Friday, August 17, 2012

What's in a Name?

What’s in a name? More than I figured, it seems.

In my role as a retail clerk I have my name prominently displayed on my vest, on the left side just above that of the store label. My name, therefore, is out there like a commodity on the shelf—the brand is the store’s name and I am the individual product. As such, I have become quite protective of it. I am taken aback, for example, when a customer uses it—seems rude, somehow, inappropriate. Almost akin to reading over someone’s shoulder or stepping inside one’s personal space: a boundary violation however subtle.

I’ve handled the unexpected use of my name in several ways. For most I ignore the vulnerable creep up my spine and carry on. To some I have replied: It seems I am at a disadvantage here, and what’s your name? And to a couple of others, I am slightly ashamed to admit, I let the offenders know of their travesty with a momentary glare before moving on with professional politeness. Regardless, each time it happens I feel I have just been robbed or pinched on the bottom.

Perhaps it is because using someone’s name while protecting, however innocently, your own is a form of power over—knowledge is power. It would be different if they said: Hi, my name is John, may I call you Jo-Ann? But this has never happened. And there is a world of difference between calling someone ma’am, miss or even lady (“girl” will never do) than hearing your name spoken aloud by a stranger. Sir and ma’am imply respect while unilaterally using someone’s name suggests a hierarchical order where the person who is named is definitely below those who are not.

Ironically, before I started this job, I have been known to use a clerk’s name. I have done so with good intentions. In stating the other’s name I have had hopes of establishing a connection; a temporary bond that showed care and, funny enough, respect. Equally ironic I have been bemused by the unappreciative look that has often appeared on the faces of those I have named. I finally understand.

Makes me think of other times I have hurt or offended another all in the desire for connection. What it also tells me, though, is that our interconnectedness cannot be realized through artificial means. The intricate web that weaves between and around us does not originate or even strengthen through the naming of another; the wearing of a ring or the signing of a piece of paper.

Interconnection is a truth. It is not something we can establish by force or try to make real. It doesn’t need naming or signing; it is there regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not. What it does need, however, is respect. Respect is what strengthens our bonds, helps us believe in beauty, celebrates our uniqueness, delivers us from the desire to do harm, and gives us the trust to carry on.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Living the Slow Life: Proust and Me

I’m moving slower these days. Or rather, I should say, trying to move slower. Part of it is because I have to: peri-menopause has its own rhythm and innate sense of control—if I don’t surrender to the whims of hormonal fluctuation my body steps in and forces me to. I take a lot of naps (between hikes, that is), meditate and, lately, have started writing letters. By that I mean real letters, not the quick as a flash text or its slightly older but just as speedy email. I am talking instead about hand written, pen to paper, mistakes crossed out and crooked lines kind of letter writing—that which once was a skilled art form and a good reason to look forward to the daily mail. Probably was also the start of many a new romance with said mail carrier.

Letter writing slows me down. It is analogous to reading Proust: the time needed to digest and appreciate paragraph-long sentences is as much as that needed to create a shorter sentence where spell check and delete buttons are non-existent. I must say, at first it wasn’t easy to move away from the computer to ink. Then again, it wasn’t easy adjusting to Monsieur Proust. But necessity breeds innovation and my need to slow down has introduced me to these new experiences. I’ll probably write more on this subject later but I want to dwell now on the second reason why I feel compelled to step off life’s whirlygig. It is this part-time job I’ve acquired: I’ve seen the world of time challenged folk and want out.

Case in point: We have an unspoken rule at work that there should never be more than two people in a line-up. Our retail outlet is not alone. Service is everything they say, no one should wait. Okay, let me amend that: the customer can wait (and wait, and wait again) for service on the floor but waiting to pay is strictly forboden. Line ups at the cashier have become so denigrated that waiting for longer than a minute is considered not only outrageous but cause for complaint.

This (ahem) superior service, however, has been disastrous on human communication. Shortened lineups and the presumed need to hurry out of the store to conduct far more important, if not crucial, activities makes interaction with fellow line bearing beings near impossible. We are so used to being herded along ├╝ber fast that if we are not served within seconds of arriving in a line-up our senses go on alert for a quicker checkout.

Like the lioness preparing for the kill you first see the hyper-awareness in the eyes. The irises go all a-quiver, oscillating at an alarming speed as they scan the floor for a potential opening. Then the body joins in. More subtle in movement as it initially appears in a frozen state, a rigid preparedness that speaks of inborn tension waiting to be sprung: the sprinter at the blocks; the diver on the board. Finally, with the strain impossible to contain, false starts become rampant as the person jerks this way then that as potential openings to freedom appear and then dispiritingly close. The sighs then follow with increasing volume; the kind that make you look up in fear that your despairing mother has suddenly appeared. It is akin to watching kindergarten children squirming in their seats before recess. I would laugh but I don’t think the humour would be appreciated or shared.

We have no tolerance to wait and, in fact, see it as our god-given right to be served faster than we can receive the text twitter waiting in our hands.

And god (tree spirit/ favorite charm under your pillow) have mercy upon the poor cashier who happens to look up and witness the barely held forbearance upon the faces of those in a slow lineup. How many lives have these cashiers ruined because they were too sluggish or stopped to joke with a like minded customer? How many opportunities were missed (by these long suffering customers) because the clerk did not shut down all interactions for the sake of speed and efficiency? As a cashier should I hide my head in shame as all fingers point in my direction? Shall I throw myself in front of the queue and beg for mercy?

Nay, I say. Enough is enough.

Well, enough, that is, in my own life: it is not like I can rebel at work and not bear the consequences. But speaking for myself I do vow to make changes. As this blog is my witness I vow to slow down when I am in a store. I promise to not juggle line-ups like a celebrity trying to beat the airport queue; and to take a cleansing breathe when the customer in front takes time to count his $10 bill in pennies. Most of all, I vow to attempt conversation, a real dialogue with the person next to me as we await our turn. And perhaps, maybe, you never know, I will even get their address… it is never to late to start writing a letter.