The week@work – The ‘Fallows question’, flexibility@work and the long term impact of student debt

On Saturday Night Live actor Cecily Strong delivered a line that summed up what many of us are feeling this week@work, “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me.” 

It got me thinking about the question Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg posed to the Barnard Class of 2011, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

This week@work The New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks posed ‘the Fallows question’“If you could move to the place on earth where history is most importantly being made right now, where would you go?”

“James and Deborah Fallows have always moved to where history is being made…James and Deb have an excellent sense of where world-shaping events are taking place at any moment — and a fervent commitment to be there to see it happen.

If you want to “observe” history, the Fallows say, go to Washington. If you want to “participate,” go elsewhere.”

If you weren’t afraid, and could pick up and move to where the action is, where would you go? Brooks offered a few destinations to start, but just maybe, this week@work you might spend some time considering a temporary relocation “in search of history”.

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Folks@work are moving forward, finding ways to succeed independent of national politics. Some voice concern about the potential impact of new policies on their workplace, while others seek ways to express a response in their work. For many, the challenges of the gender gap and student debt remain a constant, often extending into retirement.

Claire Cain Miller examined the tension in employer expectations between flexibility and presence@work in ‘How to Close a Gender Gap: Let Employees Control Their Schedules’.

“The main reason for the gender gaps at work — why women are paid less, why they’re less likely to reach the top levels of companies, and why they’re more likely to stop working after having children — is employers’ expectation that people spend long hours at their desks, research has shown.

Flexibility regarding the time and place that work gets done would go a long way toward closing the gaps, economists say.

A new job search company, Werk, is trying to address the problem by negotiating for flexibility with employers before posting jobs, so employees don’t have to.”

And then there are the financial pressures; spanning generations from twenty-somethings being subsidized by parents, as their grandparents face social security payment garnishment to repay outstanding student loan debt.

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Quoctrung Bui reported on ‘A Secret of Many Urban 20-Somethings: Their Parents Help With the Rent’.

“According to surveys that track young people through their first decade of adulthood, about 40 percent of 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds receive some financial assistance from their parents for living expenses. Among those who get help, the average amount is about $3,000 a year.

It’s a stark reminder that social and economic mobility continues past grade school, high school and even college. Economic advantages continue well into the opening chapters of adulthood, a time when young people are making big personal investments that typically lead to higher incomes but can be hard to pay for.”

On the other side of the generation spectrum, The Editorial Board of The New York Times identified an emerging trend threatening older Americans, ‘Haunted by Student Debt Past Age 50’.

“The experience of being crushed by student debt is no longer limited to the young. New federal data shows millions of Americans who are retired or nearing retirement face this burden, as well as the possibility of having their Social Security benefits garnished to make payments.

Americans age 60 and older are the fastest-growing age group of student loan debtors. Older debtors, many of whom live hand-to-mouth on fixed incomes, are more likely to default. When that occurs with federal loans, as happens with nearly 40 percent of such borrowers who are 65 and over, the government can seize a portion of their Social Security payments — even if it pushes them into poverty. About 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 in 2015 had their Social Security checks cut below the poverty line because of student loans, with poverty-level benefits falling even further for 50,000 others, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.”

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The last story this week@work, highlights the importance of art@work and in our lives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the next step in their digital evolution – open access to over 375,000 archive images. (Monet’s ‘Garden at Sainte-Adresse’, 1867 above)

The Friday Poem ‘Mourning What We Thought We Were’ by Frank Bidart

I’ve been making a list of things I’ve done since the Women’s March to oppose, not resist.

I’ve discovered only two degrees of separation connect me to a Syrian refugee family newly arrived in Dallas, Texas.

I’ve found it difficult to write, to reflect, on ideas away from the breaking news of the minute.

In the gap, poet Frank Bidart has captured this moment in our history. “We were born into an amazing experiment. At least we thought we were.”

The Friday Poem this week, from three time Pulitzer poetry finalist, and Bakersfield native Bidart, was published last month in The New Yorker.

Mourning What We Thought We Were

We were born into an amazing experiment.

At least we thought we were. We knew there was no
escaping human nature: my grandmother

taught me that: my own pitiless nature
taught me that: but we exist inside an order, I

thought, of which history
is the mere shadow—

*

Every serious work of art about America has the same
theme: America

is a great Idea: the reality leaves something to be desired.

Bakersfield. Marian Anderson, the first great black classical
contralto, whom the Daughters of the American Revolution

would not allow to sing in an unsegregated

Constitution Hall, who then was asked by Eleanor
Roosevelt to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before thousands

was refused a room at the Padre Hotel, Bakersfield.

My mother’s disgust
as she told me this. It confirmed her judgment about

what she never could escape, where she lived out her life.

My grandmother’s fury when, at the age of seven or
eight, I had eaten at the home of a black friend.

The forced camps at the end of The Grapes of Wrath
were outside

Bakersfield. When I was a kid, Okie

was still a common
term of casual derision and contempt.

*

So it was up to us, born
in Bakersfield, to carve a new history

of which history is the mere shadow—

*

To further the history of the spirit is our work:

therefore thank you, Lord
Whose Bounty Proceeds by Paradox,

for showing us we have failed to change.

*

Dark night, December 1st 2016.

White supremacists, once again in
America, are acceptable, respectable. America!

Bakersfield was first swamp, then
desert. We are sons of the desert
who cultivate the top half-inch of soil.

 

Frank Bidart from The New Yorker, January 23, 2017

The Friday Poem ‘The New Colossus’ by Emma Lazarus

Most immigrants to the U.S. arrive by plane, bypassing the Statue of Liberty standing in New York harbor. Perhaps this detour has created a bit of amnesia regarding fundamental American values.

For the Friday poem this week, we travel back in time to 1883, when Emma Lazarus was asked to write a poem as part of fundraising effort to construct the pedestal for the statue.

Washington Post journalist Katie Mettler revisited Ms. Lazarus’ story on Wednesday, citing renewed interest in the sonnet in the aftermath of the executive order banning  U.S. entry to all Syrian refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries

“What the poet didn’t know at the time — as a woman whose work as a “poetess” had been at times the subject of condescension — was that it would be her words, lyrical and poignant, that decades later came to define the American vision of liberty.

More than a century later, in 2017, the words are rallying people against a controversial president and his policies and attitudes toward immigrants.”

It’s time for these words to be posted at every point of entry to the U.S. to remind all of our core values.

The New Colossus 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus   ‘Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings’ (2002)

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The week@work – Davos, transition, transferable skills and a ‘profundo’ life

 

The headline of the week@work did not originate in Washington D.C., but in Davos, Switzerland: ‘Davos Elite Fret About Inequality Over Vintage Wine and Canapés’. “…globalization has reduced the bargaining power of workers, and corporations have taken advantage of it.”

In other news – January is often a month of transition, not just in government, but across all fields. Articles this week@work explored the value of being fired and finding the right ‘fit’ next time. Physicists are the new software engineers in Silicon Valley and PhDs just may be the newest entrepreneurs.

Finally, this week@work we remember Kevin Starr, who went to work every day as a historian chronicling the past of his home state, California. “I’ve always tried to write California history as American history.”

4096.jpgPeter S. Goodman covered the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum for The New York Times.

“What is striking is what generally is not discussed: bolstering the power of workers to bargain for better wages and redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom.

“That agenda is anathema to a lot of Davos men and women,” said Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate economist and author of numerous books on globalization and economic inequality. “More rights to bargain for workers, that’s the part where Davos man is going to get stuck. The stark reality is that ”

That perhaps private equity overseers should not be paid 1,000 times as much as teachers while availing themselves of tax breaks is thinking that gets little airing here.”

1e97282770fb153b749b691b25832c03.jpgFor those of us not networking with the super elite in the Swiss Alps, Julie Ma compiled a sampling of quotes from ’25 Famous Women on How Getting Fired Makes You Stronger’.

“If you don’t get fired at least once, you’re not trying hard enough. This isn’t quite true yet, but it is becoming truer. As the pace of change in business increases, the chances of having a placid career are receding. And if in this period of rapid change, you’re not making some notable mistakes along the way, you’re certainly not taking enough business and career chances.” Sallie Krawcheck, chair Ellevate

“Is it hard to say I was fired? No. I’ve said it about 20 times, and it’s not. I was in fact insistent that that be publicly clear because I was not ashamed of that. And I don’t think young women — it’s hard, I know — they should not feel stigmatized if they are fired. Especially in this economy people are fired right and left for arbitrary reasons, and there are sometimes forces beyond your control.”
Jill Abramson, author and faculty @Harvard

IMG_8148.jpgMost folks leave their life @work because of the ‘human factor’: colleagues, leadership and values. Sharon Daniels offered advice to those starting the job search.

“If you have passion and enthusiasm, you’re on your way. People want to be around people who have passion and enthusiasm, because we all gravitate toward something greater than ourselves. If you do something wholeheartedly versus halfheartedly, it’s going to have a completely different effect.”

Cade Metz reported on how transferable skills are changing the profile of some tech workers, ‘Move Over, Coders—Physicists Will Soon Rule Silicon Valley’.

“If physics and software engineering were subatomic particles, Silicon Valley has turned into the place where the fields collide…It’s not on purpose, exactly. “We didn’t go into the physics kindergarten and steal a basket of children,” says Stripe president and co-founder John Collison. “It just happened.” And it’s happening across Silicon Valley. Because structurally and technologically, the things that just about every internet company needs to do are more and more suited to the skill set of a physicist.”

Ainsley O’Connell described another experiment in skill transference, ‘Can Entrepreneurship Revive The Troubled PhD?’

“PhD students once dreamed of lifelong tenure, generous sabbaticals, and a closet full of jackets with elbow patches. Academic life, with its dusty-booked charm, ruled the day. No longer. Even in STEM fields, roughly 40% of PhDs are graduating without employment commitments. Could the solution be teaching postdocs to create their own jobs, as entrepreneurs?

In the heart of Manhattan, in a set of conference rooms on loan from Google, one radical experiment in postdoc entrepreneurship is now entering its fourth year. Called “Runway” and managed by Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, the program bills itself as “part business school, part research institution, part startup incubator.” Since its founding, Runway postdocs have founded 13 companies, from an intelligent baby monitor to an urban planning analytics platform, and collectively raised $15 million in funding.”

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Finally, this week@work, we remember Kevin Starr, former California State Librarian, professor and author of an eight-volume history of his home state ‘Americans and the California Dream’.

Colleague William Deverell remembered the historian and author as ‘A Golden State Champion’.

“I knew Kevin Starr only as profundo. He was big, his voice was big, his persona was big, his books are big, his ideas are big, his influence is big. Some, and only some, of this has now been silenced by his death Saturday. Kevin’s outsize impact and his sheer significance to both our regional and our national culture, will continue long hence. Death has robbed us of the most important guide we have ever had to our state’s history and culture, our ingenious interpreter of the elusive and many meanings of the California Dream over several centuries.”

 

 

 

 

Pictures from the revolution – 1/21/17

I got as far as Pershing Square in Downtown LA. There were too many people to ‘march’ to City Hall. The real estate in-between was occupied by a sea of veteran and newly-minted activists.

Eventually, we headed in the opposite direction along 6th and up Grand to the Disney Concert Hall. The thousands in the ‘tangent march’ I joined never heard the political speeches of the day, but were overjoyed in the surprise of the turnout.

We were a rainbow representation of the California we call home. We were messengers from divergent origin, chanting with one voice. “This is what democracy looks like”.

IMG_8183.jpgThis is what I want you to understand. The result of the U.S. election may have been the catalyst, but this is about families, values and redefining a new American dream. It’s not about following a 70 year old white man into the past, but creating a solid bridge to a viable global future for our children and grandchildren. It’s about legacy, not name calling.

IMG_8149.jpgIf we can harness the energy and creativity that knitted pink pussy hats, and illustrated catchy posters, we can change the world. The present day reality holds enough shock value without piling on with unproductive language that creates a diversion from authentic action.

 We are the parents who are the everyday role models for our children. It’s our lot in life to “go high, when others go low”. We are the adults in the room.

Many doubt our unity. They minimize our resolve. They write we cannot sustain the momentum initiated on 1/21/17.

img_8191How often, as women@work, have we heard those whispered doubts of our ability to get the job done – to compete? Enough.

I have great respect for those who have blazed trails so others might succeed, but it’s time to hand over the power to the next generation of dreamers – to trust their ability to employ genuine entrepreneurial skill to reimagine the future.

They were there on Saturday; on every street, in every city around the world.

IMG_8180.jpgWhere do we begin? Start local. Be a mentor, donate to organizations that support K-12 leadership initiatives. Invest in people.

Take any opportunity to start a conversation, and listen.

Read the constitution. Fill in the gaps in your knowledge of American history. Learn the words to ‘We Shall Overcome’.

Visit the library or local bookstore and read at least one book by an author from another culture.

Go to your state capitol, find your representative, and ask, what they are doing to encourage a new cohort of leaders? Offer to help.

If you have massive amounts of cash, avoid the temptation to create a private label on a building, and put your money toward those who will cement a more permanent legacy through public service.

If you can’t find an organization with a ‘mission match’ to your values, create one. It was one woman’s Facebook post that grew into the Women’s March.

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And so it begins…

Photo credit- Downtown LA – LA Mayor’s website 

 

 

 

The Friday Poem ‘To The Indifferent Women’ by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman

On the eve of the ‘Women’s March’, the Friday Poem reprises ‘To The Indifferent Women’ by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman. I originally posted the poem in July after the first woman in U.S. history accepted her party’s nomination for president.

Sometimes things don’t work out as planned.

Tomorrow, in Washington D.C. and cities around the country, women will join together in a nation that could not ratify an equal rights amendment, or elect the first woman president, and remind those elected that women’s rights are human rights.

“In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”

There is something going on here, as there was in 1911 when Ms. Perkins was writing for the cause of women’s rights.

One of the more stunning stories, in advance of the D.C. march, appears in today’s NY Times and profiles an unlikely activist contingent – ‘From Wall Street to National Mall: Women Overcome Fears to Attend March’.

“They are professionals in trading, public relations, marketing, deal-making, investing and the law. They keep punishing schedules, fear losing business by offending their clients and often feel that in an industry still overwhelmingly populated by men, the less attention drawn to their sex, the better.

But the inauguration of Mr. Trump has prompted a striking number of Wall Street women to overcome their worries about demonstrating in public.”

For those who will march and be questioned why, and for those still without weekend plans – a beautiful question from 1911.

“Do you believe the sorrow of the world
Does not concern you in your little homes?”

To The Indifferent Women

A Sestina

You who are happy in a thousand homes,
Or overworked therein, to a dumb peace;
Whose souls are wholly centered in the life
Of that small group you personally love;
Who told you that you need not know or care
About the sin and sorrow of the world?

Do you believe the sorrow of the world
Does not concern you in your little homes? —
That you are licensed to avoid the care
And toil for human progress, human peace,
And the enlargement of our power of love
Until it covers every field of life?

The one first duty of all human life
Is to promote the progress of the world
In righteousness, in wisdom, truth and love;
And you ignore it, hidden in your homes,
Content to keep them in uncertain peace,
Content to leave all else without your care.

Yet you are mothers! And a mother’s care
Is the first step toward friendly human life.
Life where all nations in untroubled peace
Unite to raise the standard of the world
And make the happiness we seek in homes
Spread everywhere in strong and fruitful love.

You are content to keep that mighty love
In its first steps forever; the crude care
Of animals for mate and young and homes,
Instead of pouring it abroad in life,
Its mighty current feeding all the world
Till every human child can grow in peace.

You cannot keep your small domestic peace
Your little pool of undeveloped love,
While the neglected, starved, unmothered world
Struggles and fights for lack of mother’s care,
And its tempestuous, bitter, broken life
Beats in upon you in your selfish homes.

We all may have our homes in joy and peace
When woman’s life, in its rich power of love
Is joined with man’s to care for all the world.

Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman ‘Suffrage Songs and Voices’ 1911

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Photo credit: Screen shot from Women’s March LA website

 

The week@work – the top stories of ’16, a new year, the eternal optimist’s talking points, French workers get the right to disconnect, and leadership lessons from Michelle Obama

Happy New Year! This week@work we take a final look at the top stories of 2016, and the stories from the first week of 2017. On the work-life balance front – French workers now have the legal right to disconnect from the office. The U.S. unemployment rate is at 4.7%, with hourly salary earnings rising 2.9%. And for women@work, an article considered the future of women in this new year, as First Lady Michelle Obama delivered her final formal remarks on Friday, giving us a parting gift – a model for what a leader looks like.

The Economist’s top ten most read stories of 2016 centered on the U.S. election and Brexit. In the U.S., NPR’s top 20 did not include Brexit, but the question of how Donald Trump will govern, led the list. “The top 20 most popular stories from the past year ranged from fact checks to mosquito bites, from Aleppo to taxes, and how to raise kids who will thrive, whatever the future brings.” 

There were many stories about work and the workplace, but most became a subset of the larger stories. Susan Chira reflected on ‘What Women Lost’.

“This was supposed to be the year of triumph for American women.

A year that would cap an arc of progress: Seneca Falls, 1848. The 19th Amendment, 1920. The first female American president, 2017. An inauguration that would usher in a triumvirate of women running major Western democracies. Little girls getting to see a woman in the White House.

Instead, for those at the forefront of the women’s movement, there is despair, division and defiance. Hillary Clinton’s loss was feminism’s, too.”

2017 will be the year we ask, what are the long term implications for women@work? On January 21, in Washington, and cities around the country, women will have an opportunity to reinsert themselves into the national conversation.

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For additional reading @year end:

‘The Echoes of 1914’ by historian Margaret MacMillan for the BBC. She responsed to a query about which year in history most closely resembled 2016.

“I wish I could stop, but I find myself thinking of 1914. The world then had seemed so stable, so manageable. Crises – political, social, economic, military – came and went but “they”, bankers, statesmen, politicians, always managed them in the end.

Yes, there were grumblings – from the working classes or women, or those who were losing their livelihoods because of free trade or mechanisation.

And there were some strong emotions about: fears of rapid change, passionate nationalisms that meant love of one’s own country and hatred of others. Ominous in retrospect because we know what happened. But at the time there was a complacency – it would surely all work out all right.

That confidence was dangerous because it meant that people didn’t take the warning signs seriously enough.

I wish I could stop making the comparisons.

In ‘1999 Was The Last Time Everything Was Fine’ BuzzFeed Culture Writer Doree Shafrir revisited her first year@work.

“I had no job and almost no money. My parents had given me the security deposit on the apartment as a graduation present, but now I was on my own. I was entranced by the classifieds section of the New York Times, with its pages and pages of appeals for secretaries and programmers and architects and retail store managers. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I liked to be around words, but I wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of actually making money. Maybe now was the time to try something new. Maybe I could close my eyes and point to something on the page and that would be my destiny.

That was how 1999 felt, like anything was possible.”

Artist Tucker Nichols created a rainbow rendering of an ‘Eternal Optimist Talking Points for 2017’ as OpArt for The New York Times.  A sample of musings: “Somehow not as freaked out by scary clowns anymore…Midtown traffic has always been pretty jammed up…Smog makes great sunsets…Still a chance it’s a very long dream.”

On January 1, a new law in France went into effect allowing workers to ‘disconnect’ from their workplace.

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The BBC reported on France’s implementation of a law to protect work-life balance.

“Companies with more than 50 workers will be obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails. France has a working week of 35 hours, in place since 2000.”

And then there was this from the professionals who go to work every day in U.S. Intelligence Services.IMG_8057.JPG

On Friday afternoon, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a memorable farewell speech at a White House event honoring the 2017 School Counselor of the Year. The text set an aspirational vision for all Americans and provides all of us with a lesson in leadership.

“…for all the young people in this room and those who are watching, know that this country belongs to you — to all of you, from every background and walk of life. If you or your parents are immigrants, know that you are part of a proud American tradition — the infusion of new cultures, talents and ideas, generation after generation, that has made us the greatest country on earth.”

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“If your family doesn’t have much money, I want you to remember that in this country, plenty of folks, including me and my husband — we started out with very little. But with a lot of hard work and a good education, anything is possible — even becoming President. That’s what the American Dream is all about.

But I also want to be very clear: This right isn’t just handed to you. No, this right has to be earned every single day. You cannot take your freedoms for granted. Just like generations who have come before you, you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms. And that starts right now, when you’re young.

Right now, you need to be preparing yourself to add your voice to our national conversation. You need to prepare yourself to be informed and engaged as a citizen, to serve and to lead, to stand up for our proud American values and to honor them in your daily lives. And that means getting the best education possible so you can think critically, so you can express yourself clearly, so you can get a good job and support yourself and your family, so you can be a positive force in your communities.

And when you encounter obstacles — because I guarantee you, you will, and many of you already have — when you are struggling and you start thinking about giving up, I want you to remember something that my husband and I have talked about since we first started this journey nearly a decade ago, something that has carried us through every moment in this White House and every moment of our lives, and that is the power of hope — the belief that something better is always possible if you’re willing to work for it and fight for it.

It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voices of doubt and division, of anger and fear that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country. Our hope that if we work hard enough and believe in ourselves, then we can be whatever we dream, regardless of the limitations that others may place on us. The hope that when people see us for who we truly are, maybe, just maybe they, too, will be inspired to rise to their best possible selves.

So that’s my final message to young people as First Lady. It is simple. I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong. So don’t be afraid — you hear me, young people? Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.”

We work in the context of global events, as responsible citizens. Our role in our workplace is to reflect the best in human and organizational values. In this new year@work, stay focused, be determined and lead by example with hope, never fear.

 

Photo credits: New Year’s Eve London – Ben Cawthra/LNP, Michelle Obama – BBC.com

The Saturday Read ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (translated by Ros Schwartz)

Does our work define us? Many would argue it doesn’t and yet, we carry the bias of standard stereotypes throughout our work day toward those we encounter along the way.

This question of work identity and expectations forms the center of the story of ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by French writer Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.

In this novel, I wanted to highlight the invisible, the battered lives, the ordinary people who often go unnoticed; and I wanted to show that each of them could have their own unexpected story. In a society where looks have become a religion and where we judge more on appearance, I wanted to highlight our prejudices and show that the clothes do not always make the man. But this book is also a declaration of love for words and for reading. All the characters have a close relationship with words – the words they read, the words they speak and finally the words of love. These words are the real cement of the novel.”

The novel’s hero is Guylain Vignolles whose workplace is dominated by an overbearing caricature of the worst boss ever, and ‘The Thing’.

“The Thing sat there, huge and menacing, right in the centre of the plant. In the fifteen years he had worked there, Guylain had never been able to call it by its real name, as if the simple act of naming it might be to acknowledge it, to demonstrate a sort of tacit acceptance, which he did not want at any cost. Refusing to name it was the last bastion he had managed to erect between it and himself, to avoid selling his soul for good.”

What if your job was to destroy the thing you loved most? That’s Guylain’s dilemma. ‘The Thing’ – the Zerstor 500 – is a hungry metal behemoth that turns books into sludge. (You will have a different view of recycling after reading the description.)

Guylain finds meaning in rescuing sheets of paper from the jaws of the “eleven-tonne monstrosity” and reading these disjointed narratives to his fellow commuters each morning on the 6.27.

Then, one day he finds a memory stick “through pure chance” as “it jumped out of the folding seat as he lowered it. A little plastic thing barely the size of a domino which bounced across the floor of the compartment and came to a halt between his feet..”

The contents of the USB are revealed as Guylain, the ‘reader on the 6.27’, replaces his daily narration from the remainders of ‘the thing’ with the story of a mysterious stranger.

“Once a year, at the spring equinox, I do a recount. Just to see, to make sure that nothing ever changes. At this very special time of year, when day and night share time equally, I do a recount with, lodged in the back of my mind, the ludicrous idea that perhaps, yes, perhaps one day, even something as unchanging as the number of tiles covering my domain from floor to ceiling might change.  It’s as hopeless and stupid as believing in the existence of Prince Charming, but deep down inside me is that little girl who refuses to die and who, once a year wants to believe in miracles.”

Julie’s domain is in the basement of a mall. And it’s her story that should forever challenge the reader’s preconceptions of society’s work identity assignments.

“When you’re a public lavatory attendant, wherever that may be, you’re not expected to keep a diary and sit there tapping away on the keyboard of your laptop. You’re only good for wiping from morning to evening, shining the chrome, scrubbing, polishing, rinsing, refurbishing the cubicles with toilet paper, and that’s it. A loo attendant is meant to clean, not to write…It’s as if there has been a misunderstanding, a miscasting. In the nether world, even a miserable twelve-inch laptop next to the tips saucer will always be a blot on the landscape…”

“I quickly had to come to terms with the fact that people generally expect only one thing of you: that you reflect back the image of what they want you to be.”

“Fit docilely into the mould, slip into this lavatory attendant’s costume – which is what I am paid to do – and play the part, sticking closely to the script.”

Mr. Didierlaurent has filled the gap in workplace literature with a beautifully told story of memorable characters who reside in the periphery of vision, but will long linger in the reader’s memory. Here is a novelist providing the lesson that not all workplace advice is to be found in the business section of the bookstore.

After reading the novel, and becoming acquainted with a cast of characters who bring it to life, perhaps we can reorient our expectations, and look beyond the surface for the complementing prism of talent that defines us all.

Resist “sticking closely to the script”, and follow Julie’s advice.

“I advance in small steps. Not a single day goes by without my writing. Not to do so would be as if I had restricted myself to the role of loo-poo-puke cleaner that they want me to play, a poor creature whose only raison d’être is the lowly occupation for which she is paid.”

 

The Friday Poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson

What do we have if we don’t have hope?

In December, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. One of the most stunning, yet relatable, quotes concerned ‘hope’- the promise of her husband’s presidential campaign eight years ago.

“I think that we feel the difference now. See, now we’re feeling what not having hope feels like. 

“Hope is necessary. It’s a necessary concept, and Barack didn’t just talk about hope because he thought it was just a nice slogan to get votes.”

“What else do you have, if you don’t have hope? What do you give your kids if you can’t give them hope?”

The Friday poem this week is from the nineteenth century American poet, Emily Dickinson – because we all could use a little hope “perched in our soul” in this new year.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Emily Dickinson ‘The Poems of Emily Dickinson’ edited by R.W. Franklin

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The Friday Poem ‘Night Journey’ by Theodore Roethke

We will catch our breath if only we can make it to the holiday weekend. Rushing from work to catch the train, bus or plane we are singularly focused on our destination.

The Friday Poem this week comes from poet Theodore Roethke. ‘Night Journey’ from his ‘Collected Poems’ is a reminder to look out the window and take in the view.

“I stay up half the night. To see the land I love.”

“Poet and writer James Dickey once named Roethke the greatest of all American poets: “I don’t see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke’s got. Whitman was a great poet, but he’s no competition for Roethke.”

The publication of Collected Poems in 1966 brought renewed interest in Roethke and prompted illuminating overviews of his work.”

Night Journey

Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night.
To see the land I love.

Theodore Roethke from ‘Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems’

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