Some highlights: Wednesday, 1/28

All day long, as I stand behind my cash register, I ask people “What’s been a highlight of your day?” If they act all stumped and say “Gee, the highlight of my day…?”, I try to lower the bar: “not the highlight – a highlight, any little thing that  made you smile”.  Frequently they turn the question around and ask me.  Because I’m spending the day the way I am, my answers will frequently feature some of these very encounters with customers.  Here are some of my highlights from Wednesday, January 28.

10 a.m. – arrive at work. I’ve been depressed for 12 days.  My depressive cycles have been lasting, pretty consistently, 13-14 days – so I’m not expecting a change.

  • Five year old Shona arrives with his mom Mary and little sister Izzy.  He has had a crush on me for months, but lately he has been preoccupied with my 20-something rock musician wild man coworker Rowdy – who is really a very fun, charismatic young guy.  This morning Shona prevails on his mom to go to Rowdy’s line, which provokes lots of tears from Izzy, who wants me.  I feel honestly a little hurt to lose his loyalty, but am completely charmed by his parting line to the two of us: “Rowdy and Majo – think about me!” Totally precious.
  • Andy and Debbie – a delightful 50ish couple who have total loyalty to my line and are avid readers of the blog, talk with me about what they have been reading.  They have been finding situations in their lives to use the line, “Sometimes it just fits” – which I had ten years ago used on the apoplectic gas station customer who fumed at me “How dare you call me a bitch?!” (“My favorite firing”, January 15).  It feels great to know that people are reading and enjoying the blog, but to hear that something in the blog is affecting them in some other part of their lives – or in any way spilling over from the moments of reading – that really rocks.
  • This 65ish woman asks me where we keep our reusable bags.  Her irritated rough-mannered husband says, “We’ve got about 40 bags.”  “But they wear out, and we don’t have any with us.”  As she goes off to claim a bag or two, he – totally disgusted – says, “Aah, brother, more bags.”  I make the mistake of getting in the middle of the argument: “I’ve got bags for all the stores I regularly shop.  We love it when someone would rather buy a reusable bag than use a paper bag.”  “Aww, geez.”  The whole thing was actually pretty funny and really tickled me.

    I've got reusable bags for four grocery stores (including one I've entered twice in a year in a half - I bought them in a manic flush of excitement at the store's grand opening), two drug stores and one office supply store.  I know it's compulsive, but I just like to show them they are doing something good in providing these bags.

    I’ve got reusable bags for four grocery stores (including one I’ve entered twice in a year in a half – I bought them in a manic flush of excitement at the store’s grand opening), two drug stores and one office supply store. I know it’s compulsive, but I just like to show them they are doing something good in providing these bags.

  • My friend Jenn comes in: an adorable late-30’s mom who I have known from Jubilee for about seven years and am crazy about, as are so many people who know her.  She is smart, feisty, strong, funny, affectionate, a fabulous friend and a world-class mom.  Maybe the most painful part of being depressed is the way my heart gets closed.  Contact with Jen routinely opens my heart and this instance is no exception.  She has gone through another line, thinking I wasn’t there (I had been on break) and needs to keep moving to get back to work, but we have a sweet hug and exchange a few words before she heads for the door.  This brief encounter kind of takes my breath away from how open my heart feels.

All of these encounters happened in my first two hours of work.  Looking back, it seemed clear that my depression was already lifting before Jenn came through – but then seeing her kind of broke its back.  You just can’t feel this kind of love and be depressed at the same time.

When I am depressed, my heart seems unable to open.  Something is happening here.

When I am depressed, my heart seems unable to open. Something is happening here.

Was my biochemistry shifting in ways that allowed me to be moved by these exchanges?  Or were these lovely encounters overcoming the depressive biochemistry?  I’ll share more about this and more charmed encounters from this one amazing day in my next post.

Who are these people?

A short post (it’s late – and I work at 9) after our staff holiday party – grocery stores don’t party in the big push before the holidays.

Who are these people?  Getting to know them outside of work, hearing their stories, they become much bigger – surprising, yet I kinda knew there was going to be lots more when I got a chance to know them better.  And I know that I have just barely scratched the surface.

  • Katie talking about her twin passions – painting and cheese.  I ask, “Could you hook me up with some new cheese?  I’m a little bored with my regulars.”  Her eyes get big.  “I’d love to.”
  • Charles talking about his passion for Kung Fu – especially exciting for me, because I’m going to start Tae Kwon Do (a related martial art) on Friday

    Martial arts -Charles lit up talking about his Kung Fu, and I lit up thinking about my first Tae Kwon Do class this Friday.

    Martial arts -Charles lit up talking about his Kung Fu, and I lit up thinking about my first Tae Kwon Do class this Friday.

  • watching Cierra, our team leader, get down and have fun
  • seeing Harlen, the toddler of our previous team leader Emmalea and her husband James – back to party with her old team – released from the shopping cart and running, dancing, being overall mesmerizing
  • Hearing A lay down some really great music
  • Charles (older than the kids), Tom (way older than the kids) and me (way older still) bust some moves on the dance floor that open some eyes.  I was half-way down the stairs to leave when I said to myself, “You left without saying goodbye to anybody – what a depressive thing to do.  You go back and say some goodbyes.”  Then the sight of Charles and Tom jamming combined with A’s beats lured me out on the dance floor –  first in my heavy winter coat, then with a couple layers stripped off.
Dance - between staying away when I've been depressed and going to Asheville three weeks ago,I haven't danced for three weeks.  And I still cut loose!

Dance – between staying away when I’ve been depressed and going to Asheville three weeks ago,I haven’t danced for three weeks. And I still cut loose!

And this old fart left at 10:30 – with another 90 minutes of party left.  I could regret the opportunities missed, but in this moment – still typing at 12:39 – I will not regret leaving early.  I had other work I needed to do at my computer before writing this.  I think I have just energy enough to pull up a photo or two (I hate to post just straight words).  Now there’s some kind of snag – I think a Word Press thing – with uploading photos.  And backing out of that it looked like I had erased this whole post.  I’m thrilled to have it back and am gonna go with straight text.  It’s not even amazing prose, but I’m posting it.  Hope it gives you a little glimpse of our party.  (And then – at 1:15 – the photos finally did work.  Geez, I gotta get to bed!)

“What’s been a highlight of your day?”

This is my stock question with customers.  Not “the” highlight of your day.  When people repeat my question back as “the highlight of my day”, I routinely re-route them: “No, not the highlight – that raises the bar too high.  Just any little thing that made you smile.”

This routine has several benefits:

  • It sidesteps the usual “How are you”s, which tend to yield nothing of value – and can be a set-up for insincerity, or bullshit.  When someone initiates before me with “How are you?”, I will say “Fine” – but mostly just to blow past that question and move on to my highlight question.  This question more encourages something genuine.
  • It gets me focusing outsides of myself and on them.  This is especially helpful when I’m depressed.
  • It takes us to a positive place.
  • It encourages – in me and in them – the habit of noticing little highlights to which we might otherwise pay no attention.

    One of my highlights at work is the amazing children I get to see.

    One of my highlights at work is the amazing children I get to see.

It doesn’t always work.  Sometimes they just can’t generate an answer – to this question or to my follow-up: “What are you looking forward to today?” (More on this later.)  S0metimes I can’t tell if they are ignoring me or just haven’t heard – this feels pretty awkward.  Sometimes they give answers that are hard for me to hear – like if they are the 30th person to say what a beautiful day it is outside.

Often they will ask me back.  This can lead to a good exchange.  Sometimes I use it as a chance to promote the blog – and I like my customers knowing about it and reading it.  Sometimes, when I’m depressed, I may have a hard time coming up with an answer.  I’ll write on this in another post.

I don’t ask the question all the time.  I will skip it if the person has a really small order (2-3 items), if they seem to be in a big hurry, if I have gone on automatic or am just too depressed to get there.  But overall things seem to go better if I am asking it – and blessing people’s replies, being happy for them that they are having these happy things in their lives, cheerleading for them for saying their good things out loud.

“Norm!” Calling your co-workers by name

On the old TV show Cheers, the regular patrons of the bar would loudly call out Norm’s name when he entered the room. It was maybe my favorite part of the show.  Who doesn’t want that kind of enthusiastic greeting? I try to greet everybody that way, but especially people where we are somehow part of the same community – even more a part of the same team.  And we who work in the grocery store are very much part of the same team.

Our name badges are less tacky than these, but sometimes I wish that a coworker's name was in really large print.

Our name badges are less tacky than these, but sometimes I wish that a coworker’s name was in really large print.

We are important to each other because we are all working to serve the customer.  We rely on each other to get the job done.  When someone else does a good job with a customer, it reflects well on us.  When we hand off a customer to a coworker who is energetic and positive and competent, the customer is grateful to us.

Our coworkers are internal customers.  Good customer service starts with giving them what they need.

Our coworkers are internal customers. Good customer service starts with giving them what they need.

We are important to each other because we see each other every day.  If you are friendly and positive and real and inclusive, that makes my day go better.  For me at least, a coworker calling me by name goes a long way towards these qualities.  When I walk in the front door, Tiffany – who is a singer – all but sings my name.  It makes me feel good.  Jose calls me My-yo even if it’s the second or third time we have seen each other that day – and I croon back Jose.  It’s a little game we play with each other.  At my old grocery store, Walker would loudly call out “Maajoo!!” like he was really excited to see me.  He still does it when I see him there.  It makes me happy.

My co-workers are, overall, really great.  They are smart and creative and energetic and friendly and fun and hard-working and customer-oriented.  I want to treat them in ways that show I see these qualities in them.  And for me this starts with calling them by name.

“Hey Bill….” – calling them by name

Some of my customers think I’m good at remembering names, because I call them by theirs.  They could not be further from the truth.  I remember some customers’ names because I dearly want to, because some people make a tremendous impression on me, because I keep a little spiral notebook where I write down people’s names, a little description of them (“Suzie, 45ish, 5’8″, athletic, shoulder length brown hair”) and any particular topic we talked about (“studying acupuncture”).  I also review this notebook periodically.

Names mean a lot. It's worth the effort to learn your regulars - and worth the downside, not remembering.

Names mean a lot. It’s worth the effort to learn your regulars – and worth the downside, not remembering.

Some people make a particular impression on me because of how fully they show up – they are really there, are ready and willing to genuinely connect with the grocery store cashier.  This also requires me to show up – and I do so more when I’m up than when I’m down.  Some people I also know from the dance community, from Jubilee (the funky non-church I attend), from my two years working at Greenlife, or from some other connection in this small town.

I dearly want to remember their names.  I can see that people love it when you remember their name.  No single act goes further to transform this interaction to a meaningful 1-1 connection. And that’s what I most want – to, in some interactions and relationships, go beyond a purely functional transaction.

Most cashiers do not attempt to learn people’s names – for good reason.  It’s not just that it’s hard mental work – there’s a lot of potential downsides.  I fail to remember their names – even after they saw me write them down.  I forget names – people who I got with no trouble last time, this time I can’t for the life of me pull their name up.  Sometimes it seems that for every name I learn, another one falls out.  Worse still, some people come through who remember a significant conversation we had last time – and all I know is that they look somehow familiar.

I need to cut myself some slack. I have taken on a very public job.  The repetitive nature of the work can be mind-numbing.  I am aiming high.  On a good day, I truly love my customers.  On a depressed day, I want to love my customers – and some interactions still touch my heart.

Is it unrealistic to love your grocery store customers?  Why else would you be there?

Is it unrealistic to love your grocery store customers? Why else would you be there?

Many of my customers really like me – and some get irritated or avoid my line because I am slow.  We have, overall, world-class customers – really interesting, warm, patient, sweet people.  And I show up best when I start by liking myself.

Learning to grieve

I have about a dozen topics in my “Real life posts” file.  Some of them are just titles of posts I want to write (some of these have handwritten notes strewn throughout three notebooks I have had with me at work), some of them have a little outline, a couple are mostly written.  None of them make sense to me right now.  In the last couple of days, I started to write two others – new ones – but couldn’t complete them.  I would get to a certain point and just stare at them.

Monty died ten days ago -  part of me still doesn't get how he could be gone.

Monty died ten days ago – part of me still doesn’t get how he could be gone.

 

It’s happening again – I am lapsing into numbness, just staring at the computer screen.  Let’s see if I can push through this time.  This time I am expecting nothing of myself but to write what’s going on.  I have a voice in me that says, “Enough of this personal stuff – get back to the grocery store.”  My friend Johanna said to me some weeks ago, “If you don’t write when you are down, it will have no integrity.” Some of my readers are liable to say, “He thinks he’s got losses.”

I haven't cried over Monty yet.  I guess it will happen when it's meant to.

I haven’t cried over Monty yet. I guess it will happen when it’s meant to.

A few weeks ago, my target was to post every morning.  I have now missed two mornings and am at risk of missing another.

People keep telling me how well-written this blog is.  I think this post will be a little incoherent.  I have to live with that.

I have an appointment in about two hours with a CarePartners bereavement counselor.  I have a voice in me that says that I have no right to use a bereavement counselor.  Monty was not family to me, just my buddy – my 35-year best buddy.

I've gotten some good hugs in the last ten days, but they're tending to not get through.

I’ve gotten some good hugs in the last ten days, but they’re tending to not get through.

And what about other recent losses?  My dog died 15 months ago.  I thought I was well over that one.  Back in September, my stepbrother Joe, my  roommate from three years previous Avtar and my dear friend Nina died within a week of each other.  In the last many months, three people from church with whom I was not intimate but with whom I had real relationships (Laurie, Sandy and Carol) have died.  I’m trying on a new concept (to me), that some or a lot of the depression I experience on a regular basis (including now, the last three four days) is really grief – grief at the loss of the internal light, of my good feelings, of my self-confidence, of my capacity to see connections in the world.  And that this accumulates, showing up every couple of weeks.

I feel alone whenever I'm depressed - how is this different?

I feel alone whenever I’m depressed – how is this different?

Maybe I have an accumulation of old griefs that pile on when I have a current (kind of enormous around Monty) grief in real time.  Maybe I am short on skills for grieving.  Maybe if I go through the CarePartners six-week bereavement class, and then maybe join a bereavement group, I will get better.  Maybe posting this – taking my grief to this community – will help.

My highlight is you

Grieving is different when you’re manic and when you’re depressed.

My 35-year best buddy Monty died a week ago today.  (https://rlcol.com/2015/01/12/my-best-buddy-monty/) I was manic for three days before he died, then the last seven – until today.  For the last week I knew I was in pain, knew I was messed up – but I felt good.  It was confusing.  My friend Marlisa wrote, “Friendship of a lifetime, loss of a lifetime.  Take good care of your grief.”  I grabbed hold of those words and repeated them to almost every person who asked how I was doing.  I also repeated, “I’m manic now – when I’m depressed and he’s still gone it’s going to be different.”

Where did he go?  One moment he seemed very alive.  I just don't get it.

Where did he go? One moment he seemed very alive. I just don’t get it.

I’m seeing the ways that grief is like depression.  Depression is so much about loss – loss of momentum, loss of happiness, loss of connection with others, loss of hope. When I am depressed, everything looks ugly and chaotic.  “This is bullshit.”  When I am grieving, it seems like nothing matters.  No matter what you do, everyone dies – so nothing matters.  Even when that person was 86 years old and apparently ready to go, this nihilism can still kick in.  When I am depressed, I blame myself – I ruminate over what I have and haven’t done.  When I am grieving, I run over in my brain what I should or shouldn’t have done differently.

At work today, in the middle of my grief and depression – reaching for something to keep me afloat – I grabbed on to my stock question to ask customers: “What’s been a highlight of your day?”  That can do a good job of getting my mind off of myself, but a lot of my customers also then ask me what has been the highlight of my day.  What do I say then?

For lack of any better answer, I used the one I have been saying most often anyway: this blog.  At first it felt and sounded pretty lame, but as I experimented with ways to get behind it, it started to work for me -at least some of the time, at least a little – on three levels.

  1. I’m still creating.  Even today – miserable with grief and depression – I’m getting ideas for blog posts, I’m kind of frantically jotting down notes during my breaks and even at the cash register.  Many of them will make no sense to me when I go back to them, but I’m writing. (Tonight, after work – now 9:01 p.m. – so much of me wants to just crawl into bed, but it feels desperately important to get this written and scheduled to post tomorrow morning.  I’ve got to create.)
  2. My writing is reaching people.  A lot of people are reading the blog.  A lot of people tell me that it means something to them.  They say it in comments on the blog, in emails to me, and face-to-face. They say it strongly, eloquently – it breaks through my isolation.  I have copy and pasted a lot of it into a “Rainy day” file.  I have recorded some of it to listen to.
  3. I’m offering it to you.  I step beyond my shyness and embarrassment, I push past the depression and grief – all of which would keep me isolated and cut off from you (you my customer and you my reader).  I tell you about my blog. I say that it’s good. I takethislittleVistaprint business card and give it to you.

    I give you a piece of my heart.

    I give you a piece of my heart.

Monty isn’t here.  Myself as I like to know myself – the person with so much pizzazz – isn’t here.  You are here.  In this moment, grieving and depressed, I meet you.  I look you in the eye.  I let myself care for you.  I want good for you. I don’t just meet you – I offer you something, a piece of me.  I offer you this card and say, “Check this out – I think you will enjoy it.”  Monty was all about “putting his stuff out in the world” – it was a healthy obsession with him. He also felt that in my battle with depression, too often I let depression win.  I think that in this moment Monty would be proud.

“I’m happy to hear that you are happy…”

“…because life is short.”  And she so clearly meant it – even though she struck me as too young to really get this concept.  I had asked her how she was – and when she asked the question back of me I replied that I was happy.  I surprised myself.  I knew I was a little manic and feeling good.  I knew that I was also grieving the death of my best friend just five days earlier.  Happy – interesting.

This girl made such breathtaking contact with a stranger.  Was she stretching her comfort zone - maybe because I was encouraging it?  Or was she just comfortable with this amazing level of openness?

This girl made such breathtaking contact with a stranger. Was she stretching her comfort zone – maybe because I was encouraging it? Or was she just comfortable with this amazing level of openness?

How old was she?  26?  Who am I to be deciding what kind of wisdom people are or are not capable of? She had a radiant, benevolent demeanor.  She was physically beautiful, but even more she was personally beautiful.  When she smiled at me, I felt really seen – she showed up with a lot of power, like there were no layers of self-protection.  She was poised and grounded, but also willing and able to really extend to the other, to connect.  I lit up because she was so lit up.  We have lots of cool customers, but some of them really take your breath away.

I was totally fascinated by who she was and how she got to be this way.  I think that young people feel that life will go on forever, unless they have had tragic death around them.  (My son had several suicides and car accidents in his circle when he was around 20 years old.)  I asked her, “How did you come to understand all this?” She said she worked on the farm her family leases, that she has two kids and a husband and some extended family around.  That she was from Mexico.  “I learned this from my mother – she told us that life is short.”  I think she said that she had not had deaths around – just that she got the concept.

I knew the truth that life is short because my best friend died last Saturday.  He actually had a good long life at age 86, but when his end came, it came so breathtakingly fast.  The ER doctor on Thursday said he had ten weeks left (dramatically shorter than the previous most pessimistic prognosis of one year, with his prostate cancer spread to his bones and his liver) – and then he lasted about 36 hours.  When the hospice nurse called me at 5:15 a.m. on Saturday, I knew immediately what the call must be.  She apologized, “We usually try to call in time for family and friends to come in before the patient passes on, but he skipped some steps.”  It’s a truism that it was merciful for him: he was in a lot of pain and his proud independence would have suffered even more from becoming incapable to take care of himself.  It just wasn’t the right timing for us. (His son was en route from Ontario.)

Monty was a devout atheist until the end.  I wonder if he got any surprises.

Monty was a devout atheist until the end. I wonder if he got any surprises.

I felt so connected with Elena that I broached the topic that I was mostly reserving for coworkers – I told her about Monty’s passing.  Her immediate compassionate response touched my heart.  I have been in and out of being able to genuinely feel around this, but looking at the sweetness of her face and the love in her eyes, I was able to feel.  What a gift to give someone – to help them feel.  I’ve got a hunch that Elena helps the people around her feel the gamut of feelings.  I really do want to only want to be me, but part of me wishes I had grown up in her family. I always wanted a sister.

 Elena – I told you I was going to write this, and you said I could use your name.  Did I get it right?  What would you change or add?  Thanks for coming through my line.

My favorite firing…

Here’s my favorite experience of being fired from a cashiering job. (It was actually the only time I’ve been fired from a cashier job, but I’ve been fired from other jobs – two because I got hospitalized for depression – and they were nowhere near as much fun.) Fav because I desperately needed to get out of there and fav because I went out with a bang, not a whimper.

I had worked full-time for a year as a cashier in the little kiosk in the Enmark gas station on Merrimon – mostly closing shifts that didn’t get me out of there until 11 or later.  I had been there too long, but working 40 hours I just wasn’t finding time to job hunt.  When my genuinely cool boss, with mock ceremony, handed me my one-year pin, I erupted very genuinely with “No, not a year!  I was never supposed to be here for a year!”  He totally got the truth and the humor of this.

No fancy convenience store at this gas station - I was stuck 40 hours a week in a little kiosk with barely enough room to turn around.

No fancy convenience store at this gas station – I was stuck 40 hours a week in a little kiosk with barely enough room to turn around.

My time on the meter had expired: I needed to get out of there, but I was not making it happen. So life helped me out – or maybe it was just my unconscious that put this last act in motion.

This woman was having trouble making her gas pump work.  I dutifully left the booth to try to help her.  But I couldn’t figure out why the pump wasn’t working – or what she had done to screw it up.  She became irate. “So I need to wait around here because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

To my credit, I kept it together for at least a moment, standing there in front of her.  “Let me go back to the booth and see what I can figure out.” Really, “Let me get away from you before I do or say something that I regret.”

But really it was already too late.  Looking back on the scene, I’ve always thought that if I didn’t pass Nancy, a friend from church, at the next pump – as I headed back to the booth – I wouldn’t have muttered under my breath, “Bitch!”

Under my breath, but still too loud. The bitch followed me back to the booth.  I locked myself in the kiosk, where I couldn’t actually strangle her.  She all but screamed at me through the window, “How dare you call me a bitch!”  What I did next guaranteed my firing – and I have never for a moment regretted doing it.  I planted my feet, looked her straight in the eye and said, “Sometimes it just fits.”  If I had left that out, she might not the next day have complained to a company vice-president.

Sure the word can be oppressive, but it also can be funny - and sometimes it's just perfect.

Sure the word can be oppressive, but it also can be funny – and sometimes it’s just perfect.

When I arrived at work at 3 p.m. the next day, my genuinely very cool boss Jim said, “I would never have fired you for this.  We all have our bad moments.  But my boss gave me no choice.”

So I got myself thrown out of the nest, which precipitated for me some anxiety, but mostly I knew that nothing was going wrong.  I actually came quickly down on my feet and found a better job.  And even if things had not worked out so well, I don’t think I ever would have regretted it.  That bitch was flat-out disrespectful – my integrity was at stake. I had to defend myself.  It was not the most elegant self-defense, but it was infinitely better than letting myself be run over.

I have yet to come across another front line customer server who is not thrilled to hear this story.  It was a great moment in cashiering.

Complaining to cashier supervisors

It’s a good plan to not settle for bad cashiering – that’s totally fine.  The next time you have the inspiration to complain about a cashier, though, consider an alternative.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!"

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”

Start with the cashier – reach out to them, embrace them.  Try some variation of “I know this is tough work.  I know a guy, a cashier in a grocery store, who writes a blog for other cashiers.  Lots of cashiers are finding this very helpful and you might too.  You can search ‘Real life in the checkout line’ or enter rlcol.com.  Here’s a card.”

If for whatever reason talking to the cashier doesn’t work or doesn’t seem like the right way to go, then by all means ask for the manager. but resist complaining about the cashier.  You don’t know what all went into their bad behavior today: they might be breaking up with their boyfriend, their dog might have died today, etc.  Don’t make their day harder.  Instead, say to the manager something like this:

” I’ve been reading a blog that’s all about helping cashiers do their very best – and providing support to them.  I want you to know about it.  I think you might like it.  I think your cashiers might like it.  Here’s the title, here’s the web address and here’s the card for it.”

That would be the most strategic way to help that cashier change – the way that’s most likely to cause them to shift their behavior, and in so doing to make life a little better for those of us who are dealing with them.

To get a some cards, email me at heymajo@gmail.com, give me your address and tell me how many cards you want.  Or I can tell you how to order them directly from Vistaprint, so you can have your own stash and hand them out everywhere.