Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

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Slips of Perception

It is a well-known fact that two people can witness the same event and come away with vastly different impressions.  When they meet, they will point at each other and exclaim “That’s not how it happened!”  For a prime example of this, just get my sisters and me in a room together, discussing any given childhood experience.  You wouldn’t believe that we could possibly be describing the same thing.

Some of this phenomenon can be accounted for by lapses in memory, but most of it is the result of differences in perspective.  Culture, prior experience and personality all play into a person’s perceptions.

Among the most famous examples of this is the “young lady or old lady” optical illusion.  As a child, I remember being fascinated by this.

optical illusion

My naughty father reinforced this point by drawing a light bulb and claiming that it was actually a picture of a fat lady bent over with her butt crack (the filament) showing.  I wish I could reproduce this here, but I have exactly zero drawing talent.  Stick figures are as far as I go.

Differences in perception are exacerbated by failures in communication.  In my generation, this was inculcated in us in school by means of such games as “telephone,” wherein one person whispers a phrase in another’s ear and the recipient passes it on to the next person, the next, and so on.  By the time the message reaches the opposite end of the room, it is ludicrously mangled beyond recognition.

While attending a training class this week, I found myself thinking about the skewing and skewering of the facts by miscommunication and variations in perception.  I had to laugh at myself when I realized how ludicrously wrong I had received and interpreted the intended message.

The training class was divided into groups to do an exercise.  One member of my group wrote the days of the week on slips of paper and had everyone draw one to determine the day on which each of us would serve as leader.  This is a photo of the slip that I pulled:

M slip

At first, I was piqued to have drawn Monday, meaning I would have to lead first.

You can imagine how confused I was when the instructor began leading the group.  That’s when I realized that I had been looking at the slip upside down!  Duh! My day is Wednesday!

W slip

I was pleased to learn that I had a few days to prepare.  But I was truly gobsmacked when I learned that a different class member would be leading on Wednesday.  I had to stop the speaker and ask for an explanation.  That’s when I was informed that my day to lead was actually Thursday!!  Imagine my embarrassment when I learned that Monday was an instructor-led day and that the other four days of the week had been numbered.  I had drawn Day 3, which would be Thursday.

3 slip

I wish I were making this up, but sometimes I have to be reminded that truth is stranger than fiction.

Never assume that your point of view is superior to that of another.  While differences in perception are often chalked up to matters of opinion, it is also quite possible to be completely and flatly wrong.

Lesson learned.

I Gotta, Um, Er, You Know, GO!

My coworkers and I had a grand old time and a lot of laughs at our recent holiday luncheon.  The highlight of the afternoon was the annual gift exchange.  The emcee would pull a name out of a hat and call the lucky person up front to select a wrapped gift from a very full table.  Alternatively, if you coveted a gift previously selected by someone else, you could “steal” the gift away.  The gifts of alcohol were extremely popular, so it was a good thing that there was a rule that a gift could be stolen only twice.

To add to the hilarity, the emcee started out by informing us that anyone who decided to steal had to either sing a holiday song or tell a joke.  If this was supposed to deter the predilection for stealing bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and champagne, it wasn’t very successful.  It was a great rule, however, as the terrible singing and even worse jokes resulted in roars of laughter.

My favorite joke of the day, which the teller admitted she borrowed from her young son, referred to the streets of downtown Sacramento that are named with the letters of the alphabet.

Q: Why is it so hard living on O Street?  A:  Because you have to go a block to P.

What is funny about this joke, of course, is the double entendre reference to urination.  You can’t really go wrong with a joke on this subject.  Peeing is always funny, and comedians have been milking the topic for generations.

Before HBO and cable programming generally, you couldn’t make reference to “peeing” in the media without being accused of vulgarity.  Even today, over-the-air radio and TV stations have to watch it, as the FCC has been known to impose some pretty steep fines for gratuitous mention of bodily functions.  This pressure ultimately sent “shock jocks” such as Howard Stern, who appears to delight in “juvenile” humor about urination and defecation, scurrying to satellite radio.

In this day and age, references to the elimination of human waste are judged to be exceedingly mild, at least in the grand scheme of things.  This makes sense in a world in which many give not a second thought to the use of the most demeaning racist and sexist slurs.  It’s all relative.

For example, in the various places I’ve worked, I can’t recall ever seeing someone raise an eyebrow at an offhand description of an impending rest room break as “I gotta go potty” or “going to pee.”  I admit to stifling a giggle when I see the text abbreviation ggp (“gotta go pee”).  I have been lurking around online long enough to remember when this was a way of informing the mates in your chat room why you were going to be afk (away from keyboard).  At any rate, I now know that you can tell a joke that refers to peeing in front of fifty of your coworkers and no noses will be wrinkled.  And you can guarantee that I will be the first to laugh.

Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years working for a tiny community newspaper in New York.  It was a “family newspaper,” both in the sense that the publication was owned by a family and in the more traditional sense of that phrase, meaning that it was unfailingly “G-rated.”  The idea was that all members of the family, including young kids and Grandma, should be able to read the paper cover to cover without encountering any word or phrase that might be deemed offensive.

I remember how, in my college days, where I was one of the editors of the student newspaper back in the 1970s, we made a big point of thumbing our noses at this standard by taking advantage of the opportunity to print the most flagrant vulgarities in 72-point headline type on the front page.  Protesters (and we protested everything back then) were quite fond of including some very colorful language in their chants, cheers and taunts.  Quoting those was a convenient excuse to cuss in a big black headline.

At the staid, conservative weekly newspaper where I was employed in the composing room, however, our problem was not quoting protesters but how to, um, accurately describe the actions for which some of the local loony toonies routinely found themselves arrested.  Should we print “public exposure” when really what we meant was “public urination?”  I can just see some kid reading the paper when it hit local driveways every Thursday.

“Mom, what’s ‘exposure’ mean?”

“That depends on the context, dear.  Usually it has to do with developing photos, like how much light hits the film.  But it can also mean freezing to death, like when someone dies of exposure.”

Our family newspaper found itself in a pickle when a trucker got arrested for pulling off the road into a subdivision so he could pee in a bottle.  Some kids noticed what the hapless guy was doing.  Indecent exposure?  Or just a garden variety case of ggp?  The guy wasn’t exactly a flasher, but who knows what was in that pea brain of his?  Either way, the paper couldn’t get around mentioning that unmentionable, urination.  Ha-ha!  The joke was on the publishers.  “Serves them right for being such prudes” was my first thought as I gleefully typeset the article.

I very much like the approach that my brother-in-law’s mom always took in regard to this subject.  As an elementary school teacher for years, she was no stranger to kids who casually dropped references to peeing into conversations to see what kind of reaction they would get.  She would always interrupt the kid mid-sentence, interjecting “We all do it!”  Never failed to steal their thunder.

One could argue that, even today, we continue to experience some discomfort at public references to elimination of bodily waste, which may explain the use of such infantilized terms as “peeing” and “pooping.”  Admittedly, the liquid version seems to be a bit more acceptable than the solid one.  Few would be surprised at a fellow employee referring to a “pee break,” but one who was brazen enough to say “I gotta take a dump” would likely be considered vulgar.

Whatever you do, however, be sure to keep the bathroom references off the radio and network TV.  ‘Cuz the FCC’s gonna get you if you don’t watch out!

Devotees of the First Amendment need not apply.  After all, freedom of speech must take a back seat to protecting the delicate ears of our eight and ten year old children.

(Cue laugh track)

 

Ready for Christmas 2015

I am looking forward to just three days of work this week followed by a four-day holiday weekend.  Our shopping is done, and yesterday we finished the wrapping.

Wrapped Gifts

Our staging area in the corner of the kitchen with some of the gifts for the nieces and nephews.

Meanwhile, at work, we are eating ourselves into a coma, courtesy of an annual event officially known as A Taste of the Holidays but which most of us refer to by its nickname, Waddle Week.  On Friday alone, I stuffed myself with fried potatoes, chips and salsa, popcorn, and fresh blackberries and raspberries.  For me at least, the pièce de résistance was the vegan cupcakes prepared by one of my coworkers.  Thank you so much, May!

All this followed our holiday luncheon on Thursday.  Although I checked in advance and knew there would not be any vegan food, I brought my own and had a grand old time eating, chatting and participating in a gift exchange with my cohorts.

While last year’s Christmas was fairly subdued at work, this year we held a holiday decorating contest that turned the entire floor into a raucous, delightful amalgam of holiday-related themes.  I present just a few for your holiday enjoyment.

International Gingerbread Lane

1

3

4

Holiday Movie Marathon

7

8

9

Candyland

10

O Christmas Tree – Our secretary’s handiwork and winner of the door contest.  Go, Linda!

Karen's Door

My cubicle wall.  Clearly, I lack the artistic abilities of my coworkers!

Peace

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!  Thanks for reading and for another wonderful year on A Map of California.

 

Broke but Out of Debt

Yesterday, my wife asked me if I was depressed because we have so little money.  Yes, I am, I told her.

As Tevye the milkman pointed out in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s no crime to be poor.  I do believe that it’s possible to be both poor and happy, particularly if you appreciate the things you do have and value your family and friends.

The real thing that’s depressing me is the Infinite Loop of Poverty.  I feel like a modern day Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the mountain only to have it roll back down so that we have to do it all over again.

All of this was triggered when we decided to purchase a car last week.  Not even a new car, mind you.  A low mileage used vehicle is all we could manage without going deeply into debt.  Which is the point, I suppose:  We may not have any money, but at least we’ve managed to stay debt-free.

This wasn’t always the case.  When my wife and I got married 17 years ago, we had a lot of debt between us.  With two (small) incomes, we worked assiduously to overcome this problem.  It took a lot of years, but all the credit card debt and most of the student loans were paid off.  I am proud of this, particularly since I suffered two year-long stints of unemployment in the interim and my wife worked part-time for a few years and not at all for another four years.

And so I say to those of you who think you are stuck in debt forever that there is hope.  It requires dedication, however, including paying down debts first thing out of every paycheck regardless of what you’d really like to spend the money on.  Whatever that may be, it’s probably not as important as watching that big number that you owe get lower and lower.

I am fortunate that my wife is so good with money.  I don’t do well with numbers and would rather have someone else think about what has to be paid and when.  I suppose this goes back to my childhood, as my parents did not believe in giving “allowances” or in encouraging budgeting and planning.  If they thought we needed something, they’d buy it.  Otherwise, they’d rather that we didn’t have any of their hard-earned money so that we couldn’t waste it on frivolity.

In my young adulthood, the result of this was not pretty.  If my father visited me at college and handed be a twenty, likely as not it would be gone the same day.  When I began working, I still lived at home and treated money cavalierly; gosh, I’d get another paycheck the next week, so what was the big deal?  I spent it as quickly as I earned it.

All my life, the place where this came back to bite me was cars.  Transportation was my bête noire, my Kryptonite, my undoing.  I’d use my tax refund to pay my auto insurance.  I’d fill up my tank every time I was paid.  But the moment something went wrong with the car and I needed a couple thousand dollars to make things right, I was in deep trouble.  My father generously purchased a series of high-mileage clunkers for me, none of which lasted very long.  When I saved for a new car, my father generously put up some of the cash, or it never would have happened.

Then my parents began giving me their old car each time they purchased a new one.  They took very good care of their vehicles, so I knew I’d be in good shape for a few years.  One of those cars was wrecked when an old lady ran into me on the way home from work one night.  Another was wrecked by my young niece when we lent it out to her.  Another had to be sold when it’s engine was about to go, and yet another was a trade-in on the old Cash for Clunkers program.

After owning two cars free and clear for a couple of years, we decided to buy a new vehicle even though we had to finance it.  We made some very large monthly payments and eventually paid it off.  Now, however, it has well over 150,000 miles on it and little things started going wrong with it.  We finally decided to give it to our niece (not the one who wrecked our former vehicle, leaving us with just one car between us ever since), who was desperately in need of vehicle, and to pay cash for a used car for ourselves.

The only problem is that avoiding the interest payments associated with financing meant spending just about all our savings.  Hence, my feelings of depression.  I must have a car in order to get to work every day.  Once there, I work and work to save enough so that we can spend it all to buy another car so that I continue to get to work to make more money to buy another car.  It seems to be an endless cycle, which might not be a big deal to a 25 year old, but takes on quite a different meaning to one who is rapidly approaching retirement age.  The only way out of this loop is to earn significantly more money or to up the ante on savings.  Yes, I do think that saving money faster than you use up your car is the only real answer.

Still, I am grateful that I have once more managed to escape the millstone of monthly car payments with which so many others are saddled.  As Dave Ramsey points out on his radio show, taking the scissors to that albatross around one’s neck is a significant step toward financial independence.

Just don’t ask me for money.  I don’t have any.

 

Retirement? No, Thank You

A couple of weeks ago at work we had a very nice retirement party for one of my coworkers who had been with our agency for 25 years.  She told us how much she was looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren.  Most of all, however, she was excited about not having to work.

So many people can’t wait to retire, and I wish them well.  But I have a hard time imagining freely choosing not to go to work anymore.  Having experienced two year-long spates of unemployment, I am not particularly enamored of staying home.  Perhaps this is because I had no income and stood in line for handouts from food banks, some of which was so rotten that we had to throw our gifts away.  Perhaps I’d have a different point of view if I were receiving regular pension checks.  Perhaps I’d see things in another light if I had a reasonable chance of retiring without being utterly destitute.

My sister was a housewife and mother for a couple of decades before she walked out on her husband when her kids were teenagers and suddenly found herself thrust into the world of work.  She was unprepared for any type of career and ended up spending most of her divorce settlement on going back to school.  Like me, she knows that she can never retire.  She says she’s fine with it, however.  “I had 20 years of retirement when I was young,” she tells me.

I don’t know that retirement is a good thing at all.  On one hand, my parents have been retired for nearly 25 years and seem to like it just fine.  On the other hand, I often see articles like this one by one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Lai, that asks the question whether early retirement is equated with early death.  I suppose the jury is still out on that one, as the studies seem to yield conflicting findings.

It is said that a lack of intellectual stimulation can cause brain function to atrophy.  With that in mind, one might say that thriving in retirement is a function of keeping busy with things other than work.  As Michael mentions, many of us have our entire identities tied up with our work, leaving us floating in space once that tether is cut.  This may be one reason that those who have devoted much of their lives to family responsibilities and maintain strong family bonds have an easier time of it in retirement than those who have little in the way of social connection.

At one point during my most recent period of unemployment, I began wondering whether I should just consider myself retired and leave it at that.  We’d be poor, but we’d scrape together enough to subsist somehow.  After all, who wants to hire a fiftysomething with outdated technical skills who hasn’t worked in a year?  It seemed that accepting myself as retired might make me feel less of a loser than I did when I applied for hundreds of job openings and got nowhere fast.

Now that I’m working again, I’m actually glad that I’ll never be able to retire.  If I could, I might be tempted to do so, and I know that it would not be a good thing for me at all.

Yes, I enjoy going to work every day.  It’s not always a bed of roses, but it does give me a sense of purpose.  As I admitted at a recent staff meeting, I am grateful for having a job that allows me to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Would I be able to achieve the same thing doing volunteer work in retirement?  Perhaps.  But it is a special feeling to know that not only am I a member of a profession that allows me to help others, but that I’m good enough at it to be well-paid for the privilege.

About a year ago, I had a philosophical disagreement with one of my coworkers about retirement.  He insisted that retirement is ideal, because it allows you to pursue personal interests rather than having work sucking up all your time.  I suppose this is true if one’s personal interests are diametrically opposed to what one does for a living.  I once had an employee on my team who was a cage fighter and another who raised geckos.  I must admit that such pursuits are a long way from working in the legal world.  However, a very different picture emerges when one’s vocation and avocation are more closely related.  I have plenty of hobbies that I pursue in the evenings and on weekends.  I build my vacations around them.  And as much as I enjoy them, I don’t think I’d want to work at them “full time.”  It’s good to have some degree of balance in life, and I am fairly sure I wouldn’t have that if I were not steadily employed.

I don’t know whether it’s true that one can expect to die within a few years of retiring, but I’d really rather not find out personally.  Instead, I’d prefer to continue experiencing the joy of working.  And, yes, I do include the endless meetings, the time pressure and deadlines, the bosses and the coworkers, the paperwork and the politics.  This lends a richness to my life that no amount of devotion to my hobbies ever could.  I just hope that I’m able to remain healthy enough to keep getting up in the morning, putting on a tie and doing it again and again.

I guess you could say I’m just an old cowboy who’ll die in the saddle with a smile on his face.

 

The Refrigerator Rules

refrigerator rules

I usually don’t write much about what goes on at work.  This is partly out of self-protection, as I was previously unemployed for a year and would prefer not to walk down that road again anytime soon.  But it’s also partly out of a desire to achieve what in current HR lingo is known as “work/life balance.”  In other words, I work enough hours that when it comes to blogging on my day off, I’d really rather talk about something else.

More often than not, that “something else” ends up being my extended family.  However, I recently discovered that there are limits to what one may write on this subject without causing, well, let us say “discord” and “domestic discomfort.”  In other words, I got in trouble for reporting certain things that I subsequently had to remove.  And since I find it rather boring to discuss the weather (my readers suffering through a snowy winter on the East Coast will have my hide for reporting that it was 78°F here in sunny California today) or the rising price of petrol, I’m pretty much left with tales of my working life.

I’ll start this rodeo by reporting on the six cardinal sins posted on our refrigerator at work.  I realize that the photo above only goes up to number 5, but notice that two different items are labeled as number 3.  Whoever made this sign must be long gone from our workplace, as I work with a bunch of super sharp data savvy people, while the sign maker obviously can’t count.

1. Please do not eat or drink foods that do not belong to you. If you didn’t bring it, don’t take it!  It is nothing short of painful that this rule should have to be spelled out in a workplace that is presumably populated by adults.  This rule signals, loudly and clearly, that at some point someone had stolen someone else’s lunch.  We may never know whether this occurred merely due to lack of sufficient will power to resist someone’s tasty leftovers (as opposed to, say, a boring old PB&J), or perhaps due to a gnawing hunger accompanied by lack of a lunch pail or money to purchase a meal at the café downstairs.  I tend to doubt that it was the latter situation that prompted Rule #1, as we all receive a fairly decent pay envelope each and every month.  If I am wrong about this, however, please see me and I will gladly share my carrots, spinach and tofu with you.  As for the miscreant with the lack of self-control issue, may I take a moment to remind you of a little ditty we learned in kindergarten?  It went something like this:  “I won’t take it, it’s not mine… I’ll have my coworker’s Lean Cuisine some other time.”

2. Do not leave food in the refrigerator to rot and smell. If you brought it and didn’t eat it, throw it away.  I did not fully appreciate the importance of this rule until it was my unit’s turn to clean the kitchen last month.  On refrigerator cleanout day, it is customary to send out an email to all staff members letting them know of the time of day at which unlabeled food will be removed to the counter and then discarded if not picked up by the end of the day.  I had forgotten that I had a water bottle full of almond milk in the refrigerator, my weekly supply to top off my morning mug of tea.  As I was held up by a meeting, when I arrived at the kitchen to join the cleaning crew, I found my bottle sitting on the counter.  I guess I should locate an indelible black marker and clearly indicate my name on my bottle:  PROPERTY OF THE RESIDENT VEGAN.  DO NOT TOUCH OR THE TOFU MONSTER WILL GET YOU.  I won’t get into graphic descriptions of some of the science projects we removed from the refrigerator.  (Shudder)  My own contribution to our little cleanup project was scrubbing out the microwaves.  Oh, and I should mention that we found ourselves without any cleaning materials.  I wet some paper towels in the sink and proceeded to scrub away as best I could.  The larger of the two microwaves wasn’t too bad.  The roof of the smaller one, however, had brown baked-on goo to be dealt with.  As hard as I scrubbed, I couldn’t remove it.  My best guess is that this crud is the projectile remains of someone’s delectable frozen entrée from, oh, 2008 or so.  Something tells me that, long after I retire or die, the phantom brown goo will remain.  And this is a microwave oven in which dozens of employees heat their lunches daily.  Ewww.

3. Do not bring “Costco” size containers. They take up too much space.  Single serving size only, please.  For the benefit of my readers outside the United States, I will explain that Costco is a giant warehouse store that specializes in selling food and household products in industrial sizes appropriate for feeding, say, the entire school or football team or even the population of some of the smaller towns around here.  Considering that one of these packages can easily occupy an entire shelf, of which each of our two refrigerators has only three, I can see the reason for this rule.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to bring one of these monstrosities to work, unless perhaps they plan to eat out of that lasagna pan every day from now until Christmas.  I would venture to say that no one is likely to fess up to this particular indiscretion and that, should such a package appear in the refrigerator, it would be unlikely to have anyone’s name written on it.  No worries, though.  This rule breaker will be caught on the very next refrigerator cleanout day when the unlabeled package will be unceremoniously evicted from its frosty domain.  You can be sure that we’ll all be watching that counter to find out who comes to claim it.  Remember, the price of anonymity is consignment to the trash bin at 5 p.m.

4. Do not leave foods uncovered. This is especially important when the food has a strong odor.  Better yet, try not to bring foods that may have a strong odor such as garlic or onions.  This is also good advice for your breath during the workday.  I seldom leave anything other than my little bottle of almond milk in the refrigerator.  However, every so often, I find that I have made a bit too much lunch and leave my (tightly-sealed) Rubbermaid container in the fridge for finishing the next day.  Ultimately, however, I plead guilty to this sin, as I am in the habit of liberally seasoning my food with garlic and hot salsa.  I must admit that many of the foods that we vegans tend to have on our regular menus (things like mushrooms, eggplant and carrots) are rather bland.  Palatability is greatly increased by the application of liberal doses of the spicy stuff.  So even if my closed plastic containers do not stink up the entire refrigerator, I probably walk about with dragon breath all afternoon.  Maybe all morning, too, as I have been known to season my breakfast, as well.  I totally love tofu, but — bland, bland, bland.  One day soon I promise to start using that roll of Breath Savers that has been sitting forlornly in my desk drawer for months now.  In the meantime, I’ll try not to breathe on you.

5. If your container leaks or spills in the refrigerator, clean the spill. This reminds me of a sign that was seen around a place where I was employed several decades ago.  It read “Your mother does not work here.  Clean up after yourself.”  The irony was that some entire families worked in that establishment, so it was entirely possible that your mother did indeed work there.  Not that she had any intention of cleaning up after you, of course.  I hope I haven’t inadvertently violated this rule at any point, but my guess is that I will do so sooner or later.  Some of us (I am a prime example) are totally oblivious and unlikely to notice even if we do spill.  And if we do notice a spill, we will likely think it was the result of leakage from someone else’s lunch.

6. Do not look through your coworkers’ food to see what they brought. Generally, those who want to know what I brought for lunch (often due to the delicious smell wafting from the microwave) take the straightforward approach and just ask.  I’m always happy to relate the details of each can that I lovingly opened and dumped into the plastic container now spinning about on High, releasing who knows what kinds of carcinogens in the process.  As the rule states, rummaging around in the refrigerator is a practice greatly frowned upon, as it may appear that you are you going shopping in preparation for violating Rule #1.  Don’t be so curious, George.

I’m sure glad that the anonymous rule poster at least finished up by saying thanks.  With exclamation points, no less.

What lists of rules are posted at your workplace?  Does eating lunch at work involve refrigerator thieves and microwave slobs?  Tell us all about it!