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Life at Work

Aug 28 - Sept 1, 2006


Sometimes you think you've gotten a lucky break. Your boss is out of the office and you're not expecting him or her back anytime soon. It's the beginning of a long weekend, and things are winding down. You've got time on your hands. You can catch up on your instant messaging, surf the Web, go for a walk around the block and get some fresh air.

It's inevitable that at the very moment you're about to do something you know someone higher up wouldn't approve of, the phone rings. It's the boss, wanting to know how that project you finished an hour ago is coming along. And you make the fatal mistake of saying you're just finishing it up. You'll come to regret this more than you can imagine when you hear what he has to say next.

"Alright, great, let's get started on a new project!"

A new project? A mere four hours before you go on a four-day vacation? This isn't a time for new projects! This is a time for goofing off! A time for finding out how far you really can shoot a paper clip with a rubber band. (I'm pretty sure I can get it into the office of a co-worker I'll call "Jay" from my work station, but I haven't tested my theory yet.)

The bad news is, it's not one, but two new projects, and he's swinging by in about an hour to see how things are coming. Damn. Way to screw up a perfectly good waste of an afternoon.

Oh well, guess I've got work to do. This is J. Bird, signing off 'til Tuesday. May every god that ever existed bless those who thought the Working Man needed a holiday, and thanks to the bosses who think the holiday weekend is a little too short and extend it by a day. We in the working world are willing to overlook a fair amount of shit in exchange for a freebie holiday.


I talk a lot, via an instant messaging program, with a great college buddy of mine who lives in Athens, Greece. We both spend a lot of time trashing U.S. policies and figuring out how to save the world. We're both real diplomatic geniuses, of course, and none of the terrible shit that's going on these days would be happening if we were in charge. It's kind of nice to talk to someone European who doesn't hate me for being American, and who knows that there are quite a few Americans out here who aren't very happy with the direction things are going. Plus, he shares my thoughts with his friends, so word gets around that we're not all evil and we don't all love Bush. Have you ever seen that bumper sticker that says "I love my country, but I think we should start seeing other people . . . "? I think that says it all.

So what's this got to do with work, you're wondering? Well, a lot. Prior to my current position, I worked in the North Suburbs, which wasn't much different than my job before that, directing a very nice preschool in a tiny little Southern town. Cultural diversity? Zip.

I live in a neighborhood that's certainly diverse, to the point that I'm a minority. But it wasn't until I came to work downtown that I came to appreciate what Chicago really has going for it, something that I kind of doubt Athens does.

It was on the Blue Line that I first noticed. People here really are from everywhere imaginable. And, on the train at least, they're crushed together, into a curious hodge-podge of representatives of every inhabited continent, and even the most far-flung countries.

Outside the Daley Center, in the summer, there are weekly festivals celebrating various cultures, where people from all over the world get to show off their wares, offer their foods for sale, and let their fellow Chicagoans see a taste of what their homeland is like. Ok, sure I thought Mongolian Week was a little excessive, what with the people in Ghengis Khan gear and all the tiny huts. But that's just me and my sense of the absurd.

In my office itself, there are professionals representing different races, different cultures, different religions. We ride the elevator together, we gripe about the weather together, we commiserate or celebrate about baseball (according to preference), and we huddle together to hear the latest gossip.

On my way home, I like to walk by the Horse and watch the kids sliding down it. If I work late, sometimes there are skateboarders skating down it. The kids are another example of how diverse we are as a city - you see African American kids from the tougher neighborhoods, kids in from the suburbs with their folks, kids from around the globe on tours with their parents, all sliding and playing together. Downtown, right in the heart of the working world, is the best place to find that swirling diversity that makes the city a great place to be.

Of course there are enclaves of hatred, of racism, of intolerance in and around Chicago. But in the swirling kaleidoscope of a busy office worker's day, race, color, and creed melt away, and we're all just people, trying to get stuff done.


It would be really easy to use this as a forum to gripe about all the lousy crap that happens in an average day. Remember when you were young, in high school, and you were so sure that was the absolute worst time of your life, that it couldn't get any worse, and that things could only look up from there? Ha! Joke was on you, wasn't it? No one told you about neurotic bosses with chaotic mood swings, or office gossip, or that every office manager you would ever encounter would be ten times worse than your worst nightmare of an intrusive in-law. No one mentioned "inter-office memorandums" (always bad news), or dress codes, or that creepy guy you inevitably get stuck alone on the elevator with.

But as much as it makes me feel better to bitch about work, what makes the whole work experience really unique is the crazy, weird, unexpected things that happen every day but tend to get steamrollered by the things that make us miserable.

Take today, for instance. I've gone out for the second time on the same errand, dealt with the same ever-charming civil servants, gotten rained on, and as I'm re-entering my building, it suddenly hits me that there are Good Humor Ice Cream Carts all over the lobby. They've got their umbrellas up, their vendors are in uniform, and all these people, from the back-office jeans-n-tshirts folks to the very top executives are practically jumping up and down with excitement, trying to figure out whether they want the Chocolate Eclair Bar or the Rocket Pop. And it's all free (one per customer, unless you manage to sneak back in line.)

So I get on the elevator with my Chocolate Eclair Bar, and everyone else has their ice cream pops, and a guy from my office is fretting over whether his Oreo Bar is going to mess with his South Beach Diet, and I couldn't help but think, "THIS is what it's all about." Why do we get up before the sun, and drag ourselves out of bed, and leave our lovers and pets so we can toil and sometimes get beaten down and feel like our lives are going nowhere fast? I'll tell you why. So we can eat free Good Humor Bars in the elevator at two o'clock on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Life doesn't get much sweeter than that.


Today was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. First, my boss went MIA this morning. No e-mails, no phone calls, no notes. Usually, I have a list of things waiting for me first thing on a Monday. Today? Nothing. My co-worker and I recently got titles. She is "Executive Assistant." I am "Personal Assistant." This seems to mean that she gets to answer the phone and sort out what bills need to be paid while I get to be a personal (verbal) punching bag when the boss is in one of his "moods" (every hour-and-a-half or so).

The morning was kind of pleasant, therefore, in an eerie way. The phones weren't ringing, my co-worker, who is usually drowning in work, didn't need a hand, I was caught up on my stuff, and the usual craziness around here had subsided to the point that the sound of the air conditioner was pretty much all I could hear. Around 10:45 I decided enough was enough, or not enough was not enough, and called the boss' cell. He sounded a little weird . . . not his usual manic self. We got cut off in the middle of the conversation, and I expected him to call back, but no dice.

He called me a little after two and gave me an assignment. He appeared at the office about fifteen minutes later. I had a question for him, regarding my project, but instead of answering, he said, "Did you finish that thing I told you to do?" "I'm working on it right now, and . . . "

"Working on it." he muttered, and walked away, into his office, and closed the door.

Then he reappeared, looked at what I'd completed, yelled at me for changing some wording (precisely what I'd had a question about), and wandered out of the office. He disappeared for a good forty minutes, and we were starting to think he might have left, leaving his coat and briefcase behind. This was getting stranger by the minute.

Finally, he showed up again, and I had a chance to go over what I'd been working on. He asked me a question, and before I could even get an answer out, he shook his head and said, "You know, your problem is either that you just don't listen, or you just don't comprehend what you hear. Why the hell would I do what you just said I was going to do? I never told you I was going to do that. So why would you think that?"

Oh great. Time for a beating. And I was worried while he was missing this morning?

This is not a typical day, by any means. By and large, he's a generous, amiable fellow, but when he decides to go on the attack, you'd better get your armor on fast. He figures out what'll bug you the most, and he'll take that line every time. It's like having an annoying cousin as an employer.

Actually, I take what I would consider an abnormal amount of verbal abuse from this man. The strange thing is, I can bring it up, point it out, tell him I think it's inappropriate, and he'll apologize, and attempt to behave like a rational human being for as long as he can possibly manage it. Then it's back to square one. Maybe I'm not the one who doesn't comprehend around here.

Why is it that people with a degree of power over you feel the need to exert it in ways that'll really ruin your day? What is it about running a company that makes you want to squash people like ants? Or do you already have to have the compulsion to squash people in order to run a company? How come people in charge get to make their bad day everyone else's bad day too? I know a lot of companies tell their employees not to bring their problems to work. So why isn't that a two-way street?

Oh well, tomorrow's another day. May it be more normal, and hopefully less painful, than this one.


J. Bird is the Beachwood's pseudononymous workplace affairs correspondent.


Posted on August 31, 2006

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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