porcelainandporcupines

Posts Tagged ‘working life

I’ve always considered it poor form to brag about things that don’t make me look stupid. Probably this stems in part from the same natural humility that leads me to write about myself online in the hopes that strangers will read it and adore me. However, I also like to believe that another root of my tremendous self-deprecation lies in a firm, and completely well-grounded, belief in my own competence; because I am a capable and intelligent person, expected, in addition to poor form, seems uninteresting to me, and, more importantly, seems like it would be uninteresting to you. Which is why, then, instead of a stream of unending mundanities, I try to share only the truly exceptional, such as the occasional profoundly stupid things I’ve said or done (which, interestingly enough, are very often related to transportation).

This, I’ve learned over the years, is not a guiding principal for how everyone operates. Indeed, it seems that there are many people for whom the everyday is a constant source of amazement, and a potential source of wonder and inspiration for others. And while I would be the first to agree that the very basic fact of existence is, perhaps, the most remarkable thing that could possibly have happened, I would also be quick to point out that the basic details of that existence are not so remarkable that they must be constantly remarked upon. Which is, of course, what I am in the very process of pointing out.

Despite the at least two episodes of Frontline and multitude of articles detailing how they’re just the worst, this behavior is not limited to the young people of today. If commercials are any indication of societal mores, and they obviously are, this behavior – at least, in the workplace; did I mention that’s what we’re discussing? – can be traced back to no later than the year 2000.

(I’m going to be honest here – this next part would be a lot more effective if I’d been able to find a video of the commercial I’m about to discuss online. Alas, despite this failure, the blog must go on, particularly since the stats on this site show that very few of you actually follow the links I painstakingly cultivate for your entertainment. Regardless: please trust me that this commercial did indeed exist, and also happened to be very funny. )

Inspired by the tidal wave of Dilbert’s success, marketing executives believed, if but for a moment, that the most effective way to sell soup was through trenchant workplace commentary. This spot, lost to both internet and history, revealed the many techniques that the coworker who appears utterly overwhelmed and far too busy to have any lunch other than soup you can drink directly from the can employs to convince everyone of that state of busy-ness, when, in actuality, said coworker who is always carrying a folder and responding to your statements louder and in the form of a question has very little to do.

There were a lot of really good things about this commercial, not the least of which was that, although no one had to actually work with this particular buffoon, anyone who’s ever had any job, anywhere, has worked with that guy. However, to make the commercial at least moderately successful in its profit-driven efforts, the coworker who would be irritating in real life had to be likeable; to achieve this end, the character of the coworker had to undergo two key changes: 1. He never actually says what he’s working on; and 2. He knows that he’s completely full of it.

It’s possible those two points are actually related; after all, someone who knows how full of hot air they are would, theoretically, at least, be unlikely to provide substantial detail of the efforts that in turns out they’re not actually involved in. But I say “theoretical” because, to date, I have found no evidence of this person existing in the workplace. On the contrary, what I have encountered manifests in one of two ways: abundant details about nothing, or – as mentioned at the outset, when this whole mess got started – a self-administered pat on the back or expression of amazement that work was done in the workplace.

As is probably self-explanatory, the abundant detailer will provide unnecessarily detail about everything they do. This often presents as a running commentary, as though to themselves, of all the things they have to do in the day, “all of the things” being, literally, all of the things. Such activities as going to their office, and carrying this upstairs will be listed separately despite the redundancy that their office is upstairs, and thus anyone could have intuited that by carrying that upstairs, they would be going to their office. While most things are of equal weight, the utmost importance is, obviously, given to somehow working in the walk they’ve got to find time for, although I’m sure that if they could manage without sounding ridiculous even to themselves to mention their need to breathe while speaking, that would shoot right to the top of the list.

What never, ever get mentions, however, is anything substantially related to work.  I suppose, if one were feeling generous, one could assume that the speaker believes it is implied that they will also be doing the tasks for which they are being paid, and that the litany of the mechanics of their day is simply to demonstrate how much other stuff they have to do, on top of the mountain of work they’re obviously doing. But, as we all know, the internet is no place for generosity, and so I call bullshit on that idea, that I myself just suggested, because if a person is genuinely believes their excruciating minutia of their own life to be fascinating, they probably have neither the time nor the mental energy to devote to anything else.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the person who finds the simple fact of doing work at their job to be astounding. Rather than an endless stream of tasks, this person will not only find it remarkable that they were called upon to perform a work-related task, but will also express a great deal of amazement that they managed to accomplish it. And, in some cases, this might very well be justified. There are certainly jobs where heroics are called for on a regular basis. And while some of these heroics might very well take place in an office type setting, it’s very difficult to take someone who emerges from a 90-minute meeting wherein they sat in front of a computer and discussed the layout of 1 individual web page that has zero life-altering implications for anyone anywhere in the world proclaiming that they were just working so hard seriously.

Which, I suppose, again, if one were to be generous, perhaps these things are challenging to these people. Perhaps a competency baseline can be located at different levels, and it should take a long time to write up a summary of a 10-minute interaction. In fact, you’d think I’d be on board with that example, what with this particular entry, which granted, is a summary of multiple interactions, took several days of writing, and several days of breaks, to complete.

I am not on board with that.  Which is what makes these people unbearable in real life, as they do regularly expect accolades for their accomplishments, unlike our charming fellow in the soup commercials who just wants to get through the day without anyone noticing that he’s doing nothing. Worse though, is that, as in the soup commercial, it seems like it works. And that is the trenchant workplace commentary no one expected.

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There is no polite way to ask someone if they’re about to eat an unreasonable amount of hot dogs. That’s not specific to hot dogs, actually; no matter what a person is eating, a comment on the quantity is going to be a judgement. Many is the time I heard “Wow, you sure do eat a lot of salad,” as though having eaten an entire bowl of lettuce that was not topped which chicken was remarkable in comparison to the half a bowl of lettuce left over by those who had also eaten several chickens worth of tenders. That the relative insubstantiality of lettuce plays no factor at all in deeming the quantity of consumed lettuce excessive underscores how very impolite a similar judgement regarding hot dogs – whose substantiality is well-established even as the actual substance of which they are composed remain a mystery – would be. To question someone on the number of hot dogs they’re eating is to question their judgement, and questioning their judgement is akin to questioning their worth as a human being.

This question of what constitutes a reasonable serving of hot dogs came to mind around lunch time, when I was struck by an aroma as I entered the break room and, upon further investigation, discovered 6 hot dogs quietly baking in the toaster oven. There was only one other person in the break room, but her office is also in the break room, so there was an outside chance that the hot dogs were not hers at all, much less entirely hers. I could not, however, ignore the possibility that all 6 hot dogs were intended for just that one person. Which, frankly*, seemed like a lot.

But, as previously stated, there was really no way to determine this. “Wow, that’s a lot of hot dogs,” is maybe appropriate talk if you work in a carnival hosting a hot-dog-eating contest, but a carnie I am not. I did note a lack of buns in the break room, and so considered that the seemingly excessive number of hot dogs was a purposeful counterbalance to the lack of buns. I almost considered that the excessive number of hot dogs compensating for the lack of buns might be indicative that someone was on the Atkins diet, but then I remembered that it’s not 2003 anymore and everyone loves carbs now, just so long as they’re whole grain, local, and gluten-free. Unless they’re following the Paleo diet, but I don’t want to think of what the world might be like if I knew people who followed the Paleo diet, even if just casually through work, so I abandoned that line of thought pretty quickly and returned to a slightly modified version of the original line, that, even without buns, 6 hot dogs is a lot of hot dogs.

Even determining ownership of the hot dogs was tricky. “Are these your hot dogs?” could go a lot of ways, depending on inflection, and I wouldn’t trust myself to sound non-judgmental on an inherently judgmental issue. Without ever considering that I was putting far too much thought into an ultimately trivial matter, I finally settled on “Hot dogs for lunch?”, believing that the statement-in-the-form-of-a-question was my best hope for neutrality, even if it left the greater issue, that of the Ideal Number of Hot Dogs and How it is Most Likely Less Than 6, unanswered.

The answer, it turns out, was yes. And this is how I discovered that there are some people who consider 6 hot dogs to be a perfectly reasonable lunch. However, instead of focusing  how myself and this person differ dramatically in our approaches to diet, I focused rather on the tremendously inane question I had just asked, how little it contributed to a genuine exchange of knowledge, and how very happy I was about it.

Because, as I’m sure you can imagine if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation that involves coworkers, the Hot Dog Situation was not my first interaction with this person, nor was it my first awkward interaction with this person. On one previous occasion, she had gone in to quite a bit of detail on the excellent rapport between herself and her chiropractor, ending with “My chiropractor thinks I’m hilarious; she said I should be a stand-up comedian;” and while I did intrinsically understand that “Oh, are you funny?” would not be the right thing to say, how to respond to a person extolling qualities that I’ve never seen manifest has always eluded me. In this situation, I responded with a couple of my favorite sounds that can pass for language, the tried-and-true “Ah. Huh.” Another time, I remarked on the temperature in the room, which caused her to launch into a lengthy discussion of an attempt to get tickets to an event that required costumes but was not Halloween, and although she was generous enough to pause occasionally to allow me to speak, I was thoroughly confused about how this talk of costumed adventure was going to swing back around to be about the temperature, which was noticeably colder than it should have been, and so could only fill the silence with quizzical looks and more silence.

From her perspective, I’m sure that looked like a failure to hold up my end of the conversation. But for me, in between not understanding that there was no connection between temperature and costumes, and that none would be forthcoming, I was looking across a generational divide, steep and glorious as the Grand Canyon.

For her, these are the years to spend swearing your life will be free of workplace banalities like “Hot dogs for lunch?” Your life will be meaningful, it will involve costumes and hard to get tickets, and you’ll stupidly fall in love with guys who refuse to wear watches because they refuse to live their lives by someone else’s schedule, and not because they’re an inconsiderate asshole who’s always late. You will be someone who has something to say.

For me, though, what I understand is that sometimes, I’d rather politely end a conversation than engage in one that doesn’t interest me. That having something to say is quite a bit different than wanting to hear myself talk. And that, while the meaningless inanities could certainly indicate that the person talking is not interesting, there’s a greater chance it means they’re not interested in talking to me. Just as it took me an unfortunately long time to cotton to the dude without the watch, I did eventually come to realize that the true and lovely meaning of utterly mindless chit-chat is that we find ourselves together at this place and time, so why don’t we just leave it at that.

(*Pun intentional and without apology.)

We had a tiny television on the table in the kitchen in my house in Pennsylvania. There was a special shelf we built into the wall, close enough to the ceiling that you had to stand on a chair to reach it, where the tv was placed when everyone was home for dinner, or if you wanted to see it more easily while you were at the sink, washing the dishes. But mostly the tv, which was actually a combination tv/am/fm radio, lived on the table; it was in front of this tv that I would sit and watch G.I. Joe and The Transformers while doing my homework, and it was on this tv, several years later (although fewer than I would want to detail), that my mother and I watched the 2nd to last episode ever of Twin Peaks, featuring the long-mentioned Miss Twin Peaks pageant (winner gets a free trip to the Black Lodge!), for which the contestants had been rehearsing for weeks, and which, once it finally arrived, moved my mother to proclaim boy, that David Lynch must really hate women.

I doubt there was any follow-up to this comment. In part because, as a senior in high school who had already been accepted to college, this fell squarely into the time frame where everything your parents say is the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened. Particularly in a situation like this, where there exists the horrifying possibility that the ensuing conversation might be tangentially related to sex. But also all the time, and particularly in a situation like this, because it’s just so awful how they’re always wrong.

The error in this case was not that there might have been anything hateful about the Miss Twin Peaks pageant; obviously, a show that used the murder of the prom queen as the jumping off point to explore the secrets kept in a small town – including that said prom queen was a prostitute, and, in the immortal words of the lovely Audrey Horne, “had a sweet tooth for nose candy” – is not going to have a problem with women. The error was in thinking that, in that day and age – 1991, Saturdays, 9pm, suburban Pennsylvania – anyone might hate women.

Because that sort of thing didn’t happen; not anymore. Certainly, it had been a problem in the past, but so had polio. Feminism & Women’s Lib had been a powerful vaccine, spreading equality and understanding throughout society. My mother was a doctor, for pete’s sake; if, when she went to buy a new car accompanied by her husband, the salesman referred to the lighted mirror on the passenger-side visor as a “standard feature for the lady of the house,” well, that one salesman was an antiquated buffoon,  a decomposing carp buried in silt, occasionally giving off gas that would bubble up to momentarily disturb the still pond of sisters are doin’ it for themselves, and nothing more; certainly, it was no indication of a continuing societal norm to belittle and condescend to women. No.

And it didn’t change the fact that, over on the #1 show on television (which Twin Peaks, sadly, was not), charming as Cliff was, it was still Claire Huxtable who wore the pants in that relationship. And if I occasionally found her to be a bit strident, it wasn’t because she was overreacting to things or overly emotional, but because there was no need to yell; you’re a woman, Claire Huxtable : you have a right to be heard. It wasn’t until later that I discovered how much my right to be heard depended on who was doing the listening.

Recently, I received an email from a male coworker in which he stated that I was definitely “the superstar” of a group assigned to work on a particular project. This group – which consisted of myself and two other people, both male – had, even before that email, sparked unpleasant flashbacks to group projects in library school : meetings were difficult to schedule and constantly postponed; people didn’t have ideas, and most of the meetings that were held were spent silently marveling and how people were not using any of their time to work on this project. It was amazingly frustrating to see a fairly straightforward project, which, generously, should have taken no more than 3.5 hours, stretch over 5 months.

However, eventually, as it had to, work on the project concluded. And, even though I was not the lead, I can tell you confidently and completely without boasting that 98% of our conclusions had been entirely my idea. The proposal that we submitted was written entirely by me, even though at one point another of the other group members, stating that he felt like he wasn’t doing anything (which, I refrained from pointing out, might have been because he wasn’t), offered to take a pass at it; but, after a week it remained unchanged, so I finished it up. To be fair, he did create the images for the document, although he wasn’t able to go so far as to insert them into the document, so I took care of that. And the presentation that we did was a word-for-word recitation of the document I had written detailing my ideas.

I understand that being part of a group means that credit goes to the whole, regardless of how much might have been done by each individual person. And, I don’t even necessarily mind being the only person in the group doing any work; I do love to get my own way, after all, so if no one else is doing anything, then there’s a pretty good chance I’ll get what I want.

But the ‘superstar’ email made me angry. Because my first thought on reading it was boy, I bet he never would have said that to me if I were a man. I mean, yes, it’s unlikely that one man would call another a superstar in most professional settings. But even apart from that, had I been a man, the sender would probably not have felt the need to obscure the fact that he hadn’t done shit on the project behind a feeble compliment, or to charmingly suggest that I might not have noticed that I was the only one doing anything.

It made me angry too because, after all these years, I know there’s no way to respond to a comment meant to appease the little lady. If I point out that the bar for superstardom is exceedingly low, then I’m ungrateful and kind of a bitch. Or, worse, I’m reacting emotionally rather than rationally. If I suggest that other members of the group might contribute a little more, I get either excuses for why they’re busy, or some Eddie Haskell-grade faux-feminist nonsense about how I was doing such a good job they didn’t think I needed their help. Yet, if I accept the compliment, I reinforce the idea that, as long as you tell a woman she’s pretty, you can get away with anything.

But mostly it made me angry because it reminded me of the Miss Twin Peaks pageant. Because if I go back and watch Twin Peaks and discover that David Lynch hates women after all? I am going to be pissed.

(Warning : portions of this blog have appeared elsewhere. Like on Facebook. Yesterday.)

I had a weirdly aggressive encounter with a patron yesterday. Although a recent arrival, she has quickly become a frequent visitor to the library; while it’s difficult to make assumptions about people, I would guess, based on her behavior, that she is neither Illustrious student nor faculty nor staff, but instead is of the sort of person who eschews the public library despite being the sort of person one imagines when coming up with reasons to eschew the public library.

Or, I suppose the difficulty lies in accurately judging a person about whom you have already made assumptions. Whatever the case, my very first interaction with this particular woman resulted with her thinking that my answer to her very bizarre question about my bracelet (which I no longer remember, except that it was off-putting) was an invitation to grab said bracelet which, having an elastic band, she then snapped against my wrist. And, while we may go into detail on physical contact in the library another time, the short explanation is : No. Even the great Colonel Mustache, who stole my heart by being the answer to the question “What would Yosemite Sam look like if his great-grandparents on his mother’s side had been Norwegian alcoholics, and his paternal great-great-great-grandfather had been a Lorax, who spoke not for trees but for mustaches?” was invited to remove his hand from my arm as I demonstrated how to use the scanner; there are no exceptions to this rule.

Subsequent interactions with this woman – who so far has not exhibited enough personality to earn a nickname, although perhaps we should start working on something tissue-based – have, now that I think of it, been fairly limited. At least on my watch, her pattern seems to be to establish herself in front of one of the computers, do whatever it is that she needs to do, and then leave, without requesting assistance from the staff. However, before heading over to the computers, she likes to stop by the desk to stock up on tissues. And, to her credit, unlike many library users, she does seem to realize that the tissues are kept on the desk not because we want to be a part of your nose-blowing experience, but so that they’ll be easy to find.

However, unlike most – if not all – of our other library users, when she stopped by the desk yesterday she glared steadily at me as she pulled tissues singly out of the box, as though daring me to stop her. One after another, it seemed like her whole purpose in coming to the library was to prove that she could remove as many tissues from the box on the desk as she wanted. It seems weird to describe anything involving tissues as defiant, but there doesn’t seem to be any other word for it.

And I almost took up her challenge. When she got to 4 and showed no signs of stopping, I inhaled, preparing to say Ok, lady – that’s enough with the tissues. And then I exhaled, wondering if that was really the life I want for myself? Do I want to be a person who restricts access to tissues? Kind of, but under the guise of wanting to ensure adequate tissue availability for all of our library users at all times.

However, that’s not a realistic goal – no matter how many or how few tissues an individual person takes, it is inevitable that the library will one day run out of tissues. On the other hand, there is no shortage of tissues in the world. And as long as there *are* tissues, the library will get more.

It may be, though, that her aggression yesterday was a result to regain some face after the tissue-related ordeal of last weekend. The difficulty then was not because of the tissues themselves, but because she was attempting to take all of the tissues. At once. Using only one hand. I don’t know why she had set this unusual challenge for herself, but I worried for a bit that she was not quite up to the task. As she struggled, unable to get her hand fully inside the box, and then unable to get it out, I wondered whether I should intervene – should I try to help her? She was having difficulty, but then she was trying to take all of our tissues – I didn’t want to encourage that. On the other hand, what she was going through was so very fascinating that it didn’t seem right to try to stop her either.

Fortunately, my conundrum was easily solved by realizing that this very moment illustrated the guiding principle behind the Prime Directive, and since anything good enough for Jean-Luc Picard is good enough for me, I decided to let events unfold as they may. Eventually, as I watched with a rapt expression upon my face, she did manage successfully to extract all of the tissues from the box. It was quite a moment, and I quietly enjoyed her victory even though her face betrayed no recognition of her achievement.

This week, I had momentarily forgotten that Directive, but fortunately, I remembered it in time. Since I did, it is my hope that in the course of proving yesterday that she can take as many tissues as she wants, she noticed that I made no effort to stop her. Because it’s interesting for two weeks, but I am kind of hoping for an end to the tissue-related drama in my life. Unless it’s new life forms coming in to the library – I’m always ready for that.

One question I was asked over and over again the last time I was interviewing for a job was “What made you decide to become a librarian?” I did not at the time realize that the interviewers were likely looking to account for my sudden career shift as a way to buttress my limited library experience, but even if I had, I don’t think that would have altered by response in any way : that I was not happy with the direction my career was headed and, one day, on investigating the jobs on the B.U. website, the first 3 that popped up were in the library. And suddenly I realized “Oh, the library; I should be a librarian.” And then the interview would move on to my meagre library experience, the first part of my answer completely forgotten.

However, it cannot be overstated just how unhappy I was with where my career was headed : I hated the job that I had at the time. Although I very much enjoyed the way the lobby looked like The Movie Theater of the Future, as designed in 1950, I wanted to cry every day when I walked into the building. And, in addition to my job striking me as particularly useless – both in the sense of how it might benefit society in general (it wouldn’t, ever), as well as in a local sense of the value it presented to the company (none) – I was also incredibly bad at it. I’m sure the fact that I did not want to be good at it played a part, but, in fairness to myself, the skill set required of that position is completely outside the realm of things at which I am good : a Sweet Valley High reference would land just about as well as that plane Olivia’s flight instructor crashed, killing himself and paralyzing her and thus wrenching her plan to break up with Roger, who she no longer loved regardless of his newfound place in the Patman family, and the fact that I just mixed up plots and characters from several different books would have gone completely unnoticed.

Yet, despite my vast unhappiness, there were actually several positives to that job. For one thing, I made a lot of money; a lot. Upon receipt of the job offer, I may have exclaimed “Oh my god, I can buy everything I’ve ever wanted and a pony!” aloud, to an otherwise empty room, although several years having passed since the potential incident renders positive confirmation difficult.

In addition to elevating my lifestyle to an extravagance I can no longer afford, that job also provided a very interesting view into an organization that believes they can actually achieve a goal. Or, actually, that’s not entirely correct; most companies probably think that can achieve goals; otherwise, they wouldn’t exist. What was different about this place was that their goal was 100%.

And they took it seriously. There were reports about which I can provide absolutely no detail of systems running at 99.486% accuracy, and it was stunning not only that they would investigate into the decimals following the 99, which I think in and of itself would be enough of a measure for most organizations (at least the ones that are not Ivory soap), but also that that number, decimal and all, still represented room for improvement.

The most amazing thing about that was how quickly I got used to it. I mean, I was never going to be one of the people getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning for a software release, and I found it completely baffling that the people who were would follow up that release by coming in to work for a full 9+ hour day, a practice in which I also did not participate, despite the frequent urgings of my boss. Yet, however much I might have questioned their passion for a product that I thought ridiculous, I had come from an environment where we frequently set the bar at about 60 and were perfectly content to miss it most of the time. Working with these people was inspiring – their intensity, devotion and focus to their job was like watching Olympians. Of work, but still; it was impressive.

So, even though I was extremely happy to leave that job, yea the entire corporate world, behind, I did have within me a small glimmer of hope that, doing something I was devoted to, something I had actually chosen rather than happened into by default, I might one day be a finalist of some sort; perhaps even the winner of the work bronze.

Were I the sort of person who cottoned to things a bit faster, I might have noticed that this attitude did not especially pervade library school. Which : is strange. Librarians for the most part like to tout themselves as busy and engaged, up on what’s going on and passionate about connecting people and information. But the loudest voices in library school are the ones that stay with you, and so what rings in my ears is a refrain I heard from several instructors, who would follow up the description of any particular Librarian’s task with a put-upon “Which you’ll do in all of your free time”.

Of course, budget cuts have left libraries understaffed, and that is a very real issue, but this self-image of the Librarian who is just too busy to actually do her job bothers the hell out of me. For one thing, it often results in an Ur-Millenial need for praise whenever something gets done, which offends my latch-key Generation X sensibilities to such an extent that it might lead to a rumble if I weren’t so desperately in need of a nap.

More serious is the frequency with which this attitude affects users. Obviously, an underfunded library does not have the same resources to divert toward a problem as does a large multi-national profit-driven entity. However, the number of times I have received a response of “We know,” to a report of a problem is extremely discouraging. That’s a difficult message to pass on to a user who points out that our system is confusing – yes, it certainly is confusing. No, we’re not going to anything about it. Because we’ve gotten to a point where something works well enough; there’s no need to push it to actually working well.

Although I can’t quite put my finger on why, I’ve noticed that any patron interaction that begins with the patron exclaiming how long it’s been since last they visited the library tends not to end well. The very first of these instances that I can recall went south due in no way to the elderly alumnus who announced himself at the desk in a voice loud with age, one impervious to shushing as the gentleman in question was most likely unable to hear exactly how loud he was talking, “I graduated 40 years ago!”

I welcomed him back to campus and nodded politely as he described the things that had changed since his day, and then watched, pleased, as he shuffled further into the library to continue his trip down memory lane. A fine beginning to the morning it was, and a lovely memory it would have been had it not been followed by an irritating interaction with The Patron Who Takes Forever to Ask You What He Wants.

This is something you learn about in library school, the tendency of people to dance around the actual topic in which they are interested and to ask several questions, warm-up style, before getting to what they want to ask. There’s a good chance you yourself have done this, although perhaps not in the confines of a library – if you’ve ever responded to the answer to a question you’ve posed with “Well, the reason that I ask is…” before lengthily introducing a topic that is at best tangentially related to the topic about which you first inquired, then congratulations: you may also have tried the patience of someone who was already not having a very good day.

Of course, the first time TPWTFtAYWHW asked his question, he was, in fact, unrecognizable as A PWTFtAYWHW; he accepted my response with thanks, and then returned with his son to the public access machines. However, somewhere between this first question and his fourth, I had gotten into a disagreement with my manager of the day (the library I was in at the time is one, of a hopefully soon-to-be-increasing-number, in which I no longer work), who for some reason felt like she needed to insert herself into the opening procedure of the library even though she never actually opened the library, which threw off my opening routine, and who then felt it necessary to discuss with me the importance of opening the library on time, when what she’d done was attempt to open the library 3 minutes early. Thus, when TPWTFtAYWHW returned to the desk for his 4th go-round, despite my best efforts to get him to tell me what he wanted in an earlier encounter (“active listening” does not always work, take it from me), only to be rapidly followed by the older alumnus who heralded his return to the desk with a booming repeat “I graduated 40 years ago!” the most I could do was stifle my congratulations for having eluded death for so long, before quickly calculating that, assuming he was a typical early to mid-20s on graduating, these 40 years later would put him in his 60s, and making it to your 60s in this day and in this country is not really anything to crow about, so, clearly, he should just shut up already.

So, yes: my first interaction with an alumnus did not go so well, although I will readily admit that was in almost no way the fault of the alumnus. However, what is interesting (to me, and probably to you if you’re still reading [which, btw, if you’re wondering “Why the heck is this so long?”: blame Devin; he’s the one who said I was overdue for a longer entry <hi Devin!>]) is that subsequent interactions with alumni have required no such convoluted circumstances to go sour.

Sometimes, they go wrong right out of the gate, as was the case with a fellow who called the library (a different library than the one mentioned above), who wanted to know “if the maps are still on the 6th floor of the library?” a question illustrative of one of 2 major problems I have with the alumni. Because finding out if the maps are still on the 6th floor of the library is not the genuine reason anyone has ever called the library; if you’re interested in our map collection in and of itself, do you give even half of a tiny rat’s ass what floor it’s housed on? No; you do not. The purpose of this call, in my considerably cynical opinion, was so that I – or whoever answered the phone – could marvel at the profound memory of this alumnus, and perhaps feel a small swell of pride that the library was so very important a part of his educational experience there at The Illustrious Institute in Which I Work that he remembered not only that we have maps, but even a tiny detail like where they’re located.

The problem with this effort on his part is that, even if I wanted to, I cannot marvel at the length of his memory. Having worked there for just over a year and a half, all I can confirm is that the library has maps; I can’t compare the depth of our current map collection to that which he used, nor can I confirm that his memory of their 6th floor location is accurate, since, as long as I’ve known them, they’ve been on the 2nd floor. Have they ever been elsewhere? Perhaps. But even if they were, it does me no good to know that, since apart from this one particular alumnus who is perhaps a little too impressed with his own memory, no one who’s come to the library in search of maps has ever asked me where they were; what they always want to know is where they are.

And the alumni’s interest in the past does not stop at the location of certain collections; they want to verify the whereabouts of the staff they remember as well. One such staff member, Dr. Sharif, was particularly beloved by students, faculty, and staff;  I never had an opportunity to know him, as he died in an accident in the T station a few weeks before I started.

For some reason, this is unusually difficult to convey to the visiting alumni. “And Dr. Sharif,” they ask; “Is he still here?”

“No, I’m afraid he’s not.” I used to stop there, but they always press for more details, wondering if he quit and if so why because he was such an important of the library, so now I continue “Dr. Sharif passed away about a year and a half ago.”

Obviously, I adjust the time for accuracy depending on in which month the conversation is taking place.

“Oh my god! Was he sick?”

“No. Unfortunately, he was involved in an accident in the T station.”

“What? What happened?”

I have to tell you, I really hate this conversation about Dr. Sharif. To start with the most minor thing, that the graduates of this Illustrious Institute, those behind some of the most startling innovations in the history of mankind, are unable to intuit “was hit by a train,” from “accident in the T station” is absolutely astounding.

This directly results into the thing of medium minority, which is that, for reasons upon which I also cannot place my finger, I am constitutionally incapable of saying “He was hit by a train,” without sounding like I’m kidding. It’s terrible, actually, because I find nothing at all humorous in the death of Dr. Sharif, and yet regardless of the solemnity I try to imbue into the statement, it inevitably sounds like I’m delivering the punch line of a particularly tasteless joke.

The worst thing, though, is the  entire conversation; I especially hate that I cannot satisfy their curiosity without giving away personal details about the death of Dr. Sharif, which is, in my opinion, none of their business. That he was an integral part of their experience, both at the library and at the institute at large is touching; even without having met him, I am sure that he was immensely pleased at playing so vital a role in the education and lives of so many people. But his death was not part of his job; it belongs to his personal life, as it belongs to the personal lives of the friends and family who mourned him. That these alumni were not sufficiently in contact at the time of his death with either him or the university, which did react publicly to his death, would seem to indicate that, much as they may have valued Dr. Sharif as a part of the library’s collection, they were not a part of the man’s life; while they certainly are entitled to react to his death, they weren’t a part of that either; their interest in the whys and wherefores of his passing seem more like curiosity, along the same lines as wondering why the map collection was moved to the 2nd floor from the 6th.

Yet, even if their concern for Dr. Sharif is genuine, there’s little they can do about now, and that is the 2nd of two major issues I have the the alumni. While, in my experience, no one has come to the library explicitly to consider their own mortality, there’s always a wistfulness in an alumnus’ visit: they marvel at how much everything has changed, at how much everything is the same, but the real marvel is how everything has continued to exist even though they themselves are no longer stopping by on a daily basis. In the face of the ephemerality of their own existence; they dig in their heels and become just like any other outside user, but, whereas the super-users insist that what they’re working on is very important, what the alumni crave is an acknowledgement that it is they themselves who are important, just as much so as when they were a student, if not more.

Coincidentally, not long after I began writing this entry on Saturday (while at work! The scandal of it all) I had what is undoubtedly my most negative interaction with an alumnus yet. The gentleman in question entered the library while I was attending important business in the ladies room; if he made any introduction to the student covering the desk in my absence, I can’t say. What I can say is that as soon as I returned to the desk, I overheard someone speaking in a deep voice to a woman up on the 3rd floor who, from my vantage on the 2nd,  looked very much as though she were posing for a picture; although the library was mostly empty, violations of our photo policy, which stipulates among other things that no students may be photographed within the library, have been a bit of sticking point in the past, so I hurried upstairs to familiarize the photographer with the basic outline, as well as to ask him to be a little more quiet.

When I arrived on the 3rd floor I noticed immediately that no pictures were being taken, and so adjusted my approach to begin immediately with my standard speech to louder patrons, beginning “Hey guys, I’m going to have to ask you to keep it down a little bit.”

Generally, this is an effective opening, but then I made a mistake. I don’t know what happened; in retrospect, I imagine it was because of an unpleasant look cast at me by the man, but whatever it was, I continued “Your voice,” which was wrong. Not only was this a deviation from the standard script, it was unnecessarily accusatory; at the outset, there’s no need for recriminations – just a friendly word in your ear that sound carries pretty easily in this library. Later, if they continue being loud – that’s when you start pointing fingers.

I caught my error quickly, but was a little thrown when I began again “Sound carries really easily in here, due to the architecture, so conversations can carry between floors.”

Usually at this point there’s an “Oh, sorry!” from the patron, or at least a nod; rarely have I been met with a dead-eyed stare accompanied by silence, but it’s happened. For instance, it happened this past Saturday. Ever so slightly daunted, I chirped an “Ok!” that managed to be greater parts friendly than unnerved, I think, and then returned to the desk.

I don’t remember exactly what I was doing, but it was interrupted by the man, who paused on his way out of the library (the woman trailing behind him; she remained silent throughout both encounters) far enough from the desk that, if you’re feeling generous, you could say was an effort to be unthreatening, to ask “So was I bothering you or her?”

This was not said in a friendly way. It was clear that he was angry, although I could not at first figure out why. Certainly, I misspoke when I approached him earlier, but this level of anger seemed a disproportionate response.

“Excuse me?”

“You or her? [‘Her’ indicated a woman using the computer across from where I sat at the desk.] Which one of you was I bothering?”

Ungenerous as I am, I believe that he deliberately stationed himself far from the desk so that he would have an excuse to once again raise his voice in the library.

He continued: “It’s unbelievable that you would be so rude. The library is empty.”

“That’s irrelevant.” I sounded exceptionally calm during this entire exchange, which was gratifying, but inside I had that same queasy feeling I get whenever someone starts unexpectedly flinging their feces at me.

“No, that is exactly the point.”

It isn’t. What I will tell you is that the guidelines for use of the library are in effect as long as the library is open; the reason to be quiet in the library is so that you don’t disturb other people who are working, yes, but the guideline itself is that you be quiet. Just like you are still prohibited from smoking in an empty library, being naked in an empty library, or pissing on the floor of an empty library, you are likewise encouraged not to speak loudly in an empty library. Similarly, the reason that we have people return books is so that other patrons can borrow them; however, if no one else ever  expresses an interest in that book, you will still be required to return it to us after a predetermined amount of time.

More to the point, the library was not actually empty. In indicating “her”, he acknowledged that there was someone else in the library; it wasn’t empty, and therefore he knew very well that he may have been disturbing someone. That it might have been only one person is also irrelevant; it is not up to the patron to decide what critical mass must be present before he lowers his voice; nor is it up to him to determine that his conversation is far more important than whatever work might be underway by the lone person in the library. It is not up to this guy to decide that some of the rules do not apply to him; if he wants to stay in the library, he will abide by all of them.

Furthermore, that there was only 1 other person visible in the library does not mean that there was only 1 other person working in the library; the library is 6 floors, and sound travels between all of them (well, not the first floor, but seriously – acoustically, this building should be anything that isn’t a library and that it’s an architecture library just makes the lack of harmony between function and form all the more hilarious). I don’t know if he walked through the entire building to verify that the only person in the library was the one woman whose work apparently didn’t matter at all (and the guy reading through the journals, and the guy sitting over by the window using his laptop), but there existed the possibility that people were up there; it was partly with them in mind that I approached him.

Finally, even if there were no other people working in the library, I was still in the library. Though an employee of the library, I do still come to the library believing that it will be a quiet work space; just like anyone working in the library could come and ask me to keep it down, I can ask them.

What I told him, however, was simply “No. It is not.”

This was not what he wanted to hear. “I have NEVER been treated so inappropriately in a library. When I used to use to this library,”

And that was how I learned he was an alumnus.

“, when I used to use to this library, I was never treated so inappropriately. You have no reason to behave like that.”

“I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate about asking you to keep your voice down in a library.”

He grimaced, and made a grasping motion with his fists, one that expressed his mounting frustration with my obstinate refusal to accept logic. I have made that same gesture a number of times over the years, but in this moment I merely stared at him with a placidity I didn’t feel, then exhaled shakily as he stalked out of the library, the silent woman following silently along behind him silently.

Although unpleasant, I did at least learn something from this encounter, and what I learned was this: while overall the issue with alumni is that they need reassurance that they’re still important, sometimes the issue is that they’re just dicks.

Aside

Posted on: May 7, 2012

Last summer there was a new position created at the Illustrious Institute, and since I, had all gone as originally designed, would have no occasion whatsoever to interact with the people hired to fill this position, I got to sit in on the interviews. As my own job hunt had been not so long concluded, I felt no small amount of relief to be sitting on the other side of the table, even if, at the same, I realized with no small amount of panic that the hiring of somones new meant that I would no longer be the new hire and that the novelty of Amy was about to wear off, had it not already done so. However, despite my insecurities I was intent on hiring not someone who would only make me continue to look good; I focused, instead, on listening carefully to the candidates answers to make sure the person hired would, in the long run, prove to be the most beneficial for the Institute at large.

I kid! Obviously, I continued to think mostly about myself throughout the interviews. At first I tried to imagine how I would respond to the questions we posed; however, once I realized that had I undergone this round of interviews – which were far more, well, let’s say involved than my own – I never would have been hired, and thoughts of continued or fresh unemployment were depressing, I decided to switch my focus to what was wrong with the questions.

The first question with which I took issue was one to which we, from the first few candidates, got terrible, confusing answers that nearly derailed the interviews as the puzzled interviewee, well aware that their initial answer didn’t quite hit the mark, went on and on in an attempt to answer a question they didn’t understand. The spirit of the question is probably one that gets asked in every customer service type interview – how do you handle interactions with difficult patrons? – but because of our rather specific use of “escalate”, it made it sound like we were asking people if they ever needed to start screaming at or get physical with problem patrons, rather than if they’ve ever had to call for back up. On this realization, I took charge of asking this question in subsequent interviews, avoiding the problematic vocabulary word, and generating much better responses from the interviewees because of it, I am sure.

The second question that bothered me was one pertaining to email, and the reason that it bothered me was because the answer was very clearly “email.” How to keep up to date on the day-to-day goings on in the library when you work evenings? Honestly, in 2012 (or, I suppose, it was 2011 at the time) is there anyone who’s not going to mention carefully reading their email? It’s the way information is conveyed, regardless of when you work; I suppose someone who didn’t mention email in their response would have been weeded out right away, but they probably wouldn’t have been considered for the position in the first place, what with their application having been pressed into clay tablets using a stylus and then delivered by pony express and all. Not that we have any objection to cuneiform, mind you, but with the strict new guidelines determining what qualifies as a service animal and what doesn’t, an equine-based delivery service could cause a real problem.

I did ask, after one particularly contentious interview (fun fact: one of my coworkers passed me a note in the middle of said interview, eloquently stating “I think I may hate her;”), if the desirable answer to the question was, in fact “email,” why were we bothering to pose it; there was not a satisfactory answer to that, or any answer at all that I recall, but it was enough to convince me not to ask about the third and final question that struck me as less than fully utile : how do you deal with problem coworkers?

Admittedly, there is a greater variety of acceptable answer to this question than there is to the email question; however, the unacceptable answers to this question are all known – no one is actually going to answer that they have a terrible temper and will start screaming at their coworkers at the drop of a hat (which rarely happens inside a library); that they’ll seek out other coworkers who also dislike the difficult person and gossip maliciously – but also truthfully – behind the difficult person’s back; or that they’ll silently fume in the presence of that coworker before taking to the internet and starting a blog where they can eloquently chronicle the details of their overwhelming and completely justified dislike for this person.

However, despite the suspect quality of the answer, the question is not entirely without merit, it just needs a bit of polish; how you deal with difficult coworkers is less important, I think, than finding out who are the people you find difficult to work with. And, even though I am no longer the candidate being interviewed, I do know how I would answer that question:

1. People who think they’re the only ones who do anything – I haven’t had an especially varied job history, but I have worked with a lot of different people over the years, and through those people I have come to realize that the people who go on about how they’re the only people who do anything around here tend to have three very important things in common:

  1. They have a limited understanding of the overall functioning and goals of the organization;
  2. their position within that organization tends to be entry-level;
  3. they are, otherwise, almost completely full of shit.

Seriously : there is no way an organization of any size at all can flourish on the strength of only one person. There is a store in my neighborhood that all they do is sell pickles. That’s really it – pickles. And I guarantee you that, despite the serious hedgehog-like concentration on doing one thing and doing it well, there are a number of people involved in the success of that venture, and that if the person sitting behind the counter starting bitching about how he’s the only one doing any work, the Pickle Master (which is not a title I have verified but one I ardently hope is printed on a business card somewhere) would storm into the tiny storefront and hurl some raw asparagus in that guy’s face and yell “Oh yeah? Pickle that, asshole!” Because the Pickle Master is salty and has no time for your vanity and tomfoolery. And also because if you really think that the entire business is running on you, you’re kind of a self-involved little dink.

2. People who do nothing – despite the undeniable truth of point #1, the larger an organization is, the more likely it is to have acquired a little dead weight over the years, in the form of people who do nothing at all. My problem with these people is not entirely on principle; if you work for a large enough corporation that it doesn’t notice you’re taking them for a ride, good for you, I suppose. And the fact that you feel no pressing need to do something more worthwhile with your time than nothing means all the more for me to do, which can work to my advantage in terms retention and promotion, as well as life-long learning and other assorted goals.

What I do take issue with is that people who do nothing are generally not honest about it, and while I suppose you want to keep it under wraps from higher ups that  you’ve spent the entire day checking the weather and reading articles on Slate because it’s still 1998 and you spend all of your time indoors, I am not going to play along with the charade that you’re too busy to do something. Especially because, often, what you’re too busy to do is help patrons achieve their library-related goals, and you sitting around like a lazy lump of bog mud can give the rest of the library staff, most of whom really do want to be helpful, a bad name to the very people we’re hoping to help. So, to sum up, if you want to do nothing, that’s fine, but don’t get any of it on me.

Of course, those are not the only two types of coworkers I find difficult, but one thing I learned on the job hunt is that you don’t want to come across as too negative, so it would probably be good to follow-up with a word or two about the kind of co-workers that I do enjoy. The next time we have a round of interviews, I’ll put a little thought into that.

I’m sure speaking in generalities will be fine


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