An Adequate Response

December 29, 2006

Saddam Hussein has been executed.

His case is one of those that tests my opposition to capital punishment. The man was a monster responsible for murder, torture, and crimes against humanity that are beyond comprehension. If anyone ever deserved to die, Saddam did.

But I keep coming back to the wisdom of my 13-year-old daughter. “It doesn’t make sense to kill someone to show that killing is wrong.”

Somehow “yes, but he deserved it” just doesn’t seem like an adequate response.


What Can Brown Do For You?

December 27, 2006

I wanted one thing from Brown – enough extra income to increase my money-to-month ratio – i.e., ensure that my money outlasts my month. While living on one income has been a good thing for our family in most respects, it has put a definite strain on our budget. Charlottesville’s cost of living is relatively high, the area’s household income is relatively low, and having a large family does not make things any easier.

So, at 3:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in late November, I arrived at our local UPS distribution center for an orientation session for my new part-time job as a package handler. I was hired as a seasonal worker to help them get through the crush of the holiday shipping season, but my hope was that I would find the schedule manageable enough to be able maintain it on a long-term basis. My need for supplemental income was, after all, not seasonal.

The first few hours of the orientation session consisted of a mixture of paperwork and training videos. Then, about 6:00 a.m., we were put out on the floor to get a taste of the work that we had signed on for. For most of us, that work was unloading tractor trailers full of packages.

The tractor trailers arrive at the distribution center fully loaded (floor-to-ceiling, front-to-back), and back up to one of eight bays in the side of the distribution center. The unloader (sometimes solo, sometimes working in a pair) opens the trailer door and starts grabbing packages and putting each one on a constantly-moving conveyor belt. The belt pulls each package out of the trailer and into a complex sorting system that will eventually result in it being loaded on the package car (UPS-speak for the brown delivery truck) that will take it to its final destination.

Unloading tractor trailers is not rocket science. Grab a box, put it on the belt. Grab a box, put it on the belt. Grab a box, put it on the belt. The expected pace is a package every 3 seconds. It’s easy to keep that pace when you’re grabbing Aunt Edna’s Christmas fruitcake or a package from LL Bean. It gets a bit more challenging when you’re dealing with heavy auto parts, or picking apart a teetering wall of packages that is threatening to bury you in an avalanche.

But still, not rocket science. I made it through the end of the shift, and reported for duty at 3:00 a.m. the following morning for more of the same. To say that I was grateful for the weekend would be an understatement.

Week #2 dawned two short days later, and my start times were getting earlier as the holiday crunch time approached. 2:50 a.m., 2:40 a.m., 2:30 a.m….. Despite the schedule creep, I was settling into a routine. Up at 2:00, stumble my way to the car, slam a Mountain Dew on the road, clock in at UPS, and slog away for the next 6 hours or so. After each shift I’d head home, jump in the shower to scrub off the grime, and trade the filthy t-shirt and jeans for the coat and tie of my regular 8:00-6:00 job. At least, what used to be my 8:00-6:00 job. It’s hard to be at the office at 8:00 a.m. when you’re still in the back of a tractor trailer slinging boxes. Fortunately the nature of my regular job allowed me to slink in at 9:15-9:30 a.m. without raising too many eyebrows. I’d get through the day at the office, head home for supper, and try to stay awake long enough to be able to read my 3-year-old a story and put him to bed. Then I’d crash for 5 hours or so, wake up, and do it again.

I was managing, but it was an uninspiring existence. I felt myself turning into a zombie; I wasn’t exactly bubbling over with initiative at the office. Worse yet, I was becoming detached from my family, as I was only with them (awake, anyway) for a short time in the evenings. My only consolation was that weekly paycheck – after all, I wasn’t putting myself (and Jennifer, who was picking up my considerable slack at home) through this because it was enjoyable, I was doing it because it needed to be done.

The next week, Week #3, my start times were earlier yet – 2:30 a.m., 2:40 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., and 2:15 a.m. I adjusted the alarm clock accordingly. The job itself was tolerable. Finding little in common with most of my co-workers, I kept my mouth shut, pushed hard, and quickly attracted the notice of the supervisors. They asked me to stay on after the holidays, thereby removing the “Scarlet S” of the seasonal hire. It was nice to get some validation, particularly in light of the fact that I was informed that same week at my regular job that I would not be getting the promotion that I had anticipated. The explanation was that there was a perception that I was not “excited” enough about the position, and that my lack of enthusiasm would be sensed by the team.

Hell, I thought I had been doing pretty well to stay awake.

The start times for Week #4, the week before Christmas, were earlier still. I clocked in on Monday morning at 1:15 a.m. and started slogging away. 2:00 a.m. 3:00 a.m. 4:00 a.m. 5:00 a.m. 6:00 a.m. 7:00 a.m. 8:00 a.m. I was nearly done with my last trailer when it happened. I bent down, grabbed a box off of the floor, twisted up and to the side to put it on the belt, and felt the hot poker shoot through my lower back. I fell against the side of the trailer and gasped to catch my breath. I had strained my 43-year-old back, and just like that my package-handling career at UPS was over.

Looking back at it now, that was a good thing. I had been earning much-needed supplemental income, but I was becoming an absentee husband and father, and the body- and mind-numbing fatigue was reaching the dangerous stage. It’s telling that of the many thousands of packages that I had handled during my stint at UPS, some of them as heavy as I am, the one that did me in could have been lifted by my 8-year-old. My body had just said “enough is enough.”

So what did Brown do for me? It provided some pre-holiday cash, which was timely. It broadened my life experience, gave me some interesting insights into how a freight handling operation works, and provided me with a number of colorful character studies that might find their way into future scribblings. Perhaps most importantly, it gave me a dose of perspective, of which I seem to be in continual need. As important as the additional income may be, I must resist the temptation to let its pursuit take the place of family, health, and happiness.

Now to find a part-time opportunity that will let me keep the proper balance….

Enjoy It

December 24, 2006

The children are nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums dance in their heads….

Or something like that. They are snug in their beds, anyway, and are hopefully fast asleep – Santa still needs to do his thing. In the meantime, I wanted to get this posted before Christmas 2006 becomes a memory.

We had a few minutes left at the end of our adult Sunday School lesson this morning, so I opened things up and invited everyone to share their favorite Christmas memory or tradition. Silence. I quickly gathered that everyone was feeling the same this-is-Christmas-eve-morning-and-I’m-sitting-here-in-church-which-is-where-I-know-I-am-supposed-to-be-but-I-still-have-presents-to-finish-wrapping-and-cards-to-send-and-relatives-to-visit-and-the-kids-have-really-been-getting-on-my-nerves-and-I’m-not-sure-how-in-the-world-I’m-going-to-be-able-to-get-everything-done-ho-ho-ho that I was feeling.

I took another tack.

“How about your biggest Christmas peeve?” Several started to answer at once. As people started to talk, their answers were all variations on a theme. Overbooked. Overcommitted. Overwhelmed. Too many people to see, too many things to do, too many boxes to check off on an overlong list. Several with family in town mentioned how wearisome it can be to trundle the kids back and forth from one relative’s house to another. One couple each had parents who had divorced and remarried, in the process doubling the number of grandparents/step-grandparents who expected their own “Christmas” time with the grandkids. Another couple had so many out-of-town relatives coming in for the holidays that they had rented the vacant house across the street to house them. Another recounted a Christmas past in which a toddler nephew had a stomach virus and should have been at home in bed but instead was followed around all Christmas day with a bucket in case his stomach let loose. Why couldn’t they have just stayed home? Each story was met with knowing, empathetic nods and affirmations.

The only ones in the room who hadn’t contributed to the discussion were a Chinese couple who had been in the U.S. for several years for graduate study. Their family remained thousands of miles away in China. Then, in her halting English, she spoke. “Can I say something before we close? What I want to say is, enjoy it – all of the relatives. Because we can’t.”

Once again, silence. Whatever insights I had tried to impart during the 45-minute lesson were quickly (and rightly) forgotten. The real lesson for the morning had just been given in those three sentences.

Merry Christmas to all. Enjoy it.