Sunday, January 3, 2010

Firmly on the Ground

First post of 2010. Happy New Year!

Saw several good movies during the holiday season including The Hurt Locker, An Education and The Young Victoria. But the one that resonated most with me on several levels was Up in the Air.

Easy enough to understand why—the film dealt with business air travel, something I did for 32 years. And it involved personnel layoffs, something I participated in as a practitioner (much better word than executioner) and as a victim.

Business travel can be very lonely (especially if you don’t share the good looks and charm of a George Clooney, and the willingness to use them). As a manager I could generally schedule my trips to coincide with other staffers, assuring me of lunch and dinner partners. It was after we retreated to our respective rooms that the travel gremlins materialized. I hardly ever enjoyed a good night’s sleep on the road. Either the pillows were not to my liking, or the room air was stagnant (hotels always seem to shut the ventilation off at 3 am), or my internal clock went off kilter and I’d wake up around 2 am and not be able to fall back to sleep for several hours. Invariably, the alarm clock rang during my period of deepest sleep.

All in all, however, traveling throughout the country, to major cities and rural hamlets, was a positive experience, both for me and for Gilda, even when she did not accompany me. There’s a truth to the saying, absence (or is it abstinence) makes the heart grow fonder.

The most I ever flew in one year, I believe, was around 65,000 miles, so hearing Clooney’s character say he flew 300,000 miles last year was impressive. But his elevation to the ten million mile club was not believable. He appeared to be 45 years old in the movie. If we assume he started flying right after college, that’s 24 years of flying. He’d have had to average 416,666 miles a year. To me, that’s not believable. Or else he’d have to be a lot older than 45.

Watching Up in the Air with Gilda and Ellie, I think they were a little concerned how I’d react to the layoff theme. I can’t report I was enamored with it. Even when you understand the reason behind it and can accept the action, as I did, it is hardly reassuring to one’s psyche to be sent home. The movie portrayed some real world pain from those discharged.

Unlike those depicted in the movie, all the layoffs at my former company were handled in-house, and mostly all in-person, regardless of where the associate worked. Managers would travel to deliver the news face to face. Rarely did I encounter anger or disbelief from an associate we had to let go. Probably because we hired intelligent staffers, they knew when either business dictated a cutback or their own work output forced us into a reduction.

Over the years I’ve traveled to California and Texas to deliver bad tidings. The Texas layoff was particularly difficult as it was one time the associate had no inkling it was coming. Working in a single-person bureau, she had little day to day contact with the main office and rumor mill. Because her car was being repaired, she could meet me only at her home. Twenty minutes into the meeting she still had not grasped why I was sitting in her dining room. Awkward doesn’t begin to convey how I was feeling. Finally, she understood.

Unless you’re really prepared for the ax, it is difficult to focus on what is being said. As in the movie, we handed out individual dossiers to each employee. Usually, we gave them as much time as needed to clear their cubicle. We did, in the interest of corporate protection, cut off email and Internet access on the spot. Fortunately, I never had to ask personnel to escort someone immediately out of the building. But it did happen to other business units. It wasn’t pretty.

As I repeatedly read and edited what I’ve already written I am cognizant that I have not really tapped into my deep emotions. Perhaps because my financial position was better than those laid off in the movie, and better than most others laid off in real life, I didn’t feel the economic hurt and anxiety generally associated with a loss of a job. Whatever the reason, I’m not ready, I guess, for a public analysis.

I will say that another movie I recently saw, Looking Forward, affected me more. Set in London, Looking Forward was released in 1933. It followed the hardship of Tim Benton, laid off after 40 years in the accounting unit of Service, a department store, and the challenges Gabriel Service had in trying to keep his family’s two hundred year old enterprise afloat and independent.

Perhaps because retailing was the milieu, perhaps because I too worked decades for a family owned company forced by an economic maelstrom to sever many, including long-term employees, as it fights for survival, I related viscerally to the movie, especially to the scene where Service (played by Lewis Stone) informed Benton (Lionel Barrymore) of his release.

The movie lapsed into rank sentimentality in the end, but that’s understandable. The producers wanted to pump up the audience. Even the name of the movie was changed to Looking Forward to piggyback on a newly released book of the same name by President Roosevelt.

Looking Forward...Up in the Air...timeless themes of personal tragedies. It ended happily in Looking Forward. Not so wonderfully in Up in the Air. As for me, I'm happy, looking back and forward, firmly on the ground.

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