Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 recap / 2011 resolution

Much has happened this year.

Firstly, while working through my second semester (spring 2010) as an Environmental Science Master's Student at Indiana University, I went on many hikes. On one of these hikes, I met a nice girl in my grad program named Joanna. We've been dating since February. Through the spring, I learned the ins and outs of the Clean Water Act in my Environmental Law class, how to use predictive regression models to make policy decisions in my Data Analysis & Modeling class, learned and relearned a suite of calculus techniques in my Applied Math class, and reinforced my understanding watershed dynamics and best management practices in my Lake & Watershed Management class.

Highlights within the semester included a trip to Indianapolis to watch the Olympic hockey final between the USA and Canada (the Canucks won in OT) and then catching an Avett Brothers show at the Egyptian Room downtown. Another highlight was the Maple Sugar festival about an hour south of Bloomington, where friends and I enjoyed axe throwing, tapping the sap from the maples, and warming up with tea steeped in some halfway-boiled syrup water. I also saw Henry Rollins speak at the Buskirk-Chumley theater and our IU basketball team get crushed by Iowa. The state of Indiana grieved both the Colts' loss to the Saints in the Super Bowl and Butler's loss to Duke in the NCAA final. Over spring break, I cruised down to Austin, TX with a couple friends for the South by Southwest festival. For free, we got t-shirts, beers, and saw some great bands such as Minus the Bear. Down there we had some wonderful hosts show us a real Texas dinner including 24-hr smoked beef brisket. On our way out of town, I picked up some authentic cowboy boots, which I wore to my grad program's Gala & Auction fundraiser in April. Then I went to the Little 500 bike race with Joanna, where the "Cutters" team won for like the third year in a row (see the film "Breaking Away" to truly understand what this is).

After final exams, I drove back to New Jersey for a summer internship with the Delaware River Basin Commission. From May to August, I sampled water from the river and its tributaries from the Delaware Water Gap down to Trenton and also took flow measurements in order to estimate nutrient and bacteria loadings. These loading estimates calculated from the data we collected this summer will be used to set nutrient criteria in order to preserve the Delaware River's current "anti-degradation" designation. Our data will also capture a baseline for future comparison after gas drillers up north penetrate the Marcellus Shale and discharge "frack" (hydraulic fracturing) wastewater into the river. I also did some independent research to measure the sediment oxygen demand (SOD) of the fine sediments in the river. In June, I strangely appeared on the front page of a local newspaper and then in the American Roundup section of Stars & Stripes in July. On the side, I watched World Cup matches whenever I could. I also went to Rob's beach house a couple times, fished for fluke (Rob caught one 24 inches long, the biggest on the boat, and won $80!), visited Joanna at a PA state park north of Pittsburgh, and went on a couple hikes with old AmeriCorps friends including a backpacking trip up to the Adirondacks to climb Mt. Marcy, the highest point in NY state. On July 12th, I turned 25 years old, making me eligible for a quarter life crisis. I spent most of August doing bioassessments at Delaware River sites, staying overnight in NY State for a week, specifically Pike County. There I learned exactly why the river has an anti-degradation designation and why we were working to preserve it-- it was gorgeous. Before summer's end, I squeezed in a trip to America's first zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo. I best remember the sloths and hippos. Finally, Joanna flew out to meet me in New York City - we wandered the city, looked out from a castle in Central Park, saw the tunnel from "Home Alone 2," explored Chinatown, and walked on the Brooklyn bridge at night. We took the train back down to Jersey where I showed her Princeton, Lambertville, and New Hope, PA before cruising back out to Indiana for the fall semester.

I spent a lot of my free time in the fall with Joanna. We made scrumptious fresh salsa using Larry's Jersey-grown cherry bomb hot peppers. We went to an IU men's soccer game vs highly ranked UCLA and watched Hoosiers pull away for a 5-1 win. We found and explored the quarries made famous in the "Breaking Away" movie mentioned earlier. They had eerie graffiti and little Christ crosses and flowers for the kids who did not survive the 60 foot jump into the water. We took a dip in a shallower quarry which was very blue and loaded with calcium carbonate from the limestone. We also swam in Lake Monroe, from which the city of Bloomington draws water to be treated for drinking. One weekend, Joanna's friends from Chicago drove down to Bloomington to go camping in Deam Wilderness in Hoosier National Forest. We climbed a fire tower and broke open geodes in the creek beds and made a makeshift shelter with a rope and tarp. In October, me, Joanna, and some friends went to the IU vs. Michigan football game, which was close and had an exciting finish, but of course IU lost, 42-35. Throughout the semester we went to a number of potlucks and brought things like hummus, spanish meatballs (tapas or finger food theme), and pasta salad. We did a lot of cooking in general, out of necessity, but it was enjoyable to try out new spices, techniques, and recipes.

A Dylanesque troubadour named Joe Pug came to town and played at The Bishop down on Walnut Street. I had seen him play outdoors in Austin, TX at the SXSW music festival in March, and I was delighted to see him again, meet him after the show, and buy his album called "Messenger". One weekend Joanna and I drove up to Anderson Orchard, not far from Indianapolis, to do some apple picking. It was a little late in the season so most of the apple trees had been picked clean or the apples had fallen and rotted on the ground, but we managed to fill a peck-size bag with ripe golden delicious. We also gathered, opened, and ate sweet chestnuts that had fallen, Joanna picked a pumpkin, and I bought butternut and acorn squashes. All through the fall, whether I wanted to or not, I watched or heard about the Indianapolis Colts football team. The town of Cream & Crimson turns blue on Sundays. In mid-November, one of my favorite musical artists, Gene Ween, who comes from New Hope, PA, played at The Bluebird. He wandered out on stage, sat on the stool in front of the microphone, and told the audience how he had driven out from New Jersey. And when he started to play Bruce Springsteen's "The River," I just about lost it --for me it doesn't get better than that.

Academically, I learned how to perform spatial analysis with ArcGIS and Idrisi software in my Geographic Information Systems class and I learned the basics of drinking water treatment, wastewater treatment, desalination technology, and removal of water contaminants in my Environmental Engineering class. Additionally, I conducted a research project investigating the fate and transport of pharmaceutical compounds and personal care products in wastewater effluent in the nearby town of Ellettsville. So far, the results of the experiment do not indicate any clear trends. The highlight of the fall semester, however, was serving as a teaching assistant for a Limnology class which covered the physical, chemical, and biological processes of inland waters. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to guide my peers on multiple field trips, teach water sampling techniques, and demonstrate analysis methods in the laboratory. It was just a joy to share knowledge and bring clarity to a convoluted subject. The energy and attitudes of the students fed my enthusiasm, and in return my enthusiasm boosted their energy and attitudes.

Along with my positive experience as a teaching assistant, I simultaneously had a very negative experience in my Environmental Engineering class. The professor was the worst teacher I've had in my many years of school. The professor was tenured and thus immune to the threat of losing his job and he was much more research-oriented than teaching-oriented and thus uninterested in seeing his students succeed in learning new material. Of the duties expected of a teacher, he barely did the minimum. He came to class, wrote problems on the board without much explanation, and recited word-for-word what was on his handouts without much additional explanation. Being in his class was no better than if I tried to learn on my own with a textbook. What's worse is that he didn't know the material in a deep detailed way and he would not admit his mistakes when he was wrong -- being "right" was more important to him than communicating the truth of science. Consequently, this professor lost my trust and respect. He also constructed his exams in such a way that no matter how much someone studied they would get most of the answers wrong, which made the exams more like roulette, a game of luck, instead of an assessment commensurate to the amount of preparation by the students. Since the class's average exam score was an F, he would steeply curve the exams based on the overall distribution of the scores. So instead of Student vs. Exam as it ought to be, it was Student vs. Student. This curving method pitted students against each other, discouraging collaboration in a class where the teacher had left his students for dead and collaboration was perhaps the only avenue for real learning. The bottom line is, this professor was the perfect example of how to be an awful teacher.

At the start of the school year, Mr. Welsh, my former high school social studies teacher/soccer coach died tragically. He had taught/coached for 30 years. Assuming he taught and coached about 100 students per year, that means he reached about 3000 young people during a crucial, formative time in their lives -- the study habits and associations developed in high school can affect the entire trajectory of a person's life. Welsh's influence was undeniably evident based on the deluge of affection and fond memories shared by past students through Facebook and the way his passing shook the community. One former student skillfully summed up the essence of Welsh:

To the Editor: Brian Welsh’s Gifts

In the outpouring of remembrance and thoughts present across the last few days in the connections between alumni of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, it’s immediately possible to spot the nature of the impact left on our lives by the gifts of Brian Welsh. His personal energy in the classroom was unmatched; he taught with passion, unapologetic bombast, and vibrancy...

In the times in my adult life in which I’ve been lucky enough to teach, I’ve thought often of Mr. Welsh and the other teachers in my life like him. I think often about my own methods, and how there’s an occasional temptation towards teaching by rote, of opening up a standard lesson plan and releasing myself from the responsibility of individual connection.

It’s easy to get discouraged by disengaged students, or perceptions of an apathetic administration, or a thousand other hurdles that can mar the unique and rare talents and joys of being an educator. It’s much harder to tap into the parts of yourself that are more than just the purveyor of textbook knowledge and to continually use those parts to engage and unlock the gifts of your students. It’s much harder to tap into something that can be both grounded and inspirational, and yet still operate successfully within the confines of a classroom.

Mr. Welsh was one of the sterling examples at WW-P of a teacher who could do just that. His lessons echo within me and within the enormous number of other students he reached...

The image of him — voice raised, quick to laugh, face bright red, riling up a room-full of students — remains vivid and clear in my head. That’s the thing about the best teachers we encounter in our lives; we see them for their strengths, and what they can impart to us, and the parts of being human that are epic, and sturdy, and renewable, year after year, giving us wisdom one classroom period at a time. And that is noble and true, but it is not the whole story. And it is easy to forget that.There’s more to all of us, as people, and sometimes that becomes easy to forget, even as memories and lessons learned from our teachers become indelible parts of who we are. And when something like this happens, it’s both a horrific shock and a reminder that the people we idolize and encapsulate aren’t ever that far off from us.

I feel lucky to have known you, Mr. Welsh. Thank you for everything.

John Elliott

WW-P High School Class of 2000

The combination of my appointment as a teaching assistant, experiencing just how bad a teacher can be, and remembering one of my best teachers has opened my eyes to the potential rewards of a career devoted to teaching others. Though my resume is primed for a government position, I may seriously consider teaching as an alternative.

In the new year, I resolve to complete my Master's degree and work hard to find a job. Exciting and frightening to have no clue where I'll be in one year...

Happy 2011!


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Highs and Lowes

During the summer and over winter break in 2009, I worked at Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse for a combined four months as a customer service associate in their seasonal department. Though I am still a Lowe's employee on leave, it is unlikely I'll work there again. Thus, I think it is appropriate now to reflect on some memorable moments and share what I learned while working at Lowe's.

Work List (for those who have not worked in retail)
During the week, with few customers present: restock shelves, pull products to front of shelves, turn products facing forward, move products to new locations, put away returned products, replace missing/faded price tags, sweep floors, dust displays, take out trash, put cardboard in bailer, etc.
During the weekend, with many customers present: greet customers, direct them to a product, help them get a product down with a ladder or help them lift a heavy product, answer departmental phone calls, check a price, make recommendations, etc.

And when all these tasks were complete, the managers would invent some more for no other purpose than to keep us busy.

The seasonal department was half indoors and half outdoors, and I mostly worked indoors. Some of the products I sold were: lawn mowers, chain saws, axes, rakes, tarps, grills, fire pits, space heaters, fans, air conditioners, patio furniture, hoses, pesticides, fertilizers, potting soil, plants, grass seed, bird feeders, etc. My favorite part of the department was the back wall, where we kept the bird seed. Several birds had flown in through the automatic glass doors, and
made themselves at home up in the warehouse rafters and around the bird seed. Seeing these birds living in Lowe's each day would make me smile, but they made it difficult to sell, for instance, a soiled patio set.

One evening, while loading a shiny new grill into a man's vehicle, I learned that birds live right outside Lowe's, too. When the man's head turned away for just a moment, a bird dropped a wet one on the metal cover--Splat! A second later, the man, who wore glasses that magnified the size of his eyes, turned his head back. But, luckily, I had already wiped the astonishment from my face and the shit splatter from the metal using the assembly sheet (Lowe's assembles grills for free) that had been taped to the front. Phew.

Red vest
Most customers have the misconception that, just because someone wears a red vest with Lowe's printed on it, they not only know where every product is in the entire warehouse, they also have owned each product before and know exactly how well it works. Since, of course, I had never owned the products I sold, I simply had to pretend. In the beginning, I tried honesty, and would kindly tell the customer, "I don't know." Then they would reply, "OK, then get me someone who DOES know." And it sure didn't help that I was probably the youngest-looking person working at the store. For example, a muscular man with gelled hair asked me if we had the "smoking coals" that his grill manual recommended. Thinking about the things we had on the shelves and what past customers had said, I replied sort of shakily "I think they mean woodchips." The man waved me away with his hand and found an older associate who said, "Oh, they're talking about woodchips." And the man was happy.

My youth, which could not be changed, and lack of brash confidence set me back. So, I had no choice but to learn to be a confident pretender, because more customers preferred confident misinformation over meek honesty. But most of the time answers were written directly on the box or in the manual inside the box. And, over time, you remember a lot of these answers. Also, some customers were glad to offer some feedback, good and bad, about products they had already bought and owned. One strange man even whispered in my ear about the possibility of a massive potato famine in New England, like the one that conquered the Irish some years back, and declared that the fungicide held in his hand would save all the potatoes from extinction. On the other hand, a woman railed me personally (not Lowe's) for selling "poisons!" that would contaminate community well water.

It's more important than confidence. I think the majority of adults appreciate manners and politeness more than any other aspect of customer service, speed and product knowledge included. Once I cheerfully greeted an elderly man who was looking at some garden gloves. We talked for about a minute, then he asked if we carried a specific item--we didn't. Then the old man asked me, "Can I shake your hand?" So I shook his hand. I didn't really help him all that much, so the only thing I can think of is that the handshake was simply about kindness.

Another time an overweight man was browsing patio furniture. I greeted him, asked if I could help with anything. After a few words (he was a retired Rutgers University professor who lived in my neighborhood), he shyly asked if we sold any chairs that could support over 300 lbs. Together, we examined the chairs out on display, and found one that listed the proper weight capacity. The man was very appreciative and said he'd call the store later after he spoke with his wife. He called that night and ordered the patio chairs. Again, kindness trumps all.

During my tenure at Lowe's, I was able to pantomime to a man who could not speak, read a label to a blind man, and lift an air conditioner for a one-armed man. None of them asked for my help until I offered kindly.

Lowe's plays music to enhance its shoppers' experience, but more importantly, to put them in the mood to buy more things. A while back, I learned from a friend studying social psychology and economics that when people are sad, they tend to spend more money. Consequently, the Lowe's music selection consists of polished poppy downers. And the worst part is that there are only about 25 of them that stay on repeat. And a few, like Tom Petty's Freefallin' or R.E.M.'s Imitation of Life, are not the Tom Petty or R.E.M versions! Instead, it's a mellow, slowed down cover sung by a poor pop singer. Not every song is completely terrible though, since Lowe's must also target new homeowners, the young crowd. So, here and there, you get a surprise tune by Wilco or the Fleet Foxes, but it is rare.

Also, Lowe's might be ignoring the fact that their employees also hear the store music, and sad songs may not exactly help their productivity.

Tough customers
An axiom in the US is that The Customer is Always Right. Customers know this truth and often abuse it to get their way. For example, a man bought a $600+ snow thrower before the recent pre-Xmas snow storm, only to return it the next week in perfect condition to get his money back. His excuse was that the snow chute wouldn't turn, but we checked and it turned perfectly fine. But Lowe's took the snow thrower back anyway. That's Lowe's policy. It's about maintaining a positive long-term relationship with its customers instead of winning a short-term battle and permanently losing a customer(to Home Depot).

Besides the customer being in the position of power, helping customers was also difficult due to poor communication. Customers often would not know the name of, or would be unable to describe, the item they were seeking. Some would come unprepared without a model number or the old part they were replacing. And the worst part is that customers would accuse us, the service associates, of providing poor service based on the communication breakdowns that they created. Since this particular Lowe's is located in a diverse section of New Jersey, english was the second language for a lot of customers. For example, an asian man asked if the engine covering of a certain lawn mower was "marrow." He meant metal. This type of communication lapse was hard to overcome as well.

Some customers don't think before they ask. My favorite: "Do you keep your indoor plants indoors?"

Rich and Poor
Something I like about Lowe's is that it caters to the whole range of incomes. Even though some people have more money or less money than others, they all have home improvement projects, which puts them on even ground. Two recent examples: 1) After the big snow storm before Xmas, there was a rain storm that melted the snow and subsequently flooded everyone's basement. As a result, we sold a lot of sump pumps that day. Anyway, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate (I recognized him because he lives in our town and I used to be friends with his son) came in asking for a sump pump. For some reason, it pleased me to know that a potential governor's basement floods, too, just like everyone else, and that he sought out a sump pump himself at his local Lowe's. 2) I worked Xmas eve, and a very young couple was interested in a low-end grill. The urgency with which they scoped the best grill deals indicated to me that this would be the centerpiece of their Christmas. Once they picked out a grill, I found it for them on the shelf in a box. The lady was on the brink of tears because she wanted the grill assembled for her family to see on Christmas morning. At their request, I rummaged around the grill assembly room looking for an extra, already assembled grill of the model they wanted. I found one, a little banged up, but good enough, and wheeled it down to them. Not caring that the grill was not in mint condition, they cried joyful tears and wished me the happiest holiday. Bottom line is, Lowe's is for everyone.

Yes, working at Lowe's was not the most intellectually stimulating job, but I still learned a lot of things that I would not have learned otherwise. And you can't really complain about the lax dress code (jeans and a shirt with a red vest over the top), the interesting interactions with a range of different people, the physical exercise of being on your feet all day lifting things, and working outdoors (occasionally).

No one is "above" any job, no matter how educated you are. And, especially in these poor economic times, I am damn grateful I had the opportunity to work at Lowe's.