Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Meet Mr. Stage

28 Years Later

You don't know him. Chances are you won't meet him. You will probably never run into anyone like him. But you should. He could teach you a lot.

Mike was one of my best friends in High School. He was funny, had a bit of temper and was going to take on the world. We all were back then. We thought we knew everything. He married his High School sweetheart; they had a child and drove off into the sunset to make their way in the world. That was the last I ever saw of them. That was 1975. As I write this, it was over a quarter of a century ago.

During that quarter of a century, I went to college, held down about six jobs, got married, got divorced, took some wicked vacations and learned some valuable lessons from the school of hard knocks.

About three years ago I bumped into Mike's ex-wife on the internet. She had divorced Mike and remarried. She was living in Los Angeles with her 5 daughters. To my surprise she still knew where Mike was and gave me his address. On my next trip out to Southern California, I made a point to stop by and see him. I thought it would be a chance to re-live our youth one more time, but instead it showed me just how much our paths had differed.

After getting lost several times in LA traffic I finally pulled into an apartment complex parking lot and there he stood waiting for me. He looked the same. The years hadn't changed him that much. He was a little more wrinkled, his hair was a bit thinner, but it was the same old Mike. His smile told me that. After 5 minutes of catching up, we were right back where we had left off 25 years before. We still had that connection.

At first it appeared that Mike had fallen on hard times. But times are relative to those that live them. It was evident that Mike was happy. He wanted for nothing but also didn't have much. He had a minimum wage job, no savings, no car, no iPod, no Plasma television or broadband internet. But he didn't want them.

Mike hadn't listened to the announcers that preached the American Dream when we were growing up. Over time, his focus had shifted. His passion had become righting the wrongs of society. He was determined to be the lone man railing against the machine. He was the one that would stand in front of the column of advancing tanks and scream at them to go home. His uniform was denim, his resolution knew no fear, he expected no rewards.

When he wasn't answering phones in a call center, he spent his time with other like minded adults planning protests. Protests against police brutality, protest against the Iraq War, protests against big oil and big chemical. He gleefully related the time he was just missed by rubber bullets or how he had felt the sting of pepper spray on more than one occassion.

While listening to him passionately talk of the time he was beaten by the Los Angeles riot police or handcuffed in front of the county courthouse, it made me wonder about my life. The life that I thought was so successful and happy. What was I proud of? Was it my credit rating, my new car, my new plasma television? The more Mike and I talked, the less wealthy I felt.

Mike confided that he had been diagnosed with epilepsy several years earlier. He couldn't drive a car anymore, much less afford one. He wasn't really diligent about finding ways to pay for his medication either. He had blackouts and memory loss, but he managed to get back on track, eventually. But the more he talked, the more I realized that he didn't have a care in the world. It was all good. Life was a challenge. He was a fighter. He loved his daughters and the children that his ex-wife had with her new husband and looked forward to the days he could visit with them. Despite the fact that he had nothing, he had a passion for life.

We walked around Griffith Park that evening and then went out to dinner. We laughed and joked liked Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. We were a team again, if just for that one night.

I said my goodbyes after dinner and drove back to Arizona the next day, but my time with Mike haunted me. I drove back to a rat race, where I wrestled with the pack and saved for that vacation in Mexico and the new car stereo. Meanwhile, in LA, Mike and his cohorts planned a protest against the death sentence of convicted teenage boy. Hard times are relative. The more I thought about it, the more I was envious of Mike's time.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

The Great Epithany

Open The Flood Gates

There are some things that you can't learn from books. You have to live through them and then look back with a critical eye. There are truths about the human experience, that no one ever talks about because we don't want to admit to them, but they are unspoken truths non-the-less.

I still remember the big truth that came to me as a young man. After years of being taught right and wrong by my parents and 5 years of college I still hadn't been taught this truth, because I had to live it first. Otherwise, I couldn't have really appreciated it.

When I graduated from college in 1982, it was in the middle of the 'Carter Malaise'. A period of economic downturn in the country when McDonald’s French fry cook was a hard job to get. The only job I could find that would pay the rent was as a janitor in a large manufacturing plant. So there I was, a BS in Management with a mop in my hand.

The company that I was working for had just taken over the contract for the cleaning of the manufacturing plant from an in house unit, in order to save the manufacturer some money. They had to retain all the old employees that worked for the manufacturer as part of the deal. I was hired after the change over.

After about 6 months, things started going screwy. Management started riding employees for the slightest infraction, and putting experienced people in no-brainer jobs and new people in the technical ones, which meant that nothing got done in any kind of efficient manner. There was chaos on the cleaning crew.

People got so fed up with the apparent lack of respect and management ineptitude that they just started walking off the job. The folks that they replaced them with weren’t any improvement and the spiraling turnover ratio only made cleaning the plant more laborious and tedious.

Having just gotten my sheep skin, I was perplexed that this company was breaking every rule in the book and appeared to be striving to fail. It was driving me nuts. After about 8 months of this chaos, I had had enough and walked out the door. This was nuts. But weeks later the problems with the job still perplexed me because there had to be a reason for all of this.

I lived in an old rented house with a leaning foundation and an old claw foot tub in the bathroom. My favorite pastime during those cold winter months was taking a long hot bath while reading War & Peace as Tchaikovsky played on the stereo. It was a heavenly escape. Three weeks after I quit the job, I was taking one of these prolonged literary baths when it hit me. It hit me like a bolt of lightning. Suddenly, it all made sense.

I had been looking at it from the wrong angle. I had made the assumption that the goal of the organization was to clean the factory. Boy was I wrong.

I got out of the tub. I was dripping wet with steam rising off my skin as I went to the dining room table, picked up a pencil and started to do the math.

The goal wasn't to clean the factory. The goal was not to be efficient and do a good job. The goal was to MAKE MONEY. The company WANTED to turn over the staff. By doing so, they could lose the $5 an hour staff and replace them with staff that made minimum wage ($3.25/hr). A quick calculation showed that by turning over all the inherited staff, they could pocket an extra $22,000 a year, not to mention the reduction in benefits.

Suddenly the clouds parted and a beam of light illuminated me from the heavens (figuratively). Doing a good job wasn't in the equation. Being efficient and having a good attitude wasn't in the equation. The bottom line was the money, and the corners you could cut to get more of it.

It dawned on me that there is profit in chaos and low moral. They told us the truth was hard work, honesty and commitment. They lied. The truth is, someone has a kid in college and they could pay off the tuition faster without you.

My parents had never taught me this. Five years of advanced business school had never taught me this. Life taught me this. Humans can lie to your face. If the truth is “we are out to screw you”; they won't tell you the truth. If you work for someone else, you are only office furniture. You are no different than a pencil, or a chair, or a desk lamp.

Ever since then, whenever an employer has used the word "Team Player", or "Office Morale", I have cringed. Because I know they are lying to me. I am either a profit maker or a loss center. But if they told me that, it would be the truth. They won't tell you the truth.

For those of you that have not been to business school, I just saved you $450,000 in tuition. No need to thank me.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Losing The Race

They gave us the option of taking the afternoon off and working from home in order to avoid the traffic hassles. The march organizers expected over 100,000 people to march through the streets of downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Immigration Rights is what it was all about, but must folks I know thought it was more of a protest for a free ride. The march route was going to lead right past my office window, so I was going to have a birds-eye view.

Imigration March, Phoenix, May 2006

I didn't take the day off like most of my co-workers since I only live a mile from work and usually walk home in the afternoon. (I hate commuting). The march started around 1am and when I turned around to look out my window at 2pm, there was nothing but a wall of white t-shirts and a little hispanic boy peering in through the window at me.

Imigration March, Phoenix, May 2006

I took the time to go up to the roof of the building and takes some pictures of this sea of humanity. This ocean of hispanics that were demanding inclusion, even though most of them had cheated in the process. In scanning the crowd, I noticed something that made me pause and think. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we had lost the race. America had screwed up, and it wasn't from not locking down the boarders.

Imigration March, Phoenix, May 2006

It was the baby carriages. The infant stollers pushed by a legion of hispanic women. There were thousands of them in the crowd. I was amazed at how many of these mothers could take the day off and bring their children downtown. I assumed that most of them did not work outside the home and were full time moms.

Imigration March, Phoenix, May 2006

This is what we had lost. The goal of the family and focus on the raising of the chld. While we were all off working two jobs to afford our lavish lifetyle, the hispanics have been concentrating on the basics. Family, home and hearth. The things we used to hold so dear. But we lost our way and they have came in to fill the gap.

Welcome to minority status White America. We screwed up.

Thursday, June 1, 2006


Night Train
I have been pondering the individuals that we are for some time now. What are those things that make us who we are? I have run down the list of things that are obvious, like genetics, and social background, peer interaction and societal pressure. In recent years I have blamed the media for a lot of the bizarre personality traits in folks under 40.

But the more I pondered what made me the person I am today, some little things kept coming to mind that were hard to categorize. Since I know I am not as much of an individual as I like to think I am (we all have shared experience, things don't' just happen to us) I wonder what the other 'intangible' events are that others have known that has helped mold them into who they are.

We easily forget these things, unless you really sit down and try to think about them. They get covered by cobwebs in the back of our minds, but they are still there. I believe that they are the foundation of a lot of the things we have become.

I wonder if there are so many screwed up people in this world because they didn't experience these things, or were never told to take the time to appreciate them. Some cases in point;

As a small child I took a train trip from the Midwest to the West Coast with my mother. Trains are the coolest thing in the universe when you are 5 years old. You can run all over the place and the scenery always changes. We had a sleeper car and the clickity-click of the rails lulled me to sleep at night. I had a small bunk that folded down by the window. In the middle of the night, as I was half asleep, I felt the train come to a stop. I rolled over and parted the curtains to look out. Outside there was snow falling and a station platform was illuminated by a single overhead light. Someone from the train walked down the platform, hugged a waiting relative and they both exited into the darkness. As the snow continued to whirl around in the night breeze, the train slowly pulled away into the inky blackness. I went back to sleep and the next day I wondered if it was all a dream. I still do.

In my school age years, we would take trips back to the Midwest to visit my maternal grandparents and spend a week on the farm while my parents were off pretending to be childless again, if only for a short time. Before puddle jumpers and airline deregulation, the only way to get there was by car down the back roads of America. The trips were so long that my father devised a way of making two bunk beds in the back of our Ford Fairlane, so that I could sleep on the floor (over the drive tunnel) and my brother slept on the back seat. There was a sense of security and warmth on the floor of that car as is it rumbled down state highways with my parents at the controls. In the early morning twilight I would wake up and peer out the side window to see the flashing yellow stop lights in some nameless little farm town as we drove through. Long before anyone had awoken, I went back to sleep, knowing that the back of that Ford Fairlane was the best place to be.

I spent the summers of my youth in Fort Dodge, Iowa with my grandmother. There was a park at the end of the street that had a miniature steam train. You could ride it for 10 cents and to a small boy it was the coolest toy in the world. One summer, when I returned to the park, the train was gone, only the indentation in the ground where the track had been remained. For the next 10 years, I would return to that park to see if the train had returned, but it never did. But the path in the ground that it had taken was still there. The last time I visited the park as a young man, I wondered if anyone remembered that the train had ever existed.

My grandmother in Fort Dodge used to save up the heels of bread in a special drawer in the kitchen. When we came to visit, she would give us the hard stale bread to take to the park so we could feed the tame deer that were in an enclosure there. It was a traditional thing. She didn't need to save old bread, but she knew that it made us happy. I would rather go back and feed those deer the stale bread for 10 minutes than spend hours on a Game Boy or watching television. (In my mid-thirties, I was told that some drunken teenagers had jumped the fence and killed most of the deer. I wonder if they know how many memories they erased that day.)

Growing up in the Dakotas during the 1960s, there was some cold weather. I mean really cold. Blizzards that would knock the power out for several days and make the roads impassable. I recall playing games with my parents by candle light, reading stories out loud and bundling up under 4 heavy blankets at night to fend off the sub-zero temperatures outside the window. Those were some of the warmest nights of my life.

My maternal grandmother had a farmhouse in the middle of Iowa where the only luxury was the water that you had to pump out of the well in the front yard. During the hot and humid summer nights I would sleep upstairs with the windows open hoping for a breeze in the 90 degree, 90% humidity heat. There were no screens on the windows and the bugs would fly everywhere. The only escape from the incects was to hide under the covers, where it was even hotter. Then in the distance, I would hear the clap of thunder and pray that the storm would come my way. If I was lucky, 30 minutes later there would be a downpour outside the window, the temperature would drop 20 degrees, the breeze would come up and the bugs would disappear.....if only for a little while.

During Christmas as a little kid, my parents always made me leave a glass of milk, some cookies and some carrots out on Christmas Eve for Santa and his reindeer before I went to bed. When I awoke the next day, giddy with the suspense of what Santa might have left for me, I always noticed the milk glass was empty, the cookies where gone and only the stub of the carrots remained. I suppose the key to making a small child believe in the impossible is to not leave out the little details.

I came home from college one year to visit my parents for Christmas. They lived in the desert southwest and before I returned to Oregon State University, they gave me a little Saguaro cactus that they had found in the desert. It was in a small pot, all wrapped up to survive the trip back to Oregon on the plane. I put it on my back porch in college and it lasted about a year. It seems that desert plants don't crave the moist and rainy weather like most plants do. But still, it was the thought that mattered. They wanted me to take a little part of home back with me.

During my honeymoon, my wife and I were visiting all the places in the midwest where we had grown up as children and visiting all the cemeteries where our ancestors lay. While walking through a cemetery with my video camera I spied my new wife lost in thought and focused the camera on her. As she stood in the Midwestern sun, bathed in light and surrounded by trees, the breeze blew through her hair and made it appear to float around her face and shoulders. I thought to myself, "Damn, what a beautiful woman."

These seem to be the small fragments of memory that hold together the families and the culture and the peer groups that make us who we are. I wonder if these sorts of memories and recollections haunt everyone, or are they just held by a select few. I certainly hope not.