Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Week as Story

My week started badly.  

On Monday, at work, the system was down for over half the day.  It didn't come back until 1 PM.  Without the ability to review orders or print out instructions, we only got half the amount of work we normally do.  It also dropped us from being little bit ahead of reaching the monthly goal to being a good chunk behind.  

I did my manager thing.  Refigured what the unit needed to do on a daily basis until the end of the month and gave that to my staff.  I encouraged them to do their best.  I hired someone new to take the place of someone that had left.  I monitored the work to see how things were going...

At about the same time, early in the week, I listened to a podcast from Science News.  It featured a story about Killer Whales and how females live to be ninety, sometimes one hundred years old, even though they stop breeding around 40, which is about the same time male killer whales die off.  The article informed me that killer whales are the only other animals besides humans to have such an extended menopause (pilot whales may also have an extended menopause, but the article seemed to indicate it wasn't verified yet).  Most animals die out very soon after their breeding lives are over (some while in the midst of the first and final time).  

I thought this was incredibly fascinating.  Especially when the article went out to say that having these "grandmother" killer whales around helped the males in the pod survive.  A male was fourteen times more likely to die in the first 18 months after a grandmother whale's death than a female.  What grandma Shamu is doing to help her male offspring survive isn't clear, but it reminded me of something else I'd read...

The work week continued to be difficult.  We made the daily goals we needed to make, but just barely and only by working well past "quitting time."  We were short-handed, people taking time off scheduled in previous weeks.  And mistakes were being brought to my attention, basic things that should never happen.  Our daily results kept decreasing until they were only a few hundred dollars above what we were supposed to be doing when caught up.  I was skipping the gym to stay at work until the last order was processed.  I was feeling myself getting more and more upset.  

A few months ago, in Scientific American, I read an article about Modern Humans and Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic.  A statistical study was done of the fossil remains of these two competing groups and an interesting fact emerged.  Modern Humans were far more likely to have grandparent aged members of their community than Neanderthals.  I had heard of the "Grandparent hypothesis" before, how having grandparents around helped ancient communities survive and thrive.  They were natural reservoirs of information.  They could provide childcare while the members of the community in their physical prime went to hunt and gather, and later, tend to the crops that were their food stuff.  From this article, it seemed that grandparents also gave the our ancestors the advantage that allowed them to replace the Neanderthal.  

Since Neanderthals and Modern Humans were so similar in physical characteristics, as well as cultural development, the distinction must have been a cultural one.  It was something humans did that allowed their older members to survive into grandparent age, as opposed to a physiological distinction that made us longer lived.  This pleased me.  It seemed to me that we survived because of being more cooperative in some way rather than just being better.

I became more cranky as the week went on.  For a while it had seemed to me that work was the only part of my life doing well.  This week, even that idea was being challenged by circumstances.  Late one night, as I felt myself sinking into a depression over this seeming realization, I complained about the situation to a colleague of mine, the woman that runs the Invoicing Department, which is the same room as my Production Department.  I was telling her how, after so many months of working on the staff's perception of what needed to be done, after seeing our performance levels rise and then rise again, after getting the company to pay tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade our equipment, installing new computers, new scanners, new software to manage it all, seeing all the pieces coming together to make the department become a truly efficient production machine, I told her that I thought I should be seeing the fruits of my labor ripening before my eyes.  Instead, it felt as if I were fighting it, being trampled by my own creation.  

She laughed at me.  

"What are you thinking, Man?" she said in her thick Thai accent.  "For manager, there never a good day.  Why you think they hire you, huh?  If things go smooth, they don't need you!  For manager, ever day a bad day!"  

Despite my mood, I started chuckling.  I laughed along with her.  What she said struck a cord in me.  She was right.  If things just worked the way they were supposed to on their own, they wouldn't have had me come and oversee it.  It was a brief respite in the bludgeoning I was getting for the week.  

I came up with a metaphor the previous week about work.  The idea of the caveman grandparents the killer whales lead me to brought it back to me.  I want to elaborate on it a bit: 

Work is like being a caveman, going out to hunt down some creature and bring its carcass back to the cave to eat.  For most people its bloody necessity.  You do it because you want to stay alive.  Paying bills, washing dishes, cleaning your work clothes, all of those activities are the functional equivalent of sharping your stone spears and making obsidian tipped arrows.  Culture, story-telling, looking up at the stars and wondering what those little points of light that look like distant campfires are, those things are what we think of when we think of being 'human.'  Work is survival.  Plain and simple.  

Using this metaphor, this is how I would encapsulate this last week: 

These days, I feel like a starving caveman that has gone out to find some prey only to be trampled by a herd of mammoths.

By Friday, I was pretty much ready to quit.  The Invoicing Manager, a woman I respect and normally get along with, and I were snapping at each other.  

"Why the fuck do I have to stay late every night to make the goal?" she asked when I brought her more work to bill out. 

I turned back around after starting to leave.  "I don't know.  Why do I have to stay late just to push out stuff that's just sitting there, when I'm short three people and I feel like I have to babysit the rest, huh?"  

She shook her head and didn't say anything back to me.  She kept invoicing.  I kept finishing orders.  

By the time everyone was done and gone, I kept working, finally getting to other things I'd let slide.  I first looked at my morning "to do" list around 8:10 in the evening.  I went through my emails.  I approved payroll.  I approved requests for time-off.  I wanted so badly to go, but knew if I left anything undone I would feel compelled to come back on Saturday.  Just as I had the Saturday before that.  Just as I probably would the following Saturday, the very last day of the month, with a, more than likely, month-end goal just out of reach.  I kept working not because I so enjoyed being there.  But because I wanted to make sure all my stone-tipped spears and newly fletched arrows were ready to battle the mammoth again on Monday AFTER I had two full days of rest.  

At about 8:40 PM, eleven and a half hours or so after I arrived, I returned to my cave.  I felt like I wanted to roll a big rock before its entrance and seal myself in.  

I decided to treat myself and bought a grill shrimp burrito from Rubio's.  I walked to the restaurant, fifteen minutes there and fifteen minutes back, and counted that as my exercise for the week. I turned on my TV.  It was set to the Japanese Language station I often watch as part of my language practice.  

There was a show about the future of the global economy produced by NHK, the largest news service in Japan, their equivalent of CNN.  It was in English and had several experts I didn't recognize from around the world, Japan, India, China and the United States.  Glad I wasn't going to be forced to translate what they were saying, and too tired to get up and change the channel, I ate my shrimp burrito and listened.  

"It used to be," the expert from the United States said near the end of the program.  He was a very young looking fellow, very energetic, who was listed as a CEO of some company I didn't recognize.  "That businesses prepared for boom and bust cycles...  Like a ship at sea, the storm would come, they'd furl their sails and wait it out...  When good weather returned, they'd unfurl their sails and continue their voyage...  Boom and bust.  In the future, boom and bust cycles will be faster...  After a tsunami, after riots in the middle east, after something like the next 9/11...  These cycles will come so quickly, it will be constant turmoil.  You'll have to learn to keep sailing in the storm.  What keeps you going, your sails, are your values..."  

I finished my burrito.  I threw the paper it was wrapped in away.  I kept the plastic bag to take it to the recyclers.  I put my dishes in the sink.  Then, because I hadn't had the chance all week, I cleaned my dishes, all of them, to get them out of the way.  Fletching the arrows.  Sharpening the stone spear.  I started thinking about what I was going to say to my staff during our meeting on Monday.  

Then I went to bed and fell asleep.  

That was my week.  How was yours?


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