Sunday, April 18, 2010

Trapped in a Cube

A DISCLAIMER (sort of...a lame one...) Since I depend on every paycheck for my art habit - and I guess, the mortgage too - I want to start this post by saying that I am very grateful for my current job - and really, for every job I've had in my 30 years (gag, gasp, sigh, creak from the joints) working in Dallas. I have had good pay and benefits, a safe work environment, I have learned a lot (OK I am kind of grimacing and/or smirking as I type), and I have enjoyed most of my coworkers (pained face here). Well, those I didn't enjoy helped me support the behavioral health industry with my insurance benefits and personal dollars - mostly personal dollars, I wish to heck the insurance industry and/or employer plans would cough up more bucks for psychotherapy. Most people I work with need it more than I do! But anyway...

So, lots of years in office buildings, mostly in cubicles. In general my feeling of rightness with my workplaces, work spaces, has hovered slightly between glass-half-empty and wanna quit. Funny thing though - my bosses and coworkers have almost always seemed to think I was doing a decent job. So they didn't do me the favor of firing me, and to stay in my rut I coped in whatever functional (social life, creative pursuits) or dysfunctional (spending, drinking) ways I came up with.

However, 2001 was a watershed year, with a big division of before & after - world events aside, it was a professional demarcation for me. During that summer I became obsessed with the idea that I had been stuck in Dallas offices for exactly 20 years - a sick kind of anniversary - and this made me even more attracted to the fun (well, maybe not fun - a Sarah mix of euphoria and perfectionism, my usual) of writing a journal about our two-generation spring trip to Acapulco.

In unusual bold and assertive action for my workplace self, that fall I approached my manager and let her know that if/if (please God) I became part of the layoff we all knew was coming, I would be OK with that decision. It was my 15th year with the company and severance packages were still generous back then.

To analyze/sum up: I didn't finish the book I worked on during that winter, and after 6 months at home I went back to my old job, not quite with my tail between my legs. Poor Craig, I know he was uneasy at my break from convention, but even he admitted the time away gave me a better (less dysfunctional) perspective. I had had my job with that company before I met Craig, and I went back to a descendent of the same company, but somehow in the process and transition I reprioritized so that Craig and I were closer to the top of priorities. Like the slogan I had never understood before – working to live, instead of living to work.

While writing at home during that precious winter of 2001, I reinforced my sense of self as a writer and clarified my writing style. I also improved my skills at organizing material and drafting timelines - writerly project management. I remember one awful week where I had strips of printed-out scenes and scribbled notes spread all over the living room, thinking that would help me make a new story timeline - thank God we didn't have a naughty puppy back then, it was enough of a mess with just me and sleepy middle-aged Marley. I mentally chewed up the stuff, but no dog did damage to it.

The hardest thing about going back to work in spring 2002 was not that I hadn't finished my book - the draft of which I religiously back up on disks to this day and which I think still has merit, maybe, I think/hope - but just getting back in the corporate saddle. I had not missed the politics, dress code, alarm clock setting, commute, or uninspired environmental colors. When I really missed my coworkers during that absentee winter I had lunch with them, and we talked about real stuff - it was great to get beyond the Greek Chorus of office lamentations and general BS - something you can't really avoid when you actually work in an office.

Going back - ending my sojourn at home - felt as painful as grieving, and I still have tendrils of that grief today. Why am I here, at this cube, doing this job? I mean, I know I should be grateful to be here, but do I want to be this the best place for me...

In my first weeks back I tried mental compartmentalization - something I have never been very good at, but I hoped the break had changed me - experimenting with visualizing French doors opening and closing as I was driving home from work. I had a real-life example for this: I remembered Grandma closing her living room French doors to us in the den when we were visiting and she gave piano lessons. only took me a few days to realize that the concept wouldn't work. Maybe it's because I'm a woman - a wife - a female who feels too responsible for too many things - but I am not so good at shutting mental doors.

Some parts of my personality are well suited to an office - detail orientation, ability to get along with others, pride in my work, concern with what others think of me and my work. Other parts are not so bueno – such as, a disinclination to follow rules that don't seem logical to me. One recent test also suggested that I am antisocial toward my coworkers (maybe) and homicidal toward managers who don't treat me right (just kidding - the test didn't say that, but it might be true).

A recent company-sponsored aptitude test rated me high on "mental agility," and that's my new excuse for why I need to take mini breaks to look at Yahoo or Facebook...or DailyPainters...or maybe even eBay. I really believe I am more productive overall if Big Brother shuts his eyes to my web activity. Last month on the elevator-monitor news feed (a sad source for world events, but it keeps me up-to-date with factoids) I saw a headline about a study that found employees are less creative at their jobs when they are blocked from personal web use. (Oh, REALLY?)

Once when a friend commented on my having time during the day to Google and send personal emails, I threw at him a rather violent metaphor for my uneasy alliance with the corporate world: "If I sat here all day and did only my actual job, my brain would explode and blood would be spurting out of my ears. Surely they don't want that!" (Actually they may have preferred the blood spurt to the personal use of company resources.)

Years after dropping out of college, I took online classes to finish my degree. One assignment in my last semester was to put together a life plan. In my final version I had a whole paragraph about how writing full-time had not worked for me - I said I needed the contrast and the pull of a day job, and an office job was probably the best category of day job for me. Yes, I felt like a drone while I typed those words - and I was, I am - but I still recognize the truth in it.

After so many years I am used to structure, benefits...and access to a color printer when my home one runs out of toner. I rail against Dilbertocracy, but maybe I need that to rail against. In too affirming, too creatively supportive of a world wouldn't I become uneasy?

QUESTIONS - I'm still not sure which is worse:

* Thinking I'm trapped in a cube.

* Realizing I have trapped MYSELF in the cube.

* Beating myself up for feelings of work dissatisfaction when there are so many people out of work.

But bottom-line (good corporate term) I bring myself to the job, to the extent possible (as much as I can handle without gagging), and in many ways I do the job my way. For example, I can have some of my art in my cube. (Yes those are jars of CARBS - salty and sweet ones - just what I need, right? Instead of having paintings showing fruit I should have the real thing.)

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