Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Worst Training In the World

I went to a training recently at an employment resource center. I don't think it's exaggerating to say it was the worst training I have ever attended.

It was the worst presentation I've ever seen in my life, and that includes the speeches in 9th grade English. It was laughably bad, slightly less laughable because everybody in the room was out of work and hoping to get good practical advice on finding employment.

Sure, there was some content. There was five minutes of good useful content, which could have been just as easily distributed in a two-page flyer. The training was two hours long. Two hours of awful.

I should have known I was in trouble when I walked in. I went over to the conference room where the training was happening, and one of the job counselors was standing at the door, chatting with the attendees. I overheard this:

"Well, you know I'm a government employee. You know what that means."


"That means I'm always a little bit confused."

A few minutes later, he looked over the paperwork of another attendee and declared it "close enough for government work."

I hate it when people say crap like this about the government, especially when they're self-loathing government employees. The government is responsible for a tremendous amount of great things - the Library of Congress, the interstate highway system, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Pell Grants, etc. That's a speech for another day. Anyway, I didn't feel optimistic when I walked in.

The presenter dutifully wrote her name up on the board and her phone number. "Call me if you ever need any help with anything." Then she dove into her presentation, the way planes dive toward the ground when they have nowhere else to go.

She began with some light chat about how tough the market was out there, and "what we were up against." Somebody said something about the recession and she took a conspiratorial tone. "I gotta be honest with you - I think this is really a depression and they just don't want to admit it. I mean, I don't want to start any rumors or anything, but that's what I think is really going on."

And then she gave us her inspiring personal story. There's always an heroic personal story of overcoming adversity in these kinds of trainings, and we all saw what it was as soon as she started telling it. Except - it wasn't inspiring. It wasn't heroic. She described how she was in a business (banking) for several years, liked it, was good at her job, and suddenly she lost her job. And then - she was unemployed for three and a half years!!!!!

Yeah. She's telling this to a room full of newly unemployed people.

Eventually, during her abyss-like period of unemployment, she took some retraining classes. And then she got "this job" - running trainings for WorkSource. That was her success story. I was laid off for over three years, and if I can do it, you can, too!

She tried to punctuate the end of her heroic story by saying, "I just want to give you all an idea of what you're up against." I thought, we already know what we're up against - we're the ones who are up against it! Your job is to give us some tools to use in the battle, not tell us how we're probably going to get slaughtered.

Some more highlights of the training:
  • Asked questions for which no one knew the answers. I've done trainings for years, and one of the most important parts of any presentation is to make the audience feel involved. So, asking questions is a great way to achieve this. However, it's just cruel to ask people questions that they have no hope of answering. Ten minutes into her presentation - for many of us, this was our introduction to both the job training center - she asked, "so what can you find at the center?" We were all stumped. We didn't know what was at the center - she hadn't told us yet!! So we did the best we could - computers? Phones? Tables and work stations? Pencils? Eventually, she realized that her job was to, um, tell us what we could find there.
  • Pitted the young and old workers against each other. An older gentleman asked her for tips on how to present himself in the job market when he was competing against a younger work force. She suggested that he talk about how older workers aren't going to take a lot of sick days or miss a lot of time like those young workers do. I wondered how that sounded to the two twenty-something guys sitting in front of me.
  • Suggested using several privately-owned job websites. Specifically, she called out two job search engines that she liked. I'm pretty sure it's not cool for a state employee to be endorsing for-profit businesses.
  • Recommended plagiarism. She suggested a website that listed typical job descriptions for millions of jobs, and told people to use that website and copy and paste the descriptions into their own resumes. "I tell people that plagiarism didn't work when you were in high school, but it works now!" Um... no.
  • Kept telling us we would get unemployment for a long, long time. "You'll get unemployment for at least six months. and with extensions, you'll get it for a year." She said this several times, and not once did she add "if you need to collect unemployment." She didn't even offer a glimmer of hope that any of us would get a job before a year had passed.
  • Complained about her own job. Oh yes. In a room full of unemployed people, she had the nerve to complain about the petty annoyances of her own job. Kinda like complaining about your meal while standing in front of a starving person.
At some point, she brought on another speaker who did job placement and job training for the community colleges. He had about two minutes of worthwhile advice, but his technique was somewhere between doomsday prophet and desperate used car salesman. Think Fred Willard as a motivational speaker.

I think his real mission was to frighten us into thinking our skills were inadequate and hopelessly outdated, so we would go running to him for training classes. I remember he started asking hypothetical questions on behalf of the audience - "will I get another job? How long will it take? Can I survive until then?" And then he flashed a nervous grin, which was comforting in the way that doctors are comforting when they tell you that you'll feel a little bit of pain.

Even when we returned to work, he encouraged us to seek job training anyway. "You think your next job will last forever? It won't. This way, you can have your skills up to date for the next time you get laid off."

No, seriously. We weren't even working, and he was reassuring us that we were just going to get laid off from our next job.

If I had a favorite trainwreck moment, it was the math problem. She tried to write up some simple math equations, to illustrate that people could save unemployment benefits and collect for longer by working part-time. Simple concept, right?

So she started scrawling numbers on the whiteboard. "So you start out with $1000 of benefits ... and get $200 of benefits a week." (And already it's preposterous. I have a total of $13,000 in UI benefits I can collect.)

Anyway, the math continued.

"And you work for ten hours at, oh, let's see, want to keep an even number ... ten dollars an hour. So you earn $100. So that means you get $100. So then, you work for fifteen hours, and so you get $150..."

It went on like that for an excruciatingly long time. She kept trying to think of examples on the spot, started subtracting from the wrong numbers (only to be corrected by the class), and stopped halfway through when it became obvious she didn't know how to make her point.

A couple of people asked hesitating questions, trying to guess what she was really trying to say. Finally, mostly out of frustration, I answered one of the other attendees' question with my own summary. "I think what she's saying is that you can make your benefits last longer by working part-time." She looked at me gratefully. "Right. That's what I was trying to say. I might not have made it really clear with all of this."

Finally, mercifully, it was over. And then we paired off with job counselors, who had been working to match our job history and skills with available jobs. My job counselor turned out to be the guy was talking crap about government workers at the beginning of the day.

And herein comes the punch line.

When I went back to talk to my job counselor, he took a conspiratorial tone. "My supervisor took one look at your résumé and told me to recruit you for this office. He wants you to do - " he gestured grandly at his work cubicle - "what I do."

So I am currently going through the screening to work at my local job training center.

I might actually take the job, too, but only if I get to do the trainings in the future. I never want to see another unemployed person go through the misery that I did, listening to a soul-crushing presentation from that unprepared, confused, ill-qualified person.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Things He Says: Quick Interludes

Recently, Ollie and I were home together. He was in the other room, yelling for his mother. She had left the house earlier to go to work, and of course, he knew this. (I should note that he was yelling playfully, not in an upset or distraught way.)


"Oliver!" I called to him. "Your mother went to work, remember?"

Without missing a beat, he said, "Oh, all right then," and began shouting "DAAAAAAADDDDDYYYY! DAAAAAAAAADDDDYYYYYYY!!!!!!"


I went to get Oliver out of his car seat a few days ago, and he reached for a folded-up piece of paper.

"Daddy, you can't have this."

"Oh, okay."

"It's mine."

"Okay. What is it?"

"It's special."

"But what is it?"

"It's mine."

He says synchronized ABCs with Mrs. B at the dinner table. The first time i saw it, I nearly died from cuteness overload.

Oliver: "Mommy, say A."

Mrs. B: "A."

Oliver: B."

Mrs. B: "C."

Oliver: "D."

And etc., through the entire alphabet. And then at the end, they alternate the final words of the song.

"Now - I - Know - My - A - B - C's - Next - Time - Won't - You - Sing - with - Me."


He has discovered fake crying and is practicing it the way people practice a new language they're trying to master. Sometimes, he burst out in ridiculous sobs for absolutely no reason. Then he orders asks us to cry, too. I'm usually laughing too hard to cry on command.

One time, he sang an entire verse of Jingle Bells, with the only lyric being the word "cry."

Cry cry cry, cry cry cry, cry cry cry cry cry...

I'll try to get this on video.


He breathes life into his stuffed animals in the oddest ways. They have temper tantrums and get time-outs. They get sick. They eat meals with him.

Yesterday, he told us that his little stuffed Pooh bear didn't like him. "He doesn't like people. He only likes other bears."

"Of course, he likes you. In the books, aren't Christopher Robin and Pooh friends?"

"But he doesn't like me. He's not a Christopher Robin bear."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Heroes: a Rant

Great. So now Daphne's dead. One more female character goes on the scrap heap.

It continues to disturb me how few strong women are on this show. Claire's the strongest and most visible of any female character, and what's her power? She can come back from any injury! She's the ultimate victim! She can't do anything offensive, but boy, can she take a punch!

Daphne was great, but Daphne's dead or injured. Elle was awesome, but she's dead (and seen above, smoldering.) Monica was great, but she's disappeared. I loved Candice, the one who could make illusions, but she's dead. Eden? Dead.

Maya was always a victim of her powers. ("Noooooooo! Ay dios mio!") I couldn't care less if she ever resurfaces, unless she's running an army of pissed-off, empowered Latinos.

And then there's the schemers. Mama Petrelli is basically Lady Macbeth - conniving and fickle, which is a bad combination. She can see the future in her dreams - also not really an offensive power. Tracy's all right, but like Mama Petrelli, she's more known for her conniving than for her power. And anyway, she's in some kind of X-Men Abu Ghraib torture chamber now. And remember - Daphne started out as a double agent for Linderman, but then she fell in lurv with Parkman and turned to the righteous path.

So who's the rebel army on the run right now? Matt, Peter, Hiro, Mohinder, and Ando. Five men. Meanwhile, Claire is told to sit at home and be a good little girl. Maybe I watch too much Joss Whedon, but why isn't there a single woman in this show who's not a victim, a corpse, or a schemer?

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Grammys - Hits and Misses

Radiohead with a MFing marching band. My head just about exploded. That was one of the most amazing musical performances I've ever seen on television. Thom Yorke was showing better dance moves than Justin Timberlake. (Sure, it was just Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke on stage, unless the rest of the band was in the back blowing on trombones. Gwyneth Paltrow said it was Radiohead, so I'm going to call it Radiohead.)

ETA: Here's the video. It's on the YouTubes, so watch it fast or save it to your computer - it'll probably be gone tomorrow.

ETA: Scroll down on this page - there's a link to a rehearsal of the performance. Also some nice pictures.

That was an impossible act to top, and it was the best performance of the night. But there were a few other nice moments.

One of them was not Paul McCartney. Here's the thing. Paul McCartney released an amazing album with his odd little side project, the Fireman. I was so hoping to see him perform "Nothing Too Much Just out of Sight" or "Universal Here, Everlasting Now" and rip the heads off the audience. Instead, he trots out a forty-year-old song, gets Dave Grohl on drums, and pretends it's an Extra Special Performance. So now, instead of recognizing that Sir Paul still has some new tricks up his sleeve, everyone goes back to thinking he's just a has-been. (A brilliant, talented, super-rich has-been, but nonetheless.) Yawn me a river.

The New Orleans tribute was nice. Good to see them bring on L'il Wayne, who's been heartfelt in his love for New Orleans, instead of a safer choice. And what about Mr. Allan Toussaint and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, playing a Professor Longhair tune? The whole thing was pretty impressive and done with a lot of heart.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss were pretty sweet. Raising Sand was one of my favorite albums this year, and they just sound fantastic live. I'd have rather they did something spookier like "Fortune Teller" or "Nothin'", but it was nice seeing them - and T Bone Burnett - up on the big stage.

T Bone has been one of the hardest-working producers in the music business for, like, twenty-five years now. How many great acts has he produced? Los Lobos, Counting Crows (back when they were a good band), Marshall Crenshaw, the incandescent Sam Phillips (his former wife, by the way), Gillian Welch. Elvis Costello. Bruce Cockburn. Brandi Carlile.

Remember that gorgeous album that k.d. lang and Tony Burnett did? He produced that.

Remember that black and white Roy Orbison tribute performance that you can see once a week on PBS? He was the musical director.

Remember O Brother, Where Art Thou? He produced that soundtrack and wrote the score for the movie.

He also penned one of the greatest and saddest songs about love that has ever been written. The song is called "River of Love" and chances are that you've never heard it. Listen to it now.

T Bone is the real deal. I got to see him live once, in a coffee house in Northampton, Massachusetts. He hadn't slept in three days, never took off his sunglasses, played some of the best songs ever written and told some of the funniest anecdotes I've ever heard from a musician's mouth. I was thrilled to see him get so many honors for this album, a project that nobody else but him could have produced.