Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Farewell, Factory of the Damned

There are one or two ways to handle a major layoff as a responsible and ethical employer. There are about 50 ways to do it wrong. Jimmy's soon-to-be-former employer is trying most of them on for size.

Those of you who read my Facebook know my fiancé is about to be laid off. This poses no small problem for us, as book sales have bottomed out and supporting a family of three (including a teenager with a tapeworm and two hollow legs) on a reporter's salary is... problematic. Yeah, that's it.

He's been actively job-hunting for two months, frenetically begging on the job market since this layoff was announced a few weeks ago. He's had three nibbles, no offers, though one is quite promising. We've pared down the budget as much as we can (note to self: don't sign long-term contracts anymore).

In the meantime, let's review how you DON'T handle a layoff well:

• Keep all your employees in the dark and let speculation run riot before giving your workers notice of layoff.

• Tell workers the layoff is because Wal-Mart is switching to Juarez, Mexico as its source of fuses. It may even be true. Regardless, their annoyance at Wal-mart will blind them to the fact that you seem to have just as much business as before, and they won't complain about working hours and hours of unscheduled overtime.

• Then delay actual written notice of the layoff until the last possible second, ensuring that applications for any benefits will be delayed as much as possible.

• When repeatedly asked for a written notice, stave off workers with a photocopied sheet giving the number for the unemployment office, which they could just get from the Internet and is useless until date of layoff anyway.

• Only when workers practically stage a sit-in at human resources should you give written notice of layoff, preferably the day before benefits are scheduled to end.

• Severance? Sure! But don't actually pay the severance for a full year, when it will do the least possible good. It's not like they need to pay their rent in the 18-22 days it takes to process an unemployment claim, and when that claim comes, of course it's only going to be half what they were making. Who needs more than that?

• Also, make the severance contingent on recalls. If you call them back six months from now and they turn you down for any reason, such as finding a new job outside Hell, they forfeit their severance. You win!

• Be sure to set up the 401(k) so when you lay them off, they only get about 25 percent of what's in their accounts. The rest you get to keep. It's your bonus for doing such a bang-up job.

• In the last few weeks leading up to the layoff date, "forget" to send child support payments to the various state agencies. Sure, you're charging those guys nearly $100 a year in "administration fees" to withhold support from their checks and send it to those agencies, but those guys are so worried about finding new jobs they might not notice right away that you're withholding support payments and not actually paying them. Until the court summons comes, then you actually have to send the checks.

• The last week before layoffs, hire temps to take the place of the guys you're laying off. Bonus: you can have the exiting staff train them!

If it wasn't for the money, I'd say good riddance to Factory of the Damned. As it is... well, buy books, if you would. And pray.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Person of the Year

Once again, TIME Magazine presents me with a great conundrum, and this year it's harder than most: the blogosphere is lobbying heavily for Malala Yousafzai as Person of the Year. Yousafzai is a brave, intelligent girl whom I admire more than I can say... but I don't think she should be Person of the Year.

This ought to win me friends.

Yousafzai, of course, is the 15-year-old Pakistani girl who openly wrote that, gee, girls are human too and deserve an education. While in Western culture some people still argue that we don't need no book-learnin', she defied a rigidly patriarchal Eastern culture to insist that she did not require a penis in order to read, and she was rewarded with a bullet to the head - which she survived.

Yes, she deserves accolades (and, one hopes, the opportunity for a college degree she desires). But that's not what Person of the Year is supposed to be about.

Person of the Year is supposed to recognize that person who has most changed the world in the past year. It is not an honor, or an acknowledgement of worthiness, as the magazine has stated many times; in multiple cases it has been the opposite. For every Charles Lindbergh and Mahatma Gandhi, there was an Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin (twice). It is often a president or a monarch, but not always an American one; the superpower is not all it's cracked up to be.

And then there's the weaselly choice: a group of people. That started in 1950 with "The American Fighting Man," during the kickoff to the Korean War, and again the soldiers in 2003. Also honored have been "American scientists," baby boomers, "Middle Americans," American women (that's a pretty vague category), "the peacemakers" (represented by Arafat, Rabin, Mandela and de Klerk), whistleblowers in corporate America circa 2002, good Samaritans like Bono and Bill Gates, the protesters of 2011 and even inanimate objects: The Computer (1982) and The Endangered Earth (1988).

The silliest? "You." Yes, you. You've been Person of the Year. In 2006, they honored personal content creators on the web, meaning, um, everybody. Congrats.

Person of the Year has changed much since it began in 1927. Every U.S. president ends up on the list at least once - F.D.R. three times. Some things have changed; it's more America-centric, with only Vladimir Putin as a non-U.S.-based Person since Pope John Paul II in 1994. Also, we now call it Person of the Year, as a 1999 acknowledgement that women are people too. I'm sure Yousafzai appreciates that.

But as I insist every year, the meaning behind the award has degraded much too far into another meaningless accolade when it goes for the safe, easy honors celebrating whoever America likes today. Gone is the spine TIME showed in 1979 when it named the Ayatollah Khomeini, and while Albert Einstein was undoubtedly one of the great influences of the 20th century, it would not repeat its previous bravery in naming Adolf Hitler. Can anyone argue that Hitler did not change the face of the previous century more than any single human being?

I canceled my subscription when TIME's spine totally disappeared in 2001. There was simply no argument which human being had completely changed the face of the world in that year: Osama bin Laden. Yes, the screaming would have been enormous. But it was the truth. Bin Laden changed the world, that year and for years to come.

Instead they cowed to admittedly enormous pressure and named Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City. Giuliani was the feel-good choice, a camera-friendly mayor whose city had been dealt a horrific blow. No doubt he made a difference to New Yorkers. But he hardly changed the world. TIME cowed to a terrified and chaotic public that wanted a happy hero face who held no real controversy. Whether Giuliani was indeed a hero of 9/11, I leave to those who were there. But he was not Person of the Year.

And, sadly, neither is Malala Yousafzai. Her story has gone around the world and no doubt has inspired many... but to the vast majority, the response would be, "Malala who?" Her writing and the cowardly attempt to silence her has not yet changed the world. What a beautiful thing it would be if it did! But it has not happened.

So if not Yousafzai, then who? There are many contenders this year, and as usual, TIME is offering us the chance to vote. Some of them are certainly contenders for Person of America's Year, but it's hard to argue that Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert, Michael Phelps, Jay-Z or Michael Bloomberg had much influence beyond our borders. Obama is a safe choice; he won the election, after all. Hillary Clinton has been logging the frequent flyer miles. (Seriously, Psy? The musician who created gangnam style? Who nominates these lists?)

None of them make a very compelling case, not even "undocumented immigrants," whose very existence changed the conversation of the election. Again, that's pretty much a U.S.-centric issue. Likewise Sandra Fluke, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and the Mars Rover (robot of the year?).

Who changed the world this year?

If I had to pick - and shockingly enough, they don't ask me - I would reluctantly go with the frontrunner: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Democratically elected, the U.S.-educated engineer consolidated his power in the wake of the Arab Spring tumult, out-maneuvering the remnants of the Mubarak regime and guiding his country through the development of a constitution based on civil rights, or so it would seem. He is a Muslim and is not a puppet of the West, which makes people nervous. But he negotiated the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, which won him no small amount of regard in the West. Another awful war averted by a peacemaker in the Middle East, or a future Castro in populist clothing? Time will tell.

Sadly, however, I doubt TIME has the guts to name a Muslim president of a country most Americans know only for triangular architecture and a history of unrest. If they must go with a feel-good candidate, Yousafzai is as good a choice as any - and certainly her cause is one worth celebrating.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sartorial Statistics

ME: Aaaah! Noooo!
HIM: What?
ME: You shaved your beard!
HIM: Don't start that, I did not. I trimmed it.
ME: Trimmed it to nothing!
HIM: It's there.
ME: ... I need a magnifying glass.
HIM: I trimmed it to a 2!
ME: You can't go lower than 4. Ever again.
HIM: It's my beard, woman!
ME: Don't call me woman! You can't keep it as low as when you were young, it's all gray and it disappears!
HIM: Gee, thanks hon.
ME: How about this? I can cut my hair every time you shave your beard.
HIM: No. I love your hair. You may not cut it.
ME: Oh yeah? Says who?
HIM: Me. Cause I'm the man and I say so. *chokes*
ME: Say that again with a straight face.
HIM: ... I can't.
ME: You're adorable. Or you were!
HIM: It's still there!
ME: I loved your beard! It was all lovely black shot through with silver, so distinguished. You could be an honored head of state with a beard like that, or maybe a Bond villain.
HIM: ... That's quite a leap there, hon. *tries to kiss me*
ME: No! I don't kiss beardless men! Besides, now it's all spiky and stabs me.
HIM: Ha! You admit it's there!
ME: It's invisible.

Monday, November 05, 2012

In which I get historically cranky...

All right, let's get this straight:

• Guy Fawkes was not trying to overthrow a theocratic, repressive government; he was trying to create one. King James began his reign by offering religious freedom, at least the best that time period could envision. Only after constant threats of violence if he did not convert to the Catholic faith personally and the Bye Plot, which was a failed plan to kidnap the king and hold him until he agreed to reinstate the Catholic Church as the sole faith of England, did James get cranky and begin persecuting Catholics.

• The November Plot was to assassinate King James, to kidnap and install Princess Elizabeth, all of (I think) eight years old, because she could be easily controlled. It was not the work of anarchists who believed in no government; it was exchanging a legal monarchy for a totalitarian theocracy. They also tried to convince Spain to invade England and ignored the pleadings of the Pope, who thought it was a bad idea to reinstate Catholicism by violence.

• The Fifth of November was not a heroic martyrdom of patriots; it was a failed terrorist plot. Fawkes was caught attempting to blow up Parliament, not just King James. If it had succeeded, hundreds of innocent people would have been killed, including all of Parliament.

• The "remember remember" chant grew into popularity in England cheering the failure of the plot, not supporting its aims. It ends by cheering on burning Guy Fawkes at the stake, though that didn't happen; Fawkes managed to kill himself on the way to his execution, though his effigy was burned on Nov. 5 each year for centuries.

• The fact that Fawkes' face mask has been used by Anonymous and Alan Moore wrote a graphic novel in which a terrorist co-opts Fawkes' image to blow up a pastiche of Margaret Thatcher's Parliament does not make the Fifth of November a holiday for freedom. The gross misunderstanding of the November Plot is one of the reasons I dislike V for Vendetta so much.

• I personally don't intend to remember remember the Fifth of November. Instead, I think I'll go vote tomorrow.