Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I should be packing boxes...

...but instead I am planning to exploit the labor of the two septuagenarians who arrive on Sunday to help us move into our new house (i.e. my parents).  They are very energetic and seem to enjoy being useful, so who am I to deprive them of the fun of packing up my entire house?  Every dish I wrap is a drop of joy robbed from these deserving people.  So I am blogging instead.

In general, I think one of the best things about American culture is how few rigid social customs we have.   In some cultures, you can pretty much alienate an entire community with a single wrong gesture.   Or in France, you can pretty much alienate an entire country by not being French.  In America, you just show up, there are no rules.  Or at least very few.  There are so many kinds of people and cultures and sub-cultures that the only thing un-American is to be snotty about it.   

But sometimes I think we could stand to have a few more customs.  Like with greetings.  The French do the three air kisses (a gesture so fraught with social peril, it is probably just another French invention designed to make people feel inferior).  Kenyans always do the handshake, coming and going, no more, no less.  Japanese used to do that bow thing, not sure what they do these days.  Russians might vomit vodka all over each other, I don't know.  Americans don't know what they do.  And this makes things very awkward.   Some people hug everyone no matter what. To me, hugging seems like a "haven't seen you for awhile" greeting, although I usually hug more casually than that, mainly because I don't know what else to do.  But then if you hug someone you see often to say hello, do you also hug them to say good-bye? That seems a bit much, but again, I'm at a loss for good options.  Guys have it a little bit easier, because they can always greet other guys with a cool guy-handshake, although the guy-girl greeting remains dangerous (usually it degenerates into the "side hug," which I think is one of the more hideous greetings.  Nothing says, "Hello! Please don't sue me for sexual harassment" like the side hug).  Then there are those who just say hi, they don't pair it with any gesture of any kind, as if they are robots who will short-circuit upon human contact.

My biggest pet peeve are the wanna-be Europeans (usually people here in the northeast, large portions of which I am sure would vote to join the EU if given a chance) who do the air-kissing even though, hello, we are Americans.  We don't have universal health care, we do believe in God, we do insist on full-sized appliances, and we don't air-kiss.  The worst part of the Americanized air-kiss is that when someone goes in for the air-kiss, you never know if they are going to do one, two, or three, which is awesome because it offers the potential for not one, not two, but three chances for humiliation.   

I had a highly unfortunate incident with the air-kiss greeting  yesterday.  I ran into someone very important in my professional world who actually knows and likes me (a bit, let's not get carried away).  He came over to greet me, and we shook hands (not sure who offered the handshake to whom), but then I thought, mistakenly in hindsight, that he was going in for the air-kiss.  So then I went in for the air-kiss, I didn't want to offend if he was air-kissing, because nothing is worse than not reciprocating an air-kiss, as it sends the message of "I think you might have ebola."  So we did the first air-kiss, and I thought, OK, that was heinously awkward but it's over, whew. But then he went for air-kiss number two, in which I only haltingly participated.  Awkward pause, waiting to see if there will be third....and, no, that's it.  Two air-kisses is all we have today, because today we are only 2/3 French.  Tomorrow, who knows?  And the rest of our conversation was tainted by the ridiculous meet-and-greet.  And I am still mortified a day later.  I ask you, is this any way to live?

So I say we have a referendum and select how we will greet one another.  Personally, I think the Kenyan way is correct (and not just because I was raised there).  Handshakes all the way around.  It's friendly, yet non-invasive.  And it's clear--if someone sticks their hand out, you know what to do with it (if you don't, there is no hope for you, you need to move to Jupiter or something).  But I'm open.  Majority rules.  Now that's American.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Farewell to Jerry, the Uberboss

Sometimes you don't know what you have until it's gone.  But other times you know exactly what you have and you are just very sad when it's gone.

I haven't had any truly heinous bosses, I feel lucky about that, but I've had better and worse.  And for the past 2 years, I've had Jerry, and I think it will be pretty much downhill from here.  So what's so awesome about Jerry? Well, if I could describe it exactly, I could write a book and make kabillions.   But I can't quite describe it, and besides, he is probably writing just such a book as I speak (the man has already written a dissertation-come-book and a certain-to-be-published novel in all the time he has leftover from his demanding job and two small kids) and would sue me for plagiarism. Because he's nice but he's not a fool.

First of all, Jerry is the most positive person on the planet without being too annoying. I mean, it's kind of annoying at first, but then he just wears you down with optimism until you cave and find yourself saying things like, "You're right, Jerry, it's actually a good thing that my house burned down and I lost everything I own because now I get to buy new shoes."  He also heaps (hopefully not empty) praise on his employees, and yet it doesn't seem like flattery, you walk away thinking, "Hey, I might actually BE awesome.  Or at least a little awesome. I think I might go read a whole book or run a whole mile.  That's right."

Jerry is also really into the personal growth/leadership/corporate success crapola, but once again, one's eyes do not involuntarily roll up into one's head when he is pushing the stuff.  For one thing, he's just so sincerely enthusiastic that to rain on his parade would make you pretty much the worst person in the world and no one wants to be the worst person in the world, except maybe Kim Jong Il, but he's just crazy and has bad hair.  So I actually read--READ--The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (or was it 10?), which like almost all books of that type contained nothing really new or earth-shattering and yet you find it mysteriously inspiring.  Kind of like Jerry.

Jerry also knows how to do both work and fun.  Our team is the most productive team in our organization (stats don't lie, people!)  We work, and he works.  But he also spends time each day goofing off with us, leading brainstorms like "If our team was a TV show, who would play us?" and "What female stars are 'just OK'?" and teaching us the meaning of words like "hogly" (which means hot or ugly depending on the context.  He claims Cameron Diaz is hogly, but I think he is on crack.  Try Britney Spears, Jerry).  

I think the key with Jerry is that he is incredibly socially skilled.  He always knows how to strike the right balance.  Like he is also extremely self-aware without being self-loathing.  He's confident but not arrogant.  He's funny but not inappropriate. He's short but not too short (OK he's too short.  But he has a hot wife).   He works hard and is devoted to his job, but he leaves on time.   He's upbeat but no Pollyanna.  He's encouraging but honest.  I don't think you can really teach this kind of savvy, he would probably say you can.  But I am not convinced, because despite his best efforts to induct me into the cult of optimism, I still loiter on its fringes.   

Now Jerry is moving on to bigger and better things, thankfully within the organization.  So maybe he'll remember me when he is huge (not tall, but huge).  

Sunday, June 7, 2009

I Survived Princeton Reunions 2009

We got back last Sunday from a great little break from parenthood.  Kevin's mom and stepdad came and stayed with Charlotte while we drove up to Philadelphia for a couple of days, then went on to Princeton for Kevin's 15th reunion.  Philadelphia was spectacular, barring the several hundred middle school kids with whom we shared the city. You could smell the insecurity.  There was also the very frightening guide at Christ Church who very sternly told us and a bunch of the school children that we ARE the Founding Fathers and this is OUR Revolution (I'd say we are in big trouble if that is true).    But we did our best to ignore the preteen spirit and saw all the historical sites, stayed in a gorgeous hotel, and even ran up the Art Museum steps like Rocky.  It was awesome.

This sign was probably my favorite thing in Philly, at the Liberty Bell.  I just think it's so helpful when historical sites make provisions for those with uncontrollable compulsions.
Then we went to Princeton.  Historical context: Princeton reunions are an absurdly big deal.   Every 5th year class (i.e. 50th reunion, 45th, 40th, and so on) has its own courtyard where there is music, food, and massive quantities of alcohol.  Then the capper is the "P-rade" in which everyone lines a long parade route, and each class, starting with the oldest, falls in with a float of some kind, and everyone wears a like-themed costume (this year for Kevin's class it was "Smells like 15 Spirit"/Grunge).  It takes like 5 years for everyone to parade past, and the ending is very anti-climactic. After waiting for so long for you class's turn to parade, you walk along the route for like 10 minutes and then spill out into a field where the university president and a few of her friends are sitting in a bleacher clapping for you. Then everyone goes back to the courtyard and drinks some more.  

This was my second reunion.  The first one, 5 years ago, was made more wretched by my terrible attitude (and my terrible footwear).  In my defense, I was in the throes of rewriting my entire dissertation after one of my committee members decided it simply would not do two days before my scheduled defense. I also had no job.  So I was feeling a bit like a failure.  And when one is feeling like a failure, going to hang out with a bunch of drunken Ivy Leaguers probably isn't the best thing (it probably isn't the best thing just across the board, but especially not then).  To make matters worse, I wore uncomfortable shoes and didn't realize how much you have to walk at these things.  So there I was rejected, humiliated, not knowing anyone, not drunk, and hobbling around campus.  Needless to say, I was miserable and of course I had to make Kevin miserable, that really was not in doubt.  There's just no point to it otherwise.

This time, I was determined to not make Kevin miserable.  I wore comfy shoes.  I had an answer prepared when someone asked me where I went to college and why ("Po-dunk Baptist University.  Because I am only of average intelligence and prefer not to be too stimulated intellectually." Unfortunately, I never got to use it, as we talked mainly to people I had met before.)  And most importantly, I stayed focused on the fact that I was there WITHOUT A BABY.  I would almost enjoy spending a week in a concentration camp without a baby.  I still found the entire scene more than a little ridiculous, mystifying, and boring but whatever.

But I did get to see George Will in the flesh:
You can already tell these twin girls (daughters of one of Kevin's classmates) will make great Princetonians.

Here's good news: There is a policy on alcohol. And it includes a reference to diversity.  Good to know that all those people drunk out of their minds are being multicultural. 

The best part of the P-rade: Seeing the oldest living alumni.  This guy is class of 1925, so unless he was very precocious, he's around 106 years old. Awesome.