Friday, April 22, 2011

In which someone is having a romantic evening in Rome but it's sure not my friend Lenore or me

The summer after I graduated from business school, instead of doing the smart, practical thing and getting a job, I, fed up, fed UP I tell you with how The Corporate Man was Keeping Me Down, didn't even bother to look for work and used the rest of my money, the money I had not used on UT's fabulously low tuition and on my rent for Michelle McMichael the crazy landlady's place or on the car-vacuuming, marijuana importing neighbors duplex and went to Europe for the summer.

I had wanted to go to Europe for the summer after I finished college, but I had a job that started June 3 and what kind of idiot English major takes a trip instead of accepting a job? An idiot MBA will do it but not an idiot English major. English majors are far more realistic and practical than MBAs is what we can learn from this.

Still, I was anxious about the financial impracticality of my upcoming adventure and even worked myself into such a state of anxiety one day that I threw up. I threw up so hard that I burst all the blood vessels around my eyes and had red eyes for a day or two and then black/green/purple/yellow eyes. I was lovely.

Lovely and -- going to Europe. I had exams the first few days of May, then a seven-day interval before my last final, in microeconomics. I asked my micro prof if I could take the exam early so I could get to Barcelona earlier, but he said no, what if everyone wanted to take the final early? I shrugged and said what if? Then he rather implied that I might cheat, even though I scored the highest mark on the midterm in the whole class.

I had had a hard time with the material, so had studied and studied and studied. I was the last person to turn in my midterm because I had checked and re-checked everything. I thought I was the dumbest person taking the test.

This professor was not a fan of mine. I sat in the front row because I was a front-row sitter. I had learned my lesson from college, where I often did not wear my glasses to class because - get this - they were ugly glasses. Not wearing glasses = not being able to see the board, which is a necessary thing for oh, calculus and chemistry. Little wonder I became an English major, hey?

Anyhow, I was a glasses-wearing front-row sitter in grad school because by golly, I was paying for this myself (I also paid for college, but that was loans not cash out of my savings account and you pay a lot more attention to paying money you've earned than you do to money that has not yet been earned) and I was going to be darn sure I learned. One day, the prof was explaining in a very painful and convoluted way an algebraic process that was really just taking the derivative in calculus. I leaned over to the guy next to me, whose undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering, and whispered, "Isn't he just taking the derivative?"

The engineer, who was from Argentina, whispered back, "Siiii."

The prof stopped. Walked up to me. Asked if I had something to share with the class.

Oh yes. Even in grad school, they treat you like third graders. Although we were acting like third graders, so there you go.

"Yes," I answered. "I want to know why you don't just say, 'Take the derivative.'"

"Because if I did that, half this class would pass out," he said.

Ever the smart aleck and has to have the last-worder, I said, "You're supposed to have a year of calculus as a prerequisite for this program."

He rolled his eyes at me as he returned to the blackboard.

Back to the midterm and we'll get to Rome, I promise you. The class after the midterm, I sat nervously, waiting for my score. I was early to class because that's how I roll. The professor saw me sitting there and walked up to me, holding a sheet of paper in front of him. He stood still in front of me, holding the paper out for me to see. It was a list of test scores, from highest to lowest. I looked in the middle of the paper for my social security number and score, but didn't see it. I went all the way to the bottom of the paper and still didn't see my number. Then I looked back up. At the very top of the list, with a score only two points from perfect, was my number.

I looked up at him and smiled.

"I'm reviewing the test today," he said.

"Do I need to stay?" I asked.

"I should think not," he answered.

And yet he thought I would cheat on the final? The scores were curved. I would never sabotage my own score that way.

I'm getting to Rome. I'm getting to Rome. He wouldn't let me take the test early, so I waited and took the darn test and then left for Barcelona the next day. I skipped my graduation.

Yes, I skipped my own graduation.


You know how there are always these letters to Dear Abby in May about how Oh no! I won't have enough tickets to invite Great Aunt Joan to my son's high school graduation and she'll be soooo offended?

Great Aunt Joan is not offended.

Great Aunt Joan is thrilled.

I made a solemn vow after my college graduation that I would never attend another graduation again, either for myself or for another person. Circumstances dictated that I attend one graduation a few years ago, but with God as my witness, I will never ever ever sit through another graduation again as long as I live.

I will watch paint dry first.

Seriously, is there anything more mind-blowingly dull than watching a graduation?

No there is not.

I finished my tests, skipped graduation, and got on the plane to Barcelona, where my friend Lenore met me, and from there we took the train to Rome, where we were going to stay in her friend Bob's apartment while he was on vacation elsewhere. We had reserved seats in a compartment into which extra people, who did not have reserved seats, squeezed themselves and smoked. The window would not open. The corridors were filled with smokers. It was hot. Hot, smelly smokers. Not enough room. Oh how I treasure those student travel days.

After a very long, sweaty trip, we arrived in Rome. I had read in my guidebook that the Rome train station was rife with pickpockets and I was on guard. While Lenore went to call someone about getting the key to Bob's apartment, I found a strategically sound spot to stand and guard our luggage. My back was to the wall so I had only 180 degrees of area to patrol.

A tall Ethiopian man, holding an unlit cigarette, approached from my right. He gestured to me and I turned to look at him. Did I have a light? he seemed to be pantomiming.

I shook my head.

He pantomimed again.

I impatiently tried to explain that I didn't smoke and I didn't have any matches. Sheesh!

That's when I heard someone shouting on my left.

I turned to see a little Italian man grabbing the elbow of another Ethiopian man. Ethiopian Man #2 was holding my backpack. Which contained my laundry, an apple, some cheese, and my camera, back in the days when cameras were actually worth something.

I snatched the backpack from EM #2 and punched him in the arm.

The little Italian man scolded me. I don't speak Italian but I got the gist of what he was saying: Lady you need to pay attention. PAY ATTENTION!

Nothing like being chewed out in a language you don't speak by someone you don't know.

Lenore and I made it to the apartment. We were pretty tired after being cooped up in the reserved, we paid extra for our own seats but got crowded by seat cheaters, compartment. We boiled some pasta and ate it with butter, then went to bed.

Shortly after we had turned out the lights, we heard a noise. A thumping. A loud, rhythmic thumping. A loud, rhythmic thumping on the wall behind our headboard. A loud, rhythmic thumping that we would feel very lightly in our bed* but was enough to make the crucifix above Bob's bed move. (I don't think Bob was particularly religious - I think the crucifix might have belonged to his landlord. Or maybe there was no crucifix at all and I am remembering one simply because it makes for a better story.)

Then the moaning started.

Is there anything better than listening to someone else's oral delight in sexual activity as it happens?

You know - like those movies we watched in 7th grade history: You Are There. I just googled that phrase. I am not losing my mind. Walter Cronkite did an entire series of You Are There. It happened. I was there.

Lenore and I lay there, waiting. For you know. For it to be over.

And soon, but not soon enough, it was.

The next night, the same thing. Plus an encore presentation at 2:00 a.m.

Lord. Have. Mercy.

At the time, that did not seem so remarkable.

But from middlish-ageness, with job stresses and late nights working and taxes due and sleep so very, very precious, it looks completely different. This was before viagra. Although we have no way of knowing if the same people were involved in each event, if you know what I mean.

Every night while we were there, Lenore and I were treated to a show.

Our strategy was to wear ourselves out walking around Rome all day long and back up the long, steep hill to the apartment so that by nighttime, we were so exhausted that nothing could keep us awake.

We never did ask Bob if that was normal or if his neighbor had also lent out his apartment.

* If there is only one bed in a sleeping place, women friends will just share the darn bed. Men, I think, are more likely to insist that one man sleep on the sofa and the other sleep in the bed.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

In which I gasp in horror and astonishment as a co-worker uses a word he thinks he made up but is a real word not used in polite conversation

For a while, I worked in let's say Omaha at one of my company's factories there. I was there only for six months and then was supposed to move on. It was supposed to be a special project, developing a long-term strategy for the factory to take it beyond its current use as a milk carton folding equipment manufacturer, which might sound like snoozeville but really is not.

When is the last time you bought milk in a carton?

Ha. See? You buy your milk in a plastic jug. But remember when milk used to come in the same kind of carton that orange juice comes in now? That carton is called a gabletop carton. The carton flat is made at a combination cutting/printing plant that takes huge rolls of very expensive containerboard and prints them with one hopes a nice four-color roto design and cuts them into two-dimensional forms that are later folded and glued into milk cartons.

As you might imagine, the milk companies do not fold and glue these flats by hand. No, there are machines that assemble the boxes for filling.

My company had a factory that made the machines that assemble boxes for filling.

But a factory of this sort can make other machinery. My job was to explore the options: were there applications in the perfume market? In the processed food market? Where? I had six months to figure it out and help the plant manager develop a strategy.

The reason we needed the strategy is because the market for milk carton folding equipment was nosediving.


Plastic jugs. Plastic jugs were the culprit. Plastic jugs are not folded and glued on milk carton folding machines. Instead, they are blow molded on blow molding machines.

The blanks for the milk carton cost many dozens of cents, especially with nice printing.

The plastic per milk jug is just a few pennies per.

A blow molder?

Cost about $100,000.

So you. You might not be a business person, but analyze this:

You have just spent $100,000 on a blow molder (your fixed cost). It costs just pennies for the plastic for each milk jug the blow molder makes (your variable cost).

Are you going to keep putting your milk in paper cartons (at maybe 40 to 50 cents each) if you have a new $100,000 piece of equipment standing in your packaging plant? Or are you going to say, "Dang I've spent $100,000 on a piece of equipment that doesn't cost much to operate so I think I am switching to putting my milk in jugs?"

That was our problem.

One month after I had moved to Omaha, which is a lovely lovely city and I would move back in a second, my division got a new VP who said, This is our new strategy and you better do it or else you know what.

Which meant all of a sudden, I had nothing to do.

And I wasn't clueful enough to hang out in the plant and ask the machine operators, members of the autoworkers union even though what they did had nothing to do with cars (this is what I remember, 12 years later, but I can't find anything about it on the website, so maybe I am wr - wr- wr - not right about that), what projects they might have had for me or better yet, what problems they might have had that I could help solve, although there was this inventory analysis that I should have done and would have been a piece of cake with the spreadsheet and programming knowledge I have developed since then.

I blew it. Too shy. For dumb. I love manufacturing and processes and I would love to get my hands on that kind of thing today. When you're middle-agish, you don't care so much about what people think and are a little more intrepid.

The plant manager (PM) still wanted to work out a new strategy for the plant, even though we had our long-term marching orders. I facilitated meetings, developed presentations, and tried to make myself useful.

There was a management retreat. The PM wanted me to attend to facilitate, develop an agenda, etc. He had far more confidence in my abilities than I did. He had hired me out of the Miami office after we spent one day working together and one evening at supper (with a bunch of other people - sheesh - not like a romantic thing).

A week after he returned to Omaha, my boss came into my office (sigh - back when I had my own office) and told me that PM wanted me to come work for him in Omaha. I called PM and asked if he wanted to interview me or at least see my resume, but he said no, he knew enough. If only I could impress recruiters like that now.

Back to the management retreat. We went to this very nice golf resort. I got my own little cabin because I was the only woman. The five men shared a larger cabin and that's also where we had our meetings. I arrived the first morning to find about ten pounds of candy strewn around the room in small and medium bowls. Good candy, too. Three Musketeers. Reese's Peanut Butter cups. Almond M&Ms.

There were golf posters all over the living room. Not my choice of decor, but it was a golf resort. What do you expect?

We started the session. I was taping huge sheets of paper on the walls and writing on them with magic marker. We took a candy break and one of the guys, Gary, the plant accountant, was goofing off. He was describing their golf game the night before and how he had hit the ball into the smegma.

"Into the what?" I asked.

"The smegma," Gary told me. "You know - the tall grass near the pond, like this." And then he gestured toward one of the posters, which did indeed show tall grass near a pond.

"I don't think that's what that word means," I told him.

I did know what that word meant and I would rather I did not. A previous boyfriend - an eye doctor with a lot of arcane and trivial knowledge - had explained it to me once, perhaps as we were having an argument about circumcision and my position that it was mutilation no matter if it happened to a boy or to a girl but more likely just because he wanted to tell me something a little icky.

"No, that's it," he told me confidently. "I know because I made it up."

"Noooooo," I said slowly. "It's a real word."

All the other men were looking at us now, including my boss, the plant manager.

I should have dropped it. I should have just shrugged and said, "Whatever," then pulled Gary aside later to tell him what it meant.

But I didn't. I was a little rattled by the whole thing and not as poised as I should have been.

So I told him. In front of everyone, I told Gary what it meant. I was clinical, but I told him.

His jaw dropped.

Everyone's jaw dropped.

They looked at me kind of funny. Me, the only woman in the group.

The blood left Gary's face. "I didn't know! I mean it! I didn't know! I'm so sorry!"

"I know," I told him. "Don't worry about it."

He babbled. Apologized. I told him to stop. I left the room, took a bathroom break, gave the conversation a chance to change.

When I returned, nobody mentioned it again. But later that afternoon, Gary found me and pulled me into the kitchen, next to the caramel corn.

"You have to believe me, I didn't know," he pleaded. "I have three daughters. I really really didn't know. I wasn't trying to harass you."

What? He thought I thought he was trying to sexually harass him? What on earth was HR telling people?

"Don't worry! Really!" I insisted. I had thought it was just kind of funny, although a little uncomfortable. "I know you didn't mean anything by it."

I returned to Omaha that night, not because of the smegma incident but because PM had only wanted me there for one day of meetings - the single cabin was a bit expensive and I really couldn't stay in the big cabin with the guys.

We had the weekend to recover, but that next week at work, Gary sought me out again to apologize, explaining again that he had three daughters and was not a harasser. Poor guy. He really and truly had had no idea. Had probably heard the word once without hearing the context or definition and it had stuck in his subconscious, just waiting for the perfect moment to emerge and embarrass him.

Maybe I should have sued. I would be sitting pretty right now on my ill-gotten gains on the account of someone who spoke neither out of malice nor out of knowledge.