Cartography: mapping the territory in which we find ourselves –
Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
– William Wordsworth
Fixed Figures – like many in my generation, I have a long and storied resumé. For as long as I can remember, there are three things I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer, a teacher, and a singer. Coming of age in the era of disco, I struggled to support myself financially while working toward realizing those earliest dreams. I got my first “real” job as a “contingent” sales person, filling in for absentee workers during the Christmas rush at a now defunct Washington, D.C. retail institution, Woodward & Lothrop. The on-call position required me to serve as a stand-in for permanent employees within any department of the establishment.
Woodward & Lothrop postcard from Smithsonian magazine
I worked on the glamorous main floor manning the perfume counter one evening, and the next, I might be called upon to cut fabric and help elderly ladies match buttons to their yard-goods purchases in the notions department up on the 8th floor. What I liked best about the job was that it tested my ability to adapt to a different atmosphere for any given shift.
Open Levels – hired on to do inventory after the Christmas season was over, I began a series of self-revising career moves, catapulting from part-time to full-time sales person, then on to head-of-sales in the Housewares Department, and eventually, into management. I realize now that my dazzling rise from “contingent” staff to line management had less to do with my background, education, training, skills, or ability, and more to do with the fact that the retail clerks union was making a move to organize the workforce of the second-largest employer in the District of Columbia.
Syllabi – the opportunity for rapid advancement was not altogether lost on me. Although I chose to drop out of the university (where I was studying music) in order to take the management position I was offered, I ultimately left Woodies (the locals’ nickname for it) with a marketable set of practical skills ranging from analyzing inventory and generating sales projections to organizing event roll-outs and supervising a large staff – none of which can be garnered from college coursework (i.e. theoretical knowledge as it exists in the vacuum of a classroom) alone. Regardless of the on-the-job training and experience I acquired from working in the retail industry, however, even before I started that first “real” job, I had already learned everything I needed to know about working with other people from my father.
Bronze Steps – I couldn’t have been much more than four when my father began teaching me to dance, his steps guiding mine as I tip-toed, balancing atop his wing-tipped feet. Although I was barely half his height, hand-to-hand we would glide toward some measure of grace.
It seemed as though we moved together, propelled by sound, through a space reserved for giants – steadfast, like Keats’ “Bright Star” – “not in lone splendour hung aloft the night/ and watching,” our transitory solitariness suspended, “with eternal lids apart,/ like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,” awash in unitive song, “the moving waters at their priestlike task/ of pure ablution”. I realize now that in addition to giving me confidence, this familiar father/daughter custom had a positive and long-lasting impact on my relationships with people, which not only influenced my social skills, but also continues to sway my career choices, as it shaped my ability to motivate employees, network with business contacts, and catch the attention of mentors.
Silver Steps – After a number of what might be considered “missteps,” I reached my second career goal of becoming a teacher at a comparatively late age. Nonetheless, I viewed all of my personnel management experience as a vital asset when it came to managing a classroom full of inquisitive, albeit boisterous, teenagers. However, I also saw the experience of high school as a primarily academic (rather than social) occasion. As a high school teacher, I believed that we were in the business of preparing people for expanded educational, economic, and emotional growth, cultivated through the medium of intellectual inquiry.
Toward that end, to foster discussion of the expectations or “norms” for classroom behavior at the beginning of each new term, I devised a classroom activity that found favor with a variety of students, no matter what class or subject (I taught several) they shared with me. I would give each student a copy of one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” to annotate, analyze, and explicate. Invariably, the last four lines commanded their attention: “So when at times the mob is swayed/ To carry praise or blame too far,/ We may choose something like a star/ To stay our minds on and be staid.” After we engaged in discourse regarding the implications of these lines, I’d make a demonstrative gesture, suspending glow-in-the-dark plastic stars above our heads from the ceiling panels, just in case any of us forgot our newly forged (and stated) obligation to honor our classroom, our inquiries and discussions, and each other with the respect befitting any civilized venture.
Gold Steps – Recognizing artistic pursuits as the “crown jewels” as far as civilized ventures go, John Adams acknowledged, “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry and porcelain.”
Rita Dove’s “Sic Itur Ad Astra” reminds us, as it speaks to an untold (or perhaps, unremembered?) history, that if we do not listen carefully to our dreams, they will continue to reach out from within us, seeking expression, until we hear them: “What will they say/ when they find me/ missing – just/ the shape of my dreaming/ creasing the sheets?” (119)
Taking her cue from Virgil’s quotation, (This is the way to the stars.) and positioning it as the poem’s epigraph, Dove strategically locates history (i.e. Adams’ study of politics and war) within poetry’s firmament, suggesting that we might actually learn something useful from what those (seemingly strange) “inner” voices tell us.
Novice – listening carefully to the voices of our shared past may prevent us from repeating the same disastrous mistakes we make when we give in to isolation. Taken from recent headlines and current events, an example of this can be observed in the so-called “workers’ rebellions” rocking our blue planet with conflicts that range from vociferous protests in the beleaguered states of Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, to the toppling of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt (not to mention similar revolts going on throughout the oil-rich Middle Eastern region). On the surface, it may appear that this unrest is newly fomented, exacerbated by the worldwide economic meltdown we are experiencing. However, I would suggest that inciting strife and discord in order to upset the status quo is one of the oldest tricks in the “book.” For instance, looked at as a whole, the perpetual clash between the ruling elite and “ordinary” citizens has an all-too-familiar ring. We might be tempted to invoke Marie Antoinette’s often quoted response to her countrymen’s “revolutionary” request for bread (i.e. sustenance). Or, looking further back to the narrative of Eris’ Golden Apple, (purportedly was to blame for starting the Trojan War) we might concede some eerie similarities.
Eris Golden Apple of Discord
Pre-Championship – taking our storied past into account, our “disagreeable” relatives (i.e. workers, public employees, and “ordinary” citizens) feel that they have been systematically excluded from the “royal wedding,” refused admittance to the feast, and turned away from the “tables” of government. In response, the uninvited guests have crashed the party and thrown down the apple, effectively halting the commerce that feeds us all, while the wealthy, their businesses, and their representatives in government all vie to claim entitlement to its devastatingly simple inscription: To the fairest –
Championship – beyond being a simple matter of income inequity, human greed, or exploitation for profit, this latest lobbing of the Golden Apple into the cotillion only serves to underscore that the source of contention can be traced back to our persistent “authority” problem. At its heart, rebellion undermines the expedient narratives (Karl Marx’s “opiates”) of the ruling elite, tendering the resignation of the masses. Should we wonder what effect this might have on us, we need only visit our neighborhood gas station and fill up our tanks to have our isolationist dreams shattered: regardless of how remote we perceive the threat to be, contention anywhere viscerally affects us all.
Securing The Trophy – In a move that reminded me of dancing in tandem with my father, Brian Schweitzer, the governor of Montana, realized (two years ago) what the implications of the economic meltdown represented for the future of his state and its citizens and started a dialogue with the employees’ unions. In a gesture toward largesse, he began by reducing his own salary, then asking the union leaders to follow suit. In other words, rather than wait for an ugly standoff between distanced “family members” he acted judiciously, and in good faith, leading by example, and expecting the best in other people (rather than anticipating the worst).
"Disco Ball" Photograph.
This not only makes good sense in terms of public policy: it’s good for business, good for government, and good for “the common welfare” of all of his state’s citizens. When I think back now to how I got into management in the first place, I realize that if the company I worked for had historically treated their employees fairly, they might not have gone out of business, and they certainly would not have succumbed to union organization, as was their fate. As it turns out, the inculcation of commonly held ideals – e.g. common decency, a healthy respect for others’ dignity, no matter how “small” or “clumsy” they may, at first, seem, and a sense of “fair play” – this is a much more profitable enterprise.