Is it a good thing to ask? Giving part 2

When you are raising money for a good cause like the Our Voice sex abuse counseling center, one could make a case that you should ask everybody who comes through your grocery store check-out line.  But this is not feasible or even desirable: asking takes energy, being turned down can take it out of you, and some people are better off not being asked.

You can similarly make a case for not profiling who you should ask.  I certainly have gotten yes answers from groups my profiling would target as bad risks: too young, too old, too southern, too poor, too minority.  But I do still have a profile of who is most likely to give, for this charity especially: a woman between 25-50 with a big order and our frequent shopper account.  And I do find myself, when I am burned out from being turned down, trying to intuit who is going to say no, so as to maximize my yes’s.  Call it profiling or call it psychic or simply picking up on their energies, I’ll defend my right – even my responsibility to my own self-care – to leave some people out.  There are some other times that I think it makes sense to not ask:

  • when they seem worried or angry or hurried
  • if they are paying with food stamps (you don’t always know this until right at the end of the transaction)
  • when they are buying for work or for somebody else
  • if they make any reference to a recent financial reversal – big dental or vet bill, home remodeling that’s going over budget
  • they have had to wait a long time in line, you have created a complicated transaction right before them or you have otherwise pissed them off
  • they have already pulled out even change -or their change is going to be less than a dollar, the least we are equipped to take
  • they have gotten in a groove of saying no – or seem to be enjoying it too much. “No I don’t have your frequent shopper card.” “No I don’t want a bag.”  “No I don’t have a highlight to report” (my favorite conversation starter)
  • if you have made a big pitch for the frequent shopper program and they have said no
  • if they are with their mother or grandmother who is paying
  • if you get any kind of a bad vibe from them

In my first “Giving” post, I made the case for asking – even while I said that sometimes they would be doing right by saying no.  Here I’m making the case for not asking, mostly to take care of our own energy.  Sometimes we just need a breather.  The other day, in a burned out moment, I bargained with myself that I would ask the next three people and if none of them gave I would take some time off.  None of them did give, but I had so much fun with the  fourth person that I couldn’t resist asking – and she gave $5.  That kept me going for a while.

Sometimes we get burned out because we have lost our center and started to care too much whether they give.  The whole enterprise is a great opportunity to listen to ourself, to tune into our subtle sense of things, and to let go.  It can potentially enrich our experience of the work.

 

For Cheryl

Here’s the poem I offered – and briefly messed up – at Barry Barton’s dance performance.

For Cheryl

Your father took the poison pill
Of hate for self
He swallowed it and went away
Was struck dumb and then could not
Speak on your behalf or his
He did not wield his pen of truth for you
When they served to you the same sick drug
Toxic with their shame and pain
They saw your lovely innocence
And tried to claim it for themselves
They carved in it their names
“If I scar it, then it’s mine
Let me leave a handprint on your face
Or a mournful dream of your small hand
Placed on me against your will”

But the twisted trying there
To wrest from you your life, your love
By those who loved so wrong, so wrong
Could not quench your fire, your self
The would-be spirit breakers did not know
What spirit truly is – nor saw your soul
Or they would have touched you not those ways
For fear your angels would have struck them down.
The gold of that sweet soul was not destroyed
Just melted and formed new again
Nothing burned away but dross
You wanted gone so long

And when you felt your most alone
And when you were the most at risk
Of saying yes to that last dose
And lying in the fitful sleep
Of those who dream when they were real

And when you felt your most alone

And when you felt your most alone

Your truly faithful dad – long one with you
In the bonds of suffering and fierce love
Somehow coughed up his toxic wad
Smiled his warm and human smile of old
And said to you, his precious child
“Don’t swallow, darling girl of mine
You must not follow me
Into this silent truthless place
I need your words so bad
They are my legacy
Perhaps tomorrow I will find my own, but now
Rage at what they’d have you eat
You are my little queen
All the forebears of your mother’s and of mine
Salute you as you spit this back”

And so with raging, potent, loving words
You gather to you us
All of us who hold our own
Toxic dose of pain
Carried still in pouch of silk
“When all else fails eat me
I will kill you fast or slow
But I am all you really know”

You say to us with loud ferocious tones
“No-no-no-no-no-no!
Give me those precious pouches now
This whole sad pharmacy of fear and lies
Place all these pills together here
On this basement floor within
Flush them with our healing tears
And we who have been sick but have not died
Shall come away the stronger still
And make a pact to grasp those pills
Wherever they be found
And give that purge to all the lost
And bring the de-pilled people home
Into our sacred tribe
And love ourselves and our poems
And each other – and the children we create
And our parents too, who need it most

“Because I say so
And I am Cheryl
Triumphant and alive
And innocent and good.”

My five dirty secrets

See the happy, smiling cashier.  This cashier is not worrying about giving out bag points.  This cashier is thinking about getting laid tonight.

In my store, we give people bonus points on their membership account when they bring their own bags. These points eventually apply as a discount on your grocery bill. I have five dirty secrets about how I implement these bonus points:

  1. I frequently forget to touch the button on my touch screen that applies these points.
  2. To counteract this tendency, my policy is to give the points right up front to everybody who comes through my line – including people who take bags and thus don’t deserve the bonus (remember the parable about the laborers who work different durations in the fields), and people who don’t belong to our frequent shopper program and for whom these points are completely irrelevant.  (I picture them poring over their receipt at home and asking, “Bag points?  What bag points?”)
  3. Our system is a little screwy and often requires people to re-enter their credit card at the end of the transaction.  Sometimes, however, when I tell people “The machine is asking you to swipe your card again” a more honest statement would be, “I just realized at the end of the transaction that I had not yet entered your bag points.  Touching that button at this point in the transaction caused your credit card info to fall out.  I understand that the hassle of once again pulling out your credit card may greatly outstrip the value of your 5 measly points.”

    See the happy, smiling cashier.  This cashier is not worrying about giving out bag points.  This cashier is thinking about getting laid tonight.

    See the happy, smiling cashier. This cashier is not worrying about giving out bag points. This cashier is thinking about getting laid tonight.

  4. Sometimes, after the transaction is over, I have a moment of wildly neurotic insecurity in which I ask myself “Did I give them their bag points?” Then, in an environment that greatly values conservation and where we are all proud that we recycle unwanted receipt slips, I print out another copy of the receipt so I can see if I actually did dispense the magical five points (value 5 cents).
  5. More often than not the receipt says that I actually did give them the points.  What’s more out of it – to forget to do something or to do it and not remember doing it?

I really, really want not to care very much about all this: we’re talking about five cents, for chrissake!  But it haunts me.  It adds stress to my day.  It makes me feel like a bad cashier.

Oh, here’s the deal: it haunts me when I’m depressed.  When I’m manic I don’t give a shit.  

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.

You risk, I risk….

May was a slender attractive brunette, around 5’6″, maybe 35 years old.  She responded to my “What’s been a highlight of your day?” question in several steps of progressively greater openness – startling to me and maybe even to her.  “I had a really good hypnosis session….We’re working on fear….I’m a cancer survivor and lots of little symptoms bring up fear.”

My response was in its own way a little startling to me.  “Are you familiar with A Course in Miracles?”  Now why did I bring that up?  I’m sure not getting paid to promote far-out, channeled, New Age metaphysical programs.  I do know why I brought it up – because in my life A Course in Miracles has been a very powerful lever for working with fear.  But it still feels like a risk to be recommending it to a customer, maybe especially a customer who is at such a vulnerable point in her life.

May’s next response was also surprising.  She got positively electrified (I get goose bumps recalling it): “Yes – love is letting go of fear!  My hypnotherapist was telling me about it today!  This is total affirmation that it can be good for me.”

A Course in Miracles is a dense metaphysical system paired with a very concrete workbook with 365 daily lessons that tend to turn your daily reality upside down.  I spent 3 years making my way through the lessons, then turned around and spent another 4 years doing it again.  My life has been forever changed by it.  Jampolsky's book is a great introduction.

A Course in Miracles is a dense metaphysical system paired with a very concrete workbook with 365 daily lessons that tend to turn your daily reality upside down. I spent 3 years making my way through the lessons, then turned around and spent another 4 years doing it again. My life has been forever changed by it. Jampolsky’s book is a great introduction.

After May left, I had no mixed feelings about having recommended A Course in Miracles. I’m a big believer in synchronicity and felt as convinced as her that her hypnotherapist and I both recommending it within a few hours of each other indicated it could be good for her.

What did all this teach me about taking risks with customers?  Sometimes I’m the first one to risk – to offer something personal or unusual.  Today May disclosed first.  But is it really so easy to know who opens first?  Did May know from the way I asked my question that I was a safe person to open up with?  I don’t ask the question to everyone – did I pick up something from her that indicated that asking her the question would go someplace?  Was I in a more trusting place because of the enchanted interaction that I had had just an hour earlier? (“I’m vertical…”, 1/7) Why did she end up in my line?  Why shortly after this hypnosis session?

Sometimes it makes sense to think in terms of taking risks.  I want to develop my sense for which risks are worth taking and which are perhaps too risky – and to recognize when my customer has taken a risk, has made themselves vulnerable, and needs to be supported.  Yet it also seems equally valid to hold that we are always totally supported – and that love means to recognize this, to trust it, to surrender to it.  And as we do this we progressively let go of fear.  I learned that from A Course in Miracles.

When we have to wait – tonglen practice

In her best-selling book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron teaches the Tibetan Buddhist technique of tonglen.  The heart of the technique is to move from the ego – our own limited suffering – to connect with others who are suffering in similar ways.  It’s pretty challenging, deep practice, but can be very liberating – and can be practiced in a grocery store checkout line, or anywhere that we are waiting, or anywhere.

The source of much of our pain is isolation - being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience.  Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

The source of much of our pain is isolation – being caught in the ego, in our solitary experience. Expanding to include the pain of others may seem scary, but is paradoxically very liberating.

Let’s say you are waiting in the grocery checkout out line.  You start by turning typical new age practice upside-down: instead of “breathe in the good stuff, breathe out the bad”, you open your heart and you breathe in any distress or pain you are experiencing.  And for a Buddhist, to the extent that you are not in touch with your inherent goodness and the goodness of creation, you are suffering.  So any impatience, discomfort, irritation, any judging of the situation, any separation from your natural state of oneness with all of life – breathe that all in and pay good attention to it.  Then breathe out a wish for your own healing – that you return to the experience of peace and oneness.

After spending some time on your own healing, you expand your gaze to focus on others who are experiencing similar distress.  When you inhale, along with your own pain, breathe in the waiting-in-line pain of the others waiting in your line – or if your line is very small, those in the line(s) next to you.  Feel the pain that all of you are holding about waiting in line, then breathe out a wish for healing for all of you.

Continue this practice in progressively widening waves.  Open your heart to:

  • all those who are waiting in line in this store
  • all those who are waiting in any store in this town
  • all those who are waiting in a store anywhere
  • those who are waiting for organ transplants or to get out of jail or prison, those who are waiting for loved ones to come out of surgery, etc.
We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. - all our people, all our suffering.

We can join ourselves with people who wait in much longer lines, in the heat or cold, in situations where being in this line places them in political danger, etc. – all our people, all our suffering.

We end the practice by blessing ourselves and all those we have included in our focus – all brothers and sisters of ours.  We offer gratitude to those who have developed and offered this practice.  See if it has shifted your experience of waiting in this line.  Let me know what you find.

Customers who piss you off…

Some customers radiate a vibe that you just can’t stand.  You perceive – accurately or inaccurately – hostility leaking out of them.  Other customers actively do something that pisses you off.  I’ll address some of each of these situations.

When a customer pisses you off, you have probably several options – I’ll talk about two of them.

  1. You could, on the spot, start writing a blog post about customers who piss you off.
  2. You could charm the pants off them.  The essence of this second strategy is to take it as a personal challenge to win them over.  I have experienced this, where the more pissy a customer was, the more excited I would get about “I’m going to make sure that something shifts for them before they walk away from this transaction.”  And when I would take that attitude, I was usually successful – though not always.

    I learned this approach from Cathy, a supervisor at the Biltmore Estate Carriage Shop gift shop who just loved that kind of challenge.  One day I was standing next to her when one of the other cashiers came over and said, “This woman is so mad that I just can’t deal with her.”  Cathy winked at me and said, “Watch me work.”  And she did it – she got that customer happy.  They were laughing together before the customer walked off.

Yesterday I had a customer, a very overweight 50 ish woman, who pissed me off – I don’t even remember why – and I used Option 1.  I mostly withdrew from her and got my little notepad out and started to jot notes for this very post.  It distracted me from her, it helped me avoid doing something nasty to her – which was always a possibility.  It took some of the pressure off.  It was only at the very end of the interaction that I decided to try some of the charm.  So I looked up at her – maybe almost the first time I looked at her since she first pissed me off – and said, sincerely, “That is one great hat – where did you get it?”  She said “I made it.”  Usually at this point you’re home free: compliment an item of clothing that the customer has made and you have a happy customer.  No, uh-uh – she barely cracked a smile.  But then, I did wait until the 11th hour to try being nice to her.  What did I expect?

Sometimes a customer pisses you off so much that winning them over is not really in the mix - the real issue is to get through the transaction without saying something that will get you written up or fired.

Sometimes a customer pisses you off so much that winning them over is not really in the mix – the real issue is to get through the transaction without saying something that will get you written up or fired.

Customer 2 was today – near the end of my shift, when I’ll admit that I was tired, running out of gas…risky terrain.  About 60 – tall and wiry – he presented very defended – strong male body armor, cold, hostile.  I immediately took a dislike to him.  I didn’t want him in front of me. When I reached that point in the interaction where I often ask “What’s been a highlight of your day?”, I considered it and inside said “No way! I’m not going to waste that nice question on this guy -I’m not giving him the time of day.  Screw him.”

A few moments after that, I swiped his last two purchases – two cartons of Roots hummus. He said, “Those were supposed to be two for the price of one.”  I said, “Let me call grocery and find out about that.” If I could have pitched my voice to a tone that would have intentionally and clearly said, “I bet you’re wrong”, I would have done it. Maybe I did do it.  When I got back the message from grocery that it was in fact another brand that had that special price, did I in any way betray some satisfaction at his downfall? I cannot with confidence say that I did not. Even though we had finished ringing his groceries and it was time for him to just pay and move on – and there was another customer patiently waiting her turn while we did this price check – he stormed off to go back and look for himself.

I apologized to the next customer – a tall, lovely young woman – and, in a very unprofessional moment, allowed myself to vent to her about this guy.  Now, in my defense I will say that she had watched this whole situation devolve and had, I thought, been giving me some sympathetic looks.  “I’ve about had it with this guy.  He’s got no business keeping you waiting.  I’ve got half a mind to suspend his transaction and ring you through – but you’ve got a lot of groceries and he’ll have a fit.”  She was all reassurance: “Don’t worry about it.  I’m not in a hurry. I can see that you’ve got your hands full with him.”

He came back and angrily said, “It was false advertising.  The sign says ‘all varieties’.” I didn’t respond – didn’t even look at him.  “Your total is….” He paid his money and grumped off.

Charm is definitely the preferred way to go, but sometimes I just don’t have it in me – and sometimes it probably will get you nowhere.  But sometimes life takes care of you anyway.  As this jerk was leaving, Mary – who was running the breaks – told me to put up my “Lane closed” sign, which meant that I could count my money and go home.  This lovely young woman, with her big order that meant we could hang out with each other for a few minutes, was my last customer.  Sometimes, even when you kind of lose it, life treats you mercifully.