Back To The Dry Cleaners

After months of wearing “business casual” in the office during this never-ending COVID/visual conference/work from home period, I’ve decided to make a change. Since the start of 2022, I’ve been donning a suit or sport coat, button-down shirt, and tie on work days, which means I’m once again using the dry cleaner bag after a long dry spell.

Why am I back to wearing traditional lawyer attire? Well, for one, I’m a cheapskate. I’ve got all of these perfectly good suits, shirts, and ties that have been literally gathering dust during the “everyday business casual” period, and I figure I might as well get some use out of them. Also, I realize that I actually kind of like the feel of a freshly laundered, lightly starched shirt, a well-knotted tie, and suit coat. It’s an outfit I wore on a daily basis for more than 30 years, and it feels good to go back to it. For that same reason, it’s a look that I associate with my profession, and wearing the outfit puts me in the frame of mind to do my job.

So these days when I get home I stash the used shirts in the dry cleaner bag again, we put the bag out on the front step on collection days, and we look for the shirts in the cellophane bag that the dry cleaner hangs from our front door after a visit. And when I select my button-down shirt for the day in the morning, remove it from its dry cleaner bag and paper sheath, and take off the plastic collar guard and the little clip that holds together the cuffs, it’s all part of the return to the old routines. Except that now, what was old feels new again.

Communication Confusion

Last night, a group of us were at an event when the conversation turned to punctuation and communication. This isn’t unusual. My friends and I have debated a number of punctuation-related issues, such as the appropriate use of exclamation points, the correct application of “apostrophe s,” and the new emphasis on the “em dash.” Some might find it surprising–and, frankly, boring–that lawyers would discuss punctuation and communication at a social function, but they really shouldn’t: attorneys will argue about anything, and lawyers arguing about punctuation and communication tools is like most people arguing about sports.

The conversation last night, though, was a bit different because some of the firm’s younger attorneys were involved. And it quickly became clear that these earnest twenty-somethings pay extremely careful attention to the crafting of the written messages they receive and the mode of communication employed, too. When they report to another lawyer and receive a “Thanks.” response, versus the more enthusiastic “Thanks!” reply, it has an impact on them. And they explained that a terse “thx” would be viewed as exceptionally dismissive, and perhaps even veering into the “personal affront” category.

Moreover, these thoughtful folks aren’t just reacting to punctuation and abbreviations, they also have views on messages conveyed the mode of communication. Email is viewed as the appropriate channel for work communication, and texting is for personal communication, so if you get a work-related communication via text that tells you something important. The “chat” function on our firm’s “Teams” application is somewhere between those two on the spectrum of work versus personal, and the use of the messaging function during a Teams video call has an etiquette all its own. And that doesn’t even begin to capture the complexities introduced by social media or, for that matter, emoticons or memes.

This discussion caused me to mentally revisit my recent communications to consider whether I have inadvertently engaged in communications that might be perceived as rude or intrusive into personal spaces. I typically send a “Thanks!” response, so I think I am OK in avoiding that faux pas, and I don’t really text about work matters. But the ever-changing rules of the game can be a bit overwhelming for an old guy whose career began in an era before email, cellphones, and social media were invented.

One important thing to remember is that communication is a two-way street, and that implicit messages that one party might read into a communication may well not be intended by a sender who is ignorant of the latest practices and sensibilities. Training on the new rules and tools would probably be advisable for fogies like me.

Swept Out

On Sunday I was in a house project mood. On long weekends that’s not an uncommon impulse for me; after a few days relaxing at home I get antsy and want to do something productive. When the urge struck on Sunday, I replaced some burnt-out light bulbs and generally straightened up, but my big project was sweeping out our screened-in back porch.

The back porch is our gateway to the back yard. During the breezy late autumn weeks, when we open the screen door to take out the trash or let Betty out to answer the call of nature, brittle brown leaves are blown into the porch. The leaves swirl and tumble and accumulate against the inner wall, get stuck in the cracks of the wooden floor, and find every imaginable nook and cranny. After a few weeks, the porch looks pretty ramshackle and in clear need of a good sweeping.

Sunday I took on the job and quickly discovered that the elements were working against me. The wind was blowing from the west, which meant that a good percentage of the leaves I tried to sweep out of the porch were immediately blown back in. Such minor setbacks only increased my resolve to see that the job was done right, however. I moved the furniture around, used the bristles of the broom to get at the leaves in the corners, and bent down to pick out the leaves that had become devilishly lodged between the slats or in the crevices between the screen and the porch floor.

By the end of the project I was on a fervent search and remove mission, striving to get every last leaf, stem, and crunched brown remnant out of the porch. I took the rug out to the patio and gave it a good shaking, to set free the little bits of crumbled leaves, and swept off the back steps for good measure.

When I was done, I surveyed the little porch, saw that it was clean, and gave an approving nod for a job well done. With my impulse thus sated, I went back inside, enjoyed the warmth, and settled down to read my book.

A Tipping Point

Yesterday we went to a restaurant. When we sat down after finding our way to a table on our own (“Sit anywhere you like,” the hostess helpfully said) we were confronted by this increasingly familiar QR code item on the tabletop. I’ve been in restaurants before where you use the scanning feature of your cellphone to connect in order to call up the menu.

But this scanning feature was more extensive. You not only called up the menu, you placed your order yourself–hitting a “send to kitchen” button when you were done–and then proceeded to pay for the order, entering in our credit card information on the key buttons of our phone. But when I got to the “tipping point,” where I would put in a gratuity for our waitress, I was stumped.

What is the proper tip amount under these circumstances? By the time I was entering the tip amount, our waitress had literally done nothing; the whole process had been entirely self-serve. By tipping at the outset, there was no connection whatsoever between wait staff performance and the tip, to say nothing of the fact that many of the traditional wait staff duties–providing menus, offering helpful information about what was good, presenting the bill and receiving payment–were being done electronically. We didn’t really interact with our waitress until she brought the food.

I still gave the waitress a good tip, because I appreciate anybody who is working under these circumstances, but not as much of a tip as I would under normal circumstances, when the waitress would offer the full array of services and I wouldn’t have to do 80 percent of the work. Is there a new normal for tipping under these circumstances?

The Job Hoppers

In 1977, Johnny Paycheck released Take This Job And Shove It, a country tune about a factory worker who quit his job after his woman left him. The song struck a chord in those of us who were working at the time and became a kind of popular anthem about worker dissatisfaction and boldly telling off the boss as you walked out on your old job.

Recently, many workers apparently have taken Johnny Paycheck’s lyrics to heart, because Americans are leaving their jobs in record numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September 2021 the “quit rate” among American workers hit a new high of 3 percent. In the leisure and hospitality sector of the economy, the quit rate in September was 6.4 percent. In all, more than 20 million workers quit their jobs between May and September, 2021.

Experts are trying to determine what’s causing the increase in quitting, and employers are trying to figure out how long it will last–and what they need to do to attract new workers to fill the vacancies. Some experts think that the COVID pandemic is a factor, with workers leaving because of concerns about contracting the virus (or, alternatively, unvaccinated workers quitting in the face of vaccination requirements)–but the quit rate has been steadily increasing for the past decade, since long before the pandemic hit.

It seems pretty clear that a combination of factors are at play, such as better information about available jobs, a financial cushion created by stimulus payments that allows disgruntled workers to quit and look for another job without starving, remote work options that have opened up jobs for faraway employers, and a general perception that there is a strong job market and finding a new, better job is not going to be difficult. The latter point is important: one reason for the decade-long growth in the quit rate is that the rate hit historic lows during the Great Recession, when workers held on to their jobs with both hands. It’s therefore not surprising that the current rate is a lot higher than it was in 2009.

In the American economy, there’s always going to be movement among jobs. Economists speak of “entry-level” jobs for a reason: people enter the workforce, take a low-paying job, and then start looking for a better one. Employees have never been shy about looking for a better position that allows them to move up the ladder, find a fulfilling career, and live a happy life. And people who are chronic “grass is always greener” job-hoppers early in their working lives often settle in to long-term positions when they create families and assume family-related obligations.

The big issue now seems to be whether there is an attitudinal shift among workers, making them more likely to be dissatisfied and quit. And employers wonder whether these elusive workers are focused on benefits, or work conditions, or home-life balance, or concerns about individual well-being, or just the issues involved in having a boss, period. When you’re trying to fill holes in your workforce and build a corps of employees that doesn’t have constant turnover, these are crucial questions–and right now, the answers aren’t clear.

The Upward Downward Spiral

The Labor Department reported earlier this week that the Consumer Price Index–which attempts to quantify prices of a broad swaths of goods and services in the American economy–increased 0.9 percent in October, resulting a 6.2 percent increase in the CPI since last year. That’s the highest annual increase in the CPI in more than 30 years, since December 1990. And the CPI increase measured in some metropolitan areas was even worse: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, for example, that the CPI increase in that area was 7.9 percent, the highest increase in any city in the country.

It’s pretty clear that inflation is back as an area of significant economic concern. Just hearing that word sends a shudder of dread through those of us who lived through the high inflation period of the ’70s and early ’80s and the belt-tightening days when the Federal Reserve took draconian steps to halt the inflationary spiral and wring the constant price increases out of the economy.

The big question right now is just how persistent the inflationary spiral will be. The Federal Reserve says we’re in the midst of “transitory” price increases, but the most recent CPI data has increased market skepticism of that rosy outlook. The data showed price increases pretty much across the board, and not limited to more volatile areas that can react to temporary shortages, like fuel and food. Even if food and fuel prices are stripped out of the analysis, leaving only “core CPI” to be considered, prices are rising at a 4.6 percent annual clip, which is the highest “core CPI” rate since August 1991.

Even worse, the Labor Department reported that the CPI surge meant that real wages, after inflation, fell 0.5 percent from September to October. That’s a familiar scenario for those of us who lived through the country’s last big inflationary period, in which wage hikes and salary increases never quite seemed to catch up with the CPI. In those days, the upward spiral in prices put many people into a downward spiral in terms of their personal finances and debt situation and really hurt seniors and others living on fixed incomes.

Perhaps the Fed and Treasury officials who reassuringly contend that the inflation spike is temporary will turn out to be right–but what we’ve been reading about “supply chain” seems calculated to feed into more price increases, not less, and shortages that the law of supply and demand dictates will produce higher price tags as we head into the holidays. We need to do something about inflationary pressures and fix the supply chain problems before we find ourselves trapped in another upward-downward spiral.

Confirming The Obvious

Sometimes you have to wonder why certain medical studies get done in the first place. They don’t seem to do anything but confirm what should be obvious truths about personal health and well-being.

For example, you’ve known since you were a kid that going outside and getting some exercise is good for you. You probably first learned that when your Mom walked past the family room, saw you and your brother sitting cross-legged on the floor watching cartoons, and marched in, turned off the TV, and told the two of you in no uncertain terms to go outside, “get some fresh air,” and play with your neighborhood friends for a while. And in this, as in all things, motherly wisdom was unerring: cartoons were great, but messing around outside with your friends and playing football or riding bikes or exploring the neighborhood was even more fun.

And. not surprisingly, Mom was right about the benefits of getting that “fresh air” and exercise, too–as a new medical study confirms. The study looked at the impact of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when stay at home orders first took effect. It found that people who spent more time sitting during that time period–because they weren’t walking to their workplaces, or their cars, or conference rooms for in-person meetings, or to lunch with their officemates–were more likely to have higher symptoms of depression. And, of course, the depressive effect is in addition to (although possibly correlated with) the rise in obesity during the more sedentary work from home days of the pandemic.

The researchers of this latest “confirming the obvious” health study recommend that people working from home focus on getting off their duffs and finding ways to build some walking and outdoor time into their days, such as by taking walks before their workday starts, at a designated lunch hour, and after the workday has ended. It’s exactly the kind of instruction your Mom would have given.

Unexpected Consequences Of Remote Work

The prevalence of remote work has changed a lot of things in our world. From traffic patterns during rush hour to restaurant usage in downtown areas to what people are regularly wearing from the waist down that can’t be seen on Zoom or Teams calls, the reality of many people working from home has reordered our lives in more ways than we can list.

Here’s another change that you might not have considered yet: what are you going to do with that inevitable cache of leftover Halloween candy? You know, the excess that was created because you don’t want to be caught in the dreaded predicament of being the only house on the block to run out of candy while Beggars’ Night is still going strong, so you bought an extra bag or two of “snack size” candy bars and little boxes of Milk Duds?

In the pre-pandemic world, the solution to disposition of the excess Halloween candy was easy and obvious: because you didn’t want to keep the tempting little goodies in the house for fear that you would fall into a chocolate consumption frenzy, you took the leftovers to the office. Once your supply of candy was placed in a bowl next to the coffee machine, you could be confident that the candy would be fully and happily consumed by anonymous officemates within hours, if not minutes.

But with remote work, those rapacious hordes aren’t at the office every day anymore, and the office coffee station isn’t the hub of frantic consumption that it was in days of yore. You’re not going to be able to rely on “taking it to the office” to get rid of that leftover candy, unless the federal government declares an emergency and orders everyone to return to their offices for National Candy Consumption Day on the Monday after the Halloween weekend, to assist in the Snickers and Reese’s and SweeTarts disposition effort.

Give it some thought before you go out to buy your trick or treat candy this year and come up with your preferred approach. Do you buy less, to avoid any excess? Or do you follow your standard “avoid a shortfall” overbuying approach, and figure out an alternative method of getting rid of the leftover trove? Or do you head in an entirely different direction, disavow candy altogether, and offer trick-or-treaters those unappealing “healthy snacks” that nagging health authorities have been trying to get us to hand out for years, on the theory that while the kids clearly won’t like them, at least they won’t tempt you, either?

Welcome to the remote work world.

Suitable

Yesterday I had occasion to wear a suit and tie for the first time in . . . well, I don’t know how long, exactly. Months, at least. And as I ventured into my now-unfamiliar work clothes closet to pick out suitable attire, my mind was filled with questions that simply would not have arisen pre-pandemic:

1. Would my suits still fit after not being worn during the months of remote work?

2. How do you tie a tie?

3. Could I get away with not wearing “work shoes”?

4. How uncomfortable would it be to wear a shirt that buttons up to the neck and then cinch a knotted piece of colorful fabric around the neck, just to add insult to injury?

Ultimately I went for the full “suit up” approach and even donned some work shoes for good measure. My selected suit fit, to my relief, my muscle memory kicked in and I tied the tie reflexively, and the outfit wasn’t too uncomfortable. In fact, it felt pretty good to break from the remote work garb and wear a suit. Who would have thought wearing a suit, button-down shirt, and tie would be a welcome change of pace? But it was—so much so that I might put on a suit from time to time, just for the hell of it.

I guess wearing a suit suits me.

Trailblazing

I’ve spent a few days working over at Russell’s property this summer. He has multiple acres of some lovely, largely wooded property at Cape Rosier on the mainland, and among many other projects he’s been working on creating hiking trails through the property to particularly scenic spots. Earlier this summer Richard, Russell, and I worked for a day on clearing out a path and glade along a cool, stony brook that spills out from a natural spring on Russell’s land, and on Sunday I continued the path along the stream and then turned inland to follow an obvious animal trail and see where it led.

Trailblazing is hard work, but it is also a lot of fun. Basically, the goal is to identify the logical route for a trail and then convert landscape that looks like the photo above into something walkable, like the photo below. That means breaking up and removing rotted logs, gathering up and moving fallen timber that blocks the way, and cutting down scrub trees and dead trees and low hanging branches along the route. Armed with a small saw and limb-cutting shears, I let my pathfinder instincts run free, cutting and chopping and hefting armloads of branches and fallen twigs. As the trail signs turned inland, I followed what looked like a deer trail, shown running through the moss in the photo below, that led to a pretty natural clearing where sunlight dappled the ground under towering trees.

Russell’s property is beautiful and full of surprises—like the brook, the spring, a big round boulder I dubbed Cannonball Rock, and a natural granite promontory that affords a view of Cape Rosier and Castine in the far distance, and others yet to be discovered—and there are lots of ways the trails could run. I’ve finished my trailblazing work for 2021, but I’ll gladly return in 2022 for more scouting, brush cutting, and trail clearing.

The Steps Project

I am calling my last big yard work initiative of the season the Steps Project. It’s been an interesting, challenging, “dirt under the fingernails” bit of work that combines archaeology, tricky balance, digging, pulling, and lots of roots.

The Steps Project began when our 80-year-old neighbor visited our down yard as part of our earlier tree-cutting work. He’s lived in this neighborhood since he was a kid, and he recalled the hillside being a treeless expanse with stones that the kids used as steps to come up and down on their walk to and from school. Steps in that location would be a good thing because the hillside slopes at close to a 45-degree grade, and getting up and down on a dewy morning can be a slippery proposition. But the steps he recalled were long gone, covered now by a thatch of moss and weeds.

Obviously, stepping stones don’t just vanish; they were under there somewhere. And I think having a kind of stairway to get from top to bottom of the slope would be useful. So the archaeology part of my Steps Project involves figuring out where the stones are buried. When I find them, I cut through the thatch, pull out the moss and weeds, and then cut or pull out the tree roots that grew over and around the rocks. Then I use a brush to clear off the dirt and other debris so the rocks—now exposed for the first time in decades—can dry out in the sunshine. The balance part of the project comes in because I’m doing all of that while trying to hold myself steady on the slope and not taking overly aggressive actions that might send me toppling down the hillside.

Yesterday I finished with the last two “steps,” and now I’ve got a rocky, ersatz set of stairs on the side border of the down yard that you can see in the photos accompanying this post, from the above and below perspectives. Of course, the steps aren’t perfectly aligned like a staircase, and you have to zigzag and take different length steps to get up and down, but they are definitely a safer way up and down. And they are kind of fun, too. In fact, I feel like one of the kids in my neighbor’s old gang when I use them.

The New Soap Hope

Our firm’s restrooms always feature high-end hand soaps, so you can add a pleasant smell to your day as you do your 20 seconds of hand washing. The scents of the soaps are ever changing and always intriguing. Usually there’s a fruity or flowery option and also a woody option. I tend to favor the teakwood and mahogany choices.

On one recent visit I saw this new sunshine and lemons hand soap, and I think it means we’ve broken through a soap bubble barrier and entered entirely new hygienic fragrance territory. Sunshine, of course, is warm and bright, but it has no discernible aroma, so when I tried this concoction it smelled like your standard lemon soap. But perhaps the sunshine notion is meant to be aspirational and mood-setting, rather than a component of the soap’s odor, and intended to put the user into a sunny frame of mind.

What’s going to be next? Caribbean moonlight and coconut? Cool shade and carnations? Wisdom and witch hazel? Once you get away from actual smells, the possibilities are pretty much endless.

What A Difference A Tree Makes

Trees are lovely things, as a general rule. But sometimes, in coastal communities, trees can really get in the way, and unhealthy trees also pose a risk of causing real damage to nearby houses during a severe storm. So it was with the trees on the hillside of our neighbor’s property, which made yesterday morning “tree removal time” on the Greenhead Peninsula.

Through the work of Melvin and his backhoe and his friend Steve and his chainsaw, we cut down and hauled away more than a half dozen trees of varying sizes, including a large diseased tree located right next to our house. My role was basically limited to lifting and bundling branches for later removal, and since I value my fingers I tried to stay as far away from the chainsaw as possible, just to be on the safe side. It’s amazing, though, what a chainsaw, a backhoe, and a few hours of hard work can accomplish. As a result of our efforts, we cleared much of the hillside, as our neighbor wanted, and we also gave Melvin and Janet a view of the harbor from their kitchen window, just like they had years ago, when there weren’t as many mature trees in the neighborhood.

As a result of the tree removal operation, the neighborhood looks a lot different. The south side of our house now has dramatically altered views and will be getting a lot more sunshine on clear, cloudless days. We can also see the huge rock formations on the hillside, which I like. Our work has also affected the view from our upper deck, as shown by the before (above) and after (below) photos with this post. And now I don’t have to worry about a sick tree toppling into the side of our house during the next nor’easter.

A Man, A Backhoe, And A Project

Meet Melvin, our next door neighbor. Melvin is a retired lobsterman who spent 60 years out on the open waters surrounding Stonington, arising at the crack of dawn, heading out to his boat, and baiting and retrieving hundreds of lobster traps. But even in his retirement, he’s the most industrious person I know. He’s always working on a project.

That’s Melvin on his backhoe, which features prominently in many of his projects. So far this summer, Melvin and his backhoe have moved hundreds of lobster traps that he sold, cleared out a waste area of scrub trees and weeds, hauled and split granite rocks, built a nifty stone wall, and dug up and updated a drainage system. Melvin also built a safety fence for his toddler age great-grandson. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The next project on the horizon starts today. There are some trees that have grown up in the lot next to ours that block the view of the water for Melvin and Janet, for us, and for the owner of that lot next door. One of the trees isn’t healthy, either. The old owner of the lot didn’t want to do anything about the trees, but the new owner wants them to come down, and Melvin and his backhoe are ready to do the job. He’ll be cutting down and hauling out the branches and trunks and then chopping them up. The work starts this morning.

I also noticed a mound of fill in Melvin’s driveway. I guess that’s for the next project—or maybe the one after that.

Zigzagging To Work

The lobster boat workers of Stonington are early birds. They awaken at the crack of dawn, don their waterproof work clothes, pull on knee-high rubber boots, grab their lunch pails, and head to the water in their pickup trucks while the rest of the world is still abed. Those who anchor their boats off the Stonington town pier then walk down an aluminum ramp to a floating dock that zigzags out into the water. There they board the outboard craft that shuttle them to the larger, sturdier lobster boats in the harbor that chug out to the open water where the buoys and traps may be found. The Stonington floating dock employs a zigzag construction to conform to the available space while accommodating the maximum number of motorboats.

Usually this process is long completed by the time I walk by just after 6 a.m. and the floating dock is empty. Yesterday, though, a few lobstermen were just departing—with the help of their faithful dog.

Incidentally, it’s not unusual to see dogs on the motorboats, usually seated upright at the bow while their human companion operates the outboard. If you’re a dog, it’s got to beat hanging your head out of the passenger-side window of the car.