Sunday, January 30, 2011


I was sitting in my cubicle the other day when a co-worker came by to talk about my hockey career. You know those jokes that are funny at first and then they get old, and then, if you really persist, they get funny again?  Or maybe they don’t.

For the past 10 years, 98 percent of our interactions have been based on the premise that he’s my agent, trying to get me a contact with the National Hockey League.  No, I don’t play hockey.  A typical conversation passing in the hall goes like this:

“Hey, you ready to fly to Toronto?  I’ve been talkin’ to a guy there.”

“Yep.  Skates are sharp.  Ready.”

And that’s as far as it ever goes.  There’s such a serious tone to it all that one day a couple of women in our office actually thought that I was looking for a spot as a goalie in a professional league, which is puzzling on so many levels that I won’t go into it here. 

 “Thought I saw you at Wayne Gretzky’s 50th birthday party. Did you get any offers?”

“Yeah, that was quite a party.”

“Seriously, you should definitely have representation.  I’ll get you a way better deal.  Don’t be hanging out with those guys on your own.  By the way, did you miss me the other day?  I took the day off to get stints put in my arteries.”

“Wow, I had no idea. How do they do that, anyway?”

He gestures to his groin, and starts describing the procedure.  I’m not really a big fan of gestures that involve the groin, but I am sort of curious about the procedure anyway.

At about this point, my boss came in.  “Last night I was watching Norwegian TV on the Internet, and I saw a documentary about the ukulele.  I'll send you the link.  I think you’d really like it!”

This is the kind of thing that’s distracting.  Our guy, The Baron, works all day at his desk, and goes home and watches documentaries in Norwegian.

B. walks by at about this point and announces loudly, “Hey Everyone, I have really bad gas today.”

I have a thought on the edge of my brain that I can’t quite pull into focus, but I try. 

“Have you guys ever read about those experiments where people go underground, and they get completely untethered from the sleep/wake cycle that we normally live on?  And they end up staying up for 36 hours and sleeping for 12, and one minute seem like seven because they have no clock or daylight or schedule?”

“How does that relate to anything?” says my hockey agent.  I know.  As if I’m the one bringing random stuff into the conversation. 

“Well, it just seems like our workplace has gotten a bit like that. Everyone's quirks have just been unleashed, everyone is getting completely untethered from normalcy. Has anyone else noticed?”

My question for you, dear readers:  Is this a global phenomenon, or is it just in our office? 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Welcome to my workplace*

This week, since we’ve all been required to work a bunch more hours and there’s even less to do, I remembered that the bosses used to ask me to do stuff.  I went to The Baron.

“Hey, remember when everyone cared about what we were doing around here, and you’d give me special little side projects?  Research and stuff?  Let’s do that again.”

“Uh, what did you want to do, exactly?”

“Oh, you know. Something involving an excel spreadsheet.  You’ve got all this underutilized talent, right here!”

”Betsy, I think you’re working right at your capacity.”

“Baron, I’m making photocopies and printing off maps.”

“As I said…” and he gave that wry little Lutheran look.

I went back to my desk, and a little while later he appeared to talk to B. and I.

“Gentle-people, I have a project for one of you.”

In mid-sentence, though, B’s cell phone rang, he answered it, and walked away, clearly having a personal call with his gf, leaving the boss looking a little dismayed.

“What’s the project?” I asked.

“A culvert replacement sort of in your neighborhood.”  But then he names the actual neighborhood.

“Wait, you mean where that meth-related shooting was a few months ago?”

“Yeah, right across the street.”

My cell phone started ringing, but I ignored it, which I think is the right thing to do, don’t you?  But the person calling persisted and called my desk phone.

“Uh, I think B. is your person on that one.  I’m already working at my full capacity,” I say, before answering the phone.

I wandered off to ask the Great Sandini if he has a project for me.

“Even if it’s just a towel wrapped around a wire armature, Sandini.  Give me something I can care about, at least for a little bit.”

“I have just the thing.  Let me run it by a few people first, though.”  Accompanied by that smirk, making me a little nervous, because if I had to sum it up, he’d be much better at the wire armature than the towel.

When I return to my desk, I see that I’ve gotten a reply to this, a long e-mail full of corporate double-speak blah blah blah, but if I were to sum it up, it said something like, “We really value all the hard work you do but you all give very poor customer service, and the remedy is that you all work on Fridays, and we aren’t particularly interested in how the schedule affects anyone or the planet.  And by the way, requiring 20 percent more commuting days doesn’t necessarily increase your carbon footprint, depending on what you do on your days off. “ 

That last bit reminded me a lot of an argument that I once heard an eight year-old meat eater give to an eight year old vegetarian who didn’t want to eat at McDonalds. 

“Look,” she said, “these cows are already dead.  They’re already formed into little patties, stacked up in there.  One little girl not eating a hamburger is not gonna make a bit of difference to that dead cow.”

Does that seem like the same thing to anyone else? 

I was feeling a little bitter for a minute, which is so not a good direction to go that I stare at my full spectrum light for a minute, and then head back into The Baron’s office.  “I got a reply finally.  I’m feeling disgruntled and disenfranchised.  What have you got for me?”

The Baron laughs heartily.  “Why would you be disappointed?”

“Because.  I got a dismissive e-mail that was basically like getting the finger in a very polite, condescending form.”

“Oh Betsy. Sending that e-mail was like buying a lottery ticket.  The anticipation is where the good part is.  You know nothing good will happen.  Think of how long it took him to get back to you! That was awesome!”

Wait, I was thinking, why didn't anyone tell me that nothing good will ever happen? What happened to, as R. says, the power of the letter?

I see J., a.k.a., “I’ve Never Been Trained In That” coming, so I try to make a quick exit, but the boss also sees him coming and calls me back in.

“Betsy, you’ve been looking for a special project.  How would you like to train our section in MS Word?”

I’ve Never Been Trained In That gets an angry look.  “No, Baron, I want REAL training.”

I interrupt.  “Train our section?  All we do with Word is write letters.  Everyone who works here now has worked here for at least a decade.  What kind of training could anyone possibly need?”

“Oh, some people need  assistance with the Track Changes feature.  Maybe you could do a presentation at a staff meeting.”

I’m standing there thinking, um, yep, this looks like a super fun assignment, and I can totally see why, of the 14,000 employees in this County, I’m your person.

“Sure, I’ll do it,” I say, which is a tribute to the depths of my curiosity and boredom, because I can’t think of anything that sounds less appealing than sitting in a conference room without computers,  explaining the track changes feature to angry people who want to hear it from a Real Trainer.

Someone suggested I do the training as a participatory interpretive dance, which seems like a pretty good idea. 

A friend said recently, “On the bright side, if you don’t have many permits coming in, you can probably do a really good job with each one, right?  Give good customer service?”

Which would be logical, and made me realize just how complicated it is to explain this workplace.  Because the weird thing is that with the poorly thought-out layoffs is that its nearly impossible for anything to happen. If our organization were a human body, imagine that 75 percent of it were amputated, leaving only a few unattached fingers, an appendix, a pancreas, a neck, two bad knees, and a nose with acne.  Then take that body, and go in a triathlon. 

But, to make it even harder, the nose doesn’t know what other body parts remain, because, and I imagine this sounds a little strange too, but a lot of the people who were laid off as of the first of the year are still showing up, and a lot of the people who weren’t laid off are so demoralized that they aren’t showing up, so it’s difficult to tell who works there anymore. 

But, back to the triathlon – imagine, now, that the nose, which was pretty good at smelling, has been asked to take on the other functions of the area from the neck up, but so has the neck, but neither knows about the other.   In fact, the nose thinks it has to do the work of the neck too, which pisses the neck off, because that’s union work, by god.

All in all, it makes for tons of material, and if I weren’t so irritable about the whole thing, I’d be trying to find the humor in the fact that someone drives in from 15 miles away now each day to sort the mail and drop it in the mailbox 100 yards from our building, and how the former secretary who became head of HR is now also in charge of the HVAC system, copy machines, and vehicle fleet.  If only I had time.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Astrology, revisited.

Aries (3/21 – 4/19): I suppose you were fascinated by Spiderman's accident.  Let it be a reminder to check your own safety net.  That's the deal, Aries.  You can jump long and far as long as you're firmly attached.  But don't just assume you aren't attached and play it too safe either, you know? We should make some plans for gathering.  Ditch all of those needy people you're related to by blood and marriage, and meet me for a drink in town one evening.

Taurus (4/20 – 5/20):  Have you ever started on a project that you think will be really interesting because something good happens at the beginning, but then Nothing. Ever. Happens. Again.?  The other day, I started asking around at the office, "what are you going to miss now that we have to work on Fridays?"  I was thinking I'd collect our grief and do something with it, I wasn't sure what.  The very first person I asked said she was going to have to quit going to Beer Bingo at the Pickled Onion on Thursday nights, and she explained the whole deal, which I won't go into here, but it involves twins, and darts, blackout bingo, and more.  It's just not something you can participate in on a work night.  I got inspired to ask a bunch more people, and this is where it gets a little sad, because people's answer to, "what do you usually do on Friday that you'll miss?" was stuff like, "oh, I do the sweeping and laundry."  Seriously, someone actually said that.  Which is completely missing the point, and brings me back to my point with you, dear Taurus:  Don't get sucked into doing boring stuff.  Give it a little try, and then move on.  Life is too short to collect stories about sweeping.

Gemini (5/21 – 6/21):  Have you ever tried bowling?  You think of it as not a real sport, but I heard of someone, a yoga instructor and triathlete, fit and beautiful, who thought she was in reasonable shape until she went bowling, and it turns out there are hidden bowling muscles.  The point, Gemini, is many-fold.  1.  In the practical sense, if you're thinking of taking up bowling, or even going to the alley for a pastrami sandwich, you should probably get an okay from your physician.    2) in the metaphoric sense, something that seems like a lame little 'wear-the-dorky-shoes-and-roll-the-heavy-ball down-the-lane-over-and-over'  sport is actually complicated, and there are lessons to be learned there, and secret muscles and learnings, just like our lives.  (Except for the shoes, of course.).  Learn those lessons.  You've got time.

Cancer (6/22 – 7/21): I wish I had a good horoscope for you, but all I can find is a stethoscope.  Your heart is actually doing pretty well in all ways.  Phew!  

Leo (7/23 – 8/22):  Sometimes it's better to just let things slide.  Someone in the Permit Center the other day, after I helped him a ton, and explained the possibilities for this property he was thinking of buying, like:  "1) it could be fine; 2) there could be some wetland, making it a bit difficult, or 3) there could be wetlands all over the place, making it pretty complicated and costly.  I recommended that he find out for sure before making an offer."

"So what you're saying," the man says to me in a thick Russian accent, "is that this is NOT a free country."

I usually don't take that bait, but in this instance, I said, "Um, could you clarify?  I'm really not seeing the link here.  Free country?"  

Yeah, you can imagine how that ended up.  Don't be that person.  Let things roll off you this week.

Virgo (8/23 – 9/22): My dear imaginary Virgo friends, answer your e-mail once in a while, eh?  Skip work and ski with me.  Or at the very least, make up some lame but semi-plausible excuse. 

Libra (9/23 – 10/22): Learn a language, especially if it's Spanish.  Don't worry so much about the squirrels in the attic (actual, not metaphorical) that are destroying the house, or about whether you can swim (metaphorical, not actual), and just jump in the water already.

Scorpio (10/23 – 11/21):  What do you think, will Snowpocalypse materialize?  Is bigfoot real?  What happens when we die?  Scorpio, your week will be full of the big questions.  Try to intersperse that with some of the medium questions, like, does the fact that vampire bats will feed non-related, non-partner bats suggest that altruism exists?   Or is it just a practical response to large mammal decline during the ice age?  The deal is, though, that the hungry bat has to beg a little.  Don't be so averse to asking for what you need.

Sagittarius (11/22 – 12/21): Hey, bro, had a dream with you in it.  Not like MLK or anything, but still...  Take care of business, be open, don't think too hard.  Find the sweet spot between the completely concrete stuff of your daily life, and the unknowables.  Wander like a sine curve between the two regions.  This week is full of hope and promise.

Capricorn (12/22 – 1/19):  Hey, it's the birthday of you and Elvis.  Sing a song, have a sandwich.

Aquarius (1/20 – 2/18): Do you ever listen to WireTap, and the Dad is supposed to represent being kind of old and out of it, and then he says he really likes to play solitaire on the internet?  I hate that.  Its like that book, Eden Express, by Mark Vonnegut, where you're right there with him until he's institutionalized, and you're like, whoa, one false step, and that's my ride...  Yeah, don't think that way.  It'll get you nowhere.  Make good lunches for yourself this week.  In fact, why don't your write yourself friendly little encouraging notes to put in the lunch sack?  That would be such a pleasant surprise!

Pisces (2/19 – 3/20): This shooting in Arizona is the saddest thing.  Wonder, this week, how we raise such disenfranchised people, and what to do about it.  And then, take yourself out for a cupcake, because it shouldn't be all about the grim.  It should also be about chocolate.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Resolutions, revolutions

I get a text from R on NYE:  “Can I have some kids over for a sleepover?”


“Sure, as in okay, or sure as in Ab-so-lutely?”


“Whoa, Mom.  Calm down.  You got a resolution?"

“Yes.  To be more accepting and forgiving of my loved ones.”

“Mine is to try to do something you can’t forgive or accept. HA HA HA”

Our text conversation ends there, but it made me start thinking about resolutions.  I asked around the workplace yesterday, and almost no one had one.

The boss came in to see if we won the lotto (we didn’t), and I asked him.

“No, I don’t really do that.”

"B?  How ‘bout you?"


“Hey, boss, can I assign NY resolutions?  ”  Sadly, he walked away without answering, but B. asks what his would be.

“I’d like to suggest that you focus on not drunk-dialing your girlfriend.”

“That’s not a bad idea.  I might actually work on that.”

Out of about 30 people I asked, no one had a resolution.  I even asked the Great Sandini, who gave me that look, like, what exactly are you supposed to be doing, and then just answered, ‘nope’.

“Great One, I’ve noticed that no one here makes them.”

He gave that smirk, said, “explaining why we all still work here”, and walked off.

A little while later, my phone rang, and I answered, “Hello, this is Betsy.”

Hello, this is ____ common man’s name.”

I vaguely recognized the voice, but couldn't quite place it.

“Is there a burn ban?”

I recognize the voice now, and it’s a division director, who is also the fire marshall.  I can’t quite figure out why he’s calling me on this, but I say, “Yes, there’s a stage 2 burn ban.  No burning unless it’s your only source of heat.”

“Wait, is this Betsy?”

I think it’s strange that we’re back at the beginning already, but I start over like a robot. “Hi, this is Betsy.”

“Wait, why do you know about the burn ban? I guess I called the wrong number."

He hung up before I could ask his resolution, or more importantly, why the fire marshall calls me to find out about the burn ban, which I'm pretty sure is his to announce, but I just want to say that I think I make a damn good wrong number, which, if it didn’t look like I was showing off, I might actually have as a second resolution.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mega millionaire

It is possible that I won the mega-millions lottery last night, but I’ll wait to find out. The pot has gotten huge.  Earlier this week, I was out of the office for I think only an hour, and when I came back, a lottery pool had been created, fantasies were being developed.

My boss came into my cubicle, probably to be near my full-spectrum light, which, not to stray too far from the topic, but I do feel like I work with a bunch of moths.

“Hey, Betsy, if I win the lottery, you can work at the foundation that I start.  We can give away money.”

I know.  His lottery fantasy is that he’d still be my boss.  I can’t decide how I feel about that, but I guess it could be a lot worse. 

“Hey, I’d take that job.  I think I’d be pretty good at it.”

“I know you would. We have to come up with a name for the foundation.”

At this point, two things happened:  they discovered they didn’t win, and the pager went off, summoning me to the permit center, abruptly ending the whole thing.

The man I went to help was one of those reasonable guys with a story to tell.  As soon as he started, I felt like a passenger on a long car ride through the Midwest, relaxing and safe.  If anything was going to happen in the story, I was pretty sure I’d be able to see it coming for miles, unlike the story that R. told me the other day, where six sentences in I still had no idea where we were headed.

The story involved building a house in 1985, then moving to Alaska and renting it out, but with a lot of detail that involved raising kids, fishing, the jobs that everyone’s had, and so on.

I felt like I should probably rein him in and help him focus on the aspects of the story that pertained to anything I might be able to answer, but I was getting drowsy in that ‘someone else is driving and I could just nod off’ way.   Eventually, we got to the part where he came back to evict the people because they weren’t paying rent, and the house was trashed.

He pulls out a photo album.  “So, you can see that this is where the washer and dryer were, and there’s some water damage on the floor.  I pulled up the floor….”  It goes on like this for a while, an illustrated tour of a damaged house.  I’m very content looking at the pictures and making clucking noises when appropriate.

“There’s a really bad stench in the house, so I pulled up all of the carpets, but it didn’t go away.  I’ve been working in there for weeks and it’s just bad.  I hired a neighbor – he’s an unemployed guy, used to be in construction  -- anyway, I hired him to help me rip out some of the drywall.  Sort of a win-win, if you see what I mean.”

I feel like a cat in the sun.  “Yes, I do see,” I respond sleepily.

“So the neighbor comes in and says, “That stench, Bob?  That stench is human urine.”

I so didn’t see that coming.  How long can you be a human and not recognize that smell?  Unemployed neighbor needs to name it?  I suddenly have a million questions for him, but I can’t ask any of them, so I keep my mouth shut.

He shows me photos of where the toilet used to be, and how it wasn’t working properly, so the tenants just peed all over the house.  The photos are pretty disgusting because now I can imagine the stench, and of course, the house isn’t really too far from my own neighborhood, which is disconcerting.
“So, are there any wetlands or streams on the parcel?”  I know.  We’re like, half an hour into it by now.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Hmm, I don’t think you need to talk to me.  Let me find someone….” Is that wrong?  Is it better to cut someone off, or let them ramble?

I go back upstairs and the boyz are forming a new lotto pool.  “I’ve already done all of the gambling I can handle,” our boss declares.  “I won’t be joining the pool this time.”

“Sheesh, what about my job and the foundation, BossMan?”

“I don’t have any money to gamble with.”

“I’ll front you $5 if I get to keep my job at the foundation when you win.”

B. pops over, “Wrong. Boss, go get your money.  You don't want any confusion about who the winner is.”

We all join up, and everyone except me starts talking about what they’ll do with their winnings.  The Boss gets a little annoyed that I joined, because he feels like that defeats his reason for joining.  "Nah, I'd still work for you at the foundation," I reassure him.

I realize that I don’t have a lottery fantasy, which is ridiculous, because that's pretty much the whole the point of buying a ticket.  My sorry lottery fantasy is to keep working for my boss.  It’s possible that this is a diagnosable condition.

Maybe because I’m reading Half Empty by David Rakoff, which is about the beauty of pessimism in all it’s forms.  The take home: think harder about the worst-case scenario than the possible good things, because you won’t be so disappointed later on.

Anyway, B. asks the boss to elaborate on his lottery plans.  “What is it: vegas, girls, blow?  What’s your thing?”  Which, if you knew our loafer-wearing, upstanding Lutheran boss, would make you laugh really loud.

“No, none of that, I’ve just got to get the foundation going so Betsy will have meaningful work.”

Anyway, all of that could be in the works, but probably not.

Happy new year, everyone.

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