Friday, September 12, 2014

The Search Continues...

I turned in the application for the job at the karate studio.  The questions they asked were kind of unusual--about whether I'd had childhood chores, and how they were rewarded.  It's been a while...

I have an interview with an agency in a neighboring county on Tuesday morning--the job is agriculture-oriented, so I would be learning and disseminated useful information, so I wouldn't feel guilty about getting a taxpayer-funded salary (which isn't much, anyway).

While Susan read to Theo in the background (he can already count to "8" by himself--he's getting so big!), Steven called me this afternoon to say that he'd found a few museum management jobs in DC that I might qualify for, and he was sending me the links.  It took three hours (NOT creating everything from scratch, just plugging in information) to get together applications for two, but they're in!  I am not sure I want to subject myself to DC traffic again, though--I was rejoicing on the way home after the gym today at rush hour that it was a whole lot nicer than Northern VA and Georgetown--people were waving other drivers in, not frothing with fury and honking their horns.  My blood pressure remains low.

Tomorrow, I am supposed to spend all day at the consignment store where some forty vendors, including me, have booths--it's an anniversary event (today was a Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting--I think the pictures are going to be in the local paper), and we are supposed to ply customers with sugar candy and tempt them with cool merchandise and discounts.  I was originally planning to bring Ghirardelli brownies, thinking they'd have a refreshments table set up, but the ladies there told me this morning that we should have our sweets in our booths, and I don't want chocolate crumbs everywhere.  A pilgrimage to the corner Walgreen's must happen come sunrise--in all good conscience, I can't offer customers last year's leftover Halloween sweets that I am still snacking my way through...

Thursday, September 11, 2014

This Kind Of War

For months, T.R. Fehrenbach's "classic Korean War history" This Kind of War has been gathering dust and the odd crumb and broken piece of jewelry at the opposite end of my kitchen table.  Today, I decided to distract myself from my smartphone for a bit (10 AM: How many have read my last blogpost? 10:05 AM: How many have read it NOW?) by diving in.

Setting aside the periodic racist term or description (the book was published in 1963, but the short form of "Japanese"--common to veterans of World War II--is used, and, for example, the North Korean infantrymen which poured over the parallel early in the morning of 25 June 1950 are said to have been "hordes of shrieking small men in yellow-brown shirts" (p. 9), an image which, while vivid, wouldn't pass mustard--er, muster--in today's politically-sensitive publishing world), I see some commonalities between the South Korean situations in 1905 and at midcentury last, and the Ukrainian situation today.

In both later cases, the United States had long promised aid to the invaded country, but was far too nervous about sending an aggressive signal to the Russians to add teeth to the once-subjugated but now newborn democracy.  In the first, the wavering last king of the Joseon/Chosun dynasty was brushed aside, and his terrified cabinet forced to accede to Japanese control of the peninsula prior to the arrival of a ship-borne Korean plea for help in Washington (T. Roosevelt had agreed that Japan had "significant interests" on the then-poor peninsula in the Portsmouth Treaty with Russia, so whether we would have honored this is in question), and then, some 45 years later, the South Korean army was bolstered by little more than "attaboy" remarks from the resident American representatives of the State Department, not actual materiel (as heaven forbid they have the weapons to attack the North!).  Ukraine is similarly bereft, being assured of our good offices in its behalf in thanks for giving up its nuclear weapons stockpile in the immediate post-Soviet era.  Now, it, too, discovers that American words are gossamer, as its eastern provinces are chewed away, bit by bit, by the awakening bear to the north.  The American public, its government and media are too enthralled by the admittedly horrifying spectacle of an "unstoppable" Islamic wannabe caliphate with its crucifixions, beheadings, and so forth, to pay attention to what is happening on the other side of the Black Sea.

To "degrade and destroy ISIS" is certainly a laudable goal, but is it feasible?  I wonder that few people that I heard or have read about have cited Samuel Huntington's much-poo-pooed Clash of Civilizations as a framework for understanding what the United States faces in its Middle East foreign policy.  As evil as that Iraqi-Syrian cancer is, how can we treat it without recognizing that historically, we come from an entirely different cultural mindset, and that a few air sorties and even "boots on the ground" are not going to solve the underlying problems?  On the other hand, we CAN do something about Ukraine.  The very lack of international drama which has accompanied the incremental devouring of what was and can be a blossoming democratic state is appalling.  There are thousands of refugees who were leading normal, ordinary lives with work and apartments and children in school who have now been forced to flee westward to Kiev and beyond.  There are reports of religious groups, both Muslim and Christian, being persecuted and even killed in Moscow-oriented areas (in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea), but because these are quietly done (Katyn Forest-style--quiet disappearances are the mark of the "civilized" state), rather than loudly trumpeted (internet jihad is so gauche), they have not drawn American attention.

I love Russia--its language is beautiful, its people are great, its culture is inspiring.  Its leadership, however, has been decidedly mixed, and its current government has made no great secret of its ambitions.  Why are we ignoring these?  Ukraine should not be obliterated by the power-hungry; it should not remain a place forever "on the border", but be "homeland" (the two disputed etymologies of the name).  What I saw on my two visits to Odessa and Kiev and their suburbs showed a country that was full of hope's seedlings, just as its calendar months take their names from the blooms and fruit of the season.  Why should these be lost?  Why are we "advising" in a sandstorm and turning away from the green fields that are being sown with explosives from the east?  Are we excited by and only capable of well-meaning rhetoric and not real action, or only when active to bloody ourselves without end, like someone punching a rock?

I suspect as I read more of Fehrenbach I will be further frustrated with our national inability to learn good lessons from past errors.  I am sure I will find faults in his short-term assessments, but it will be fascinating to at last have some understanding of what took place north and south of Seoul 65 years ago, and left us Americans with little cultural memory save an exceptionally hideous set of sculptures on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Last Night

Last night, my mom was tired, but didn't get to bed until 11. She had finally dozed off when the doorbell rang, loudly, at midnight. No one was there, and the lights which automatically switch on when someone approaches were off.  She went back to bed, thinking, "What could have caused this?" And she remembered that she had seen the sprinkler system in the backyard hit the doorbell.  John was sweetly asleep in the blissful quiet of a mostly deaf person without hearing aids, when, a while later, the doorbell launched boisterously into its entire repertoire of party tunes, from "Hail, Hail, The Gangs All Here," then "Rock Around the Block", and finishing with a wake-the-dead rendition of "Happy Birthday". John slept on, but Mums decided enough was enough, went out into the hall, climbed a ladder, and physically ripped the blasting box off the wall.  I'll bet John was a bit puzzled when he saw the path of wrath this morning.

For me, it was my last night at the tractor factory.  At the opening meeting, we were informed that we'd be working Sunday, and so I talked to the staffing coordinator and told him Saturday would be my last shift.  I knew my body was wearing out, and I'd said from the beginning I wouldn't work Sundays (not that that's helped me church attendance-wise--I have been so tired the last month that I've made it to services once, maybe twice).  Because of last week's occupational assessment regarding the stress to my hands and arms, my boss had switched me from my substation to one on the line, and that went ok for a while (and I had a good time learning a new area), but eight hours into the evening, my right wrist really started to burn.  My line leader brought me ice, and then my fingers started to burn and numb.  "Hmm, I thought, "I'm not going to last til Saturday."

I asked God to give me wisdom, and for grace in the eyes of the staffing representative, and when I told him about my condition, he amazingly volunteered to backdate my resignation request so I could call it quits that night without prejudicing my future hiring possibilities with the company.  So, I picked up my stuff, and my ice pack, clocked out, turned in my badge and departed just minutes before everyone else poured out into the parking lot, scattering used earplugs and oily gloves in their haste for home.

Today, my wrist has emphasized the wisdom of last night's decision. I hope it recovers fully, and that the recuperation doesn't take longer than the five weeks it took to damage it. The fingers on both hands feel a little swollen, so it's like typing in gloves, clumsy on the keyboard.

I had hoped to be able to work through the end of the month; I had planned to work through the end of November, when this particular production line was to shut down.  But when you start having physical issues, and know that the crazy schedule is to blame, and then are told that not only will the workload increase, the hours will, too, you know it's time to get out.  Still, I was encouraged when both my brothers texted me to assure me that I wasn't just chickening out when the "going got tough", that I had in fact given the job reasonable time, and it would be unreasonable given the pay and lack of benefits to continue.

I've picked up an application for a customer service position at the karate studio where both my brothers trained decades ago.  It's relocated and expanded, and there were bunches of small children dressed in gis coming out when I went over this afternoon, their parents--heads cocked to one side like curious birds--ushering them through traffic in the parking lot while listening to their offspring chatter excitedly.

Tomorrow Mums and I plan to drive down to Dublin to visit Grandmommy.  We'll be taking my car, and I've done some rudimentary dredging to make the passenger and back seats usable.  I dearly hope I do not--as a radio station reported a Swiss research company had found--look like the car I own (white, unwashed, dented, stuffed with random unnecessaries, and showing its age), but it's probably true...

Sunday, September 07, 2014

I Miss Sunshine!

Joseph didn't excel at networking, either.  Falsely accused of attempted sexual assault, he'd been stuck in prison for about fifteen years when he thought he'd found his golden ticket out--Pharoah's cupbearer. Just a word in the monarch's ear, and he'd be out on parole. But the guy forgot about him for a couple of years, and it wasn't until the monarch had troublesome dreams that demanded explanation did the wine-taster recall, "Oh gee, that's right, there was this guy in prison who had this amazing interpretation ability..."

I've been thinking a lot about Moses and Joseph lately (and Monty Python sketches and excerpts from the Princess Bride and what the French word for "fear" is, but that's neither here nor there). It's a whole lot easier to marvel at Almighty Providence when you are strolling the Georgetown campus on a sunny afternoon, being greeted by professors and fellow students, than when you are trudging from your workstation to the time-clock at the factory at 4 AM along with your fellow weary workmates.  I wonder what Moses thought, after growing up in wealth and getting the Ivy League plus education of his day, forced to run for his life into the wilderness and there to find only work herding sheep--for 40 years.  Joseph, too, had been the golden child on whom his father's favor rested.  He'd even landed on his feet in Egypt, or so he thought, when after he'd been sold as a slave by his jealous brothers, his new master had appointed him chief steward. But then the master's wife took a shine to him, and when he didn't reciprocate, she cried "rape" and young Joe was packed off to the pokey to wile away his youth--for 17 years.  Moses was my age when his life took its first abrupt turn.  Joseph was likely much younger. There were subsequent dramatic turns in store for them, in God's time, and with a much broader purpose than either could have dreamt.

Obviously, I haven't a capital crime hanging over my head, nor do I expect to be called forth from the assembly line to preserve a nation, so the Old Testament patriarch examples don't translate exactly, but it is true that I've got a lot of pride that needs breaking down.  I thought I glimpsed an old nemesis one night this week, and was quickly ashamed of how ashamed I was of what I was doing.  True, you really want to present an image of dazzling success to the demons of your past, and I was dirty, sore, and laboring in a factory, not a distinguished and successful author, nattily dressed, being chatted up by an interviewer about her latest bestseller.  My life heretofore conditioned me to be subconsciously embarrassed by menial labor--to be able to do it as an avocation was to one's credit, but to be forced to do it as a vocation was demeaning, particularly if one had the privilege of education and the possibilities for expertise in a purely intellectual field as I had. But there is nothing wrong with the job I do--it's making good things for worthy purposes. Some people would truly not be able to eat if I weren't to do my work well.

Yes, it is hard on my body (though by lugging parts my arms have toned so I no longer have the beginning of that bane of female middle age, the underarm skin sag!).  So much so that I asked for an occupational movement specialist to come observe me at my station, and she and the union shop leader determined that I needed to change stations regularly in order not to injure myself through repetitive motion. So from Monday I will be spending every other day at another station, which I hope will lessen the discomfort in my hands and back. The specialist gave me a pair of whittled-down cushioning gloves to wear over my regular pair, and they did help, though now suiting up for work involves enough layers that I feel like I am readying for a spacewalk.  And I understand why astronauts wear diapers--because peeling off all those gloves, and the wrist brace, on the way to the toilet is a pain!

I've met several interesting ladies the last week, two new to the shift. One is barely twenty, the mother of two little boys (ages 1 & 2), sired by a boyfriend with whom she has lived since taking her parents' car for an illegal joyride at age 17. She and the boyfriend are no longer "together", but they and his mother share the responsibility for the toddlers.  She said she took the job because she wanted to prove to them that she could support herself. Since the children wake her at 8 AM, and the other two adults are gone from the house all day, she is making do on less than 4 hours' sleep a night.  The other is a woman who announced proudly in the cafeteria on Friday that she was soon going to be a grandmother.  Like the waitress in the country song, she is missing a front tooth, but not unattractive for all that, and I couldn't believe that she was old enough to be a grandmother, and told her so.  She said, "I'm 38."  Younger than me.  And her anticipated grandmotherhood is a product of her own youthful marriage (at 18) and a middle daughter's more youthful indiscretion (at 17--the power was off for almost a week during February's ice storm, and she and her boyfriend "snuggled up," in her mother's words).  She was recently divorced, and the nighttime factory work is the best job she could find, after being a homemaker for a score of years.  She wants her two daughters and younger son to finish high school and get some college, which she never had.  Both of these women's worlds are much apart from mine--at least three of my friends didn't marry and consider having children until after age 40, and few even married before their late 20s.  Everyone in my DC social circle had a college degree, and many had further academic or professional training.

All I knew there had been abroad multiple times, and interstate jaunts are a matter of casual routine.  A third pretty woman I met this week was wearing a "Texas" t-shirt yesterday, so I asked her if she were from there.  "No, I've never been," she told me.  "It's nice--you ought to see San Antonio," I said, limply.  She's only been to states contiguous to Georgia, and North Carolina, I overheard her tell a coworker.

One thing I have found common cause with my coworkers was in opposition to the announcement that the staffing agency was going to have us pay for being fitted for, and then to rent, uniforms.  These are by and large poor people--shelling out three hours' wages per person for fitting, then another hour's a week to rent uniforms which we must wash, and for which the replacement costs are exorbitant (over $100 for the jacket alone) is a major hardship, one which the staffing agency employees do not seem to comprehend.  I had to sign that I agreed to this (signatures were being collected from everyone, I didn't see that I could refuse), but I immediately (during the next work break) sent off a letter of protest.  Turns out, essentially no one else protested, even though they were sorely aggrieved, because they didn't know to whom they should protest, or how to get in touch with them.  And many shared the attitude of the slightly embittered fellow I work with, when I urged him to write or call: "It won't do any good unless everybody does it."  So, he wouldn't do anything.  "No," I told him, "It only takes one. You shouldn't think cosmically, but individually." He looked at me with sad incomprehension.  I can appreciate the frustration of nineteenth-century reformers working with the Russian peasantry.

The early part of the week, I was quite depressed.  I'm only getting a few minutes of sunlight (in the car, on the way to work) a day, and though it always has made me sleepy, I miss it.  As I've mentioned, my hands, wrists, and now my back hurts, and I was standing at my station for hours, wondering, "Why am I here?!  All my education is going to waste!"  And I haven't gotten any gym exercise, which is a stress reliever.  Then, on Thursday, Claude the jolly forklift man insisted a share his large cheese-and-sausage pizza, and I swallowed fully two-thirds of it.  This massive onboarding of carb-calories improved my mood considerably, and I resolved to eat more of my healthy selections in future.  I want to be trim, but I also want to be healthy, and cheerful, as I learn to understand the characters with whom I am sharing this new cultural experience.

Monday, September 01, 2014

I Am Grateful, But Oh! So Tired!

Truly, I am grateful to have a job. I am grateful to have pleasant coworkers, and not constant excessive stress.  I am grateful for a clean working environment, and for paychecks that arrive on time.  I am grateful that self-injuries have been minimal, and that I have only lost my temper once and my composure twice.  But I do wonder how much longer I can continue keeping up the working hours--I have spent more than 30 hours of my two-day holiday sleeping, I am so tired!--and as arthritis, of all things, is appearing in my hands, how much longer I can manage the physical demands of the job.

I know, given history--secular, Biblical and personal--that I must be in this job to learn something that will benefit me, or others through me, in the future, but I can't help but feel stranded in an intellectual desert of sorts, wondering what on earth was the point of all that beautiful education, those carefully-crafted papers, the hours spent puzzling over this or that literary topic when I am stuck under fluorescent lights in a role that requires a minimum GED qualification? True, there is a certain "coolness factor" to tractor-construction even among the intelligentsia, as for most academics anything involving sweat and machine oil is terra incognita, and I've had at least one friend ask in wonder exactly where I acquired the ability to use power tools, and others exclaim "wow" that I was able to handle the job.

My tool skills evidence incidental knowledge being more important at times than deliberately-acquired primary knowledge.  Daddy was always remodeling or building things--from rooms in the various houses where we lived to boats--and so I became familiar with tools and their uses pretty much from birth (that he built a wooden boat from scratch in the apartment living room and fiberglassed it while I was in utero I blame for some of my mental deficiencies).  Minoring in Theater Tech while I was at the state Governor's Honors Program in high school gave me the chance to construct simple platforms on my own.  I may also have used a power tool or two on volunteer service projects (I certainly used plenty of hand tools, and no respiratory protection, chipping away lead paint from peeling wood structures!) at home and abroad, and then of course my making lamps and applying both my Dremel and my Makita drills to a variety of surfaces in other creative endeavors all helped.  I almost forgot my ratchet set (a present from Daddy when I went off to grad school)!--using it to assemble furniture and replace my car battery and for other little tasks like that seemed fairly intuitive.  I've installed hinges on doors, done trench-digging and spackling and used both electric and hand-saws, painted and tiled and cut glass and punched out metal.  Partly, this is the typical American "do it yourself" culture, partly the example of Daddy and Granddaddy, who did everything from plumbing to wiring.  I think a person can do a lot of things simply when no one ever tells her or him that it is odd or unexpected to do them.  [For example, I remember being surprised that others were surprised that I was regularly driving from DC to GA and back by myself.  Why wouldn't I?  And why is it odd to be able to put on lipstick without a mirror?  I mean, one's lips are where you leave them, aren't they?]  Most of this is not exactly rocket science, just practice.

What is sad is that I have no energy, creative or otherwise, left to me when I get off work.  How did Arnold Toynbee (I think it was Toynbee, but maybe it was Anthony Trollope--I could Google it, but I just don't care to) handle the Post Office gig and write, too?  Perhaps, like banker T.S. Eliot, he had limited daylight working hours and free weekends.

Not the arthritis, nor the long shifts will be what eventually drives me to resign, but the noise.  The rattling, banging, beeping, roaring and so forth continues incessant, fearsome, and obnoxious in the background, despite the best earplugs I have.  The best description I can give of the clamor in the factory is if a person were to stand on a busy big-city street corner, where not only does constant horn-happy traffic whiz by, part of the intersection is being torn up by jackhammers and backhoes, while a skyscraper is being built across the street (dump trucks and cement mixers rumble in and back out, men weld rebar and nail forms together, and throw debris into a metal dumpster).  Add a talentless but determined street musician competing with this bedlam (to account for the musical trolleys on the assembly line) and you have a rough approximation of what I am enduring for 10 hours a day--including the grime and occasional diesel fumes.

I need to take an antihistamine and a shower and go to bed.  I am due to leave for work in 14.5 hours.  And my house is still a disaster area, and I've made no jewelry for this coming Sunday's show.  One month down, perhaps three to go!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Weeks 2 & 3: Digital Issues & Scuttlebutt

Last Sunday, I was so exhausted (we'd worked from 5 PM Saturday until 2 AM instead of the usual 3 to 11:30 because one of the line workers had died suddenly during the week, and his funeral was early Saturday afternoon), that I slept through both morning and evening church.  Forget about blogging!  Nothing turns you into a mute beast of burden (eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep, work) like 58+ hours of physical labor at an increasingly fast pace over six days. 

I had bought a wrist brace after the first week, and my right arm returned to normal—the brace held the sore wrist steady, and also reminded me to be more ambidextrous in movement, switching tools from hand to hand and trying not to stress one side more than the other.  Heaven knows I don’t want my right arm to flake out on me again.  I wish my right hand had been briefly immobilized on the way to work about ten days ago, though…  

Have you ever been thinking about something and you unconsciously begin to act it out, either physically or verbally?  I accidentally flicked off the guy in the truck behind me in rush-hour traffic week before last, and I wasn’t at all ill-disposed toward him, but thinking about a Russian class at university more than 20 years ago, when I asked my instructor if there were any nicknames in that language for the fingers.  On the American hand, we have in succession: the “pinkie”, the ring finger, the middle finger (with which one “give the bird”—I was counting this one off when I snapped back to the present to realize that I was inadvertently giving an obscene gesture to the world.  I quickly began pretending to tick imaginary counted items off on my other digits, but I’m not sure that, or in fact “the bird” itself, was noticed by the truck driver or anybody else, thank the Lord!). And then we have the pointer finger and finally the thumb.  I can’t remember what the Russian names are (if you know them—leave it in the comments), but what initially prompted these thoughts was a peculiar spot of roughness on the back side of my steering wheel, which I’d never felt before.  The car is showing signs of age (today, I saw that my windshield had spontaneously cracked in a serpentine line up from the bottom passenger-side corner—and I have a $100 deductible to pay on the replacement before my insurance kicks in…), but what caused this?

At the factory, we’re not allowed to wear any jewelry (stud earrings and one necklace that can be tucked into our shirt collars being the exceptions), because of the danger of catching it in or on machinery.  As the orientation person said on training day, waggling his hands at us, “You come in with 10, we want you to leave with 10.”  So, for the first time in almost two decades I’m not wearing my gold class ring on the middle finger of my left hand.  And since I’d worn it essentially 24/7/365, and I’ve had the car 15 years, the ring had in turn worn a rough spot on the steering wheel, which I can only now sense with my naked finger.  My hand feels odd without the weight, and I keep looking at my wrist for the time—cell phones are great, but I miss my wristwatch, too!

As to less than pleasant college memories, why did the thin accountant of Week One bother me so much?  I took a visceral dislike to him the moment we met, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why, as he has reappeared a couple of times since, and I’ve had the same reaction.  I really despised him on sight, and quickly worried that it was some latent group prejudice bubbling up. Then I realized (after all, one of my best friends is an accountant) that he reminded me a lot of the guy with whom I’d been in love in college—the same know-it-all air, the “lo, I have come from on high to instruct you mere mortals” attitude.  The accountant said he was there to work, but he didn’t get his hands (or his clothes) dirty—just walked around “observing”, pursing his lips and making notes.  All numerical theory and no human practice. 

A thousand things have to work properly to assure that an assembly line moves smoothly.  It’s all very well for a number-cruncher to say that actions should take “x” amount of time, that “y” output should be produced during a shift, but humans are not machines, and even machines themselves break down.  People get tired, their hands fumble, parts are found to be flawed, components break, the unending din proves distracting.  There’s time needed for unplanned bathroom breaks, cleaning up the work area, just walking around one’s station replenishing parts.  And stretching—even though the risk of repetitive motion injury is reduced by having employees perform a variety of actions, they get stiff over time.  I think that the best way for an accountant (or similarly office-centered individual) working for a manufacturing company to comprehend these realities, and to be able to incorporate humanity into his or her calculations and planning, is to have to work, really work, at the labor job for a specified period.  Most people don’t understand situations until they’ve lived through them, or observed someone they care about living through them.  As an obsessive-compulsive person who likes things (at least in parts of her life—my dining room floor is covered with jewelry components that I haven’t finished sorting, and I’m living out of a suitcase and a clean laundry basket because I haven’t finished getting my new bedroom clothes cabinet back together) in order, neatly compartmentalized, I know the appeal of the clean, arithmetically-balanced worksheet.  But treating people as purely mathematical inputs (no matter how innocently meant), leads to an attitude of enslavement, the capitalism without compassion Pope Francis has deplored.

I managed to squeeze in another bank interview before work last week.  John had gone in to a local branch to transact business and noticed a “we’re hiring” sign, and asked the representative who was helping him about available positions.  She kindly gave him her contact information to pass on to me.  So, I dressed up and went to see her in person, copy of my resume in hand.  Turns out, that branch ISN’T hiring at present—though she thinks there will be an opening soon—the sign was for the company as a whole, and the gatekeeper for the region is the same woman I encountered at the unsuccessful group interview for the teller position a month or so ago.  So, I did try, but I can’t see that effort bearing fruit.  Bothersome, though, that the local branches can’t do the hiring themselves—no matter how much their advertising likes to claim the individual isn't forgotten by the corporation, in hiring it’s not a matter of the personal touch (the banker lady who’d given John her card turned out to be someone that had assisted my mother for decades—she hadn’t connected John with her because they have different last names), which could have benefited me in on this occasion.

I don’t know if my brief appearance at the factory in a dress and decent makeup (quickly doffed in the ladies’ locker room for more suitable work gear) contributed to my short-lived femme fatale status among rumor-mongers, but I was called over by Bill, one of the guys I sub for, mid-week and asked, point-blank, “Are you married or dating anybody?” It seems that this had been a topic of discussion on the line, and one or more men (unspecified) was interested in asking me out.  Bill was exceedingly diplomatic about all this, and I responded that he was to please inform the guy or guys in question, “Though the attention is greatly appreciated, I did not join the night shift for the social possibilities.”  I was so glad that Bill was circumspect in his questions: I was not required to reject one person in particular, but could pass along notice about my general unavailability.  Bill and Rob, the other guy in that section, told me, “We’ll get the gossip to stop.”  “Good grief,” I thought. “I’m the subject of speculative gossip?!”  I had no idea that a 40 (almost) year old spinster’s romantic live would prove such a hot topic on the factory floor!  This is clear evidence of the isolation of the night shift—that someone who chews off her lipstick (if she remembers to put any on) within an hour of beginning work, whose mousy hair is liberally seasoned with grey, whose arms are crisscrossed with shallow scratches and grease stains, should be considered a “catch” based solely on her appearance highly amuses, or bemuses, me. 

I am so glad to be physically isolated in my area (though frequently forgotten—announcements about breaks often pass me by, and I am seldom offered a menu for the nightly orders of takeout), out of gossip-range!  The forklift driver who asked me out thrice in the first few days has been more or less squelched (I don’t know if it was him Bill was asking about—I don’t think so, as they aren’t in direct contact), though we remain on cordial terms.  I have gotten to know another driver, a portly and cheerful man with a rich voice and white goatee, who worked on the first phase of the African-American History Museum being constructed in DC.  I’d felt instantly comfortable chatting with him, and when I found out that he’d played the role of Santa in years past, it all made sense (when I told him this, he started calling "Ho, ho, ho!" every time he passed my station, and singing snatches of "Jingle Bells").  He claimed not to be able to tell good stories, but he’d mentioned having an orchard in one of our first exchanges, and I countered, “Fifteen pecan trees—that’s a story.  How did you end up with those?” “Thirty-five,” he corrected me. “They stand on all that remains of the 2000 acres General Oglethorpe gave my ancestor.”  And what followed was a tale about said glorious predecessors, the founding of Washington, GA, and the fact that an archaeological team wants to excavate the remains of two Revolutionary War-era forts on the property.  Turns out, his son also has an MA in International Relations, and despite his complete fluency in Spanish is presently working at company that makes banners, for $2 less per hour than I am earning at the factory!  These are hard times for multiculturalists…

Despite my accident-prone nature, I've only had one accident thus far.  I mashed my left middle finger (the same denuded of the ring and guilty of an unwarranted “birdie”) about three hours into Thursday’s shift.  I was torquing a bolt with a power tool and holding the nut on the other end with a wrench, which flipped in the process, pinning the fingernail to first knuckle between the wrench and a very hard (solid steel) place (casing).  I managed to pull the wrench loose (one of those adrenaline-will-enable-you-to-do-incredible-feats moments) and inspected my damaged digit—I didn't break the skin (thank you, gloves!) and everything still worked.  But gosh, it throbbed.  Per protocol, I told my zone leader, and he got me ice and then hunted up some Aleve.  I’d hate to sound like a painkiller ad, but that stuff really did the trick, and fast.  Within 15 minutes, I was feeling no pain, and back to full-speed, two-handed assembly.  The finger hasn’t bothered me since—it’s slightly tender, but nothing that inhibits typing, let alone work.  I am really grateful.

Argh.  Enough said!  I need to head off to bed shortly, so I’ll be back on track for this next week’s work, starting later today.  The “night’s sleep” standard doesn’t apply to us nightshifters, with our undead schedules of wakeful dark and sleeping daylight, but I hope I can rest well between now and then.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Not So Wrenching

This is my impact wrench. There are many like it, but this one is mine.  It is my life.  I must master it as I must master my life. Without me my impact wrench is useless.  Without my impact wrench, I am useless...

I actually use five such wrenches (power drills with socket bits, basically) in my work, so I can't say I have an exclusive allegiance, but I would be helpless without them.

By Saturday afternoon, I was so exhausted I could feel my pulse in my chest when I breathed. Almost sixty hours of manual labor wearing steel-toed, plastic-lined leather boots (weight on my postal scale: 2 lbs. each) in six days really wears a person out!

The initial impression of the factory was a little overwhelming: there's pervasive and perpetual noise, loops of blue hose hang overhead for the pneumatic tools on the main line, trolleys move along the assembly line, forklifts run hither and thither, everyone plugs away at their stations, and then there is the challenge of navigating the labyrinths of supply was all disorienting.

Even with good plugs stuffed deep into my ear canals, the plant is a non-stop cacophony: the rattle and quack (some sound exactly like duck calls) of impact wrenches tuned to precise newton-meters, the classical ditties sung (like tinny player pianos) by the automated trolleys on the line, signaling their progress between stations.  There are mallets banging, diesel engines roaring as the tractors are cranked for the first time, beeps from line machinery, and whirring from the fleet of small yellow forklifts racing around the perimeter (they are darting into the dark holds of delivery trucks backed up to open dock doors around three sides of the building, hoisting off heavy components and whisking them to stations on the line.  The forklift drivers also give a perfunctory double-tap on their horns when they go through pedestrian intersections, but unless you've caught the eye of the driver, you can't be sure of his seeing you).  Snatches of song and shouted conversation echo around the plant, too--it is a nonstop concatenation of industry and sound.

Though generally clean, filled with light and well-equipped, absent unpleasant fumes and odors, and though the workers are shielded from many injuries by protective gear and OSHA guidelines, the modern tractor factory is still a potentially dangerous place to work. Mainly, one has to watch out for the forklifts, which are driven by a gregarious bunch of paunchy men, some of whom don't bother to look over their shoulders when whirling half a ton of cast metal in reverse (I knew I came close to getting squished the other day when I was beavering away at my secondary station, inside the safety lines yet, and suddenly felt the hot breath of a forklift engine on the back of my neck). The main reported injuries are to the hands, and I am so grateful to have cut-resistant gloves, as some of the metal parts I heft have rough edges, and there is the ever-present danger of pinching one's fingers in the machinery.

We "newbies" had to wear yellow reflective vests until certified to work our assigned stations unsupervised and trusted to navigate the maze of shelves, carts, machinery, stacks of fiberglass pallets, wooden boxes, steel "buckhead" (I kept erroneously calling them "carabou") holders, and, of course, the whizzing forklifts without getting lost or being crushed.  I was declared certified in a day (a night) and a half, and allowed to de-vest, but the paperwork wasn't actually completed until my fourth shift.  I am happy to have my own little corner, or two corners, at a pair of stations assembling "subs".  I put together components for the folks on the line to install. I spend most of the 10 hours of my nighttime workday on my feet, only getting to sit down for the two 15-minute breaks and at the mealtime, which occurs after most of the dayshift population is long asleep, at 10 PM.  I work much faster by myself. Most people do, probably, but the main line seems to be chat central, particularly when there is a backup, and I know I would start making more mistakes than I am already, and not catch them, if I had someone to talk to over an engine or transmission, and so I am glad to be in my own little world.

My main station is neat and organized. I learned that the man who works there during daylight hours did, in fact, use to be a doctor in his native land, and he keeps everything in surgical order, and a bowl of individually-wrapped mints in the middle of the work table. There are steel racks of several dozen open plastic containers, all filled to various levels with bolts, nuts, bushings, and other parts.  My line supervisor checks on me regularly, and makes sure I have the parts I need in abundance, and the man for whom I sub has been very nice about telling me my faults gently, and gradually, so I can improve without feeling like I am getting scolded.  (My sister had cautioned me that language in a manufacturing setting was sure to be raw, but thus far in this majority-male environment it has been considerably cleaner than that among some of my former female coworkers!)

Physically, however, I feel a certain kinship with one of those unfortunate waterfowl engulfed by a tanker spill. My skin is saturated with engine grease, a grey sludge that has accumulated under my fingernails and in my ears, and settled into my wrist wrinkles. No matter how diligently I rub my washcloth over my arms, I still feel the sticky film and see the fissures between my pores lined with graphite, as if I am wearing a fine lattice body-stocking.  The stuff seems impervious to soap and water. George Orwell wrote about the unpleasant sensation of having soap dry on the back of one's neck, and I have a similar, though more viscous feeling on my back after my shower.  My right wrist aches from the vibration of torquing bolts to fifty and sixty newton-meters.  Shallow scratches cover my ID badge and my left forearm from hoisting metal parts and fitting them together--absent my yellow vest and with all this superficial wear and tear, I already look like an old hand!

The line supervisor is female, and probably two-thirds of the employees are African American.  It's been a major cultural adjustment for me to be asked, immediately after exchanging names, "Are you married? Do you have kids?"  In the world of DC social interaction, these are questions only indirectly posed, and usually after considerable discussion of the person's job and point of origin. Here, we're all semi-skilled labor, putting in ten paid hours a weekday on the assembly line, and eight more on Saturday.  This really gives new meaning to "full time job."  All waking hours are absorbed with work, so the nighttime employee has only his or her shift-sharers to talk to. After 10.5 hours at the plant you are dog-tired, and after three days of the same, the conversations around the meal tables recede in volume, and everyone ends up staring, glassy-eyed, at the 24-hour news program reporting wars and rumors thereof which is constantly playing on the flatscreens in the upper corner of the room.

As always, there are interesting characters among my coworkers.  One fortyish good ol' boy forklift driver has asked me out three times so far [to coffee after work (at 4 in the morning!?), lunch and afternoon tea (or whatever one consumes on a Sunday after dinner). I was thinking he must be desperate, to approach a woman covered head to toe in machine oil, wearing personal protective equipment and sweating over transmission parts. And then I reflected that a person working the industrial night shift truly has no other social recourse. All you do is work, eat and sleep.  I am one of perhaps eight women out of about eighty workers, and the only young(ish) single Caucasian female.]  I saw one of the maintenance guys, a New York native who calls Seattle home (his wife, though, has determined they won't return to Washington State, preferring to be in the warm and sunny South) briskly kicking a malfunctioning trolley that had bottle-necked the whole line--he said not only did kicking get the job done, it was also a good way to release frustration.  And when I arrived at work on Thursday, we were joined at the opening group five-minute meeting (we all stand around in our gear while the supervisor gets up on a little metal platform and gives us a rundown of the day and a pep talk for the evening) there was a thin bespectacled guy in clean, pressed clothes who looked like the stereotype of a nerdy and neurotic accountant straight out of central casting...who turned out to be an accountant.  He said he was volunteering on the line to improve production, and he tried to sound tough in front of the proles by saying "damn" a couple of times, which actually made him sound more wimpy than he looked.  I think he lasted maybe two hours before disappearing in the direction of home.

So, in other words, I survived my first week of "real" full-time work. I'm tired, sore, and stained, but I made it.  Lord willing, I'll adjust to the hours and the pace, and my wrist won't get worse.  And maybe, a daytime job with benefits, fewer hours and a higher wage will drop into my lap.  But in the meantime, I'll be at my station.  Or in bed asleep!