Friday, June 28, 2013

The Choir

Shortly after starting my job, I started climbing the stairs during my morning break. It was mainly for stress relief and a little for exercise. I kept a pair of slip-on sneakers in my desk. I would climb up about ten flights and then back down. Occasionally I would skip every other step part of the way up. At some point, I started carrying hand weights. My stair routine was perfect because the climb was hard enough to mitigate stress, but not so hard it ruined my make-up. And I could do it in 15 minutes, the duration of my break. And I hardly ever saw anyone in the stairwell, which was also nice.

About ten months after my arrival, someone put up a poster inside the stairwell explaining the benefits of stair climbing vs. taking the elevator. Now, part of the appeal of the stairwell was that it was completely devoid of visual noise, so I was not pleased to see the poster. But whatever.

Several weeks passed with no noticeable increase in stairwell traffic. Then presumably the same do-gooder launched what I assume was phase two of the campaign to get more people to climb the stairs. 

Suddenly, there were posters inside the stairwell at every floor explaining to me why I should take the stairs instead of the elevator. Increased energy, health and happiness were all to be mine if I would just take the stairs! I read over and over again as I climbed the stairs.

I started seeing a few other people in the stairwell on their breaks for a few weeks, but after a short while it was just me again. Just me and the posters.

I can’t say I was disappointed in the failure of this particular campaign because I very much preferred having the stairwell to myself. So I did not, for example, track down the yahoo that polluted my stairwell and explain to him/her that the posters should have been put up, not in the stairwell, but on each floor just a few yards away, NEXT TO THE ELEVATORS.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Last Litter

The only adult in my life who did not smoke was my dad, and he died of cancer when I was nine. I should mention that he was 74 at the time.

My memories of my dad are as odd as he was. I remember carrot juice, and goat’s milk. He ate sardines and kippers out of the cans, and then threw the cans out the kitchen window. Later, when he was sick, he drank Coca-Cola in bottles to help with nausea. He kept a dog named “Dreamy” that he called “Groovy” because he couldn’t remember her name. Dreamy used to chew up the sardine/kipper cans, leaving lumps of mangled metal in the yard.

He liked kids. From what I’ve gleaned, he’d been married several times and had had at least a couple of litters of kids before me and my brothers. I only ever met one of these half-siblings, and he had been older than my mother. At my dad’s funeral, there were dozens of adults in the “family” section of the church that I had never seen before and never saw again. My brothers and I were the only children. I wore my first communion dress. 

My dad owned two neighboring little square tract houses. I was told later that my dad had built all the houses in the neighborhood. I’m not sure if that means he was a builder, or helped finance the construction, or what. Questions about my father were never well-received, so I stopped asking. 

My dad also owned the empty lot on the other side of his house. The lot had trees and a giant bomb shelter taking up the back third of the lot. My dad had had the shelter built before any of us existed. He stored a half dozen motorcycles in it that we would ride around the lot. One of my brothers accidentally ran one up the side of the bomb shelter, leaving a surreal-looking tire track on the vertical cement wall. After that, my dad started taking us to more-open spaces to ride the motorcycles. Like the massive lot behind his restaurant.

It was a Bob’s Big Boy type of diner. After cheeseburgers and/or chocolate sundaes, my dad would open the silver door on the front of one of the pinball machines in the restaurant and give us all handfuls of quarters to play with.

I remember one time, the three of us were running around in the kitchen having a whipped-cream fight with one of the chefs. When I was older, someone told me that a restaurant reviewer had written a story on the place. The reviewer had basically said that the place would be fine if not for the owner’s kids running wild.

Monday, June 24, 2013

So Take That, Hitler

My grandmother once told me that Hitler was misunderstood. He really wasn’t a bad guy, just a guy who wanted the best for his country and his people. Around the same time, she gave me a very pretty 1940s-era cigarette case on the condition that when I grew up, I would never smoke. I promised. Years later when I was a teenager, I started smoking. Mostly because when you grow up around chain-smoking adults, smoking is the most natural thing in the world. And my opinion of my grandmother and Hitler had taken a hit in the intervening years.

I used to steal cigarettes from a drawer in the kitchen where, over the years, I could find any number of popular brands to choose from. I don’t know if anyone ever noticed the occasional pack disappearing, but no one ever said anything. I used to smoke in my room next to an open window, although I don’t know why I felt this was necessary, the entire house reeked of cigarettes. I guess it was because the door was closed and if an adult came in in a rare fit of perception, he/she might notice a cloud of smoke hovering in my bedroom. 

Once or twice, I accidentally dropped a cigarette between my bed and the wall. The bed was a massive piece of furniture with drawers built in and I couldn’t move it alone. I think I may have dumped a glass of water into the space so the house wouldn’t burn down. I wasn’t there when the room was cleaned out to sell the house roughly a decade later, but I’m guessing a couple of water-damaged old cigarettes didn’t draw much attention next to the dozens of empty vodka bottles (grandmother’s) almost certainly unearthed in the next room.

I eventually had to start buying my own cigarettes. The family’s finances were suffering at some point, and the adults had started buying these absolutely revolting off-brand smokes.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Considerate Jackrabbits

When our dog was a puppy, we lived in New Mexico in the middle of 13 acres of desert. We overestimated the success of a puppy training class once and let her off-leash. She took off after a jackrabbit and chased it for what felt like hours (it was probably ten minutes). It was a very considerate jackrabbit in that he chose to keep criss-crossing our land rather than just lead our puppy straight to Colorado.
The jackrabbit looked like he was planning his weekend, barely exerting any effort at all running from our slobbering, hysterical puppy. He ran back and forth, never letting her get much closer than about ten feet. Finally, the jackrabbit yawned, checked his watch one last time and said, “thanks for the cardio, pup.” Then he slowly pulled away from her. The exhausted puppy gave up and my husband scooped her up and carried her back to the house. Then we realized she had dozens of cactus spines in her feet.
It took 20 minutes to get them all out, and several weeks before she would let us touch her feet again. She’s still a little funny about them.

Friday, June 21, 2013


Lin had the distinction of being the first of the staple people to obtain a permanent position. Several other staple people had applied for the same position, but when Lin was offered the job there were no hard feelings. Because Lin was pregnant, it was decided that her getting the job was more fair than if anyone else had because she needed the job (particularly the benefits) more.

I learned later that Lin was deeply superstitious and genuinely terrified of ghosts. Her idea of ghosts was along the lines of the horrifying creature from “The Grudge” which is just ridiculous because everyone knows ghosts look more like Casper, whose very moniker informs you that he is, indeed, friendly. Any of the undoubtedly very few ghosts who are not animated almost certainly look like Rex Harrison.

One day, Lin asked me if I believed in ghosts and I said yes, thinking she was going to tell me some more-fun-than-scary, entertaining story. I mean, I kind of do. I like ghost stories. I’m mostly open to the existence of ghosts because it makes ghost stories more fun than if I’ve unconsciously called “Bullshit!” before the opening credits are done rolling. Suspension of disbelief and all that. I don’t know they don’t exist.

I was raised Catholic. The whole concept of faith is about believing something without evidence, or if you are a truly skilled Catholic, deciding the world around you is the evidence. Once when I was in first grade, I remember a girl in my class picking a flower and showing it to the teacher as evidence of the existence of God. Why would anyone argue with that? After 12 years of Catholic school, I’ll buy anything.

Except for scary mean ghosts who hunt down and kill young women for no reason. Once Lin had determined that I was a believer, she confessed to me that she was worried about some man who had recently died who had been an acquaintance of her family’s. For some reason, she thought he might want to get her. Judging from the look on her face, I surmised that “get” meant kill.

When I realized she was serious and genuinely scared, I told her I didn’t really believe in that kind of ghost, but if they were real I couldn’t imagine why this guy would even give her a second thought. That seemed to make her feel better, and I went back to my desk to kick myself for thinking socializing was a better idea than reading the paper on my lunch break.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Arvind is a Good Teacher

Arvind’s project was part of a larger, office-wide goal of becoming paperless. He had been put in charge of getting a particular category of files related to his job ready for scanning. These were files that he presumably worked with all the time. Apparently, there was a great deal in the files that could be discarded. Arvind’s task was to go through each file and throw away all but the essential information, thus reducing the amount of material that would eventually have to be scanned.
So Arvind sat down with me and Emma (the other woman who had been assigned to help) to show us what to keep and what to toss from the files. It should have been simple.
He was very excited and happy and told us that his father had once taught classes at a prestigious university. He explained that, because his father had clearly been a very good teacher to work at such a prestigious school, he (Arvind) must also be a good teacher.
He showed us a sample file. It was full of odd-sized hand-written notes and assorted official-looking government forms - in short, pretty generic file stuff. Then he seemed to become confused. Emma and I tried to move things along by asking what became the defining question, “Are we supposed to keep that?”
Arvind would stare at whatever the “that” was and then mumble something incoherent. When we pressed him for an answer, he would get agitated and then start talking about something else.
After 40 minutes, I had a very foggy idea about what needed to be done, and a desperate desire to be done working with Arvind.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Riti was very pretty and supremely lazy. She was an extra help worker who worked in the staple pit. When she did work, she could be reasonably productive. She would work for several days in a row until she had accumulated some volume in terms of output, and then take the day off. She didn’t stay home though. She would come in to the office, sit at her station, and stare straight ahead. She was social and would talk and interact, but in the absence of an interesting distraction, she would just cross her arms and stare.
Riti was later offered a permanent position. Her new job was an entry-level clerical position that required her to do many more things than she was accustomed to. Riti came up with a new mantra to deal with her new responsibilities. Whenever she was faced with something she found difficult, she would say, “I’ll just put that aside for now.” 

“Aside” turned out to be a large drawer in her cubicle. When she left to take another job, the drawer was opened. I have no idea who got stuck with everything Riti thought was hard, but someone did. I just remember the look of outrage on her supervisor’s face when she looked in the drawer. Riti had been putting things aside for years.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Eight Feet in Half a Second

The staple pit was a temporary work area that had been set up for extra help workers (temporary, no benefits) and a handful of draftees from clerical (I was one). I called it the staple pit because the work done there mostly involved pulling staples out of old files to prep the files for scanning. The project went on for months. There were so many staples stuck in the carpet, it almost glittered.

One day, someone in the staple pit was talking about an article they had read about how toilets, when flushed, throw all sorts of nastiness into the air as far away as eight feet from the toilet. For several weeks after that, the ladies' restroom was a very dangerous place. Not because of what the toilets were flinging into the air, but because women from the staple pit were hurtling themselves out of the stalls after they flushed in an attempt to clear the eight-foot perimeter.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Even my Dog Loves Philz

A few weeks ago, I let my dog have my empty Philz cup after I’d finished my sweet and creamy decaf Sumatra. She’s generally less interested in beverages than solid food, but she can spot a milkshake at about nine yards.

The big draw for her is prepared food in/on paper -- bags, cups, boxes and plates. Because she knows there is a possibility she’ll be allowed to lick paper cups, boxes or plates. I don’t like letting her lick real plates because then I have to wash them ten times before they go in the dishwasher. Dog spit is damn near impervious to soap. I usually end up using Barkeeper’s Friend to get it off, which is really hard on some dishes, which is why her bowls are stainless steel.

The dog is a respectful beggar. Meaning she’ll stare holes into your brain while you eat, but she keeps her physical distance and usually won’t make noise until everyone has pushed their plates away. At that point, you really have to clean up or let her have something or she’ll start making a noise that’s a cross between a worried sounding “hmmmm” and a low growl.

I didn’t think she’d be too excited about the Philz cup. With most drinks, she really just wants to double check that it’s not a milkshake and she’s done. Not so with Philz. She finished with my cup and then immediately turned her attention to my husband’s Mocha Tesora. Ever since then, I have noticed the air becoming a little bit humid on Saturday mornings while I am enjoying my cup of Philz. I look down, and there’s my very smart dog staring holes into my brain. For a cup of coffee. And she knows I almost never have milkshakes before 8 AM.

Maybe I should buy a cup of Peet’s decaf and offer her the emptied cup next to a recently quaffed Philz and find out if she’s just a very smart dog, or a freakin’ genius.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Virginia’s Water

Water from the water cooler was $.15/cup. I think coffee was $.35/cup. It was an honor system where you drop your money in a little pot and help yourself. If this was annoying, you could go to whoever managed the coffee or water “clubs” and pay for a month at a time. A whole month of water was $2, coffee was $5.

My job prior to this had been for an internet startup in Pasadena. Before that, I worked in the entertainment industry (TV production). In both industries, they pretty much hose you down with free food and coffee in the hopes that you will just forget to go home. So this nickels/dimes crap for water (water?!) and (frankly bad) coffee was pretty foreign to me. I figured paying monthly would at least allow me to pretend the coffee and water were free, the way God intended.

Virginia ran the water club. I couldn’t find her desk, so I asked a random guy near where I thought she should be. He was very friendly and offered to take me to her. When we arrived at her desk, I explained I was new and wanted to join the water club. She said I would have to wait until the first of the month (about a week away) and to come back then. I offered to give her some prorated amount for the remaining days of the current month. She said she didn’t do that.

The friendly guy said something like, “Well Virginia, I think we can let the lady drink for free for a few days just to welcome her to her new job, right?” Virginia forced a smile and said, “Sure,” and I went back to my desk.

About an hour later, I got an email from Virginia explaining that I could not drink for free for the remainder of the month because it was not fair. I would have to wait until the following month when, once I was a water club member, I could have water without paying for each individual glass like a non-member.

The lady who shared my cube read the email over my shoulder and then left. When she came back a few minutes later I asked her where she’d gone. She answered, “I just quit the water club.”

Monday, June 10, 2013

Lawn Care

The house we’re in now (rented) has a lawn. We moved in in December, a very wet time of year. The sprinklers hadn’t been on in quite some time, and yet the yard was so saturated that it was literally squishy. I don’t mean plush, like some four-inch thick country club lawn you sink into and think, “Ok, wow, I kind of get why someone might cultivate this.” I mean squishy like, “Wow, if this house were built on a slope, we’d be in considerable danger right now.”
It reminds me of an odd feature of Bakersfield in the summer. The street outside the house I grew up in would get so hot the tar in the asphalt would melt. When you stood still on parts of it, you’d slowly sink down a little. Just like with the saturated lawn, when I first discovered that the road was melting my immediate impulse was to tell somebody, who would presumably then notify the proper authorities, who would then fix it. But, as with so much that alarms me, apparently nothing is wrong.
In fact, when we hired a gardener in April (when the lawn was STILL squishy), when he left for the day he turned on the sprinklers. I turned them off, because that was just madness.
My husband later convinced me that, even though one area of the lawn was still pretty saturated, other parts were turning yellow and needed to be watered. So I relented, and now the sprinklers go on for a few minutes every morning while I shake my head in disapproval.
I think it’s ridiculous to plant anything outside that can’t get by at least the majority of the time with what falls out of the sky. I don’t mean crops. I like food. And I don’t mean your lawn, if you want one. I mean for me. I don’t like gardening beyond the confines of a large pot. Except for maybe trees, but they don’t require much in the way of maintenance.
We live near an open space preserve where hundreds (I’m guessing, it’s always packed when I go) of people go every day to enjoy all the outside stuff that grows without the assistance of sprinklers. It’s sometimes green, sometimes gold, always pretty.
But we water our lawn and then pay a guy to cut it, because it grew, because we watered it, because that makes sense. Only slightly more sense than redoing the landscaping around a house we rent.
I wish lawns would go out of style. Then maybe we could have the toilets back that only needed to be flushed once.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Complacent Bunnies

The house we currently rent has a large, wonderful dog yard. I say wonderful because someone landscaped it 40-50 years ago and nothing beyond basic maintenance has been done since. Meaning there is nothing that can be harmed by a 55 lb. dog. There are also no wild animals around that might decide she’s a snack, or anything else that can harm her. And there are bunnies.

The dog is ten now, so I’m not real concerned for the bunnies. But I still do a quick spot check before I let her out. If I see any, I clap in an attempt to scare them off. They’re pretty complacent though, and sometimes I have to step out in the yard and wave my arms at them to make them run up the hill that borders our yard.

The dog, meanwhile, is standing on the other side of a screen door watching me. She keeps dancing from one paw to the other and wagging her tail like crazy, a great big dog-smile on her face. It occurred to me that she thinks that I too am after the bunnies.

I think I might hide a dog-toy bunny out there one of these days so that I can “catch” it and give it to her.

Friday, June 7, 2013


Arvind was in his sixties, with a mid-level clerk position. He aspired to a higher position in another department with the goal of retiring shortly after attaining it (to increase his retirement benefits).
Arvind had just been given his own project, and control over two women in clerical who had been assigned to assist him. I was one. By way of introducing himself, he arrived at my desk with a photo album of his family, which he then went through, page by page, explaining each picture. He offered to leave it with me so I could look at it on my breaks.
I declined. Not because he did not have a lovely family, but because of his habit of jamming his fingers halfway up his nose while he was talking to me.
I wish I could say I’m exaggerating about the fingers/nose thing. I am prone to exaggeration. But this really happened, repeatedly. I would be having a conversation with this guy and he would aggressively pick his nose and then wipe his hand on his pants or shirt or the nearest surface.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

More on Philz

At the risk of coming off like a zealot, I have another Philz post. The other morning, while I’m waiting for my decaf Swiss Water Peru, I observed the following: A young woman with a child balanced on one hip was picking up her coffee. She tasted it, told her disaffected-youth barista it was good, put a lid on it and started to leave. Her barista glanced at her coffee cup, looked completely alarmed, and stopped her.
“Your lid’s not on right,” he says, pushing it down so it would not wreck her morning and possibly her child. And off she went to enjoy the vastly superior morning of a day begun with Philz.
Where did Philz find these wonderful humans to make its coffee? Or have they somehow incentivized caring? I’m just saying, I wish everyone I interacted with learned how to be in the world from Philz.
I have only had one interaction with a Philz barista that was not great. I had just handed my coffee back asking that it be made a little more sweet. The barista asked if I preferred one and a half sweet or two and one half sweet. When I looked at her blankly, she elaborated by telling me that heavy cream meant one inch of cream and medium sweet meant some measurement I forgot of sugar. Way to kill the magic. While we’re at it, why not just hit me with the calorie count too.
Now, the first time I went to Philz, I was put off by the lack of precision in well, everything. Without my husband guiding me, I would have taken one look at the chaos that passes for a line and decided there was no cup of coffee worth figuring out that mess. When I finally ordered, my barista listened to me mumble something like, “kind of sweet, with lots of cream,” and then started making my coffee.
I sat anxiously thinking there was no way this would work out well. It would be like walking up to a stranger in Tucson, asking where to get the best pancakes in Vegas, and expecting them to just know that you’re referring to the chocolate chocolate chocolate pancakes at Max Brenner’s.
And then I got my coffee. It was fabulous. They make you try it before they let you take it away, which is excruciating (at least to me), but it allows them to cultivate this kind of magician vibe. I usually hate that stuff.
Except that the coffee was fabulous. The little kid in me that clung to the existence of Santa Claus when all evidence pointed to fraud, looked up over the back of the couch and said, “really?”
And then the barista started talking about measurements and wrecked everything. Bad magician!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Shirley Loves Cats and Elvis

Shirley was a very large lady in her fifties who handled reception. She had been there longer than the furniture. I’m actually being literal. The office had been remodeled several times during the past thirty-odd years, so Shirley had literally been there longer than several sets of furniture.
Shirley surrounded herself with beanie baby cats. They were draped over her computer screen and covered most of her desk. A few had even made it up onto the counter in front of her as though defending her, or trying to escape.
In addition to beanie baby cats, Shirley loved Elvis. This did not become apparent until the holidays. Some time in early December, Shirley would start playing Elvis’ Christmas Album and Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas at her desk. She kept the volume high enough to be heard clearly several desks away. It didn’t let up until after Christmas.
It was possible to get along with Shirley, but it required you never voice an opinion that conflicted with any of hers. I take that back. You didn’t actually have to voice the opinion. You could simply not nod in agreement to something she’d said. Another important thing to note about Shirley: you were not allowed to be offended or bothered by her.
Don’t think beanie baby cats by the dozens are the first things the public should see in a government office? Well, you can just go fuck yourself, you cat-hating asshat!
Think maybe headphones are a good idea in an open/shared office environment? How dare you, you un-festive bitch.
You just had to love Shirley. Seriously, it was required.

Civil Servants

I used to have a government job. I worked with some very nice people and a few that made me want to run screaming back to the private sector. These posts are mostly about the latter. All names have been changed. Except for Elvis’.

My Last Real Job

Years ago, I ended up working for a large government office. I had been out of work for a while and no one else would hire me.
We had just moved to the Bay Area and I assumed I’d go work at Google. Because they were/are huge and cool and I’d heard you could take your dog to work.
I wasn’t completely delirious in this assumption. I had worked at a search engine a few years before. But I was mostly delirious, because it became apparent that since I had not recently graduated with an advanced degree from a very fancy college, nor was I already in possession of an awesome job they could steal me away from, I was barking up the wrong tree.
I started trying to find a not-Google job, but couldn’t even get an interview. So I started applying for government jobs, anything I met the criteria for, which was essentially clerical work. They all involved crude tests that were designed to predict my success at filing and determine whether or not I was likely to steal stuff.
You know you’ve reached a good place in your life when you realize your next employer only needs to know a couple of things about you, and one of these things is “will you steal stuff?” It got even better when I started getting the results from the tests.
I was number 32 in line for the job I was eventually offered. That means
31 people were better at COUNTING and ALPHABETIZING and/or less likely
to steal stuff than me. And they all apparently found better things to do than take that job, because I got it.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


I woke up around five this morning with a blog idea. I have been trying to figure out how to write about the five years I worked for a large government office. I’ve written a handful of posts, but don’t like any of them. I woke up thinking, “vignettes” and also “Bactine.”
In the dream I was having when I woke up, I was walking around with a rather large semi-open wound in my right side. I have no idea how, but a five-inch circle of my side, including a cross-section of ribs, had been removed. It was like the lid of a pumpkin, you could take it out and then put it back.
The wound exposed a membrane that kept all the internal stuff inside (I’m pretty sure there is no such thing). I was holding the removed piece in place with my hands, walking around trying to find Bactine. People along the way kept telling me things like, “It’s nothing, a band aid will take care of it,” to which I would respond, “No, I’m pretty sure I need some Bactine.”