Posts Tagged ‘work’

Thanksgiving comes early in the office

November 22, 2011

The turkey carcass sits mangled on the serving table, looking like the victim of a bear attack. The sweet potato casserole has been denuded of its marshmallow topping, but you could probably scrape a few more servings out of the corners of the pan if you tried. The stuffing is completely gone, serving its stated purpose of stuffing those who now lounge around the edges of this scene, barely moving except for the effort it takes to moan.

No, you haven’t been transported several days into the future by the magic of the blog. This is the scene I left behind at yesterday’s office celebration of Thanksgiving, long before most of us will commemorate the occasion.

The corporate calendar of holidays is not something most of us are aware of until we walk into work one dark January day and discover we’ve neglected to bring the green bagels for St. Patrick’s Day, which the outside world celebrates on March 17. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but not much.

The government has imposed Monday observance of the more minor holidays like Presidents, Labor and Memorial days. Christmas and New Year’s are complicated by the fact that the days before them — the Eves — are in many ways more important than the actual holidays themselves. Many human resources departments have come up with the concept of a “floating” holiday for individuals to use in the religious observance of their choosing, such as Yom Kippur, Kwanzaa or Talk Like a Pirate Day. People in my mostly Christian office, for example, use their optional holiday for the day after Easter, prompting one observer to wonder if the “floating” had something to do with Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

I guess having the Thanksgiving potluck yesterday made some sense on a gut level, considering few of us would want to gorge like that two days in a row if it were scheduled for Wednesday. The only opening left on the sign-up sheet when I got to it was “salad,” which seemed very un-Thanksgiving-like but worked for me since it was so easy to prepare (take one head of lettuce, rip to shreds, serves 20). Management was providing the ham and turkey, and everything else was being brought in by the staff, who would have a chance to dazzle coworkers with their best recipes, many of which involved green beans, cream soup and those crunchy onion things.

The sit-down time was scheduled for 11 a.m. so the organizers had the better part of the morning to set up the centerpieces, warm and then re-warm the hot dishes, and tempt us all with the smells of the season. This was to be an affair that combined our staff with workers from the front office, who we sometimes pass in the restrooms but about whom we know little else.

As the serving time arrived, I was unfortunate enough to be just outside their offices when a manager called out for me to summon them. At first I was confused about who exactly he meant, and nearly beckoned the 200-plus temporary work crew from the warehouse. That would’ve been a horrible mistake, certain to result in stolen plastic cutlery and tiny, tiny portions for everyone. Still, I didn’t want to call for these front-office folks I didn’t know (“hey, it’s the guy from the bathroom – what’s he want?”) so I went to hide in my car for a few minutes.

I hoped this would have the added benefit of allowing me to miss the inevitable speech-giving and prayer that would precede the food consumption. But as the schedule started running behind, I made it just in time to hear the department head note that though these are difficult times, we still have much to be thankful for, followed by a brief blessing.

Not being a currently practicing Christian myself, I’ve always felt awkward during this portion of the proceedings. It’s not because I take offense at having others’ religious beliefs imposed on me; rather, I’m bothered that I use the respectful silence to think of the sarcastic prayer I’d be tempted to offer if I’m ever called upon. Instead of beginning with “dear Jesus” or “holy Father,” the sacrilegious scamp in me wants to begin with a “good God” and then launch into several other James Brown references like papa’s brand new bag and how good I feel (so good). Fortunately for everyone, Edna does a nice reverent offering, and it’s finally time to chow down.

Office chairs were pulled up to the long row of covered work tables. After people made their way down the buffet, carefully gauging the decreasing capacity of their Chinettes against the promise of what appeared further down the line, we were told to squeeze into a seat and begin the scheduled conviviality. The randomness and closeness of this seating arrangement, not to mention my very real fear of being injured by flying elbows, caused me to linger toward the end of the buffet line in the hope the table would be too full. I lucked out and was able to return instead to my work station to eat, where I got a kernel of corn stuck between “F7” and “F8” on my keyboard.

I genuinely enjoyed the food, as did everyone else. I was also able to enjoy the air of warmth and geniality in the room without actually having to get any of it on me. We didn’t have any holiday music piped through the intercom as we’ll do at Christmas — primarily I guess because there isn’t any, except for the less-than-festive “Turkey in the Straw” – but there was a certain atmosphere that for a moment almost made me give some actual thanks.

I managed to avoid overeating, which was good since I had a long drive home to navigate in the next hour and I didn’t want to sleep through it. Others in our department weren’t so lucky, as they staggered back to their desks to face another three hours of duty. The combination of turkey, heavy carbohydrates and the kind of workload you might expect at a financial services firm during a lingering downturn must’ve been as tough to handle as an Ambien/opium blend injected directly into your forehead.

At least there were no Detroit Lions to send them over the edge and into lethal coma.

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All ready for the office reorganization

November 21, 2011

My boss asked to see me in her office Friday. This is far from an everyday request so – considering the state of the economy and particularly concerns about the so-called “jobless recovery” we’re experiencing in which the unemployment rate still hovers near 10% and new job creation is at a virtual standstill – I was, like, freaking out.

A manager who wants to discuss potentially bad news with an underling is at a distinct advantage if they play their cards right. In this environment, the employee automatically assumes the worst is about to happen. Anything less than a pink slip, a box to collect your personal effects and a security-guard-escorted walk to the parking lot becomes welcome news.

If they put enough drama into the meeting, closing the door behind you as you enter and remaining grim-faced as you settle into your chair, you’ll accept almost anything else they have to say with enthusiasm.

“Dave, I’ve called you in here today to discuss some new directions we see your career here taking,” they can say.

“New directions,” you hear. As in, make a left as you leave the building, then a right at the second light, and you’ll see the unemployment office on the left? you wonder.

“We’ve got some new duties we want you to add to your current skill set,” they can continue.

“New duties,” you hear. A sign of hope?

“We need someone to scrub the floor of the men’s room each day using only their tongue,” they can offer. “And we think you’re just the man for the job.”

“I still have a job!” you think. Relief floods your mind. “That sounds like something I can handle,” you answer. “I’m all salivated up and ready to go. When can I start?”

So when my boss started talking about the reorganization our department is about to undertake, and how it will affect the hours I work and the place where I sit, I was more than happy to listen respectfully and nod my head in an affirmative motion at all the right places. I was not losing my job after all. That was what they call in the corporate world my “key takeaway.”

But now that I’ve had a few days to think about what she said, in the context of not having to trade my comfortable suburban house for a homeless shelter, I have some concerns about a few of these changes.

I’m not going to have to get used to a new chair, am I?

We all have the same type of chairs in my office, but after several years of use, not all of the features still work on every chair. I need more than just a flat horizontal surface to place my can. I need a certain level of lumbar support. I don’t like the armrests to be so high as to interfere with my typing, or too low to provide rest for my arms when I’m reading. The wheels need to work properly so I can scoot to the coffeemaker with a single thrust of my legs.

What about mousepads? Can we keep the ones we currently have?

I like the kind that has the little mound of gel you can rest your wrist on. I don’t like the kind that advertises Office Depot or the pharmaceutical industry’s latest anti-depressant. My wrist tends to get tired after a long day of clicking and dragging, and I’m not sure I can put in a full eight hours with a weary forearm.

The carousel of supplies at my current desk is organized just as I like it. Can I take it with me to my new desk?

A few years ago, in the throes of another reorganization that saw us sticking labels on everything that didn’t move, the different storage slots on my carousel got signs for what goes into each area: “staple remover” reads one, “red pens and pencils” reads another, “black/blue pens” reads a third. This seemed silly at the time, but I’ve grown used to it since then. When I’m through using a rubber band or a paper clip, I want to know where it should be returned to. These labels are the lifeblood of my sanity, and my whole worldview will be affected if I don’t know where to put the medium-sized sticky notes when I’m through with them.

Will I have a stapler and scissors at my new desk?

Right now, I don’t have ready access to these seemingly essential tools of office work. I don’t know whether we just have a shortage, or whether there might be some safety issue involved. I feel I’ve demonstrated a level of responsibility during my 30-plus years with the company to show I can be trusted to handle sharp instruments. If there is some training involved in how to properly attach one piece of paper to another, I’d be eager to learn. I believe learning is a lifelong pursuit and am always eager to gain new skills.

Can I be positioned directly beneath an air-conditioning vent?

Most people in my office seem to be suffering a chronic hypothermia that requires them to constantly fiddle with the thermostat until the room becomes a sauna. I’m originally from Miami, and grew up there in the days before air-conditioning. I appreciate a nice draft as welcome refreshment. You can even put me near the door if you want to; it’ll make it that much easier to slip out five minutes early at the end of the day.

Please don’t make me sit next to Kelly. Please. I beg of you. Have some basic human compassion.

Kelly is our office loudmouth. She chatters endlessly about every detail of her personal life. I don’t want to constantly be hearing about how her son has done at soccer practice, how she has a new cat, how her husband is going back to school again instead of getting a job, how she has this lump on her side that she needs to get checked out. If I want to know these things, I’ll sign up for her online newsletter.

Finally, I need both a recycling bin and a trash can at my new desk.

I’ll often work through lunch, eating a sandwich at my work station. When I’m done, I’ll usually save the Zip-Lock bag I packed it in, unless it’s been stained by mayonnaise dripping out the side of my turkey sandwich. When this happens, I’d like to be able to throw it away without getting up. I don’t want to put it into recycling, because that would destroy the Earth.

Oh yeah, and one more thing: Don’t make me share a desk with Edwin on second shift.

Edwin is notorious for eating three-fourths of an onion-packed Subway sandwich and tossing the rest in his desk-side garbage can instead of — as we were specifically instructed in an email dated September 27, 2003 — putting any smelly trash in the breakroom receptacle. The maintenance people usually empty the office trash cans at mid-morning, so whoever shares a desk with Edwin has to smell old onions for half the day. This, I will not abide.

Somebody in management needs to have a talk with Edwin. Let him think he’s getting the ax, and he’ll be more than grateful to stop putting his onions in the regular trash.

Turkey time at the office

November 18, 2011

The food for the office Thanksgiving luncheon was all set up and ready to be eaten. Workers summoned for the feast from different departments stood about awkwardly, hungry but mindful of the need to wait for some kind of “GO!” command.

First, the district manager had a few words to say. He welcomed the 50 or so white-collar staffers, and spoke of an old tradition that he greatly admired. He’d heard of a family that asked everyone in attendance at their holiday dinners to talk briefly of something they were thankful for in the past year.

A few sidelong glances were exchanged among the famished professionals — “at this rate, we’re never going to eat” seemed to be the unspoken consensus. The manager sensed the crowd’s reluctance to talk about home and family matters at work.

“Anybody have anything they’d like to share?” he asked.

There was some lame muttering from the back about being thankful for friends. Another person said they had suffered a lot in the last year while recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, then realized this wasn’t much of a reason for thanks and instead turned it into a “deep gratitude” that another accident hasn’t happened again.

I felt embarrassed by the silence and sorry for the well-intentioned manager, and almost spoke up myself. I was going to say I was just thankful to have a job in these difficult times, then realized it might prompt him to wonder “why is he still working here?” and decided to hold my tongue. When it became apparent that no one else was going to speak — unless we wanted to ask the people ringing our phones off the hook while the receptionist was away microwaving the green bean casserole — he moved on.

After a pause, he again looked around the room and asked if anybody wanted to say “a word” before we began eating.

Were this any other region of the country besides the South, the word people might’ve offered would be something like “c’mon” or “let’s go, already.” Down here, though, “a word,” especially when requested immediately prior to the consumption of food, means a prayer. Finally someone accepted the challenge, and asked everyone to bow their heads. I used the opportunity to study what a nice pair of running shoes the person next to me recently purchased, and how well their color coordinated with the office carpet.

The prayer (prayist?) proceeded through an acknowledgement of the usual litany of Christian superheroes. He thanked an unseen timekeeper who granted us the opportunity to join together. He gave a brief preview of the available entrees, specifically mentioning both turkey and ham. He said he did all this “in Jesus’ name” (though I bet he’d be resuming his usual role as Bobby in just a minute), then everybody said “amen.”

I’m really glad that I, an agnostic, have never been forced to deliver an impromptu invocation at a company function. I’ve had years of Lutheran training and could probably recall a doxology or two if pressed. I think I could fake my way through it.

Actually, I’ve been known to invoke the various names of the Almighty and His Posse on numerous occasions throughout the average workday. I’m not sure how good a prayer it would make, but I could improvise something like the following.

Good God
I can’t believe the last person to use the copier didn’t hit the reset button when they were through.
Now I have 50 copies when I only wanted two.
And they left blue paper in the legal tray.
Christ Almighty
Those people on the night shift have been using our creamer again.
And doesn’t that guy over in Legal realize that you’re supposed to pay to be in the coffee fund?
Mary, Mother of God
Why have these maintenance people vacuuming while I’m on this important call?
They now wear portable motors and bags on their backs.
I wish those were jetpacks and they’d fly the hell away.
Sweet Jesus
I’m out of sticky notes again.
And I think someone slid a different chair over here, because this one just doesn’t feel right.
Is there no respect for personal property in this place?
Holy Cow
They’re cranking up the thermostat again even though it’s already 150 degrees in here.
These women need to ditch the sleeveless tops already or else bring their Snuggies to work.
God Damn It
It looks like there’s another network outage coming in five minutes.
Tech says it’ll only take about thirty seconds, but by the time you have to restart and bring all your programs back up, you might as well call it a day.
They’re probably doing some upgrade that blocks even more websites.
Jesus H. Christ
Those new paper towels in the men’s room are so thin, they’re practically toilet paper.
I’m sure it’s cheaper than the old stuff, but don’t they realize we’re using twice as much?
I am sick of tiny disintegrated shreds of saturated paper sticking to my hands.
God Almighty, what is wrong with these people?

 

Sweet Lord

Long-time worker is honored

November 8, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Nov. 7) — DavisW was awarded the prestigious Certificate of Achievement Award, marking ten years of service with his company, in a gala ceremony held right after the 10:45 coffee break at work on Tuesday.

Supervisors called on all of Davis’s co-workers to put their projects aside for a moment and join them in the corner of the room where we keep the refrigerator. Only moments before, a tray of muffins and fresh fruit had been put out on the condiments table, hinting at the festivities to come. An envelope, a portfolio folder and a framed certificate were also on display as the employees shuffled reluctantly from their cubicles to the site of the observance.

“Come on, Kate, you can finish that up in a minute,” said general manager Eric Taylor to one lingering worker who was wrestling with an urgent deadline.

“I have to get this PDF emailed before 11,” Kate responded.

“Okay,” said Eric, “we’ll wait for you. Hey, did anybody watch the (football) game last night?”

Several people said they caught a few minutes of the early action, but most chuckled that it was “way past my bedtime” and didn’t really like football that much anyway. At last, Kate joined the group.

“I’ve called you all together so we can honor one of our own for his service to the company,” Taylor began. “We want to recognize Davis today on the occasion of his tenth anniversary.”

A smattering of hesitant applause rose from the crowd of about 20 people.

“I want to read from a letter sent to Davis by Hubert J. Moore, president and chief executive officer of the company,” Taylor continued. “He writes, ‘While businesses frequently talk about their experience in glossy brochures and during sales presentations, the truth is that companies do not have experience. People do.’”

According to Taylor, President Moore went on to tell Davis “thank you for the important contributions you have made during your ten years of service.”

Taylor shook Davis’s hand while presenting him with the beautifully framed certificate and the portfolio. The certificate echoed Moore’s praise, citing Davis’s “commitment and dedication,” while an instruction sheet in the folder telling Davis how to order his anniversary gift online pointed to Davis’s “dedication and contributions to the company.”

Asked to say a few words, an obviously emotional Davis could only say “thanks, everybody” and that it “seemed like only yesterday that I started here.” He considered joking that a certificate of achievement was really nothing special, since an “achievement” is just something that somebody has succeeded in doing, and not necessarily positive. He thought better of it at the last moment, however, offering instead a “thanks again.”

At that point, another manager stepped forward and gave Davis a $2.50 greeting card ($3.25 in Canada) that had been passed around the office for everyone to sign. On the front, the card showed fireworks explosions and said “Congrats” and on the inside were scrawled several personal messages.

“Best wishes,” offered one of the Karens. “Enjoy many more,” wrote Andy. “Hope you stick around for a few more,” said Robin. “Congrats,” inscribed Joyce, while Cheryl D. noted “congrats and many more.”

“Now let’s enjoy some of these snacks,” said Taylor, indicating it was time for everyone to get back to work. A few people took apples and oranges. Davis, however, exhibiting some of the traits that made him so successful over the past decade, picked several grapes and wrapped a blueberry muffin in a napkin that he would save for breakfast the following morning.

Among the online recognition awards Davis is considering are #267, a telescope; #419, a watch; and #577, a museum-quality fine art print on canvas, truly every color of the rainbow, no detail has been overlooked in this great painting of the reef and its wonderful residents. He’s leaning toward the print, considering he already has a frame that he won’t be using.

A proud, proud Davis

“Occupy” movement making inroads in the office

October 18, 2011

Fed up with corporate greed and the unwillingness of his bosses to acknowledge the increasingly desperate plight of workers, Michael Ash has joined with anti-establishment protesters around the country by occupying a conference room at his office.

“I’m just tired of being exploited and abused by the powers-that-be,” the 32-year-old project manager for Hewlett-Packard told reporters in his San Jose, Calif., office. “It’s time for the people to take back what’s been stolen from them.”

“Also,” he added, “I’ve been out of ‘stickies’ for a week now and still they’re not stocked in the supply closet.”

Ash and others have watched as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has grown from its start in New York to its increasing popularity in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Thousands have shown up at events to voice their support for the unemployed, the poor, the young and the disenfranchised, and to state their opposition to the entrenched interests of the business community.

Ash joined the surging movement yesterday as his frustration with the way his chair was adjusted, and with the person who keeps linking the paper clips at his desk into a chain, boiled over into action.

“They obviously care very little about us,” Ash said of his superiors at HP. “If they did, they’d put a hidden camera at my work station and see who’s messing with my desk.”

Ash set up his protest in Conference Room B on the second floor of his office building shortly after 9 a.m. Monday. He brought in a sleeping bag from his car, and posted several signs he created in Word around the room. One read “Reform Corporate America” and another read “I Am the 99%.” A third sign was largely illegible because of black splotches all over the surface.

“I’ve complained about the toner in that printer for a week now, but all I get is the runaround,” Ash complained. “Typical behavior from the corporate fatcats who are more concerned about their tax breaks than they are about the toner.”

By 11 a.m., several coworkers had stopped by the rarely-used conference room to express their support for Ash, or to ask if he knew when he’d be finished, because sometimes people eat their lunch in there.

“Most meetings are in Room A, down the hall and around the corner,” Ash told reporters. “I picked Room B because I didn’t think anybody would care.”

Ash continued his demonstration until 1 p.m., greeting well-wishers, debating the value of increased taxes for high-income earners, and occasionally marching through the halls to get a drink of water. Shortly after 1, he was asked to leave the conference room to make way for a safety committee meeting.

“Sorry about that,” Ash told committee members as they streamed into the room. “Just give me a sec to clean up this mess. Here, let me put those chairs back. Sorry. Sorry.”

Dislodged from his protest site, Ash relocated to the men’s room next door, and re-dubbed his rally “Occupy Second Stall From The Sink”.

“In a way, this is better,” Ash said at mid-afternoon Monday. “It’s symbolic of how our future is being flushed down the commode by Big Business, and of how we have a really crappy system for reserving conference rooms.”

By the end of the day, Ash had added to his list of demands. In addition to his desire to get last Tuesday counted as a sick day rather than a vacation day, he called on his corporate superiors to unblock YouTube from office computers, to crack down on lunch thefts from the refrigerator, and to say something to the guy in accounts payable who always sneezes so loud.

“Also, after spending the day in the toilet, I want to demand a new box of toilet seat covers,” Ash said. “The box claims ‘provided by the management for your protection’ but that’s a lie. Management doesn’t care about our protection at all, at least unless it affects their bottom line.”

Ash said he had received a lot of support from co-workers during his protest.

“Guys have been coming in here all afternoon, and I believe they’re behind me,” Ash said. “I think they know I’m in here. They should at least be able to see my legs.”

Ash said he was unsure if he’d continue the protest for the rest of the week. The sales presentation he’s working on for the vice presidents’ meeting next Monday still needs a thorough re-do, and he’s also looking for a bit of clip art to break up the monotony of his PowerPoint.

“It’s time for the rest of America to ask, ‘where’s my bailout?'” Ash said. “I just have to make sure I can squeeze it into my schedule.”

Safety committee talks about temporary inconvenience of "Occupy" protester

A relaxing stroll around the office park

October 17, 2011

One area where I doubt I’ll meet expectations in my upcoming job performance review is break-taking.

I’m not taking all the lunch and coffee breaks I’m entitled to. Not only does this place me in danger — “breaks are in place for the safety of employees,” warned our official policy after a third-shifter plunged his nodding head into his keyboard, injuring his nose and adding the word “poijasdpfjiopasdij” to an initial public offering — but it creates major headaches for accounting.

It’s not because I’m dedicated that I work so hard. Nor is it because I’m especially busy. The reason I’ve not been taking all my breaks is that (a) there’s little in or near my office’s industrial park worth breaking away to, and (b) when you already spend 90% of your day doing crosswords while waiting for work, you frankly don’t get all that winded.

I’ve tried to make myself step away to the breakroom, where I can while away 15 minutes of relaxation staring at my choice of one of four walls. (One of the walls is filled with posters about worker’s rights, informing us that even though we work in North Carolina, we still have a few.) There’s also a television in one corner, running an endless loop of Headline News. But hearing all the ways Michael Jackson’s doctor tried to make him sleep will quickly get me drowsy.

With pleasant fall weather here, I’ve started taking a walk around the office park. This offers both clean air and exercise, and I can return to my work station feeling refreshed, even though my sweat-soaked underarms may beg to differ.

As a scenic attraction, the SilverLake office park offers little to the casual tourist. Most of the tenants are trucking firms, so unless you’re big into loitering 18-wheelers, there’s not much to see.

The landlord does a pretty good job of maintaining nice landscaping, so there’s that. There’s wildlife, if you count worms and fire ants and diarrhetic Canada geese. And there is, in fact, a lake; its silverness may not be apparent beneath the algae-coated surface, but just knowing it’s under there somewhere is soothing.

I’ve assembled a small collection of photos into a travelogue, so you can see for yourself the scenery I’m now able to enjoy on an almost-daily basis. Why not transport yourself away from your dreary Monday, and enjoy a bit of what the Great Outdoors have to offer.

The natural beauty begins right outside our back entrance, with a view of the loading dock at the building next door. Note how the natural wilderness is barely kept at bay in this pristine part of Charlotte.

A crooked sign stands guard against outsiders who might attempt to skate, bicycle, loiter or be a dog. The wide, tree-lined boulevard forming the main access into the office park reminds many of Paris's Champs Elysees.

Keep your eyes on the road, and you may find yourself a treasure! Here, a discarded mouth filter serves as mute testimony to the adventure faced by warehouse workers trying to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

A serene Silver Lake laps at its embankments, its scum-sheen bright in the sun of a warm October afternoon.

Earthworms also need a break, so many take to the sidewalks for their daily constitutional. Unfortunately, most dry up and die during their outings.

Discarded truck parts gather to compare notes about their fate. Like other industries, logistics and distribution have suffered considerably during the current downturn. Like illegal aliens waiting near a Home Depot, these three axles hope to latch onto some day work.

Welcome to Taciturnia

October 5, 2011

Tell me if this is weird.

I work in a pretty standard office environment. There are about 15 people in my department — an open-floor space with no walls or cubicles — doing much the same work that I do. Most of us have been with the company for quite a while, 10, 15, even 20 and 30 years.

Though such long tenure (or having a job at all) is increasingly rare in the modern economy, that’s not the weird part. This, I think, might be: Most of us never talk to each other.

The lady who sits about 12 feet to my left, facing in my direction, has worked with me for about 11 years. I can’t remember the last time we spoke to each other.

Another lady sits about 20 feet behind me. Part of my job is to check her work and, if it’s correct, release it to the customer. She’ll wordlessly sidle up next to me and place her printout in my tray. I’ll take it, read it, press a few keys on my computer, and we’re done. We’ve teamed up together to successfully complete an admittedly small project, all without ever offering each other even a grunt.

The guy who sits about 15 feet over my left shoulder does the same kind of proofreading I do. Occasionally, we may have to communicate to coordinate our efforts, though we avoid it if we can. We’d rather duplicate each other’s work than allow air to pass over our larynxes, exit the voice box at the soft palette, and form into recognizable words and phrases.

I’m trying to figure out if this is awkward, unnatural, or possibly even dangerous. I think about those incidents of workplace violence where surviving witnesses say things like “he was always so quiet,” and wonder if one of my neighbors is a seething psychopath, just waiting to squeeze in a little gunplay amidst the filing deadlines.

I doubt it. Much more likely is that we’re simply jaded, bored with our jobs, marking time until the end of the day by keeping our heads down and our mouths shut.

The work we do requires that we be available at a moment’s notice to quickly edit and return pages to our clients. Sometimes we’re non-stop busy, but most of the time we’re just waiting for the next project to start. In return for parking our barely animate husks at a work station for eight hours a day, we’re allowed to use our computers to play games and explore the Internet.

I’m guessing that’s a big contributor to our inertia. Without the distractions of the web, we’d be looking for something to do. Human interaction would probably crop up as a possibility.

Instead, we stare blankly at our terminals, getting up only occasionally to shuffle about the facility in a zombie-like state.

Once away from our desks, there is much more of a temptation to reach out and talk to a fellow employee. It feels somehow peculiar to pretend the neighbor you’ve been ignoring for five hours straight doesn’t deserve at least a nod of the head when you pass them in the hall. But unless your brain rattles loose inside your skull, this still makes for a silent encounter.

Outside of the work environment, the customs are a little different. Occasionally, the whims of our respective bladders cause an unintended meeting in the restroom. I ran into the fellow proofreader I mentioned above in the men’s room a few weeks back and, despite the well-documented perils of talking to another man in the same room where urinals exist, we each felt compelled to exchange a brief greeting.

“Hey,” I said as we stood at the sink washing our hands.

“Hi,” he replied.

Each of us left it at that. We had each done the bare minimum to acknowledge the other’s existence, and yet wisely (I think) resisted the urge to engage in a homosexual tryst.

Even more awkward is to run into someone outside the building. There’s a diner about a quarter-mile down the road where individuals occasionally go to grab a bite. I once saw a co-worker waiting to order in the next line, and barely recognized her. Outside the context of our jobs, it was unsettling to realize the woman could not only type but also feed herself.

“How’s it going?” I asked, feeling like I had to say something. “Getting lunch, I see.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Got a little hungry.”

“That can happen,” I was tempted to continue but didn’t. “Once your body processes its available carbohydrates, you need to replenish these with additional sustenance. I have the same issue.”

There is some casual conversation as we sit at our computers waiting for work. A few have even developed what appear to be friendships as they discuss their kids, their illnesses, their plans for the weekend and their inevitably miserable spouses. These rarely rise above a muffled mumble and, if they do, the chatters are subject to stern glares from those who prefer silence.

As for me, there are about three or four people among the group that I’ll talk to. One is my team’s production coordinator, a man about my age that I’ve known for ten years and consider to be the close approximation of a friend. Several times a day, we’ll chat about sports or the weather, and I’ll offer up a heartfelt “here” when I hand him my finished work.

Another person I’ll talk to is the lady on my right. About four years ago, we began carpooling together, and to get that started we had to verbally agree on times, meeting places, reimbursements, etc. (This was during that brief period when formal hand-written letters had become passé and texting had yet to reach its full potential, so we just spoke).

I remember wondering how this would work, how we could sit next to each other in the front seat of a car for 20 minutes every morning and afternoon and retain the same veneer of restrained civility we exhibit in the office. I wondered if we would talk, or listen to the radio, or simply sit in silence as we commuted down the highway.

As it turned out, casual conversation came easily as we unloaded on each other about the frustrations of work and life in general. I got to know about her family (four kids and a husband), her likes (Neil Young) and dislikes (George W. Bush), her hopes (retirement) and her fears (that I drive like a maniac). We have become what I consider to be friends.

But only while we’re making that drive on the interstate. As soon as we sit down next to each other at work, the conversation stops. At most, she’ll offer a “three hours and fifteen minutes” announcement as we mentally count down to the end of the day.

I guess this is the way I prefer it. I am by nature a taciturn person myself, and don’t especially feel that just because I earn a living in the same physical space as another wage slave that we need to share our innermost thoughts. I guess we’re like the family that has lived together for years, and speak only to note that someone has died.

If it seems unnatural, I guess that’s just the way it is. Perhaps if I don’t mention it, no one else will notice.

Check this out, Bob and Sue. I've created a bar chart that shows just how much I loathe you.

Entertaining the Indians

September 26, 2011

I had the pleasure Friday of taking two Indian visitors from my company out to dinner. (These were not “woo-woo Indians,” as my friend Danny from college used to distinguish Native Americans from South Asians, but “dot Indians.”) My wife joined us for what turned out to be a fine evening of fellowship.

I wanted to be sensitive to the cultural difficulties likely faced by two foreigners on their first visit to the U.S. I wanted to do better than I had some seven years ago, when I hosted another pair of visitors from the subcontinent.

Those earlier two were unfortunate victims of my best intentions to show them all that American excess could offer. I had taken them to the Cheesecake Factory.

As you might imagine, this turned out to be quite overwhelming for natives of a land where a bit of rice was treasured sustenance, not an after-thought side dish next to a towering mound of chicken and cheese.

“You might enjoy the eggplant,” we had suggested at the time, knowing these Hindu men were probably vegetarians.

“No, no,” came the polite protest from Krishna. “No egg. Only veg.”

This time, I was determined to select a restaurant that didn’t intimidate diners with cake slices the size of your head. Beth and I discussed several options we knew were close to their hotel as we drove to meet them.

“I wish we could take them somewhere typical of the Carolinas,” I said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know any restaurants that serve Slim Jims and Mountain Dew.”

We finally agreed to give them two options to choose from: an upscale Indian restaurant named Saffron, and a more casual Italian place called Portofino’s.

I wanted to be accommodating of their tastes and limited familiarity with America, but I didn’t want to be patronizing. I felt that these folks were relatively sophisticated and might be put off if we treated them too gingerly. At the same time, I knew from first-hand experience how disorienting it can be to eat dinner in a foreign land. I didn’t want them to order angel hair pasta and be disappointed when they got slim pasta noodles instead of actual hair.

We met the Indians in front of their hotel. Both Akshay and Jenny greeted us warmly, and we all decided to walk the short couple of blocks toward the restaurants. They said they’d probably prefer the Italian place, since they ate Indian food “all the time.”

“Are you familiar with Italian food?” I asked. “You know, spaghetti, pizza, pasta dishes …”

“Yes, yes,” Akshay assured me. “We have Domino’s.”

I thought about explaining that Domino’s was to Italian food what McDonald’s was to Scottish food, then thought how much I’d prefer haggis to a Quarter-Pounder and let the analogy drop. We had arrived at Portofino’s by now, so all I could do was hope for the best.

The place wasn’t too crowded for a Friday night, and we were seated promptly. Menus were passed out by our server — she described herself as “Melanie,” though I had no plans to become acquainted on a first-name basis — and she started by collecting our drink orders.

I didn’t know my guests’ position on the propriety of consuming alcoholic beverages, and they probably didn’t know mine either (I’m in favor of it, as much and as frequently as possible). But when Beth broke the ice by ordering a glass of merlot, I was glad we took the lead. Turns out, they were quite familiar with wine, and sought to become even more familiar with it during dinner.

We alternated studying our menus with chit-chat. I tried to gauge how well they were interpreting what seemed like a pretty exotic bill-of-fare. All the pastas were listed on one page, with names like “puttanesca,” “arrabbiata” and “boscaiola,” while the protein dishes came under the headings “vitello” (veal), “pollo” (chicken) and “pesce” (seafood). Even I was struggling with what would be a good choice.

When the server returned, we placed our orders. Beth got the eggplant parmigiana and I got the fettuccini primavera. Jenny opted for the chef’s salad while Akshay ordered the “salmon mediterraneo”. We sipped our wine and conversations became gradually more casual as the alcohol took effect.

Akshay, who I knew from my business trips to the Sri Lanka office he heads, told us he’d spent the late afternoon trying to walk to the nearest Walmart. (I wondered whether he actually needed to buy something, or simply felt this was a requisite pilgrimage for anyone visiting North America). I said I too liked to walk, and we laughed about the time I wandered into a tear-gas-soaked demonstration on my way work during the recently concluded Sri Lankan civil war.

“That was fun,” I laughed. “My visit, not the civil war.”

Before long, the food arrived. The plates were steaming hot, which gave me plenty of time to worry whether Akshay would know how to handle his dish. The salmon came festooned with open clamshells around the edge, and I was concerned he’d try to eat these whole. Should I say something? Or should I hope he was worldly enough to recognize that razor-sharp shells would cut his GI tract to ribbons?

While Akshay picked at the edible parts of his meal, Jenny was talking to Beth. I’d heard that the Indians are a naturally inquisitive people, and that Americans could expect unabashed questioning about topics we’re not used to discussing with relative strangers. Jenny wanted to know more about the everyday life of U.S. citizens. I was afraid she’d ask how often we invaded our next-door neighbors, or if we felt at all guilty about driving indigenous peoples from our subdivision. Instead, she asked simply “what is it that you do for fun?”

Beth and I looked uncomfortably at each other. We’re in our late 50’s, have a mortgage, worry about the soaring cost of healthcare, and wonder if our dreams of retirement have completely evaporated in the current recession.

Fun? Not really on our radar.

“Uh, well, we go out to the movies sometimes,” Beth said.

“I like to play Words With Friends,” I added.

I think Jenny got the hint and tactfully abandoned the topic of pleasure.

We returned to our food and finished up with little additional conversation. Both my guests seemed comfortable in their surroundings, and I was glad I had restrained myself from explaining the purposes of the fork, and how I was going to use the “magic” of a “credit card” to pay for our meal.

Beth and I asked for boxes to put our leftovers in, and suggested they do the same in case they wanted a snack later. Such a thing isn’t done in polite company in Asia but, we explained, this is America, and we really, really like our food.

“Do you have a microwave in your room?” I asked. “Do you know what a microwave is?”

“Ha, ha,” laughed Akshay. “Yes, we are familiar with the microwaves and yes, we have one in our room.”

I had made it through almost the entire evening without talking down to these wonderful people. Now, I had finally made my requisite faux pas and gotten it out of the way. I was relieved as we walked them back to the hotel.

The evening was still pleasantly warm. The neighborhood we passed through is one of those “new urbanism” developments, with old-fashioned storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the second. Though built from scratch only a few short years ago, the architecture had the look of a much earlier time.

We arrived back at the brand-new Hilton where they were staying and prepared to say our good-byes. Akshay looked up at the Hilton sign, and saw the street address — 1920 — just beneath it.

“This building is well-kept for being almost a hundred years old,” he said.

I passed on the urge to finally be able to use my superior knowledge of the world.

“Yes, it is,” I said.

Don't eat the clamshells (it's considered rude in America)

Bothersome ‘facts’ don’t square with governor’s claim

September 22, 2011

To those who have wondered how Tea Party types with limited comprehension of subjects like “science” and “facts” would govern if elected — look no further than South Carolina.

Our governor, Indo-Hottie Nikki Haley, was swept into office last year after out-stupiding Republican opponents in her party’s primary, then cruising against a Democrat in the general election. She rose from being an obscure legislator to the state’s top office after getting an endorsement from fellow-dunderhead Sarah Palin.

Touting her experience as bookkeeper for her mother’s clothing firm, the former Nimrata Randhawa has staked out what she calls a pro-business agenda. This apparently includes a trip abroad costing in excess of $100,000 to lure European companies to move to South Carolina, an effort which not surprisingly has yet to yield results.

Though she spouts the standard anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party — even to the point of refusing federal funds that might mitigate the state’s horrendous education and employment rates — she’s all too ready to insert the state into people’s private lives through the drug-testing business. She wants those receiving unemployment and other government benefits to generate a drug-free stream of urine before they are qualified to avoid starvation and homelessness.

Haley bases this cornerstone of her public policy on a conversation she “thought” she had while campaigning at the Energy Department’s Savannah River nuclear site.

“We were on the site. There were multiple people in there. And that comment they made had a huge impact on me,” Haley told the Associated Press recently. “It’s the reason you’re hearing me look into whether we can do drug testing. Somebody can’t say that and it not stick you in the gut.”

The “that” which Haley vaguely remembers is this: half the people applying for work at the site failed their pre-employment drug test, and half the remainder couldn’t pass reading and writing tests. Since “learning” that “fact,” Haley has used the illustration to justify her attempt to link drug tests to benefits.

Haley said she’s probably repeated the story “a million times” since hearing it. Trouble is, the story is not even close to being true.

Department of Energy spokesman Jim Giusti says that less than one percent of workers failed pre-employment screening tests. This matches up with reports by Quest Diagnostics, a national drug testing company, that show on average less than two percent of people test positive for drugs nationally.

Haley now admits that she’s “frustrated” that she can’t document something that has so shaped her policy perspective.

“I’ve never felt like I had to back up what people tell me. You assume that you’re given good information,” Haley said. “And now I’m learning through you guys [the press] that I have to be careful.”

The people who misinformed her are “now all backing off saying it,” Haley offered. “And they know they said it. But now they don’t have the backup.”

“I’m not going to say it anymore,” Haley finally conceded.

As for the other half of applicants who allegedly couldn’t pass reading and writing tests, Haley has offered no similar concession. But it’s probably true that, thanks to education budgets gutted by successive Republican governors, close to half of a random sampling of South Carolinians could be illiterate.

One interesting footnote: Quest’s annual survey did show that the overall drug test failure rate for South Carolina was 6.5 percent, about four times the national average though still well short of Haley’s 50 percent claim. But all that proves is that you have to be stoned to voluntarily live in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley

Job sharing could end unemployment

September 20, 2011

A little-noticed clause in President Obama’s new jobs bill could result in a dramatic drop in the jobless rate. However, the quality of the jobs, and the goods and services that result from them, could suffer significantly.

The proposal to encourage more “job sharing” — an arrangement that allows two or more workers to split a single job — could knock the current 9% unemployment rate to almost zero. But having multiple people performing a task that was previously done by a single individual could have a serious downside, economists warn.

“It’s bound to get a little crowded on the other side of the bank teller window,” noted Princeton’s Mike Brennan. “If you’ve got half a dozen clerks all trying to help you at once, I’d recommend you count your money carefully.”

The plan offered by the administration is based on the European model, where the workforce is allowed to keep up its skills and maintain benefits while working drastically reduced hours.

Republicans were quick to attack the bill.

“Based on a European model?” asked House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “What, does everybody have to start smoking and making themselves vomit to lose weight? I don’t think we need to have public policy in the United States dictated by a bunch of Eurotrash stick-figure models wearing the latest style in goofy hats.”

“The American people,” added House Speaker John Boehner, “are not prepared to wear goofy hats.”

Democrats seemed to be warming slowly to the idea of job-sharing. Some saw it as a way they might be able to hold onto their Congressional seats should there be another Republican sweep in the 2012 elections. Others said they wanted to wait and see how practical the plan is before deciding to oppose it.

The President could point to several pilot projects already under way that aim to prove job-sharing will work on a large scale.

“Let’s not use the pilot project as an example,” urged White House press secretary Jay Carney. “Those pilots couldn’t agree whose responsibility it was to deploy the landing gear, and the jet crashed killing all aboard. That’s probably not the illustration you’d want to use.”

Instead, Carney directed reporters to a print shop outside Washington, D.C., where a work-share arrangement has resulted in the hiring of almost 100 new employees.

“We used to have one typesetter who would key in all the menus, flyers, resumes, etc., which we produce for our customers,” said KwikPrint manager Gretchen Hastings. “Now, we have a whole staff of typists, with each one responsible for a particular letter or punctuation mark.”

Hastings said her newly expanded staff will gather behind the keyboard and step forward to key their individual character as needed. The workers will share the $15-per-hour salary allocated to the position, allowing each person to pocket a much-needed 15 cents an hour.

“We thought about paying more for those in charge of keying the most-commonly-used letters, but that would’ve been an accounting nightmare,” Hastings said. “The payroll department is already struggling to absorb its nine new workers [one for each digit, plus the original accountant] and we didn’t want to complicate things further for them.”

Most of the typesetters are simply grateful to have gainful employment.

“I had been looking for almost 18 months, so I was really glad to finally land something,” said Beth Barber, who’s in charge of typing all “g’s”. “At least I got my foot in the door. Maybe they’ll eventually expand my responsibilities to include the letters ‘f’ and ‘h’.”

“I’m so grateful to be here,” said Bruce Rabin, who lost his job in banking in 2008 and has been unemployed ever since. “I’m going to type the hell out of my ‘w’ while I’m there, and hope that I make a good impression.”

April Johnson, the veteran typesetter who had to move aside to make room for all the new hires, was not as happy with the change as her fellow workers.

“The pay cut obviously sucks. I’ve got to admit, though, that it gives me more time to spend with my family,” Johnson said. “I live close by and, since my new responsibility includes only the relatively rare ‘z’, I have time to run home and check on my ailing mother in between words.”

Press secretary Carney said other businesses are also starting to get on the job-sharing bandwagon.

“There’s a car dealership in Arlington where potential buyers meet with salesmen who sell only a particular part of the car,” he said. “And I’ve heard of several Wendy’s (hamburger outlets) who use separate order-takers for each item on the menu.”

Carney denied a report that even his job as press secretary would be split among several dozen previously unemployed workers.

“To have a crowd of people standing up here, each one separately in charge of saying their own particular word in response to your questions, just wouldn’t be feasible,” he said. “The White House needs to communicate a clear, focused message on this issue.”

Told that most Americans questioned in a recent poll said they felt President Obama’s communications on the jobs issue were “muddled” and “confusing,” Carney said only “oh”.

“Hey, we could use that guy,” print shop manager Hastings said. “Our ‘o’ lady just quit to take a job in the healthcare field. She’s in charge of opening the Band-Aids, then handing them off to another worker to be applied to the injured patient.”

Italian businessman Ronaldo Salerno (left) waits his turn to dress as a gladiator entertaining tourists in Rome.