Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Thanking the people who got me going

When we embark on changes in our lives, we often leave behind people who have had a tremendous impact on us.

Recently, I was thinking back to the time in the late 1980s when I lived on Aztec Court in the Arbor Glen subdivision of unincorporated Palm Beach County, and the people who lived there. At the end of our cul-de-sac of two-unit townhomes was a married couple, Dave and Linda (real names are different, of course, and I saw from the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser website that they’ve moved on, as have so many of us who lived in those starter homes).

Dave worked for a company that did employment evaluations for people who could no longer do their previous jobs. He and his wife, who was from Kentucky, regularly held Kentucky Derby parties every year and I was invited, as well as their neighbor in the unit, a fellow named Stan. (Not his real name).

Stan and I both tried the singles circuit – without much success – and we had another thing in common: we both worked for the Postal Service. I worked as a mailhandler in the main Hell on Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach, and he worked as a mailhandler at a post office in Boca Raton.

In fact, Stan and I had an acquaintance in common: Lou had been a postal supervisor who – amazingly – was a decent fellow and tried to fix Stan up with women. Even though the results had been disastrous, Stan still liked Lou. Through some process I never really got the whole story on, Lou ended up leaving management and became a mailhandler at the West Palm Beach main facility, and he and I became fast friends. We’d recite dialogue from the movie “Do the Right Thing,” (he loved to imitate Radio Raheem’s “Love, Hate, routine) and tell each other stories to pass the time.

(I suppose I should note that Lou was African American; his imitations were meant to honor, not ridicule, the movie and its characters.)

Of all the people I worked with at the post office, I missed Lou the most when I left.

Stan had worked in the past at the infamous Lordstown, Ohio, General Motors plant, and had been part of the big strikes that had taken place there over working conditions and abuse by the bosses, so he felt right at home in the post office of the time, except for the strikes. We weren’t allowed to strike at the post office, but I sometimes thought we should have done it.

It was probably Kentucky Derby day in 1987 and Stan and I had sat there and whined about our jobs to Dave, and he finally said he’d had enough.

“Do something about it,” he said, and offered to help us both.

“We’ll have you both over for dinner some night soon,” Dave said, “and I’ll give you the testing I give clients at my job, and then do the same evaluation.”

Dave was an amazing guy, and he and his wife soon had three adorable children. He said the testing normally cost hundreds of dollars, but he’d do it for us for free.

“I will note that how it turns out depends on your attitude, and how eager you are for a change,” Dave said. “I have seen that postal workers often don’t do very well because they can’t find a comparable job outside the post office.”

I didn’t care at this point. I wanted some direction and a few good ideas as to what I could do. The Postal Service had told me that I had nothing, no abilities, no skills, no opportunities. I needed an objective view, and Dave was offering it to me.

A couple of weeks later, Stan and I came over to Dave and Linda’s house, and after we ate he set everything up. Soon, Stan and I were taking tests, filling out forms and following instructions as Dave timed us.

We finished the work and relaxed in the living room with a drink or two, and Dave said he’d contact us in a few days with the results.

One day I saw Dave, and he said, “Come over tonight and I’ll talk to you about the results.”

I did. We sat down and he said, “Stop wasting your life at the post office.”

His evaluation of my results was that I had everything I needed to go to college and succeed, and that I should go to Palm Beach Community College (as it was called then) and register for classes as soon as I could.

The details are lost in the mists of time, and I’m sure Dave told Stan a similar story, but I realized that I needed to make a decision here.

It can be tough to get off a treadmill. I could have spent the rest of my life in the post office, wasting my talents and skills on a job that was never going to give me any satisfaction; in a corrupt, mismanaged organization that never was going to change; and I could look back on a life wasted in my old age.

Or I could take a chance, and do something. I had done it before, when I left Queens a scared teenager and came back a confident Marine. When I had left Long Island and moved to Florida. “It’s time to change,” I told myself.

Dave, thanks so much for showing me the way. Thanks to Dave, I have the great career that seemed impossible 30 years ago.

I overcame my fears, registered for college and soon was on my way to achievements that continue to this day.

I don’t know what happened to Stan. I hope he moved up to bigger and better things, too.

My path was hard, though my postal salary got me through college without any loans or grants as I worked my way through.

Amid the negativity of some of my coworkers and nearly all my superiors, all the way up to the top dope in the Postal Service, the postmaster general, I left the disaster area and soon was working in my chosen field.

What does this story mean for you?

Well, many years ago, there was a made-for-TV movie called “The Burning Bed.” The late Farrah Fawcett played a brutally abused woman – in a true story – who eventually waited until her drunk and passed-out husband was asleep, then covered him and the bed with flammable liquid and set it on fire. She then turned herself in to the police.

She was charged with murder, went to trial and was found not guilty because of the abuse she had endured.

The movie fictionalized some aspects, but when I saw it in the 1990s, one thing really touched me. In an effort to get away and develop herself, the wife began to attend college. She found other women there and a community of help.

But her husband kept coming back into her life, and there’s a climactic scene where he decides to burn her college schoolwork and textbooks. He picks up one of the textbooks, looks at it, leafs through it, and then snorts and shakes his head as he tosses it, and then a match, on the pile of books and papers.

In a symbolic way, he’s reasserting his power over her. In effect, he’s saying, “All this book knowledge is meaningless in the face of my power over you.”

Indeed, I often heard that the “book knowledge” I was pursuing would be useless in my future, and there were many nights when I would lie awake in bed and worry about my planned giant step into the unknown.

What if they were all right, and I was wrong?

But at college, I got the reinforcement I needed to go on.

I used to say that some of the smartest people in the county – the people at the community college and university – thought I was pretty darn smart.

And some of the dumbest people in the county – my bosses at the post office – thought I was a moron.

“I’m going to bet on the smart people every time,” I said, “ and not the dumb ones.”

In the end, I was right. Leaving the post office was the best thing I ever did.

What relevance does this have for your own life?

If you’re considering beginning the process of change, no matter how old you are, go for it. Try to avoid student loan debt but show that you’re determined to follow your dream, whatever it is.

It’s OK to be afraid. When I was in the Marines and was training for electronics at a Navy school, a petty officer in charge of the training said, “It’s normal to be afraid when you go out on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier during flight operations. But if there’s ever a day when you’re about to do that and you’re not afraid, that’s the day you better not step out onto that flight deck.”

Go out there.

Achieve.

You won’t regret it.

February 21, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

Building your future, one step at a time

I recently read two articles that really inspired me, and the odd thing was that one of them was about a group that ordinarily I’d have a hard time feeling any sympathy for.

In The Daily Beast, a young Hasidic man (link: http://thebea.st/2hFsiwT) described how he decided that despite his community’s strictures, he needed to learn English and get an education. It might seem odd that someone born and raised in the U.S. would not speak English, but in his closed society in Rockland County, N.Y., such efforts were not allowed and could even make him unmatchable in marriage.

In a deal that went down late at night, he bought a small transistor radio and learned English, then got himself admitted to public school. Despite being totally unfamiliar with American culture, he managed to learn his way around and pursue his dreams of getting an education and a good job. There’s an amazing twist to the story, and I won’t give it away. Read it for yourself, and be inspired.

The other story, in the New Yorker magazine (link: http://bit.ly/2gKu2aF), is about men trying to build a better future for themselves after serving time in prison for crimes, many of them bad crimes, in California’s state prison system. Carl Sagan once said that it’s amazing how brilliance can sprout in even the most unlikely places. The men in the story discover books, start reading and become determined to better themselves. Sure, there are a lot of idealists out there who want to help them, but these men are so determined to get ahead and live life the right way that they forge ahead through the many disadvantages placed in their path. There’s still a ways to go for many of them, but they’re getting there.

When I worked in the post office, I remember that one time a woman came up to me and said that she wanted to go to college, as I was. This was in the early 1990s. I had long since given up hope for advancement in the post office, and was focusing on my next career. Her main worry, she said, was that having a college degree might hurt her chances of advancement in the post office.

This was not an idle worry. The Postal Service was and is notorious for limiting the advancement options of people with college degrees. Look, a place that would promote an elementary school dropout is not one that’s going to respect a diploma. Many postal managers were high school dropouts with GEDs who were very proud of their lack of education, which they saw as a sign of wasted time. Even other workers were negative toward my goals.

But I had set my sights higher and was determined to make something of myself. In the meantime, I tried to make change real in the post office, but my low position meant that my ideas never were taken seriously.

Oddly, I was aligned with the views of the postmaster general at the time, but local postal management told me his views had no relevance to the Postal Service. These were the same folks who thought the internet was a passing fad.

I quit the post office in 1994 and began making my way in a new field. I still watch as the post office tries to change and adapt, and cannot because of its leadership. Preventing the smart people from advancing was a good way to protect postal management, but the system is paying the price.

Individuals, though, have to forget this whole notion of blind loyalty to collective groups and forge their own path. It’s not easy, as the young Hasidic man finds out, and the cost can be your ability to ever connect with a woman, but it has to be done.

No one ever regrets going to college, no matter their age. If you’re thinking of doing it, do it! You’ll be glad you did.

December 14, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Postal Service’s incompetent management can’t even train its employees

My comments are not statistically valid in any way, since they are based on experiences that happened more than 22 years ago, but maybe they’ll shed some light on what the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General is trying to do, which is discover why the Postal Service is spending tens of thousands of dollars for each new hire and why they are nearly all quitting soon after starting work, and why the IG will write a report that’s ultimately ignored.

I was a mailhandler in the Postal Service from January 1983 to June 1994. I was eager at the start, as most postal employees are, to become good at my job and to advance my career. I had heard that the Postal Service was a bad place to be an ambitious worker but was determined to be different. Even when I discovered that the mailhandler craft was disdained as “the strong backs and weak minds” of the system, I was determined to prove everyone wrong.

Having worked for United Parcel Service, I had few fears of the prospect of postal privatization, which I saw as a steppingstone to advancement opportunity. I had thrived at UPS, where I was a Christmas-temp, and had even been advanced from unloading large trailers to pre-loading the famous brown trucks that drivers took on their routes. I worked in a facility that had 40 workers on the night shift and one supervisor, and the workers pushed hard to get the job done because they were paid for a full night even if they got done early.

After I was assigned to the pre-loading, a second manager was brought in for the holiday rush, and part of her job was to help me learn ways to become more efficient in my work. Through her, I learned the importance of putting items in the truck in the correct order so the driver could deliver them. On a few occasions, I’d see a box with the dreaded “OOP” notation, meaning “out of place.” That meant that the driver had found the box but had passed the package’s destination and could not backtrack. I would have “made my book” at UPS but for the bad economy in early 1983. Still, I learned that it was important to train everyone fully in their jobs.

Needless to say, the Postal Service was a culture shock for me. I had taken the test for several crafts shortly after my discharge from the military, but was not betting on getting hired anytime soon. Indeed, I was beginning to pursue educational opportunities and when the Postal Service did hire me, I spent a couple of days wondering what I should do, as I had just started school and the schedule was going to be impossible for me to do both. At the time, I made the least bad choice and took the postal job.

Unlike the UPS facility, the postal facility had a horde of supervisors and managers, and training was not a priority. You learned as you went – if someone wanted to teach you – and while I was criticized for being to eager to learn outside my immediate work area I soon became good at my job. I was working in the Long Island area, where the union was pretty strong and management pretty laid-back.

But I couldn’t afford to live in that area, and eventually moved to Florida. Here I could see the challenge of massive growth – part of the reason I moved there – and the desperate need for change. Supervisors were less tolerant of new-hires and some were very abusive toward workers. Sexual harassment of female employees was rampant and, despite the promises made at orientation, usually accusations were dealt with through threats and extreme abuse and retaliation.

Again, training was never conducted for mailhandlers or casuals. (There was training for LSM operators, and that had to go continually because management seemed to have a goal of 100 percent turnover on the LSMs. They came close, especially with new-hires, very few of whom made their probation.)

I made it clear to my bosses that I wanted training to advance into management, and was basically shot down. Still, I managed to learn that there were correspondence courses I could take, including an introduction to postal management. I was warned that taking correspondence courses could actually hurt my advancement chances, but decided to take them nonetheless, figuring I’d learn skills that I could use outside the Postal Service.

The basic postal supervisors’ course, which no one else took in my facility, was an eye-opener. I really worked that course hard, learning how to deal with people and how to talk to them. Needless to say, reality was quite different but I have always found theory to be a good place to start. I was advised to stay away from the local community college but found that some of the bosses were teaching classes there in postal operations, so I took them and was not afraid to express my views. I probably destroyed my advancement chances in the Postal Service but it was worth it.

The funny thing was that – especially after the violence that broke out in facilities – I was mainly parroting what the postmaster general had been saying. Employees were reporting abusive work environments and often paying the price in severe retaliation despite promises of no retaliation. I learned that postal management was a good place if you were a liar, a sex harasser, an abuser, a practitioner of “creative postal math” and an all-around bad person.

When I finally got a chance to put theory into practice, the reality was that I was a terrible postal manager, as bad or worse than those I criticized. I was relieved and sent back to the mailhandler craft.

At this point, I had a decision to make. My first instinct was to quit. I have always been a deliberative person, though, and in my late 20s was too mature to act impulsively.

So I decided that the Postal Service was not the career for me, but decided to stay and use it to further my own goals. Despite the warnings, I trekked to the community college and began the long process of applying to become a student there. It was a lot of paperwork, and I had to take the ACT, but in the summer of 1988 I began my first course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

I was advised repeatedly by people in and out of the Postal Service that college was a waste of time, and everyone had a Cousin Harvey who had a fancy degree and was working the drive-through at McD’s but I also learned that when people are afraid of your ambition, they’ll do anything and tell any lies to try and stop you from achieving.

College was like a dream come true for me. Not needing to take out loans or use Pell grants, I eagerly took classes and in three years had a two-year degree. I transferred to the state university and finished my college degree there in April 1994.

I was unusual. The Postal Service had then and has now very, very few college graduates, especially in its management and executive ranks. The facility I worked at in West Palm Beach had almost no college graduates in management, several high school dropouts in management and even a person with just a seventh-grade education in a management position. I had stopped even applying for postal management jobs, knowing I’d be rejected out of hand, and was soon searching for a new job outside the Postal Service.

I was gaining work experience through volunteer work and soon I realized that the best way to escape the postal handcuffs was simple: quit, then I’d have to be more aggressive in my job search.

To make a long story short, I did just that and soon was landing jobs. The confidence gained was immeasurable, and I feel sorry for those who are having a hard time and lack that confidence. I hear “no” a lot more, but that’s age discrimination, sadly. Too bad. I’ve been working and improving my skills and it saddens me that I might soon have no place where they will be wanted. The skills will be needed, but by someone younger than me.

The Postal Service has again abandoned the idea of training, from what I hear. New hires are thrown into work and fired if they cannot figure out the job. It’s a waste of money to hire people just so you can fire them, but as I saw 22 years ago, it’s the only way the Postal Service knows.

I still remember one holiday season when we had a mass of temporary employees milling around, and a supervisor who reprimanded me for showing them how to do their job. “It’s a waste of time to train these stupid assholes,” she said. “They were looking for a job here, so I know they’re idiots. We shouldn’t train people who are just going to quit or be fired.”

I tried to explain that part of the reason the new hires were having problems was because no one was explaining how to do the job, but she was a postal supervisor and I was a worker. I mentioned the postmaster general’s comments, and she said, “Fuck him. The supervisors run the Postal Service and not the postmaster general. Listen to us and not him.”

That attitude is alive and well in today’s Postal Service, and why its grand strategies will always fail.

June 20, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, Uncategorized | , , | 4 Comments

Why businesses kill customer service

“There you go again, givin’ a f— when it’s not your turn.”

The “Bunk,” a Baltimore detective from the TV series “The Wire,” to anyone who answers the homicide unit phone when they’re not “up.”

Recent columns in my local newspaper by a business columnist lament the decline of customer service and attribute it to the younger generation of workers, who, he says, lack a lot of the skills needed to deliver good customer service.

Of course, that’s coming from someone whose columns often are full of spelling and grammar mistakes such was “the tenants” of something instead of “the tenets” of something, and calling Warren Buffett by another name, Warren “Buffet.”

Still, the columnist makes an interesting point. The reality is, though, that many old-line businesses have an attitude about customer service that is prehistoric, to say the least.

To me, everyone in a business is a customer service representative, even if that’s not their job title. When a person calls a business, that person doesn’t care if you’re the president of the company or the cleaning person. He or she wants his question answered or his issue resolved.

So on a recent evening when someone called to deliver the results of a boxing match, it might not have been my specific job that night to deal with sports but I took the call and took down the results. Later, I gave the results to the person whose job it was that night to handle them and they were in the paper the next day. Customer satisfied, mission accomplished.

In some businesses, though, it’s not so simple. Companies become stratified and maybe certain workers are told not to try to help customers. These are the companies where customers become frustrated and take their business elsewhere because they get the runaround. It is true that, for example, I cannot fix a delivery problem with the newspaper I work for and I don’t have the time to help people connect to the Internet, but I can be pleasant and friendly while I try to direct the call in the limited time I have to the person who can help. A little decency and friendliness can go a long way, I have learned in my 54 years.

I once read in a book about car sales that the author learned from a funeral director that the average person knows about 120 people, so if you make a good impression on one person you are making a good impression on 120 people if he or she tells everyone they know about what happened to them. This can work the other way, though. Upset one person, and 120 people might know about it and remember it when they’re looking for a good or service.

I have often written about the Postal Service’s approach to customer service, which is basically to create barriers and prevent employees from helping customers. For decades, the attitude was to basically tell customers to f— off if they didn’t like the way they were treated and blame it on the customers if they called the wrong number for service.

Today, for example, if you have a problem with your mail delivery you have to call an “800” number and talk to someone in another part of the country or file a form online. Your local postmaster or a postal manager or employee is not permitted to talk to you at all. The fear is that if the local person does something good for you, everyone else will expect the same favor. By bringing the level of interaction down to zero, the Postal Service hopes to limit expectations of good service. It’s easier and cheaper, by that logic, to provide bad service than to raise people’s hopes.

Back when I was a mailhandler at the post office in the late 1980s, I made the mistake of thinking that I should be responsible for more than what I was assigned to do. One day, I was in the bulk mail acceptance unit and the phone rang, so I answered it. The person had a question about something that I knew nothing about, so I asked a person I knew what to do about it.

“Give me the phone,” he said, and I gave it to him.

He took the phone and hung it up.

“We’re closed,” he told me, “and anyway it’s not our job to answer their questions. They need to call the right number next time.”

I persisted. “But they don’t know that.”

“Too bad,” the worker said. “We don’t have time for their problems here.”

I was warned not to answer the phone again and to not try to help customers. It wasn’t my place to question anything, and anyway, as one manager told me, “If they want good service, they should use UPS or Fedex.”

One thing I have noticed is that the decline in good service in places like the Postal Service usually begins with a change in authority. For example, a neighborhood post office run by an old-line postmaster with decades of experience often is a pleasant place, postal customers report, and the postmaster is known in the community as someone who can be relied on to be friendly and open.

The windows clerks are longtime employees and community members, and the letter carriers are also longtimers who know their routes forwards and backwards.

Often, such postmasters and staffers are living on borrowed time and know it, and eventually they are retired out. Then, things change.

The postmaster usually is the first to go. Then a minimally qualified replacement comes in, often eager to rid the office of the longtime staffers. They have enough time to retire and leave as the disciplinary actions pile up. Soon, customers are directed to call the “800” number for problems that used to be solved locally.

The cooperative workplace becomes a frantic mess as mail arrives late every morning and carriers are pushed harder and harder. As the old-line workers leave, much cheaper new hires are brought in, given very little training and are fired or quit when they can’t keep up.

Soon, customers notice that their “regular” letter carrier is gone and the new ones can’t deliver mail to the right addresses with any consistency and can’t learn the routes because they are constantly being switched around. Plus, their schedule leaves them with no regular hours or days off, so they’re exhausted and in a rush to get back before overtime kicks in.

Complaints about service to the “800” number increase – and are ignored – until a congressman is contacted. He or she can do little, and members of the management bureaucracy will usually tell the media that the post office has to cut costs and that things will improve soon. Soon never happens, and service gets worse, so customers keep complaining and postal managers develop the attitude that customers are just natural gripers and begin to ignore them even more.

By this time, there has been a complete turnover of staff in the post office and no one really knows how to do much of the work. There is no time for training (in the Postal Service, training time is considered wasted time; you are supposed to learn on the job and if you don’t know instinctively how to do a job, it’s because you’re stupid, and no wonder you’re working at the post office. It means you’re too dumb to get a job anywhere else) so workers are allowed to do work wrong and send mail anywhere.

The postmaster, by the way, now is buried in paperwork and reports so even if he or she wants to be helpful to customers, they can’t with all these high-level eyes on them. Eventually, the Postal Service decides to close the office or merge it with another post office miles away.

What’s really odd is that the Postal Service tries to persuade customers that it’s listening when in fact it’s ignoring customers because they’re asking for a level of service that they’ll never get again. For example, if told by customers that they want things to go back the way they were, customers are given a lot of doubletalk about how committed the Postal Service is to holding rates down and delivering good service. In the meantime, the hidden message is that the old service is not coming back, so you might as well accept the new reality.

You see this everywhere now. To managers, providing good service seems to be an added cost, so just train customers to expect bad service and require workers to give bad service while blaming said service on said workers’ “lack of commitment to good service.”

In fact, some companies can even use bad service to make themselves look good.

Before Adelphia Cable collapsed, it ran in a cycle where it would respond to the flood of complaints by periodically sending out letters claiming the company was recommitting itself to customer service because there was a new manager in charge of something with the word “customer” or “service” in it.

Since Adelphia had a monopoly in the area, it really had no incentive to improve anything and eventually the new effort would run down, then there would be a new “recommitment” six months later.

At one point, Adelphia opened an office in Stuart (near where my newspaper employer was at the time) as part of this alleged recommitment to improve service. About a year later, the company closed the office, fired the staff and redirected all customer complaints to the Miami office, telling customers it was again recommitting itself to customer service and “we can serve the Stewart (sic) area better from Miami.”

The companies that are doing well are those in which customer service is a commitment from the top down to make customers satisfied and glad they are doing business with the company. Too bad so many old-line companies have forgotten that.

September 1, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | Leave a comment

Making the choice to be informed and educated

Back in my “hell” days at the post office, I was definitely unusual.

The Postal Service wasn’t a big fan of educated people, especially when they held “strong back and weak mind” jobs like mailhandler, as I did, and most people eventually realized that “showing intelligence in the presence of the ‘holy ones’,” as postal management liked to style itself, was not a good idea.

I suppose I was less sensitive to the views of my intellectually inferior superiors back then. When you’re a high school dropout and someone of a lower status than you starts speaking in a way that is way over their expected social class, your reaction is to get angry and declare that “the smarties” are ruining the organization.

In a postal facility where a high-level manager was an elementary school dropout and several managers never finished high school, it was an insult, I was told, to be openly and actively pursuing a degree.

The proper response, I was told, was to lower my eyes and remember that everyone in postal management was better than me, and always would be. Many other employees who had education chafed at the attitudes, and the feeling that we couldn’t fight back against managers who lacked education but had the rank over us.

As I got closer to my four-year degree, I realized that there was no advancement worth having in the Postal Service. Sometimes, you just have to move on in life, and this was one of those times.

In June 1994, I decided that it was time to cash in my education and my chips, and move on. I never regretted it.

“We’re too smart”
Last night, as I watched the Pluto “phone home” on NASA-TV and occasionally glimpsed Venus and Saturn through my telescope, I thought of a person I knew at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility. It had been during a space shuttle mission that had developed a problem, and I had mentioned it to him.

He expressed the view that we should not be doing any science or exploring at all. We should just worship god and submit to authority at work.

I later found out that he was really broken down: not only was he a Jehovah’s Witness, he had bought into management’s view that workers were the lowest of the low, and embraced it. “We’re too smart,” he’d tell me. “We need to just worship god.”

I felt so sorry for him. No education, no options, no way out. Postal management had trapped him rhetorically and was determined to keep him down.

I had less compassion and respect for those in management – and there were many – who knew that what they were doing was wrong, in violation of postal policy and often unethical.

They were the types who knew that allowing the cheating on the Price-Waterhouse mail testing – hiring temporary workers to go through the outgoing mail, looking for the test mail – was totally wrong, but let it happen anyway because they were worried about what would happen if they blew the whistle.

They knew about the giant storeroom in West Palm Beach full of damaged and destroyed parcels, that was closed and locked.

They knew that running the mail through the machinery over and over again to “get the numbers up” and fool postal headquarters was wrong, but they did it anyway.

To me, they were no different from the guy recently convicted of being “the accountant of Auschwitz,” who saw what was being done to people and did nothing to try to stop it.

If you asked anyone in the Postal Service why they allowed things to happen, they’d say, “I’m just following orders.”

That’s why postal customers want to rip their hair out when dealing with the average postal manager. No one wants to take responsibility for anything, and even implying that you might be able to help someone is a violation of someone’s orders.

Changing yourself
I always determined that I’d be different, and that I’d never turn into a droid, no matter where I was.

It hasn’t been easy. It means taking risks and chances, and sometimes chasing down challenges. But the rewards are so awesome!

Because of my desire for self-improvement and awareness, I’ve literally invented a new future for myself. My postal bosses are doing the same nonsense they were doing 20 years ago. As for me, I’m exploring all sorts of new opportunities and still dreaming of where my skills, education and experience can take me.

When I break out one of the telescopes and look at a planet or star cluster or galaxy, I feel like it’s a privilege, one that I’ve worked for and earned, to be this intelligent and able to do so many things.

Like me, you don’t have to wallow at the bottom. You can strive for more. I know, I sound like some smarmy motivational speaker, but if I leave behind anything it has to be this – and I know it sounds so cliché – dare to dream; hell, dare to do more: dare.

July 15, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The paradox of becoming educated

Recent news at the newspaper where I work caused me to think a lot about education, and my past efforts to improve myself and my lot in life.

A top person at Florida Polytechnic University recently took the top job at Palm Beach State College, one of my alma maters. I graduated from PBSC, as it’s known now, when it was Palm Beach Community College, and attending the place was one of the greatest things I ever did. At a time in my life when so many wanted me to fail and so few wanted me to succeed, I succeeded brilliantly and moved on to Florida Atlantic University to finish my bachelor’s degree.

But the seeds of that achievement were planted by the dedicated teachers at Palm Beach Community College.

There’s a tendency in some segments of society to dismiss educated people and people seeking to improve themselves through education through a variety of dismissive and abusive terms and phrases. Believe me, I’ve heard them all and nearly all were directed at me at some time in my life. Even the venerable high school diploma can, in the right hands, be dismissed as a waste of time.

I first became aware of this derisive attitude when I reported to my first duty station in the Marine Corps in early 1979. I had finished basic training at Parris Island, then aviation and electronics training at the naval air station at Millington, Tenn., and was sent to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif., to get my next assignment.

It was an adventure for me. I flew on a 747 from New York to Los Angeles, and the plane blew several main landing gear tires on touchdown. We taxied to the gate and debarked, and saw the rubberized mess that was the planes’ main landing gear.

At El Toro, I learned that I would be going to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, and after a couple of weeks was given a ticket on a flight to Yuma. It was a night flight, and I remember looking out and wondering just where we were. It was pitch black outside. The plane landed and I eventually found myself at the receiving barracks. Mind you, it was a Saturday night, and the duty Staff NCO was watching a TV show that featured Prince.

He checked me in, got me assigned to a barracks room and I settled in. On Monday morning, I reported to the famous Hootowl hangar at the base and began checking in to VMA-513, a Harrier squadron.

Upstairs in the hangar, where the administrative offices were, the mood was typical office of the late 1970s. I handed over my orders and my service record to a corporal who didn’t seem all that receptive to new arrivals. I was a private first class at the time, I think, and was used to being intimidated by people above me in rank.

The corporal flipped through the thin record, then stopped and looked at something.

He looked up at me and declared, “Well, just because you have a high school diploma doesn’t mean you have any common sense.”

I was stunned. I hadn’t done more than hand over my papers, and suddenly judgment was passed.

I figured that the corporal was probably a high school dropout – as was common at the time – and he was just establishing that while I might have the piece of paper, he had the rank. So there.

A few weeks later, I was up in the administrative offices for something and I noticed that he had taken a magazine page, cut it out and taped it next to his desk on a wall. Hustler magazine then had a feature called “Asshole of the Month,” spotlighting some politician who had earned the ire of publisher Larry Flynt. Taped over the caricature of a politician was a picture of me, taken for a new ID card. He must have grabbed the second shot taken and appropriated it.

I could never understand the reason for this hostility. I mean, I didn’t brag about my educational accomplishments to him. Maybe others hurt him and he realized that I couldn’t fight back so he targeted me, or maybe he targeted others, too.

The military is notorious for the ridicule heaped on educated troops, especially if they are enlisteds with either some college or an actual college degree. A familiar taunt aimed at those who try to act above the lowest military station in life is, “If you’re so smart, why are you in the Army (Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, etc.)”

Indeed, showing too much intelligence could border on insubordination, and some folks hid their intelligence, though it hurt them, to be more acceptable to their superiors.

I found it odd that this also happened in the Postal Service.

Brutalized for brains
It often shocks people when I describe the way the Postal Service viewed workers with an education. While my orientation in New York was normal, the one in West Palm Beach included a declaration that we were not to consider ourselves above anyone else in intelligence. It was not uncommon to be told, “People come to work at the Postal Service because they’re too dumb to get jobs anywhere else.”

There were almost no self-improvement programs or even formal training programs available for postal workers, and the few I found were correspondence courses that offered no formal recognition or training for understanding postal operations so you could do your job better.

Managers would tell me that the worst thing you could ever do to a worker was train them to do their job better, because it gave them “ideas above their station in life.”

There weren’t even very many formal management training programs in the 1980s and 1990s, though there was a college course through Palm Beach Community College in postal operations. I took it, and it was mainly a postal manager reading from the Domestic Mail Manual. Boring with a capital B. I took the course and got an A, but it offered no road to advancement for me.

I soon realized that if I was going to do anything useful and productive with my life, I’d have to get a college degree. I began the long, challenging process of getting myself into Palm Beach Community College. It was pretty intimidating, even for me. I had to fill out a lot of forms, study for and take the American College Test, get a number and wait on line to register and then finally begin taking classes. Since I worked at night I could take daytime classes, and soon found that I was finally respected for having intelligence.

People think my fondness for community colleges is because I’m going senile, but it’s because that was where things really started to swing my way and I found myself. It sounds trite, but it’s true. I began to see a world of possibilities where none had appeared before.

It was blasphemy in the post office to even imply that you might be qualified to work somewhere else, and I still had to deal with the negative vibes at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility. My break and lunch times were spent munching meals and studying while listening to classical music on my Walkman, but I couldn’t help but hear the derisive and disrespectful comments.

“He thinks he’s better than everyone else,” I’d hear co-workers say to each other.

One boss told me, “Henry Ford said workers need to know just three things: what time to be at work, where to be and what to do. Everything else is just a waste.”

I’d hear one fellow declare loudly when he saw me studying, “You’re wasting your time.”

Everyone seemed to have a relative who had attended college and graduated, but “ha(d) no common sense” and was working at a minimum-wage job.

Postal bosses, many of them high school dropouts (and one elementary school dropout) would lord it over me that I was busting my ass in a “futile” effort to advance. “Look at me,” one female supervisor said. “I never graduated high school and now I supervise supervisors. Education is a waste of time.”

Many of those bosses who lack formal education are now high-level postal officials. If people wonder why they can never get a straight answer from the post office on a question, it’s because the organization doesn’t reward knowledge and education.

The great escape
Those who are negative about education and your attainments at school are just the losers of our society, and there’s a simple reason for their attitude.

They’re jealous.

I realized this and it motivated me to carry on.

When I quit the Postal Service, I was taking a leap into the unknown that was even bigger than when I left the Marine Corps. I was scared, but I did it, and I never regretted doing it.

It might seem that I was jumping from an airplane when I left the Postal Service, but that college degree was my parachute, and it has helped me to many a soft landing. I wonder about those who ridiculed me for my educational pursuits, and how their lives turned out.

Not as good as mine, I bet.

Never let others define your success. Keep at your education and remember that even if it takes you 10 years to get that degree, it’ll be worth it.

April 30, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Community college is where your future can happen

When I heard about President Obama’s proposal for free community college, I knew that it wouldn’t go over very well.

Sadly, most folks despise the president’s ideas. If he recommended beating children bloody in school parking lots for rules infractions, people would come out against that.

Still, encouraging people to get a two-year degree, even if it costs a lot, has to be less expensive than incarcerating people. A community college president once told me that it cost the state of Florida about $50,000 a year to lock someone up in prison; by comparison, even the most costly state university was a bargain at about $25,000 a year, and community colleges cost about half that or less.

Unfortunately for Florida, the state’s leaders fell under the influence of a well-meaning but terribly wrong adviser who recommended preparing for a tsunami of violent youthful offenders on their way up from childhood. Seeking to be ahead of the curve, the state built several very expensive prisons and staffed them up, waiting for the surge of criminality that never materialized. Out in rural areas, the prisons are still there, but the youths never appeared in the expected numbers.

The reality is that we now live in a society where workers need education beyond high school to get a good-paying job, and those who drop out are going to find themselves in an impossible situation. Back when I was a youth, there were all these ads pushing “high school equivalency diplomas” and I remember the pitches: “He can’t get ahead in business because he lacks a high school diploma.” You could replace “high school diploma” with “two-year college degree,” and you won’t be far off the mark.

I know all this from personal experience.

For me, Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State College) basically reinvented my life. I went into that place in August 1988 as a frustrated veteran and disgruntled postal worker whose dreams of career advancement had been dashed because I thought the Postal Service existed to serve customers.

I left the community college with a two-year (associate’s) degree in journalism, a new peer group of smart friends and the confidence to continue at the university. In April 1994, I graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in communications and within two years was working as a newspaper copy editor.

I worked hard in those years, taking night shifts at the post office and attending college during the day instead of sleeping. But my instructors at PBCC and my professors at FAU gave of themselves, and I am forever in their debt.

At community college, the confidence I gained was well worth the sacrifices I had to make.

I remember getting a variety of advice. Dorothy Martin, my second cousin Angelo’s sister-in-law, gave me so much encouragement. “Whatever you do there,” she said, “take Watson B. Duncan’s courses. He’s the greatest teacher.”

I took those courses, and Dorothy was right about him.

Others were less enthused. My postal bosses were downright negative, advising me that college was a waste of time, and wouldn’t help my advancement in the post office. “We don’t like to promote college people,” I was often told. “They think knowing things is the key to getting things done right.”

What they feared, I later learned, was the worker with a brain and the willingness to use it. I later used the skills I learned in community college to start my own underground postal employee newsletter, “Samizdat,” and even sent copies to the postmaster general. Unfortunately, they were written above his reading level, and his minions were not impressed with my brilliance.

The education I received at community college gave me the tools I needed to counter the anti-education rhetoric I heard at the post office, and I can still remember the last night I wasted at the post office, leaving that shithole facility in West Palm Beach with its cheating on the Price-Waterhouse testing, exaggerated mail volume reporting, mail destruction in the machinery and human destruction by managers such as Gary Miller and Terry Cahill, not to mention Barbara Shaler and Shirley Cordle.

I drove off to an uncertain future, but one that had limitless possibilities. On the way home to my house in Lake Worth, I drove on Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach past Palm Beach Community College.

It was on the left, and I remembered that first day when I had gone on the campus and requested a course catalog and began the process of getting myself admitted.

Now I was heading into a future that that wonderful place had opened up for me, and I gave the place a hand salute as I drove by.

Today, I read about community colleges like State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and I wish I could go back there, take classes, sit in the sun before the classes start, talk with my fellow students, pull all-nighters at home, spend lots of time there on the student newspaper and just be a part of the academic community.

Community colleges are wondrous places, and I’m not the only one who got a life-course correction in those classrooms.

So let’s support community colleges and get behind plans, no matter where they come from, to get more people to attend community college. Our nation will benefit, of course, but so will the many people who find a new life and a new career in a place where learning is treasured, and students matter.

That’s what happens at community colleges.

 

January 12, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ongoing Veterans Affairs disaster makes me glad I stayed away

I have been riveted to the current scandal to hit the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Although I have never had to avail myself of its services, I do have a number in case I need medical care at the VA hospital in St. Petersburg. Of course, my priority is pretty low, being a non-combat veteran who served for four years in peacetime, but when I was unemployed it was a great comfort to know that I might eventually get medical care if I needed it.

Fortunately, I found jobs that offered health insurance, so the envelope from the VA sits in the cabinet.

But when I was unemployed, there were friends of mine who suggested that I try to land a job at a Veterans Affairs hospital, but while I did do searches for positions, I was hesitant to even put my name forward. For one thing, the U.S. government’s jobs website is a mess, and the application process is a bureaucratic nightmare. Landing a newspaper job isn’t easy, either, but it’s nowhere near as convoluted as getting the most basic federal government job.

One of my big fears regarding in particular the VA and generally the rest of the federal government was the work environment. I would read horror stories from federal employees about their workplaces, and think to myself, “That’s like the post office, only worse.”

Believe me, in my 11 years and five months of Postal Service employment – from January 1983 to December 1985 in Garden City, N.Y., and from January 1986 to June 1994 in West Palm Beach, Fla. – I saw things, especially in the latter location, that made me want to escape from there as quickly as I could.

I did escape, by attending college from August 1998 to April 1994, leaving with a four-year degree that opened countless doors of opportunity for me. I quit the Postal Service happily and vowed never to work for a government agency again.

When you hear about secret appointment lists at VA facilities, you might wonder why no one would openly report such things. Well, the reason is simple: because employees in the federal government know that the penalty for whistleblowing, even if it’s proven, is the end of your employment at the agency and your career anywhere else in government. Despite promises of no retaliation, retaliation begins almost as soon as the whistleblowing complaint is filed.

One of my mentors from West Palm Beach, a retired business executive, was in charge of volunteers at the Riviera Beach VA hospital, and I’ll never forget what he told me about that place. He said he was glad he didn’t depend on the place for a paycheck because if you worked there, really cared about the veterans and tried to make a career of it, the top brass and the top administrator would destroy you. The brass hated the volunteers because they couldn’t control them or intimidate them, he said.

Go to a federal office and look at the posters on the wall. People in the know anywhere – including the Postal Service – know calling the Inspector General of their agency will lead to the destruction of their life. I personally knew better than to report anything to the almost brutally corrupt Postal Inspection Service and later the Inspector General.

Anyone who worked in the postal facility in the 1980s and early 1990s knew there was stuff going on that should have been reported. Mail was run through machinery repeatedly to “get the numbers up,” tens and sometimes hundreds of locked and sealed trailers full of bulk mail were left in staging yards and mail presorted by carrier route was often broken up and resorted (despite postal discounts and the presorting needed to avoid higher postal costs) to make the numbers higher.

A postal facility in the Midwest in the early 1990s won the Postmaster General’s award for being the most productive. I remember going in on my own time to see the film that was made about Marvin Runyon’s visit to the place and speech he gave. A few months later, it was revealed that managers of the facility had used “postal math” in reporting mail volune: 1 million pieces of mail plus 1 million pieces of mail equals 3 billion pieces of mail, or something to that effect.

Of course, none of the managers got a serious punishment.

As in the Postal Service, in the VA managers are “rewarded” with promotions for incompetence, brutality and playing games with appointments. It’s a tragedy that Gen. Eric Shinseki is going to have to lose his job over this. As several media outlets have noted, the VA needs a leader who is going to crack heads and fire people, not wait for reports and talk about how dedicated he is to the needs of veterans.

It took retirees who are insulated now from the reprisals and retaliation that the VA brass would unleash to reveal the extent of what was going on. Just as retirees and ex-postal workers like myself talk about the corruption of the facilities I worked at, retirees and ex-VA workers know the inside scoop on what happened, and are becoming unafraid to tell what they know.

Unfortunately, in the Postal Service the top brass got more pay and government-paid transfers for their crimes and misconduct. The cynicism of the postal workforce can be illustrated by two incidents I recall.

In one, shortly after the shootings in Edmond, Okla., an inspection service report on the environment at postal facilities noted that while there were all these motivational posters on the walls of postal facilities, nobody believed them, or believed that reporting a postal crime would have any effect except to bring down retaliation and reprisals.

In West Palm Beach one time, the postmaster general appeared on a poster with the following feel-good phrases:

“You have the right to be treated with respect at work.”

“You have the right to have your supervisor show you respect.”

Someone had written in a marker, between the words “You” and “have,” the word “don’t.”

Just as most people in Postal Service management were then and are now mindless bureaucratic time-servers counting the days until their next paycheck or promotion, the leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs, many of whom could not have been bothered to serve in the military – even in peacetime – are just collecting their six-figure salaries and waiting to move up to the next-higher position.

All this hullaballoo about waiting lists will die down after a few top people and political appointees are chopped off, and then the next group of VA bureaucrats will assume their positions, and the atrocities will continue.

And that’s why the VA isn’t worth my time and talents, just like the Postal Service wasn’t worth my time and talents back in the day.

May 18, 2014 Posted by | Life lessons, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The worst insult I ever had to take

Maybe it was because I grew up in a time when young people had to have a thicker skin, but it seems today that when someone is insulted, they feel like the whole world has come to an end.

To me, it’s always pointless to demand an apology after someone says something negative about you. I mean, it’s out there now and someone just mouthing the words “I’m sorry I said that” can’t reverse the stain of what’s already been said. Lots of times, people say they’re sorry when they’re just sorry they got called to account for what they said. It’s infuriating to hear an insincere apology, but that’s just part of life.

In the early 1990s, I had to swallow a lot of insults. It was difficult, but I used the insults I sustained to motivate me toward a better course for my life.

I was a bottom-level postal worker, a mailhandler. Postal bosses loved to remind the workers that we were supposed to be the strong backs and weak minds of the Postal Service, and that our class of humanity wasn’t supposed to come up with ideas and our input wasn’t really needed despite the suggestion boxes and other fake accommodations strewn around postal installations.

Several people among both the workers and management made it clear that the very fact that you were a postal worker was an indication that you were a failure in life and as a person, and nothing you could do could change that. My open pursuit of a college degree was in a mostly quietly hostile environment. Occasionally, someone would see me studying on my lunch break, and I’d hear that person declare, “You’re wasting your time.”

My view was that it was my time to waste as I wanted, and it was better to be reading than sitting and whining about your supervisor or smoking outside the front doors, and whining, too.

Oddly, the absolute worst insult I ever took about the way I made a living came from an unlikely place: the nonprofit sector.

I had begun using my newly acquired journalism and desktop publishing skills to produce a newsletter for a group I had recently joined. “The Musical Society” presented classical chamber music in a ritzy setting at the Brazilian Court Hotel in Palm Beach. There had been some controversy because some Palm Beachers didn’t want more of the riff-raff coming on the island, and had spread the false news that the group had disbanded, but it had not and the founder was vehement that it was still in operation.

I made myself know to the founder, a violinist, and eventually we got talking about what I could do. I joined the board of the group, and was responsible for its publications. Everything was going well, and I was having a wonderful time producing the newsletters.

One day, the founder heard about a program for people working in nonprofits, and asked me if I wanted to participate. It taught skills for working in such nonprofit groups and connected professionals in the community with volunteers. The founder of the musical group had suggested that I go to learn more about the local nonprofit community, though I didn’t have to be connected to anyone, of course.

I agreed, and he set up a phone call between me and the guy who was running the events.

We had a nice conversation, then the man asked me where I worked.

“The post office,” I replied.

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“Hello?” I asked, thinking maybe we’d been disconnected.

“Oh, well, OK,” he said. “It’s just that this is for, well, a different class of worker than someone who is at the post office.”

I got a little hot under the collar, and pointed out that I was attending college and working for a musical organization, and that despite postal management’s claims to the contrary, many non-managers in the Postal Service had not only graduated from high school but also from college, but the organization preferred to promote people with less education.

I was on the way up, I told him, and made sure to let him know that I’d remember what he said to me.

The man suddenly became very apologetic, and said of course I could be in the group for the next session. I got dressed to the nines for that session, and learned a lot there.

I recounted my conversation to the founder of the music group, and he said he expected that response. “I just wanted you to see what goes on in the nonprofit realm around here,” he said. “They are very arrogant.”

A few months later, the group disbanded. The founder moved to Houston to work for the orchestra there. I felt sad. I had really enjoyed the music and the camaraderie I had with him.

But I never forgot how badly I had initially been treated by the guy organizing the nonprofit classes, and – except for my involvement in the public radio and TV station, WXEL – did not involve myself with any more nonprofits.

I suppose the lesson for today is this: Sometimes you just have to swallow an insult — and move on from it.

October 22, 2013 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

Pride and ignorance go together in today’s world

I was reading an article in the Tampa Bay Times recently about the Michael Zimmerman trial, and the main focus was on jury selection.

The challenge for attorneys today is to find a jury that can understand and process the information coming in through verbal testimony while also being mostly uninformed about the case.

The Zimmerman case is one of many that have been particularly tough because there has been a vast amount of pre-trial publicity in the news media. Everyone likes to say that the news media – especially the print media – is dying, but in the meantime the story has gone all around the world. Those of us who work in the media usually are despised and disdained, but I can live with that.

In the Tampa Bay Times story, prospective jurors seemed proud that they were ignorant, uninformed and did not read the local newspapers. Some were oblivious to occurrences in their own community, and seemed to feel that this was a point in their favor as persons.

This doesn’t just affect me personally in my career, but in the other aspects of my life. I have felt the barbs of the ignorant aimed at me because of their perception that I was acting above my station in life by pursuing intellectual goals.

Astronomy night
There was a lot of excitement, and I promised sky wonders galore to those gathered around me, watching me set up my telescope.

The C-8 that I bought in 1986 is a great instrument for amateur astronomy. With the mount I bought a couple of years ago, I can find objects automatically – once I get it aligned properly.

I like to set up during the remaining daylight time just to be sure I don’t miss anything, and we were waiting for the sky to darken when a person dropped the remark that I dread to hear: “We’re going to see Uranus tonight.”

Except the person didn’t pronounce “Uranus” the proper way, “UR-ah-nus.” He said it this way: “yur-ANUS,” or “Your anus.”

Everything became quiet for a moment, and I shot a look at the offender. Then I said, “No, sorry, the planet ‘UR-ah-nus” will not be visible until much later.”

Demonstrating one’s lack of class and education used to be a source of shame; now it’s a means of showing pride and solidarity in ignorance.

Proudly ignorant
Back when I was in the Postal Service, I met a woman who proudly declared to me, “I don’t know nuttin’ about nuttin’.” The Postal Service did not go out of its way to recruit smart or educated people, and definitely worked on ways to filter out college-educated people who might slip into management, and this was an extreme case, but there were many people in the Postal Service who had almost no interest in current events.

The fact that not only did I read newspapers but also let others know that I was attending college made me an outlier in the Postal Service. When asked if I knew that I had no advancement prospects in the Postal Service because of my position (mailhandler) and pursuit of education, I replied that was pursuing careers outside the Postal Service.

One manager was bemused by it all. Today, she’s a high-powered postal executive but back then she was just another “kick ass and take names” floor boss. She loved to brag about her lack of education, regaling everyone with the tales of her dropping out of school in the seventh grade. She was even prouder of the fact that she had flunked her worker training and got advanced into management, where she was able to lord it over those with high school degrees and college educations.

Recognizing talent when they saw it, postal management put her on the fast track.

It’s hip to be stupid
I suppose it’s just the fate of us all to be subjected to the taunts and ridicule of those who have chosen to be ignorant and oblivious.

The news media tend to address topics that many find disturbing; I’ve always felt that the truth, no matter how unsettling, was better than lies. Others prefer to throw crud at the media without any evidence. Sure, there’s celebrity reporting, which is mostly public relations junk, but there’s serious reporting about the issues of the day.

Dismissing it – and those who work to produce it – is just a sign of being ignorant, lazy and stupid.

As for me, I’m going to be well-informed even if it means taking the criticism and the ridicule.

June 18, 2013 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The news business | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment