Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Hidden Recliner

The break room in the south wing of the library has one table with four chairs around it, one treadmill and one elliptical donated by the rec center, an old, pre-HD big screen tv that gives you a headache to watch, and two—I repeat TWO—lazyboy recliners. When I go into the break room each day I have from these options to pick where I will eat my lunch. If I am eating something messy—like a sweet onion chicken teriyaki Subway sandwich—I opt for the table. If I am eating a nice, sedate cheese sandwich and chips from home, I will settle into one of the lazyboys. Did I mention they rock? As in, back and forth?

I confess, I have never tried to each lunch on the treadmill or the elliptical, but I’ll let you know what happens if I do. It should be interesting. (AND counterproductive.)

The one recliner is positioned, naturally, in front of the tv. But the other one—the one I prefer—is tucked away in a corner, behind a shelf filled with books the library is getting rid of. Because of where it is in the room, and the nature of the chair—it kind of swallows you when you sit—a person sitting in that chair is virtually invisible to anyone walking into the break room. (I say virtually, because you can see a leg or detect a slight rocking motion if you are actually looking.) This is especially true if you are a smallish person, like me.

All of these circumstances have more than once added up to a unique and delightfully awkward situation. Let me illustrate. Yesterday, I enter the break room, and finding it empty, I slip into my favorite place: the “hidden” recliner. I eat my food, I rock back and forth a little bit, I read…etc. A few minutes before I leave, one of our tech guys comes in. I know he hasn’t seen me, because…I just know it. He’s over by the sink rinsing something out. Who knows what. He seems pretty intent. He’s concentrated and unselfconscious, the way a person is when he thinks—when he knows—he’s alone.

What am I to do? If I stay absolutely still, maybe he will leave and never know I was here. That’s a perfectly respectable option. But what if he starts humming or talking to himself (as we sometimes do when we “know” we are alone) and then sees me and feels dumb, and then I’ll feel dumb for being all secretive? There is no easy answer to this.

I decide to make my presence known in as natural a way as possible. I get up, trying to be as obvious as possible, crinkling my bag, walking normally, etc. I do everything short of yelling. “Hey! I’m here! Don’t be alarmed.” But so “alone” was this guy that only when I pass within the range of his peripheral vision, does he notice me.

I think he jumped like a foot.

I didn’t bother making any kind of explanation or apology. What would be the point? “Sorry you didn’t notice me and I scared the poop out of you?” No.

So you see. Eating in the Hidden Recliner is a risky proposition. I sometimes ask myself whether the benefit of eating privately and comfortably outweighs the social cost (i.e. the possibility of awkwardness). Maybe, maybe not. But awkwardness aside, it really is quite funny to see people’s reactions when they suddenly know they’re not alone.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Journey to "There"

Sorry for the stupid title. It’s the best thing I can think of for what I’m about to write. And the seventies pop-icon photo? Joke. Okay.

Three months ago, I was a freshly-minted college graduate who had just ended her on-campus job of four years. A job that was in some ways fun but in many other ways tedious. It is hard to muster up the discipline to do work you have no intention of ever doing again.

That job ended and through semi-miraculous means I snagged a government-sponsored internship at the Orem Public Library. In my interview with the library director and my two future supervisors, they asked me what I wanted to do during my few months there. I want to do everything, I said. I want to be a librarian, and I have no idea what that entails. I want to do reference. I want to be involved in programs. I wanted to know what it was like to actually be involved with patrons—living, breathing, thinking (sometimes) people! And not just books.

They decided to split my hours between Reference and what is known at OPL as the Outreach Division, which is in charge of exactly what it sounds like it’s in charge of: programs, community outreach, etc. It’s the branch of the library that doesn’t just wait for the patrons to come in, but does whatever it can to invite them in.

After the first few bumpy weeks at the reference desks, I was getting the hang of it. The training had been intense…but then I started getting repeat questions. “Where do I find books on building decks?” “How do I download an attachment?” “Can you please recommend a book?” Etc. Etc.

I conquered my fear of the telephone and began to use it semi-proficiently. “Let me transfer you to circulation.” “Just one minute while I look that up for you.” “Yes, I can renew that for three more weeks.” Yes, yes, yes. The eternal importance of getting to yes. I got to know my coworkers better, and I even think I began to earn their respect. They certainly had mine.

I learned what customer service means and discovered—to my surprise—that it came naturally to me. It wasn’t just my job; I wanted to be helpful! I wanted to feel the sweet satisfaction of helping people find EXACTLY what they needed. Of learning for myself that knowledge really IS power, and that empowering others people feels really great. I loved working the desks. Often people who I had helped even half an hour earlier would walk back by the desk on their way out, and catch my eye, and say thank you. It was like getting flowers.

I loved my morning routines. 8:15 every morning, I’d be down in the basement of the adult wing spraying down keyboards and tables, turning on computers, unlocking doors, straightening books and replacing them…. It was my alone time when my iPod and I could disappear together among the stacks, straightening wayward books, delighting in the simple ordering of disorder.

Mornings at the desks were quiet times where I could study up on databases, shelf-read (i.e. making sure the books are on the right place on the shelf) and answer the occasional question. They were peaceful.

Then 12:15 would roll around and I would go to lunch for half an hour. And then the structured, predictable, comfortable part of my day was over.

I dreaded my afternoons with Outreach—not at first, but later. At first, I was given menial tasks like folding fliers, or filling out forms or what have you. That wasn’t so bad, at least I knew how to do it.

I was entrusted with more important tasks. They knew I liked to write so they asked me to write a blurb for the bi-monthly newsletter. In preparation, they handed me a binder full of all the back issues. I read them all. And as my palms began to sweat, I determined that I had nothing to write about. Every article was a feature about some artist or musician that was coming to the library, or about part of the collection or some other topic that I was NO authority on. I can’t do this, I told my Outreach bosses. (P.s. I have a LOT of bosses.) I have nothing to write about. I don’t know enough. They looked pained. The deadline for getting the July newsletter was days away and they needed an article. Look, said the one, just write about something you love.

What I was really afraid of was not that I would write an article unfit for the OPL bi-monthly newsletter (bastion of journalistic excellence that it is) but of mediocrity. I felt I was being asked to do something that someone else could do better. It wasn’t laziness, it was pragmatism. Why have little old me do it when someone better could do it? This mantra informed my whole attitude toward Outreach for many weeks and was the source of much frustration and outright insecurity. Why was I being asked to do things that someone who knew what they were doing could do so much better?

At some point—I don’t know when—it occurred to me that whether or not what I wrote or what I worked on was amazing was not really the issue, but whether it was needed. If there was a need, I needed to fill it. Not because I was the most qualified person for the job, but because I was THERE.

This realization carried me through the next crisis.

Outreach is in charge of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, and as that monolithic event loomed ever closer, I was asked to do tasks—out of necessity—that I had to teach myself how to do, or received confusing instructions at best.

Explanation. Busy and overworked as she is, J, my boss, is not especially good at giving instructions in a logical order. “Do this,” she would say—(not officiously, but kindly.) And then I would spend the next three hours figuring out how to “do this” when I know she could have done it herself in minutes…if she weren’t so busy. “Do it yourself!” I often felt like screaming. Especially if I’d made some terrible blunder, which happened…frequently. I found myself apologizing a lot. Obsequiously.

It eventually occurred to me that my apologizing was getting old. So I stopped. But every day for a while I’d come home burning with the desire to shout, “If you want something done right, do it yourself!” Fortunately for me, that attitude, and that insecurity passed.

Among other jobs I had to re-write letters to sponsors from years past and send out hundreds of mailings and comp tickets; I drew up performers’ contracts; I taught myself how to use Excel (and still hate it); I updated lots of old documents; I put in a purchase order for 500 hand-puppets, for crying out loud! I didn’t do anything really grand like choose which national storytellers would come (that had been done months ago), or organize the whole set-up of the venue. But I tied up a million little loose ends. I took care of things that needed to be done. Maybe I didn’t do things as efficiently or aptly as J could have, but they got done. Only that mattered.

Every day felt like a giant puzzle I had to solve, and I would come home exhausted and shaken. But okay. I had survived to survive another day. And then, somehow, over the natural course of things, all of that wonderful insecurity went away, and I learned how to solve problems as if that alone were my job. I even enjoyed it. I felt…trusted. It was exciting to be entrusted with an important project. It felt great to stride into J’s office and present her with the outcome of my work and to see the look of relief on her face. It was actually the same satisfaction as working at a desk and helping people access information they needed. I liked the sense of my invaluability to the division. I wasn’t, and am not, invaluable. But I sometimes felt like the work I was doing actually couldn’t be done by anyone else—at that time. Satisfaction like a drug. And I wanted more of it.

I began to open my eyes to how overworked my boss was. She looked—looks, actually—old beyond her years. She walks upright and with an energy even I find hard to match, but you can see the heaviness in her eyes.

Two Saturdays ago, I sat in J’s office working across the desk at my own computer, and she began telling me about her family. (Her daughter had just come in and left.) How it was big. How every single one of her children had learning disabilities and lived at home, as adults. How three had already died—one DURING the Festival one year. How things had been difficult with the two oldest, who were her husband’s from a previous marriage. Etc.

It was not a long conversation—nor do I think she was trying to explain or excuse anything. It was just conversation. I had told her a little bit about my family—how we were all living on top of each other and making our way through.

I asked her if it was worth it, the Festival. If all the storm and stress of putting on the second largest storytelling event in the nation was ultimately rewarding. She looked at me tiredly through her glasses, he eyes lined by years of overwork and several days of no sleep, and she said, “Sometimes.” She didn’t gush idealistically about the virtues of storytelling. She didn’t say it was the greatest thing in the world. “Sometimes” expressed the reality of it all for HER. It was a glimpse of her immense fatigue that made my complaints seem so useless and trifling. And I also saw that J was doing the same thing I was doing, on a larger scale. She was filling a need. She didn’t found the Festival; it wasn’t her idea. She didn't go to school to become a professional accountant or event organizer. But she takes care of almost all of it because back when it all began, she was there.

Now the Festival is over and I will quietly slip back into my normal routine. I will clean keyboards and straighten books, and answer innumerable small—but important--questions. Important to the people who are asking them—therefore, important. The nightmare/amazingness of the Festival will quietly fade into the past, and my internship will end in a few weeks. When that happens, I will feel I have been her for a long time and will be here for years to come. It will be strange to think about how many people’s paths I will have crossed and how much—for lack of a better way of putting—amazing experience I can put on a resume!

But most importantly, this I will have learned. A) Insecurity, for me, is a form of pride. B)The attitude of perfectionism is unnecessary as it is damning. That is (and I never thought I’d say this) it is okay to be mediocre when you’re learning how to do something. It OKAY. As long as you don’t settle for mediocrity. And C) above all, just work. Fill needs as they arise. Even D) To forego NEEDING to feel needed. To not work for accolades. To just be there, and to make being there count for something.