Other People’s Layoffs, part 2

You’re a contractor, diligently working in your cubicle. You are disconnected from a lot of information-sharing and you don’t know many of the people around you.

How do you realize a layoff is happening?

Aural cues: Footsteps that are faster than normal. Maybe they’re even running. Bursts of conversation – a quick exclamation that instantly dies down to a low murmur. Silence, too, in place of the usual steady hum of conversations and phone calls.

Visual cues: More people than usual clustered in one cubicle. Lots of empty cubicles, maybe even an entire area suddenly devoid of people. Unusual behavior, like someone waving to someone else down one of those long cubicle corridors.

Maybe you hear someone crying. Maybe.

The air pressure changes and so does the light, just enough that you realize something is off.

You’re a full-time employee, head down, diligently working. Your manager pops her head into your cubicle. “Please come to my office,” she says. She’s calm, projecting reassurance, although you don’t know why. She’s gone before you can respond, and you hear her saying the same thing to your next door neighbor.

In a moment, most of your group is clustered in her office, silently gazing at one other. Some have figured out what’s going on, but if you’re younger or not very attentive to organizational behavior, you are still in the dark.

Your boss follows the last person in. She’s barely shut the door when she says “There’s a layoff going on. You’re in here because you are not being laid off. The people who are being laid off have been called to HR.”

She walks over to her desk, but remains standing, and tells you where the layoff is happening, how many people, and names anyone in your group who has been let go. She answers a few questions: Numbers have been down three quarters in a row. Decision was made to scale back on two initiatives. No plans for additional layoffs.

Then she says, “People will be coming back from HR to collect their things and leave for the day. They’ll have the opportunity to come back later to clear out their personal belongings if they can’t do it now. Feel free to talk to them and express your sympathy. I hope to have a department lunch next week with” and she names the person or people in your group who have been let go “and will keep you posted.”

She dismisses you.

I can’t remember if there’s a standard time of day when layoffs happen. I witnessed them a couple of times during the decades I contracted, and only experienced one myself. Did they happen before lunch, so shocked employees could talk freely during lunch and maybe get out of the office? Did they happen at the end of the day? I imagine it’s considered better to do it fairly early, so everyone has a chance to decompress in the first few hours after the unlucky ones leave.

December 16, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Other People’s Layoffs, part 1

When I got laid off that first time, I was a newbie in my field and thought I would not be able to find work as a contractor, or consultant if I was trying to sound impressive. Really, I was qualified to be a hired hand, working at someone else’s direction, a round peg in a round hole. I wanted to be that round peg because I entertained notions of a fabulously free work life where I could take vacations when I wanted, travel, and basically pick up contract work, and drop it, like stitches. Didn’t work out that way, but that’s another story.

I thought that contractors had to have a lot of experience, because I was naively confusing them with consultants, and was happily surprised when I got a contract at a famous dinosaur-that-is-no-more, in Burlington. We worked on mainframe computers with dumb terminals, with light-green-on-dark-green monitors, the space bar causing the blinking cursor to travel down the numbered lists of options, the Return key closing the deal. They might even have been labeled “Return.” Had the industry standardized on “Enter” then? We clattered away on keyboards that were big and heavy yet also hollow-feeling, and rackety.

Nothing was beautiful. I remember the plastic of all those terminals, keyboards, printers, and photocopiers, as a sickly greenish-beige made even less lovely by the chilly fluorescent lighting.

I walked into a shell-shocked department that was reeling from a series of layoffs. A strange thing can happen during the chaos of layoffs: long-term people can be let go because their project has been cut and their skills are not transferable, while at the same time, the same department may hire a contractor or two because other work needs to be done, and the skill set has to be hired from outside. That’s what happened with me. I joined a group of people adjusting to the loss of several coworkers. No one was unkind, but the woman with whom I shared a cubicle was opinionated, aggressive, awkward. Not actively unkind or malicious, but the situation was still hard.

To recap: I’d abruptly lost my first, intern-level job in my new field, in a group and with a manager that I loved. I was nowhere near ready for that experience to end. I landed a temporary job at another company that was struggling and contracting, heading down the pathway that would lead to its demise. I walked into a department that was simultaneously mourning, worrying, and reconstituting itself.

Everyone knew that the microcomputer (the desktop computer like the IBM PC and Apple) was going to do to the minicomputer what the minicomputer had done to the mainframe. In fact, one morning in the cafeteria line, I heard an older guy say, “You know, if I was setting up a new office, I’d go with desktops. I wouldn’t go with our stuff.” There were a few chuckles. “Guess I’d better not say that too loud.”

Companies did move into desktop computers — they were all we’d had at my first company, which was a young start-up. For decades onward, companies invested in desktop computers: hardware, operating systems, and software applications, and continuously maintained them. They were cheap individually, and they offered great flexibility, but they required constant maintenance. They were expensive that way. I wonder if they were, ultimately, less expensive than larger systems. Now, of course, with cloud-based services we are consolidating back to centralized systems. Many of the programs I use today are cloud-based; they are not installed on my hard drive. For a good 30 years, they would have been.

I worked at the wounded dinosaur for 8 months, and then my contract was not renewed.

December 13, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Always Quiet House

This is existence – my existence: the fragile, dispersed family. Work. Activities and friends, dear ones, at church.

At other times there have been social-justice actions – always modest, never self-sacrificial.

There are hours and hours of isolation, and I find my confidence is dwindling as I get older. It’s hard to look in the mirror now, the changes brought by age are so many and I do not find them lovely.

Maybe I would embrace all of my existence with desperate love if it were threatened. One alarming phone call from the doctor might be enough to suffuse every instant with radiance. But that is not what has happened. I am here, I live and breathe. I support causes and people. I have no other value. Long ago, I chose isolation. Isolation chose me.

I say Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer every day. So we could say I talk to You frequently, through the medium of those traditional words. I don’t know how to talk to You straight up. You never reply. There used to be someone who replied. Now there isn’t.

December 9, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Career Change

After a few years of teaching, and hating to be at the head of the classroom, I got hired as an intern and my tech-adjacent career began. My first tech employer had recently hit the big time, signing a contract with IBM, who liked the look of one of our expansion cards.

For three years we developed, manufactured, and debugged the heck out of that card. We grew from 30 people to 100; I was part of that hiring wave as the company looked to the future, fully intending to develop new products while that Big Blue money rolled in. Of course, we hoped the contract would be extended, but it was not to be. We’d gotten the kinks out of the process; IBM took manufacturing away from us and sent the board to an automated manufacturer who could stamp out thousands where we could produce dozens.

We’d outgrown our space in a renovated mill complex, and had sublet space in the building next door. The two buildings shared a metal fire escape. Only about a dozen of us worked in the extended space, and we each had a physical key to get in.

On the day of the layoff, our desk phones rang one by one, and we walked, one by  one, down our hallway, across the fire escape, and into the main building, to be told our jobs were gone.

And you know what? We had to, basically, climb over one of our own, one of the manufacturing guys, who’d been given the job of rekeying the lock that very day, that very morning, the task could not wait. We had to sidle past him as he knelt to work on the lock. The look on his face. I almost felt worse for him than for me. What a decent man.

That was my first experience of being laid off. In those days, you showed up at the Unemployment Office in Waltham to register. How I dreaded it, not knowing what to expect. And then I found, when I got there, my coworkers sprinkled through the long line! What recognition, what laughter, what mutual kindness.

There’s a second post about layoffs here.

December 6, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Sometimes, in stories, there’s a haven. It can be physical, like Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s house in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Hannah’s cottage in The Witch of Blackbird Cove. Or it can be emotional, like Fezziwig’s ball in A Christmas Carol. A friend and I were reminiscing not long ago about our graduate student years. “Your apartment was so great,” he said. “It was such a pad.” A pad, for any non-decrepit person who stops by this blog, was a slang term, in the 1960s and hanging on into the 1980s, for an apartment of some character where friends would congregate. I love that I once had a pad.

The Lutheran church I grew up in had a big downstairs room where the Sunday school classes met. You know that room: one big open space that can be divided with partitions that slide in tracks across the floor. Maybe there’s a small stage at one end, as there was with us. Behind our stage was a room that barely held a couch, a couple of chairs, and a table. That was our hangout during our years of Saturday morning catechism lessons. My current church has a much bigger youth room, with several indestructible couches and multiple chairs, and slightly outdated but still working technology. I hope the kids love it. I hope they’re territorial about it.

I think – I’m pretty sure – I think it’s in The Music of Failure, by the Midwestern writer Bill Holm, that the narrator and a friend explore a long-abandoned church somewhere on the prairie. The narrator turns a corner and finds himself staring at an elderly couple standing by the organ, heads together, conferring over musical scores. They look up at him; he blinks; they vanish.

Why do they stay in their long-abandoned church, by the soundless organ?

Well, why would they want to be anywhere else? Maybe they should vacate their church once for all; maybe the next life is better spent reposing upon the bosom of God; but then again, maybe that’s exactly what they’re doing.

December 2, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Place of Business

Routine’s a good thing. Economic stability is a really good thing. You can put up with a lot in order to have those things.

My routine work life occurred in a rabbit warren of hallways and cubicle alleys jammed into a badly repurposed 1920s factory in Allston-Brighton-Watertown-Newton, a directional mess that was so confusing that I still got turned around, even after 9 years. The building was unhealthy and we all knew it, but no one dared object seriously. What, you afraid of a little black mold? We could all see the suspended ceiling tiles above the stairwell, inconvenient for the maintenance guy to reach, that would gradually turn brown, a process that took many months, before they would finally be replaced with tiles that would immediately begin the same transformation. We had a pretty good idea, too, why the roof was not repaired. Why would you do that when you are hoping to make a killing on the real estate market in just a little while? A little black mold isn’t going to hurt anybody!

The long concrete hallway, painted a shiny institutional grey, with labs on either side:

The materials lab.

The testing lab.

The high-voltage lab.

The heat lab.

The engineering department, still as death, peopled with silent men sitting in cubicle after cubicle, and a few silent women, too. The occasional squeak of a marker on a whiteboard, or, more rarely, a low conversation. Once in a while a chatting group of people walking the length of the room, on their way to a conference room.

All of it visually grim. “Engineering companies … ugh. I’ve been in a few of them on projects. Not places I’d ever want to work.” Who said this? My brother, a guy at home with numbers, but of the financial kind. He didn’t mean the cheapness and ugliness of the building, though; he meant the anxiety, gracelessness, dullness. Coldness.

I’ve stayed because the stability is good for me, and there are good people all around me, even though the organization is unhealthy. Working from home full-time is terribly isolating, and it’s also the best thing that could have happened.

November 29, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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Why I Didn’t, Don’t, Didn’t Like the Bible

Here is a dull sentence. Its purpose is to ensure that this post does not begin with a cheesy hook.

Why would you immerse yourself in stories about a nomadic Middle Eastern culture that morphed through various political alliances before being smashed to bits by an occupying force and sent into exile? Why would you concentrate on stories about a man who said some interesting things, did some odd things, and then was tortured to death?

I remember hearing about a local woman who did goddess-y, nature-y things back in the 80s and 90s. She’d been a good Lutheran, maybe even hanging out at UniLu in Cambridge, until she said goodbye to it all and hung out her shingle as a therapy-nature-spirit guru.

She said she couldn’t stand the stories any longer.

That’s what someone told me.

Well — Jesus God! Why do I read about girls being sold, girls being bought, girls being sent into exile by jealous wives with only fractionally more power than they, girls being offered for gang rape, girls being spied upon and taken for sexual access by powerful men. Women powerless against divorce, powerless against being rejected by their families, powerless to protect themselves or provide for themselves.

Why read passages that put me in a place of subservience, for the mere reason of the accident of my birth, not because of my actions or failings. Why accept a despised, diminished valuation, offered by men who think themselves interpreters for God. They can go to hell.

Why go to the source that puffs up the fragile egos of Christian Manly Men Dude Bros, the ones who would leave their churches in droves if anyone ever told them that Christianity does not give them the upper hand? I knew a kid in college, at the Campus Crusade for Christ the few times I ever darkened their door, who in conversation, a little smile hovering over his lips, rattled off the citations – literally, the book, chapter, and verse numbers – of all the passages that assert male authority over women. That is the comfort Christianity gave him, and he found it in the Bible.

That awful book.
I don’t ever read it.
I wish we didn’t have to have it.

In the early 80s, an older woman at Christ Church Cambridge said that to me, her words a mixture of frustration and humor. Yes, humor, and yet she was serious. I bet you anything she was a lifelong, committed Christian, too.

Sometimes I read the Bible and pick the diamonds out of the shit. Other times, especially when I am in the company of a true scholar, I am blown away by the riches, the wonder, of that awful book. Because I got away from the fundie dude bros long ago, and have had a rich life in a church that now has both women priests and bishops, my early despair and anger have been partly assuaged. I mostly love the Bible now and am fascinated by it, but I still partly hate it.

November 25, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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COVID-19 Holidays

If you go here and fill in these values,

You get to see some tender mercies:

Massachusetts Unemployment Claims

(I deleted every other week (mostly) because I only want to show the trend.)

A drop in the unemployment rate from 16.80 to 6.23 must be good news. Some people may have stopped job-hunting out of discouragement, but let’s hope that most of the drop has happened because people have found work.

Neighbor, I’m sorry I haven’t gone to your store or picked up takeout at your restaurant. I’m in my 60s and I’m easily spooked; I wonder if I’m too cautious and therefore ungenerous.

I’m sorry.

I hope things are at least starting to look better for you. Maybe that 6.23% is having beneficial ripple effects, however small.

How is your head doing? Who ever dreamed this would drag on this long — and even with vaccines, we won’t be able to live normally for a long time.

I’ve been holding steady and I hope you have, too. The holidays are making everything harder, though. I couldn’t concentrate on Thursday or Friday. I did no work. My company pays me to work and I didn’t do any because as soon as I sat down at my desk, my thoughts flew away. I could not make them behave. I feel such guilt over this but nothing helps and there is nowhere to go for respite.

Let’s try to think of genuinely encouraging things. Let’s think about the vaccines. We must await the final vaccine with patience and self-discipline. Does it help to know that that is what we are already doing?

What else can we do to get through this time? Is it enough to count our blessings? I am a praying person, so I do that. But what if you’re not? What helps you?

If you don’t pray and don’t like praying, then skip this paragraph and the next one! But if you think it’s OK, here’s a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that covers the bases pretty well:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

November 22, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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The Faithful Techno-serfs, part 4

If Matthew 25:14-30 is a simple narrative about the world, what makes it a parable? In  a parable, one thing stands in for another. It seems to me, offhand, that in all parables, the Man With Resources is a stand-in for God. At the outset, that seems to apply pretty easily to this parable: God entrusts us with everything and rewards us when we take risks and increase God’s wealth — the Kingdom of God, or missionary work here on earth, or something like that. Salvations listed in a spreadsheet, if you like. If you don’t take risks, if you are cautious and miserly like the third servant, you are an unfaithful Christian who deserves to be punished.

That all tracks pretty well. But what is symbolic about this:

Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.

If the master is God, God is getting quite a chewing out by this human being, who is amazingly unafraid of him. Maybe the servant doesn’t know who he’s dealing with? How could he know? God does a pretty good job of hiding Godself from us.

Of course, if You revealed even a shred of Yourself, we would be vaporized. So You don’t, and leave us guessing, except for that time You came for a visit.

Is the bad servant’s monologue an illustration of how wrongly people can understand God? In that case, is being cast into torment in outer darkness an appropriate punishment for having bad theology?

I like the bad servant’s wild, to-hell-with-it courage that can get you fired, or ruined, or, in the worst circumstances, killed. I don’t think the evangelist put those lines in for the purpose of undercutting them. I think they are intended to be the true words of a brave person. So who is the evil master?

When I was in graduate school, I did a lot of temporary secretarial work. Because I was reasonably intelligent, and good-looking enough, I was sent to a lot of executive secretary jobs, working for the President or Vice President of This or That. For a while, I worked for a managing partner of an accounting firm near Government Center in Boston.

The accountants there liked to play a little game. When their meetings began at mid-morning at the long mahogany table in the executive conference room, a typical catered business lunch would be provided: a variety of sandwiches and salads, fresh fruit, dessert, and coffee. The guys, and they were all guys, would finish their meal by making the most disgusting mess they could. They would mash the remains of their cakes and cookies into the ice at the bottom of their glasses of soda or juice — actual glasses that would have to be handled and washed by a human being. The guys would slop together the remains of sandwiches, potato salad, mustard, ketchup, napkins, and salt, pepper, and sugar packets, into stomach-turning piles of mess. We secretaries didn’t have to clean it up; the caterers did. Everyone knew about it. The guys did it at every one of their meetings, and always left the room, grinning.

Those were unhealthy servants of the wrong master. I try not to be like them. Don’t you be, either.

Part 1 of this post is here.
Part 2 of this post is here.
Part 3 of this post is here.

November 18, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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The Faithful Techno-serf, part 3

I am working through a tutorial for a business intelligence program. Obviously, once you have big data, you want to use it. It’s impressive how easy this tool makes it to identify and display slices of information. When the data is about, say, access to PPE in urban medical centers versus rural practices, we probably think it’s good to have a view into bottlenecks, underserved areas, etc., especially if we have the will to improve matters once the problems are identified.

But if the same data slicing and dicing is done to records about your buying patterns, including your prescriptions, or your political donations, or your personal friendships and associations – with you identified within a hair’s breadth, laughable promises about anonymizing notwithstanding – then big-data capturing and analysis become malign.

My work is only glancingly related to the business intelligence tool I’m learning; I need only a basic understanding of how we use it in our product. But everything I work on has the same double-edged moral aspect. I wonder: can I always justify my work life by saying “The thing I work on is morally neutral, like a kitchen knife. You can use it to prepare a meal for hungry people, or you can use it to kill someone. It’s not the knife manufacturer’s responsibility to control how its product is used.”

I made one ethical decision when I was young: I wouldn’t work for defense contractors, even though, believe me, I want to be defended against people who wish me, you, and this nation harm. But I still decided not to work directly on shrapnel guns, cluster bombs – bombs of any sort – chemical weapons, anything developed with the sole purpose to destroy. The money in defense was better, but I decided to pass it up.

I guess that’s the one glimmer of virtue in my choice of work. Otherwise, I can’t disentangle myself morally from the economy; no one can, not even professed religious who depend on donations. Donations from whom? How was that money made? Truly, we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.

I confess that I am entangled in sin, not just the sin of the evil world around me, but my own. I think about my work life – fruitlessly. Without a doubt, I benefit from the development of the weapons I decided not to touch. My decision largely means that I depend on other people’s willingness to do what I wouldn’t do. In the meantime, I’ve worked in many industries on products that could be used for good or ill, and washed my hands of moral concerns.

Part 1 of this post is here.
Part 2 of this post is here.
Part 4 of this post is here.

March 15, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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