Sunlit Water

May 31, 2009

Working Sundays

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 6:50 pm

National parks, like other tourist destinations, must by their very nature be open on weekends.  Since weekends are when most people have time off during which they can do things like visit a national park, there needs to be someone there to help them out when they arrive.  Indeed, the need for staff is higher on weekends than on weekdays because of the higher volume of visitorship.

Ironically, however, the rather restrictive and traditional nature of government employment tends to point in the other direction.  The five-day, Monday-through-Friday work week is still considered the standard, even here, so there are always a lot more people around on the weekdays.  These tend to especially be the higher-ranking supervisory people, the ones who have the ability to set their own schedules.  They generally want their weekends off, and they get them.

It is therefore the lower-ranking people like me who end up working weekends.  I actually don’t mind at all.  There’s nothing in particular about being off on Saturday and Sunday that matters to me, so as long as I get my two days off a week I don’t care which days they are.  I also like having fewer (really no) supervisors around, and the increased visitorship makes things more interesting than they can get on the slower weekdays.  The combination of few visitors and lots of staff around tends to drive me crazy.

On Saturdays this works out well enough, with a lot of visitors but very few employees.  It can still get a bit stressful, though, especially now that visitorship is really starting to pick up.

It’s Sundays that I really like.  For one thing, I get a pay differential for working on Sundays, even though I always do.  Though as a non-Christian who generally takes a hard-line stance on the First Amendment I’m not thrilled with the implications of this, I do like the extra money.  I also like that Sundays are when things begin to quiet down to weekday levels but there still aren’t that many employees around, so it’s nice and quiet all around.  (Fridays, on the other hand, are particularly awful.)

I don’t have any particular point here.  This is just something that struck me today as I was reflecting on the fact that it was a much easier day at work than yesterday had been.

May 25, 2009

Somewhere

Filed under: Nature,Personal — by teofilo @ 6:16 pm

My mom and my sister came out to stay with me at Chaco for Memorial Day weekend.  There were some family events in Farmington yesterday, and they figured it would be both cheaper and more fun to stay with me than to get a motel room in Farmington.  I don’t have a roommate right now (although that’s likely to change soon), so that worked out just fine for me.  They brought my mom’s new dog, Mimi.  It was fun to have her around, and it was a nice visit overall.

It’s been kind of intermittently stormy here lately, with small storm systems moving through quickly and dropping small amounts of rain followed by periods of clear skies.  Not long after my mom and sister got back from Farmington yesterday one of these systems moved through, and as it was clearing up there was a really spectacular rainbow.  I took some pictures of it.

We were talking about it later, and my mom mentioned that when she was growing up in Philadelphia she always thought rainbows were this extraordinarily rare phenomenon that people saw maybe once in a lifetime.  I found this really surprising, since for me, growing up in the west, rainbows were a frequent occurrence.  Whenever there was a rainstorm, which wasn’t often, there would be a rainbow after it.  I had never really thought about it before, but in the east the rain doesn’t work like that.  Instead of coming and going quickly the way it does here, it just sort of lingers and gradually tapers off, with no rainbows.

In some places, like Ithaca, it basically just never clears up for months at a time.  Philadelphia’s not quite that bad, but it has the same basic pattern.  Plus it’s really humid all the time, so there isn’t the same contrast between wet and dry air that I think is key to rainbow formation.

So my mom had never seen a rainbow until she moved out west as an adult.  Wow.

May 18, 2009

Odds And Ends

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 10:44 pm

So, any ideas on what to do with little bits of money left on debit cards?  My SCA stipend card has $1.91 left on it, and Chase won’t close out the account and send me a check for the balance if there isn’t enough left to cover the fee for doing that, which there isn’t.  They’ll only close it if I can bring it down to a zero balance, but pretty much anything I’m likely to buy is going to cost more than is left in the account.  While I’m sure it would be possible to ask a merchant to only put so much on one card and pay the balance with another, it seems like a hassle and unlikely to work in practice, especially since I’m pretty sure the amount left on the card is less than the service fee the merchant would pay on the transaction.  I’ve thought about a donation, but most places I’ve looked online seem to have minimum donations well above the amount I have, and I think most probably only take whole dollar amounts.  Debit cards are becoming more and more popular for limited amounts, and in fact I have another one I got as a rebate with which this same issue will arise pretty soon, so this must be coming up for other people as well.  How do they deal with it?

Update: Turns out it’s actually only 91 cents.  I must have misremembered.

Later Update (June 2): And now it’s back to $1.91.  What the hell?

May 10, 2009

Mais Oui

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 1:45 pm

Chaco is significantly harder to get to than most national parks in the west, and as a result it gets a lot fewer visitors.  We don’t get the constant stream of big package tours that a lot of parks get.  We do, however, get quite a few visitors from overseas, mostly Europeans, who are traveling around America on their own rather than as part of a big group.  These tend to be more adventurous sorts, and they also tend to have a considerable amount of background knowledge before they arrive.  I like them a lot.

We had a French couple come in this morning.  After I gave them their entrance permit they asked if we got a lot of French people, and I replied that we get some, but not that many.  “Only the best,” the husband said, and I laughed and agreed.  I gave them one of our brochures with information in French, which they appreciated.  The husband’s English was quite good, but the wife spoke very little.

A few minutes later, another French couple came in, paid their fee, and asked if we had any information in French.  I gave them another one of the brochures and watched them head back into the museum, where the previous couple already was.  I’m sure they saw each other, but I don’t know if they talked at all or realized what they had in common.

There’s nothing very dramatic or unusual about this sequence of events, but I was struck by the coincidence.  Great visitors think alike, I guess.  Only the best.

May 9, 2009

Play It Cool

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 11:18 pm

Another thing about this job, which I didn’t mention in the previous post, is that it requires remaining calm and polite at all times.  This is another thing that has been very helpful to me to learn how to do.  No matter how angry a visitor gets over something, whether it’s the park’s fault (or mine) or not, it’s absolutely crucial to maintain a steady, calm demeanor and deal with the situation carefully and rationally.  Just in the course of working this job, particularly when I’ve worked the front desk in the visitor center, I’ve become very skilled at defusing potentially problematic or hostile situations.  The key is to hide my own emotional reaction to the situation and visibly display as much empathy and understanding of the visitor’s point of view as possible.  It’s remarkable how quickly people will calm down if they feel that someone is really listening to them and hearing them out, even if there’s nothing that can be done about their problem.  This doesn’t always work, of course, and some people just can’t be helped, but it’s been a lot more effective than I would have thought.

Another way this can manifest itself is in questions that are asked in a decidedly confrontational way, which can be expressed in either tone or phrasing.  This in particular tends to provoke an intense emotional reaction in me, since it tends to sound like questioning or challenging my authority or the accuracy of what I say.  As I mentioned before, that feeling of authority is very important to me, and I have a tendency to get upset when it’s put into doubt.  It’s important to note, however, that this is not always intentional on the part of the visitor; some people just have a way of speaking that tends toward the confrontational.  Others do mean to be confrontational and to challenge me, for various reasons.  Some are just interested in how I’ll react under pressure, while others want to make a point about something or other.  Whatever the reason, my instinctive reaction is the same, and I always have to hide or disguise it in some manner.

I’ve actually gotten to a point where I don’t mind this sort of thing much.  I view it mainly as an interesting challenge, and I feel secure enough in my knowledge and ability to handle these situations that I’m not concerned about losing my perceived authority.  What I’ll generally do is channel my intense emotions into a carefully phrased and expressed answer that acknowledges the source of the confrontational nature of the question (to the extent that I can discern it) while holding fast to the message I want to give.  Often the visitor’s reaction to the answer is the best or only way to tell why the question seemed so confrontational.  If they continue to sound confrontational in tone but congenial in content, that’s generally just the way they talk.  If both tone and content stay confrontational, they’ve got some sort of point or hobbyhorse, and the only thing to do is to hear them out and nod politely.  If they shift to a genial tone, they’re either testing my reaction or my answer has genuinely changed their mind or shifted their preconceptions on the issue.  The last is probably the least common, but it does happen from time to time.

The bottom line to all of this, and one of the most important things I’ve learned from this job, is that I need to separate the persona I present when interacting with the public from my own inner attitudes and emotions.  When I think about it that way, as in some sense putting on a show that doesn’t have to be an authentic representation of my “real” self, it becomes surprisingly easy.  It’s like acting, following a script, inhabiting a character.  (I’ve never done any actual acting to speak of, but I imagine this is what it’s like.)  The fact that the character is identical to me in name, background, and outward appearance doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a character and not the person that I feel myself to be inside.  Since it’s just a character, I can decide how that character reacts to difficult situations and then play the role, rather than reacting based on my instinctual emotions.  Also, since this character isn’t really me, any challenges to him aren’t really challenges to me, and there’s no need to get bent out of shape about them.  I have a feeling that this ability to separate myself from my persona, as it were, will serve me well in the future.

May 7, 2009

Guiding Thoughts

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 11:44 pm

I’ve been doing this job for several months now, and I feel like I’ve pretty much got the hang of it.  The past month, in which I’ve actually been paid for the same work I was doing before for free (or close to it), has involved considerably more varied and interesting work, but the core functions of the job have remained the same.  This has been nice, in some ways, because it has allowed me to become truly proficient at something I mostly enjoy.  It’s also been a bit difficult, however, because the job definitely gets monotonous and there are some aspects of it that go against my natural inclinations.

Overall, it’s been a great experience all around, and I feel lucky to be in this situation at this point in my life.  Giving tours is an interesting sort of thing to do, and it can be very enjoyable.  It’s similar in a lot of ways to the sort of lecturing that academics do, and I’ve followed recent conversations about pedagogy at academic blogs with interest.  The same issues about keeping people’s attention and maintaining authority that are present in the classroom are there on the tour as well.  There are some significant differences, however, some of which make the job easier than teaching and some of which make it harder.

The biggest thing making it easier is the lack of any sort of evaluation.  I tell people things, and I’d like for them to remember them, but it doesn’t actually matter to me professionally if they do or not.  I don’t give tests or assignments, and I don’t have to grade anything.  In this respect, my job is like teaching if it only consisted of lecturing.  It definitely cuts down on the amount of work involved, and it makes the lecturing process much easier than it might be if the audience were concerned about what will be on the test.

Along those same lines, another nice thing about this job is that people are here because they want to be, so I rarely have to deal with unmovitated or recalcitrant people on my tours.  There are occasional instances of someone who isn’t really interested in being there, but since people are free to come and go as they please such people tend to wander off at some point.  This is possibly in contrast to some other parks, where certain sites are only accessible by guided tour.  Here, people can do everything self-guided, so the people who do go on the guided tours tend to overwhelmingly be the kind of people who prefer guided tours.  This makes them very easy to deal with.

The downside of all this is mostly the monotony.  This is a rather small park, so there’s only one site that we give regular tours of, so the job basically involves giving the exact same lecture every single day for months on end.  If there is sufficient staffing there can be room for additional tours and other shifts, and I’ve been lucky lately in having had a lot more variety in my days than I had for the first few months, but those first few months, when I was new, got pretty dull after a while.  On the plus side, I became very familiar with the site in question.  Also, once things began to slow down in the winter we stopped doing regular tours, so I began to spend all my time in the visitor center.  That had its own problems, of course.

Another aspect of the monotony, which variety in shifts doesn’t address as much, is that people tend to ask the same questions over and over.  Again, this has allowed me to become very skilled at answering those questions, and I have canned but generally satisfying answers to the most common ones.  For a while I was getting really tired of having to say the same things over and over, both in giving the tours or answering the common questions, but the key thing to remember in dealing with this issue is that while I’ve been saying this stuff for what seems like an eternity, to the visitor taking the tour or asking the question it’s all new.  I’ve been getting better about keeping that in mind.

In addition to the aspects of the job that are most obvious, and that I suspect everyone who does it deals with similarly, there are other things that have a more idiosyncratic effect on me personally given my personality.  I’m very shy and reclusive by nature, so having a job like this that involves constant contact with the public is challenging for me.  I think it’s been enormously helpful in giving me experience dealing with people, and the public speaking experience I’ve gained here is likely to be the most useful aspect of this job for my long-term professional development.

It is really difficult, though.  Every day involves so many interactions with people that I really feel drained at the end of the day and I need some time alone to recuperate.  This is in marked contrast to most of my colleagues, who tend to be outgoing, extroverted types who thrive on the social interactions that the job involves.  It’s hardly surprising that a job like this would attract people like that, and in a lot of ways I’m really the unusual case here.  One additional difficulty for me given this situation is that it can be really difficult for me to deal with my coworkers as well as the visitors.  This is particularly a problem on weekdays when there are more people working, and was more of a problem when there were fewer visitors around.  At least with visitors there’s an element of novelty to the interactions.

I do like my coworkers, so it’s nothing against them personally, but I can easily be overwhelmed by all the activity around me during the day.  Another key difference between me and most of my coworkers is that they’re volunteers, mostly retired folks looking for something interesting to do, and so I’m both in a very different place in my life and coming at this from a very different perspective.  For me this is a job.  If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t.  There’s no way in hell I’m going to be doing something like this when I retire.

Despite all these issues, there are also a lot of aspects of the job that suit my personality quite well.  The main thing I like, and this may not necessarily reflect very well on me, is being taken seriously as an authority figure.  When people ask me questions they listen to the answers and accept me as a reliable source on the topics in question.  This tends the case even when the questions are somewhat challenging or even slightly hostile.  I think the amount of deference I get has increased a bit since I’ve been wearing the actual Park Service uniform rather than the volunteer garb, but that’s a difficult thing to measure.  In any case, one thing I’ve really discovered about myself in this job is that I really have a need to be in control.  I like doing my tours because I’m in charge and I make the decisions about how to structure the tour and answer questions.  When I first started here I tagged along on various other people’s tours to learn how they did them, and that was definitely a valuable experience, but by the time I’d been on several I started to get pretty frustrated about how they were handling things.  Not that they were handling them badly, by any means, but I just couldn’t keep from thinking about how I would do things differently.  This comes up when I’m working the front desk at the visitor center, too.  If I’m working with someone else and they’re doing their little orientation speech for a visitor I often have to go back into the office because I just can’t stand being there and watching them do it differently from how I would.

Related to this is the fact that, somewhat ironically, I hate going on tours myself, for similar reasons.  One thing I’ve learned in the course of doing this job is that there are basically two types of park visitors: those who want a lot of guidance and orientation, and those who want to do everything on their own.  I’m very much the second kind myself, so I’m pretty sympathetic to their perspective, and my typical way of handling the initial contact at the front desk is oriented toward that sort of visitor.  I take the entrance fee or swipe the park pass, give them an entrance permit and a map, and that’s it.  If it looks like they might want to ask additional questions, I’ll tell them to feel free to ask me anything they’d like, and they generally will, but often they’ll just walk away without further interaction.  This is in contrast to how I’ve noticed most people who work the desk, here and at other parks, do things.  They tend to make every effort to give every visitor a full orientation, which the visitors who come seeking guidance really appreciate.  This is hardly surprising, since as I’ve mentioned most of the people who do these jobs do them because they like talking to people.  The visitors who want to do things themselves tend to be a bit frustrated with this, however, and I don’t blame them.  As a result, I see my technique as catering to a group of visitors whose preferences don’t often get taken into account in these situations.  It’s true that my way isn’t preferable for the visitors who prefer more guidance, but they get their way plenty.  If they really want to have their questions answered, they can, and they are typically not shy about asking them.

That’s about all I can think of to say about the job at this point, but I’m sure I’ll have more reflections later.  Over all, it’s an occasionally frustrating but generally rewarding thing to do, and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to do it.

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