Thursday, 31 May 2012

Make Your Comfort A Priority...

Hello Friends.

When I was little, maybe 7 or 8, I found a wounded baby bird in our backyard. I ran into the house and breathlessly reported this to my dad, who came outside to assess the situation. He placed a small amount of grass into the bottom of a shoebox, and then shoehorned the bird, who could not fly or flap little wings, inside. With the fascination of a boy, but concern of a girl, I insisted on monitoring our bird friend constantly. This would be my job, I decided. Dad agreed, and after making me promise I wouldn't touch or kiss the little bird, went back inside to get the bird some water or maybe a tiny hat.

As looking after this bird was my job, and I wanted to do my job well, I made the executive decision that the bird was not too comfortable. This small amount of grass barely covered the bottom of the shoebox. This couldn't have been satisfactory for my wounded friend. Baby birds are used to forests and trees and nests, I thought, and determined that I would do my part to replicate that environment in his intensive care unit. That involved tearing up fistfuls of grass until I had a hearty pile and then, making sure not to actually touch the bird, filling his shoebox habitat with it. Soon the baby bird was surrounded, nearly covered, with grass. I thought I had improved upon nature. I'd given him the softest grass bed upon which to lay until he was happy and healthy. After a few minutes, dad came back outside, and I showed off my efforts. "Ohhh buddy..." he sighed, and gingerly removed what he could of my deluxe bird comfort condo accessories, but it was too late. My new little friend was dead.

I cried and cried, and couldn't be soothed by dad's assurances that the bird was sick, it was hurt. I knew, deep down, that my actions killed that bird. All I wanted to do was make him comfortable, I sobbed. That was my only job.

Dream: When it comes to my job, don't get too comfortable.

Goal: Achievable, it least it always was in the past. Like so many of my contemporaries, I've spent most of my adult life working at jobs I've been overqualified for and haven't liked very much, but needed to do in order to pay my bills. Various retail jobs where the work was some form of drudgery and, though I counted on the 40 hours a week to get a cheque, I'd always secretly hope that I would arrive one morning to find a burning hole where the building used to be, or boarded up windows and a closed forever sign, or just a lot of empty space where coworkers used to be.

To that end, I've never gotten too comfortable in the "I could see myself doing this job forever!" sense. The transitory nature of the McJob doesn't allow for that. But there were times when the work was easy enough and all the co-workers got along, and I started to see why workplace comedies were so popular on television. The work itself is secondary to the environment and the people surrounding you, was the message that sitcoms like The Office, or Cheers, or ER seemed to suggest, and there were times when I totally bought into that conceit. Those days where work flies by, you're genuinely happy to see your friends at the beginning of the day, genuinely excited to see them tomorrow, oblivious to notion that anything could ever change. Days when you're too comfortable, and then you end up paying for it.

Plan: Pinpoint times when I was too comfortable in the workplace so that I might avoid that pitfall in the future.

I once worked in a restaurant and bar co-managed by a married couple. I was in university at the time and so legitimately didn't want serving shifts that would keep me up until 2 am. Instead, I happily hosted, giving people menus and showing them to their table and holding a clipboard over my potbelly. Being a host that was not vying for a serving position made me rather well-liked among the competitive servers who would commiserate with me on slow nights, and invite me to join them at the bar after busy ones. I turned down most of the bar invitations because of the aforementioned late nights I sought to avoid, but found myself there on Friday nights, connecting with every server, joking with the bartenders, buying a round for kitchen staff after we had closed for the night. Having a real sense of community and belonging made me see why people make serving their entire lives. For a moment, it was perfect. And then I started losing hours to young hostesses who may have not been as good with a clipboard, but were infinitely prettier than me. Co-manager wife started fighting viciously with co-manager husband, accused one of the waitresses of sleeping with him, and slapped her across the face. She and a few bartenders all walked out. I put in my notice.

I once worked in a video store for a well-meaning but unstable manager. Suffering some unidentified anxiety, Unstable Manager would let tasks pile up, become overwhelmed by them, panic, and retreat to his office, leaving whomever was working with him that day to do his job for him, and deal with customers, and be subject to his criticism whenever he returned from his office. By contrast, Frick was a kind, affable, funny guy who was our assistant manager and often bore the brunt of U.M.'s missteps. We all loved Frick, but no more than his best friend Frack, an equally kind and funny guy who came to work with him and the rest of us. Besides Frick and Frack, there was Glasses, a young university student who didn't care about work and made me laugh through eight hour days; Grey, an "old" man in his 30's with a wicked sense of humour, ease with customers, and cute 7 year-old daughter; Girl, an unbelievably sweet girlie-girl I'd happily gossip with when the testosterone levels got a little high behind the counter, and eventually Mike, a guy who's friendship has far transcended any workplace. Anyway, despite numerous complaints against him for missing shifts, neglecting duties, and other shady behaviour, U.M. remained a tense presence in our otherwise harmonious workplace, until he stupidly got caught violating a strict rule by upper management and was fired, to our absolute delight. Frick took over for U.M., Frack for Frick, and the days started to fly by. After close, a few or a lot of us would end up at the bar behind the store and laugh late into the night. For a moment, it was perfect. Then they brought a new manager in, and then another, and then another. And they started telling us to sell more cell phones than movies. Customers started getting mad at the shift. I started working less and less shifts. I put in my notice.

I once worked in a 24 hour drugstore where I'd take the keys from a nice lady in the early afternoon, and trade the keys off to another nice lady in the late evening. Despite being women in the forties, Rose and Daisy were both my buddies. And while swinging the keys from hand to hand, I worked with pharmacists who told me what they made for dinner the night before and kept me abreast on renovations to their condos, sweetheart postal workers who traded stories with me in the cashroom, cosmetics girls who giggled with me about their boyfriends or told me stories about their kids, or that guy who played guitar at a Foo Fighter's concert once, or the charming fourth grade teacher who picked up a few shifts to make ends meet, or the girl with the tattoo on her wrist who does that rollergirl thing, or funny Cassie, or clever Emily, or tired Adam, or hard-worker Jen. Conversations with Lindsay where the hours passed like minutes. Notes compared with Matt and Brent, local actors treading the boards. The time my best friend got a job as a cashier while another good friend worked the Photo department and they met and now they're getting married, thanks to me. Perfect. Then I came in one day and Rose told me Daisy had been fired for stealing hundreds of dollars in cash. And countless cashiers walked off the job or stopped coming in. And managers suddenly quit and sued the company. People got fired for harassment. Inventory was stolen constantly. I got a part in a play. I put in my notice.

I worked in a second video store, a second drug store, and a bookstore, for awhile simultaneously, when I moved to the big city. The video store started to receive less and less videos, honour fewer and fewer coupons, file for bankruptcy, and announce just before Christmas that they'd be closing on January 5th and could we please work through the holidays (I declined). Drugstore 2 brought me in to cover a maternity leave, and then another, and then another. Three new moms came back, looking for hours, and so mine were reduced but I was asked to stay (I declined). Bookstore hired me for the holiday season, with the option to extend my contract in the new year (they declined).

Now I work in a job that's not beneath me. I apply some kind of learned writing skill every day. I see my copy improving, fewer edits coming back to me, more satisfaction on all sides. And oh, the pals! There are fancy Christmas parties with photo shoots, and house parties with nerf guns, and ridiculous email chains, and candy jars, and YouTube clips, and long lunches, and coffee breaks, and so much darn laughing. Were I to get into specific people, you'd be reading on for pages and pages, but suffice it to say, I've made a friend of every person in our gang of fourteen. A picture of us is my desktop background, we're all posing for a group shot and look genuinely happy to be there. It documents, I feel, the perfect moment. On Monday, all but five us were called into a meeting, and all but five of us were laid off in an instant. When they came out of the boardroom, in various states of disbelief, I watched, horrified, as they began packing up their desks, reassuring me that it wasn't a joke.

The five of us that remain in a now completely slashed and burned organization can barely face the empty space where our friends used to be. We're still there and they are gone, we were told, because we make the least amount of money. Those who worked hard, went above and beyond, earned raises, were punished for their ability. Rumours abound that our company is simply a wounded bird, waiting to be swooped up by a stronger bird, or die in a box. I can't speculate, mostly because absorbing the work of 9 people leaves little time for speculatin', but it feels like this job won't last much longer for any of us.

Looking back on the bird story, I'm sure my memory is faulty. Would a wounded bird really submit to being put into a shoebox? Did my dad really say looking after the bird was my job, and leave me to it? Could the bird have been dead from the get go and could dad have not known how to tell me? Actually that last possibility is sadistic as it suggests that he didn't know how to tell me the bird had died so instead decided to attribute his death to the fact that I filled a shoebox with grass. In any case, it's rare that we remember things as they actually happened, especially where emotions are concerned. Surely my happy times at work were never so idyllic, they must have been always hampered by some coworker I'm forgetting, some dumb double-shift, some lousy customer. Plus, I'm certain I never realized how perfect those perfect moments were as they happened. And as happy as I am to have this current job, it's always had its drawbacks (though it's ten times better than standing at a till), even before the carnage.

One thing I know is true is my fondness for those friends, past and present. There's something so unique about the friendship that at least takes root in the workplace, because it's often the simple result of forced circumstances. I'll get to know you because we're stuck here until quitting time. But if you're lucky, as I've been lucky, those friendships transcend punch-cards, shift-changes, and lay-offs. Co-manager husband and wife divorced and gave up the restaurant. Frick and Frack each have wives and babies now. Rose is still handing her keys off every day. I still have our group portrait on my desktop, for I know that I'll see these people again. People far too talented to be shoehorned into a limiting box. Whatever you're doing next, I wanna come with you. I'll do everything I can to make our journey forward more comfortable, because helping a friend is a good job indeed.

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