Tag Archives: workplace

A Timely Entrance

daily_scheduleWe all are creatures of schedules, whether by adhering to them or ignoring them, purposefully or by perverse nature or by mindlessness. Some of us couldn’t function without them; others resent them; for many of us, it is both. Still others pretend that they live without any schedule at all.

The typical time frame in the so-called work world is 9 to 5, give or take an hour on either end, but in this 24/7, internationally plugged-in life cycle we find ourselves in, work can commence at any hour, and in so doing the “ordinary” world seems to lurch – they don’t call it a “shift” for nothing. And pity those whose shifts vary, regularly or otherwise, such as police officers and firefighters, who might have long days followed by short days followed by days off, and a change in hours, as well. This spreads out decent schedules and terrible ones in an equitable sharing, but it has to wreak havoc on their sleep patterns, not to mention their personal lives.

We here at arslocii are people who, over the years, have had less scheduling than most. Some might call it “underemployment.” But, when you work for yourself you have to create your own schedule, and that can be difficult for many, impossible for others. Freedom requires discipline.

timeclock

Change being the only unchanging certainty, we, though free spirits that we are, have found ourselves for more than a decade as someone else’s employee, on someone else’s clock. Not that this was a new concept – we’ve had lots of jobs – but, rather, a bullet we had dodged for a while. And, maybe because of that avoidance, in some sort of karmic payback we ended up having to design our lives around a 4 p.m to midnight  work-time slot. What that meant was that we had part or most of the daylight hours to attend to stuff of our own and had to “time-shift” what we would normally do in the late afternoon until after the witching hour because the real hours belonged to an employer. Once you get used to the rhythm, it isn’t so bad. But, because of the schedule, our dinner time was around 3 in the afternoon. Again, you can get used to it. So we did. We got pretty good at it, in fact. It got to feel like normal. We wondered how others could survive on those horrible 9-to-5 work-release sentences. Other than realizing that the world’s insistence on stupid, standardized work hours meant that we could no longer attend evening socializing of any sort, we felt that we had the best of all possible worlds – except the one where you don’t work for anyone else … or work at all.

Then suddenly, unrequested, this year they changed the schedule on us, to noon to 8 p.m., and Sunday through Thursday. Now, most everyone would think that this would be an improvement over the previous work-day period. It even moves us closer to “normal” hours. But not quite, not enough. In fact, in some ways, in many ways, it is an even worse schedule. After seven-plus years of afternoon dinners, we now are forced to dine at 9 pm. Explain that to your trained stomach. And, by the time you pack up your stuff and get out the door, you still can’t make that 8 o’ clock curtain. Also, where did the hours go for taking care of home-based stuff? You don’t have a day, you don’t have a night. What’s left is maybe two hours in the morning and possibly (if you can stay awake after a meal) two at night. Think about how quickly two hours can disappear without notice and – wham! – suddenly your whole life becomes somebody’s lousy dime. Of course we need that dime. We are grateful for the dime. Others envy us our dime. Some might think us spoiled and entitlement-obnoxious for complaining about that dime. But, still …

In the midst of this upheaval, though, we have found something that we didn’t expect: a renewed sense of placeness. When you go to work to the same place at the same time with the same people every day, you cease to notice any of it, and you come to believe that that is all there is to the place of work and the tasks you and others do. Then, you find yourself coming in at a different time, and the workplace seems something new, even alien. Whereas before, on a later shift, we would come in just as the day-crowd was leaving, and all we knew of them was the transitional passing off of information, chitchat and uncompleted work. They were them; we were us. Eloi and Morlocks. As different, in a real sense, as day and night. But now we are among the day people, and the room that is, at night, quite empty is, when the sun shines, a lively place full of workers who, until now, were just shadows who left their stuff for my group to tidy up and send on its way.

What you see, what you sense, is that a workplace, one with numerous shifts that go on around the clock, is like a theater that never closes, and that you used to think that the production – comedy? tragedy? – began and ended with your entrances and exits and lines, but now you realize that the show was going on before you arrived and continues after you leave, that work life is like this endless ribbon that you are merely a snippet of cut off at random lengths, and that the place hums to more tunes than you ever imagined. It’s a new script, but somehow you know your lines and the choreography; it’s a familiar set, yet something is different enough to make you think that you missed the memo and a few dress rehearsals, and it makes you aware, perhaps for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, of the artificiality of it all – that offices and factory floors are like Potemkin villages to which you grant the gift of reality, whatever that is, so that you can do what you have to do and believe in it.

So, from a simple rejiggering of when you show up for work, what you might come away with is the knowledge that, in all other things in your life you believe yourself to be the star of your own movie, but here you are but a member – perhaps even just in the chorus – of a large and revolving cast, and that the “set” has a lot more storyline outside your own than you ever thought. And somehow, somewhere in there, there is art.

uattend.time_clock

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The Where They Were

the deskYou work and work, and then one day your job is done, or you are done with it, or they are done with you, and – whether it be through resignation, retirement, reorganization or death, physical or psychical ­– you are out that door, a lump of he’s-a-jolly-good-fellow sheet cake in your gut, and gone baby gone.

Except … there are some people – whether because they were beloved or admired or projected a force of personality that transcended the quotidian quiescence of most workplaces – who leave behind their “ghosts”: They, or their tenets, or their echoes, remain in the room. And where they did their work seems to have achieved a kind of placeness that borders on the haunted. That desk, that cubicle, that office – these seem to be theirs and them, and it’s difficult to imagine that they will not be occupying them any longer, and so people leave them alone, stay away, don’t touch a thing and cast glances there every now and then as if to spy them, in their past poses, and thus to reacquire the comfort of their presence, and to return that tilted world to a balance. It is not quite a cargo cult, and not quite a wish, or a prayer, but a feeling or a need.

We humans have an innate propensity toward sanctifying the places where the bigger-than-life have labored, and imprisoning them as if in amber. Douglas MacArthur’s office, Cesar Chavez’s office, Churchill’s underground bunker, others of personages either widely famous or locally known – we freeze those rooms at a certain point in the past, a date or year or period or heightened significance or benevolence or creativity, sometimes in situ, sometimes moved and reassembled in a museum setting.

It is not that the famous or near-famous are there, again, or ever will be, or can be – it is that they were, and that they touched the things there and walked among them , and that the work we know them for was done there. It is like a contact magic. As posed or arid or clinical or hokey or even phony as these places are – somewhat like the real-estate equivalent of taxidermy – they have, in a secular, past-revering and -distorting, celebrity-obsessed society, the power and the function of shrines.

The only such place that to me ever actually felt holy, with a natural and overpowering placeness that was both artless and art-filled, was Jackson Pollack’s studio, on Long Island. Wearing little booties to help preserve the wondrous splatters that explode all over the studio floor, the visitor feels, strongly, palpably, that he has arrived while Pollack has stepped out for a few minutes – paint cans sit open, brushes still upright in them; the only thing missing is a cigarette curling smoke, long ash dangling – and that if he waits long enough the artist will walk through the door and wonder what the hell this interloper is doing there.

But, closer to home: Within 10 days recently, the place where I work saw the departures – planned, if not joyous – of two office leaders, each with 30-plus years in the job and a staff that not only relied on them but looked up to them. We had our parties, said our “auf Wiedersehens,” looked on with envy, pity and fear ….

Now there is the matter of their desks. Theirs are in good locations, one in a prime spot. We have people who would be better served by moving from where they are now to these now-vacant stations. There is no reason for them not to move.

But nobody can bring themselves to do it.

Everybody is steering clear of these two workstations. One of them was cleared, cleaned and neutralized by its recently departed tenant; there is nothing there to indicate that this person ever spent time there. It is ready for anyone to take over. But it sits empty – it is Kevin’s place, still. And the other desk? Well, it’s nearly the way it was when Vince sat there; he walked away without removing much – books, papers, even his favorite green drinking cup are still there. Drawers are still full. No one can even imagine removing the artifacts – it would be blasphemy, desecration. It’s Vince’s desk, and likely to be for a while. And, hey, the way it looks – maybe he’ll be back. You know?

books

When is it time to remove the bones? Is there a respectable period – of mourning? – after which these places cease to exude their placeness and return to simply desk and chair? What is the shelf life of reverence? When does “too soon” become “OK, now” – like finally taking the clothes of deceased loved ones out of the closet and packing them up for Goodwill? Will it take an ignorant, inadvertent newcomer to simply plop down in the spot, and that will be that?

And what is it in us that believes in ghosts and “haunted” spots, that lets the specters of friends and colleagues past rule sensible acts – that imbues a place were we knew someone to be with the continuing characteristics of that person and the emotion or respect that we felt for them?

It is, like most things, inexplicable, and vapors.

empty

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Holding a Higher Office

For the past five years, 10 months and two days, I have worked at a desk in a large open space without interior walls or cubicles, surrounded by a small cadre of co-workers who are practically within arm’s reach of me. Despite the lack of privacy, the loud voices, the distracting smear of sluggishly moving bodies in my 180-degree line of vision, the occasional emission of bodily sound effects (theirs, not mine … I think) and the fear of one of the bosses catching me as I check the Internet for another job (something I have been doing for the past five years, 10 months and 1 day) –  despite all that, and more, it has been a fine way to work. A manageable way to work. An acceptable way to work. OK – it is what it is. Besides, the job I do requires more-or-less continual interaction with my colleagues, as they hand me documents and I, in turn, hand them back, or off to someone else, and so it makes more sense to be out in the field swishing tails with the herd than mooing in my solitary corral. Under a fluorescent glare bright enough to alter one’s circadian rhythm, and possibly one’s DNA, I am one of the cogs.

Most of the time.

Because, of late, I have taken on a new job. Actually, a new task – an addition to, not an instead of. It’s what’s happening everywhere, in this time of retrenchment and collapse: doubling- and tripling-up on duties that have come available because of staff “realignments,” which is just another way of saying layoffs, buyouts and flat-out decimations. “The living will envy the dead,” is what Kruschev said about nuclear war; it’s not quite that in workplaces, but the living can certainly empathize. Anyway, the new “opportunity” that has come my way takes up the first three hours or so of my shift, after which I return to the same Bat Time, same Bat Channel that I have ruminated in for the past five years, 10 months, 2 days and, now, 32 minutes. There’s a bit of squealing and sparks flying as the gears shift, abruptly, as I go directly from one of these “jobs” to the only-semi-related other. But, here is what’s different and odd about this new thing I do: It comes with an office.

And, so, whereas the first action I would take each workday was to make the Bataan march to my desk and say hello to my co-workers, put down my carry-bag, sit down and turn on the computer, now I arrive at my desk, say hello to my co-workers, but then keep on going to my office, which, along with every other office in the place, sits along the perimeter of the big room. My office (how quickly we make or, at least, label something in a possessive way) is, as are most of the others, nothing special. In fact, were it not for the computer, you would expect to see cartons of copy paper stacked in it. What distinguishes it – if distinguish is not too strong a word to apply to a 10-by-12-foot cube full of nothing – is one wall that is mostly glass, so that it looks out on the larger room and all the empty desks that once held workers. It is a furnitured but barren aspect, as if a neutron bomb had hit (and, in a fiscal way, it has), and the only humans who come into view are those headed to the photocopy machine, which sits directly outside my door (you see – the door is already “mine”).

In this office, of which I am now the latest temporary dweller, there are two tables, a two-tiered computer station, a few chairs clumped together as if huddled against the storm of ultimate repossession, an empty bookcase, an empty file cabinet, a floor fan whose purpose one can only imagine and a cork board, on which there is nothing but what is likely not even cork. Every way that art has depicted the corporate work environment – from George Tooker to “Joe and the Volcano” – is in this office. I have not yet “personalized” it – I’m still working on personalizing myself, actually, an action that has gone on decades longer than five years, 10 months, 2 days and, now, 47 minutes – although I have brought in a lamp to cast a more humane, incandescent light on what I do; in my beige and blank area, the Greek-columned desk lamp feels like an anarchic act of revolution, and it makes me feel warm.

Where all this is leading us, in this blog’s focus on placeness, is this: While the office means almost nothing to me – in fact, I feel a bit embarrassed sitting in it, partly like a fish in a bowl, partly like Eichmann in the glass booth, partly like a Dickens middle-manager – others in my workplace now accord me a certain elevated status, one that never came from them to me (and for good reason), now merely because I have this office … this crummy office. Whether they are drawn by the open door, or the soft fire-in-a-cave lighting, or the incorrectly perceived increase in power accorded me less by my new tasks than by where I am doing them … whatever: People who never spoke to me before are turning up to say hi and to chit the chat; my longtime co-workers have stopped by to gaze admiringly at my new digs, nodding almost subserviently with something akin to approval, if not grudging respect, as if I were not in this enclosed workslot but, rather, lounging in a hot tub in Bill Gates‘ rec room, or as if they were homeless waifs with noses pressed against a frosty window, their fervent breaths steaming it, watching me, the one who got adopted from the orphanage, sitting in a warm and glowing room about to dive into a hot 8-inch-high freshly baked apple pie; and those who actually do have higher status in this operation still observe me through Eustace Tilley pince-nez when we meet in the aisles, but burble in intimate and inside-joke tones when they enter my office – my sphere, apparently. But, oddly, nobody actually “enters” my office – they speak to me from the doorway, hugging the jamb, as if to step more forward would propel them through the stargate – as if awaiting an invitation to enter “my” space, or that they are not worthy to enter this hallowed ground, or are afraid to track mud into this pristine environment (although tracked mud could only lend the joint some character). 

I have not changed. Indeed, when I lock up the office (maybe a place you can lock up behind you, or even with you in it, is the source of this strange status power) and return to my open-air workspace, I am the same nothing-special functionary that I have always been. Yet, let me walk back to my office and sit in it, and suddenly, immediately, I am hot stuff. The room has a placeness that has nothing to do with beauty, or empathy, or history – it seems to have everything to do with a social contract we make when we begin our work lives: offices are private, and a thing apart, and important things are done in them by people more important than the mass of workers. And the bestowing of this respect occurs, as it did with me, simultaneously with inhabiting the space, without actually having to do anything that merits respect. Maybe it’s like what William Goldman said about Hollywood, that nobody knows anything, and those who get movies made must “know,” must have the juju; I must have an office because I know something – how the game is played, how to move ahead, how to read the tea leaves – and I must know something because I have an office.

Does having an office ultimately change you? Do you become what having an office implies? Does the mere act of walking to a door with a key in hand, turning the handle and walking into a space that you can keep people out of empower you in other ways, especially creative ways? Or are you just a bookmark until they actually do move in the cartons of copy paper or, as is more likely, just shut off the lights and put the “For Sale” sign on the front door? And then how important and empowering is that office, eh?

I don’t have the answers. Ask me sometime around 6 years, 3 months and however many days. If we’re still here. But if we are, don’t presume to come any farther into my space than the doorjamb, without invitation. Hey, this is my office.

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