Thursday, February 26, 2009

Women beware women

Now this could get interesting.

Two months ago, I went job hunting and was lucky enough to be hired, off the street in a good way you might say, at a local dry cleaner's. Since my resume truthfully announced that I had been a retail store manager (for a whopping two months, which I also announced truthfully), the business owner hired me specifically for a soon-to-be-open position as manager of one of her six, no wait seven, stores.

The reason the position will be open is because the current manager wants to leave soon, and none of the other staff want, or are wanted for, the job. Joann doesn't want the responsibility, and has "things in her file" such that the owner will not trust her with it. Marge does not want to make herself available to work on Saturdays, because she goes away every weekend to her cottage on the lake. Also "she's greedy," the departing manager told me -- what these women will say about each other -- and thinks the little bonuses the manager gets are not worth the trouble. Who knows, maybe she'll prove right. Young Jorie only works a few nights a week, often calls off to take care of her baby, and is also anxious to get pregnant again. She will probably not stay long in any case.

That leaves the teen girls, who are temporary hires anyway, and the seventy-three-year-old veteran Marnie, who only performs one task at the store -- bagging the finished, clean clothes orders -- because she never could get used to the computer system installed three years ago at the front desk, customer service area.

And so, in I walk to my new job, after having had a crash course in the complexities of dry cleaning drop-offs, tagging, bagging, racking, order pickups, and sundry obligations (you have no idea) at the main plant for about a month. Incidentally, it so happens I've just learned how to say "dry-cleaner's" in French, le domicile du Pressing, from a favorite blog, Larchmont Daily Photo. Doesn't it sound elegant?

Everyone is, from the first, very nice to me. I need help every five minutes, it seems, but then after a while, less so. I learn opening procedures and closing procedures. When we are working alone together, the manager also shows me the lists and records and bookkeeping that I'll eventually be responsible for.

After a few weeks I began to wonder if my co-workers ever ask why I'm there. I've heard them talk. Office gossip is a part of human nature, but it seems to me that what I listen to is extraordinary. They will literally run out of breath criticizing someone -- a customer, a co-worker, anyone -- rushing to say all they want to say until the very moment that the door opens and the victim officially steps within earshot. Luckily, the store has big glass windows and you can see everyone approach, take your aim, discharge your bolts safely, and then say "Hi" as cheerily as you please.

What on earth have they had time to say about me? One can't help but be curious, especially since things have changed since my innocent arrival. Marnie, for example, who can't deal with computers, has had her hours drastically cut. The economy is partly to blame, of course. In fact after being called off for the third week in a row, she came in to get her things and go job hunting elsewhere. And there I was that very day, quietly doing her work.

"They've asked what's going on, but I just say 'talk to Sarah,' " the manager told me. Sarah is the business owner who hired me. Blond, manquee, soignee -- made-up, well-cared for -- a little plump. Divorced and remarried to a man fifteen years her junior. A soft, old-lady voice conceals a female Attila. Everyone is terrified of her. "She has made every one of us cry at some point," Marge warned me, and all the others have agreed that my day will come. It's just unnecessary, the things she says ... hurtful ... 'my grandchildren could do better' .... Brace yourself. I believe Marge especially salivates at the prospect of my being yelled at soon.

I wonder what they know because yesterday, the mood at the store turned downright uncomfortable, and I am thinking now of small previous experiences I have had in "managing" women, and of all I've ever read about having or being a woman boss. I'd better brace myself. Yesterday seventy-two-year-old Marnie was laid off for good, and within minutes I apparently began to overstep my position. I answered the phone, I made a phone call. Marge stalked off, gesticulating to herself. I asked advice of this cheery Marge and she merely said, "Do whatever you want." Joann arrived and she and Marge withdrew to a corner for a bout of whispering. "My f--- hours have been cut, too" Marge exclaimed, and then I came within earshot and they both turned silent.

I even became a sort of ghost for a few hours that day. I did my work, and they did theirs, together; and when they looked over a bookkeeping problem, with their backs to me not ten feet away, they agreed "Someone must have counted the money wrong on Saturday night."

In a short time I will most likely be these women's Woman Boss, and it so happens that apart from remembering what I've read and known about that situation, I saw a survey result recently which declared that most women prefer a boss who is a man. And -- as I brace myself -- I've come to think, polls and surveys aside, that's putting it backwards.

I think it's not that women prefer a man supervisor. Nor is it that men and women have different managerial styles, or that women bosses tend to be more difficult because a special anxiety to earn respect makes them out-"man" the men. I think women simply do not naturally tolerate the idea of authority emanating from another woman. Women want to be emotionally understood, above all else. That's why women talk, brood, and remember. A man boss is comprehensible because, of course, he'll lay out some plan or direction, and then walk off and do something else. He's a man. You can obey him and be done with it. You don't need or expect anything else from him.

Let a woman lay out some direction or plan, and the women under her will react with confusion and anger first. The Woman Boss is not living true to form. She is not being a woman first, not being emotionally understanding first. That above all else glues women together.

I have no head for long-drawn out fiction, but I certainly can make scenes. Let's say, for instance, that young teenaged Emma shows up for work in blue jeans and a t-shirt, which she has done before and which is against the company dress code. A man boss could send her home to change, and that would be that. He would be "an ass," but there would be no power struggle because no woman is going to expect a man to be womanly.

Suppose I send Emma home to change. Not a good situation. The women's first reaction would be anger, at me, for not being emotionally understanding. For not being a woman first. Emma has done this before, they would say, and no one has ever been the worse or wiser. Sarah never comes to the store anyway. Where a man boss would now probably bark "Do it, please," a woman boss -- and I have done this -- will attempt reasonable argument. "Sarah has said if we don't follow the dress code, we'll be issued smocks, and I don't want that. I read that memo."

Big mistake. Yes, it can be useless to attempt to reason with women. I can carry the scene further and picture women now happily climbing aboard the emotional merry-go-round that defines their spirit and that usually leads to victory in the race to prove emotional credentials. Endless, unprovable reassurance is their shield and buckler. You and your worries become the problem. They become, I suppose, Mother. "Oh, don't worry. Those memos are years old. No one even reads them. She never comes here, no kidding. At Christmastime, maybe."

The woman boss can now bark like a man, argue fruitlessly with women who can't accept authority from a woman unprefaced by emotional understanding, or she can surrender. Surrender is bad in itself. Plus surrender means the woman boss takes the risk of Sarah walking in the door and seeing things improperly done tomorrow, and then properly blaming her. It always seems the women who can't tolerate on-site female authority without a fight end up being carefully free of its sanctions on themselves. And, the icing on the cake, if the woman boss opts not to surrender but to win, then she has become "weird," emotionally incomprehensible, an ass. Worse. A woman ass. A Woman Boss.

A reader come this far might cluck and say, honey, if you knew this was the future, then you made a mistake in taking the job at all. Ah, but who else was hiring? My experience is that it takes about sixty applications to find a job, and that's in a good economy. So here I am.

We'll see. Maybe I'll be one of the few who puts it all together and becomes the non-hated woman boss of women. Because, yes, like all women I want emotional understanding, too. Who wants to face every day women who look on you as having passed beyond that veil of weirdness that becoming a manager entails? Oh my God, it went to her head. I know, I know. This is why women bosses have the reputation they do. Totally. I read that, too ....

We'll see. The current woman manager at least has years of seniority on everyone else. When they arrived, she was there. And as she launches the most bolts of all from behind the safety of the big glass windows, and lets Emma come to work in blue jeans and t shirts, I can only assume that the general tone of the place is largely her doing. I'm new and different, gawdhelpus. This could get interesting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Tudor Year: February

A snowfall at Hampton Court, February, 2009. Photo from Cooking the Books, "the blog of the Tudor kitchens cookery project at Hampton Court palace."

Theme: jewels

(from the National Portrait Gallery, London, via Tudor History dot org)

(photo from Fashion Monitor Toronto)

February 8, 1601 -- Earl of Essex's rebellion against Queen Elizabeth
February 12, 1554 -- Execution of Lady Jane Grey
February 13, 1542 -- Execution of Catherine Howard
February 17, 1587 -- Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
February 18, 1516 -- Birth of Mary Tudor
February 25, 1601 -- Execution of the Earl of Essex

February's grim roster of executions, particularly of young women, reminds us that to be near royal power, or in the Earl of Essex's case to grasp at it, was to live and die (in Catheine Howard's words) "very dangerously." Depending on the time Easter fell, February was likely to be the month of Shrovetide, a "day of celebration and release before Lent," and then of Lent, which meant, for all Elizabethans, seven weeks of a purely fish diet. Valentine's Day was celebrated by the women of a household -- including servants -- choosing men's names by lot, and then receiving a gift from the man. The first two pictures above show a collection of affordable, middle-class Tudor jewelry, from the Cheapside Hoard discovered in London in 1912. More famous is the fabulous pearl La Peregrina, once owned by Queen Mary I and now belonging -- it was a Valentine's gift -- to Elizabeth Taylor.

David Starkey,
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. New York: Harper Collins, 2003, p. 264 (Shrovetide, "day of celebration").

F. G. Emmison, Tudor Secretary: Sir William Petre at Court and Home. London and Chichester: Phillimore & Co., 1970. First published by Longmans, Green, and Co., 1961 (pp. 142-143 (fish diet), and pp. 217-218 (Valentine's Day).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Le domicile du Pressing: diary

So I come home from work. So I've had an annoying day. My schedule was changed, not once but twice, to accomodate two teenaged girls who had to serve detentions at school today, and who could not therefore work the evening shift they usually do.

So I work from noon to six, with responsibility for closing up, at which task I am still a tad new and unpracticed. Fine.

So I arrive for work at noon. Having already had this schedule changed, too. I was due to come in at 11:00 am. So I've lost an hour's pay. Fine.

So I arrive, and yes, I am wearing my loud necklace of colored beads and my new gray sweater and my lipstick, while my coworker Joann wears a ponytail and apricot-colored fleece jackets with the "Columbia" logo on them, every day. She looks as though she's on the crew of a space shuttle. So, fine.

So I am ready to work. I punch in, go up front to make myself useful, and Joann says, Oh why don't you just go back and bag those few things, real quick, and then come up here and help us.

Fine. Mom raised me to be agreeable. The fact that I was hired for this job as the incoming manager is not something that veteran Joann or anyone else, including the teen girls who will leave at the end of the summer anyway, need to know. Just yet.

So I go back to the back room, and "bag." It seems to me that it frequently works out this way: I end up doing some kind of necessary work alone, while the other two or three staff happen to end up doing some other kind of necessary work, together. Fine.

Life at a dry cleaner's is hugely complex, more so than one could ever appreciate without working at one. Bagging clean clothes for pickup is one of the tasks that I do least. Therefore I am slow. When I delint those clothes, by golly, I delint them. I was trained at the main plant by "Bictoria," who spoke Spanish, wore two colors of lipstick at once, had a blond perm, and could spot a millimeter of lint at ten paces. She obviously took pride in her job, and made it look like the ballet. Who knows what the customer might see and be offended at, in a hand-finished garment? Victoria knew.

You sign your name to every single invoice after you have finished. Men's suits are treated differently than women's suits. Four pairs of trousers are acceptable under one paper cape, but only two shirts. Tissue paper in the sleeves. Every other button buttoned. Wool coats are delinted with a rake, charcoal, rough brush, soft brush, and then sticky tape. Ties, sweaters, trousers (crease or no crease?) all have their own protocols. Add drapes, leathers, formal gowns, scarves, down coats, comforters. Bag it, take it off the bagging stand, hang it on its own order hook. Sign off. Tie the items of one order together. One item? Wrap a glaring orange "1 item" sticker around the hanger. If anything is wrong, you'll hear about it.

So I bag. There is a clock directly in front of me. I know perfectly well that the young girls who bag are as quick as lightning about it, almost. To Joann -- who is my age -- and to them, five or six orders, such as I have been directed to take care of, would be done "real quick."

Alas, I am not quick. I concentrate on being quick and develop butterfingers. I forget basic things. Papers and tissues slip from my dry winter-stressed fingertips, big clothes hooks swing and catch each other on the "line" and fall to the floor. Twenty minutes pass. Then another twenty. I could vow that every time I look at this pair of black pants, I see three more dog hairs. Yes, Joann would be done by now. But she's also the one who has comments "in her file" in the boss's office, such that she cannot be manager of this store. Ever.

I have worked long enough with these women to know that their hugest entertainment is talking eagerly about people -- each other, customers, the boss, in fact anyone not present in the room. If you are out of earshot, you are fair game. All right, fair enough. There is human nature, in all its glory, and I do the same myself. But I know without fail that under the circumstances, my three coworkers are now discussing me. What is taking her so long. Half the stuff is sweaters and they're already bagged!

After forty-five minutes, the young girl who is routinely in the most trouble -- everyone thinks she's so cute, although that staple through the customer's silk blouse almost got her fired last week -- wanders back and asks me, "how ya doin', Nance?"

"I'm good, how are you?"

"Good. I get to leave at 2:00."


After an hour and ten minutes, I am done. I must telephone one customer, as per instructions on the invoice, and am compelled therefore to venture into the front of the store to get a phone number from the computer. It is quite awkward. I am perfectly aware of stifled laughter, and it's not paranoia, it's stifled laughter. Especially from Joann, with the blue circles under her eyes and that unfortunate overbite.

I rejoin the group, and they chatter on as usual. Women brood, which is what gives them such fuel for gossip, which I don't like. Nevertheless I brood. There is something annoying about having been distinctly treated as a twelve-year-old by people who -- well, who should be gracious enough to know that one isn't twelve.

The day passes. The manager later attempts to give me quickie instructions in the closing and money-counting procedures that she has done practically in her sleep for fourteen years. "It would have been such an easy transition," she said to me not long after I was hired, if only Joann or Marge could have taken on the manager's job she is leaving. I fantasize about firing Joann.

I close up properly, and go home.

At home, I have a half-box of angel hair pasta on hand, plus some leftover broccoli cooked with garlic and fresh basil leaves in the fridge. I cook the pasta, drain it, dump in the cold smushy broccoli, and add a pat of butter and some milk. I heat it all up, put it in a bowl, and add salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese. It looks like such a lot. Good grief, my eyes were bigger than my stomach.

I inhale three bowls of it. And I wash it down with my ultimate comfort wine, Frontera Rose from Chile ($4.99, and the jewel-like color and juicy taste of red grapefruit). As I vent, now, I am at the bottom of my second glass of that, but it is a very small, antique sort of glass, so don't worry.

Next, some chocolate, and maybe a glass of warm milk. Then maybe a movie, or a book? Then bed. And a firm vow never, never to wear apricot colored fleece jackets. Yes, yes, she's very nice and helps me a great deal with my newbie's questions. I appreciate that. Don't we all.

And how was your day?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Paper writing, random thoughts

I used to write and submit essays and short stories to the slush pile of all sorts of magazines, most of them big-time famous. (Why aim low?) Occasionally, they were accepted.

That was great fun, but to my surprise, none of it amounted to "getting my foot in the door," which my father always claimed was the key to success in any profession. In writing, unless one sets course for an editorial career first, in which case writing assignments are a part of the job -- every time is always the first time. I have never had an editor call me asking me to write something for him.

I mention this not to whine into the ether but because, first, the editor with whom I at least used to have some contact has retired after forty-odd years in the business, so I no longer have that one ear in New York that I was rather proud of having. And second, blogging is so different and makes me so productive -- for good or ill -- that I think I will never submit another paper esssay or story to anybody again. I look back and marvel that I used to offer things up to, for example, The North American Review. Ploughshares. Tin House. Black Warrior Review. The Atlantic and Harper's, of course. I submitted enough to The New Yorker to finally get a rejection slip, which I considered a small triumph after years and years of being ignored. Prestige publications, all. But I wonder if some of them are still in business and even if they are, I look back at them as if at dusty, cobweb-draped tombstones littering the road of my past. (Dear me, how picturesque.) What would be the point, now, of being embalmed in the North American Review? When was the last time anybody in the world ever read it?

Still, what I might call paper writing is different from blogging, and the difference makes me uneasy. It's not just that it is more formal. I wonder if paper writing must necessarily force you to create a denser, more interesting product than the screen which only shows you a few lines at a time as you scroll down into the bottom of the monitor, typing almost anything because you are your own editor and publisher and there's no one to stop you. Who knows, maybe you're being brilliant. Somebody might think so. The very difference in format makes all the difference between working on a substantive project and merely reacting to events and emotions, which is easier and more flattering to see in print. But any writer, any professional, wants to do the best he's capable of doing. But -- if your absolute best can only be done on paper that no editor will ever permit to see the light of day, why not adopt a new medium that reaches people, even a handful, despite the risk that this medium does sort of flatten out the peaks and valleys of your best?

I suppose the compromise is to make terribly deep and significant paper writing, polish it, finish it, and then transfer to one's blog. Which takes time. Which makes the blog look like it's not being updated. Which loses the handful of readers for whom one is serving as one's own editor. Sigh, and ;-> as all the bloggers say.


Random thoughts on the stimulus package, or "generational theft" (John McCain) or "porkulus" (Rush Limbaugh -- and by the way, here's another problem with writing and blogging, or both. It's reacting to politics that can make you, as a writer, just as productive as hell. In my case the trouble with that is that I am, for the most part, only regurgitating other people's information and opinions, people who know more facts and can respond intelligently to events much faster and therefore more pertinently than I have ever been able to do. All I tend to be able to offer is a kind of woozy, speculative pre-nostalgia on how Future Historians will regard This. The good political writers amaze me, really. Even though I know they have their own little demons perched on top of the computer. Charles Krauthammer once acknowledged that he has spent his career following, week by week, hundreds of unfolding, miniscule events which future historians will not care a whit about. Then again, he's got a Pultizer, in this life.)

Beyond politics -- we're talking about writing again -- I've never had much interest in making up fictional stories although God knows I have tried. I am always too anxious to teach something. Trivia, sad to say, is my great love. And although I love history, I don't have access to the really interesting primary sources which would form the skeleton of original historical writing. (More whining? Possibly.) When younger I always envisioned myself in the British Museum, delving into medieval records and making some terrific discovery. My professors who wanted me to research local high school basketball statistics from the 1910s and 1920s were responding appropriately to what it's possible for the local historian to do, but they also reinforced my innate understanding that I do not want to do that. I could drive down to Kankakee and investigate how that poor Smith family all died of yellow fever in 1892 ... but I've not done it yet.

What's left, as far as writing is concerned, is the private diary, which is getting tiresome in all its sublime-to-ridiculous daily rhythms -- is there a God? I framed that picture today -- and blogging. About wine. About food. About anything. Rush Limbaugh complains that, back in the days of the Fairness Doctrine, radio stations learned quickly how to avoid giving over program direction to angry, boring amateur listeners insistent on their right to on-air "fairness." They did it by shunning politics and all controversy from the get-go, broadcasting shows on the best fruit cake recipe for the holidays, or how to clean your bathtub ring. In blogging on Wisconsin cheddar spoon bread, am I really doing the best I am capable of? What if I've always liked reading cookbooks and even descriptions of food in novels and stories, and always liked food photography? Does that make it all right?

Who knows? No editor would ever permit any of this and so here I am, my own editor. What's funny is that blog host editors still perform the paper editor's time honored functions, even though no money is changing hands, and there are no sales to consider. They still have an eagle eye and um, exacting standards. This will never be an Open Salon "Editor's Pick," although my recipes usually are.

To return to politics. The stimulus. I'd call it the great Democratic Enslavement Act of 2009, enforcing as it does a return to unfettered welfare benefits and the introduction of socialized health care, among who knows how many other provisions. Wait till the Baby Boomers turn elderly en masse, and find out nationalized health care means them, too. How they'll scream.

But I have hope that even this enslavement act will not cripple the economy, based on a couple of things. One is an observation culled from the blog Theory Bloc way back in the summer. That day's contributor wrote that a genuine new Great Depression is probably unlikely, if only because the United States' population now is double what it was in the 1930s. That means double the number of people who can potentially create wealth, and fend off government foolishness. Charles Krauthammer, or other smart political react-ers, could perhaps refute that with brilliant logic based on other, equally accurate modern day measurements. I wouldn't know. But it sounds comforting.

And I have faith, however idiotic it may be, in the breezy ignorance and unconcern of the American people. About politics, about this stimulus act, about a lot of things. Over the centuries of our nation's existence, our three greatest blessings -- personal freedom, wealth, and a civilization and state that are powerful for good in the world -- have been conflated in most people's minds. Most of us are on automatic pilot where politics is concerned, or we think the nation is, or we behave as if it is. We equate wealth and freedom with benign state power, and freedom with a wealthy state, and benign state power with the ability to create wealth. This last is the problem, since of course no state can make wealth. I remember being flabbergasted when an economics professor declared to all of us, oh by the way, "nations don't engage in trade." Then what the hell are all the news headlines about? They're about ignorant journalists for a start, but that's another story. Another whine.

But my faith. I wonder if it is just possible that the American people may breeze on with their lives and keep the economy going in spite of the Democratic party's gigantic attempt to make like an octopus and reach its suckers into everything we do every day. Can citizens successfully ignore and thus obviate government power, as they tend to ignore dull things like mid-term elections (and newspapers)? I'd guess a healthy proportion of the citizenry know nothing about the existence or composition of such a thing as a state legislature, for example. That's after being made to study the Constitution in junior high school and high school. I've not yet met anyone who knows that the stimulus bill includes nationalized health care. To be fair, Senator Specter didn't know about it, either, until the morning of a vote this past week. Can that kind of automatic-pilot life inoculate people against a government trying, once again, to be all- compassionate and all-predatory?

Perhaps not. Once a government bureaucracy is established, it's very hard to take down -- "like bombing a colony," as a pundit once said. All the countryside may blithely ignore what's going on in the sty, but once a pig or two attaches itself to a tit or two, it's unlikely to let go. And then that shapes policy, forever. Thomas Sowell pointed out recently at Townhall that we are still subsidizing millionaire farmers today, because farmers were having a tough time in the 1930s and Roosevelt decided they couldn't fail. The next generation doesn't remember when that wasn't normal. And so government grows, and the money goes.

There may be grander and more depressing reactions to the course of events in the last few months, by which 53% of Americans voted, as if on a crack high, for The First Black President WOO HOOO Hope and Change. Voted for a man who is, so far, keeping his big promises. Nations wither and die inevitably. Spoiled, ignorant people become unworthy of freedom. Human beings may naturally divide themselves into ruling aristocracy and cared-for peasantry; perhaps the human psyche is more comfortable with those trammels than with the alarming bore of republican self-government. But these reactions are so grand as to be Gibbon-esque, not necessarily sensible when applied to mere mortals here and now. The national story is not over yet. He could even lose in 2012. And oh yes -- Americans do tend to overreact to stuff.


"The pitch of ecstasy." It's a wonderful phrase, which I first came across in reading a book about old movie stars. Among them was Norma Shearer, who described the life of a screen actress, her life, in those terms. She looked radiantly happy in the photograph on the opposite page.

Yesterday at work I saw a young woman who fit that description, too. Ah -- a stilted ejaculation, but useful -- ah, to be an American high school girl, with all flags flying! Eighteen years old. A graduating senior. Tall. Pretty, but not too freakishly pretty, not pretty enough to make other girls say "you could be a model" and then avoid you. Beautiful teeth, good eyesight or at least a tolerance for contacts. Happy. Able to wear workout sweats and carefully sloppy hair, and still look good. Full makeup. Moneyed parents, your own car, your cell phone, your boyfriend. Daring multiple piercings in and about the ears. Keys jingling. She came in to the store and chatted with the other young girls there for five minutes. Beautiful voice, too, throaty and lilting, and they talked almost in their own language, hard to make out amid the breathless laughter and the staccato code phrases -- creep, I was like, slut, get out, didja hang out? retard, I was like, whatever. Having been a quite ordinary teenage girl myself, I still look at a specimen like this and feel fourteen all over again, looking up at a big sister or a fairy princess. I say, yes, I'd gladly trade places with her, just for a day. This is the pitch of ecstasy.

And the young woman I work with, in her early twenties, long auburn hair skinned back sleekly from a thin, mild, almond-eyed face that belongs in some cool, amber-green-and-grey Renaissance portrait -- the woman who might be a Borgia or an Orsini? She told me she had been kidnapped and held hostage for three months by a local gang member when she was eighteen. "I was raped every day for three months." She only got out when the police raided the house and took her to jail, too, on charges of visiting a public nuisance (as far as they could tell, she was living in a drug house). When her story came out and her broken bones and eardrums were treated, she chose not to testify against him, because his threats against her would have meant her entire family going into protective custody for who knew how long. She is now married and a mother of two, and looking forward to growing her family. Her serenity is mind-boggling.

Do I believe her?