“I Can Do It Myself!!!”

According to family lore, that was one of the first full sentences I ever uttered. That does not surprise me in the least. I’ve always been very independent.

I started working when I was 10 years old, growing house plants and selling them at the local flea market. My first major purchase was tickets to Disney World for me, my mother and my sister. At the time we could all go for a total of twenty dollars. That tells you how long ago that was.

When I got my first car (which I paid for myself), the first thing I did was learn how to change the oil, and I took pride in doing it. Nowadays I’d rather pay someone else than get all dirty and stuff, but it still makes me smile that I know how.

I also did a great deal of the remodeling of my first house. I learned how to plaster and paint and grout and construct and shingle. I attribute my confidence in these areas to my summer job with the Youth Conservation Corps.

Many people seem surprised that I bought a house on my own, but the fact is, I’m on my second one. If I had waited for some Prince Charming to come along and foot the bill, I’d have been a renter for life. What a waste of money.

I also moved all the way across the country on my own, even though I didn’t know a soul on the West Coast. I don’t think I really thought that one through. If I had, I’d probably still be in Florida. But it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, so three cheers for flying by the seat of my pants!

I’ve done a great deal of traveling on my own. It wasn’t as fun as it could have been, but it sure beat staying at home. The world is an amazing place, indeed, and those travel experiences have shaped who I am.

Doing all those things myself has made me the person that I am today, and I’m rather proud of that. But here’s the thing: The older I get, the more I want to do things with someone. I don’t want to do it myself. I want company. I want someone to share the experience with, someone to laugh with. I want someone to help me find my way if I get lost. I want feedback. I want a hand to hold.

The fact that I have that now is the best gift the universe could have ever given me. It only took me 53 years to figure that out.

stubborn-kid2

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For All the Unsung Bridgetenders

For the first time in many, many years, I will not be ringing in the new year all alone at work. This is not because after 16 years as a bridgetender I’ve earned a certain level of seniority. No. It’s simply because this time around, the holiday just happened to fall on my regular day off.

I’m reminded of that postal motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Yeah. Except they get holidays off. Bridgetender’s don’t. And they are some of the most truly dedicated people in the world. Despite that, most of you don’t even realize we exist.

So today I want to wish the bridgetenders of the world a Happy New Year. For those who endure poorly heated and/or air conditioned rooms, Happy New Year. For those who shovel and de-ice sidewalks, Happy New Year. For those who get covered in grease and motor oil, hose down pigeon poop and shovel pigeon corpses, Happy New Year. For those who have to stay late when their relief doesn’t show up, for those who have prevented suicides, for those who have pulled people out of wrecked or burning cars, for those who call 911, and for those whose own cars get vandalized, Happy New Year.

For those who keep you safe, even when you don’t realize you are in danger, Happy New Year. For those who have to think on their feet and sometimes get in trouble for it, Happy New Year. For those who are outrageously underpaid and mistreated by their employers (I’m thinking of Florida, in particular, here), Happy New Year. For those who keep the city’s traffic, in all its many forms, flowing efficiently, Happy New Year.

For those who stand in plain sight and yet seem to be invisible (and still keep the intimate conversations they overhear to themselves), Happy New Year. For those who occasionally find the loneliness hard to take, Happy New Year. For every bridgetender who sits in a tower looking at a bullet hole in the window (which is most of us), and wonders when it will happen again, Happy New Year. For those of us who have been pelted with eggs and tomatoes and pumpkins and beer bottles, Happy New Year. For those who have nightmares about some of the horrible things we’ve seen, Happy New Year.

But I especially want to thank those who show up day in and day out, and take pride in their jobs, often without acknowledgement. To me, you all are heroes. Please know that someone really does see you.

Somewhere, there really ought to be a monument.

Here’s the most amazing thing about being a bridgetender: In spite of all of the above, many of us truly love our jobs. I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is who I am.

Happy New Year to all of the forgotten ones out there. And many, many more.

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Working a Tropical Storm

We’ve had our fair share of natural disasters this year. But when you pair that with an increasing disregard for workers, you get a toxic combination. People are getting fired for having to mandatorily evacuate and therefore being unable to show up for work. People have been forced to work in extremely unsafe situations, leaving their families at times when they’re needed most. When human life stops being the most important factor, we have reached a new low.

What follows is a letter I was forced to write back in 2008, when I was a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Florida Department of Transportation put my life at risk. As per usual with them, I never got any response, and there seemed to be no consequences. I hope they are treating bridgetenders more fairly now, as these disasters increase in frequency. But I doubt it.

Dear Mr. XXXXXXXX:

Hurricane season is once again upon us. As a bridgetender who had to work at Ortega River Bridge in the early morning hours of Friday, August 22nd during the very worst of Tropical Storm Fay, I feel compelled to give you some insight as to what that was like.

I had to drive to work in 50 mph winds, detouring around downed trees and power lines, and then walked up the bridge to the tenderhouse, getting drenched in the process, and nearly being blown into the street on more than one occasion, only to find out that the coast guard had closed the bridge to boat traffic. I was informed that FDOT was aware of this, but since your wind meter did not match the speeds registered by the one in the tenderhouse, you decided we had to work.

Every weather channel said that the winds were going to be at least 50 mph. Clearly the Coast Guard believed this and took boater safety very seriously. Apparently, we were only there to monitor the radio, but the only transmissions I heard all night were the many Coast Guard announcements that informed boaters of the bridge closings, because no boater in his right mind was out in that weather. No cars were out either, except for the bridgetender who was compelled to relieve me at the end of the shift.

During the entire length of my shift, surrounded by electrical equipment, I was forced to mop water down the hatch and bail as it literally poured in the doors, windows, and through the air conditioner. At one point the heavy traffic cones and life ring blew into the street and I had to wrestle them indoors. Not only should the traffic gates be secured in such weather, but also the traffic cones, life rings and convex mirror should be stowed indoors to avoid becoming projectiles. Apparently that was left up to me during the height of the storm.

When my bladder could no longer hold out, I was forced to venture outdoors and across the street to the bathroom in a downpour, and once again I was nearly blown off my feet. Had I been hurt, no one would have known for hours. Not once did anyone call to check on me.

In the meantime, the power was continually going off and on, which caused the generator to kick in as I watched transformers exploding on the horizon. I found out the next day that water spouts were spinning up on the river. The wind shook the building and the waves crested over the fenders.

When it was time to go home, I once again had to walk down the bridge, and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was physically painful. Once again I was drenched as no rain coat in the world can stand up to those conditions, and by the time I detoured around even more downed trees and power lines to get home, my lips were blue from the cold and I had to stave off hypothermia by taking an extended hot bath. Thank God my electricity was not out or I would probably have been hospitalized.

The worst part about the whole experience, sir, was that I spent the entire shift afraid, and my family was afraid for me. And the whole time I kept thinking, “I haven’t had a raise in 5 years, and I have $5,000 in medical debt because of substandard health insurance. Must I risk my life, too?”

I can’t speak for other bridgetenders. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to climb the ladder at the Main Street Bridge under these conditions. I’m sure my life would have been flashing before my eyes.

I hope you will take this letter into consideration when making decisions in future storms. I hope I never have to have another experience like that as long as I live.

                                      Sincerely…

Tropical Storm Fay
Tropical Storm Fay. Would you have expected your employees to work in this?

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A Few Thoughts on International Women’s Day

First of all, happy International Women’s Day! It’s nice to be recognized and celebrated. I’m glad that organizations throughout the world will be using this as an opportunity to speak out about equal rights. I’m thrilled that this will open up dialogues that many people wouldn’t otherwise have thought to have.

But at the same time, it frustrates me that we still need a day like this. Aren’t we women every day of the year? Don’t we deserve basic human rights all year round?

Recently I was sitting at a table with 15 other women, so I took an informal survey.

  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever been touched inappropriately without your permission.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever been cat called.
  • Raise your hand if anyone has ever discussed your breasts, behind, or legs without your initiating that conversation.
  • Raise your hand if your opinion has been dismissed as trivial.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve heard a man singing the words “bitch” “slut” or “ho” along with the radio.
  • Raise your hand if you yourself have been called a bitch, slut, or ho.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve seen nude women calendars in public places.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been interrupted by a man who insists on explaining something to you that you already know.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been treated like an idiot by a mechanic.
  • Raise your hand if men have assumed that you’re not intelligent.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been rejected based on your weight, age, or shape.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been criticized because of something you were wearing.
  • Raise your hand if people have assumed you need to ask a man’s permission to do something or go somewhere.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been accused of not being feminine enough.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been accused of being too girly.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been told you do something good, “for a girl.”
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been criticized for not having children.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been criticized for having children.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been criticized for working.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been criticized for not working.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to drive behind a truck with naked women mud flaps.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been paid less than a male counterpart.
  • Raise your hand if men that you’ve trained have been promoted above you.
  • Raise your hand if a man assumed you needed his protection when you didn’t.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been told something was women’s work.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been accused of being emotional or hysterical.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.

Try giving this survey the next time you’re with female friends. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone reading this that in the vast majority of cases, every woman at the table raised her hand. And that’s probably the most outrageous part of all – that it comes as no surprise.

The only reason that this happens is that we are not in the exclusive group of humans who sports a penis. That simple fact makes “us” not “them”. As far as I can tell, that appendage does not endow people with superior abilities of any kind. It just means we get to be easily identified as being on the other team. And society has arbitrarily decided that our team gets to be the losing team. It’s not rational. It’s not just. And it’s not acceptable.

I for one am sick and tired of being treated to micro-aggressions every single day. Case in point, I looked at my supply of Graphicstock pictures to see which one to use for this blog entry. This, below, is their idea of a good image for Women’s Day. Because we all should be depicted as naked, sexy, thin, with long flowing hair and luscious lips, arching our backs while floating with our heads in a flowery cloud.

Happy Women’s Day, indeed.

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And Now for Something COMPLETELY Different…

I thrive on routine. If you are into astrology, you could say that’s because I’m a Capricorn. If you study psychology, you might say it has something to do with my introversion.

Regardless. I may not have all my ducks in a row, but I can usually predict where they will wander off to and when. And I derive a great deal of comfort from that.

I’m also a planner. When I travel, for example, I generally know where I’m going and when and how. When something upsets my itinerary it tends to rattle me. This is why I am never comfortable at airports. There’s nothing quite like an airport to eff up your plans. Airports should have their own circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno.

I’ve been working since I was 10 years old. I like when I’ve gotten so familiar with a job that I can organize my tasks. It’s nice to have some idea what the day will probably look like. Tell me your end goal and then let me loose with a certain level of autonomy, and I’ll have my job running like a well-oiled machine in no time.

Which leads me to the one mistake upper management tends to make in every place I’ve ever known. They spend a great deal of time either fixing things that aren’t broken, or not consulting the stakeholders when something genuinely needs fixing. Either way, they always seem sincerely stunned when they have upset the apple cart and we mere underlings have to waste an enormous amount of time scrambling around to pick up the apples.

Here’s a thought: communicate. Get feedback before you make changes. Assume that your staff actually has some insight. Not only will morale improve, but chaos will also be kept to a minimum. What a concept.

duck
Not exactly in a row, but they’ll get where they need to go.

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Me at My Most Politically Incorrect

I probably shouldn’t be writing this, but hell, I’m thinking it, so why not? I have to say I love working with men. Well, I do now, anyway.

For most of my working life I’ve been in male-dominated jobs; the lone female in the pack, so to speak. At first it can be awkward. Some people, no matter how hard you try, are never going to accept you.

When an entire group of men are uncomfortable with your presence, it can feel pretty awful. They’ll be tense and formal with you, and you’ll get a very strong sense that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that isn’t being shared with you. There’s nothing like a group of disapproving men to make you feel isolated.

But man, when they do accept you, it’s so much fun! They treat you like one of the guys. You get teased and picked on, but that is just further evidence that you’re liked. Once I figured that out, I was golden.

So today when a group of guys came to do the biweekly pumping of our septic tank, rather than knocking on the door and stiffly notifying me that they were on the bridge, one of them unlocked the door and shouted up the stairs, “Hey! Your shitter’s full!” And I responded, “I didn’t do it!”

Oh, yeah. I’ve arrived.

oneoftheguys
[Image credit: theodysseyonline.com]

Seventeen Fatal Mistakes Managers Make

I have been working since I was 10 years old, and have experienced every type of manager conceivable. There is quite a bell curve on the spectrum of competence. I’ve seen many of the same mistakes made over and over and over again. These professional landmines should be easy to spot and avoid, but apparently not, because they get stepped on with annoying frequency, and it’s all so unnecessary.

In no particular order, here are some of the most common errors.

  • Creating adversarial situations. Believe it or not, most employees want their company to succeed, and want to feel like they are part of the reason for that success. When you force them into a position where they are made to feel that you are on opposite sides, or when you pit one employee or department against another, it’s demoralizing. Imagine how much more functional your company would be if everyone were allowed to feel as if they were on the same team.
  • Not allowing employees to have dignity. If an employee needs to be disciplined, for God’s sake, don’t do it in front of coworkers or, even worse, customers. Allow them to save face by taking them aside and discussing the situation one on one. Your goal should be to correct, not to humiliate. And there’s never any reason to shout. You’re talking to an adult, and odds are good that they can hear you when you speak in a reasonable tone of voice.
  • Not trusting staff. If you treat employees as though they do not deserve your confidence, they will eventually lose the desire to be trustworthy. What’s the point of striving for trust that can never be achieved? If you truly have no faith in your staff, why did you hire them in the first place?
  • Enacting changes without consulting employees. This is one of the most costly mistakes an employer can make. Your front line employees are your best and most vital knowledge base. They can usually tell you what will work and what won’t and why. Before making a policy change, run it by them. You’re not trying to get their permission. You don’t necessarily have to take their advice. Most people, after all, are resistant to change. But they can point out problems that you may not have considered. If you have their input, they will be more likely to buy into your change. Time and again I’ve heard of large companies that pay consultants 250k to help them improve efficiency, when they could have simply asked the people who actually do the job. What a concept.
  • Wasting time. Don’t have a meeting just so you can look like you communicate. Own it. Actually make it worth the effort. If you have nothing important to say, let them go do their jobs. Likewise, don’t make employees sit through training just so you can say you’ve trained them. If the information isn’t relevant, or if it’s self-evident, don’t take up time that could be better spent.
  • Turf guarding. If you allow your employees to shine, you will be bathed in the glow as well. Why, why, WHY can’t managers grasp this basic concept? Don’t take credit for things that your employees have done. Don’t hold people back. Recognize the accomplishments of your staff, and sing their praises from the rooftops. This will make them want to do even better, which in turn will reflect well on you. It’s sort of like a perpetual motion machine of success, but one which is hardly ever taken advantage of.
  • Micromanaging. Have you ever heard of anyone who likes this behavior? Of course you haven’t. People like to feel as if they can be trusted to think independently. If you weigh them down with an ever-increasing mountain of petty rules, you will create anxiety, resentment, and a whole lot of people who are coming up with ingenious ways to look as if they’re complying without actually doing so. Worst of all, you will lose any respect that you might have had. Before imposing a rule, ask yourself what would happen if that rule didn’t exist.
  • Being inflexible. Employees are human beings, not robots. Sometimes you need to accommodate them. This does not mean you play favorites. It means you take unique circumstances into account. If you are reasonable with people, you will gain their loyalty. If you are rigid, they’ll simply consider you to be an a**hole, and won’t cooperate with you.
  • Weak link-itis. If you have an employee who isn’t up to snuff, you might think it is easier to have your more competent employees pick up the slack, but all this does is eventually burn out the good employees, causing them to become less productive as well. It also breeds resentment. Rather than lower everyone to the level of the weak link, form a backbone and get the weak link to rise up to the appropriate level or get rid of that person.
  • Throwing people under the bus. If you’ve screwed up, or cause your department to screw up, own it. Don’t blame it on your staff. If you cause a traffic jam in New Jersey, fall on your sword of stupidity and pettiness. Don’t fire your underlings and act as if the crisis has been averted. Everyone will know you’re lying.
  • Forcing employees to make fools of themselves. If you insist that your employees wear silly uniforms or say inane and insincere things like, “How can I provide you with excellent customer service today?” You are going to be the one who winds up looking like an idiot, and if they take the opportunity to run you down with their car no reasonable court in the land would convict them.
  • Creating anxiety in terms of job stability. People aren’t working for you for the fun of it. They have families to feed and bills to pay. Don’t make them live under the constant threat of possible discharge. That’s their livelihood you are messing with, and it causes unnecessary anxiety, a distinct lack of concentration, and probably a lot more turnover than you would have otherwise.
  • Not being open to suggestion. Your employees spend a lot of time thinking about their jobs and how best to do them. Every now and then they may actually come up with something that you haven’t considered that will greatly improve production. You’ll never know this if you behave as if there’s a brick wall between you, or if you get angry when someone seems to be trying to upset the apple cart.
  • Losing perspective. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. In the overall scheme of things, there is very little that we do on this tiny little planet that is worth getting spun up about. Relax. It’ll be all right.
  • Lack of appreciation. Everyone wants to be acknowledged for their hard work. You don’t have to like your employees, but you do have to realize that if they weren’t there, your company wouldn’t exist.
  • Putting your pride before logic. If you come up with a stupid idea, own it, rescind it and move on. Don’t continue with the insane policy simply to save face. It’s counterproductive.
  • Not sticking up for your people. In all my years of employment, I’ve only had one boss who was willing to stick his neck out for me, and that’s my current one. Because of that, when he needs me to go the extra mile, I’ll go an extra ten. He has my loyalty, because I know he has my back. On the other hand, if a boss lets me be unjustly attacked by upper management or clients, he or she is dead to me, and I’ll only do the bare minimum to remain employed. The customer may always be right, but don’t assume that means that your employee is always wrong.

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[Image credit: wanttoworkintelevision.com]