Work Tales, An Insider’s Guide to How I Work
It’s a few minutes after 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and I’m in my lab setting up a run-of-the-mill, routine, nothing special base hydrolysis of an ester — trying a new technique to measure this chemical reaction, which is no big deal and there’s really nothing to it. You all know what I mean; it’s simple stuff.
Right at a spot in my experiment where nothing can go wrong, I hope, the lab phone rings.
“Hello,” I say, because it’s proper to be cordial, plus the caller may be considering spending a million bucks with my company and I don’t want to rile the person up. There’s a long pause, and then the caller says,
“Are you Technical Support?”
“I can be,” I say. “It kind of depends on your question.”
“Ummm, it sounds like you’re in a lab or something. I hear lab-type sounds.”
“I am in a lab,” I say.
“But I need to talk with Tech Support. You’re some kind of lab guy, right? No disrespect.”
“None taken. I’m a lot of things, including lab guy. So, how about if you ask your question and we’ll see if I’m also Tech Support.”
“OK,” the caller says. “I forgot the password to the software my school purchased from you. Can you send it to me?”
“I can and I will. Is it all right if I send it in about five minutes? I’m about to add some sodium hydroxide to a beaker of ethyl acetate solution.”
“YOU’RE WHAT???” the caller says, a bit louder than necessary.
And then the caller, who explains she’s a recently minted Ph.D. chemist who landed a job teaching in an urban high school, and I have a nice chat about the kinetics of reactions involving certain organic species, which ended with,
“I certainly didn’t expect that discussion when I called what I thought was a call center.”
“And as soon as I confirm the order, rate constant, and activation energy of this reaction, I’ll send you that password for your software.”
Just another day in the office.
Part Two: Another Day
A group of teachers from Thailand has been visiting my company’s office for the past two days. One of my bosses thought I was the perfect person to help this group learn how to use some chemistry-related devices. Little did he know….
My first clue that this could be a huge pile of nonstop fun was when I was introduced to The Translator.
“Sooooo,” I said in a thoughtful tone, “they don’t speak English?”
“Not exactly,” was the reply.
My second clue was learning the backgrounds of the group: two of the ten teachers taught chemistry.
“Sooooo,” I said quizzically, “eight of these people who don’t speak English also haven’t studied Chemistry?”
“But they’re all science teachers,” was the reply.
And so my part of the Thai teacher training session began. I would speak in slowly apportioned bursts, two sentences in length, followed by The Translator’s translation — four or five sentences long. This process challenged my ability to maintain a coherent train of thought. There were times when, during The Translator’s translating, I was at a loss to recall where I had left off.
“Did I mention the exceedingly high toxicity of Reagent A?” I thought to myself at one point.
The session ended and, as I glanced out at the group, the feeling swatted me upside the head that it had somehow gone pretty well. One thing was bugging me, however, and I asked for a moment of The Translator’s time.
“Ms. T,” I said, “during your translations I think I heard you say the same phrase over and over. I am curious about what that phrase was.”
The Translator smiled and looked down at the floor.
“The phrase to which you refer,” she said, “is this.” And she spouted some sounds.
“That’s it! What is it?” I said.
“Thai,” The Translator said, followed by more smiling and more staring at the apparently really interesting design of our floor tiles. “It means: somewhat endearing and obscure sports idiom.”
“Soooooo,” I said, “I should have laid off the American jargon?”
“It would have taken,” The Translator said, “a long time to explain: home run, par for the course, slam dunk, hat trick, and that idiom about throwing -“
“Throw in the towel?”
“Yes,” The Translator said. “It would be a sticky wicket for me, to be sure.”
“Touche’,” I said.
“Excuse me?” The Translator said meekly.
“I must be going now,” I said, stepping back toward the nearest door. “It was a pleasure.”
Part Three: Yet Another Day
It’s a Saturday and I’m standing at my desk in the office typing. I’ve got one of those desks that moves up and down, so I can stand and work or sit and work or crouch and work. At the moment it is all the way up and I’m sitting on a stool. I like to flout convention.
One of my co-workers comes in; I hear the back door softly slam shut. He bops over, humming and snapping his fingers. He walks up behind me and swats my shoulder.
“Hey, bud!” Co-worker Guy says garrulously. “Whatcha doin’? It’s the weekend you know! You should be outside recreatin’! Doin’ some typin’ are ya?”
“Yup,” I say as I type. “Doing a little typing. Why aren’t you outside….recreating?”
Co-worker Guy puts up his dukes and spars with the air around him, faking like he’ll punch me in the back at any moment. He makes noises that are supposed to mimic blows being struck. He’s a decent sort, overall. Drops his Gs when he talks, but I can’t see the harm in it.
“Pickin’ up a couple things,” CG blusters. “And then I’m outta here! Whatcha typin’? Don’t tell me you’re doin’ work! Tell me you’re not doin’ work!”
“I’m not doing work,” I say as I finish typing a sentence.
“Looks like work to me,” CG screams. “Typin’ at yer desk in the office on a lovely sunny Saturday! If that ain’t workin’ then I don’t know what is!”
I smile and clear my throat and toss an elbow like I’m getting in position to grab a rebound on a basketball court. My elbow hits CG’s shoulder and he rears back like he’s been smashed by a sledge hammer, although I barely touch him. He lets out a terrified, “Woooo!!!!”
“Oh, sorry, man,” I say. “I didn’t think you were that close.”
“Ya got them pointy elbows!” CG hollers. “Take out an eye with them things! What are ya typin’ anyway? Some kind of sneaky thing you can only do onna weekend?”
“I’m writing a story,” I say.
“Writin’ a story?”
“Yup. Never wrote one, thought I’d give it a try.”
“Why come in here to write a story?”
“The office is usually quiet and empty on the weekend. Usually.”
CG doesn’t get the hint.
“Can I read your story?” CG bellows.
“Sure,” I say as I step back from the big monitor that dominates my desk. CG lowers the desk a little bit and reads. He snorts, yammers, uses some coarse language, stretches, and completes an impressive stint of nose picking.
“This is a kids’ story!” CG shrieks. “Yer writin’ a story fer kids!”
“Yup,” I say. “Whaddaya think?”
CG rubs his chin almost hard enough to draw blood. He raps his forehead with a couple knuckles. He paws the floor with a foot. He haws, right after he hems.
“It’s not bad,” CG wails. “Whenya gonna finish it?”
“Prolly inna weekerso,” I say in CG’s dialect.
“Yer not gonna kill any of the characters off, are ya?”
“Maybe, it’s hard to say. It’s a process. I’ll go where the story takes me.”
“You kill off that bunny and you’ll have me to answer to!” CG shouts. “Got it?”
And he races out the door before I can respond. Heck of a place, this office of mine.
Part Four: A Whole ‘Nother Day
Today is different.
It feels different and it looks different.
My co-workers are different. They look different and they are acting differently.
The air feels different, the building smells different, the sounds are not the same as before.
But all this difference makes perfect sense, because today, my friends, is Monday.
Monday in the Office.
A whole ‘nother day indeed.
A Monday in the Office requires planning. Without a carefully designed strategy, Monday in the office will chew you up and spit you out and it’ll laugh like a hyena while it’s chewing and spitting. Mondays in Offices have caused fist fights and early retirements and bouts of palsy and gouts of spasms and all manner of undesirable behaviors and loathsome experiences.
I had a strategy to tackle Mondays.
I was ready for Monday.
I planned to spend the day in……The Lab.
The Lab is where all manner of chemicals are stored, along with a variety of glassware and wondrous devices to measure and mix and heat those chemicals so they froth and gurgle and produce vapors and wildly colored substances for which the wisest recommendation to the casual observer is a hearty, “Stand back!”
I spent the greater part of this day, this vile Monday, safely sequestered in The Lab. Oh, it was glorious! The perfect way to defeat Monday in the Office.
Co-workers sidled up to my desk, looking for me, wanting to enjoin me in the tedious and grimy tasks that had been deposited onto them and they were now looking for another person upon whom to deposit these atrocious pieces of busy work.
“Where’s Jack?” the co-workers would ask. “We need to speak with him. It’s urgent.”
“Where can he be?” other co-workers would say. “He was here a minute ago. It’s of utmost importance that we see him ASAP.”
“Let’s leave him a note,” a bevy of co-workers moaned. “Let’s leave him several notes.”
And then they saw my note.
Taped to the monitor at my desk.
Written with large letters.
The note said, and I quote: I’m in The Lab
I signed it, Jack, because, well, you know, after all I did write the note.
The bevy of co-workers jammed up against the door of The Lab. I heard some scraping and pawing and mumbling and moaning, reminding me of the only episode of the Walking Dead I had the fortitude to watch. I opened the door a crack.
“State your business,” I said.
“May we come in?” The Bevy cried. “We need to see you! We have things for you to do for us! Task-related things. We need you to do them right away, that way we won’t have to do the tasks and we can somehow make it through a Monday in the Office!”
I closed the door quickly and pointed to the sign on the door’s window. The sign read: Authorized Personnel Only
“Sorry,” I said loudly so The Bevy could hear through the sturdy door protecting the rest of the building from the contents of The Lab. “None of you are authorized to come into The Lab.”
“How can we become authorized?” The Bevy pleaded. “Please oh please, tell us how!”
“I can authorize you, for I have that authority,” I said. “But not today. Perhaps tomorrow.”
The Bevy retreated, sharing sullen looks.
I went back to scrubbing test tubes, wiping down lab bench tops, and other necessary duties that make up Working in The Lab. It was the perfect way to spend a Monday in the Office.
Part Five: The Day of Days
Wednesday, for me, is a day to take stock, and by that I don’t mean bring a heifer to the office. Another week is rolling by and it is a good idea to see how things in the office are going — things that are long term and short term and routine and unexpected and pleasant and infuriating and tedious and thrilling (as thrilling as office things can be, that is).
I examine the to-do list I wrote Monday.
Two days later, the list is longer. But, that might be all right; maybe the list wasn’t long enough to begin with.
I review the projects needing to be done by the end of the day Friday.
This will not be a 40-hour week, but most aren’t. Staying late, working in the lab when there may be 1–2 other people in the building, adds a curious wrinkle to quiet contemplation. And in the lab, at work, after hours, is the only place where that brand of contemplation can happen.
I check the company calendar. Four new meetings have been scheduled for me. Meetings can be necessary and can be good, ‘nuf said.
A co-worker from Shipping & Receiving saunters past me in the hallway and beams, “Happy hump day!” And so it is.
Monday: deep end of the pool. Friday: exit strategy. Tuesday: pull your own weight. Thursday: go with the flow. Wednesday? Ah, Wednesday. Yes, indeed, Wednesday. Take stock.
All is well.
Part 6: How I Work, not How You Should Work
The bosses are nice in the office where I work. Among the many nice things they’ve done over the years is to tweak the weekly schedule so that people in a few departments (including mine) meet their 40-hour weekly commitment by working 8.5 hours Monday-Thursday and 6 hrs Friday. Thus, at 3 p.m. Fridays, the phones are turned off and the office essentially shuts down. People are not obliged to leave at 3, but most do.
It’s now 4 p.m. and I’m alone in the building.
What shall I do? I could do more work; there’s always more work to be done.
And then a thought came to mind; an activity more efficiently carried out in an empty building. It seemed like an excellent option and so, without further adieu (or much of anything further), I put the thought into action. I sneaked through the building like a spy doing espionage to collect secret information not readily available through normal channels.
When one sneaks around in one’s own office building, there are a few rules of honor that must be heeded for reasons of simple respect and obvious job security, which are:
1. If a person’s office door is closed, don’t go in.
2. If you sneak into a cubicle, don’t open any drawers.
3. If a person’s computer is asleep, don’t wake it up.
I sneaked up a set of stairs. No one saw or heard me, primarily because no one else was in the building but I like to think I was still pretty sneaky and might have made it up the stairs unseen even if people were here. I stopped at a cubicle and snooped over the half-wall to spy a tidy area. On the desktop next to a keyboard was a small, globe-shaped camera and a sign taped to the monitor which read: “Complete this sentence: The camera is catching me in the act of.……” Very clever. I stuck my tongue out at the camera and sneaked away.
I sneaked all over the place, kind of hunching over and sidling around with my back against walls and peeking furtively around corners and doing a few mustache twirls. I stopped at many desks and work stations and looked for one thing that made the desk or station unique — a figurine, a photo, a holder crammed with pens and pencils, Hot Wheels car, ball cap, cup or glass, items of that nature that describe us in our absence.
And then, as I was standing at a work station surrounded with Lego creations and wind-up toys, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Hi,” the shoulder tapper said softly. “How’s it going?”
I can’t leap straight up as high as I could years ago, but on this day I probably came close to matching my best leap ever.
“Wha!?” I said a few octaves up the scale. I turned to see one of the maintenance crew.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to sneak up on you like that. I think we’re the only ones here. I’m about to leave. Have a good weekend!” And he wandered off.
Sneaky little guy.
That’s how I work. It works for me.