Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Should you really be sick to claim a sick day?

By Dick Hirsch

There are a considerable number of sick people around who just don’t feel right about taking a sick day. Have you noticed? They’re especially visible at this time of the year, during the cold and flu season.

Often they can be heard coughing, hacking away, or else sneezing in cycles that can sometimes total as many as a dozen or so sneezes in a harrowing sequence, interrupted by a second or two of repose. Their co-workers try their best to ostracize them, to keep their distance and increase the number of daily hand washings. But these people have their reasons; they would prefer to drag themselves to the workplace where they can find diversion in labor, rather than medicate and rest, while contending with boredom at home and worrying they may be missing something at work.

“I always feel worse when I stay home,” several people have told me, and that is a common explanation used by people in that group.

On the other side of the ledger we find the opposite personalities; there we find the perfectly well people who feel it is absolutely permissible to pretend to be sick and take days off from work.

These are workers who feel they are entitled to claim sickness in order to have a day off of their choosing. In some venues, there are many such claims on the opening days of a particular season, say deer, trout or baseball. Others claim a summer day when the sky is cloudless and the beach is an enticing attraction. They believe they are entitled to use their apportioned number of sick days as a day off from work, no matter how healthy they may be.

I realize there are many people reading this who have adopted that approach and may condemn me for focusing on that kind of behavior, but I will make no apology. I have always found that attitude to be repugnant and on the verge of larcenous. A sick day is a welcome fringe benefit. I’ve always believed such days would been given a different title---maybe something like ”day off of my choosing”---if they were intended for random use.

Knowing that unexpected days off can foul up work schedules, many sick day claimers will actually give advance notice, for example, telling their supervisor they intend to take a sick day a week from Tuesday. Is that considerate?

We live in the fitness age, with people concerned and assertive about maintaining good health. They alter and monitor their diets, trying to reject unhealthy foods, and they exercise, trying their best to stay well and live a more active, productive life. Despite those health-related efforts, many still are determined to use all their sick days. Am I the only one who sees that as ironic?

Some people don’t use their sick days. They hoard them, not because they expect serious illness, but because they want to cash them in when they leave their job. That is an especially common practice among public employees, another of the traditions which seem scandalous when cities, towns and counties are faced with chronic fiscal problems.

Every now and then, a story is published about somebody walking away from a high profile public job with a pocketful of money received from trading accumulated sick days for cash. It’s worth a story for a day or two, with statements of outrage from certain commentators, but then it is forgotten. The most recent case involved the departure of Edward J. Kasprzak, who retired last year from a top job at the Erie County Water Authority with the cash equivalent of 130 days of sick leave and 52 days of unused vacation time. Kasprzak was earning over $135,000 from the authority, which had contracted to pay him a year’s severance whenever he left. That, combined with the payment for the unused days, meant that he received $230,000 when he said goodbye to the Erie County Water Authority. It’s old news by this time and forgotten by all but the most dedicated critics of local government operations, but I just thought it deserved mention in any discussion of people collecting sick pay when they are well.

The sick people who would rather work than collect don’t deserve any testimonials, either. Just the other day I spent most of the afternoon backpedaling, trying to stay out of range of a coughing, sniffling specimen.

Yes, it is an imperfect world.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Eliot Spitzer and the adversarial personality

By Dick Hirsch

Some people are by nature adversarial. They thrive on conflict. In my life I have worked with or closely observed people who fall into that category. They derive satisfaction, perhaps even joy, from defeating, perhaps even overwhelming, the perceived opposition or enemy.

Me? I don’t belong to that group. I’ve tried to make as objective an analysis as possible of my own behavior patterns and I have concluded that I am not adversarial.

What I am is competitive. I want to be first. As a newspaperman, I always wanted to get the story before the opposition. I still do. During my business career, I always wanted to discover the prospect and make the first sale before the others even knew the customer existed. During the years when I was producing a weekly TV interview program, I was constantly scanning the news, peering ahead, trying to sign up a newsworthy guest before the other stations realized there was a story to tell.

Yes, I wanted to be first. I enjoyed the competition. But when I succeeded I never felt like a gladiator and experienced any rush of superiority and feeling of pleasure at damaging a competitor.

Self assessment is supposed to be a beneficial exercise. I haven’t devoted much time to it, but I was motivated to try in the wake of the dramatic and sad departure from public life of Eliot Spitzer. Enough time has passed since his resignation following the revelation of his involvement with a prostitution ring that it is possible to consider his rise and fall in a more dispassionate manner.

Some people feel sorry for the former governor, even though he, as my grandmother used to say, “made his own bed.” Forced from office with few willing to defend him, his once brilliant political career was ruined and his family life shattered, perhaps beyond repair. And he was just 48 years old.

I always had ambivalent feelings about Spitzer. I admired his work and his aggressive tactics during his years as attorney general. He seemed to be determined to correct deficiencies, right wrongs and to prosecute those who were nimbly skirting the edges of legality. Some were small time grifters; others were Wall Street impresarios using sophisticated methods to reap huge profits for themselves, ill-gotten gains unavailable to rank and file investors who followed the rules.

I applauded all that activity as it was unfolding, but at the same time, Spitzer transmitted a message that I perceived as negative: he seemed to take particular pride and satisfaction, even enjoyment, in hurting his targets, ruining them, holding them up to public ridicule and disgrace.

In a word, he was adversarial. That may be a quality inherent in every prosecutor, but, just from watching his press conferences and announcements, I concluded that Spitzer seemed to gain particular pleasure from sending his targets crashing to earth. I found that aspect of his public persona to be distasteful. He seemed unable to adjust his personality even after his landslide election as governor, assuming he could dominate and dictate to the Legislature. He continued the adversarial pattern and failed.

On a different stage, I once worked with a newspaper editor who experienced glee whenever he was able to cause pain to others. He could be reckless and I don’t think he ever realized exactly how much damage a newspaper article could do to a person’s career and family. He loved the act of bragging about the exclusive disclosure, whether it was an issue of widespread community interest or the embarrassing story of a victimless crime which the authorities had conspired to ignore. He was a gladiator, most satisfied when he figuratively had his hands gripping the throat of his latest victim. He was a member in good standing of the adversary fraternity.

People were shocked at the disclosure of Spitzer’s patronizing of prostitutes and surely most disapproved of his hypocritical behavior. Many of those who voted for him had mixed emotions as they saw him ejected from office in disgrace, a once promising career in shambles.

There are many related stories yet to be written and opinions yet to be rendered. There have already been suggestions that Spitzer may have been the target of a plot, orchestrated by some of his many adversaries---individuals of influence who he had prosecuted. Conspiracy theories are likely to abound in the months and years ahead. How many shooters were there at Dealey Plaza that November day in Dallas, anyway?


Saturday, March 15, 2008

A couple reunited after a breakup

By Dick Hirsch

It’s always painful when relationships are disrupted and couples break up, each going off in a different direction. It is never easy to consider the subject, but now is an appropriate time because this is the season when such rifts occur with the greatest frequency. There definitely is a seasonal aspect to such incidents.

Anecdotal evidence will have to suffice since no official records are available. However, the facts seem clear:

More pairs of gloves are permanently split during the winter months in the northeast than at any other time. Such losses raise questions that are not easily answered. Why didn’t they remain together? What is the future of those gloves whose relationship with their partner has been ruptured? Can they lead a productive life as a single glove?

Yes, it certainly seems it is always just one glove that unexpectedly strays, embarking on a solitary life. Gloves are rarely lost in pairs. If they were, it wouldn’t be much of an issue.

But what happens to those single gloves? Do they have a future? If they are found in a parking lot or inside a theater, are they of any use to the finder? If noticed, will they be turned over to the authorities in the vain hope that through some magical good fortune they may be happily reunited with with their mate?

In the old days, when men wore rubbers or overshoes during the winter, it wasn’t unusual to see a single boot or rubber laying in the road when spring came. The setting was usually a busy city street, not a rural area. How could they possibly have gotten there? They were usually so snug fitting they were not likely to just slip off without being noticed by the wearer. Did anyone ever pick up a lonely galosh from the curbside and invoke that old “finders, keepers” policy? I doubt it. A single rubber or boot was certain to be ignored and eventually trashed, as was its twin, wherever that survivor may have been.

Gloves are different. The owners develop a dependence on and an affection for their gloves. So why don’t they safeguard them? That’s a difficult question to answer with any certainty. That is especially true in my case since I have just lost one of a pair. This pair has had a particularly tumultuous relationship: this was the third time one disassociated itself from the other. The first breakup occurred during the winter of 2007, when the right glove vanished early in the morning. The pair was intact when I left the house, although in the pockets, not on the hands. I made two stops on the way to the office, then hung up my coat without checking the whereabouts of the gloves. There was no need to check, was there? I had not worn them.

Yet when I left for lunch, the right glove was missing. Gone. Vanished. I launched an immediate investigation, retracing my steps and by mid-afternoon had located and reclaimed the glove, thus reuniting the pair. It had fallen from my pocket at the coffee shop. Naturally, I was delighted with the reunion, and the pair spent the off season vacationing together in the hall closet and were intact for winter 2008.

As this season began, I had forgotten that episode until it happened again. I was shocked to dig into my pocket one afternoon as I left for home and could not find the glove. I looked in all the obvious places, spent a few days lamenting the loss and my carelessness, when I suddenly asked myself: “Could I have dropped it in the parking lot at the dentist’s office?” I called, not expecting success, but, to my surprise, a patient having a root canal repaired had found it and turned it over to the dentist, where the hygienists were wondering whether it would ever be claimed. They were glad to see me.

I wore the pair without incident through some of the coldest days, deriving considerable comfort from them, but as March approached, the left one disappeared. This time, more than before, I blamed myself, cursing my carelessness. For a moment, I considered forgetting the glove and buying a new pair (on sale at this season), since this was clearly a jinxed couple. But I knew the breakup must have taken place as I left a theater, so when I checked the following day and described the glove, they had found it on the floor in the lobby. The pair has been reunited and, while the future is uncertain, the warm relationship has been renewed.


Saturday, March 08, 2008

Getting those Florida weather reports

By Dick Hirsch

How was I to know it was a call to a cell phone? They gave me the number and urged me as follows: “Call Jerry. He is the man who can help you.”

I had never known Jerry, never heard of him, in fact, but since they assured me that he could provide the required assistance, I was delighted to call him.

Is it too early to digress? I hope not. Here goes: To digress for a moment, that is one of the peculiar aspects of cell phone usage. If a call is made to a certain local number, that person may be far, far away from his usual haunts. Instead of being at the office working, or even at home, relaxing, he could be in the car, on a golf course, dining with an important client...almost anywhere. There is no way of knowing, is there? And in many of those locations, the last thing the person is looking forward to receiving is an unexpected call, especially from someone he or she doesn’t know.

That brings me back to my call to Jerry. I repeat: I had no idea it was a cell phone, but I probably would have called anyway. So I did.

He answered after several rings and I introduced myself, explaining who suggested I contact him and the nature of the call. He took a few seconds to digest that information, then responded:

“I’m in Sarasota. It is 72 degrees.”

Why do people do that? Why do people in Florida feel compelled to report immediately on the temperature when they receive a phone call from the north? I apologized for disturbing him and told him I didn’t know he was in Florida; I thought he was in his office, right here on his home turf.

“I’m on a cell phone, here in Sarasota. It’s 72 degrees and sunny,” he repeated, “and I’m riding my bicycle. But I stopped to answer your call.”

What is the reason for stressing the weather? I have my own explanation, but I may be off base. Oh, well, I will answer a question with another question, a bad habit, but a procedure that can sometimes focus on the point most directly: Could it be that those people who either live there year around or else spend the winter in the south are striving to belittle those of us who choose to remain in snow country?

“Is it snowing up there?” Jerry asked.

Folks down there keep very close track of the weather reports up here, so I knew Jerry must have had a good idea that we were in a snow cycle. He was looking for confirmation.

“No,” I reported, truthfully. “It snowed a little during the night, but the streets are fine. No problems that I know of.”

Why do I always have the feeling that snowbirds like Jerry are always disappointed when they get news like that, positive weather news from up country?

I have my suspicions. Could it possibly be that it delights them and makes them feel the money they are spending for their Florida accommodations is a real bargain? Or is there another reason, a different rationale I have failed to consider?

These are serious questions, issues that are worthy of consideration by all the folks who remain behind, the folks who winter in cities like Buffalo, Rochester or Syracuse. Yes, of course the stay at homes do talk about the weather, sometimes even when it doesn’t deserve much conversation. But as a group, I can virtually assure you none of them ever received a call from a Florida resident, caught in a hurricane, tornado, typhoon or whatever other weather events they have there, and answered in the following manner:

“It’s a lovely spring day here, 65 and sunny.”

We just don’t react that way, perhaps because this part of the world has become so identified with blizzards and snow drifts that it has become a cliché. We endure, despite the negative reputation, and are unlikely to take any joy in the other guy’s troubles.

As it turned out, Jerry helped me to the best of his ability, but I actually was able to find a better source of information in Hamburg. I ended the conversation by apologizing once again for disturbing him during his bike ride and concluded with that familiar suggestion, “have a nice day.”

“Oh, they’re all nice down, here,” he said. “It may hit 80 tomorrow, but that’s a little too warm, don’t you think?”


Saturday, March 01, 2008

Coffee is essential to this select group

By Dick Hirsch

During those formative years when I was of the age during which people typically begin considering career options, I never thought of what life would be like as a barista.

The truth is that at that time, I had absolutely no idea what a barista did. I had never even heard of a barista. If you had asked that I guess the meaning, based on linguistics, I probably would have guessed it related to a Spanish lawyer, derived from the same root as the the English word “barrister.”

I would have been very wrong, of course. It was not until very recently that I learned what a barista is and what a barista does, and by then, of course, it was too late for me to consider any career change. Quite by accident I discovered that a barista is a person who makes coffee.

Had I been a true coffee aficionado I would have known that years ago, when coffee seized a new and prominent position in the lives of so many people. But, no, since coffee has always been just another commodity to me, I never had any involvement with a barista. Then one day I was walking past a Starbucks branch. There was a line of people waiting for service, but I believed my mission---information gathering---was much more important than theirs---ordering some version of coffee.

“Excuse me,” I said to the nearest young woman behind the counter, “what do they call your job?”

She looked at me as if I might have just wandered away from a secure facility, but, thank goodness, she didn’t call for help to have me ejected. Instead, she replied, proudly:

“I’m a barista.”

I suspect Starbucks is one of the primary places where most baristas are at work since there are so many opportunities. At last count there were over 10,600 company owned and licensed stores in the US plus another 4,300 abroad. My visits to places like that have been relatively few for two reasons: First, coffee isn’t an important factor in my life and, finally, I am too careful (some might say too cheap) to pay the prices they have established. However, at those prices, all the baristas must be doing very well. They are the key players at each store in a multibillion dollar business, so they should all be living well and driving fancy cars.

This is true all over the world. I was just talking about China with a woman whose attorney son lives in Beijing. She said one of the busiest places in that huge megalopolis is a particular Starbucks, a huge facility favored by both locals and tourists. The Chinese, she said, traditionally tea drinkers, have been seduced by the lure of US coffee and don’t seem to object to paying a high price for the privilege of drinking a latte, espresso, or cappuccino.

With all that in mind, and realizing there are countless local and national wannabes who are in the business of attempting to emulate the great success of Starbucks, we must raise this occupational question: Has becoming a barista become a popular goal among young job seekers? Before you answer, you should know that the specialty has progressed to the point where there are several barista magazines, a US Barista Championship competition, a World Competition, and the American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, Oregon, known in the trade as ABC, where an aspiring barista can learn the skills necessary for coffee-brewing excellence. The tuition is $2,225 for the four day course.

The folks who brewed the coffee I drank during my years as a four cup a day regular never had the benefit of such intense professional training. I can still remember the original Harry, who founded and worked both breakfast and lunch at the luncheonette of the same name, dumping the old coffee grounds into a trash can behind the counter. He then added a new portion of coffee and ceremoniously poured a large kettle of boiling water into the urn. He occasionally permitted others to handle the task, but, as the boss and coffee expert, he preferred to do it himself.

Harry always claimed he never made any money on the coffee, explaining that his profit was on the food. The coffee was a mere convenience, he insisted. He knew how to brew the coffee but he didn’t know how to merchandise it. He was born to soon.