So Africans they say “T-I-A” a lot, which stands for “This is Africa,” which isn’t a nationalistic slogan but is used to mean something closer to, “Of course the toilet doesn’t work; this is Africa.” Often they say “T-I-A” to encourage Americans to chill out because a bus is not on time or an appointment is happening hours late.
If you hate conference calls, a great thing about working with Africans is that you schedule many conference calls but rarely have to join one, because over half of them are canceled, missed, or will not connect. TIA.
Thank you, Naomi in Ghana, for missing today’s call. I have a headache and am dreaming of breakfast biscuits.
It now seems that the primary political effect of the economic crisis was not the rise of the radical left, but of racist populism, more wars, more poverty in the poorest Third World countries, and widening divisions between rich and poor. For all that crises shatter people out of their complacency and make them question the fundamentals of their lives, the first spontaneous reaction is not revolution but panic, which leads to a return to basics: food and shelter. The core premises of the ruling ideology are not put into doubt. They are even more violently asserted.
Until now, when I have had a job, I have had an office. Now I have a cube. I am not sure if “cube” designates a different type of space than “cubicle” or if “cubicle” became too weighted by despair in the public imagination so managers stopped using the word. It is accurate, though, that my cubicle makes me despair. It is gray and beige like all cubicles. It contains two computer displays, a phone, two headsets, a black plastic office-supply carousel with slots for four types of Post-It notes, and many stacks of paper that I will never touch.
It occurs to me now that the difference between a cube and cubicle may be that a cubicle is smaller and closed off, while a cube opens to the rest of the room and to other cubes. Are cubes “collaborative” while cubicles are “solitary”? I previously dated a consultant.
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Here is what distinguishes cube life from office life as I experience it: in cubes, everybody is aware of everybody else. A man stationed behind me has walked past my desk six times in 20 minutes. The woman in the cube next to me rips 12 sugar packets into her coffee each morning, one by one. Not being aware of these things would free up some mental space. Is anyone aware that I am writing a blog post into an Outlook window?
Consequent of our awareness is that there is no deep trust between coworkers here. Everyone affects laidbackness, but any of them might laidbackly mention to a boss that Eddie texts all day and is writing a strangely long email that could be a blog post.
When I had my own office, people would stop in, or I would stop into other peoples’ offices, and those talks broke up the day and made me happy to be at work. When I needed to focus on a project or answer many emails in a row, I closed my door so that I would not be aware of other people. I listened to music. I possessed no headsets. My coworkers and I were secure in our spaces, and the freedom enabled us to form relationships that surpassed mere politeness. I did not receive many funny email forwards, because we joked freely. I felt more like a person than an employee, a distinction probably richer than the one between cube and cubicle.
But now I understand that I had it all wrong. The issue isn’t, Am I good enough? No. The issue is, Do I not have any other choice? Will and desire don’t matter. Ability doesn’t matter. Need is the only thing that matters. I need to do this.
Disappointing truths accidentally revealed
1. Last week I told a coworker that I would like to make a standing desk in my cube, but I’m worried people will think it’s weird. He said reassuringly, “Nah. A guy worked here a few years ago who had a standing desk. He had this little tray he wore around his neck, and he put his keyboard and mouse on it.”
The guy who wore his desk established a precedent for standing desks. I am the new Guy Who Wore His Desk.
I did fashion a makeshift standing desk, and people do think it’s weird.
2. I bought an Aeropress to keep at work because the coffee here is undrinkable, and it’s nice in the afternoons to make one small cup. The Aeropress makes great coffee but looks like a science experiment splayed across the counter.
Yesterday a coworker saw it and asked what I was doing. I said, “Making coffee. Also I needed a way to make myself seem weirder.” She who is so smiley and giggly said, “Oh, no, there is much weirder stuff happening around here!” This seemed like it could be true. There is, for instance, a poverty-themed park with live chickens behind my office. She continued: “Like… there’s a box of donuts laying out on the table!” That was the only weird thing she could think of, a box of donuts in an office kitchen.
A box of donuts is not weird. She could not think of a single thing weirder than my coffee science experiment.
Peanuts salted with tears
DISPATCH FROM JIMMY CARTER’S SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASS
In between “waging peace” at the Carter Center and shooting the breeze at the U.N., Jimmy Carter occasionally teaches Sunday School at his Southern Baptist church in rural, rural southwest Georgia. A few things were remarkable when I went on Sunday:
- He is intelligent, easy to listen to for 45 minutes, and genuinely funny. I don’t expect that combination from any president, much less one as maligned as Carter.
- One personal characteristic required a separate line. He has a warmth. It is not just that he is personable, because any politician or CEO or glad-hander can be personable. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are warm: inviting, unpretentious, happy to be with each other and seemingly happy that you are there, too. Ashley and I had our photo taken with the Carters, and Jimmy and Rosalynn are inconspicuously holding hands in that photo.
- The catalog-purchased Sunday School booklet mandated that this week’s topic was justice. He began by describing it as fairness—a thin conception—but worked out to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to sentencing reform, to Israel’s oppression of Palestine(!). He wove the political stuff into Leviticus and the story-arc of Jesus in a way that was loose, jazzy, and classical liberal Christianity, for better and worse.
- Here is the part that moved me so much that I got emotional: he said that when he was GA governor, he had an annual contest with neighboring governors to award the one with the fewest new prisoners. Show me a governor in any region of the country who, today, would brag about how few people they imprisoned last year. Our sentencing laws and the way we run our prisons are fucking evil, and no one in power acknowledges it, and here is this guy who used to be president who gets it, and I got teary-eyed for a second at hearing it named. Sorry if I’m a liberal dipshit. The things that I dislike in others I have inside myself (in this case utopian sentimentality).
- But why is Jimmy Carter maligned, even by many dipshit liberals? He described a program he instituted as governor called Volunteer Probation Officers in which members of congregations, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, etc. helped to secure jobs for released prisoners. The volunteers met with prisoners’ families, liaised with employers, and checked in with the released inmates. It sounds like a bread-and-butter church program stretched across the public space. It was a program built on compassion, human understanding, and deep optimism—it was, in other words, the utter opposite of anything that our public life is about. Jimmy Carter governed Georgia and the U.S. like a pastor. On Sunday the only brag or defense he offered for his presidency was this: “We were a nation at peace.” It is a deeply un-American brag. Is Jimmy Carter even an American? Did anyone check his birth certificate? There may be a fundamental incompatibility between whatever he is and the workings of power.
- The impossibility of a pastor-president is that you can’t be the richest country without being a violent country. It seems that people working for peace must work against the government, as there is no history of them successfully running a government. That peacemakers have never successfully run a government does not make them wrong or stupid or unimportant; it just helps us define their roles. In that way Jimmy Carter’s legacy is complicated. I’m not sure what evidence you can hold up for his success. But I believe that he served faithfully to some high ideals, and given the opportunity I would rather imitate him than any presidents since.
Sister asked if my job was feeling comfortable
Yeah, it’s getting much more comfortable
Also I lost the pen I’ve been using
it was this chunky-tipped blue thing with an ugly rocket-shaped barrel
and I just hated it
and my handwriting looked awful with it,
I kept seeing coworkers and my boss squint at my pad, like, “Why did we hire this blockhead, look at his handwriting”
but I lost that pen and had to use this Pilot Precise V5 that is sort of purple,
and I didn’t want to use a purple pen,
but (1) suddenly my handwriting is BEAUTIFUL again, and
(2) I am liking the purple ink; it is “QUIRKY”
so now, honestly, with this new pen, I am feeling really good about my job
Also this morning’s conference call was with a batty woman in Seattle and a competent-seeming woman in Ghana, and it’s pretty cool to call Ghana, I feel like I should have a double-fisted knuckle tattoo that says IMPORTANT with some little flourish on the tenth knuckle
Then someone texted me this
and I don’t relate to having that sense of wonder as a kid, but I’m grateful that others did, and I’m trying to cultivate more of it now
I have a bird in my head and a pig in my stomach
And a flower in my genitals and a tiger in my genitals
And a lion in my genitals and I am after you but I have a song in my heart
And my song is a dove
I have a man in my hands I have a woman in my shoes
I have a landmark decision in my reason
I have a death rattle in my nose I have summer in my brain water
I have dreams in my toes
This is the matter with me and the hammer of my mother and father
Who created me with everything
But I lack calm I lack rose
Though I do not lack extreme delicacy of rose petal
Who is it that I wish to astonish?
In the birdcall I found a reminder of you
But it was thin and brittle and gone in an instant
Has nature set out to be a great entertainer?
Obviously not A great reproducer? A great Nothing?
Well I will leave that up to you
I have a knocking woodpecker in my heart and I think I have three souls
One for love one for poetry and one for acting out my insane self
Not insane but boring but perpendicular but untrue but true
The three rarely sing together take my hand it’s active
The active ingredient in it is a touch
I am Lord Byron I am Percy Shelley I am Ariosto
I eat the bacon I went down the slide I have a thunderstorm in
my inside I will never hate you
But how can this maelstrom be appealing? do you like menageries? my god
Most people want a man! So here I am
I have a pheasant in my reminders I have a goshawk in my clouds
Whatever is it which has led all these animals to you?
A resurrection? or maybe an insurrection? an inspiration?
I have a baby in my landscape and I have a wild rat in my secrets from you.
ALIVE FOR AN INSTANT Kenneth Koch
This town is rural and populated by lifers except for the Habitat employees. Coworkers in my program are from Chicago, Denver, Boston, Houston, Iowa, and Sri Lanka, so we’re easy to pick out in the Walmart aisle. Local-outsider relations in New Haven were tense, as if the university community was usurping the locals’ space, but I’m not sure if that’s the case here. Maybe the locals are happy we’re here.
Last night we went to an authentic country bar. A guy in his 30s who was handsome but rough around the edges overheard that we work at Habitat and, because lots of people associate us with Jimmy Carter, called out, “My daddy whooped Jimmy Carter’s ass on the courthouse steps,” and those were the words he used, I wouldn’t play up some country caricature, “because Jimmy stole a hog from my grandaddy.” He wasn’t telling it to be funny. “You ask Jimmy if he remembers the Wilfords, he’ll tell you he does.” It also wasn’t a moment to get technical and explain that we don’t work for or with Jimmy Carter. A coworker who’s a local said, “He’ll remember it if the whoopin’ was good enough,” which was the perfect endcap to the exchange, and if you’re not charmed by that, then I don’t recommend you come to visit me in south Georgia.