Thursday, October 30, 2008

We Make Bureaucracy: 4

Like most Americans who work in some sector of major industry, I came to accept that all I needed to do was to show up.

Now I ask, what is that bit of wisdom about most of life being about showing up?

What I didn’t understand and came to realize, is that sometimes it’s about only showing up. Being reliable is a virtue. Deviating from this norm is never a good idea. Bureaucracy doesn’t know how to deal with deviation. Dilbert, a cartoon strip by Scott Adams that was syndicated throughout the 90’s, mined rich material from just this fact.

But let’s examine a few things. When the fulcrum of power is based at the top and then “trickles down” through the organization in classic triangular fashion, something amazing happens.

A manager's gaze becomes fixated on the chain of command that connects his office to the next upward rung. He’s not a bad person, no, just some poor schmo who’s also caught in a flytrap, making sure that the lines of communication are open between him and the manager who serves as his own lifeline to the top. Securing and defending this relationship occupies the majority of his time, more so than the people who work for him. Poor guy. He’s thinking about next fiscal year.

But then employees who populate the lower echelons of any organization are left without hope.

Barbara Ehrenreich in her book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” writes, “If you are constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or by a plethora of impersonal rules, you begin to accept that unfortunate status.”

Bureaucracy is bad for democracy. If I come to work every day with a sense that I am ineffectual, can’t change anything, will be punished for speaking my mind, and ultimately “it will always be this way so why try and change it,” why the heck should I try and change anything? If I’m getting a message to not rock the boat for the privilege of collecting a paycheck, I will do exactly that and feel the same way about government, or anything else (cable or telephone company), which I presume wields some kind of power over me.

The dot-com world was no panacea, and in all honesty, just as filled with bureaucracy, after all we’re human beings who want to delegate stuff to someone else. But given that fact, there also was recognition of the individuals who made up a team and what a team needed to become successful.

Is that so terrible?

It's time for us to restructure ourselves as a team again and to move away from this stifling bureaucracy that looks like America.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

We Make Bureaucracy: 3

After the bust, I took stock. My area of expertise was writing about technology, a scribe who detailed the inner workings of countless software packages, advising users when to enter their names, when to press Return, and when to call technical support. I became adept at transforming binders of documentation into online help systems.

One day I answered an advertisement to manage a Web site for an Oakland-based company on a temporary basis. Later, I applied for the permanent position, and got the job. But there was something oddly familiar about this new setting, and not in an entirely good way.

During my initial “honeymoon period,” management had tolerated my credentialed glow. But forays into taking initiative became increasingly suspect. A series of monthly “brown bag” lunches where employees could share information about mutual projects, became construed as “empire-building.” My annoying habit of asking questions at weekly staff meetings rather than accepting explanations at face-value, bordered on insubordination.

I was a fly. I was flattened. But fortunately, I wasn’t stupid. Did I mention that I was a single mother?

Reporting to a new manager and banished to my closet without windows, the light finally dawned. I realized that I had returned to a bureaucracy. There in my worst moments, I would softly bang on the door and whisper to myself, "Let me out."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We Make Bureaucracy: 2

I’ve often wondered how a bureau came to reside inside a bureaucracy. A bureau seems harmless, a drawer in which a person places clean socks. But bureaus of the administrative kind seem shrink-wrapped in concrete with divisions of labor meted out amongst various offices, a personnel system that operates primarily to minimize lawsuits, and a hierarchy that lacks any freshet of communication, and which only serves to fan the flames of the grapevine.

I have spent the major portion of my working hours warehoused in various bureaucracies except for a brief stint in the industry.

The real gift of the days in my humble opinion was not about stock options, but in serving as a hot house for developing new work relationships.

For however brief a moment, I attended monthly meetings that offered information about sales, upcoming contracts, proposed new development, and invited me to participate in forming goals for my division.

After years of occupying a cubicle as a technical writer for the offices of engineering, banking, and government firms, I was suddenly asked to speak up and participate, and not just dully nod my head in response to the latest administrative bulletin, which had arrived through interoffice mail in an ugly envelope.

Team meetings were accompanied by an endless supply of pizza, and a selection of mineral water, which all bespoke of a budget that was being spent, in some small part, on employees. This made a big impression, and as my time ticked on, first for a company that was trying to develop a product where couch potatoes everywhere could order online goods via a TV remote, and then for a company which allowed architects to communicate globally, something else stunned me.

At our team meetings, everyone who sat around the table was expected to generously pipe in at the appropriate moment with suggestions based on our area of expertise. One person wasn't supposed to have all the answers. We were that person.

Driven to release a new product had the net effect of wiping out years of in-bred hierarchical instinct and replacing it, or at least advancing the notion that collaboration, proven by many managerial theorists whose work had been adopted overseas in countries like Japan, was an alternate way of organizing the workforce, or at least conducting an experiment among the multitudes of foosball lovers.

For roughly five years, from 1995 to 2000, collaboration became a new craze, motivated by profit itself and not by some soft-hearted sixties refugee like myself who yearned for a more humane way of working, and legitimized everything in its path.

So what if there wasn't a sound business plan developed by a person who understood a profit and loss sheet? That was a mere detail. So what if venture capitalists were unable to recoup their initial investment? Something more was at stake.

Although the era fizzled out in an explosion of overpriced technology stock, one thing remained clear: there was no one right answer, there was only a team.

Monday, October 27, 2008

We Make Bureaucracy: 1

Many would think I have the ideal job. What do I do? Talk with developers about the company Web site of which I am the primary guardian, and respond to an occasional email from someone in the office who wishes reassurance that their needs are being met.

Few know of my actual existence. But why should they, when I am hidden in a closet at the edge of the telephone information center where seven days a week, men and women raise their telephone headsets to advise customers how to travel from Oakland, Berkeley, Fremont, or even San Francisco to some other destination, providing instructions about where to catch a particular bus, or transfer, and how much money it will cost.

The TIC, for that’s what it’s called, plays an important role for riders who are on the streets and haven’t yet learned to download schedules to their PDA devices either because they don’t have one or because they can’t find that link on the home page, or simply need the reassurance of a live person’s voice who can successfully advise them on lost and found items and where to go to pick up a purse, a laptop, a beloved hat.

“Sir, where are you? There are lots of bus stops in Oakland.”

In the meantime, I sit in the closet which is about 10 feet wide and 12 feet long but nicely appointed with oak-stained office furniture that I imagine as recompense for shutting me up in here, while outside are the voices of people who welcome each other in the morning and wish each other a good evening at night, and advise each other of food that is available in the kitchen.

For while employees of the TIC have sworn off highly caloric fried and salty taste treats as a diabetic’s worst nightmare, every so often, a gooey chocolate cake makes an appearance. Whenever it does, I get a slice.

The real reason I am shut away in an isolation booth is a vestige of the last turf battle between certain departments who are now regrouping for another possible skirmish, which honestly might throw me back on the floor in front of a window. Not a totally bad thing.

It's not that I'm locked inside my office, which I've decorated with post-its , and a plush teddy bear sitting on my desk with a red and white hat from last Christmas. I can easily come and go. But apart from a virtual team that resides in Atlanta, Georgia, I don't have a reason to work with anyone here on a daily basis. So what am I kvetching about? Bureaucracy. What else do I have to do?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I learned how to play Scrabble at a bridge table in Henniker, New Hampshire which is where we escaped the ravages of Bronx summers, where adults in our family gathered beneath a birch tree to mark everyone’s names at the top of a score pad.

My Uncle Harry, often sat down on a lawn chair to pick his tiles wrapped in a white towel, water beading from his ample torso. He’d come from swimming in Dudley Pond, about a mile walk from the farmhouse, a place that was resplendent with frogs, water moccasins, and bloodsuckers. We were from the Bronx and used to scores of cockroaches and rats, so we swam and rowed undaunted by these country creatures before returning through fields of Black-Eyed Susan and Goldenrod to the Scrabble board.

”Let’s play,” they said.

Everyone, meaning my mother, Uncle Harry, Aunt Jeannette, and anyone else who might be there, sometimes my father who took the Greyhound bus to join us on the weekend, sat in their designated spot around a bridge table and hoped for a good selection of consonants and syllables as they selected their first round of letters. Carefully, they picked their hand from the top of the dark purplish Scrabble box. Sometimes they used a brown paper bag which saved them from having to turn the letters face down. Then there was silence. The point was to keep a poker face, not to give away any information about the hand. Next, they placed the tiles in their wooden trays, smooth and oiled from continued use, turning each letter so that its point value displayed in the lower left corner of each square.

My mother squinched her eyebrows together throughout the game, trying to use all of her seven tiles to net 50 extra points. My Uncle Harry wanted to win by any means necessary, a cutthroat player who included humiliation in his bag of tricks. Aunt Jeannette, the artist in the family, liked to arrange the tiles with her long bejeweled fingers, moving them around with no apparent purpose. My father loved to discover new words less interested in winning and frequently called upon the dictionary for validation until cries of, “You’re making that up,” stilled his creative urge.

”But it is a word,” he said.

Sometimes they burst out in Hungarian expletives, which we children, raised as English speakers, could not understand. But as I sat at their knees, I learned the game. First, it was necessary to understand the playing field, a square broken into smaller squares, 15 by 15, with a star dead in the middle. Radiating squares of light and dark blue eased into pink to indicate a double word score. Red squares marked that most hallowed of all places, the triple word score, which my relatives pondered for half hours at a time, trying to squeeze their letters into that corner of the board much like Cinderella’s sisters tried to force their ungainly feet into a glass slipper.

When the game got slow, I gazed at the area called “Letter Frequency,” a code on the left side of the board. The code indicated the number of tiles for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, the letter “E” being the most frequent at 12 tiles. Numbers and letters converged. Uncle Harry understood that convergence. He kept track of the number of letters on the board. I circled the table and hung at each adult’s elbow knowing the truth of what they had in their hands. They taught me the rules. Hold on to a “U” because you may pick the “Q” and you’ll need that letter to do anything. They blocked openings so no one could worm their way into a triple word score. The “S” was a special because you could build two words at once. Nothing like a plural for extra points. And then there were blanks that could become any letter at all.

They knew so many words, fluent in their adopted language. Until I was old enough to join them at the table, I freely offered my gifts of cat and dog and couldn’t understand when my mother choose not to use them. When she really got stuck she’d say, “I can’t do anything.”

“Nothing? You’re the one who used all seven letters two hands ago.”
“No. I really can’t.”
“Come on. You must be able to do something!”
”I can’t.”
“Are you sure?”
“Go ahead then.”

which signaled defeat and acceptance in the same breath. My mother’s predicament was a common one: No matter how great the word you had in your hand, it didn’t count unless you were able to put it down on the table. Personal creativity and talent was one thing, but practical opportunities were another.

They are gone now, adults who never revealed their pasts. What I know about them, I learned through playing Scrabble. In some important ways, they are like blanks for me and I keep making them up, running them through to the dictionary of my mind. Maybe it was because they had watched the Holocaust from this side of the Atlantic and the horror of what they saw which made their pasts too painful.

Or maybe it was because they all died before I had a chance of speaking with them as an adult.

Maybe they are all gathered around a bridge table, still playing the game that they loved.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tkhine in Tishrei

There always will be song in this place
where basil and wild mint grow

green by the dove's first call
where old ones walked

bent and wrapped in bark fringes
knotted and tied for fingers to caress

songs rise up as prayers enfold us
in a tent of shawls

fire huddles where wind
cuts each sand grain to a facet

the same place we cannot go back to nor forget
how living creatures turn into their own shadows.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Waiting for Rain

For days weather reports predicted rain.
Forecasters pointed to satellite models.

Yellow meant some rain.
Green none. Red a torrent.

I stayed up all night.
Between 10 and 10:30,

I thought I heard something.
Then again at 11.

In the next moment, I saw a bird
emerge from a branch.

I'm not sure if I'd confused a horn honk
with a downpour, but I did.

When you want something so much,
it's easy to get confused.

At 11:10 I heard trees sigh.
They were waiting also.

I went on the deck and looked up.
Then I put out my hand.