Monday, November 28

Cyber Monday Deal (Shameless Self-Promotion)

To celebrate the fact that I'm not shackled to a brick-and-mortar retail edifice this year, I'm offering a $20 coupon on any of my prints at Fine Art America.

This includes matted, framed prints, unframed prints, even the popular stretched canvas prints in any size.

This promotion ends Saturday, December 3 - you can simply click the box to the right that says, "Buy Prints Here".

p.s. If there is an image of mine that you'd like to see offered, but doesn't show up on the site, let me know. I will happily upload the image for you.

Thus spake the rabbit.

Thursday, November 17

Big Box Retail, a Perspective

With Black Friday right around the corner, I offer these thoughts about my previous life in big-box retail, and what I learned there. And no, we will not be doing any shopping on Black Friday.

After six years, almost 1,500 days on the job and nearly 1.5 million potential customer interactions, my stint at Lowe's came to an end. What began as a six-month, part-time seasonal job in paint turned into a long-term commitment to big-box retail.

After the closing of Digital Labrador, and the dissolution of my own studio of twenty-five years, I had been doing freelance IT and Macintosh service work for graphic artists and photographers around Kansas City, and when the annual winter lull hit, I got a little twitchy and wanted a paycheck or two to make ends meet. After filling out an online application and a lengthy assessment to make sure I wasn't a psycho-killer, I was called in for an interview, then another. The store manager signed off on my application, and the HR manager offered me the position.

This was not my only job offer that day. Previously, I had participated in a cattle-call interview with the Apple Store on the Country Club Plaza, had been called back for a personal interview with the store manager and offered a part-time provisional position at The Apple Store. I also received a call-back from Best Buy offering me a job with their in-house IT group, The Geek Squad. neither computer related positions worked out.

While Apple offered me the same compensation as Lowe's, that position would have required me to turn off my Apple ID and surrender my Apple Tech Certifications - Software, Hardware, Server, and Network - as well as cease all free-lance consulting and service work. Bonus: they would allow me to work no more than twenty hours per week for six months until I could prove to the sales manager that I was Apple material. Nope.

Best Buy offered me seventy-five cents above minimum wage to do what I had been doing for one hundred an hour. Nope.

I started orientation at Lowe's in February 2010, and hit the sales floor late that month, starting in Paint and Home Decor. Orientation, at that time, was a number of days sitting the store's chilly training room, watching an endless parade of training videos, some well-produced, some not so well. There was a tendency to doze off, particularly after lunch, making the follow-up quizzes somewhat difficult to manage. I took one module six times, failing five, and eventually resorting to taking notes to pass the test.

After ten days, I was pronounced fit for service, given my first red vest and name tag and sent to the floor for departmental training. This was mostly deep-end-of-the-pool sink-or-swim trial by fire, but I caught on pretty quickly and settled in to what was really my fifth retail career.

Retail is challenging for many, impossible for some, but I've always enjoyed the customer contact and the challenge of making the "In the back door, out the front door." environment fun and rewarding.

Training on the job has its drawbacks, but I settled into a fast and demanding department and started to enjoy my time at Lowe's. After six months as a seasonal employee, I was offered the position of Department Manager in Flooring, given a nice pay increase and a challenging department to run. In hindsight, I was not ready for that challenge. There were struggles with management at several levels, a revolving door of sales associates and a department in which everything seems to weigh a hundred pounds or requires a forklift to manage. I struggled, but kept going.

Personnel issues were the hardest to manage. Personalities, communication issues and think-skins nearly ended my career at Lowe's, but after some changes at the department level, and more changes at the management level, the path again smoothed itself out and we kept moving forward.

Some time later, the sales-tier structure of the store, as calculated by corporate, dictated that the number of sales floor department managers should be reduced, and now, instead of one struggling department, I had six - Flooring, Home Organization, Appliances, Cabinets, Paint, and Home Decor.

The only way to describe this situation is management by squeaky wheel. When something falls apart in one department, focus on that area until another department bursts into flames. Lather, rinse, repeat. It was only after a new store manager was installed that the store started to perform to its potential and the requisite sales tier achieved that would allow for individual department managers again.

Given the option of taking over one of the single departments under my control, I chose Paint, my original home at Lowe's. It had several advantages over the others; a manageable inventory, lower shrink history, and a fast pace. Situated at the front of the store, you can see all the comings and goings from the Paint desk, keep an eye on Returns, and be available for spot-coverage on registers or to help other customers as needed.

Paint is a high-touch department, and to provide the best possible customer service experience requires having your head on a swivel and a short-order cook's mentality. People have many preconceived notions about paint, and asking the right questions to help them make informed decisions is key there, as it is in most retail situations.

This last February, I finally gave Lowe's back their keys to the store, said goodbye to the many good friends I had made during my six years there, and Kath and I began this adventure. My takeaway is not much different than my general attitude over the last forty years:

  • Service industries make the world go around. The person that brings you your food at a restaurant, or rings you up at the grocery store is not your inferior, he or she is the foundation of American business, and deserves your infinite respect.
  • All Americans should be required to work retail or wait tables for two years after they complete their formal education. There would be a lot fewer shitty attitudes and self-entitled jerks out there. It can be an entirely humbling experience.
  • Do not base your view of retail on TV shows. They never get it right.
  • I enjoy retail. I also hate retail. This is the normal position most retail people have adopted. 
  • Lowe's is a good place to work, provided you realize that all retail exists for its customers, and you will work odd hours - early mornings, nights, weekends, holidays - and spend the day standing, walking, lifting and smiling even when it hurts. There were days when I walked ten to twelve miles in the performance of my job as manager in the store. I have spent more time on ladders at Lowe's than I ever did building houses. The first three months in Paint, I lost twenty-five pounds. The hard way.
  • If there's a foot of snow on the ground and the cold north wind is howling. The store will be open, and you need to be there, sometimes at 5:00 a.m.
  • Bonus: At the age of sixty, I learned how to drive a forklift.
  • Lowe's has a certain corporate culture - all companies do - but the feeling that you get when you walk through that front door is evidence of how the store manager feels about his or her staff and employees. A staff that feels empowered to own their experience creates a welcoming and helpful place for customers.
  • Was I happy all the time? Hell, no. There were days when I wanted to strangle customers, co-workers, and managers. There were days when I sat in the truck at 5:00 a.m. and debated whether or not I would even bother going to work at all. Sometimes I went home at the end of the day and could barely walk at all.
  • Make no mistake, if you're working for Lowe's or any other company, your needs will be taken into consideration after the company's needs are assessed and met. Your function is to maintain profitability for the store, the company, and the stockholders. If you maintain that standard, and apply your best judgement to the needs of the customer within those guidelines, you will be extremely successful at your job. I enjoyed great success at Lowe's and consider my time there an important part of my life experience.
When you line up outside your retailer of choice next Friday morning, take a few minutes to remember that the people who work there are not a defective subspecies - they are people just like you, with families, mortgages, and car payments. That's why they're doing what they do. Be nice to them, tell them you appreciate what they do, and you'll be amazed at how happy they are to see you walk through those doors.

Thus spake the rabbit.

Sunday, November 13

The Story So Far - Cross-Post from Tug's Journal

February 27 through November 4, 2016

What we've learned so far.

  • Selling everything and moving into a 40 foot trailer isn't really all that scary if you make the mental adjustment and fully accept the change. You can't lie to yourself. You have to be fully engaged, fully committed.
  • It will not change who you are. If you have unresolved issues in your life, cramming them into a trailer will not solve them, although ridding yourself of your daily grind in favor of a nomadic lifestyle, may, in some cases, help you work through the rough spots and shed some baggage.

  • A good friend asked us what was our biggest surprise in taking on this adventure. The answer is the realization that this is so easy once you've made the required commitment in your mind. The rest is just shuffling things around.
  • We've lucked out on fuel prices so far. When I was originally crunching numbers for this concept, I was allowing $4.00 to $5.00 per gallon for diesel. The reality has been much nicer. We have averaged $2.15 per gallon over the last eight-plus months. Tug has chugged along happily at about 12 miles per gallon. A bit less in heavy, stop-and-go traffic or in the mountains. We got about 9.2 mpg coming over Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado. This an 8,000 pound truck pulling a 15,000 pound trailer over all kinds of roads from sea level to 10,000 feet.
  • We have made so many new friends that I'm often concerned that I may have dreamed all of this into existence, like Ursula K. Le Guin's George Orr. I have Twitter pals that have become real friends, people whom I love as though they were my own family. 
  • Trailers are better designed to move forward than backward. The entire process is mostly visualization process put into practical action. (In other words, don't think too much.)
  • State Parks are, in general, some of the nicest places to stay if you're in a trailer or RV. Commercial parks may have the amenities edge - laundry, WiFi, etc., but the parks are well-maintained and offer an edge in affordability.
  • Not all state parks are created equally. Colorado parks are extremely nice, as are Missouri's green jewels. Arizona parks are some of the best, but the staff and volunteers all seem unhappy. Texas has some of the most amazing places to stay available anywhere.
  • As I write this, (October 17) I am in a Texas KOA campground that has about two hundred spaces. The wifi is spotty, the lot is dusty and the speed limit is mostly ignored.
  • The highways in eastern Colorado are horrific, especially if you're hauling 15,000 pounds of bucking trailer. Rough as a dry cob.
  • Southwest Colorado is an under-appreciated part of the country. There are multiple micro-climates, geological wonders, stunning scenery, and amazing food. 
  • Our stay at Mancos State Park, Colorado was extraordinary. The air was cool and dry at 8,000 feet. We had an ever-changing view of the dazzling La Plata Mountains.There is nothing in the area that is trying to eat you. No mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, or other biting things. There are bears, but they are not aggressive, and sightings are rare. The town of Mancos has several great places to eat, all the necessary staples, a decent liquor store, and two weed stores. One is called The Bud Farm. Seems like a good fit.
  • Contrast with Missouri's Bennett Spring State Park. Ticks start appearing in April, small at first, then substantial as the season progresses. By the first of June, they're the size of dinner plates. (Almost.) Chiggers inhabit every inch of grassy areas, and the mosquitoes have registry numbers on their wings. It's seventeen miles to the closest grocery store, and there has never been a useful car wash in Lebanon, Missouri
  • Best car wash on our trip: Main Street Car Wash in Kerrville, Texas. No shit.
  • Phoenix drivers obey the speed limit. Perhaps it's out of fear that Sheriff Joe Arpaio will send them into hard labor wearing pink jumpsuits, but the freeways in Phoenix are positively civilized.
  • To the dressed-all-in-dark-colors, no reflectors, no lights bicyclist that crossed a main thoroughfare against the light as we were coming home from late dinner in Fountain Hills, Arizona: I'm glad we didn't hit and kill you, but I hope we scared the living shit out of you. Dumbass.
  • El Paso drivers are practicing for Daytona. I was going fifteen over the limit and being passed as though I was going backwards. They honked angrily at me.
  • Weekend stops should be planned for low tourist-interest places. Attempts to visit bike-clogged Jerome, Arizona and bumper-to-bumper Sedona were frustrating and generally a waste of time and fuel.
  • A one-ton GMC dually is eight feet wide. The ATM we visited in Silver City, New Mexico is 7'8" wide. Paint was exchanged.
  • I have managed to avoid scratching up the trailer in any way.
  • We were mentally snakebit by the unseasonably warm temperatures this fall. Part of this is old Missouri-think, where ninety degrees feels like two hundred. Here, (Arizona) ninety in the sun equals eighty in the shade, and a quick spritz of water is as good as central air. On more than one occasion,  I looked at the temps and decided against an outdoor activity that now passed, will likely never come around again. That's just dumb. We're not going to live forever.
  • Bennett Spring State Park, Missouri to Galveston, Texas - 2,988 direct travel miles. Total vehicle miles: about 6,000, including numerous side trips for photography, sightseeing and errands. I have amassed a data file of 370 GB in images
  • Man, I love the desert Southwest.
  • I have adopted a Picture-Of-The-Day format every morning on Twitter to keep my eye sharp, and an occasional post on Instagram featuring our buddy Adventure Rabbit. This was my original plan to keep looking forward, create opportunities to meet people, and push myself to constantly create new content that I could be proud of. I wanted to find new markets for my fine art photography, but never at the expense of our adventure.
  • Having said that, I do plan on reaching out at every opportunity to push my limits. Everything I create is for sale, and at popular prices. Just ask.
  • My Proust questionnaire plan has fallen victim to my natural shyness. I have to work on this. I always allow myself to fall back on the "I don't want to bother anyone." trap. Self-fulfilling failure prophecy.
  • There is no shame in avoiding congested urban cores. We found pleasant bypasses around El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston that didn't involve worming our way through the middle of the city with our fifty-foot rig in rush hour traffic. Having said that, we did manage to hit every red light on Texas 6 from Galveston to Sugarland. Our trip to the Hill Country wound up taking 6-1/2 hours.
  • I'd like to go back to Galveston after our time in the Hill Country is up. This time, not so many motorcycles, and a bit cooler, please. We didn't get nearly enough beach time.
  • We volunteer. State Parks are amazing resources, but many receive very little funding from their respective states, and instead rely mainly on park-generated revenues for upkeep and improvements. We're able to give back by cleaning restrooms and campsites, helping campers get settled and generally being the public face of the park for visitors. Next time you visit a state or national park, pay attention to that person that's helping you find your way. Chances are that it's a volunteer. Tell them thank you.

Monday, August 8

Look on my works, ye mighty

I was a shy kid and much of what happened to me and around me during my high school years is a cloudy stew. Details have been lost, many, I suppose, due to my own need for self-preservation. Remembering is so painful and embarrassing that I simply choose to leave much of it behind. Not all is gone, to be sure, and one morning at Northeast High School in Kansas City stands out as turning point.

The first semester of my senior year Mrs. Aleen Sandgren was my English Lit teacher. Mrs. Sandgren was the stuff of myth at the school. She was a veteran of the Pacific Theater in World War II. She was a proud Marine, and took no guff from anyone; students, faculty, or administrators. She was a gentle disciplinarian, but if you insisted on creating chaos in her class, or even worse, were less than attentive, she would reach back and grab an eraser from the channel at the bottom of the big, slate, blackboard, wind up and throw a perfect strike on the side of your head, leaving a swath of white chalk dust across your ear. You were informed that if you dusted away the chalk, you would be treated to two swats with a three-foot-long paddle that Mrs. Sandgren wielded with great enthusiasm. Corporal punishment was the norm in public schools in the sixties for both girls and boys, and while I got my share of swats in junior high and high school, I never received the paddle from Mrs. Sandgren. 

The other side of Mrs. Sandgren was softer. She was a lifelong scholar of of the romance poets, particularly Byron and could quote him at length at the drop of a hat. She insisted that her students get comfortable with poets, authors and playwrights not only by reading them, but through recitation, keeping the character of the writer in mind as we recited, from memory, selected narratives, poems, and sonnets.

My first assigned work was a three-paragraph monologue from To Kill A Mockingbird. Mrs. Sandgren expressed her admiration for my ability to memorize the speech, but thought my delivery was wanting. ( I found out years later, as I came to call Mrs. Sandgren a friend, that she could see how uncomfortable I was in front of the class, and wanted to push me farther outside my comfort zone.)

I was then assigned Percy Bysshe Shelly’s 1818 sonnet, Ozymandias to recite in front of the class. Fourteen lines, no big deal. The poem explores the impermanence of empires and rulers, in this case Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:'
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

I had from Friday to Friday to memorize Ozymandias and prepare to present to the class. I was pretty good at absorbing words, and the memorization part came easy, and I thought I had a pretty good handle on the voices. I was certainly no orator, but I felt that as long as I could slide in behind the character, I could pull it off without embarrassing myself too badly.

As class began, Mrs. Sandgren called on me first. 

“Marvin*, I expect a great reading from you today. Ladies and gentlemen, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias.” Her introduction left me wondering if it wouldn't be far better to jump out of the open window and make a break for it.

All the blood drained from my brain as I walked to the front of the classroom. The class was, as Mrs. Sandgren demanded, respectfully quiet and attentive. She stood at the back of the classroom with two fully-loaded erasers, ready to mete out law and order if needed.

Ozymandias is spoken in three voices; the narrator, the traveler, and Ozymandias himself. I made it to the point where the voice shifts to the pharaoh. “My name is Ozymandias, king of . . . .”

“Stop!”, came the order from the Marine at the back of the room. “Remember, you’re taking on the personality of a king, a ghost speaking across the ages. Try it again, Marvin.”

She let me finish the entire poem the next time, then silently walked to the front of the classroom, opened the top drawer of her big, walnut desk and got out a pink hall pass, signed it and handed it to me.

“Go out and walk the front hall. See if you can find more strength for Ozymandias. Find the voice of the pharaoh.’

“Well, shit’, I thought. This is never going to end. As I opened the oak door that led to the main hall on the second floor, I heard one of the class clowns snicker, followed by the unmistakable thud of a felt eraser thrown by a Marine.

To the left was a marble likeness of George Washington, standing silently on his pedestal, about twelve feet tall. Truth is, after six years of classes and events at Northeast, I really didn’t pay much attention to the statue before. It was a common meeting place between classes, a place to exchange class notes with a friend, or a few minutes of hand-holding with your steady.

I turned around, and at the other end of the long, tiled hall, past the plaster friezes and the main entrance, the offices of the principal and counselors, was a statue of Abraham Lincoln, rendered in the same style as Washington’s likeness.

I walked down the hall, my hall pass held out like a passport whenever a teacher grew near, and locked onto Lincoln’s face. Where Washington seemed an abstract likeness, Lincoln seemed real, and I could almost hear his voice, unpolished and gentle, but forceful and reverent, delivering The Gettysburg Address, one of the most important and touching speeches of the nineteenth century. He surely wasn’t Ozymandias, but he was larger than life in that moment.

Suddenly, I could hear Ozymandias, ruler of Egypt and the world as they knew it. I knew what it would take to bring him and his words back to life.

I walked back to Mrs. Sandgren’s room, and watched through the door as another student delivered her recitation, and as Mrs. Sandgren walked to the front of the classroom, I opened the door and requested permission to enter and deliver my recitation. (That’s how things were done in her classroom.)

She introduced me again, and I took my place near her desk.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:'

I paused.

My palms were sweating, I could feel my face flush crimson. I had to reach down and somehow do this.

I pulled up the chair at the side of her desk, stepped carefully on top of the desk, pulled myself to my full height, struck a power pose with my arms akimbo and bellowed in my best pubescent male voice:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

I slowly descended from my pedestal and finished in the traveler’s voice:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The room was quiet. After what seemed like an hour, Mrs. Sandgren started to clap slowly. She was soon joined by thirty high school seniors, all standing and applauding.

Tears ran down my cheeks. I felt as though I had conquered Everest and written a symphony at the same time.  

Mrs. Sandgren came to the front of the class, shook my hand and gave me a hug. “I knew you had that in you.”

“I didn’t.”

Hardly a day passes that I don’t think about that morning. I have always carried a copy of Ozymandias with me. They have been handwritten in pencil and ink, typed out on my dad’s old black Underwood and my own Remington electric. The copy in my wallet now is an inkjet print circa 2006, one of the last things I did before I closed my studio’s doors for the last time. Where some of more worldly buddies would carry a condom in their wallet in case of a Saturday night emergency, I carried, and to this day carry Percy Bysshe Shelley, the traveler and the pharaoh. I’m not sure what manner of Saturday night escapade might have lead to a dramatic reading of Shelley as I played miniature golf at Cool Crest, but I was always ready. I am ready still.

I’m still shy. I sometimes have a hard time talking to people. Asking someone for permission to photograph them feels like being in high school again. Often, the terror fades if I think about Ozymandias, when I was able to put myself on that walnut pedestal, and how Mrs. Sandgren believed in what I could be. I’m ashamed I never found the strength or grace to thank her. I lost track of Mrs. Sandgren a few years after high school. She continued to be an important part of my adopted families in Northeast, but I met a girl, moved to Colorado to build houses and generally went off in other directions. I just lost track of a lot of things that mattered. I was burying my past.

So now, in an effort to make up for my failures earlier in life, nearly fifty years on, Retta Aleen Sandgren, wherever you are, thank you for being there at exactly the right time and place. I wish you could look on my works and rejoice.

* I was known as Marvin throughout my public education. My given first name was a one-way ticket to a fight in the alley, and nicknames weren’t allowed, so “Bud” was out, as well. It's a dead tipoff that someone is reaching out from the past when I hear a voice on voicemail say, "Marvin, is that you?"

Thus spake the rabbit.

Friday, July 29

Cleaning out the draft file: Skullbaked

Hello, I am the Big Rabbit, and I'm bald. This is only marginally a matter of choice. A few years back, I made the conscious decision to keep my head shaved. This was due to the fact that I have had my full head of 60s hippie-length brown locks, later a more reserved Princetonian look, and like my father before me, battered by the twin ravages of years and hormones, Kukla-Hair. If you're under the age of fifty, ask an adult who Kukla, Fran and Ollie were.

Here's a picture of Kukla and Ollie.

The thing on the left with the mink toilet seat haircut is Kukla. Sure, go ahead and laugh at the Golden Age of Television. We ducked and covered and made the world safe for the Kardashians, but you don't fucking care, do you?

Anyway, there but for the grace of someone's hand up my ass, go I.

My Lapin and Conejo families, save my paternal granddad, has or had Kukla hair. When I realized, with the help of my barber - um, stylist, that I was getting thin on top, I bypassed the comb over and went straight for the high-reflectance, low-maintenance, trailer hitch look.

Thus spake the rabbit.

Thursday, July 28

Cleaning out the draft file: Rattle-Can Mentality

I don't have a real gripe with bumper sticker philosophies in general. Sure, it's intellectual laziness, but this is America and we like our information half-thought-out, pre-chewed and partially digested. However, I have a few reactions to this particularly crude form of bloviated hurl:
  1. If this cretin is working so hard, how does he have the time to spew paint on a wall in the Crossroads? I'm betting he probably didn't do it over his lunch hour, but waited for the deep cover of darkness.
  2. If he's so concerned about "living", why does he send his precious and obviously very rare thoughts via Rustoleum on a wall that some other working-class stiff will now have to power-wash?
  3. The Circle-A "anarchy" tag is even more ludicrous. This dweeb wouldn't know anarchy if it sneaked up behind him and stole his credit cards and the keys to his Jetta. Anarchy doesn't really favor the weak-minded. In fact, anarchy doesn't favor anyone. This sidewalk Socrates would be the first to bitch if he got his backside reworked with rock-salt from a 12-gauge while he was happily philosophizing onto someone's wall. Anarchy this.
  4. Wouldn't it be more effective to take a couple of bucks to Kinko's and print out a half-ream of informational broadsides that he can hand out at the 10th and Main bus turn? What? It's not really about the message? It's just mindless destruction of private property? Never mind.
  5. He ain't banksy, and this ain't art. Not that it matters.
  6. It's okay if you don't have anything to say. Put down the fucking paint bomb and walk away.
  7. If the medium is the message, perhaps this urban Shakespeare would enjoy a power washer shoved up his ass.
  8. Even better - if there just has to be paint sprayed, use him as a frisket. Stick him down and paint over him. His lacquered outline on the sidewalk could serve as a convenient warning to others.
This shit is just mindless drool - enamel stuck to a vertical surface.

Thus spake the rabbit.

Saturday, June 4