Juneteenth

Why had I never been taught about these events?

There are odd moments in our early education that will forever stand out in surprising clarity no matter how long we live. One of those moments for me was when, as a high school student, I turned the page of my history textbook to an illustration of the Trail of Tears. The illustration and the accompanying discussion of that horrific episode sent shudders down my spine.

During those years, the late 1960s and early 70s, the U.S. was coming smack up against the glass regarding its continuing abuse of the Native American population. The Red Power movement occupied Alcatraz and Wounded Knee; Paul Revere and the Raiders sang “Indian Reservation”. Claire Huffaker published the comic yet heart-wrenching novel Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian. Consequently, having read just that brief mention of their plight in my school textbook, I was saddened and supportive.

Circle the world on its axis thousands of times…. The summer of 2020 happened. Not just pandemic, but the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Abery and George Floyd. Racial protests and clashes throughout the U.S.

In the slow awakening of consciousness that followed, I read. I read, among other things, of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and Juneteenth—events of which I had barely, or, in the case of Juneteenth, never heard. Subjects that had certainly not been covered in those long-ago school history books. Stories that were, until that summer, touched on briefly, if at all, by major news outlets.

Again, I was shocked and saddened, but this time I also questioned. Why had I never been taught about so many events? Why had my schoolbooks not examined them, my teachers never mentioned them?

And then, the horrifying realization: because my teachers did not know.

In the Pale Island of my youthful existence on the southeast side of Indianapolis, I had, throughout my school years, not a single Black teacher. The parochial elementary schools that I attended had not one Black nun or Black priest. My high school did not have a single Black student until my senior year. There were no Black families in my parents’ housing addition until I was in my 20s; a local library had a single Black librarian, Ms. Inez Babbs, a close acquaintance of my mother.

There was essentially no one to teach me about Black history, because no one in my immediate vicinity knew. What little I learned came from occasionally catching a documentary on public TV, or reading a few scattered articles about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I existed treading water in a sea of ignorance, without even realizing that others were drowning.

Occasionally, the truth was brought home to me. Living three years in the American South during the early 80s awakened me to more racial prejudice than I had ever believed existed. I rode the bus to work for economic reasons, but mine was one of the few White faces; the seats were clotted with older Black women—maids, mostly, taking the bus to the homes of the affluent White families for whom they worked. The insurance agency where I found a job had to be forced by the head office in New York into employing its first Black agent.

But that was the deep south. When I returned to Indiana a few years later, I told myself that such things only happened there. My Northern home was different, I assured myself.

However mistaken that assurance, it seemed to be true. I spent the rest of my years of employment working for the State, where equal opportunity hiring was enforced, and fully half my coworkers were Black. Lowly office support staff myself, it did not occur to me how few of those Black coworkers were supervisors.

Ignorance is bliss, the saying goes. My carefully-maintained ignorance allowed me to go for years existing on my Pale Island, genuinely believing the untruth that racial equity was the norm. Today, though, reading and watching and educating myself on racial disparities, I am far more than dismayed; I am angry. Angry and appalled at how little I was taught, not just of Black history, but of that of all races. Even having lived through the Red Power events of the previous century, I knew little about the shameful treatment of America’s indigenous peoples. I learned of Angel Island, and the horrific behavior of Americans toward Asian immigrants, from a novel, not my schoolbooks. The history of the concentration camps of WW II had been thoroughly taught to me, but their counterparts, the American internment camps, were accorded only a paragraph or two; carefully glossed over. Anti-Semitism was barely mentioned.

Why was I not taught, I ask, and then I must, in shame, face the real answer. It was not merely that my teachers themselves did not know, or that they did not choose to know. It was that I preferred keeping my head firmly in the sand rather than face uncomfortable truths.

Education is, as I have pointed out before, not something one gets, but a gift that one gives to the self. Painful as it is, I am slowly educating myself on the history and reality that I have, for a lifetime, preferred to ignore. Becoming my own teacher is a shock to the system, but necessary, and is, in the end, that gift.

If this essay struck a note with you, you might also like “The Slave Cabin” from February 8, 2018. You might also find “A Cultural Heritage”, February 10, 2018, interesting, but disconcerting. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate them.

My Shabby Old Green Armchair

We imbue the physical objects in our orbit with worth, adding to them a value far beyond their price.

My old green armchair is on its last legs, almost literally. It is growing ever more shabby…and ever more comfortable and comforting. It is just an overstuffed chair, not even a recliner, but that scruffy old chair has been my salvation for at least 15 years. It’s the chair where I sit to read in the mornings, sunlight pouring in from the living room window behind me. It’s the chair where my cat Lilith comes to lounge across my chest as I sprawl in the laziest position, my feet propped on the leather hassock in front of me. It’s the chair where I collapsed, feverish, coughing and wheezing one December night in 2019, feeling sick enough to die after a long day spent at the hospital with my even-sicker Dad. It’s the chair where I cuddled my cranky little grandbaby, trying to soothe her to sleep as I watched her through the night. And it is the chair which I knelt beside to stroke and kiss my darling little black cat, Belladonna, who lay there so peacefully and quietly as she began her journey across the Rainbow Bridge.

The green armchair wasn’t new even when I bought it. In the early 2000s, I’d discovered a store which sold second-hand hotel furnishings—sturdy pieces which were still in good shape, usually disposed of because a business was remodeling. In the days before bed bugs had become a resurgent menace, these pieces were an excellent bargain. The furnishings had heavy-duty springs and were covered in substantial, sturdy fabrics; upholstery meant to last through the worst that careless guests could offer. Best of all, the pieces were within my limited price range. So I bought a set consisting of a sofa striped in bottle-green, rose pink and fawn, with two matching bottle-green chairs.

The sofa had already seen the most wear, but still lasted a good eight years; I finally disposed of it when moving from an apartment to my little condo. The two green armchairs, though, moved with me. Despite being a pair, one was a bit more worn than the other, and finally, its springs sagging, gave up the ghost. Prior to putting it out on the curb for heavy trash pickup, though, I removed the fabric from the seat. A bit of cutting and stitching turned the rescued cloth into slipcovers to disguise the worn arms and back of the remaining chair.

It is those covers which are themselves now beginning to show wear. Picked at by cat claws and rubbed a thousand times by my forearms (and, regrettably, my knees, as I’ve sat sideways on the cushion with my legs slung over the arms), the covers are growing shiny with use and knobbly with picked threads. When they go at last, there will be no reprieve for my shabby old green armchair. But saying farewell to it will be genuinely sad.

It’s strange how these little bits of household detritus worm their way into our hearts and memories and lives, becoming more than just the sum of their being. Yet it happens to everyone. A wall is not just a wall, but a record of a child’s growth; a stuffed animal not merely a toy, but the friend that comforted us throughout our childhood, and one whom we cannot bear to abandon. And, for me, a chair that is not simply an old, battered, and comfortable chair, but the foundation of a hundred precious and important memories. The more spiritual among us may scoff at this habit of making a material object something more than it seems, deriding our connection as a foolish physical attachment, and perhaps they are right. But there it is, nonetheless. The broken down beater that was one’s first car, or the too-small first apartment; the maple tree climbed by a succession of children, itself grown tall from nothing but a spindly little volunteer; the old rocking chair that comforted many a sick child—they mean something to us, these little incidentals in our lives. We imbue them with worth, and they take on a shining patina thereby.

It won’t be long before, one sad day, I’ll find myself dragging my battered old green armchair out through the garage to await the trash truck. Chairs can’t have souls, of course. But I will, nonetheless, pat it when I place it on the curb and tell it, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay, “My Blue Willow Tea Set”, which was posted June 26, 2018. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

The Landscape of War

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, we will commemorate all those who have died in military service to their country.

Some 15 or so years ago, the members of a women’s chat group in which I participated were berated by a young woman whose spouse was serving in a combat zone. She first shamed us for being unable to identify, on a blank world map that she forwarded, the country where he was stationed. She then took issue with another participant’s remark that, due to advancing technology, we were all under the impression that most of those in the military no longer had to rely only on handwritten letters, but had the occasional availability of e-mail or text or even the rare international phone call. I sprang to the defense of the member whom she berated for making this last comment by pointing out that I’d just responded to a charitable plea requesting funds that would provide international phone minutes to those in the military.

The young woman replied to our remarks by verbally chewing us up and spitting us out. We were part of the problem, she sniped—people who knew nothing about what military spouses and families endured. We didn’t even know where the battles were raging. We hadn’t a clue.

Since this woman was perhaps 30 years my junior, I took a deep breath and counted to about 110 before addressing her comments. Then I calmly referenced the unmarked world atlas page she’d forwarded to us when pressing her point. I suggested she place her finger on Vietnam or Korea, or even France.

She could just about manage France.

So I explained that it had been in France that my uncle, serving in WWII, had hidden in a chicken coop to avoid discovery by a German patrol, thereby contracting the histoplasmosis that destroyed his lungs and shortened his life.

I showed her the spot in Vietnam where my brother-in-law, the man I would never know, had died. I recounted my mother-in-law’s description of her anguish on that afternoon when she, playing cards with girlfriends, received the terrible news of his death–the death that had occurred weeks prior. I then marked Korea, where another uncle served, and survived, and from where he sent me, his toddler niece, a beautiful doll dressed in a red silk kimono.

I told her about a friend’s classmate who was forced to repeat her senior year of high school, having not attended classes for months after receiving word that her boyfriend had died at Phnom Phen. Ten of his handwritten letters arrived just the day after she learned of his death, I explained. She lay on her bed for days, dry-eyed, not eating or sleeping, until her despairing parents had her involuntarily committed for a brief time, fearing she might suicide.

I described the stories told me by war survivors of letters that didn’t reach them for four, six, even eight weeks, only to drop into their laps in a giant bunch, the envelopes helpfully numbered by their parents and girlfriends and spouses so that they could be opened in the correct order. No texts, no e-mails, no FaceTime or Skype or Zoom. No international phone calls. Just hand-written letters, sometimes enclosing a photo. A rare reel-to-reel tape, which they might not even be able to play.

I reminded her that all these service members were draftees, not volunteers. That they, drafted as young as age 18, could not, at that time, even vote for the very leaders who were sending them off to fight and die, many in wars that were not even declared.

Don’t shame us, I told her, that we cannot identify current combat zones. For some of us, the landscape of war is as old and weary as we are. The memories, though—the memories, despite their age, are fresh and new. The memories, the pain and wondering, the anguish—those will never fade.

There is nothing straightforward or easy about sending a loved one off to a combat zone. It is sheer, unmitigated hell, all too often ending in the greatest of sorrow. I empathized in every bone and nerve fiber for what that young woman was enduring. None of us belittled what she was experiencing. But we had, all of us, endured our own combat zones and separation and agonizing uncertainty, in a landscape of war that did not even hold out a faint hope of occasionally hearing the voices of or seeing the faces of our loved ones. For that reason alone, mutual respect was needed, I concluded sternly; respect for each group that had endured a different and perhaps even multiple theaters of war.

Not long after this discussion (although for other reasons), I ended my membership with that online group, so I’ve never really known if the young woman took my words to heart.

But I’ve always hoped she did.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Judge Not…Sort of”,
which you can locate in the Archives from March 23, 2018, or the more recent “The Big Ice Storm”, which published on February 10, 2021.

My Fitted Sheet Waterloo

Or, Tales of Perfectionism…

A few months ago, purchasing new bedsheets to fit over a tall mattress pad, I unwisely purchased some with a “boxer fit hem”.

Now, fitted sheets are no picnic to fold, as every householder knows (or there would not be so many YouTube videos explaining the process).  How in the hell new sheets come out of the package in such perfectly smooth, even rectangles is beyond comprehension.  The manufacturers must employ elves or gnomes or something of that ilk to tuck and fold and smooth them into pristine perfection.  But years of practice had given me the knack of at least getting regular fitted sheets into a semblance of order that would fit into the linen cupboard.

But these damn sheets with the “boxer fit” hem were my Folding Waterloo.  No matter what reiteration of “how to fold fitted sheets” I looked up, they came out into a messy pile of fabric that looked as if it had been wadded up any old way and then just shoved into the closet.

And this, as anyone who knows me, knows well–this is not me.  So not me.  If you look up “perfectionist” in the dictionary, my photo will be prominently displayed.

Never was my tendency to perfectionism more evident than during the preparations for my daughter’s wedding, when I became heavily invested in making centerpieces for the reception tables.  We’d chosen miniature lanterns with violet flameless candles, the lantern handles bedecked with bouquets of tiny ribbon roses and ferns and jeweled net butterflies, paired with tiny white birdcages filled with my daughter’s favorite miniature sunflowers, then tied with white organza ribbons and topped more of the butterflies. LanternBasket  I worked on those centerpieces for weeks during the summer preceding my daughter’s fall wedding.  Every bouquet, I believed, had to be just so.  Picture-perfect.  The exact mix of roses, babies’ breath, ferns, wire-and-net butterfly, and slender purple ribbons in impeccable bows.  I genuinely spent hours of my life making each of those bouquets absolutely flawless. I tied and re-tied the organza ribbons on the birdcages, carefully positioning each sunflower, gluing the butterflies to just that perfect position on the handles…

On the evening of the wedding reception, I watched as countless little girl guests untied the bouquets from the lanterns and carried them about or slid them onto their wrists as corsages, or festooned their hair and dresses with the flowers.  They plucked the butterflies off the lanterns to fling them into the air, laughing as they glided gently through the air before swooping and scooting across the dance floor.

Fortunately, my obstinate perfectionism does not extend so far as to prevent children from having a good time.  I found myself laughing aloud as happy little girls raced by me clutching flowers and butterflies—laughing at their joy, and laughing at myself, for the hours of slaving over those faultless miniature bouquets and ribbons.

And that, I suppose, is the rational divide between the innate perfectionism which so often trips me up, overtaking my common sense, and my ability to laugh at myself as I catch a glimpse of the larger picture.  No one, glancing at those centerpieces on the reception tables, would have seen anything more than they did: a sea of lavender light, glowing in the darkness, punctuated by the bright yellow of sunflowers.  All the blood, sweat and tears I poured into making those darned centerpieces so utterly flawless was quite unnecessary.  Nevertheless, I was justifiably proud of them.  Also nevertheless, I could not be put out when the centerpieces were disassembled by a tribe of rampaging children who were discovering the innate joy of making toys from of unexpected items; who were finding that this could be every bit as fun, or more so, than staring at a computer screen, no matter how new the game.

Despite what I learned on the evening of my daughter’s wedding reception, I don’t expect my OCD behavior to vanish anytime soon.  My house will continue to be a shining visage of cleanliness and order, so long as my strength to keep it so holds out.  I will still stress unnecessarily over all manner of tasks, and assign myself onerous responsibilities.

But I really don’t think I will ever learn how to fold those damn boxer-hem sheets.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Controlling the Rainbow”, which can be found in the Archives from October 5, 2018.

…Makes Us Stronger

Every healthy adult individual should be capable of and willing to care for the majority of her or his own needs.

I’ve spent much of my adult life living alone, and even more of my life caring for myself without much assistance—so much so, in fact, that I found it desperately difficult to allow others to care for me following a major surgery. This isn’t really a bad thing, I think. Every healthy adult individual should be capable of caring for the majority of her or his own needs, and of living, when necessary, with little companionship. Nevertheless, it is sometimes a difficult way to live. Bearing the burden of loneliness and surviving without the care and compassion of others can be emotionally devastating.

I recall feeling startled when, as an 11-year-old, I heard my friends complain about the food their mothers had packed in their brown-bag school lunches. My bewilderment was understandable; I’d been packing my own school lunches for well over a year, without supervision, and had no one but myself to blame if the contents were unappetizing or (as they frequently were) unhealthy. In that same 11-year-old time frame, I woke one night violently ill with stomach flu. I rushed to and from the bathroom all night long until my digestive system had completely emptied—then got up the next morning, washed, brushed and dressed myself and boarded the bus to school. In retrospect, this wasn’t a wise decision, as I had to be sent home, shaking from dehydration, before the morning had barely advanced. Yet there’s no denying the sense of personal responsibility I’d already developed that sent me off to the classroom despite a lack of sleep and brutal illness.

That ability to care for myself and accompanying inherent sense of responsibility served me well, when, just seven years later, at age 18, I moved to a tiny apartment in the slums and began supporting myself in a minimum-wage job. Decades later, the skills to care for a household and to be accountable were my strength as I became the divorced mother of a daughter just beginning high school.

To this day, I chuckle when recalling the astonished reaction of a man I was dating as I described to him a water problem at my apartment, explaining that I had rushed for the water shutoff before calling the apartment emergency line. He was simply flabbergasted to find that I knew what to do. He didn’t believe his ex-wife would have even known where to locate the shutoff valve, much less have done anything about it before calling for help. I was just as astounded as he was; I couldn’t imagine being unacquainted with the basics of taking care of one’s home in an emergency. I laughed yet again one afternoon a few years ago, listening to a podcast in which young people bemoaned the dreadful tragedy experienced by their peers in foster care who were, when their government stipends ended at age 18, being forced out to live on their own as adults. “It’s not that big a deal,” I said to the no one who was listening to me. “Trust me on this one: They’re going to be okay.”

But then, “Grow Up and Deal With It” might have been carved on my walls as my motto. I am, after all, the person with a fire escape ladder stored beneath my bed in case it should be needed to get myself out of my second-story bedroom. My monthly budget still includes an emergency fund into which I always drop a few dollars. The household junk drawer contains not just a flashlight and batteries, but a battery-operated radio, while three filled oil lamps hang on the walls. When I moved to a condo with smoke alarms wired into the home’s electrical system, I bought battery-operated models as backups.

There is an undeniable sense of strength inherent in such personal accountability. But there is also, just as undeniably, a sense of onerous oppression in having always been the grown-up. Despite knowing that there must have been a time when I was so small that I was completely dependent upon others for my care, I know just as surely that I was forced to take up the reins of my life much earlier than was common for a child growing up in Western world in the 20th century. The differences between the lives of my peers and the life that I was living made for a constant feeling of disconnect and discomfort. Nevertheless, I was and still am strengthened by the empowerment it gave me.

Not long ago, going over my medical history with a new doctor, she remarked that I seemed very self-sufficient.

Remembering that sick 11-year-old child, I could not help but laugh a little as I agreed.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Touching the Angel’s Hand”,
which can be found in the Archives from August 14, 2018.

The TV Shows That Shaped Us

My parents had unusual ideas about what constituted good family TV viewing.

If you have read my post “There Are No Generations”, from November 18, 2020, you’ll already be aware that the article, “Baby Boomers: Five Reasons They Are Our Worst Generation” written by Mr. Gene Marks in 2013, supremely ticked me off.  As I pointed out in that earlier essay, the people described in Mr. Marks’ angry diatribe in no way resembled anyone I’ve ever known.

But one of the points he made in his unpleasant and inaccurate rant, far from causing me disgust or making me angry, left me laughing—laughing hard and long.  That point concerned his remarks regarding the television shows that, watched by Boomers during their youth, supposedly shaped their worldview. According to Mr. Marks, the television shows of that era created a belief system, shared by all Boomers, that women were intended to be housewives; that of all human races, Whites alone mattered; and that homosexuality was disgusting.  As an example, he provided the vision of then-youthful Boomers clustered around the TV for family viewing of shows like Ozzie and Harriet.

Uh, no.

At least, not in the household where I grew up.

My parents, if not precisely having better taste, at least had more varied ideas about what constituted good family viewing. I don’t recall that we ever watched even a single episode of Ozzie and Harriet.  I did take in just a few installments of Leave It to Beaver and Lassie, but, honestly, I thought both shows were pretty dumb.

But, as I say, my parents’ tastes were varied.  Tales of the Vikings, Kirk Douglas’s only venture into television, lasted only 39 episodes, but was our favorite family viewing. (I can sing the theme song to this day.) We clustered about the TV, enthralled by the amazing sets and costumes, and always cheering when swords inevitably clashed.

During the day, especially as she endured the boredom of doing the ironing, my mother regularly viewed a few soap operas, which she would not let me watch.  Nevertheless, she and I also spent summer afternoons together drinking in the much higher quality Loretta Young Theatre in the early 1960s.

But Westerns were the order of the day for evening viewing, and, as I commented in the blog post Wagons, Ho!, what still strikes me most about many of those old Westerns are the strongly contemporary themes. The films might be black and white, but the subjects they were tackling were anything but.  Racism. Spousal abuse.  Bullying.  Controlling or brutal parents. Societal expectations. True courage. Gun control.  Bigotry.  The way in which gossip, rumor and hearsay destroys lives. The use of religion to justify evildoing. The destruction of wildlife and the decimation of habitat. Kindness toward and acceptance of the different or disabled.  

The Rifleman, Paladin, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke—all encouraged us not only to consider adult concepts, but to learn and practice ethical and moral ideals and behaviors.

Then we still-young Boomers grew a bit older, and true Westerns faded into Gene Roddenberry’s contemporary wagon train of Star Trek, throwing new ideas and concepts at our heads like errant baseballs.  A woman, a Black woman, as an officer on a starship? Amazing!  And an interracial kiss!  Wow!

From there we dove into the conflict, debate and generational discord of All in the Family.  Greatest Generation guys like Archie Bunker were being constantly challenged, on screen and in real life, and we then-young Boomers lapped it up, rooting always for the Glorias and Michaels of this world, and praying that the Ediths would stand up for themselves and find their place in the scheme of things.

Now, once more scanning Mr. Marks’ ridiculous comments about the TV programs that shaped a generation, I suspect that his misapprehension may stem from his misplaced certainty that reading about, and perhaps even knowing a few individuals who lived through a particular era, entitles him to draw generalized assumptions about an entire group.  But, as I learned several years ago to my dismay, that isn’t at all the case.

My enlightenment arose on the terrifying evening of 9/11/2001.  Still in the dark about who had committed this terrible atrocity against our country, we citizens were all simply reaching out to loved ones.  I called my Dad, saying to him, shaken, “Daddy, finally, finally, I really know what you went through on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

He was silent a heartbeat before he responded.  “No, honey, no. You don’t. This is completely different.  At Pearl Harbor, we knew who the enemy was.”

Perhaps it is true that the TV shows of our era helped to shape the viewpoints of the entire Boomer generation, contributing to our belief systems; molding us into the adults we would eventually become. I know that I was challenged by and acquired many progressive ideals from the programs I viewed.  But someone who did not actually live through those turbulent years can never have any more than the faintest glimmering of understanding, the merest glimpse into the reality of our lifetimes in that era.  They will never quite comprehend what the TV we watched really taught us.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like the post “Wagons, Ho!”, which  was published on April 6, 2018, and “There Are No Generations”, posted November 18, 2020.  Scroll down to the Archives to locate both.

Tales of the Office: Idiots I Worked With

Over the course of 40+ years, I worked with a lot of insufferable morons!

Every time I find myself sliding into the “Retirement Guilt Phenomenon” (I have no required schedule! I have so much free time to read! I have only the responsibilities I determine for myself!)—well, every time that happens, I remind myself not just of the many, many years I worked full-time, but, even more importantly, the incredible number of truly idiot coworkers I dealt with over a career that spanned 44 years.

The “idiots born of morons” coworkers part is especially poignant for me, since for most of that career I functioned as what is now so lightly termed “office support staff” (think: Ms. Dogsbody). Administrative Assistants, lowliest of the low, answer to everyone and take care of everything. It’s a hellacious job and the people performing it deserve, not a bunch of flowers on Admin Professionals Day, but canonization, for they are truly saints.

Some moments of my career still stand out brightly illuminated in a haze of Darwin Awards-style imbecility. I recall the section supervisor who stormed up to my desk, incandescent with rage because, rather than wait until I had a moment to take care of it, she’d changed the toner cartridge in the printer—twice!—and neither cartridge was working. Her handouts had to be printed RIGHT NOW for a meeting that was to begin IMMEDIATELY. (I bit my tongue on the questions of why she’d waited until the last minute to print the paperwork, or why any of this was my fault.) Instead, I hurried to the printer, and in seconds diagnosed the problem: She hadn’t removed the cellophane tag from either of the new cartridges before installing them. One good rrrip, and that printer was functioning once more.

The same supervisor jammed the fax machine while I was on vacation one year. Rather than refer to the “For Emergencies In My Absence” e-mail I’d sent just prior to leaving, and call the appropriate repair tech, she (and everyone else in the office) just left the fax machine hopelessly jammed. When I finally returned two weeks later and had the machine repaired, it whirred away for hours until it had printed hundreds of backlogged faxes.

Standard office machinery seemed to baffle a good many of my coworkers. I still remember with no fondness whatever the employee who hated me like hell’s fire because, during my absence, she changed the toner in the copier, but (much like Ms. Broken Printer), failed to remove the cap from the new toner bottle. The machine not only malfunctioned, but the toner bottle burst and sent clouds of fine black soot sifting like a Pompeian ash cloud throughout the copier. Our copier repair tech, with whom I maintained a consistently friendly and courteous relationship (as if my life depended upon it, as it frequently did), commiserated and spent hours meticulously cleaning the machine. But Ms. Change-the-Toner never forgave me for the general e-mail I that I sent out (carefully naming no names, mind you!) to all staff following this incident, gently reminding them of the proper procedure for changing copier toner. The culprit forever afterwards treated me like something nasty on the bottom of her shoe.

I shrugged it off; she had plenty of company. I was also genuinely hated for reporting a pair of coworkers who skimped their work (sitting in one another’s cubicles, talking and crocheting!) and who refused to read their e-mails until the in-boxes had reached their limit and bounced incoming e-mails, sending them skittering right back to the senders. Another employee despised me eternally when I discovered and reported that she’d found a back door into a boss’s e-mail and was casually perusing every word that was sent to and from him! (I am still bewildered by the fact that she was not fired, but instead hung around for several more years, making my life hell.)

And that was the critical factor: Despite the fact that these people, some of them, at least, despised me—or at least made my job twice as difficult by their ineptitude–I had to continue working with them daily, treating them courteously, even respectfully; doing my best to deal with their requests, solving their problems, fixing the machinery they gummed up…and somehow managed it.

And, as I pointed out in Administrative Professional (or, A Tale of Popularity), I outlasted every one of these boneheads to retire having achieved something which none of them managed to gain: Appreciation. Approval. Friendship. Popularity. Respect.

And that, looking back on the years that I worked, makes it all worthwhile.

You might also like “Administrative Professional (or, A Tale of Popularity)”, which you can find in the Archived posts from April 25, 2018

Earth Day, One Stitch At a Time

 Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!

For many years, after I had finished reading a magazine, I took the used issue to the office and shared it in our small lunchroom. It seemed such a waste to merely throw each magazine out, even into recycling bins.  Later, pre-pandemic but retired and no longer having the office as a sharing option, I’d offered my used issues to an acquaintance to take to the reception area at her job.  She dropped by my home to pick them up.

She arrived to find me surrounded by billowing yards of cloth, needles, thread and scissors. “What are you making?” she asked curiously.

I explained that I was not making, but mending. A fitted bedsheet, still quite new, had ripped at one corner because the elastic was too tight. So I was fitting in a piece of extra elastic. Then I would use a bit of cloth from an old, worn pillowcase to repair the shredded seam. If I completed the work carefully, the finished product would probably last at least another two, perhaps three years.

She shook her head in disbelief. “I’d just have thrown it away,” she commented.

I wasn’t really surprised. Thirty-some years younger than I, this woman had grown up paying lip service to and even a few concrete actions toward recycling. But the concept of genuinely reducing waste by thriftily repairing had never really been requisite in her life.

I was raised in a different mindset. My parents, both born at the start of the Great Depression, had lived with the necessity of thrift throughout their earliest years. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!” was their mantra. I recall watching my mother darn socks—a skill that I was never able to master—or repair a purse by carefully using an awl to punch new holes before restitching the worn leather. In those long ago days, the buttons of my father’s office shirts were made from slivers of mother-of-pearl; when the shirts became worn, Mom conscientiously cut the buttons from the cloth before reducing the rest of the shirt into cleaning rags.  She never even considered wasting paper towels for housecleaning.  (I still have, by the way, some of those delicate mother-of-pearl buttons.)

My father was no slouch when it came to making do, either. Dad washed and waxed his cars himself (how much less water and energy consumed than at a car wash?) and mowed his own lawn, raked his own leaves (a simple power mower as opposed to large equipment; a rake, not a leaf blower) until he was well into his 80s.

Despite my lack of skill at darning and my habit of lavishing paper towels on housekeeping chores, something of my parents’ careful economy must have rubbed off on me; hence, the mended bedsheet, as well as the seams of various throw pillows and the fringe of the entryway rug, all of which I carefully repaired, stitching them back together. Those buttons from my mother’s old button-box are still often the subject of a search when a replacement is needed for an item of clothing; there is no need to buy new ones. In fact, I once passed over the purchase of a warm, high-quality winter coat in favor of another, just as fine but much more reasonably priced due, I felt certain, to its very cheap, ugly plastic buttons. I took the ugly-button coat home, clipped off the hideous fasteners, and stitched on a lovely metal set which I recycled from the old button box. There was no need to buy new buttons, and the plastic uglies went themselves into the button box.

But returning to the event of the mended sheet, the real question was, to my mind, the fact of paying lip service to the whole process of “recycle/reduce/reuse”. I have, I must admit, been known to (guiltily) toss out a plastic water bottle when I could not find a recycling bin handy. But now I began looking at the concept of recycling from a larger perspective, and I realized that my inherited thrift was, in fact, the very definition of genuine recycling. Now I wondered to myself exactly how much water was involved in growing the cotton blended into that sheet set—how much gasoline powered the combine that harvested that product—how much energy was used as the cloth was woven and then sewn into sheets using thread that had also been produced by a mechanical process—everything involved in the packaging and shipping that had finally resulted in the (defective) product that I plucked from a shop shelf. Then I considered not just the waste of money, had I simply thrown away the ripped sheet rather than going to the effort of repairing it, but the real waste—the waste of all that damage sustained by Mother Earth in producing a simple set of sheets for my bed. Sheets that I would not even have purchased had not the old ones been worn past repair and past using.

I recalled the young woman’s reactions when, first, I asked her if she wanted to reuse my finished magazines, so that they would not be wasted by being read merely once; and, second, at my effort to mend the spoiled sheet. She’d been almost taken aback by the first; flabbergasted by the second. Yet both actions were those of reusing and reducing waste.

The generations since the Industrial Revolution are often accused of having damaged the Earth nearly beyond repair. Perhaps it is not entirely our fault, after all.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Second Hand Rose”, which you can find in the Archives, posted July 1, 2020.

We Look Forward to Your Apology

It’s doubtful that I will do any further business with the “Green Fruit Bird” company, and I’ve warned everyone I know about the treatment I received.

Not long ago I sent an order to a company with which I’ve done business for several years. (I won’t actually name the company, but perhaps I can just say that its name is a fruit, a bird, and the population name of those who live in New Zealand.) I had a large credit due me owing to a previous miscommunication.  So it was with some apprehension that I entered my current order.  The credit was applied without a hitch, though. Pleased, I hit the checkout button.

Having the credit available meant that I decided to purchase double my usual order, but I didn’t anticipate any problems; in years past, I’d also sent in a double order.  I followed the shipment and tracking e-mails casually, simply glancing at the subject line and sliding them into a saved mail file.

Unfortunately, at no point in either the checkout process nor in the order acknowledgement e-mail was it mentioned that my order was being shipped in separate packages. Later, more closely examining the tracking numbers, I would find that, although each tracking number began with the same three digits, there were, in fact, two separate trackers. For one of those, I’d received nothing except the “It’s been shipped” e-mail. That notice had been sent seven days after the initial package shipped. There were no further updates. But I would learn those facts much later.

At any rate, I received my order, and was dismayed to find only half of what I’d paid for. I immediately sent a quick e-mail stating vital stats such as the order number and total price, noting the credit that had been applied, and explaining that I had received only half of my order. I requested that I receive the rest “ASAP, please”.  (Yes, I really did say “please”.)

In reply, I received a long-winded explanation, stating all the reasons for which my consignment had, unknown to me and never mentioned in the checkout process, been sent via two shipments. The e-mail concluded with the words, “We look forward to your apology.”

Ouch.

I replied, politely thanking them for their explanation, but remarking that, having worked 47 years under that precept that “The customer is always right”, they would not be receiving any apology from me for a straightforward and polite inquiry and request!

Later I was notified that my ticket was being escalated to a manager. Well, I hadn’t expected that, but decided it was a good thing; the individual who had sent the snotty response would, perhaps, be chided.

No such luck.

Instead, the manager replied with a long harangue, castigating me for my remarks, telling me that “The customer is always right” might go over at a pet store (A pet store? I wasn’t ordering a clownfish!), but not with regard to their company, nor any other well-run company these days. That precept might, I was informed, damage employee morale. The manager helpfully included links to articles written on that very topic, published from such sites of sterling journalism such as Huffington Post.

Wow.

Replying mildly, I said only that my remarks had been in response to being asked to apologize for my inquiry. A truly professional reply from their employee(s), I added, might have been to simply state, “Thank you for your inquiry. If you will look closely at your e-mail tracking information, you will see that your shipment was split; there are two shipments. Possibly the similarity of the tracking numbers confused you. We hope this clears up any question. We appreciate your business.”

Of course, I received no further response to my suggestion. Probably just as well, for I can’t imagine what such a reply might have said!

The whole exchange rankled, though, and was also bewildering. As I once explained in the blog post, “Customer Service…or Not”, the insolence which I endured clearly illustrates a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.

I thought it unlikely that the employees making these responses had been introduced to the true meaning of the concept that “The customer is always right”: that it denotes only that customers are to be treated respectfully and with appreciation. That even the most irritable and contrary of customers serves to keep a business afloat. That learning to maintain one’s temper is an obligatory aspect of customer service.

Seventeen days after this exchange of acrimonious e-mails, and five full weeks after my original order, I finally received my second shipment (for which there had been not a single further tracking e-mail).

Of course, it’s doubtful that I will do any further business with the Green Fruit Bird company.  And while I had lauded them in the past, I’ve now warned many people, customers or potential customers, about the treatment I received.

I’m truly tempted to contact GFB one last time, though, providing links to a pair of interesting articles published by a slightly more respectable mainstay of high-standard journalism, Forbes. These articles explain the genuine meaning of “The customer is always right” in a manner that should be understandable even to those employees possessing the most fragile of egos.

But I doubt that I could look forward to their apology.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2018/09/24/a-global-view-of-the-customer-is-always-right/#51993ba8236f

https://www.forbes.com/sites/micahsolomon/2013/12/27/is-the-customer-always-right/#72a991d770f1

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Customer Service…Or Not”, from March 10, 2018. Check for it in the Archives.

Reconciliation Day

Reconciliation Day—April 2 in the U.S.–was established in 1989 as a day to make amends: to apologize, repair a damaged or fractured relationship, and (most importantly) to accept an extended olive branch.  

There is nothing quite as bad as an apology that isn’t…except, perhaps, an apology that is rescinded.

I was thinking about all of this on the most recent Reconciliation Day as I recalled two apologies received years ago: one which did me worlds of good until it was thoughtlessly undone; the other which wasn’t truly an apology at all.

The event resulting in the annulled amends actually occurred  in my high school days: an incident which, in the scheme of a lifetime, was extremely minor, but which at age 15 caused me intense mortification. A classmate’s actions inadvertently resulted in my inappropriate discipline.

The classmate–I think her name was Leonie—sat near me during study hour each afternoon in the school cafeteria. On the day in question,  Leonie made several complaints to the study hall proctor, Mr. Iverson. Another student’s behavior—talking, teasing, flirting, laughing—was making it difficult for everyone to concentrate. I ignored the troublemaker, but she drove Leonie to distraction.  The third time Leonie complained, Mr. Iverson stomped back with her to our table.  But, having misunderstood, he grabbed me by the arm and frog-marched me to the front of the cafeteria, where he forced me to stand at attention for the rest of the hour.  Leonie attempted to tell Mr. Iverson that he’d gotten the wrong person, but he waved a hand in her face, commanding her to sit down and shut up.

The humiliation I felt was extreme.  I was that “good kid” who was never in trouble—and here I was, displayed before 200 of my classmates as a scofflaw.  And it was all Leonie’s fault.

She tried to speak to me as I grabbed my books when the bell rang, but I stormed furiously past her. The following morning, though, she managed to catch me and shove a paper into my hands: a written apology.  Worded very dramatically—we were teenage girls, after all!—it nevertheless did the job.  The next time I passed Leonie in line, we joined hands, all forgiven.  Although I rarely saw her after that, being in different classes, the effort Leonie had made to apologize left me with a warm glow.

Years later, as young adults, we met accidentally on the street.  We both recalled that old incident with rueful grins.  Then Leonie said the words that were, to me, like a sharp slap across the face:  “…and then I gave you that stupid note! I was such a little idiot.”

The apology that had meant so much to a distressed 15-year-old was now reduced to regret and ashes; to having been a worthless gesture made by a fool.

Perhaps my face revealed my feelings as I heard her annul her apology.  I only recall that she quickly ended our unplanned meeting and went on her way.  But I’ve never thought of Leonie again without an ironic twist of the lips.

The second apology—the apology that wasn’t—came to me in letter form, also,  decades after the events in question.  The woman who penned the apology had, in those pre-internet days, gone to some trouble to track me down and mail it to me, writing that she hoped she’d found the right person.

When we were both young, I’d been the victim of this woman’s intentional persecution: horrific bullying that went on for months.  Even belatedly, I was overwhelmed to have an apology…at least at first.

Her letter began well, saying that she now realized she’d behaved badly. She needed me to understand that she’d been young and immature, and desperately afraid of not looking “cool” in front of her clique of friends.  I, unfashionable, plain, and insecure, had been an easy target.  She hoped that  I could, would, forgive her.

I read this letter through multiple times, puzzled as to why I felt no relief upon reading it.  Finally, it became clear to me. Notably absent were the two vital words that would have made the letter an actual apology:  “I’m sorry.”   Nowhere in her letter were the words, “I’m sorry”, or “I apologize”; nor even the words, “I’m ashamed”.  This wasn’t, I realized, an attempt to make amends, but a pallid excuse embroidered with pale justifications. It was a request for absolution failing either an assumption of personal responsibility or penitence for the wrongs done, coupled with an unflattering, if accurate, assessment of my person in that era.

Crumpling the letter, I tossed it into the trash.  I never wrote back to her.

Now, though, I regret not having replied.  I should have responded, pointing out precisely what was missing from her ostensible apology.  I should have explained that, while I had long since forgiven her, I could neither forget her behavior nor absolve her misdeeds. It was incumbent upon her to find some way to repay the debt she owed, not to me, but to the universe, for her cruelty.

As I say, I sat this Reconciliation Day thinking of these two apologies: one annulled, one that wasn’t, while reminding myself that true reconciliation also mandates that one accept an extended olive branch.   In both situations, by withholding my responses—yes, even my disgusted responses—I failed, and a liability now sits upon my own shoulders.  That is the debt I myself must repay to the universe…perhaps on another Reconciliation Day.

If you liked this blog post, you might also enjoy “Forgiveness is Always an Option”.  It can be found in the archives posted on June 24, 2019.