Monday, October 19, 2009

Something Wicked This Way Comes

The paranormal, the mysteries of life and the things that go "bump" have been known to keep me up at night. I know I'm not the only one, and while during the daylight hours I always think I was being silly the night before, the wee hours of the morning, when I've had little sleep, have a way of amplifying my fear while suspending my logic.

I knew I would want to tackle this subject eventually, and I thought that with Halloween looming, this would be as good a time as any.

I was married in Salem, Massachusetts. And though the historic witch trials only took up fifteen months of the city's nearly 384-year history, you would think it was all that had ever happened there. (Actually, the trials took place in neighboring town of Danvers). Don't get me wrong, there are a few museums and landmarks in Salem not devoted to the trials, (The House of the Seven Gables, Maritime Center, Pirate Museum, Peabody-Essex Museum), the town seems to be dedicated to the dark spot on its resume.

We were married in Salem mostly because it's a beautiful, surprisingly friendly (given its proximity to Boston) and liberal town. A gay marriage ceremony in the town square did not bring protests, or even a batted eyelid. But the place is dotted with magic shops, witch museums, haunted houses, ghost walks, and a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery in the town square. There's even a museum dedicated to Lizzie Bordon, which is odd, since the infamous ax murders took place in Fall River, 70 miles to the South. But these are things that bring in the money. These tourist traps are what make Salem a Halloween Mecca and a trip to Salem a veritable Hajj for Wiccans and their ilk.

Why does this otherwise beautiful town need to focus on a piece of history that could be considered shameful and embarrassing? Again - money talks. And why does the the lure of the supernatural draw so many visitors?

I've had my fair share of odd experiences, unexplainable events. I'm a jinx around electronics. Recently my password to our reservations system at work was expiring every hour or so, for no good reason. I didn't think much about it at the time, but the same thing has happened to my email accounts at work, my voice mail, and even the desktop to my computer. Coupled with my experiences of what some in the old south call a "hagging" (though I never saw the thing, as it really just consisted of my being awake but unable to move, and have since read up on many reasonable explanations), dreams that seem to come true during the day in one form or another, (though always in hindsight, and anything is open to interpretation) and just general weirdness that seems to surround me, I tend to raise an eyebrow when anything out of the ordinary occurs. My life has always been full of odd coincidences, feelings of not being alone, (again scientifically explainable), and just about a weekly bout of serious deja vu. But I don't obsess over them. Obsessing over these things will not solve their collective mystery. I've never found a reason for any of these things, and I likely never will. I'm not worried about it in the slightest. I kind of like not knowing when it comes to these things, at least not concretely.

But it's still fun to ponder the unexplainable from time to time. Why?

It's widely known that during times of strife and unrest people flock to the movies more often. Television programs like Heroes, Lost and Smallville do very well. More interestingly, programs that more closely resemble our lives, (relatively speaking of course) like Desperate Housewives, House, Brothers & Sisters, etc.. do equally well, if not better. They require less effort to engage, less suspension of reality. They allow escapism to be easy, make light work of taking us to another universe, just one that doesn't happen to be populated by aliens or ghosts, unless they choose to "jump the shark." We can escape into others' lives, and not feel like we're watching fantasy - though we are.

Is this a healthy outlet? It could be that by allowing ourselves to become absorbed in these very-recognizable universes such as Wisteria Lane, we subconsciously find solutions to our own real-life problems, as they're extrapolated into a preposterous situation in our 42" worlds. We crave the catharsis, the reaching of a conclusion to an impossible situation in an hour. We can easily become addicted to that catharsis when in life we haven't reached those solutions ourselves.

Some likely think their lives are too boring, or more seriously may be afraid to examine their own lives more closely. Dangerously, television can fill that gap nicely, if you let it.

What does this have to do with the obsession by some in the paranormal? Absolutely everything.

By focusing on life's mysteries, we suspend our own realities. Sci-fi, horror, fantasy, to some is what drinking is to others - holding the clutches of the real world at arm's length just long enough to get some sweet escapist relief. Eventually though, the movie ends and the lights come back on. You can buy another ticket and go back in for another feature, but the theater will have to eventually close.

This isn't always the case - there are countless aspiring Fox Mulders out in the world who really do wish to find the truth of these seemingly other-worldly events through observation, experimentation and analysis. Their motives may not be escapism, but then again, their motives may be no less than to reel their projected fantasy world into reality by using logic. Just a thought.

So why does all this hold my interest? Into which category to I belong? I think I need to know that there is more going on. This is by no means an uncommon need.

The incidents I mentioned in my life above, and maybe a little more, are enough to tell me that there is in fact much more to life than what we see. Maybe those bumps we hear in the night are knocks on our doors. Maybe if there are unknown intelligences 'out there,' our mere suspicion of their existence keeps some of us going through the darkest times of our lives.

I'm not going to delve into my personal belief system here, but when there are events in life that can't be explained, you can do one of three things: You can ignore and dismiss them, you can obsess over them and lose sleep over research, or you can simply go with your gut. The third option is where I fall. To me this makes the most sense - answer the questions of life's outer mysteries with your own inner ones. Isn't this why human intuition exists, to fill the gaps logic can't?

It's a pretty big world out there, and it's arrogance to believe we've done more than just begin to scratch the surface. Last week a mysterious ribbon of particles were discovered at the edge of our solar system, by the way, like the rest of the universe, is full of matter that we also can't explain or even identify ). We can't even fully explain gravity. We haven't yet begun.

Bumps in the night should not surprise us.

Maybe that bump in the night is a knock at the door. Maybe it's a knock that comes late at night, in the darkest hour before the sun illuminates the real world in the morning. Maybe you answer the knock, and nobody is there.

And maybe the one who knocked just wanted to know if you were paying attention.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hospitality and Me: The Beginning of a Messy Divorce

Dear John:

   After fifteen years of our relationship and eight years of marriage, I regret to tell you, it’s finally over. For you I’ve been a front desk agent, bartender, night auditor, cook, tour guide, sales assistant, banquet manager, room service server, restaurant manager, concierge, and event planner. On two occasions I have worked twenty-four-hour straight shifts for you. I have sacrificed relationships, time with friends and countless holidays for you.
   You have taught me life skills, work ethic and the value of diversity. You’ve tested the limits of my stamina and perseverance. You’ve shown me that when you feel have no more energy left to give, no more time, no more patience, that you’ve only begun to tap your inner resources.
   You’ve taught me to deal with stress. You’ve taught me to juggle difficult clients, angry staff and a tight budget. You’ve taught me that your staff, your clients and your employers will grade you equally, and that each scorecard is as important as the other.
   Despite all you’ve given me, I no longer love you. You deserve somebody who can give you the love I once did, and who truly wishes to be in this marriage. I no longer have the need for it, and feel it’s truly time for me to move on.

Warmest Regards,

William E. Shealy
Various Hotels, Usually Marriott International
DIRECT: 843-867-5309

Okay, so it’s been years coming. I’ve tried so many aspects of this business, and have found some grade of fulfillment or another in each of them – until now. I’ve decided that it’s finally time to move on. It wasn’t that it was an easy decision to make, either.

I’ve devoted so much time and energy, sacrificed more than I care to admit, to the pursuit of one day becoming a general manager and perhaps moving on to a corporate position. It was all simply because I knew this was an attainable goal, and with ach position I learned more – and yet always felt like I could be learning even more some place else, in another field. Walking out of various hotels at 2am, wondering what it would be like to actually go to work and leave while the sun was up, I thought I could finally find a life balance by changing fields within the field and become an event planner.

Now that I’m there, I’ve run into the same situation – a sort of boredom. Not the kind of boredom that equals not having enough to do, the kind that comes from wishing you were someplace else a little too much throughout the day. There’s a certain appeal to maintaining relationships the hotel has with its clients, to planning events, a certain creativity to working with banquets to pull off a wonderful event within the confines of a tight budget.  But again – I feel like it’s wrong for me. I feel like I’m cheating myself, and my employer.

There’s also a certain dishonesty that revolves around being different people for different clients, to painting any picture in the light required to convince the clients that we are always exactly what they need. It’s fun – but I’ve been doing the same thing in one sense or another for way too long.

It’s time to move on.

But I still struggle with it. I love this business enough to have engaged in a serious debate over the past several months. Is it really me?

Several months ago, when I was deciding between a few different jobs, Bio-Dad suggested I write out a list of my likes and dislikes with each opportunity, so I might better see the positives and negatives on paper, and more clearly debate them. (I paraphrase his exact words). So I did that here – here are my results:

The Good:

1)      Diversity! There is so much diversity in the workplace. In any hotel you’ll find about half the employees are from other states, other countries. It brings such a wonderful dynamic, to have so much perspective available to you for each decision. You find little racism, next to no xenophobia, so much acceptance of various backgrounds, that it’s very easy to be yourself, if only around your team.

2)      It’s Rewarding. Particularly in events, you can see the fruit of your labors right in front of you. Be it with an event you’ve planned or set up, or the success of an associate you’ve trained and helped work through their individual challenges – your success is tangible and visible.

3)      People. You cannot work in this industry unless you appreciate people. And if you do, it’s a wonderful place to be. There are countless opportunities to help people, to help show them their potential, to learn from people whose experiences are so much more vast than your own, that you cannot help but to grow. You grow from those you teach even more from those who are teaching you. You grow from getting to know your guests, you grow from learning to anticipate others’ needs. It’s a true, continuous learning environment. You learn and grow, or you get left behind.

4)      Life Lessons! You are forced to develop a work ethic, to learn to juggle priorities, to sort said priorities, to succeed or fail with no middle ground. You learn to act creatively, to improvise, to be honest, to stand up for your successes and acknowledge your mistakes. In acknowledging your mistakes you learn to grow from them. If you don’t acknowledge your mistakes, someone else will. And you have to acknowledge them, and fix them fast. There’s no time for floundering when everything you do is on a timetable.

5)      Days go by fast! If I’ve learned nothing else from hospitality, it’s this: give somebody one task and all day to do it, and it will likely get it done to your satisfaction. Give them ten things to do, and give them a time limit, and they will amaze you with the results. This goes both ways – I function better with a stopwatch now, and I’ve learned that most people, when presented with a hurdle, jump higher than when presented with a speed hump. Fifteen hours feels like eight. An hour feels like a few minutes. A week feels like a few days, and a year feels like a few months. Yes, the days fly by, and often way too fast.

6)      The Food! Working in a hotel, it’s easy to get spoiled by the food. As I eat my grapefruits, pleaches, (yes, pleaches) and raw vegetables, undoing the damage of so many years of hotel food, I know that I ate better than most. I’ve sampled innumerable wedding cakes, delicate pastries, tailored oils, fine rare meats, exotic sauces, fruits from around the world. These, mind you, were mostly leftovers in the staff caff. We have better day-old leftovers than you might find in many excellent restaurants.

7)      Creatvity. You have next to no storage space. You have a team making far less than you know they deserve. You have a laughable budget to give your team the tools they need to do their jobs, but your team rates you twice a year on your performance. You’re also rated monthly on your spending. And you have to make sure each guest is smiling when they walk out the door, because they rate you as well. In event planning, you have to work with the chef to create menus that are memorable, and yet inexpensive to produce. You have to decorate with old, oft-broken equipment. In catering you have to work with beat-up hot-boxes that work only with a dozen lit Sternos, out of a catering van that probably can’t be washed due to being held together by the dirt, (there’s an unwritten rule that catering vans must be dented, old, fuel-guzzling beasts. Oh, and they must have a rear door that does not open unless you hit it a certain way, kick the bumper at the right time, and simultaneously push a hidden lever on a  door that’s about to rust out if its hinges). The plates must be chipped, and the silverware must need constant polishing. And not only does each event have to appear a shining, flawless, unique vision, but you have to ensure each associate is smiling as brightly as you, as hard as that may be. Yes, you have to be creative, and you have to be creative on a budget.

      The Bad:

1)      Angry Guests. You are a front desk agent. You come into work, clock in, arrive at the desk, and start to review your day ahead – suddenly a guest is screaming at you. Any onlooker will assume this is either a complete butthole, or that the hotel has royally screwed up. (Usually they assume the latter). You have to make it right, because it is your fault. It’s your fault, if for no other reason than your nametag has the hotel logo printed in the corner. The customer may not always be right, but they damn well better believe they are before the conversation is over. And even if it’s the fault some other associate (who may not even work there anymore), it’s your fault now. Any problem becomes your problem. Any negative situation is your doing in the eyes of the guest. Perception is reality. Some people come in angry. Some know that anger equals rewards points, free rooms, and the occasional meal. Some can never be pleased. But they have to appear to be, and even if you’re not, they have to believe you’re truly sorry.  And you have to do something about it. There and then. On a budget.

2)       Getting sick all the time! Hotels are breeding grounds for illness. Viruses are born on airplanes and mature in hotels. You shake hands constantly. You take money. You touch used linens. You pick up used glasses. You carry dirty plates. If there’s a new strain of flu, you will get it. If you hear someone talk about a nasty cold going around, you just hope you don’t get it before the next big event. Because you will get it. And you cannot miss work, so you will give it to your team. And later you will cover for them when they can't come in.

3)      The Other Side of Diversity. You have to ensure that associates from various nationalities, religions, life experiences, work well together, because they do not do so naturally. You have to do this when they have not slept, have not had time for breaks, (though it’s the law they take them), and they have to work with an equally diverse clientele. Given enough sleep deprivation and stress, anyone’s maturity level becomes that of a three year-old. It’s your job to ensure they interact well before you end up in a meeting in human resources. Once again, if associates fight, it can be construed as your fault. Arguably, any negative situation can be diffused before it escalates. Therefore, if you don’t catch the lit fuse and snuff it before it reaches the gun powder – and you saw its ignition – (and even if you didn’t) it very much is your fault.

4)      No Life. Working in hospitality is being married to hospitality. You do not leave until the job is done, period. Anything in your private life takes a back seat to your job. The moment it doesn’t, people notice, and people talk. Once again, perception is reality. You’re excellent at your job or you’re poor at it. If you’re mediocre, you don’t change positions, and if you don’t move up, you’re more likely to be laid off. If you’re still, you’re a sitting target, and if you leave early to catch dinner with family or go home for a holiday – and something goes wrong while you’re away, the question of why you were not there bounces around the hotel like a pinball. You simply have to be there.

5)      From the outside, your job is easy. From the outside, people might ask: How hard is it to serve food to a group? How hard can it be to plan a meeting? A monkey can check guests in. I won’t even begin to touch this one, it’s a blog entry in itself.

6)      The pay. Hotels are expensive to operate. It’s so prohibitively expensive to operate a full service property that sometimes I’m amazed prospective owners are interested in the business to begin with. I recently heard a couple pass an ATM machine in the lobby. The (presumable) husband said to the (presumable) wife, “they don’t miss a penny.” Well, he was right. Insurance, food cost, labor, maintenance, mortgage, marketing – all these things are more expensive than you can imagine. It’s no wonder salaries are lower than you might think.

7)      The superficiality of it all. Front-of-house people need to be pretty. In event planning and sales, you need to be whoever your client thinks you should be. And it’s your job to figure that out pretty quickly. Smiling ear to ear during a crisis, kissing babies, stroking egos at client luncheons – you have to make it all look seamless, happy, and easy. If you don’t, you’re not doing your job. A guest should never see you sweat, or be distressed. If they do, you’re apparently disorganized and in the wrong field.

      The bads outweigh the goods for me.

      I have met so many wonderfully creative, talented people in this business. And if it’s their life’s goal to become a general manager of a full-service property, or to move up in their specific field, or just continue to master what they do, then that’s wonderful. Anyone who chooses a hospitality career for life should be applauded.

      I am not one of those people. I said in a previous blog that I can do more in my life. This is not meant to demean those who are pursuing this career for life. Quite the contrary, I am in awe of them. Hospitality workers are among the most patient, people-loving people you can ever meet. If they’re not, they won’t be in the industry very long.

      General managers who have worked their way up through the ranks are some of the most dynamic, intelligent, intuitive people you will ever meet. Servers who have waited banquet tables for decades are people you could teach anyone about patience, stamina, creativity, and discipline.

      I will probably miss this business, but not for a while. I maintain a pipe dream that maybe one day Eric and I can open a B&B. I hope I can get plenty of rest between now and then.

Hospitality, I love you. But it’s time for me to move on.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fifteen Minutes Through Columbia, At The Other Side of the Fence

"And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself - did I get here?" 

                                                                                   -David Byrne, Talking heads
                                                                                    Once In A Lifetime

I try not to get too wrapped up in nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong, it has its place. If we don’t reflect on our experiences, we can't grow from them. But reflection can be a slippery slope, getting so wrapped up in your past that you forget to experience the present. New experiences give way to the previous. You can get so involved in the past that as the world moves on around you, it leaves you behind in a self-reflective feedback loop. That might be an extreme example, but we've all seen it happen. Maybe we’ve even experienced it once or twice, getting lost in photo albums for maybe a little too long, or dwelling alone over a bottle of wine and dusty yet dangerous should-haves. I know I have more than my fair share of should-haves, longing for a means to correct and reroute what’s already been done. But I’ve learned not to focus on who I was, but rather who I could be. Maybe I’ve learned that a little later in life than I should have, but then if I’d taken the time to reflect on the present at a younger age, I wouldn’t have that problem now.

See how easy it is to get caught up?

Last night I made my weekly ritual commute from Greenville to Summerville. If there’s any stretch of road in this country I know, it’s I-26 in South Carolina. I know it’s a 34 minute stretch from I-385 at I-85 to I-26. I know that in five minutes I’ll pass Joanna, ten more minutes, Jalapa. I know that Newberry is fifteen minutes to Dreher Island, and another ten minutes to the outskirts of Columbia. Then from the Ballantine/White Rock exit, what I consider the boundary, it’s fifteen minutes to the Zeus plant near the Dixiana exit. There are four St. Matthews exits, three Orangeburg exits. One of the St. Matthews exits is also an Orangeburg exit, and it has some colorful rocks displaying a smiley-face to your right.

Thirty-eight minutes later and you’re at I-95. Past I-95, the scenery takes on a decidedly low country appearance. Spanish Moss appears on the live oaks and the wetlands seem to be threatening to take over the interstate the moment they're allowed, if the cars would just stop for five minutes. The road soon flattens out. It’s the home stretch. The smell of low tide and paper mill creeps in over the smell of pine trees. This happens right around Summerville.

Each time I pass through Columbia I know I should stop and see Dad, or Sam, or one of my aunts, but I keep going. I just don’t want to stop. It’s not that I don’t want to see them, it’s just that I want to get home to Summerville. But last night I think I figured out from where some of my hesitation comes. 

Before I left work in Greenville I had a glass of wine with my co-workers. Therefore, around the time I hit Irmo (on the outskirts of Columbia, near said Ballantine/White Rock exit) I really needed a bathroom. So I waited the fifteen minutes, and hit the rest stop just past the Zeus building.

I got out of the car, and with a deep breath took in a scent I had forgotten all about. I don’t know if anybody reading this has ever noticed, but each city, each town has a specific smell. The outskirts of West Columbia is no different. It’s a mix of pine, exhaust, grass. I couldn't tell you what it consisted of. I couldn't begin to describe it. 

I made my way to the predictably lemony-scummy rest stop bathroom and came out, once again being hit by the cool air carrying that smell (mind you anything is better than urinal cakes). It was not a bad smell. On the contrary, it was really quite nice. It’s said that smell is the scent most closely linked to memory. I wandered down the sidewalk, stretching my arms and legs, and stopped to take in the nighttime Columbia skyline. From a distance it actually looks like a decent-sized city. 

Columbia has a distinct culture. It might not seem so from an outsider, but Columbians have a history and even certain terms only they can interpret. For instance, unless you’re from Columbia you have no idea what I’m referring to when I say the Brown Sign with the Sowing Machine in the Corner. Or the Vomit Comet at Naked Iguana. Or Malfunction Junction, General Frontage, Cabin Fever, Mister Knowzit, Captain Telegram, Trustus, Group Therapy, the now-closed hundred year-old Capitol Restaurant, ad infinitum.   It will all always be a part of me, as much as I tend to brush it aside.

I took my gaze away from the skyline and meandered over to a chain-link fence that stood blocking access to the Frontage Road (see: General Frontage – pronounced Fronn-taj). A memory hit me that threw me back fifteen years, jarring me. I walked down that road once with a backpack and a few friends, heading toward somewhere or other, likely getting up to no good. I remember approaching the fence from the other side and wondering where that rest top was. It was a sobering shock to me to see that spot again. I couldn't believe I was there again. I remember that night so well.  

And here I was, fifteen or so years later, looking back from the other side. It was an odd feeling, as if I was looking back at some stranger so many years prior, with the backdrop of my home city creating a day-glow some distance behind me. I could still picture myself there, off the side of the frontage road - piercings, green hair, likely a beer in my hand. I wondered if I would have been able to picture myself looking ahead a decade and a half - in a suit, coming from Greenville, a corporate event planner. Out to the world, a partner in Rhode Island where I wanted to return. I might have spat in my own face. It would have been against my very core values. 

Same As It Ever Was

I sometimes miss wild nights in Columbia, wandering (stumbling) home from Five Points, shooting fireworks from the roof of Cornell Arms, climbing on rooftops, finding my way to the tops of office buildings, staring out my apartment window at Adluh…Flour…Adluhflour while waiting for our neighbors to come over so we could find something vaguely interesting to do. That was around the time I started getting bored with it all. The parties, the drinking, the punk shows, the gay bar. It just got old, stale, as the still heat stewing in a city on a hill, with few trees, surrounded by wetlands. (Columbians often say Columbia sits right over Hell). 

Back then, I continued this lifestyle simply as a default. It was just what I did. We waxed philosphical in Cafe' Espresso and later continued the debate over beer and who-knows-what until we found ourselves at a show, dancing and drinking until we passed out. 

Now the party is over, and I look back on it all and wonder what, if anything, I got out of it all. I started my life too late I think sometimes. But then, I think before I leave for Rhode Island, I want just one more wild night in Columbia, and put it all to bed for good. Maybe we'll go to the Art Bar. Maybe we'll feel pretentious enough to sit in Goatfeathers and wax political, and maybe after a few more drinks in the Library we'll head for pizza at the Village Idiot. Maybe we'll shoot fireworks from the roof of Cornell Arms. Then again, I'm not sure if I would get the same enjoyment out of it. But I still need to do it just one more time. 

If I know a place in this world well, it's Columbia. It's still a part of me. But I don't feel a connection to it. I've never felt it was my home town. And I don't relate to the guy I was fifteen years ago, at the other side of the fence. But he was still me. Somehow, he was part of the road that led to who I am now. Somehow, some way, I hopped the fence. And now I just want one more taste of what it was like over there. But then, if I were there, would it still be the same? Probably not. 

I slowly walked back to my car, got in,  and drove the rest of the way to Summerville.  I didn’t think about that experience again until I sat down to make some format changes on this blog. I know this was not supposed to be a diary, but I had to write about it. I feel a little better now. I still wonder how I got from green-haired, pierced, party boy to corporate event planner. I wonder if I lost something along the way.  

I’ll get back to less self-absorption next time I write, but thanks for listening. 

"And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house? 
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go? 
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? I wrong? 
And you may tell yourself
My god!...what have I done?"