MIA with the Yashica and faster film; we’ll see if the results are any better. This time I focussed on the third floor galleries, particularly the 20th century American paintings. The MIA has just one Andrew Wyeth, and a nice N.C. Wyeth “Cream of Wheat” illustration, which I found particularly calming in a strange way. In the French room, I tried to sneak a couple shots of a woman copying one of the paintings, and a man sketching a statue; I find the people in the galleries to be just as interesting as the paintings on the walls, and enjoyed eavesdropping on a retired docent walking his friend around to show off his favorite pieces. With the recent cutbacks in the MIA staff, this may be the best kind of tour to take.

On the way home, I listened to a Talk of the Nation segment on layoffs and alternatives thereto. Maria Guidice, CEO of a web design company, Hot Studio, discussed her decision to try reduced hours, pay freezes and cuts, and other methods to avoid layoffs. I’m incredibly biased, of course, but this seemed like an eminently rational and humane approach.

Companies invest a huge amount of time and money in hiring, training, and developing their employees. After a few weeks or months on the job, people have an incredible amount of specialized knowledge that can’t be learned in school. When the company sees these employees as an expense rather than as an asset, they are jettisoning not just the salaries of their laid off former employees, they’re also releasing that specialized knowledge. If (when?) things turn around, and the company needs to increase their staff, they’ll have to incur the expense of hiring, training, and acculturating new people.

Companies also sacrifice goodwill through layoffs, not only among those who are laid off (whose goodwill they may not especially care to maintain), but also among those who keep their jobs. It’s hard to feel a lot of loyalty to a company that makes such abrupt and calculated decisions about its employees; based on my own experience of watching previous downsizings and outsourcings, that loyalty is impossible to win back.

Perhaps, though, we live in a post-loyalty economy. Indeed, we’ve probably lived in one for a long time, and it’s only dawning on me that my own loyalty (second point of the Scout Law) isn’t necessarily seen as an asset. Still, I’m not willing to surrender that impulse entirely; I believe that companies that cultivate loyalty (like Hot Studio) have an advantage: they can marshal their strengths when times are lean, and unleash the pent-up enthusiasm of loyal employees when the economy rebounds, while the job cutters scramble for people who would as soon work anyplace else, loyal only to themselves.

Unemployment Diary: pure, flat immobility

To sit idly, not doing, merely experiencing, comes hard to a primate … Primates feel pure, flat immobility as boredom, but dogs feel it as peace.

The Hidden Life Of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

March 6, 2009

The great beneficiary of my unemployment has been my dog. She used to get one long walk per day, usually at night, and spent her days doing nothing. Now she gets two, sometimes three, walks, and spends her days doing … well, nothing.

Our routine now is to go to the bus stop with the boys, send them off to school, and then take one of our usual routes: east to the river and south to 38th Street, or north to 28th, or west to the grain elevators. Along the way she inspects whatever the melting snow and ice have left behind: not magnificent boulders and deep lakes like the prehistoric glaciers, but the putrid remains of squirrels, discarded fast food wrappers, and other unidentifiable but no doubt armotic refuse. Then it’s home for a quick bath if the mud was up, a dog treat, and a nap. She moves from sunny spot to sunny spot, finally ending up on the couch with her nose by the window, occasionally letting out a warning bark at a cat or squirrel. And then it’s time for supper, another nap, and her nocturnal walk.

At first I thought that she was relishing in her unemployment, but then I realized that this is in fact her job. A companion animal’s assignment, after all, is to be a companion, or at least a resident of a human abode. Employed house dogs are fulfilling their duties by napping, walking, and occasionally barking. An unemployed dog is a stray, doomed to wander aimlessly and live off the scraps in the alley–a busy life, perhaps, but not an easy one.

For the contemporary unemployed American in the white-collar corporate world, it’s not too different. Although we look busy enough when we have jobs, we’re more likely to be engaged in companion-animal activites: finding a comfortable place, letting out occasional warning barks when someone comes too close to our territory, pleased to receive occasional snacks. And most importantly, the nervous parts of our brain are napping, comfortable in the place we’ve found. We might be desperate, but quietly so.

Without the sedating effects of work, though, those nervous regions of the brain roam the alleys with fear and trepidation. Garbage we might have turned our noses up at a few weeks ago suddenly look like tasty morsels, and we scan nervously for other scavengers that might be moving in on the scraps we’ve scrounged. Our desperation tends to be quiet to the outside world, at least here in the Midwest, but there’s a growing chorus of despair in the interior caverns.

Finding peace in immobility, serenity in the moment, is something that humans, ironically, work hard at; my Buddhist dog has already found her Nirvana. I find that I need to fill those quiet hours between nine and five (especially from about one to three) with spasms of activity to keep the chorus quiet.

Unemployment Diary: Secret Handshake

A secret handshake is a series of hand gestures that indicate loyalty to a club, clique, or subculture. The purpose of the secret handshake is to identify exclusive group members, and consequently to prevent inclusion of outsiders. Also, the element of secrecy provides the necessity of loyalty to the exclusive group. To reveal a secret handshake would be taboo and would cause the offending individual to be thought of as a traitor.

From Wikipedia

March 5, 2009

I’ve always felt uncomfortable when I’m out in the world on school or work days; the streets and shops are a little quieter, the crowds sparser, and my sense of time is discombobulated. Even in graduate school, when I would have a whole day without classes and so would take care of groceries or other errands in the late morning, I half expected a truancy officer to come up to me and demand to know what I was doing out and about.

There are advantages, of course, to being out and about in the late morning, especially where errands are concerned. The greatest advantage, when it comes to groceries, is the samples. My usual grocery shopping routine calls for me to be at the store late on Thursday evening, after the kids are in bed. My wife is in charge of making the menu and shopping list–she’s a design engineer, after all, so she has a very efficient approach to the planning phase–and I take care of the implementation. Since she has the grocery list so well-organized, I can usually be done in less than 30 minutes; and since there are no samples out at night, there’s no point in lingering.

During the day, though, there are plenty of enticements. In the produce aisle, wedges of melon and dishes of guacamole (with chips); in the snack aisle, bowls of chips and crackers; and in the cheese aisle, the best place of all, little cubes of red Leicester, parmeggiano, and sometimes even a jar of a tapanade spread with tasty Melba toasts. The signs say you should help yourself to just one sample, but I get a delicious thrill out of making an extra turn around the store to take an extra elicit bit of cheese or melon.

Of course, I still try to avoid eye contact with the staff when I snatch an extra piece, even though I’m sure they have better things to do than to count the number of samples each person has taken. And added to the fear of my imaginary truancy officer, this can make grocery shopping a bit more stressful than it should be. It’s good that my shopping list is so organized.

It would be useful if, upon receiving your severance package, you were also taught a secret handshake. This handshake would have to change monthly to keep the freshly employed from taking advantage of the benefits that accrue from unemployment, and it would have to be sufficiently complicated to prevent casual observers from discovering it. But it would have advantages, not only against the imaginary truancy officer and grocery store employees (who likely have clear memories of some of the most recent versions of the sign), but with our fellow unemployed citizens. It would let us communicate more clearly than the raised eyebrows and quick nod, the courageous smile and thumbs-up that we have in our vocabulary now. It would be a way for us, all 8.1% of us, to say, “We’re in this together, through no fault of our own, and that counts for something.”

Solidarity is, of course, out of fashion, especially in the white collar world. And red Leicester, though mild and firm, is a poor substitute.

Unemployment Diary: The good grey guardians of art

The good grey guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Museum Piece by Richard Wilbur

March 4, 2009

I will not sit at home, idly searching for jobs or waiting for calls. That way lies madness, or at least grinding ennui.

Instead, I’m planning to take advantage of my new-found wealth in time to go to some places I seldom get to when I’m at work. My first outing was to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a first-rate museum packed with portraits, landscapes, an amazing collection of Chinese artifacts, and some very nice photographs (a Julia Margaret Cameron and an Edward Weston were in the rotating exhibit today, as well as a nice big gallery of Tom Arndt’s street photography from Home: Tom Arndt’s Minnesota).

Roaming the galleries, FED3 loaded with film (alas, 100 Arista.EDU, a bit slower than I would have planned for this outing, had I been allowed to plan), made for a relaxing afternoon. I found the sculptures–the big Buddhas, the Roman heads, the cool marble–especially soothing. Ganymede patiently serves the eagle, forever frozen in the moment before he is swept up to Olympus by the notoriously shape-shifting and love-lorn Zeus.

It wasn’t until I was on my way home, listening to the radio, that I learned that the MIA was performing its own round of layoffs, eliminating 6% of its staff. Sad as it is to have been cast out of the comfort of my programming job, it would be a fate worse than any the Greeks could dream up to be expelled from those lovely galleries. The eternal marbles feel a little less static now.

Unemployment Diary: Inertia and Momentum

An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force. An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force.

First Law of Thermodynamics, Principia, Isaac Newton

March 3, 2009

On Monday, March 2, I was “laid off” from the job I’d held for about five months. It wasn’t a huge surprise–there had been a round of layoffs before, and intimations of another one on the way, and I was the least tenured in my office–but it was still a blow. Up until I was called into my manager’s office, it had been a good day: I solved a thorny problem that had been pestering me for a week, checked in my changes and deployed the latest version to the test environment, and let the QA person know she could have another go at what I hoped would be the final version of my project. Leaving on an up note, with a nice chunk of functional code for my co-workers to take over, at least puts a positive spin on losing my job.

Still, I’m very sad to have lost this particular job. The loss of income is a hassle, of course, but so far not a crisis: my wife is still working, and we’ve always lived well within our means, so at this point we just have to be cautious–our basic standard of living is intact. And looking for a new job–going through the routine of resumes and cover letters and interviews, the whole ritual of selling myself and my experience–is a painful grind. What really makes me sad is that I enjoyed this job as I haven’t enjoyed a job for a long time. The work was good–challenging, interesting, and engaging, with room for creativity and discovery; the team was great–smart, funny, and talented; and the location was ideal, at the opposite end of the Greenway from my house, which let me bike in on a few nice Fall days, with plans to bike all Summer. I hated my commute at the last job, and my big worry now (besides being stuck in a large corporate job where my soul is slowly squeezed out in a series of meetings that result in more meetings and where I never get to look at another line of code) is that I’ll spend a lot more time in my car than with my family.

My first day of unemployment wasn’t bad. I managed to get an interview with a recruiter right away, had lunch with my former co-workers at Taco Taxi, and gave the dog an extra walk. I’m lucky that a big chunk of my day still follows the same routine as before–up at 5:30 to get coffee for my wife, out to the bus stop with the kids at 8:15; the same supper and homework and bedtime schedule as before; just a gap from 9 to 5 that needs to be molded into shape and kept rolling in some useful direction.

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