Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Lucky Break

I worked at a long string of dead-end jobs after college. I didn't have much choice, living in a rural, economically depressed region at a time when the entire country was mired in a recession. I spent way too many miserable years as the assistant to the director of a social service agency, a loathesome troll who began each morning drinking a reeking cup of valerian root tea, complaining about his sex life while studiously working a wadded-up Kleenex up his nose.

When finally I could take no more, I accepted the first alternative I was offered, a position as an administrative assistant at another nonprofit. It was an improvement in some ways - I liked my boss and the people I worked with were very nice, but the job itself was the most mind-numbingly boring experience imaginable. My official job duty was to cover the phones and answer people's questions about the agency's services. The problem was that very, very few people ever called to ask questions about our services. The few calls I did get I answered with desperate enthusiasm, regaling the hapless callers with long-winded details about our programs, the history of our corporation, directions to my favorite Mexican eatery - anything to keep them on the phone a little longer. The other seven and a half hours a day, I arranged and rearranged my pen and pencil drawer, deliberately messed up file folders so I could kill some time fixing them, and perused the only reading material available, the Arcata Yellow Pages. Really. This was before the days of ubiquitous internet access, which would have at least allowed me to stare at the computer looking busy. There simply was Nothing. To. Do.

The other problem was that I was at once riduculously overqualified for administrative work and yet utterly hopeless at it. I was a college graduate with solid industry experience, and it was frustrating to exist more or less anonymously among people who could have and should have been my professional peers and to have little meaningful interaction beyond handing them pink "While You Were Out" notices. I tried to tell myself the job was a great foot in the door, that I was making valuable contacts in my field, but the truth is that people there only saw me as a secretary, and when talk of promoting me came up, it was to a job as a senior secretary. I was in no way qualified for that role, which involved things like recording meeting minutes in shorthand (might as well have been in hieroglyphics) and processing payroll records using Lotus 1-2-3 (the one time I tried this, I messed up the program so badly a rep from IBM had to be called in to fix it). But with no other prospects looming, I dutifully followed the departing secretary around taking notes.

Then one night I was at a party at my friend Robin's drinking vodka martinis when I found myself in conversation with Tamara, who owned a successful vocational rehabilitation business in town. I was telling her about my job, in the slighly defensive tone I always employed, explaining that I was working as a secretary - but ONLY until I could find a better position doing the kind of work I went to school for, independent living skills training or job development. To my surprise, she perked up. "Hey, you know I am looking for a job developer right now. Call me on Monday, okay?"

With that chance encounter, everything changed. In just a few weeks I was proudly riding the elevator up to my new job on the top floor of a stately Victorian office building overlooking Arcata Plaza, such a lifetime away from the converted redwood processing plant on the edge of town that housed my former employer. Suddenly I was a different person. I was no longer Aimless who answered phones and made coffee, I was Aimless the "Job Placement Specialist" with embossed business cards and a busy schedule of appointments with clients. Freed from the role of meek junior secretary with no opinions, I spoke up with confidence at monthly industry breakfasts and canvassed the town establishing parterships with local business owners. Tamara and I quickly became close friends, taking ski trips together and meeting for drinks at the Plaza Grill after work. On slow afternoons we would sometimes close the office altogether and stroll along the town square, shopping for soap and bubble bath and sipping strong, amazing French Roast at our favorite cafe.

The only slight, niggling problem was that I could in no way afford that lifestyle, not on what I was making there. Tamara paid me well but I was working entirely on billable hours. Business was starting to slow and the insurance commissioner had recently put strict regulations on vocational rehab billing, an industry which used to be known as "milking the golden calf." When my W-2 arrived in March and I saw that I had earned less than $12,000 for the year, I had to reluctantly admit that my parents were right - it was time to move on, to look for jobs with stability and benefits and a future, jobs that probably would not be found in the isolated North Coast.

So move on we did - and every job I have held since then has offered with a decent salary and health benefits and vacation leave and bonuses and incentives and all the other goodies that Tamara couldn't provide. But she gave me something more lasting . . . a chance.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Why My Brother Moved To Southern California, Reason MCLXIV

Scene I:
A typical chaotic weekday evening in the Aimless household. The kids want to listen to ABBA Gold and dance around the living room, and I am attemting to grab their squrmy bodies as they dash past so I can plop them in their seats for dinner. Meanwhile, Chef is cutting the hamburger patties into bite-sized pieces with a little side of ketchup for the all-important dipping ritual. In the midst of all this, the phone rings, and naturally we let the machine pick up:

Hello, Aimless? This is Bob, from synagogue. I was wondering if you wanted to serve on a planning committee for the Rabbi's retirement party. Please call me back when you have a moment.

Scene II:
Ten minutes later, the kids are up to their elbows in ketchup, are tired of sitting and can no longer contain their energy. Chef and I are frantically scrubbing them down with wet wipes before they inadvertantly finger-paint the furniture. Into this scene, the phone intrudes again:

Hello Aimless? This is Bob again. I just called your mom to find out where you are. She says you and Chef are home feeding your kids hamburgers for dinner. So why aren't you picking up the phone?

Sigh. . . I am thirty-six years old. THIRTY-SIX YEARS OLD, people! And I am STILL being busted by my mom.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Forget it, I'm Joining the Y

I am about at the end of my rope with the JCC. When I first visited them in May to look at their nursery school for Bee, they reminded me about a dozen times that spaces were filling up fast and I had better enroll her right away or risk losing out. Of course enrolling her meant ponying up the $500 membership fee, which seemed a little high, but what choice did I have? I wanted to send her to a Jewish pre-school, and of the very few in this area, they are the only ones that had a toddler program. So I wrote the check and filled out all the paperwork and got her doctor to sign off her medical form and got all ready to have her start last week. They called me a few days beforehand to let me know there would be a first-day coffee and reception for the new parents , which I was welcome to attend. Everything was set. The next day they called again. Guess what? The class is cancelled indefinitely! The reasons are so muddled I have yet to get to the bottom of it - either the head teacher quit at the last minute or they reshuffled the staff and somehow were left with no qualified teachers for the toddlers. The JCC management claims to be working very hard to find a replacement but I have heard through the grapevine that they have yet to place an ad.

I was VERY tempted to call and ask for a refund on my membership since the only reason I joined was for their now non-existent program. But then I would have to re-up anyway in January, when Bee will be old enough to go to the two-year-old class. So I thought, well, as long as I am a member, I will check out their catalog and maybe find some interesting programs to sign up for. I don't know what I expected to find, but I kept seeing flyers for the San Francisco JCC , advertising their multitude of film screenings and art exhibitions and music and dance perfomances and classes on world literature and Jewish ethics and holiday cooking, so I was hoping for a similar spectrum of events - I knew there wouldn't be as many, but I thought it might at least be comparable to, say, the local adult ed center. No. They have early childhood programs and they have senior respite programs, but for that brief middle period that constitutes one's entire lifespan, there is nothing.

So, okay, maybe I should have cancelled my membership then, but I did see some fun programs the kids could take through their early childhood department. There was one in particular, Yad By Yad Toddler Time, an 8-week program starting in October that would have been perfect for my mom to attend with Bee. It is described as a "high quality, age-appropriate, stimulating and fun program filled with circle time singing, storytelling, music, dance and art activities." As soon as Monday rolled around I called to sign Bee up. Again, one slight problem . . . nobody there is freakin' aware of this class. So far I am on day three of trying to phone them, and have talked to three different people, and not one single person has any idea what I am talking about. Here is a transcript of today's conversation with the sweet but clueless R from the JCC office:

Me: Hello, somebody was supposed to call me back yesterday to let me know if the Yad By Yad Toddler Time class was still scheduled?

R: The what?

Me: The Yad By Yad class, it is listed in your catalog as one of the Infant and Toddler classes?

R: Oh, okay. As far as I know, the K'Tan Tan class isn't happening.

Me: Yes I KNOW that, believe me, but I am not asking about that class. I am asking about Yad By Yad Toddler Time, it is right there on page 8 of your catalog.

R: Sure . . . what is it called again?

Me: YAD BY YAD. There are only 3 classes listed in the entire section, okay? There is Baby and Me. I don't care about that one. There is Tot Shabbat. I don't care about that one. Then there is YAD BY YAD! THAT is the one I want to know about!

R: Okay, I will need to ask someone about that. Now, what did you want to know again?

This afternoon I am going to call and demand my membership money back. And I am going to wait until right before they close for the day to do it. I hope I make them all late for services tonight.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Merrily We Roll Along

We had a picnic with some friends at Larkey Park this weekend. Larkey Park is where my parents used to take us swimming, back when we lived in grey and drizzly San Francisco, in order that we might experience something resembling a summertime. When Heather Farm opened, with its Olympic-sized pool and well-appointed clubhouse, we starting going there instead, and I have many happy memories from that time: learning to brave the deep end, jumping off the high dive, and lounging on an oversized beach towel, happily munching neon-colored bricks of pink popcorn. My recollections of swimming at Larkey are far more faded, but I do have one clear image of my favorite activity there: stretching my whole body out on the soft grass, with my arms above my head, and rolling like a snowball to the bottom of the hill.

Sunday I was reluctant to go to the park due to the sweltering temperatures, but we all ended up having a wonderful time. As soon as we arrived, Bug spotted some other 4-year olds and ran right over to them. I held my breath as I always do, hoping that this will be okay, that they won't run away or make fun of him. So far that hasn't happened - or at least I don't think so. There was one time recently, we were having lunch at McDonalds and the kids were playing in the play area there, an interconnected structure of tubes and slides. There were a couple of girls about Bug's age, and every time he appeared at the end of the slide they would shriek "Here he comes!!" and run off. Hearing that, my heart seized up for a moment. Bug didn't seem to notice or care - he was having a grand time laughing and chasing after them - but it would break my heart to to see him as a target of cruelty, so I chose to believe it was an innocent game of "run away from the boys."

In this case I needn't have worried - within seconds Bug and his new friends were giggling madly as they buried each other's feet in the sand. Bee was equally busy chasing her buddy Chucky up and down the slide, so I actually had a chance to relax and catch up with my long-neglected friends. We arranged a potluck for the evening of Rosh Hashanah, and made tentative plans to start a book club focused entirely on trashy novels (Chelle, I hope you and Moosie will be charter members)! I am going to push hard for our first selection to be Valley of the Dolls, followed by You'll Never Make Love In This Town Again , the true adventures of Hollywood's top hookers.

The kids moved on to the swings, the merry-go-round, the jungle gym, their energy unflagging despite the 90 degree heat. Bug and Chucky found a soccer ball and started kicking it around, then moved outside the sandbox to the greenbelt beyond, where I could barely see the tops of their tiny heads. Following after them, I realized that we were standing on the precipice of the same mossy hill I recalled from so long ago. I impulsively dropped down onto the grass and instructed the boys to lay down next to me.

"Everybody put your hands over your head!" I called out. "Now one . . . two . . . three . . . ROLL!"

In minutes we were collapsed in a giggly heap at the bottom of the slope. As we ran up the hill to have another go, we saw Chucky's father, Chucky Sr. running towards us, eager to join in the fun. Up and down the hill we went, again and again, until we were giddy with laughter. Well, at least the kids were. Chucky Sr. and I stumbled dizzily back to our picnic table, clutching our stomachs and moaning softly. I guess we're not as young as we used to be.