A COURSE CORRECTION – Marilyn Armstrong

Once upon a time, I had a job in Connecticut. My daily commute was 140 miles — each way. I only worked three days at the office and worked the other two at home. Even so, after a few months, I was exhausted. I could not continue.

I quit and found another job that didn’t require as much commuting. It didn’t pay nearly as well, but it wasn’t going to kill me. Two-hundred and eighty miles of driving three days a week was nuts. Not only did it wear me down, but it also wore out my car.

I never thought of giving up as “throwing in the towel.” I was not giving up. More like I was acknowledging I shouldn’t have taken the job (or married that guy) in the first place. What in the world made me believe I could spend five or six hours a day in the car and also spend 8 to 10 hours at work?

Whenever I’ve given something up whether it was a job, a relationship, a recipe, or whatever? The problem was never being defeated by a foe. The enemy was always me. I made a stupid choice. I should never have started whatever it was in the first place. And usually, I’d known it from the beginning but for some reason, I couldn’t say no.

Ultimately, I knew I’d screwed up and changed course. If you look at this kind of thing as a defeat, you will have a lot of trouble coping when the road gets bumpy. Know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em.

 

NOT WORTH THE PAPER IT’S WRITTEN ON – Marilyn Armstrong

It was Samuel Goldwyn who supposedly said that “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” He had a point. Almost everything is done online these days from legal papers to mortgages.

Job offers, book deals, major purchases (like cars) are all done online, without people meeting face-to-face. I’m still not willing to make major commitments without a personal meeting, but I’m old-school. Maybe you should be, too.

Computers, or not, get it in writing. Without the handwritten signature of a live human with a name, address, and phone numbers, you ain’t got nothing.

When I was working my first jobs out of college, I would take anything with some connection — no matter how vague — to professional writing or editing.
It was the 1960s. Those days, before home computers and the Internet, getting a job was pretty simple, at least at entry levels.

You saw a listing in the paper for something you figured you could do. You phoned them (if they gave a number to call) or wrote a letter. On paper. Put it in an envelope with a stamp and dropped in a mailbox. You included a résumé or brought one with you for the interview.

You went to the meeting in person. A day or two later, that person (or his/her secretary) called back to say “Yes, you’re hired,” or “No, thank you.” An entry-level job didn’t require 30 hours of interviews or meeting everyone from the company president to the IT crew and the overnight backup guy.

And there really was a job, unlike now where they interview people for jobs that don’t exist just to find out if there’s a workforce to fill it — should it ever come up. You were qualified to do the job or not. The person who interviewed you actually had the authority to hire you. Which was why he or she was conducting interviews.

Unlike today where you can be certain the first person you talk to is someone from HR trying to ascertain whether or not you are a serial killer or corporate espionage agent.

Contracts? Those were for really important jobs. Getting in the door was relatively easy. Getting an office with a window might never happen. If you were a woman, knowing how to type was your entry card.

So the company made me an offer. I took it. I was optimistic back then. Any job might lead to the coveted and elusive “something better.” I was already working, so I gave my current employer two-weeks notice. On the appointed day, I showed up for work.

The guy who had offered me the job was gone. Quit? Fired? No one seemed to know or care. Worse, no one had heard of me, or my so-called job. I had nothing in writing. Without proof, I had a hard time even getting unemployment. I had learned the most important professional lesson of my life:


GET IT IN WRITING.


Whatever it is, if it’s not on a piece of paper, dated, and signed, it’s a verbal contract. Sometimes, that’s fine, but it’s not something you can show to a judge or for that matter, the unemployment department yo-yos. Which, in the immortal words of Samuel Goldwyn, means it is not worth the paper it’s written on.

I’M STILL UNDER DEVELOPMENT – Marilyn Armstrong

One of the many things I learned while working for a living was “never let them know how good you really are.”

It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Moreover, I’ve always been more fond of family and friends than my work, except for the year I ran a newspaper in Israel. I totally loved running a newspaper. I was busy all the time, either editing, writing, looking for material, helping design the physical paper.  This was before they had software to design magazines and newspapers, so you had to literally cut and paste the pieces into place.

I wrote three regular columns under three names: the lead story as me, a cooking column, and an astrology column under various names. And if we were needed another article, I wrote that, too.


I got to interview the big guns in 1980s Israeli politics including Netanyahu who I think was Education Minister. Pretty sure. We did a very long interview about how important it was to stop using the money for “other stuff” (settlements, for example) and spend it on education. He certainly has changed a lot since the mid-80s.

Other than that, I did what I could with the skills that I had. There was only one English-language newspaper and everyone who wrote in English wanted to work there. On the other hand, there were dozens of advertisements for technical writers.

I wasn’t a technical writer, but if that was what they were hiring? I was one.

And so I got my first got a job as a technical writer working with the group at the Weizmann Institution who were designing DB-1, the predecessor to all DBs since. The first real, multi-lingual database. Except I didn’t know anything about databases. In fact, when I got the job, it was the first time I’d heard of one. I hung around the office for a few days, realized I was useless unless I got some training and ‘fessed up.

After six weeks of having database design force-fed into my brain, I could use the database and design something simple that worked. Sort of.

I learned system analysis rather than computer programming, so I never knew how to write programming though I could read it. I learned how software is designed and understood why and how it works. During my three years there — until they sold the product to IBM — I found my technical writing legs.

I was a bit of a pioneer. Breaking new ground was exciting and professionally risky. I was known, by the time I left Israel, as its best tech writer in the country. Israel was a very small market and when I went back to the States, I was a little twitchy about testing my skills in “the big time.” But it was fine. Maybe better than fine.

Except for one thing: I discovered the reward you got for being very good and very fast was more work. Not a raise or a promotion. Just work. Not even overtime.

In my first job in the U.S., I started as “the junior writer.” Eventually, the other 5 members of the department were let go or moved on until finally, there was only me. Doing the whole thing that had previously needed (?) six people.

I was handling the “work” four writers and an editor had done before me. I finally asked how come I didn’t at least get the title of “manager” and was told I was too good a writer to be promoted. Too good to be promoted? Okay, how about a raise?

I got 6%. I changed jobs and made more money. That was when I realized that I should never have let them know just how good — and fast — I was because there was nothing in it for me except more work.

I eventually got really good and ultimately got a good salary. This is exactly when the dot com market blew up. The company for which I was working went out of business between Monday (when we got the news that our backers had lost all their money and thus we had lost all of our) and Friday. A lot of small investment companies disappeared that year.

It was also the same time when big companies decided \they didn’t need tech support departments that knew enough to offer tech support. Simultaneously, they concluded no one needed a manual since customers could call Pakistan and ask questions … and get the wrong answers.

I was already getting sick and working was difficult. Garry had lost his job and Owen’s company blew up on 9/11. My income mattered. But the industry decided I and the work I did was obsolete. Ironically today, the tech writing business is resurging. It turns out that people who buy expensive stuff — like cameras — feel they are entitled to a manual. Sadly for me, I’m 20 years out of date, lack the ability to work a full-time job, and live in the middle of nowhere.


Why am I writing all this? Because Garry and I were talking last night. He said he had a burning need to succeed. Virtually nothing else mattered to him. How did I feel about work?

I said no one has a burning need to succeed as a technical writer. It’s just not that kind of job. So what DID I have? I was an incredibly good writer and insanely fast. I was a better writer than anyone else I had worked with and at least twice as fast. They got paid more, but they were men.

If I’d had the drive and business sense to move out into the big wide world and build my own company? Could I have “made it big”? I don’t know, but I didn’t do it so I’ll never know. I never liked the business side of the business world.

But damn, I was good.

GAFFES OF AN ICONIC NAME DROPPER – Garry Armstrong

About the title of this post: “Gaffe” sounds nicer than “mind-numbing stupidity.” On the other hand, “iconic” doesn’t resonate well with “name-dropper.” A bit of sarcasm, a hint of irony.

Just trying to make sure you’re really reading this one. I usually offer stories about celebrities I’ve been fortunate to meet in my 40 plus years, toiling in the cotton fields of TV and radio news. It’s always an ego boost for this retired old news fart to spin yarns about time spent with the likes of John Wayne, Mother Theresa, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, The Boston Strangler, Queen Elizabeth, Presidents Johnson through Clinton, Whitey Bulger, Tip O’Neil and Princess Cheyenne, The Queen of Boston’s notorious “Combat Zone.”

How’s that for an eclectic bunch of names dropped? There are lots more to come depending on the retention power of my aging brain. Maybe it’s because of the fading hopes for my beloved Bosox who apparently won’t be chugging World Series Championship champagne this year. Maybe it’s the pollen and floating dog hair that impairs seeing and hearing.

It’s time for, as my former employers told me as they showed me the door after 31 years of faithful service, “To go in a different direction.”

A different direction. Instead of the heady celeb stories, how about some of the things that went wrong in my long, award-winning career (see, more name and fact dopping).  Lots of hinky stuff is stored in the locked chambers of my brain.

Figure it this way. If you do a minimum of half a dozen interviews a day, 5 or 6 days a week, 350 weeks a year, then spread it over more than 40 years. There are bound to be some stinkers, duds, and bombs mixed in with the celebrated stories. There’s no sequential order or grading of my gaffes. Just a handful to give you a glimpse into the not-always-successful days and nights of a TV/radio news reporter.

Embarrassing Gaffe 1

We were assigned to interview a couple who had been burgled and had their home invaded. The husband had chased the bad guys out with minimal injuries sustained. He was a hero. It was a “good news” story to sandwich in between the other “if it bleeds, it leads” stories.  Invited in, I quickly surveyed the house, looking for video possibilities to enhance the story which seemed to be “talking heads” and some file video of uniformed police responding to the initial 911 call.

I refocused my attention to the couple. He appeared to be middle-aged, maybe in his early 50s. His wife seemed to be in her 20s.  It was an immediate distraction, furthered by what also appeared to be a woman, well along in pregnancy. It set up an immediate log jam in my brain.

Before getting to the interview, I wanted to politely congratulate the couple. The words flew out of my mouth, unedited. “Let me offer you my congratulations – in the middle of this harrowing situation.” The husband stared at me. No smile. Just a very angry stare. “Mr. Armstrong, what do you mean by congratulations?  Is it because I chased the G.D. thugs out of my house? Punks! No guts, Mr. Armstrong. So, why congrats?”

I instantly sensed I was in hot water. I squirmed while offering my “nice guy” TV smile. The husband held his angry stare. I tried my best, “Um, er, I just noticed how your daugh–I mean your wife is absolutely glowing. These must be heady times for you”. The stare widened into anger. “Mr. Armstrong, are you implying my WIFE is pregnant?  If so, How DARE you? You reporters are all the same. No respect! My WIFE — is NOT pregnant – so what are you implying, Mr. Armstrong?”

I mumbled some apologies, visually telling the crew to pack their gear and get out quickly.  The guys were giggling and I was the joke. The husband was furious now, telling me he would call the TV station, their lawyers and his lawyer. “I’m gonna sue all your asses, especially yours, MISTER Armstrong” he fumed as we fled the house.

Long story short, back at the station, I pled ignorance, thought the wife (who looked like his daughter) was really pregnant. No, I never implied she was obese. No way.

The executive suits and the corporation lawyers had a field day with me. My “attitude” never sat well with them. However, the lawyers worked their magic and the threatened litigation disappeared like smoke from yesterday’s big fire story.  I never asked about it again. I may have been something of a smart ass but I wasn’t stupid.

Embarrassing Gaffe#2

Lunchtime at one of my favorite bars. Liquid lunch with a hot dog appetizer. I was on my 3rd or 4th Long Island Tea when a sultry voiced young woman struck up a conversation. The air was THICK with cigarette smoke, the jukebox was blaring Irish folk music that probably deafened all conversation including mine. Sultry voice complimented me on my clothing and said she was a fan of my work.

I nodded and repeated my thank you. I glanced at George, the bartender who owned the bar. He was leering — not grinning — at me. The sultry voice said she found me “exciting” and wanted to be alone with me.

I still hadn’t been able to see her through all the damn smoke. The one-sided, very complimentary conversation went on for maybe ten minutes as I ordered another drink from the leering George who was also giggling. I noticed some of the other bar regulars were staring at me and sultry voice.

I could finally feel the Long Island Tea working on me. I was repeating myself a lot. Sultry voice handed me a slip of paper with a seductive goodbye, “See you soon, honey.” She disappeared like Marlene Dietrich through the smoke. I still hadn’t gotten a clear view of her.

George came over to me, leaned over the bar, and spoke so I could hear him. He knew I had hearing problems. “Garry, my friend,”  he started, “Be CAREFUL, buddy”.  I stared at him — probably stupidly. George smiled a friendly smile, not a  leer.

George shook his head, “Garry, that’s a HE, not a she, Pal. Just be careful”.  I could feel the embarrassment shooting through my body. The impact of the Long Island Teas vanished as if I’d never drunk them.

I looked at my watch. Lunchtime had ended half an hour ago. I pulled out some money to pay my tab. George looked at me, smiling. “It’s on the house, Pal. Get back to work. Have a good day. Be safe”.

I returned to work. I did a couple of stories for the evening newscasts. No, I don’t remember anything about the stories.

THE NIGHTMARE JOBS OF YOUTH – Marilyn Armstrong

I complain about getting old, but occasionally, I remember being young wasn’t exactly perfect, either. Mostly, it was work. Men were one problem (especially the men AT work), but work itself and some of the monsters who ran the companies for which I worked … well … they were a special breed. I hear it’s worse now. 

I find that hard to believe. How much worse can it be? Between the sleazy offers of sex behind the office door and the micromanagement, not to mention the realization that the harder you worked, the more work you’d be given to do — and realizing that as a woman, you’d probably never get a raise or even a high five — how bad can it get?


As a retiree, I had more than 40 years of work full-time work. Of the 40 years of work, 30 of them involved working for bad-tempered, sleazy, mean-spirited bosses.

Were they born that way or did they grow into their positions?

There was the job for which I was paid exceptionally well. I was being paid to do absolutely nothing. I was assigned to sit all day in front of a computer and look busy. I was not allowed to fall asleep or read a book. I could not play a game or write a personal letter.

I had to sit there and stare at the screen. Worse, I had to “work” overtime. A standard 8-hour day was not enough. I had to continue the farce for 9 or 10 hours. Because the contract agency that put me in the job had to prove we were “necessary” by forcing us to do overtime … or an extra hour or two of doing nothing.

I am told there are people who crave such jobs. For me, it was torture. I couldn’t wait to move on.

There was the job where I was paid top dollar, had a gorgeous office. And nobody cared what I did. They only hired me because one big contract needed a manual. My job was to write it.

No one read it. Not only didn’t they read it, they also didn’t edit it or check to make sure it was accurate. I could have filled it with nursery rhymes or doodles. All they wanted to know was “Is it big and heavy?” and “Does it look impressive?” People wonder why manuals aren’t as good as they should be!

Working under a micro-manager is a special experience, especially for a writer. I had a few of them.

These are the bosses who stand behind you. You can hear them breathe, feel their hot air breath on your neck. Yuk. They watch with eagle-eyes to make sure you are doing Your Job and Nothing But Your Job. For me, that means I can’t do my job.

I’m a writer. I can’t write with someone watching over my shoulder. The micro-managers also stands by the door in the morning hoping to bag any worker who has the temerity to show up a millisecond late. I was once called on the carpet — really tore me a new one — for being three minutes late.

The good part? When I made a serious mistake and forgot to insert a full-page color advertisement in the middle of the magazine — just omitted it entirely which no doubt cost the company serious money — it wasn’t any worse than the dressing down than I’d gotten for being three minutes late. It’s like when you yell at your kids or dogs all the time and you realize, they aren’t listening.

If you yell at your employees for everything, after a while, they become numb and nothing you do or say has any effect. To quote Teddy Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” That works better, though it didn’t get him re-elected.

I had a truly stupid job at college. Briefly. The work was easy. I was the receptionist. Some annoying women came in and asked me my name. I told her. She said, “I don’t like that name. Do you mind if I call you Jane?”

I looked at her, “Yes, I mind. My name is Marilyn. Mrs. Armstrong to you.” I got fired. I didn’t mind. It was a horrible job anyhow.

This is not the time or place to discuss the wonderful jobs, the terrific bosses, or the great work I’ve had the honor to do. The awful jobs — mostly — didn’t last long. The good ones (mostly) made up for the bad ones.

Retirement is the payback for professional suffering. I love retirement. It’s the bestest job of all.

WOMENS’ ROLES IN JAPAN – CHANGE AND STAGNATION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Many things have changed in Japan since WWII but many things have also stayed the same. This dichotomy is creating unwanted trends and having far reaching consequences for the entire country.

Certain cultural expectations have remained static over time. Employees are still expected to devote most of their waking hours to their company. Working past 10 PM is the norm and men are often expected to take clients out for drinks after work. Rigorous targets must be met in order to get raises and promotions. This culture of overwork even has a name – “death from overwork.” It’s been argued that this demanding work environment leads to inefficiency and low productivity yet it still has a tight hold on Japanese work culture.

Another social phenomenon that has not changed is that women are still expected to care for the home, children and elderly relatives. They are also still given onerous tasks that they must fulfill to adequately perform their roles in the home. Cooking, for example, is a major job for Japanese women. They must prepare numerous, small dishes for their families every day AND the school lunches that they must prepare for their children have to be works of art!

Dishwashers are not as common as in the U.S and neither are dryers capable of doing large loads. So most women have to hang wet clothes on clotheslines outside, which dramatically increases the amount of time needed to do a family’s laundry.

But this is just the beginning. American women would be horrified at the volume of paperwork women have to do, every day, for their children’s schools and day-cares.

That’s right. Pre-schools demand meticulous and voluminous daily journals documenting their children’s temperatures, what they eat, their moods, conversations, sleeping hours and playtime activities. The elementary schools and after school tutoring classes, ubiquitous for older children, also require that a parent corrects and approves every page of their child’s homework. Women are thus swamped with household and bureaucratic tasks at home, which affects their ability to work outside the home.

Japanese elementary school class

Here comes the change part – now close to 70% of women 15-64 have jobs. Nevertheless, the heavy burden of domestic tasks holds women back from advancing in their careers. They can’t put in the crushing hours men do when they are on the promotion track. As a result, almost half of all working women only work part-time and often the other half are on temporary contracts. This creates a huge pay gap between men and women and also a shortage of women in management-level jobs.

Only 1% of the female workforce is in management. Yet women who work more than 49 hours a week typically also put in close to 25 hours of housework a week. Men typically average less than 5 hours a week, even when their wives work too. Thus Japanese men do less housework and childcare than men in any other of the world’s wealthiest nations.

This rigidity of gender roles at home has ramifications in the economy and society. Japan’s economic status in the world has stagnated and China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The Prime Minister of Japan has pledged to return the economy to steady growth, which means countering the severe labor shortage due to a declining as well as a rapidly-aging population. To increase the workforce and energize the economy, the Prime Minister’s goal is to elevate and increase women’s participation in the workforce. This initiative is called “womenomics.”

The problem is that for women to increase their impact on the workplace, everyone has to reduce the bruising hours expected at work so the women can begin to catch up to the men. In addition, the rigid and excessive demands on a woman’s time at home have to be reduced – and/or these tasks must be shared more equally by the husbands. But that would require a major change in social norms and entrenched gender roles, which is not likely to happen quickly.

However, social change is happening in Japan, just not in the way the government wants or society needs. The biggest trend in Japanese society today is the tremendous surge of women choosing not to marry at all! More and more women are rejecting the life of domestic drudgery that comes with marriage and parenthood and the concomitant drag on their career advancement.

The Japanese are exhausted most of the time

This is a problem because Japan is also suffering from a decline in population that politicians are frantically trying to reverse. The birth rate is the lowest it’s been since 1899 when record-keeping began. The economy can’t continue to grow if the workforce continues to shrink.

The statistics on women staying single are dramatic. In the mid-1990s, only 1 in 20 women in Japan had never been married by the age of 50. By 2015, 1 in 7 remained unmarried. In women ages 35-39, 10% were unmarried 20 years ago and now 25% are staying single. The number of couples getting married is at its lowest level since WWII.

There is some good news for the business world. A growing number of new businesses have sprung up to cater to this large market of single women. Single Karaoke Bars have women-only zones, restaurants market to solo diners, travel companies book tours for single women and photo studios offer photoshoots where women put on wedding dresses and pose for solo bridal pictures. There are even solo wedding ceremonies for women committing to their independence and their single, career-oriented lives.

Women no longer need husbands to ensure their economic security because if they stay single and avoid the cultural demands on wives and mothers, they can put in the hours to get ahead at work. They can also have the freedom to pursue hobbies, travel and cultivate large circles of friends. Many see this lifestyle as more rewarding than being stuck in the quicksand of the socially mandated gender role of wife and mother.

Until these domestic roles are redefined, Japan will see more and more women opting out of the domestic rat race. And the population will continue to decline along with the economy. I’m not sure how the government can mandate the kind of social change they need, but they may have to try. It should be interesting to watch how this social experiment works out.

SOME STUFF NEEDS INVENTING – Marilyn Armstrong

In a world where we are launching cars and other vehicles that can drive themselves, why can’t anyone create a pump for soap, shampoo, hand cream, and other gooey stuff that will keep working until the bottle is actually empty?

I’ve been a very good sport about paying huge amounts of money for fancy creams to deal with rashes. Soaps free of anything that might be remotely allergenic to use for my body and for the washing of clothing. The “good” dish soap that is safe the environment and is supposed to outlast all the other soaps but never does.

I have — for example — a soap dispenser for the Dawn in the kitchen. Why? Because Garry is a firm believer that more of whatever goop it is is always better than less. Thus he uses twice as much toothpaste as I do and ten times more kitchen soap. I figured if I put it in a dispenser, he’d get tired of pumping it out a lot faster than he would if he were to have his hands on the entire half-gallon container.

Today, though, he couldn’t get anything to come out. I opened it and it was more than half full, so I figured — as usual — it was all gunked up with soap. So I rinsed everything out with hot water, then found a pokey pointy thing to clear out the pump in the front, then washed the entire pump container which was all sticky and gooey.

After which, it worked. I commented that if we can replace human beings in production plants with AI devices, why can’t someone make a soap or hand cream pump that doesn’t clog up? Or, for that matter, a dispenser for packing tape that doesn’t stick to everything except the package you are trying to get ready for shipping?

Kitchen jar opener

If we can make so many complicated things that will ultimately make most people unemployable, why can’t we make the simple things work? Make child-proof drug dispensers that don’t require a wrench, lockpick, and hand-ax to open?

How about one of those zip pull envelopes that works? How about a “push here to open” place on a box that will actually open the pasta or whatever it is supposed to open rather than simply caving in the entire container?

I keep knives, scissors, and small wrenches in my night table and that’s just to open up sealed pill containers.  I have special implements to open the tops of jars and bottles. Even with all of these items conveniently at hand, sometimes, I can’t get them open and Garry can’t get them open either. Maybe Owen could, but he’s not here. Usually punching a hole in the jar’s lid works because it breaks the seal. But then you have a jar with a hole in the top.

Very expensive shampoo dispenser

I’m really tired of throwing away half a container of expensive goop because no one can get it out of the container. It is aggravating and a big waste of money. I want someone to FIX the problem.

My favorite innovation? Amazon charges you extra to get a package that a normal person can open without special tools.

OOPS! – Marilyn Armstrong

So there I was. The chief and only salesperson in a lovely furniture store. A charming couple came in looking for new furniture for their recently renovated home. I congratulated her on the (it was so obvious) upcoming birth of their child … and she said, “Don, I really do need to go on a diet.”

I thought I would die of embarrassment. All my attempts at apology just made things worse.

72-OOPS_001

The most humiliating part of the experience — a cautionary tale for anyone who might ever find themselves in a similar situation — was that these were such sweet, non-judgmental people. They bought thousands of dollars of furniture. I worked on commission, so this was a paycheck for me. They apparently didn’t hold it against me.

But I held it against me. I still do. It was awful. It happened more than 29 years ago and I still feel bad about it. It was right before Garry and I got married and it was one of the hardest admissions I’ve ever made to him. I felt like a complete jack-ass and remarkably, still do.

To this day, I remain wary of making assumptions based on something I think is obvious. Because in this case, it was obviously wrong. Never assume you know something unless you are sure you know it.

Appearances can be deceiving.

THE MANUAL YOU DON’T HAVE – Marilyn Armstrong

Last night, someone I know and who should know better, complained that Olympus, from whom he bought his camera, should fire the tech writer. Because there was no manual.

There was a booklet that listed the options but didn’t explain what they were or what to do with them. Well, duh.

I wrote this. Then I rewrote it to make it better.

I felt obliged to point out the reason there is no manual is they never hired a tech writer in the first place. If they had a living, breathing technical writer, there would be a manual.

You wouldn’t spend a couple of thousand dollars on a camera and get a generated leaflet. You’d get a real book with an index and a table of contents. Screenshots. Explanations not only of where to find a function but what the function does. So when you get there, you know what option to select and what it will do to your photographs.

Once upon a time, that was my world. I thought it was important, at least to the people who bought products about which I wrote.

The mysteries of the menus in my camera are hilarious. It might as well be written in Urdu.

Years went by during which the work I did was most of my life. I got up, got dressed, scraped the ice off the car, went to work (stopping for coffee along the way) and went through my day. Between having done the same kind of work for a long time and perpetually racing against a deadline, life was busy.

I knew, no matter what the ad said when I took a job, my work wasn’t permanent. I would work until the book was finished, then I’d move on. That was the way it really was.

The industry in which I worked ultimately decided the work I did was no longer necessary. Who needs a manual to tell them how to use equipment that costs a gazillion dollars and controls the operation of a steel mill? Or a missile tracking system? Or a satellite grabber for use out in space? They can always call the help desk — especially in space where you can easily find a signal for your phone.

I was the one who organized the chaotic information into a book with a table of contents, index, chapters, and diagrams so you would not always have to call someone. Considering the state of tech support these days, you can see where this failure to supply reasonable documentation has landed us. That’s why the phones are always busy and why the quality of support is so bad. How often do you find that you know more than the “help tech” individual knows? Basically, if you can’t fix it by rebooting, uh oh.

The help desk people don’t have the manual, either. And they badly need one.

Regardless, I was obsolete.

You need developers and a boss because someone has to say why you are all gathered here this morning. Also, the boss makes sure there’s coffee.

But a writer? They only hired me when they were at the end of a production cycle, realized the contract required they deliver documentation with the product. Sometimes, I got as little as three weeks to learn a product and produce a book that looked professional. At that point, no one cared what was in the book or whether the information would be of any use to anyone. It just had to be big, thick, nicely designed, and weigh enough to use as a doorstop.

My days were numbered. Eventually, I was gone.

To substitute for professional writers, they produce “automatic documentation.” Which is raw data generated by a program using “comments” left by developers, many of whom speak English as a second or third language and in any case, do not understand how non-engineers work or the kind of information they need to navigate a complex product.

It turns out, people were still willing to spend oodles of money for an undocumented product. So I guess they were right. No one cares until they get an expensive product that includes nothing. The good news? You can find entire books — the kind I used to write — on Amazon. Buy them and find out how the product works. It’s just like the books people like me wrote. Cool, huh? Except they don’t come with the product. You have to buy one and they are not always available.

My best bet is finding people online who own and use similar products and pick their brains.

For all of you who believe that crappy documentation is because tech writers are lazy? No, we aren’t lazy.

What we are is fired.

FORTHRIGHT – MALE VS. FEMALE – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Forthright

When a man is forthright, he is energetic and ambitious. He gets a lot of slaps on the back and with a tidbit of luck, he winds up running the place. Or a piece of it, anyhow. Because if you are a man, forthright and a bit of a go-getter, you are the right kind of guy. You say what you mean and others automatically follow you.

Old Doubleday and Company

On the other hand, if you are a woman and you are forthright, you are probably a slut or at the very least, a ball-buster. If you say what you want, you not a “real” woman. If you are ambitious, you are ruthless. If you are a go-getter, you are probably sleeping with the boss (of either sex, these days).

Regardless, you get paid at least 25% less than men who did the same work and quite possibly, even less.

Recently I’ve read about how “we (women) used to handle ‘this stuff’ back in the good old days.” Like, say, the 1960s.

Those days weren’t quite as good and they definitely weren’t great, at least not for working women. We were just beginning to find our feet out of the secretarial pool. How many of us had to learn to avoid the hands and the tentacles (some men had really long arms) of the men who surrounded us? You didn’t have to look “hot” or wear sexy clothing, either. Just being female was enough. “Hitting on women” has nothing to do with sex or attraction and everything to do with power and dominance.

A lot of the worst of these guys had wives at home better looking than the women they were bugging at work.

Despite rumors to the contrary, it wasn’t necessarily “easy” to get around these guys. Easy if they were an equal or lower level colleague, but if it was your boss? When it was the guy who owned the joint?

You were screwed.

You could quit your job quickly before the boss had time to make up an evil reference about you. That is what I did because not only was he really making it very clear how long our evenings after everyone else left would be. On top of that, he was a handsome guy. That was not going to make the situation easier.

I could give in a bit, enough to shut him up while I bought time to send out resumes. Or I could give in and live with the shame. Because even if no one else knew, I knew. I have a conscience. It is often inconvenient.

All these situations were unique. We were not the same people. Our responses varied. Where we lived made a difference, too.

Every office is different and has its own social milieu. Every “boss” has his own playbook. Moreover, it depended on your position and who was badgering you.

Not your equal? Easy peasy.

Your equal? More complicated.

The 1970s Doubleday I remember

Your boss or worse, THE boss? Big problem.

Working at Doubleday was fantastic except for the pay inequalities. No one bothered anyone except by asking them to help them produce extra work. Which no one minded because otherwise, they treated us very well.

You never made the same money as men whose work wasn’t as good as yours. I remember when I worked there, having secured a pretty good job I managed to get a job for a friend (male) who had no experience at all but had talent. They hired him for several thousand dollars more per year than I was getting, yet I knew the work and had experience. He knew nothing and had to learn it from scratch.

I didn’t see the point in making a fuss. It was pointless. Men always earned more than me, even when they were inexperienced or not very good.

So much for forthright.

“LES MISERABLE” VERSUS “LESS MISERABLE” — Marilyn Armstrong

“Les Miserables” is coming to Boston. I know this because the advertisement for it is on TV every few minutes. I read the book originally in French, back when I could actually read French and sort of mumble in French if forced.

I never spoke the language well, but I could read surprisingly well. However, I have to admit that “Les Miserables” was very long and frankly, I just didn’t understand why whats-his-face, the detective didn’t just say “screw it” and go back to Paris. Buy a high-quality bottle of red and get bombed.

By the time I was nearing the end of the book I was sick of everybody and even though I don’t drink, I was ready to get bombed too.

Unlike most cop thrillers, no one got shot. No car chases. Okay, no cars, but how about horse and carriage chases? Or even people running fast? Something, please. A little action maybe?

Much less miserable!

So the other day with the advertisement reminding me that I should see the show — I didn’t see the play on Broadway or the movie. The book really did me in. I realized what we needed was an alternative to “Les Miz” titled “Less Miserable.”

It would be a book about thieves who are not all that miserable. They live comfortably in the suburbs of Paris. The real drama (which isn’t in the book, but is occasionally referred to) happens in court. Lawyers duking it out. Meanwhile, everyone adjourns to whatever they call a pub in France. I don’t think they taught us that word.

Much less miserable, don’t you think?

If I could write plays I’d enjoy writing “Less Miserable.” It would be a lot shorter than the original book and the police guy would give up after one long weekend. Why? Because his boss would object to so many overtime hours and tell him to pack it in.

Like real bosses do.

BATHROOM REDO AND THE BUSYNESS OF LIFE – Marilyn Armstrong

Have I mentioned we’ve been a little bit busy?

We have indeed been a little bit busy and more than a little pressed for time. Everything seems to happen at the same time. For me, all my medical stuff happens in March.

Installing plumbing

The bathtub is already gone.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, most of my major surgeries have occurred in March which is why I’ve spent so many birthdays in the hospital. It’s also why I have so many physical work-ups in March.

Putting in the glass doors

I suppose in a way it’s good. I get everything sorted out in a month or maybe six weeks and with a little luck, I don’t have to think about it again for another six months or a year. But the period of time makes life pretty hectic and the older we get, the harder these hectic periods are for us. I get tired quickly and these days, Garry wears out fast too.

Utility wall and shower

Bench end

Add to that all the changes I’ve been making in sorting out our utilities and this major change in the house … and there are more to come. I’ve still got to get the chimney repaired before it falls down.

Bench end with sink and window

As much of the room as I could fit into the picture!

Did I mention that someone apparently took a baseball bat to our mailbox? And our across-the-street neighbor’s mailbox too? And our around the block neighbor’s mailbox too? Apparently, that’s what bored teenage boys do in rural neighborhoods in winter when there’s absolutely nothing to do. So we can’t get mail delivered until we get a new mailbox and post — which we can’t do until the ground melts and the snow is gone. Which is going to be a few more days, assuming we don’t get any more freezes.

Winter makes everything somehow busier. The plowing and the shoveling and the expense of paying the plow which is huge for our small budget.

Another view of the bathroom. Looks pretty good!

And everything will settle down in another month or so I fondly believe. Meanwhile, here are some pictures. I’ll try to get some better ones with a wide-angle lens tomorrow assuming we have reasonable light.

It’s supposed to rain. Or maybe not.

SHINING AGAIN – Marilyn Armstrong

I just read a really interesting post on Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo called: SHINEIn her final paragraphs she said:


Don’t we all wish to be loved and accepted for who we are in our entirety? Yet we hide the good, even from ourselves, behind a socially acceptable modesty while brandishing our flaws and frailties as if they alone define who we are. They do not. We define who we are. As much by how we choose to see ourselves as by anything else. If we see ourselves whole, perhaps others may too. They cannot until we do, as we project outward only a fragment of who we are. The saying ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ comes to mind. Maybe if we love our whole selves we can love others wholly too.

We are told that the very physical fabric of everything we know, including our own bodies, is made of the matter from which the stars were formed. Our physical forms exist because somewhere, aeons ago, a star died. If that is so, why should we not simply shine?


I realize the answer is really simple. We don’t shine because we need to work. We have to have a resume. We need to be “people-people.” No one wants to hire someone who shines. They want to hire people who fit in, people who won’t jolt the company “culture.”

I never figured out what company culture was, actually. Most of the places who exalted their company culture have long since gone bankrupt. Usually what company culture really meant is “we don’t want to work any harder than we absolutely have to.” These are places where mentioning deadlines were enough to get you out the door.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

They hired many more people than they needed to do the work because the people they hired couldn’t really do the work. More to the point, they didn’t do the work. They intentionally worked so slowly I found it hard to believe anyone could write that slowly. They thought THREE PAGES A DAY of technical material was plenty. I used to write between 20 and 50 and on a really good day, I could write half the book. Sure I’d have to go back and edit, add graphics, double check information, and test the document against the product.

But I got the work done. I got the basic draft put together quickly which left me time for serious rewrites and corrections once I’d Beta-tested the product.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

I worked at Intel for a year. It was a good job. Good pay. Also, not far from home and I didn’t have to drive into Boston. I had to work a 10  hour day every day, but I only had about 45 minutes of work to do. I was so bored I thought it would kill me. Ten hours of sitting in front of a computer — with NOTHING to do.

Shine? I could barely keep my eyes open.

And then, I got sick, stopped working, and got old. I don’t have a resume anymore. I’m not working for anyone who pays me, so I don’t have to lie to anyone, fake anything, pretend anything I don’t feel. With all the physical problems I have, I can’t begin to tell you how deeply I enjoy being me all the time. I’m not sure how the rest of the world feels about it, but I’m happy.


Shining is best done by the rich and the retired. Shining is not an option for most of us who have to show up to work and smile.

NowI CAN shine.

AMBITION AND THE LACK THEREOF – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Ambition

I was never ambitious enough for the current world. I worked hard and well, but I never sought to be a boss. Every time the idea popped into my brain, that little niggling idea that “bosses get paid better” (which isn’t necessarily true in every profession, by the way), I shuddered.

Really BIG bosses get paid very well. CEOs of major corporations, for example. But most of the places for which I worked were little, tiny companies. The bosses got paid better than the workers, but generally, the company was built on the owners’ own money and enterprise with maybe a little investment from elsewhere. They didn’t get rich and they worked terribly hard. They earned their money.

Once, for six months — which was as long as I could stand it — I was the manager for a group of writers at a small (and ultimately bankrupt) corporation. The frustration of telling other writers what to do and not being able to do it myself drove me nuts.

Truth? I valued my personal life more than my work, except where they intersected. I didn’t like management and didn’t want to be anyone’s boss. Most bosses aren’t good at it anyway. The really good ones spend all their time solving other people’s problems.

So I worked. I got paid pretty well but never made that jump to the next level. My ambition pushed me to do the best work I could, but not to make the most money I could.

In today’s world, that’s called “being a loser.”

Is it?

WORK, HOLIDAYS, AND PERSONAL CHOICE – Marilyn Armstrong

I know you think you are helping people by trying to get everyone to close on holidays, but it isn’t necessarily everyone’s best choice or preference.

It might be the right thing for you … but what about me?

Taking wing

What about the people next door? Are they just like you? Same holidays? Same available choices? Same kind of family?

Same religion?

When you promote a work ban on holidays, consider that many folks don’t have families. These are people who are grateful to be working.

Moreover, there are many individuals and families who count on the extra money they can earn by working holidays.

Not everyone is equally enthusiastic or sentimental about traditional celebrations. There are plenty of people for whom Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Columbus Day are non-starters.

They have their reasons and they are entitled to them.

Not everyone has someplace to go and a warm, fuzzy family to share with. It’s wonderful to be grateful for what we have.

It’s also good to be mindful that not everyone is equally or similarly blessed … and not everyone celebrates the same holidays.

And. Even those who celebrate the same holidays do not necessarily celebrate them the same way you do or on the same dates.