Tag Archives: work

Throwback Thursday: What baling hay teaches

Going back to school reminds Minnesota Wonderer of her uncle who’s worked in education for the better part of his career. September reminds me of harvest time, too (I no longer have a garden but I drive by those fields of bounty). So today’s Throwback Thursday post, first published Aug. 9, 2012, pays homage to both my uncle and a harvest. It’s one of my favorites. Enjoy.

What a perfect haystack means

Symbols remind us of what’s important. A wedding ring symbolizes a commitment. A lushly green, well-watered lawn symbolizes suburban perfection. A signed baseball symbolizes a brush with fame.

For my uncle, a perfect haystack symbolizes a summer’s work.

stacked hay final

A meaningful stack of North Dakota hay, circa 1965.

I recently found a black-and-white picture of the haystack in my uncle’s collection of personal photos.

“You’ve had this photo for 40-some years,” I said. “There must be a reason you kept it so long.”

“That hay stack represented a finished job,” Uncle Lee said. “I don’t get many ‘finished jobs’ in my line of work now.”

Nowadays, making hay is highly mechanized. Round bales, created by a machine, dot the rural landscape around the little town where I live on the outskirts of Chicago.

But a century ago, hay was cut with scythes and moved with pitchforks, and haystacks shaped like little houses were fixtures of the Midwestern landscape. Square balers mechanized the process in the 1940s. As the farming industry moved to a more corporate operation in recent years, large round bales have become more common.

The biggest advantage of small square bales like those handled by my uncle is that they can be moved by one person without a lot of machinery.

Square hay bales must be stacked in such a way as to shed moisture and prevent rotting. My uncle estimates his haystack probably had 2,000 square bales in it.

“I probably handled those bales six times each,” he said. “That’s why I was in such great shape! The knees wore out of my blue jeans from hiking up those bales. I could throw them like you couldn’t believe.”

As the saying goes, you make hay while the sun shines. One has to cut it, rake it and bale it first. “Dad [my grandfather] had a brand new baler at the time,” Uncle Lee remembers. “Then I’d go out and put ’em in six packs — that’s the first time I handled ’em. Then I’d pick ’em up and throw ’em on the hay wagon (that’s two), then stack ’em again on the wagon (three), bring ’em home, throw ’em down (there’s four, right?), then stack them like you see here in the picture.”

The stack in that picture symbolized a whole summer of work.

“Wait, that’s five times, I think,” I said.

“Then in the winter time, you have to feed the cattle – I had to throw the bales on the ground for the cows.”

Six.

“I like everything about cattle,” said Uncle Lee, who grew up and made hay in the western plains of North Dakota. “I enjoyed that part of farming. I didn’t like seeding or combining, but one of my favorite times of year was when we moved the cattle to summer pasture. All winter, they were cooped up in the barnyards, but in spring we moved them to the open fields. They were like little kids! They’d kick up their heels and hit their heads together, they were so happy.

“I still like cattle.”

Early on, Uncle Lee left farming because there was no money in it and embarked on a career in education. He started out as a social studies teacher. He worked his way into school administrationthe top of the stack, so to speak—favoring smaller school districts.

“That’s probably why I prefer rural districts,” Uncle Lee said. “North Dakota built my foundation. It was a hard place to make a living: It’s got a short growing season. It’s colder than hell. Sometimes it doesn’t rain. It can be a very lonely, lonely place.”

But he learned what hard work can accomplish.

And the picture of his haystack symbolizes it.

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The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Prior to finding posts here at Minnesota Transplant more regularly earlier this month, perhaps you wondered why I didn’t post in most of November and December.

Or perhaps you didn’t.

Two of my readers remarked on my absence. My mother and my uncle. Which humbly reminds me no one hangs on my every word.

Still, I want to explain the drought in posts, and my attorneys have given me the OK. Yes, you read that right—my attorneys. It wasn’t holiday preparations that prevented me from blogging every day about my adorable mini schnauzer, my latest kitchen experiment or the books I read. Instead, I spent an inordinate amount of time in late 2015 sitting in a federal courtroom in Chicago (or sitting on a train getting there or getting home—do you have any idea how much it costs to park your car in downtown Chicago?!).

Fortunately, I am not a defendant. I am among four named plaintiffs suing the people we deem responsible for failing to protect my former employer’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) of which I was a participant.

We brought this case seven years ago after the company where I worked declared bankruptcy, rendering the employee stock I had earned by working there almost a decade as valueless.

Indeed, we four named plaintiffs represent something like 400 former employees who participated in the ESOP and were left with nothing despite working for years to make the company successful. At stake is $100 million (not as big as the record Powerball jackpot, but still, a fair chunk of change).

For seven weeks in November and December, I witnessed the wheels of justice turn (slowly). Our attorneys rested their case in mid-December after presenting 15 live witnesses, a slew of depositions and hundreds of exhibits in the form of emails, reports and PowerPoint presentations relevant to a financial transaction that occurred 13 years ago.

I have been amazed (and honestly sometimes bored) at the level of detail and complexity presented. Most of the time, I’ve been spellbound both by the information and the forum in which it has been presented. It hasn’t been as fascinating or salacious as an episode of “L.A. Law” (am I showing my age?) but do understand why so many books, television shows and movies are set in a courtroom. Much of the testimony centered on financial reports rather than police reports as many legal dramas portray (though often I’ve felt the company I once loved was the subject of an archaeological autopsy).

There was blood (imagine the paper cuts inherent so many paper exhibits!), sweat and, yes, tears. Attorneys objected, condescended and sputtered. Indeed, American’s judicial system is adversarial, and I have a new appreciation for the system. It’s a bench trial (meaning a judge will decide, not a jury) so there’s been less posturing than I witnessed in the criminal trials I covered decades ago as a newspaper reporter.

It would be difficult for me to feel I haven’t had my day in court. At one point, our case was dismissed and back then I felt, well, dismissed and demoralized. We appealed and won the right to be heard in court. Regardless of the outcome now, I believe the judge is being diligent and working hard. It’s been a long, sometimes arduous road, but I do not regret having brought the suit, and I am in fact proud to be representing the call for justice in this case.

I don’t know nor can I predict what will happen in court, though I remain hopeful we will prevail.

Our attorneys have presented a very good case. One of them likened it to a restaurant preparing a great meal – we’ve grilled our best steak, mashed the best potatoes and served it all on fine china. But we cannot predict if the restaurant critic (i.e., the judge) will like it. Now, we wait. We wait for the defense to present (they started their case on Tuesday and will probably be at it for three weeks), and then we will wait for the judge to rule. But it’s been seven years, so what’s a few more weeks or months?

I will not be observing the defense case so for the time being, my life returns to normal.

And now, so can my blog.

Ode to inertia

We’re heading into the weekend. It’s a new month Sunday. Maybe you’re mourning your unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions.

Time for a pep talk.

Maybe you didn’t get done in January what you wanted to get done because you needed a break.

Maybe you needed some do-nothing time.

Maybe life isn’t about getting stuff done.

This is a difficult-to-swallow prescription for a Minnesota-born girl with Scandinavian and Germanic blood in her veins.

Sloth is sinful.

It’s one of the seven deadly sins you know! I’m sure you know. Anyone’s who’s seen Morgan Freeman crack the serial killer’s code in the movie Se7en knows how deadly sloth can be.

Wrong!

While wasting one’s talents with inaction may be unfortunate if not deplorable, I maintain there’s a difference between sloth and rest.

God created us to rest as much as He created us to work.

For eight hours a day, our bodies are rendered immobile by sleep. If one goes long enough without sleep, one dies, that’s how important sleep is.

If God created us to rest for eight hours a day, he certainly intends for us to rest at other times, too.

There are many examples of this yin and yang (if you’ll permit me to mix my spiritual metaphors).

We breathe in. We breathe out.

The sun rises. The sun sets.

Plants grow in spring and summer. They freeze in autumn and winter.

We are born. We die.

Rest is actually a gift. To feel guilty for taking a break is wasted emotion. We should relish rest, appreciate it for the gift that it is. Rest reinvigorates us for the work ahead.

Watching the clouds drift by is important work. Reading fiction is a creative distraction. Binge-watching HBO television series is, well, it’s sort of inconsequential but not completely worthless. You get my point.

So if you’ve gotten through January without accomplishing anything in the first twelfth of the new year, if you’re wrapping up your week thinking you were entirely too unproductive to deserve a whole weekend of lethargy, I think you’re being too hard on yourself.

You deserve a break sometimes, too. Be fully present for your rest. Savor your inertia.

My work is hereby done. Time to take a break.

My cup runneth over

Business is good. So good, in fact, I have so many faces of other families running through my mind, I literally force myself to think of empty, sandy beaches a la a Corona commercial in order to fall asleep. Such is the life of a photo organizer. I’m reminded of a Bible verse.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

~ Psalm 23:5-6

The best job I’ve ever had

Today was your last day to order from Ahni & Zoe by Creative Memories.

This is significant because it marks the end of Creative Memories, a company for which I once worked. I would describe the job(s) I had there as the best of my life.

Ahni & Zoe by Creative Memories, the final, ultimately doomed incarnation of the company, was hardly recognizable as Creative Memories, but A&Z did promote photo sharing and some of the employees and salespeople who made the place special were a part of it, so its relation to the original Creative Memories was notable. But it couldn’t climb out of the hole the scrapbooking giant fell into in the past decade. New management is taking over some of the manufacturing equipment in order to continue the legacy of quality products, but whatever Flowerdale Group Limited offers can’t be and won’t be what made Creative Memories special in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

That’s when business was good. That’s when I loved the company. That’s when I had the best job in the world.

The company at its best manufactured scrapbooks and scrapbooking supplies and sold them through a sales field of committed work-at-home women (and a few men) who showed off the products at home parties and workshops. It was the perfect marriage of product and promotion at the right cultural moment: A time when people were overwhelmed by boxes and drawers and envelopes of printed photos. It seems appropriate, actually, to tell my Creative Memories story at this moment with digital versions of printed photos and pages from my scrapbooks. That’s what it’s come to.

CM first day of work

This is the first page in the album I titled “Creative Memories Career I.” It turned into two more volumes, and then Creative Memories had become so entwined with my personal life, I just scrapbooked everything in the same books. Look closely at the welcome note. It says “Welcome New Employees of The Antioch Company.” The Antioch Company was the parent company of Creative Memories.

I started at Creative Memories on Nov. 10, 1997. I remember the precise date, it’s that notable. Throughout the next decade, I changed desks and offices at least 24 times. The company was growing so fast, we reorganized departments, adopted new job titles, built new buildings, bought new desks and moved desks around every six months or so. At the time, it seemed so wild and unpredictable, but now I know the chaos of growth is far preferable to the instability of demise.

One of my many opportunities to dress up for work.

One of my many opportunities to dress up for work.

My job was simple: Dress in revealing clothing and talk with a Cher lisp. Kidding! But I did get to dress up a lot — in classy suits and not-so-classy costumes — in my role in the marketing department. I consulted focus groups, wrote packaging copy, mingled with sales people at fancy dinners and breathtaking incentive trips, drafted proposals, observed sales events and delivered more PowerPoint presentations than I can count.

CM private jet

The only time I’ve ever ridden in a private jet was when a number of Creative Memories employees inspected the plant that supplied our paper. Paper, as you can imagine, is a very important component of a scrapbook.

For a girl who grew up in a small town in Central Minnesota, it was exciting to rub elbows with the jet set. The second week on the job, I flew to Cincinnati for a video shoot, and that was only the first of probably more than 100 business trips in my 10 years at Creative Memories.

Even the training events were affecting.

Even the training events were affecting. I once jumped off the top of a 30-foot pole at a leadership retreat. The whole “trust fall” concept of business bonding is mostly baloney, but the experience was interesting.

The company at the time invested in its employees, and the training I received at Creative Memories was personally enriching, too. I still have on my bulletin board the personal mission statement I wrote in a corporate “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” seminar I took from Cheryl Lightle, one of the co-founders of the company whom I still admire.

That little tiny orange-attired person in front of the big center screen? Me.

That little tiny orange-attired person in front of the big center screen? Me.

Perhaps the highlights of my Creative Memories career were my appearances at the annual North American sales conventions. I introduced branding concepts and new products to the ecstatic cheers of thousands of salespeople (7,000 was my biggest audience). I always felt so glamorous getting attention from makeup artists, learning to use teleprompters and catering to the jumbotron camera.

On my first trip aboard, I closed down the airport when the knuckleheads in the TSA determined I had handled bomb-making materials. I had, in fact, used glycerin-containing hand lotion.

On my first trip aboard, I closed down the airport when the knuckleheads in the Transportation Safety Administration determined I had handled bomb-making materials. I had, in fact, used glycerin-containing hand lotion.

In 2002, I needed a new challenge so I moved from the domestic operation to the international department. Thanks to Creative Memories, I’ve visited five continents spreading the photo-preservation mission of the company. (Antarctica is not a big scrapbooking market, and the closest I got to South America was Mexico City.)

I brought my 60something mother who was more familiar with camping than flying with me on one of my trips to Japan and Australia (yes, Creative Memories allowed personal use my frequent flier miles — it was great like that back in the day). I loved being able to show her the world that way.

CM SA

You weren’t a Creative Memories devotee unless you handed your camera to other people so you could be in the shot. I still laugh when I see this picture our tour guide in South Africa took of me and a business associate (and yes, that’s her arm where a zebra bit her).

I remember my years in the international department as exotic and challenging. I was given enough rope to hang myself, but most of the time I navigated the tightrope with finesse. The best part, besides the sightseeing, was making friends in far-flung locales. In fact, I made lots of good friends through my work in Creative Memories, many with whom I’m still in contact. Just tonight, I had a 45-minute conversation with one of those talented, hard-working souls who made Creative Memories a truly inspirational, satisfying place to work.

Digital photography marked the beginning of the end of Creative Memories. Without piles of photos in every corner of the house demanding attention, consumers found it easier to ignore (or just post on Facebook) their digital pictures. (Other events transpired, too, but I won’t go into them here; maybe someday the lawyers will let me talk about them.) Sales started declining in 2003, and eventually panic set in.

CM goodbyeWhen I finally left Creative Memories in 2007, I was one of the few people who got to quit voluntarily. The company had undergone a couple of lay-offs, and the marketing and international departments were undergoing makeovers every four months (the hysteria was ludicrous). I took a new job in Illinois to be with my new love, who later became my second husband (the new husband turned out to be wonderful; the new job, not so much. But that’s another story.)

Creative Memories declared bankruptcy the first time in 2008. I was shocked to learn the bankruptcy dissolved the retirement fund of hundreds of employees including me. The company tried to recover, and I eventually signed on as a salesperson just so I could get discounted access to those amazing photo albums. Creative Memories albums are the best scrapbooks on the market. Those books will be around 400 years from now when we’re long, long gone. It was easy to market such good quality.

But the hysteria and the bleeding didn’t stop. Old debt prevented reincarnation. The company declared bankruptcy again in April 2013 and then went on to reinvent itself again as Ahni & Zoe. I was transfixed by the mayhem that ensued, and now as a salesperson, I felt like I had a front-row seat to the traffic accident occurring in slow motion. Sorrowfully, it was like I knew the victims inside the vehicle.

The reimagined product line didn’t catch the fancy of enough people, and salespeople left in droves (including me). A few weeks ago, Ahni & Zoe by Creative Memories announced a while-supplies-last sale. All sales final.

I am sad that Creative Memories has met its end. Though it was more of a mess than a messiah at the end, the company was great once. It did great things. Things you don’t normally associate with corporations nowadays. Memories were saved. Friends were made. People had meaningful work and meaningful pay. I am a better person because I worked for Creative Memories during that magical time.

I take comfort in the words of Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Smile. That’s the perfect way to remember a company that was all about photos.

 

Countdown to mortification begins

Have I mentioned Mortified: Angst Written? Yes, I know I have. It’s the live diary reading thingy whatsy? A grassroots storytelling forum for adults to share excerpts of the strange and embarrassing things they did as kids as a way to reveal stories about their lives? Yes, that thingy.

The date’s set, and I’m performing Aug. 2 at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave., Chicago. Tickets sell out fast, I’m told, so if you want to see this amazing aberration, order now. (Here’s the link to the Facebook invitation so you can wedge it in your busy schedule.)

As I was pondering this entry, I was going to make a joke about it being the first time taking the stage since I was a talking donkey in high school (yes, I did), but I realized, whoa, I spend a lot of time on stages, actually (and not always as an ass).

I spoke to thousands (yes, really, thousands is not an exaggeration — scrapbooking supplies were very popular back then) when I introduced new products as a Creative Memories marketer, and I frequently emcee’d Homemade Gourmet conventions. More recently, I’ve appeared in dozens of library conference rooms talking about the ABCs of Photo Organization (still taking dates for that talk, by the way), so the fact is: I’m a bit of a ham.

See for yourself Aug. 2.

 

 

The end of paper

The end of paper is coming, and even the dinosaurs have to admit it.

I was a denier for a long time. My argument was that as long as we have hands and eyes, we’ll have paper. The tactile appeal would overwhelm the power of  the computer, I maintained adamantly.

Then came along the iPad. No longer do I have to sit in front of my computer. I can bring my iPad anywhere and read it in any position. Tablets are getting slimmer, and it won’t be long until they’re as light and versatile as, well, as a piece of paper.

For an interview earlier this week, my potential client requested I bring my portfolio.

newspapers

“Portfolio”? Huh? I haven’t had a portfolio for 20 years. I pulled all the news stories I wrote while working at my college newspaper out of the binder I used to get my first and second jobs and then refilled the binder with printouts of blog posts and e-newsletters I’ve created. I put a paper version of my resume (how positively ancient) in the front.

I used to write in my diary. Now I write blog posts. Memos are now emails. Love notes have been replaced by text messages. Insurance forms are PDFs. Cookbooks have been replaced by Google. Even dollar bills and checks are so yesterday, unceremoniously replaced by plastic.

On NPR’s Science Friday today, Verge reporter Ellis Hamburger predicted monthly bank and credit card statements someday will be replaced with something else that is not so much “monthly” or “statement” as it is “instant” and “app.”

It’s weird, frankly, to be a paperphile in this strange new world.

I literally have made my living in paper. I used to work for newspapers. Now I read my newspaper on my iPad. I once worked for a scrapbooking company. Now no one prints out their photos anymore. I write books (and I love my bookshelves of paperbacks). But now I write ebooks, too.

I’m still making my living on paper: Among other feats of wonder, I organize people’s old printed photographs in boxes. But I do this so people can scan those photos to save and share them digitally.

I think writers and editors will be around for the foreseeable future. But I’m not sure. Facebook, for one example, does a pretty good job of culling all the news of interest to me and presenting it on my personalized Newsfeed.

What will I do with all my manila folders? My shelves of photo albums? My backache from lugging books everywhere I go?

What a brave, new world.