Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sixty-Four

(Yes, I 64)

To be honest, I don't think about age much. Sometimes I forget how old I am and I have to mentally subtract the year I was born from the current year to arrive at the correct number. Oh, I know I'm sixty-something; it's just that I lose track. I'm keeping track better now because I'm a year away from the magic number. It's not exactly like the anticipation of turning eighteen ~ I get (now) that life has an expiration date. Still, I'm looking forward to finding out what life is like without my clock eep-eep-eeping at 4:30 each morning.

Old people always say they don't know where the time went. Guess what ~ it's true. I distinctly remember when I was giddy with excitement over my upcoming high school graduation. I had no plan, but I was pretty sure I'd have some kind of exciting career. Apparently by magic. My town held two institutes of higher learning, Mary College, which was private and out of the question financially; and Bismarck Junior College (which I'm sure is called something much more pretentious now). I got one of BJC's catalogs and perused it for about ten minutes. The journalism courses caught my eye, but then I thought, what the hell ~ that's never gonna happen ~ so I just looked for a job instead. No one in my family had gone to college and who was I to break the mold? Frankly, I depended on serendipity, which I learned was difficult to come by.

It's not that I was lazy (okay, I actually was). It was easier to surf through life and see what came of it. I assumed crappy jobs were a rite of passage. And in the recesses of my brain I was futilely chasing the dream of being a disc jockey, which would have been a stretch, considering my verbal skills were essentially non-existent. 

So, what did I do? What I knew how to do ~ type. State government jobs were handed out like candy, although one did have to take a merit exam to be considered. And I did have another skill in my back pocket ~ I knew shorthand. Strangely, no one ever asked me to "take a letter". Two years of instruction wasted. The whole time I worked at the Capitol building (a year) I was looking for a plausible means of escape. If one searches out the definition of "drudgery", it says "North Dakota State government". 

I was sadly a classic under-achiever. In my defense, nobody in the early seventies was looking for someone with my singular skills. After zipping down those eighteen floors for the final time, I returned to my other skill, operating a cash register. I didn't even realize how pitiful I actually was.
Then I got married, as all we seventies girls were expected to do; and then I became a mom, which was essentially the only thing I managed to do right. I stayed home until our bank account cried out in anguish, and subsequently returned to operating a cash register. I no longer needed a career; just a steady paycheck.
Around 1980 my working life became more interesting when I answered an ad for a ward clerk at our local hospital. I had no clue what a "ward clerk" was, but it did require typing skills, which I still possessed. I absorbed the inner workings of life on a nursing floor, and found it fascinating. I liked learning things that had some correlation to actual life. I functioned as a de facto nurse's aide when staffing was short, and liked doing it. I acquired something I'd never once possessed ~ self-confidence. When I took the job working second shift, it was for practical reasons; but honestly, that time of night fit me like a glove. Everything, however, is mercurial. After eight years, my impulsive mind told me it was time to move on.
For a couple of years, I drifted from one secretarial job to another and suffered the inherent indignities. Strangely, no one wanted me to leave when I gave notice ("I was going to give you a raise!" "Oh, we were ready to offer you a full-time position."), but had the powers-that-be acted like they wanted me to stay before I took matters into my own hands, I never would have resigned in the first place. I tucked that little fact in my pocket and never forgot it.

Desperate to get away from my icy boss, a classic 1920's stern school marm, at the farm tax planning/prep business, I scoured the classified ads, all three or four of them (it was a small town). A large health insurance company headquartered in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania had the novel idea of expanding into a relatively rural area, where people had a work ethic and would be happy with paltry pay ~ right up my alley! I knew absolutely nothing about health insurance and frankly it sounded boring as hell, but I did possess a knowledge of medical terminology, so I hoped, hoped. I actually practiced interviewing at home in my garage ~ practiced selling myself and answering any question I could conceive. Interview day turned out to be a cacophonous assembly line ~ move to the next queue, answer a question, move along, answer another. My carefully rehearsed talking points never had the chance to escape my lips.

I went back to work and waited. And waited. After two weeks of hearing nothing, I knew I'd blown it. I was despondent. And my chilly boss was there every morning, offering a peeved "good morning" through pursed lips.

Three weeks on, I got a call and an offer. The woman on the phone didn't tell me I was a second choice and that an original hiree had dropped out. I learned that later. I truly despised Mrs. Frostbite, but when the opportunity arose to tell her exactly why I was leaving, I lied and said my new position paid twenty-five cents more per hour (it paid exactly the same). She seemed genuinely disappointed and apologized for not being able to offer me more money. (What??)

I began my new insurance training in a rented office with twenty-nine other women, some of whom actually knew what a "claim" was. The corporation didn't want to over-tax our faculties, so they taught us how to process eye exams. Eventually we all graduated and moved into our brand-spankin' new building.

Fast forward....I earned a promotion to assistant supervisor after less than a year, and then, when the company realized it hadn't been folly to open for business on the God-forsaken prairie, they expanded and I was promoted again, this time to supervisor. Only then did I become fully acquainted with The Devil Herself ~ my new manager. She rarely spoke to me, so I went on my merry way, chalking up success after success (thanks to my people and to that thing I'd tucked inside my pocket a couple of years before ~ tell people you value them before it's too late). Thus I was confident heading into my yearly performance review. My team had outperformed everyone. I was going to receive so many kudos, I worried that my head may not fit through the door on my way out of her office.

I don't know if it was the shock of realizing I'd entered bizzaro world or the cruel slash of her words, but I was gobsmacked. "You're making the other supervisors look bad. You brought donuts for your people last Saturday." "You never stop by and say goodnight to me when you leave for the day." "If you can't be part of my team, I'll replace the team."

What I'd assumed would be well-earned acclaim turned out to be the threat of being fired. Tears started flowing ~ and The Devil Herself wouldn't even offer me a Kleenex. I couldn't afford to be unemployed. I went home and sobbed through the night...and then I swallowed my pride and kowtowed to Satan. Eventually she began including me in group conversations (her soliloquies) and even started kidding me in front of the other supervisors. I was happy and relieved and I loved her...she was awesome...she took us out on her boat one evening and we all laughed and laughed...

I'm not sure what The Devil Herself did that displeased management back east, but apparently she did something. One day a couple of big honchos showed up unexpectedly and commandeered an empty office and asked the supervisors, one by one, to stop by for a talk. Gosh, what could I possibly say about this amazing woman? Everything. I told them EVERYTHING. At five o'clock that afternoon, I headed out to my car in the lot and turned the key in the ignition. Before I backed out of my space, something unusual caught my eye. The blonde-headed demon was exiting the building with a couple of large paper grocery bags. I came back to work the next morning, but she didn't.

All you have to do is treat people right. And guess what? If you don't, we never forget.

Life went on smoothly. We got a new boss eventually who was a moron, but harmless. He seemed like a complete dolt, but one day he offered me a new position. I don't think it was his idea. The big honchos back east maybe admired my pluck. Maybe they wanted somebody who wouldn't take any shit. I didn't want the job ~ it seemed like a demotion. He said, "Sure, you can think about it overnight and then come back and say 'yes'." I did.

I eventually became a manager of a 150-person staff. "Manager" in name only. I got a corner office. My new young manager was off-site, far away in Pennsylvania, just the way I liked it. I cherished my people and they hit it out of the park. We took an idea that existed only in somebody's head and turned it into a high-performance part of the operation. We became so good that....they eventually out-sourced us.

The morning after the big-wigs took my supervisors and me out for a fancy dinner and sprang it on us, I showed up for work red-eyed from a sleepless night. My young manager, who I'd assumed was on my side, dropped by my office and asked why I hadn't attended the management meeting that morning. "What's the point?" I asked. My time at the company was done; that much I'd decided somewhere around two o'clock in the morning. And it stuck like a burr that he'd never pulled the trigger and promoted me to manager, even though that's exactly what I'd been for the past three years. The next day, after he'd jetted home to PA, he sent out an email naming a simpleton in Allentown who'd I'd torn my hair out trying to train, as a manager. Just a nice little parting gift to me.

The lasting lesson from all my working years is, no good performance goes unpunished.

I will celebrate twenty years at my current job in December. I've lowered my expectations. I have no delusions. I like where I am; it's comfortable. I will drift off into retirement in a year having accomplished little that I can flout, but I've done my job. Career accomplishments don't amount to a hill of beans anyway.

My parting advice is not to do your best ~ do your best ~ but don't expect rewards. And prepare to be blindsided. Always be prepared.

I have to do this. Everyone who turns sixty-four does it.




Don't get me wrong ~ my life is not defined by work.

There's music.

More to come...



















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