Category Archives: I Should Have Been a Firefighter

Whoops

I’m a grownup now. It’s something I wanted to be when I was a kid, hating the fact that I had to go to bed at a prescribed time, that I had to eat certain foods for dinner and for breakfast and so on. I waited for it for years (even, at one point, cleverly trying to prove that I was eighteen when I was really seventeen and thus legal for a lot more goodies than I really was)… and now I’m finally old enough to be able to stay up until 2:00 in the morning reading books or playing computer games, and old enough to decide that I can have cold pizza for breakfast if I want to, and chocolate cake with ice cream for dinner.

Of course, now I’m also grown up to realize that there are consequences to some of that behavior. So, perhaps, cold pizza isn’t good for breakfast every morning, and maybe chocolate cake with ice cream for dessert every night could have roly-poly consequences.

There are a lot of privileges to being grown up that I’ve waited for for a long time. And there are still some that I’m waiting for, that haven’t quite materialized yet.

Maturity, for example.

I mean, heck, I know that if I lived on a diet of pizza and ice cream, I’m going to get even fatter than I am now. That’s a consequence. I’m mature enough to know about that consequence and make choices that will avoid those consequences. And quite a lot of the time I do make those choices. Not always, of course — sometimes what you really need is chocolate cake and ice cream for dinner. But I can still make the choice in full awareness of those consequences.

No, I’m talking about the kind of maturity that makes you realize that maybe you shouldn’t do or say certain things because you don’t have a big enough picturre, and that you’re probably blurting out something because you’re angry and even if you’re justified in part of what you’re saying you really ought to shut the hell up because there’s a lot that you’re wrong about, and you’re forgetting important facts.

In short, the kind of maturity that, if I had it in sufficient quantity, would have kicked in last Friday and restrained my fingers from typing my last entry. Or would have prevented me from clicking that “Publish” button. Or something.

I made Benthic Creatures out to be much worse than it really is. It wasn’t all a picnic, of course; there were lies told, and there are motivations that I never understood. But it wasn’t all deliberate; I think there was miscommunication, and I think some bad decisions were made, by me and by others. And while I disliked many of the management policies, I was wrong to make it look like all of the managers at Benthic Creatures were bad people. And I exaggerated unforgivabely when I wrote that I would not consider doing business with any of them ever again.

The truth is, there are people at Benthic Creatures that I was sorry to leave, and many of them were among the management. And among those are people whose integrity and professionalism I would never question, and for whom I have the highest respect. Nobody’s perfect, but I would not hesitate to do business with them if I have the opportunity to do so in the future. Some bent over backwards to make my experience with the company more bearable, working hard to rearrange schedules that they didn’t have to rearrange, and spending hours explaining policies to me in ways that made sense, when they could have simply said, “Because that’s the way it is and you have no right to question.”

See, if I had the kind of maturity that I’m talking about, I would have realized that I should have been gracious and expressed my appreciation for those people. I hurt feelings, I know, but I think I did worse by calling into question, publically, the integrity and professionalism of people who really didn’t deserve it — who deserved the opposite, in fact.

So, I don’t have the maturity to stop myself from making a fool of myself and saying things that I shouldn’t have. But I do have the maturity to apologize, and to do so with sincerity.

And so, I’m sorry.

I wonder if there’s any ice cream left for dinner?

Lies and Deceit

I wanted to write about these issues months ago, but I always felt it was unfair to do so while I was still working for the company in question, and when I quit the issues were still too raw. Now, time has passed, and some of the outrage has cooled.

It’s no secret at all that employers lie when hiring new people. Promises of training are made, salary ranges are quoted, unpleasant-sounding job duties are not spoken about, and positive aspects are blown grossly out of proportion.

I signed on with Benthic Creatures because I believed the lies. Coming in, I knew full well that “50% travel”, which is what they had promised would be the maximum amount of travel done, really means “At least 50% and probably more like 90%”. But I believed the lie about the salary range, the lie about the job duties, and the lie about team composition. “You’ll be doing nothing but administrative training,” I was told, “and you’ll be on a team with your wife, no problem.” These were lies told to us by King Squid way at the beginning.

The truth started to come out when we were taking a totally unnecessary and pointless training in Chicago. “You might be doing some client training as well,” we were told. “And we’ll be mixing up the teams.” By October, it became clear that the management of the company not only wasn’t going out of their way to schedule me and my wife together, their policy was to separate couples wherever possible. This, actually, is a policy that I can understand and appreciate in corporate settings; but when it betrays a lie that was told to me to get me working for the company, then it becomes an issue.

By December, it was clear that Jennifer would rarely be doing administrative training; and by February is was clear that I would be phased out of administrative training as well, in spite of the fact that I did it very well and that our clients obviously liked the way I did it.

The lies became too much. I got to the point where I refused to believe anything management told me. I wouldn’t believe a training schedule until I had a paper copy in my hand, given to me by the training manager (and even then, I refused to accept it as “finalized”, no matter what I was told). I don’t like working for people I can’t trust or respect, no matter how noble the job itself may be. I’ve never been in such a situation before, and I found myself not caring about the job at all. I did the best I could under the circumstances, but my motivation was gone.

And in April, when it was clear that I was never again going to do administrative training — which I was hired to do and which I enjoyed doing — I knew it was time to leave (health issues and the fact that I hate business travel also figured into this decision). I contacted the temporary employment agency and ended up, purely by accident, with this job where I’m overseeing a distance learning center’s on-line class migration from Windows to Solaris. Sure, there’ve been a couple of hiccups along the way, but I love this job and actually look forward to coming in in the mornings.

I don’t like it when the rules change underneath me. If I’m hired for a job, I like to know that I’ll be doing that job. If the job conditions change, I’m fine with that as well; except I need to be told that the job conditions are changing. When management keeps sticking me in assignments that I don’t like, hoping I won’t notice that I’m not an administrative trainer anymore, that strikes me as dishonest and, well, quite cowardly to boot.

Last night, one of our former co-workers from Benthic Creatures, X., came over for dinner. The three of us chatted until late at night, and Jennifer and I learned that things haven’t changed all that much in Benthic Creatures. The lies continue, the little conspiracies among the managers against the trainers continue… in short, I heard nothing at all that made me regret having left the company.

I’m glad to be out of there. I’m glad that I have this job which I enjoy and where I get to go home every night and which pays me more than Benthic Creatures did. For the longest time, I tried to have respect for King Squid, but when it became clear that he either didn’t know what he was talking about or was deliberately lying to entice me to the job, I began to lose that respect. And now if I ever found myself in a position where I’d have to do business with any of the management of Benthic Creatures, I’d definitely have to think twice, since my preference is to work with people who I know can be honest and keep their word.

It’s a pity that there are companies out there that feel they can behave this way to their employees, and I honestly pity anyone who still works for Benthic Creatures. Common decency and honor prevent me from naming Benthic Creatures’ true corporate identity in this public forum, and I almost feel bad about that. But as long as I can keep up this bit of the moral higher ground, I know that company is beneath me, and I can move on.

Reboot!

I left Benthic Creatures with very few regrets (well, I’ll miss my co-workers; no one can quote The Simpsons in casual conversation like N. can), then took a couple of days off and then I rejoined that growing group of former IT workers who have gone to temporary employment as a way to earn some money. I had called them the week prior to leaving Benthic Creatures and arranged a phone interview. The job coordinator I spoke with said to me something which was kind of startling:

“I see you’ve had experience with Unix and something called Apache,” she said.

“Uh,” I wittily replied. “Yeah…”

“Oh, good. There’s a need for someone with those skills in Sacramento. Let me arrange a phone interview for you…”

That was kind of surprising. I’ve never had a temp job that didn’t involve filing papers and writing correspondence and sitting at a phone. Some sort of programming job would be kind of cool.

So on the job coordinator’s instructions, I called up B. the next day and spoke with him.

“Have you had any experience with Solaris?” he asked me.

“Um,” I replied, “no, I haven’t.”

“Well, you’ve had lots of experience with Linux. That’s close enough. They’re both kind of like Unix. How about Apache?”

This was safer water for me. “Sure,” I replied cockily. “I’ve set up two web servers at home, one of them running secure socket layers.”

“Good, good. How are you at shell scripting?”

I thought back to the shell script I’d written two years before at Little Engine to make mass duplicates of websites with customizations… to date, the only shell script I’ve ever written, really. “I guess I’ve written one or two in my time.”

“Hmm. Do you know Cold Fusion?”

I used to know Cold Fusion like the back of my hand. Since then, of course, since Allaire and Macromedia need to keep making money, Cold Fusion has gone through at least a couple of major revisions. So I told B. that I’ve worked with Cold Fusion, but not for a couple of years. “I’m a lot more familiar with PHP and Perl CGI,” I said, “and those are kind of like Cold Fusion.”

“Oh, if you’re familiar with Perl, then you can do shell scripting, no problem. How about Oracle? Have you ever used SQL in Oracle?”

“Yeah,” I said. “A little.”

“Good. Can you start on Monday?”

“Blurk,” I blurked. At that point I hadn’t even told anyone in Benthic Creatures that I was planning on quitting. It was Wednesday. I was in Riverside. The rest of the trainers were scheduled for three weeks’ downtime before heading off to Tulare, Fresno, and San Joaqin. There was a part of me that was really looking forward to three weeks of absolutely nothing to do. “How about Wednesday?” I asked. Two days would be enough to relax and visit with my doctor, who hadn’t seen me since January and who wouldn’t refill my Albuterol prescription until I came in for a checkup.

“Well,” said B. after a moment’s hesitation, “that’s okay, too.”

And so it was agreed. The following Wednesday I would start babysitting Solaris computers and recalcitrant Cold Fusion installations and make the website start working again. Truth to tell I was already feeling a bit over my head, but I know from experience that I’m good at going into that sort of situation and coming out looking pretty good. So I agreed.

And it has been interesting. My first day, I was given a tour of the facility by the network engineer. The department is upgrading their website from a WindowsNT/SQL Server platform to a Solaris/Oracle platform, see, and things have been going very slowly. It quickly became clear that it was because the IT folks were overworked, and still growing out of a Windows mindset.

“So, who’s your Unix guru around here?” I asked the network engineer as he was going over the server setup with me.

Grinning, he pointed at me. “Right there,” he said.

And today, as we were discussing the migration of some of the scripts from one database to another, I asked, “So who’s your Oracle guru around here?” And the network engineer pointed at me again and said, “Right there. And you’re probably going to stick around for awhile because this is going to be a big project.”

The irony made me laugh. All this time I’d been trying for some sort of tech job since being laid off from Little Engine, and now I get thrown into one almost beyond my skill levels by being a temporary employee. It’s just kind of eerie.

And the most ironic aspect of all this: as a temp, I’m now earning more money than I was at Benthic Creatures. Certainly not as much as I was when working at Little Engine, but still more than I have in two years.

Of course, I’ve done other things since leaving Benthic Creatures. I’ve gotten involved with my church choir again. I’ve focused more on my schoolwork. I’ve set up a new Linux server at home. I’ve gotten involved in my local Linux Users’ Group. I haven’t gotten back on my bike for some serious riding yet, but that’s coming. I’ve started going back to Weight Watchers. And soon I’ll be picking up my Dungeons and Dragons game and looking into volunteering for the Solano County Adult Literacy program.

Leaving Benthic Creatures was a good idea. I feel better. Like a computer that has just had its operating system freshly reinstalled.

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I'll Always Have Perris

This week, after a quick trip back home to do my laundry and visit with my wife, I went back to Riverside. There was some brief confusion over where I was supposed to work for the first couple of days this week: was it going to be in downtown Riverside again? Or would it be somewhere else, someplace differently exotic, someplace like… Oh, let’s say, Perris.

When people outside of California think about California, they tend to think of the Big Important Cities: Los Angeles, say, or San Francisco, or Sacramento. No one thinks about the hundreds of tiny little towns that dot the landscape, towns that are really nothing more than a flyspeck. The town of Indio, for example, boasts a population of less than fifteen thousand, and almost all of the buildings in downtown Indio are made of adobe. One thing that impressed me was that the tiny little Mexican restaurant where we ate lunch was right next to Paco’s Immigration Advisory Service. I kid you not about that name. It really was Paco’s. I think he sold tamales too.

Perris, where I was eventually sent on Monday morning, is one of those little towns. You take 215 south and take the 74 exit, then look for the scuzziest strip mall you can find… and that’s where the public assistance office I was sent to is. And that level of scuzziness pretty much characterized all of the town that I saw. For lunch we wound up having to track down small restaurants — Hank’s Pizza Palace, or Juan’s Carneceria and Tobacco Shop. We did find a Little Caesar’s Pizza, and that was good, because we were all familiar with it, even if L. an d A. were disappointed that it bore no resemblance to the beloved Chicago pizzas of their homeland.

I spent two days doing my thing in Perris. We handed out plenty of shell polishers, had some interesting conversations with some of the barnacles (one of whom had made a hobby of collecting odd laws — he was the one who’d clued me in to the law about kissing in Riverside; and, it turns out, it’s against the law to carry a tin lunch pail on the streets of Riverside County as well), and ate lots and lots and lots of Lifesavers. I got to work with M. some more, M. of the thick Russian accent, and that was nice. And in the lobby where the mollusks waited to be trained on their shell-polishing kits, the county was showing children’s movies over and over and over; I think I saw Shrek five or six times in all. It’s one of my favorite films, but I have to admit that there is a limit.

On Wednesday, I was moved to Lake Elsinore. After a couple of harried hours of confusion (”What do you mean Facilities hasn’t come to set up the training rooms? They were supposed to do that yesterday!” “This room is only big enough for twenty people, but there are sixty people scheduled for each class!” “Chairs? You mean you really wanted chairs?”) we got ourselves settled in and started to relax and start the whole training process. N. and I had a number of conversations consisting — as most of our conversations did — of lots of Simpson quotes and bad puns.

And the mollusks of Lake Elsinore were the last mollusks I’ll be training. On Wednesday, I decided that I had had enough of Benthic Creatures and being on the road, and gave short notice. After three major respiratory infections that required Prednisone therapy, I decided that I really needed to get off the road and into a job where I could at least sleep at home at nights. So I called a Temporary Employment Agency where I’ve worked before, and set myself up with a programming gig in Sacramento to begin next week.

Leaving a job is always kind of sad; there are quite a few elements of Benthic Creatures that I’m going to miss: the surreal conversations with N.; M.’s authoritarian style mixed with her bizarre sense of humor; in short, the people that I’ve gotten to work with. I’m also going to miss the opportunity to practice my Spanish with the non-English speaking mollusks in a day-to-day setting. I’m going to have to find a new way to practice my Spanish.

So it’s back to temporary employment for me. This should tide me over until I finish my MLIS degree when the employers will be beating down my door to give me all kinds of lucrative and prestigious opportunities (I hear you chuckling out there — quit it!). I’m going to miss parts of working for Benthic Creatures… but, all in all, I’m pretty happy that it’s no longer going to be a part of my life.

Windmills on the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway

Last night I got the call.

“Richard, I need you to go to Indio tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I said, trying my best to convey a positive attitude.

“It’s about 75 miles from the hotel, and about 100 miles from the airport.”

“Okay,” I repeated, still trying to be positive. And I think I was succeeding.

“It’s in the middle of the desert.”

“That’s fine,” I said, a variation on “Okay”. And I was still trying to sound positive. And I’m pretty sure I was doing a pretty good job of it.

“Now, I realize that this probably isn’t what you want to do, but we really need the help.”

I was stumped. Apparently I wasn’t sounding too positive on the phone after all. But at least the manager didn’t sound mad at me as she gave me directions to the site in Indio.

And so this morning, I found myself driving from Riverside, over the hills, and into the Palm Desert. It was a fine way to spend the morning. There were plenty of interesting sites to occupy my mind as I drove.

When I got there, it was about 9:30 in the morning, and it was already 75 degrees out. It was only going to get hotter.

But it’s the desert, right? So I was prepared, at least mentally, for the heat; and at least, as they say, it was dry heat so that was okay.

What I wasn’t mentally prepared for was the sign proclaiming that a long stretch of I-10 that I was driving on was the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway.

To which I said, “Huh?”

Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway?

Honestly, it was one of the things that just surprised me. I pondered it while driving along the highway: what had Sonny Bono done to deserve having a highway named after him? I know that he was mayor of Palm Springs for awhile, but there are plenty of people who were mayor of that town who never had a freeway or highway named after them. He did produce a lot of banal music in the 70’s. And I suppose he was married to Cher for awhile, which probably is enough to warrant the memorial in and of itself.

As I drove, I kept an eye out for killer trees.

I pondered this, and then noticed that there were windmills along the highway. Hundreds of them. Tall, slender white structures, spinning erratically in the strong wind. They were like a flock of some sort of strange bird, flapping their wings in a strange way and trying desperately to take off. I asked some of the mollusks I was training about the windmills, and I learned that the windmills are actually attached to generators, and the power they generate is actually sold to Northern California. I thanked the Southern California mollusks on behalf of Northern California because it seemed like the polite thing to do.

I have one more week here in Riverside County. I’ve learned a number of interesting things. During a conversation with a law enforcement officer today, for example, I found out that it’s a misdemeanor in Riverside County to kiss another person without first rinsing your mouth out with carbonated rosewater. Unfortunately, carbonated rosewater hasn’t been manufactured in Riverside County since the 1920’s. So everyone who has been kissing in Riverside County since the 1920’s has been guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a $2.00 fine.

A whimsical statute, I think, fit for a day full of whimsy. Really, what says whimsical more than windmills along the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway?

How sick am I?

I am so sick I couldn’t even finish a cup of coffee yesterday! No, it’s true!

For the next three weeks (well, 2.5 at this point — yes, I am counting the minutes, why?) I am here in Riverside County. I got in late Monday night, felt just fine, rented my car and drove to my hotel. Slept perfectly. I woke up yesterday morning feeling pretty good, but things started to go downhill at about 9:00. I was training some of the barnacles on the use of the shell polisher initialization devices when I suddenly paused and said, “Is it cold in here?” I was cold… I was freezing, in fact, shivering there in my seat. One of the barnacles replied with a nervous grin, “Actually, it’s pretty hot in here.”

In a word: crap.

Eventually I put my jacket back on and went back to the Shell Polisher Initializers and finished the training. But I started shivering and sweating at the same time. I took 800 mg of ibuprofin and about an hour later I was burning up.

One of the barnacles announced she was making a coffee run. As usual, I asked for a large coffee with no pollutants (cream and suger? Gah!). She brought it and I took a sip. I liked it but I found I couldn’t drink it.

My appetite had taken a leave of absence, it seems.

Things just kind of went downhill. For awhile I was burning up, then I started shivering again. I took some more ibuprofin and about an hour later I was burning up again… which was, oddly, better than freezing, though when I was standing up to pass out the shell polishing kits, I found myself growing very weak, and I almost fell over.

I finally got home at 7:45, and almost at once Jennifer began convincing me to contact an advice nurse. I tried and tried but was unable to reach one from my hotel room. Finally Jennifer contacted one for me, and they said that I needed to go to the hospital and get thing thing evaluated.

And so nothing, I’ve found, is as depressing as sitting by yourself in a crowded emergency room in a strange city while all of your co-workers are off having a good time at dinner and your wife is desperately worried about you six hundred miles away from you. But one of the nice things about having asthma is that you can get the fast-track treatment at the hospital and get out of there in three hours instead of eight.

The ER doc sent me home with a prescription for Yet Another Antibiotic and More Prednisone. And so today I got to sit in my hotel room all day and try to relax (though the chest wall pain I’m suffering from has made relaxing difficult).

In general, I’m feeling much better, though I am still running a low-grade fever. I’m not shivering or burning up though, which is a good thing.

Today, though I got to start catching up on my reading. I started reading Time Forward by Maxine McArthur while on the plane the other night, and I’m greatly enjoying it. I’m still reading Organizational Behavior for class, but the instructor has also recommended The Lexus and the Olive Tree to me in response to a question I asked about globalization and how it affects management — particularly library management.

I’ve also started playing with a project I have in mind. It’s a cross platform — Palm. desktop, and web — tool for tracking books, using XML as a tool for transporting information back and forth. I made a note about it in my diary on usr/lib/info, one of the library technology sites I haunt, and I’ve gotten interest in it from a librarian at Stanford who’s interested in the XML mappings I’ll be trying to work on. And Sourceforge.net has agreed to host my project. I even received a personal note from the editor to the effect that he finds the project fascinating and is really looking forward to seeing the project (you can find the Sourceforge entry at http://sourceforge.net/projects/lucien-lib).

Well. Nothing like a little pressure to get your brain going.

Incidentally, I’m naming my project Lucien after the character in Neil Gaiman’s comic book series Sandman; Lucien was the keeper of the Library of Dreams, where all of the books that were never written are stored. I thought that the name was particularly appropriate.

Words From The Road

It’s mostly the travel that I hate in my job. I’d much rather be at home, able to pursue projects at home and volunteering with the library and literacy program, instead of mouldering in a hotel room in such fortresses of culture as Modesto or Riverside.

But there are some good parts to the job; those are mostly the people that I work with. When you’re sitting in a community services building doling out shell polishing kits to bleary-eyed mollusks by the hundreds, your down time can get downright surreal. Beyond Seinfeld surreal.

I had this conversation the other day with N. during a five-minute lull between classes:

N.: My pen ran out of ink at the client check-in table just now.

Me: That sucks. What did you do?

N.: Well, I borrowed A.’s pocketknife and started having the mollusks sign their paperwork with my blood.

Me: Yeah, I thought you were looking a little pale.

Things like that.

I handed a form to A. once, and the following conversation ensued:

A.: (Handing the paper to N.) I have no idea what this is supposed to be.

N: (Handing it back to me) What is it, anyway?

A: It’s almost as if you have absolutely no business training at all.

Me: (handing the paper back to A.) You know, I don’t even really work here.

A.: (Handing the paper one last time to N.) That’s what makes this so hard.

Bonus points to you if you can figure out what scene we were reliving.

When you’ve been at the training site since 7:30 and it’s now 2:30 in the afternoon and you’ve been on your feet, constantly moving around, with only 30 minutes to sit down for lunch and far too much coffee, weird things just seem to start happening.

Starting next week, I’m going to be in Riverside County for three solid weeks, including one full weekend; and every working day, including that Saturday, is going to be from 10 to 7. And the training site is supposedly 40 miles away from the hotel.

Yeah. This is just going to keep getting weirder.

The FBI Is Following Me to Sacramento!

Some very important mollusks end up on public assistance; they’ll tell you themselves. Often at great length, if you let them.

Yesterday, we had a woman come in who didn’t speak a word of English, and whose Spanish was so fast and slurred I couldn’t understand her at all. My Spanish is good enough so I can hold my own in most simple conversations that don’t involve the past tense, but I had to ask for one of the county-provided translators to speak with her. And the translator — for whom Spanish was her first language — kept saying, “Mas despacio! Mas despacio, por favor!” Slower! Slower, please!

Turns out that this high-speed woman — who couldn’t have stood more than three feet tall — had received a letter informing her that she didn’t need to use the new shell polishing kit if she didn’t want to. And she was just about to head up to Sacramento because she was going to have a special meeting with the government (she works for the government, you see) and she needed to hurry because the FBI was following her.

Both the translator and I refrained from asking why such an important person was on benefits.

Today, the same woman returned. But when we asked her why she had come back, she denied at first that she had been here before. Then she said that it was her sister that had come in yesterday. Then she muttered something about the FBI confusing us all.

The places I’ve been to haven’t been nearly as interesting, on the whole, as Jennifer’s adventures in San Francisco. After all, when you think “banal”, it’s hard to come up with a better definition than Modesto, California. The mollusks here are fairly calm and, on the whole, pretty easy to work with. We have yet to play a single round of “Is That A Man Or A Woman?”, but every place has its charms.

Today, for example, I’ve been noticing smells and scents. Most of the mollusks I’ve met have had fairly neutral scents. But not all. The father/son drinking team, for example, who showed up for this morning’s 8:30 session both smelled of Jameson’s Irish whiskey (a scent I’m quite familiar with from my college days). Then there was the woman who smelled overwhelmingly of apple juice: I had flash backs to my childhood for some reason.

And, of course, there was the woman dressed in a ragged T-shirt and sweat pants who smelled as though she had bathed so deeply in cheap perfume, I expected to see drops of it dripping off of her as she walked into the room. I found the meshing of the ratty clothing and the overwhelming perfume intriguing. Where, I wondered, was she going such that she needed such a surreal mix of casual and tacky? To work, perhaps — perhaps she’ll change into some uniform once she gets there. Something to match the perfume, maybe, though I am having a hard time imagining anything so exotic.

Merced, which is where I’m located this week, is located near enough to Atwater so that certain trends and fashions can migrate easily, the way cultural traditions migrate between continents over time. For example, today I met Arnold’s girlfriend. I knew that she was Arnold’s girlfriend because his name was tattooed in several places on her arm. And on her wrists. And the backs of her hands. And across her collarbone, in case she ever found herself in front of the mirror wondering whose girlfriend she was.

And finally, the trip to Merced from the hotel is usually a quiet one, but it’s marked by at least two notable sights. The first is the sign which I’ve alluded to earlier, the one that reads “Rubber Belting for Cows”. The second is the office building in the shape of the huge bulldozer. At first I thought it was just a statue or a piece of public art, but I’ve seen people inside of it, sitting in chairs. Apparently it’s an agricultural company. Go figure.

Trans-Specific Chicken

We were all eating lunch — a feast from Taco Bell delivered to the training site by one of our team — when M., one of my fellow mollusk trainers, made an important discovery.

“Hey!” she said, outraged. “This isn’t chicken in my taco. It’s steak!”

“Impossible,” said N., with a look of incredulity. “I placed the order myself. Trust me, it’s chicken.”

M. scoffed at N. “You’re wrong. It’s steak. Look at it!”

N. refused to look, preferring the willful blindness of one who knows that he is right and refuses to let a quibbling little thing like reality prove him otherwise. “It’s chicken,” he insisted. Of course he was joking. It was obviously steak in M’s taco. But denial is more fun.

So M. turned to A., who was sitting right next to her. “Look!” she commanded imperiously. Her Russian accent heightened the effect, lending a Stalinesque quality to her voice. “It’s steak, isn’t it?”

Wisely, A. said, “I refuse to become involved in this.”

So M. turned to me. I’d been sitting quietly, reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on my Palm Pilot and munching on my quesadilla. “Richard, is this chicken or steak in my taco?”

That wasn’t the strangest question I’d ever been asked. So I looked, and announced that it it was difficult to tell, what with the sour cream. However, upon ponderous scrutiny, I could definitely determine that it was steak.

“Impossible!” said N. He was sticking to his story.

“Well,” I said after a few moments’ thought, “perhaps it’s a chicken dressed up like a steak.”

“Do you mean a transgendered chicken?” asked J., who had demonstrated her considerable wisdom by not getting involved in this discussion before now.

“Not really transgendered,” I explained. “It’s not a rooster that wants to be a hen. It’s a chicken that wants to be a cow. It’s a trans-specific chicken.”

“I’m a cow trapped in the body of a chicken!” exclaimed N. in a moment of sensitivity.

“But what do you call such a chicken?” asked M. “Is it a chicken or a cow?”

A. assumed an authoritative voice. “However it identifies itself is what you should call it,” he said. “If it calls itself a cow, then you should call it a cow.” A. had just spent a couple of weeks conducting mollusk training in San Francisco, so he was very sensitive to these issues.

“That’s right,” J. said. “Some chickens just like to dress up like cows, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they really want to be cows.”

N. looked thoughtful. “I wonder,” he said, “if you can get specially made rubber belting for chickens that want to be cows.” This was in reference to a sign we’d seen driving in to the site that morning. It read:

RUBBER BELTING
FOR COWS

God alone knows what that means.

We talked for a little while after that, but not for much longer. I was asked if trans-specific chickens were allowed to hang out with the cows; I said that they were, but not when the cows went out drinking (”Why not?” I was asked; “Because those are strictly hay bars,” I replied), and things pretty much went downhill after that.

At dinner that night, A. mentioned trans-specific chickens. Jennifer said, “What? What’s that?”

J. stepped in. “It’s a Richard thing,” she said.

To which my wife simply replied, “Ah, I see.” And, apparently, that was explanation enough for her.

At Atwater

This week, I’m in the town of Atwater, California, where mollusk training is proceeding just fine. Although the adventures I’ve been having are nowhere near as interesting as the adventures that Jennifer has been having in San Francisco, we have had our share of fun.

Atwater itself intrigues me. The sign just outside the town announces that the population is about 23,000 people; and, driving through the streets of this city you have to wonder just where it is that they all live. There are no vast stretches of suburban tract housing that I can see; no tall apartment buildings; no charming and quaint little country homes with perfect lawns and picket fences. Atwater does, however, have a lot of nameless trailer parks. At least one of them is right next to the wrecking yard as well, providing a very scenic site as we drive past.

But the main thing about Atwater is that there is an old, abandoned air force base there. Given the difficulty that we had in finding it, and the difficulty in finding it that many of the mollusks reported to me, I think that the main reason it was shut down was just because no one could find it. I imagine President Clinton saying to some aide, “Where the hell is Atwater?” And the aide replying, “I have no idea, sir. Should we just close it down?” And President Clinton replying, “Huh? What? Oh, sure, whatever, ’scuse me, got a meeting with an intern right now.”

The most interesting feature of Atwater for me is the abandoned barracks. It’s really surreal to drive past an entire neighborhood which has been thoroughly deserted. It’s like a scene from some post-apocalyptic suburban horror movie; the streets and houses look just like streets and houses in any other neighborhood, but the lawns are all overgrown and spilling out into the streets and the windows are all boarded up. Add to that the chain link fencing which surrounds the entire neighborhood, and that sense of doom is perfectly accessorized.

The mollusks themselves are fairly pleasant on the whole, and I’ve enjoyed working with them. I have to admit, though, that I get the impression that the main form of entertainment in Atwater is tattooing each other; I have never seen so many people with so many cheap-looking tattoos all together in one place outside of a biker bar. It’s positively astounding! I have never, in all my days, and I mean never, pondered the possibility of having the name of someone tattooed across the bridge of my nose, no matter how much I loved them. While one of my coworkers, Mr. T, thinks that there might be a cultural element at play here, another coworker, Guy Smiley, reminds me that there is a Federal penitentiary in Atwater. Maybe what I’m seeing are just prison tats. That’s certainly possible, and it explains the quality of the tattoos.

But today’s big excitement came shortly after our lunch break when one of the mollusks suffered a grand mal epileptic seizure in the lobby where we were conducting our training. Thank God he was okay afterwards, and thank God we had barnacles nearby who were well-versed in first aid and who could respond appropriately to the seizure. The paramedics weren’t needed. And no one was injured. We managed to keep him comfortable while he was recovering, and let him sleep on the floor of the training room for a little while while we conducted our classes as normal.

Afterwards, two of his family members and a barnacle helped this particular mollusk stand up, and he staggered — weak, trembling, and covered in sweat — out of the front door, past other mollusks who were waiting patiently for their own shell polishing kits. Of course, they stared, though I did my best to keep them at a distance and quiet. But I admit that there was a part of me — and not really all that tiny a part — that wanted to point at the shaky, trembling, sweat-drenched mollusk and tell the others, “See? See? This is what happens when you forget your paperwork!” Fortunately, the more discreet part of my mind prevailed. It was a relief, though, to discover that one of the barnacles had just as sick a sense of humor as I.

In a way, it was all kind of surreal, and my gallows-humor reaction was absurd. But, then, any day which begins with CNN announcing that the House of Representatives had changed the name of “French Fries” in the House Cafeteria to “Freedom Fries” to protest France’s temerity in disagreeing with the US over Iraq really can’t help but be surreal and absurd. And just a touch asinine.