Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The perils of PC-ness

In my previous life, the holiday season was always a bit of a perilous time of year. It was my responsibility to write a year-end message from company leaders to their employees.

For the most part, the leaders were mindful of the diversity of the workforce, given it was a multinational company. We worked so hard to address the non-American employee population, in fact, that US employees would complain at times.

Myself, I generally enjoy learning about different cultures and presenting things in new ways, so it wasn't all that difficult for me to adapt. As a communications consultant, I appreciated that I didn't have to constantly reinforce the need to recognize that our workforce included people with different traditions, points of view, belief systems and orientations. There were times, however, when it would reach ridiculous proportions. I'd wonder where the line was between being sensitive and doing back flips to avoid offending one cranky person who likely would find something to complain about, no matter what we did.

The holiday message brought all of that to a head.

It goes without saying that we couldn't say "Merry Christmas," given a sizeable non-Christian population. If we started listing all of the holidays that our employees might celebrate, the roster would get pretty long and we'd be in danger of missing one and inadvertently creating a rift.

"Happy New Year" sounds as if it would fit the bill, yes? Not so fast! We had a small staff in China, and they'd be celebrating the Lunar New Year in late January or early February. It's a massive event, with Chinese from all over the world converging to reunite with their families to celebrate Gung Hei Fat Choy! So, happy new year was out, though we did have to acknowledge it somehow.

Oh, and there was also the family issue: no doubt those without spouses or children would be unhappy if we told them to enjoy the holidays with their families.

There was one thing that wouldn't be culturally fraught: the company essentially shut down between Christmas and New Year's as a cost-saving measure. But that was emotionally charged. Some employees would still be working to handle customer issues that came up during the holidays.

After taking all of that into consideration, I'd come up with something like this:

"At this time of year, we like to send good wishes to all employees. No matter what you celebrate (or when), we hope you enjoy it with whoever you're spending time with. Enjoy your time off, but even if you have to work and serve our customers (and thank you so much for doing that so well), try to relax and spend time with those you love, feel ambivalent about, or have to tolerate."

Then I'd have to find four different ways of presenting essentially the same message, because I worked for four executives who wanted to send greetings out.

One of the execs would invariably ignore what I wrote for him and send out his own message, which usually read something like this:

"Thanks for a great year. Merry Christmas to you and your family."

I still get PTSD at this time of year, just from thinking about all this mishigas.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

We all shine on.

Hard to believe it's been 30 years since John Lennon died. Somehow it seems odd that I've had more years on earth than he did.

I remember being a high-school junior in the winter of 1980, and deep in my initial admiration phase for the Beatles. My crush at the time was a fellow-Beatles lover with more than a passing resemblance to Paul McCartney, but really he was just an entry drug of sorts, encouraging me to delve deeper into the phenomenon that was the Fab Four. From Paul the cute one, I shifted my attention to George the mystical one who opened my eyes to Eastern philosophy. I was never a massive John fan, but I respected his complexity and his capacity for deep thought and questioning the status quo. In total, their songs spoke to me in a way no other did, both the words and the music behind them. But John's lyrics were always the ones with deeper meaning.

Today's New York Times asks where readers were when Lennon was shot at 11 p.m. on December 8, 1980. I was home, already in bed and asleep, yet I can still vividly remember a scrap of a dream I had that night. It was the Ed Sullivan Show, in black and white, and the Beatles -- just three of them -- were performing. Ringo and Paul were there, as one could clearly see from the figure behind the drums and another playing a left-handed bass. But was that John or George with the guitar? Before I could figure it out, before the camera went to closeups, the dream dissolved.

When the clock radio came on to wake me the next morning, the first thing I heard was Richard Neer on WNEW-FM: "If you're just waking up, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but John Lennon was killed last night." The synchronicity of the radio switching on just as Neer started his sentence seemed too surreal to be possible. It only happens that way in fiction, not in real life, and it certainly doesn't happen after you have a bizarre dream about a missing Beatle. Besides, it didn't make sense. Lennon hadn't been doing anything vaguely controversial. He'd just been living his life with his wife and kid and three cats on the West Side. Yeah, he and Yoko had just released Double Fantasy, but that didn't seem to be cause for anger. After everything he'd lived through, who'd want to come after him now?

As his death came to prove, sometimes there's no sane answer to why people act out so violently. It seems that the lesson that violence teaches, is how valuable peace and kindness truly are. And that lesson won't ever die, because, as trite as the expression might sound, the Beatles' music will always live on, each recording sounding as fresh and relevant as it did the day it was released.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The curse of the accordion

Q: What's the definition of a gentleman?
A: A man who knows how to play the accordion, yet doesn't.

I have two accordions in my apartment. I'm not proud of this fact, yet it is so. How did this happen, you ask? Well, it's a long story.

First, the origin of the accordions. My mother's Uncle Al was a semi-professional musician. While he had a day job as an electrician or mechanic or something, he and some friends had a band that played VFW halls, local dances and the like. At some point they might have even done a few road trips.

For whatever reason, he gave my mom some instruction, but she didn't really take to it. And there, she had an accordion. She can't quite remember how or when one accordion became two, perhaps when Uncle Al died. What we do know is that when she and my dad got married, the accordions left her parents house with her.

I grew up knowing about the big accordion because it was plopped into my bedroom closet when we moved to my childhood home. I guess it ended up there because I was a baby at the time and didn't have many possessions to store. Once in a while I'd pull it out and try to play it; I was a budding musician and had some keyboard skills. Without instruction, however, attempts were futile. Not only did the bass buttons trip me up, the whole thing was horribly unwieldy for a kid who was always small for her age. It's one thing to pick up a big sax or sit in front of a piano, but when you have to constantly squeeze and pull big bellows, it's not hard to lose momentum.

Then, of course, I got older and two things happened (well, three): breasts, and the realization that the accordion is just not cool.

When I left my parents' house, the accordions stayed behind (Not mine! Not mine! Not mine!).

Then recently a friend of mine mentioned he was looking for a decent accordion. He's an accomplished organist and plays at a church and a synagogue, and he thought some of the shabbos songs would work particularly well on an accordion. Cool! Figuring I'd do a mitzvah on two ends, I asked if he wanted to look at the one I knew was still stowed in my childhood closet. He was game.

Now, making offers like that on my mom's old stuff is fraught with peril. Through the years, she's mused about disposing of stuff, only to balk when I find a way to find it a good home. This time, though, she quickly agreed. The parents, you see, have taken on a big clearing-out mindset as they've gotten older. Not that a lot of it is happening. They're just thinking about it. It's got to indicate something about her regard for accordions that she was all too happy to have me haul the thing away, even though it's probably the last thing she has of her uncle's.

By the time I got to the house to pick it up, it had become two accordions: the big one I remembered, and a smaller one whose case has a really cool vintage Eastern Airlines sticker on it. They both look pretty good for their age; though the key veneers are kinda cracked in places, the bellows are in good shape. With a tuning, I think both might be perfectly serviceable.

The question was whether my friend would want either (or maybe both). It took a few weeks for us to synchronize calendars so he could look at them, even though I'd volunteered to drive anywhere, any time to meet him. I was frightened that two accordions might start spawning baby concertinas in my apartment. After all, one had already multiplied to two.

When the day came, my buddy took a good look at them, playing both. Yay, they make music! Sadly, he declined my offer. No amount of pleading would convince him to take one. (Well, okay, I didn't try all that hard.)

So now I'm stuck with two accordions. I don't play either of them. Does that make me more of a lady than the guy who won't play just one?

Just call me Myron Floren.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Big Tree

Every year, the people at Rockefeller Center pick the massive evergreen that will grace the plaza for the Christmas season, and I'm reminded of the big tree that stood in the front yard of my childhood home.

Our tree was a constant in my youth, taking up a larger and larger part of the front yard. While it always loomed big from my perspective, I'd guess that in my own tiniest years, it was probably only six or seven feet tall, just the right size to be decorated. One of my dad's creations with the Super-8 film camera was a stop-action movie of my sister hanging homemade ornaments on it. Dad had saved a bunch of soup and sardine cans, painted them in bright colors and affixed large hooks. He might have even strung lights on its branches.

Over the years, the tree got taller and taller, and people living on the side street of our corner property would use it as a landmark in directions for visiting friends. It got way too tall to decorate properly and grew beyond the height of our split level house, taking up a bigger and bigger circumference of lawn.

At some point after I moved out of the house, my parents got concerned about its health and talked about taking it down before a storm did the honors. Why not contact the Rockefeller Center people, I suggested. How cool would it be to have our tree admired by visitors from all over the world? Mom and Dad dismissed the idea out of hand: the tree's branches were sparse in patches, maybe a bit uneven. The people from New York needed a perfect tree. But who, I always wondered, had a tree that size that was perfect? Were there people out there who tended to these behemoths with the doting care you'd give a prized orchid? Most likely, Mom and Dad didn't want all the attendant fuss that comes with a famous tree, even if they'd get free tree-removal service and some replacement landscaping for their trouble. They're private, self-reliant people. They like it that way.

And then one day I stopped by to visit and the tree was gone. The front lawn was empty, but for a bare spot where the stump had been and roots and shade had prevented grass from growing. I'd had a hard day already, and the absence of the tree set me to tears. How could it just be gone? Maybe it would have been even worse to see it get taken down bit by bit, but it was a massive shock to see it had just disappeared, likely turned to mulch without as much as a grateful farewell. It never got the grand curtain call I'd always wished for it.

That was nearly 20 years ago, and even now, as I watch the TV segment outlining the history of this year's tree, I have a moment of remembrance and regret for our tree. In this year's story, the reported noted that most trees of the appropriate height are reaching end of life, just as ours was. And on my regular December visits to Rockefeller Center, I've seen that several of the trees over the past few years have been a bit sparse at points, just as our tree was.

I guess that as nature warrants, the tree's remains gently decomposed somewhere and have nourished other plants, which is something to be happy about. Nonetheless, in my mind, it'll always be the tree that could have been.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What's in that black disc, and why does it sing?

My volunteering duties at Thomas Edison's labs include a demonstration of Edison's favorite invention, the phonograph. While we have a bunch of disc turntables, the demo is always done on an earlier cylinder machine that's closer to the Old Man's original tinfoil phonograph invention.

I can remember seeing this demonstration in my younger days and being able to make a quick connection between the grooves on the cylinder and the grooves on the 45 rpm records I had at home. I can even recall making a crude record player with a pin and a piece of paper shaped in a cone. The physics behind the whole thing are really so simple that once explained, a child could do it him or herself. You could see the metaphorical light bulbs illuminating their minds as they got the concept.

Today what strikes me is how difficult that connection could be for kids who have spent their whole lives listening to CDs or computer files. The whole concept of a physical transference from a shaped groove, through a diaphragm that moves the air to form soundwaves... is gone. They press a button to start the sound process, but they don't see anything move, except maybe an animated status bar on a screen.

As we move farther and farther away from that actual tactile, physical representation of recorded sound, I wonder if the disc will become as exotic as it was when first introduced. Eventually, will children wonder at the miracle of sound coming off a round black piece of vinyl? Or, God forbid, will they eventually come to believe that the iPod represents the advent of recorded sound?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

As the world rejoices the rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, the cynical part of me wonders how their experience will ultimately be trivialized by corporate America.

Because, as you know, we can't pass up the opportunity to turn a monumental success of the human spirit into a banal teambuilding exercise. This makes 'trust falls' look like child's play.

I'm saying this with a bit of experience behind me. Several years ago, at a company retreat, I was forced to join one of several teams that was attempting to determine what we'd do if our plane crashed in arctic Canada with limited supplies. My vote was to knock off the company lobbyist with dinner knives from first class, and use his carcass as bait for the polar bears we'd then trap and kill for meat and fur.

Not surprisingly, nobody wanted to be on my team the following year. And, of course, I was just kidding. I'd originally wanted to suggest cannibalism.

So how does the miner story apply to corporate life? Not surprisingly, some aspects of the ordeal could be very similar to the multi-day team meetings I've had to attend. You're trapped in a windowless room, able to communicate only with the other people in the meeting. Fresh air is scarce and resources are limited. Unappetizing food is provided sporadically. There's likely jockeying among the participants for status and power. Alliances are made, and eventually, as hope for rescue flags (at least in the corporate example), the tired group puts aside grievances to focus on the sole mutual goal of getting the hell out.

The Chilean miners are (at least from what we know now) the example of what happens when everyone pulls together. What would have happened if they hadn't? Well, they would have ended up the same way most corporate departments do: fractured, with plenty of backbiting and sucking up to management.

What did they have that corporate meeting-goers wouldn't? A lot, presumably. In today's cost-cutting, profit-enhancing business climate, notoriously-stingy corporate budget approvers would never sign off to sending actual entertainment (even the screen, projector and DVDs the miners got) to a sequestered group of employees. And let's face it... the rescue would probably be held off until the next budget cycle.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Welcome to New Jersey

I've been volunteering as a tour guide at Ellis Island for a couple of months now, and it's been a real boon to my general sense of adventure and thirst for arcane knowledge.

Being a Jersey booster, one of my favorite parts of the tour is when I get to welcome people to the Garden State. Huh, you say? I thought Ellis Island was in New York. Well, yes and no. Here's the deal:

Both Ellis Island and Liberty Island are on the New Jersey side of the state boundary that tracks down the Hudson River and through New York Harbor. Way back in 1834, the states entered into a compact that put the islands under New York jurisdiction, and both states agreed that the surrounding waters were New Jersey territory. Eventually, the islands were bought by the US government to build forts and, ultimately, the Statue of Liberty and the immigration station.

Over the years, as immigration boomed and more space was needed for medical facilities to handle thousands of sick newcomers, the US government enlarged Ellis Island and built more than 30 buildings there. What was once about 5 acres became well over 20, consisting of fill taken from Manhattan and Brooklyn during the excavation of the New York City subway system.

Not much was said about Ellis Island's provenance until the immigration station was restored and opened as a museum in 1990. In stark contrast, the many buildings on the island's south side remained in disarray, and questions came up about what would come of them. Would they be torn down in favor of new construction, perhaps a shiny new hotel or casino? Given that the island is just a half mile from Jersey City, the state of New Jersey wanted a strong voice in any decision about the island's future. And certainly, monetary issues came into play, too. As it stood, visitors paid New York sales tax on anything they bought at the souvenir stands and snack bars on Ellis and Liberty Islands. Who would get the tax revenue from any additional profit making enterprises on the island?

The issue was settled in the time honored American tradition: a law suit that reached the US Supreme Court. In their infinite wisdom, the Justices looked back to the 1834 compact for guidance. Noting that the states had agreed that the naturally-occurring islands were New York land in New Jersey territory, they carefully drew the state boundary to include the original land within the larger, man-made landmass we know today. While the vast majority of the immigration museum rests within the footprint of the original island, tiny bits rest within New Jersey. And more than 80 percent of the total island, including the entire south side hospital complex, is part of the Garden State.

It's pretty ironic from the perspective of logic:
  • The original island, which one would reason is in New Jersey since it's west of the state border, is actually part of New York.
  • The "new" part of the island, constructed of soil and rock from New York City, is actually part of New Jersey.
And the status of the south side buildings? The non-profit Save Ellis Island is working with the National Park Service to raise funds for restoration of the hospital complex, with an eye toward opening an institute on world migration and health. All of the buildings are stabilized to prevent further decay, and one, the Ferry Building, is already open for guided tours. They're expecting that a second building, the hospital laundry, will be restored and open later this year for visitation.