…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

an office of one’s own redux

I come to you today from a joyful place—namely, my own office. Wait a sec, didn’t I already write about getting an office months ago? I did, but then I was recubicled, and now I’ve been reofficed, and this time it’s new and improved, bigger and better than ever. Also, it seems to have come with a mysterious box of “emergency food”—the only nonfurniture item left here by the previous tenant. (Should I tell someone about it?)

My former office was understood to be temporary all along, you see, a shimmering vision of what could be in my otherwise gray cubicle existence. A tease, really.

Then came the move. The building that had long housed our Gay Agenda™ cell had been mightily spiffed up since being purchased several years back by the TV Guide company (whose magazine’s continued success in the TiVo age is a bafflement to me). Those TV Guide people in their business-casual attire—they thought they were so hot. They couldn’t wait for our long-term lease to expire this fall so they could kick our blue jean–clad asses to the curb and get themselves some real tenants, a company able to pay its rent in gold bullion rendered from unclaimed Daytime Emmys, a company with respectable employees who don’t discuss their faggoty, rabble-rousing business on the elevators. At least that’s how I imagine it went down. It’s possible that our company decided to move simply to fuck with our commutes; we cubicle dwellers, even if temporarily stored in offices, aren’t consulted on such matters.

For months our corporate deciders—folks I’ve heard of but never met—sought for us a new workspace, a building where we might be less conspicuous in our mission to corrupt, convert, and redecorate the nation. In late September we moved into our new base of operations, one we share with the Los Angeles Israeli Consulate.

The operations manager could not emphasize enough how super secure this building is—were we, you know, in any way concerned about possible anti-Israel sentiment. She also told me that I would be situated in “a really nice cubicle,” and to be fair, the cubicles are perfectly pleasant in appearance, once you get past their essential cubicleness: that they lack ceilings and doors and therefore privacy of an even minimally human sort. I found a site online offering cubicle “doors.” I was kind of excited about the concept until I saw them. This is the CubeSmart® CubeDoor Classic:

Or, for you true-blue cornfeds, the CubeBanner:

Neither is quite what I had hoped for. I was thinking more along the lines of the Get Smart Cone of Silence:

Our new cubicles have slate-blue textured fabric “walls” and come equipped standard with built-in shelving and plenty of storage files, one tower of which rolls around on castors and is padded for use as an ottoman or occasional seating! In a compound adjective: fancy-schmancy.

I tried to make it work, truly I did, but I just don’t think as well as I used to. I have trouble following narratives of TV shows with plots any more complicated than, say, America’s Next Top Model. My brain isn’t so much broken as it is unfocused. I was put through a battery of tests following my blackout episodes in 2004, after which my neuropsychologist pronounced me sound but slow. Disregarding time, she said I tested in the above average to superior range (!), but my processing speed tested somewhat south, in below average to impaired territory (!?!). While my partner is happy to fill me in on the machinations of CSI and The Wire, I’m afraid I’m on my own at work.

So it is that I found myself drowning in the new environment, a sea of cubicles ringed by the offices of editors and art directors and photo coordinators, people who must routinely interact and were accustomed to having cross-office conversations in our old floor plan, where departments were more partitioned and the copy editors, though stored in cubicles, occupied their own suite. Here, the copy editors have been placed at the very center of the beehive, surrounded by worker bees and drones alike, including individuals of special note: Mr. No Inside Voice and Princess Cell Phone. By the end of two weeks my grasp on sane functionality was tenuous.

And then, The Straw. You know the straw I’m talkin’ about: that last one, the one that broke the camel’s back?

The operations manager, standing near my cubicle while discussing important operations stuff with HR, invoked the dichotomous rubric of “office people” and “cubicle people” to describe the office population.

There are some things up with which I simply will not put.

There I was, stuffing earplugs deep into my canals, wearing wonky, old-school, over-the-ear headphones, trying in vain to become functional in a dysfunctional environment, only to be labeled a “cubicle person.” That was approximately when I decided I would have to do something antithetical to my worldview: I would have to ask for what I needed.

No, seriously, this is a breakthrough in my cognitive-behavioral universe, because I have always thought that the best way to be liked—and maybe even eventually rewarded—is to not ask for much, not make waves, and be the most agreeable girl in all the land. Having followed this strategy to little end for several decades now, I’m ready to admit that it doesn’t work. As it turns out, people aren’t psychic, not even the ones who love me, and certainly not the ones who employ me.

I appealed to HR, citing the complications of a scrambled brain, and she took me on a tour of available cubicles. I spent time in each of them, trying to get a feel for the environment, and in no case did it take longer than 45 seconds to identify those in the area who lack inside voices. I acknowledged that in moving I would merely be jumping out of the frying pan into an adjacent frying pan—on a burner less convenient to my department—and resolved to give it another go, to try to reconfigure my working process, which is a bit like thinking I can tell myself I’m a butterfly and that I will soon levitate as a result. It didn’t work. Spectacularly.

Plan B was to say, No, really, I’m serious, I can’t work under these conditions. “A job I love is making me miserable,” I said.

Two days later I moved into my fab new workspace, an official medical accommodation. Finally, all the weirdness of the past two years has paid a dividend!

By the way, don’t feel sorry for the guy they evicted to make room for me. He’s an intern who works here exactly two days a week. And that, my friends, is how lowly we copy editors are regarded: Part-time interns get offices while we’re reduced to begging.

My first day in the new digs, an IT guy pointed out to me a design flaw in the door that enables anyone who so desires to lock me in from the outside, but I was far too preoccupied with the concept of even having a door to worry about anyone wanting to imprison me. And, really, can he possibly think I’m threatened by the idea of isolation? Ha! Whatever, dude. I’ll just put on a little Coltrane and crack me open a brick of that emergency food.

Monday, October 16, 2006

on not thriving

I’ve been sleeping in a chair most nights for the past couple of weeks. It’s a really nice chair, one of those Relax the Back zero-gravity numbers—in green suede—but, you know, it’s still a chair. The first time I resorted to its embrace was during a sleepless night, several weeks ago, in which I was unable to find a single position where I wasn’t tempted to amputate my right leg at the hip joint, such was the pain that radiated through it for reasons unknown. (For those of you keeping score, my right side, which hosts my right leg, would be my heretofore non-gimpy side.) It seemed like such an extreme measure back then, sleeping in a chair, but it’s become routine, just another option: Hmm, bed or chair tonight?

A friend said it sounded like a sciatic nerve flare-up and suggested that my partner try to beat it into submission. My girl didn’t seem eager to pummel my ass at first, but after a few hesitant warm-up taps she got all Fists of Fury on me. (I haven’t dared ask whether she had a particular incident or quarrel in mind during our uncharacteristically antagonistic encounter.) At any rate, the therapy did not a lick of good.

My primary care doctor didn’t so much take my pain complaint seriously: After he manipulated my leg this way and that and saw nothing obviously wrong, Dr. Devil-May-Care told me to feel free to exceed Advil’s label-recommended dosage, breezily adding that I could take “as many as four at a time”—just in case I was thinking more along the lines of, say, 18.

Does my HMO hate me?

It’s not such a ridiculous question. I’ve lately been collecting ailments as if they’re exotic butterflies, and my current primary care doc would be only the most recent in a long line of doctors to get all Billy Mumy on my ass and wish me into the cornfield. And if any perceived abuse of my HMO’s resources isn’t enough to get me shit-listed, there’s also this matter of a letter I wrote them years ago—before they became my HMO—to rant at them on behalf of my grandfather.

My father, who has called me exactly twice in my adult life, rang me up one day in 1999. “Your grandpa’s in the hospital,” he said. “He tried to kill himself.”

Let me just say here that my grandfather as I remembered him was a bit of a bastard. I say “as I remembered him” because we had been estranged for 15 years. Nevertheless, the dutiful daughter called in sick to work and headed south on the 101, toward Orange County and family.

I went with my parents to visit my grandfather at the “care unit,” which seemed more like an assisted living facility than a mental hospital and where my grandfather was eating chocolate ice cream and flirting with a nurse one third his age.

“It was those [HMO] bastards,” he said, after some adjustment time during which we established that yes, it had been 15 years since we saw each other, and yes, I was an adult now. He went on to say that he had told his doctors over and over that his medications weren’t working and that he couldn’t stand to live in constant pain anymore. In addition to the standard assortment of elderly gentlemen’s aches, he had had problems with his feet and legs for decades. And, yeah, of course, all of this was very likely exacerbated by the big D. Melancholia runs in my paternal line; we’re one big unhappy family.

After one too many copays, one too many aloof doctors, one too many changes into a gown to wait around in a freezing exam room only to be sent away with instructions to get plenty of rest and to moderate activities and to pay attention to those dietary needs, Grandpa went out and bought himself a handgun. He endured California’s “goddamn” 10-day waiting period, he groused, then he drove to an isolated area and stood in the middle of a field with his new firearm at his temple—cocked—until he realized he couldn’t summon the will to pull the trigger.

My dad, who had not been estranged from his father during that period, nevertheless didn’t know about the gun until a policeman told him he had found it—loaded—under the driver’s seat of my grandfather’s unlocked Camry, in the parking lot of a local Motel 6 where he had booked what he presumably thought would be his scene fin. I can’t imagine very many more depressing spaces in which to bid my last than a suburban budget motel room, but I guess it’s appropriate to the hopelessness of the act—hell, it may even be reassuring to think that polyester-blend bedspreads and factory-direct art belong only to the living. As my grandfather told it, he didn’t want anyone to have to “find him.” In this case, “anyone” should be understood to exclude the Motel 6 housekeeping staff.

The gun, “not having been discharged in the commission of a crime,” had to be taken into custody by a family member, the policeman told my dad. It wasn’t acceptable to leave it in the car, loaded or not. “I don’t want the damn thing,” my dad told me as we drove to my grandfather’s townhouse to get him some pajamas and a change of underclothes. Once at his place, eerily unchanged since his wife had died fully 20 years prior, I laughed for the first time all day upon seeing, on his nightstand, a library copy of Final Exit atop Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back. My librarian friend Slangred once told me, shortly after assuming her post at a large central city library, that both of her branch’s circulation copies of Final Exit were past due—quite.

It was from Final Exit, he said, that he gleaned the tip to pull a bag over his head after he overdosed—that way, once he passed out he could asphyxiate in peace, and he wouldn’t have to worry about whether he had taken enough pills, whether he might succeed in killing his brain only to be survived by his more rote biological systems.

Was it a sincere attempt? That’s the first question people ask after establishing the basics: Is he OK, how did he do it, and why? Cynicism, and perhaps denial, makes us doubt the commitment of those who don’t cut deep enough, take too few pills, jump just five stories instead of the recommended 10. Was my grandfather’s attempt sincere? He said he left the motel room because his mouth felt like it was lined with cotton—a side effect he hadn’t anticipated—and he couldn’t stand it anymore; he knew there was a Jack in the Box across the street, so he thought he’d get himself a soda. (Why didn’t he just drink some tap water? Delirium? Or second thoughts?) A fellow Motel 6’er knew something wasn’t right with him as she watched him try to cross the street; she called 911 before he hit the asphalt, and his plan was thwarted by a round of stomach pumping and a couple of weeks under the watchful care of “son-of-a-bitch doctors” and flirt-worthy nurses.

The concept of sincerity came up in my letter to [HMO], particularly in terms of its efficacy in their then–advertising slogan: “Peace of mind.” I threw the slogan back at them repeatedly, castigating their neglect of my grandfather’s most basic stated need: relief, however fleeting, from constant pain. The letter, I’m sure, wasn’t my best work. Still, I received a response from the vice president of blameless apologies, sympathizing with my concerns in that very passive corporate way: We’re sorry that this experience has been so very frustrating for you, and it’s unfortunate that your grandfather has been unable to find relief from his pain, and if you have any further needs please feel free to contact the director of lunatic relations at…

Sincerity’s tough to come by these days.

My grandfather lasted another seven years—a period I like to think of as “How Grandpa Got His Groove Back”—over the course of which I saw him many more times. After he was discharged from the mental hospital he was assigned a new primary care doctor who made it his mission to solve the pain issues—no doubt an imperative issued from above—and inside of six months he was feeling markedly better physically and, perhaps as a result, mentally. The onetime bastard underwent some kind of personalityectomy to become an oddly lovable old man, one who, so far as anyone knows, never attempted suicide again. And none of us questioned his decision to refuse treatment when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005. He had resolved to live the remainder of his days, finite at last, as he wished.

Slangred will be pleased to know that the aforementioned copy of Final Exit was returned to the library. And my grandfather’s handgun sleeps with the fishes, ceremoniously dropped to the bottom of the Pacific by my uncle while on a fishing trip, making me wonder how many firearms not discharged during the commission of a crime lie corroding on the ocean floor.

I, meanwhile, am now a card-carrying member of [HMO], and I’d like to know what it takes, short of a “suicidal gesture,” to get just one doctor to say, sincerely, that he or she understands my frustrations and won’t give up on me. Will someone at [HMO] please help me to, as their current ad slogan promises with such elegant brevity, “thrive.”

One does not thrive while sleeping in a chair.