Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Personal Belongings That I Brought Home from Work After I Quit My Job Two Weeks Ago

Sis-Q Rollerz roller derby button

Oakland A’s button

Ugly avocado-green tape dispenser that I bought in 1981 so people would stop stealing tape dispensers off my desk

Nolan Ryan action figure

Page-Up paper holder with fake goldfish inside

8-ball keychain

Vegemite coffee mug

My grandmother’s brass letter opener with Pisces fishes on the handle

2 houseplants

6 notebooks detailing everything that happened in my last two jobs since May 2005

Post-It with the phone number of a man I like

Rusty railroad spike

Voodoo doll

Mechanical pencil

Glass jar for mixing protein shakes, with Italian sticker on it so people wouldn’t throw it in the recycling bin

Jar of Zinke Orchards almond butter

Jar of almonds

Button that says “Screw the e-book”

Button that says “Pet a Yorkipoo”

Bag of Stress Less herbs

Can of WD-40

Wonder Woman stamp

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Take This Job and Gently Put It Somewhere

 Oh, how I wanted to be Jerry Maguire. How I wanted to put a goldfish in a bag, tell the boss to shove it, right in front of the whole staff, and spirit myself and that innocent fish out of there into the open air. But of course Jerry Maguire didn’t quit; he was fired. And of course I wouldn’t put a goldfish in a bag unless it was in imminent danger.

But still, there were so many times, on so many jobs, when I wanted to make a scene and storm out the door. I wanted to shout “I quit!” and throw a sheaf of papers on the floor. Or buzz into the intercom system and sing, We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when… and walk away, all hips and swagger, giving the finger to the building on the way out.

Oh, how it has not gone like that.

I’ve quit a lot of jobs in my life, and not once have I made a scene. It’s not that I wasn’t tempted: The boss who patted my butt and tried to French-kiss me in the mailroom certainly deserved it. And the über-Christian co-workers who grumbled when I dared not to read the Bible in the lunchroom were good candidates. And as for the crazy-making, exasperating managers—I’ve worked for more than my share of those. But in spite of all that, when it came time to quit, I just couldn’t make the big exit. Instead, my quitting usually amounted to a short meeting with some paperwork exchanged, or a strained phone call with me telling my nit-picky, overbearing boss that it had been a pleasure working for her, and I’d send her a Christmas card. (I did.) In my dreams, I’m a bad-ass. But face to face—well, my mother would be proud. Good manners trump drama every time.

Except for once…almost. It was my dream job—I’d landed a gig as the manager of a riding stable, handling a small fleet of horses, teaching lessons, and greeting customers from a window cut into a very rustic tack room. There was no electricity, no running water…and, most of the time, nobody working there but me. This last bit turned out to be a problem. The owners were a young couple who fought a lot, and when they were mad at each other, they went their separate ways—often for days at a time. So, again and again, I found myself having to run the stable alone, with customers streaming in all day, and horses to be watered and rested and re-tacked, and the phone ringing, and the cash box never coming out right. It was a gigantic juggling act, way too much work for one person. And the pay was terrible.

So I started rehearsing a little talk I was going to have with the owners about this. And one day, it was the right time to do it: I won’t go into the story now—suffice it to say that my day featured a rampaging pit bull, an injured child, and a hungry chicken, and it still ranks as my Worst Day Ever, on Any Job. And when the wife-owner returned late that afternoon, mellow and dreamy after a day of hiking or shopping or whatever the hell she’d been doing all day, I was ready to shoot off like a Roman candle, and that entire speech that I’d been rehearsing flew out of my mouth at about 200 miles an hour, right in her face. I think I may have actually spat on her a little. I ended my tirade by saying that the job was not what I’d signed up for, and I didn’t even like it anymore. That last part came as a surprise even to me.

The effect wasn’t what I expected. In my rage-addled brain, I thought she’d be chagrined, that she’d admit she’d been a bad boss and had made a terrible mistake. Maybe she’d give me flowers or something; certainly a raise. But, to my surprise, her face darkened and she hissed, “If that’s the way you feel, how about if we make today your last day?” Bewildered, I said, “Fine.” She peeled a few bills out of the cashbox and handed them to me as my last day’s pay. Then we busied ourselves with putting away the tack and letting the horses out to their pasture, all in silence. Eventually, her husband arrived, and he was solicitous and kind, as he often was. Then the wife explained to him, with a fake cheery smile, that I’d decided to move on. “Gosh,” he said, “that’s too bad. Well, let’s have a drink.” Then, to my amazement, he whipped up a batch of margaritas in the RV that sat next to the tack room, and the three of us sat down in patio chairs in the dusty canyon and drank to each other’s health. We had a long, slow talk about nothing in particular. It was nice. I was reminded that I liked these people. And I felt bad about the yelling. But the die was cast, and it would have been awkward to change my mind just then. And I got the sneaking feeling that it wasn’t the first time they’d done this—that people had quit suddenly on them before, and they knew the drill.

So that was my sort-of big scene. The music didn’t swell; the crowd didn’t cheer. I drove home and tugged off my boots and took a long, hot bath. I didn’t regret quitting—I knew they’d taken advantage of me, and I was proud that I’d spoken my mind. It just wasn’t a Hollywood ending; it was…complicated. Later, I found another job that, like that one, was not simple and was not perfect. And since then, I’ve found that they’re all like that, to one degree or another—even the best ones, the ones I kept for a long time. And even in the worst ones, I still remember the look on my boss’ face when I reamed her out. And more than anything, I remember those margaritas, that quiet talk with two other human beings while the sun set over the canyon.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Book Fair: Still a Good Day

Yesterday I spent the day exhibiting my wares at the Oregon Book and Author Fair at the Jackson County Expo Fairgrounds in Central Point. This was my fifth year at the Book Fair, and 62 of us authors drove in from all over the state to do it. The day wasn’t without its challenges—the heating system in Padgham Pavilion was on the fritz, plunging the indoor temperature into the meat-locker range. And the County Expo—well, it’s a bit far off the beaten path for most book shoppers, so let’s just say the attendance was not robust. (Extra thanks to you visitors who did come.) The fair’s human-dynamo organizer, Trisha Barnes, managed to keep her composure even when her duties must have felt like herding cats, particularly when we writers all got together and set a Guinness World Record for “number of authors signing their books simultaneously.” (We pulled it off, even though we looked like a team of people assembling a 50-foot-long sandwich.)

I sold a few books, enough to pay for the table rental and the gas to get there. But, in my philosophy, book fairs aren’t about making money. They’re about getting your book in front of people, whether they buy it or not. And secondly, they’re about spending time with other authors, most of whom are in the same boat you’re in—trying to catch the wave of e-book technology without getting the wind knocked out of them, submitting their books to prize-selection committees, and learning the publishing business by the seat of their pants.

So, with a lot of time on our hands, we authors spent much of the day talking amongst ourselves. With Ken Lewis of Krill Press, I talked about Kindle vs. Nook formatting and his decision to turn away from the traditional author-agent-publisher triangle and start his own publishing house. I had a short chat with nonfiction writer Sue Lick, who posted a funny and candid recap of the fair on her blog today. I was happy to run into my tablemate from last year’s Douglas County Book Fair, novelist Bob Mayo, who wasn’t exhibiting but had made the drive down from Roseburg to see the fair. My favorite book of the day: To the Woods, horticulturalist Evelyn Hess’ award-winning memoir about her years living on 20 acres of wild land southwest of Eugene. And, with 14 of us poets exhibiting, there was plenty of time to trade poetry books, swap news, gossip, and debate the relative merits of New York Times vs. Oregonian crossword puzzles.

I also got to spend some quality time with Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen, whose table was next to mine. From Paulann I got a glimpse into the life of a state poet laureate—she tours like a rock star pretty much year-round, and, in spite of being a long way from home, she never lost her good cheer all through the chilly day. It made me wonder whether they stress-test candidates for Poet Laureate, much as they do with astronauts—whether they subject them to the literary equivalent of the G-force chair and the underwater space-walk simulation. I guess in a poet’s case, they’d have to coop them up with their spouse in a hotel for weeks on end, or strand them at the side of the road in a September blizzard.

After all that, while I was driving home and thawing out, I felt remarkably good. Despite having spent the day shivering and not selling as many books as I might have liked, this not-great day at the book fair was still a great day.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Walking Around Talented

My friend Amie Tyler has a new blog. She e-mailed me yesterday, sweetly asking if I would mind if she put a link to my blog on hers. Being new to this blogging thing, she wasn’t sure if it was OK to do that without asking. I took the high road and did not grovel with gratitude. (“Oh, God, yes—please, please, please link to my site and I will get on a plane to wherever you are and paint your house.”)

So I toodled over to Amie’s blog, and…holy smokes, what a good blog. So far, she has just a few posts and two videos of her singing and playing guitar. (Actually she’s too shy to film herself singing, so for now it’s just audio.) Now, I’ve known Amie for 8 years or so, and I’m astonished that I didn’t know she did any of these three things: write, sing, or play guitar. And, even more astonishing, she’s excellent at all three—like bestseller good, like Shawn Colvin good. So now I’m bombarding her with embarrassing e-mails about how great she is. I already knew she was wonderful—you can’t spend two years in a book group with somebody, eating Chinese food and drinking martinis, unless you think they’re pretty wonderful. But I had no idea she had so much talent. I mean, she was sitting right there in front of me the whole time!

This makes me think about people in general, about how each of us is a walking encyclopedia of cool stuff, each a very different and very interesting universe. I’m reminded of it every time I go to an open mike where singer/songwriters are up there, strumming their guitars and doing their thing. Like poetry open mikes, those shows suffer their fair share of scratchy, tone-deaf exhibitionists. But every once in a while, somebody gets up there—usually the least likely person, the beanpole high-school girl or the smoke-smelly guy with the sailor hat—and the next thing I know, my jaw has dropped open and I’m sitting there with tears in my eyes because this person is just so damned good. This person, like my friend Amie, is just walking around every day with all that talent inside them? How is that possible? Shouldn’t it register, like some color on the spectrum? Shouldn’t they trail a stream of it as they go by?

I used to get a similar feeling when I was spending a lot of time at the assisted-living place where my dad used to live. To overcome my sick-old-folks phobia, I’d go with him down to the dining room at lunch and talk with his tablemates. I did this dozens of times, and I’m telling you, it was never, ever dull—those people were so freakin’ interesting. Once I said hello, smiled, asked where they were from, and managed to tune in to what they were saying over whatever impairment they had—a stroke, or Parkinson’s, or a tracheotomy—I was astounded to learn that these people, every one of them, had led fascinating lives. At the time, I also ran a reading group at a senior center, and it was the same way there—these people had lived all over the world, ranched inhospitable land, danced with stars, and worked in the White House. And to top it off, almost all of them had a wicked sense of humor.

It’s so easy to walk through my days, elbowing past people on the street, interacting with them at work just enough to answer a question or say hello. It’s easy to think of people as being the sum of what they say, or what I see. But sometimes something comes along, like Amie’s blog, that reminds me that each of us is a practically infinite soup of possibilities. While not every one may be to our taste, it’s pretty miraculous anyway. Bon appétit.