April 6, 2010
I started out my day in a weird mood … you ever have those? You just can’t pin a finger on it but something’s bugging you. I ended up just getting grumpier as the day went on. Maybe it’s hormones. Maybe I shouldn’t have had a martini so close to bedtime – perhaps my blood alcohol hadn’t reached 0.00 again by the time I woke up. Or it’s because my boyfriend had to go out of town on a business trip today and won’t be back until Friday … and this is a week I don’t have custody of my kids, normally a great opportunity to spend more time with him.
But I doubt that’s it. As the day went on, I realized how frustrated I’ve been at work lately. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about my job, I’m grateful to have it. I’m complaining about myself. I have two bachelor’s degrees from UC Berkeley and a handful of master level classes in educational technology and regulatory affairs, and I’m working as a supply technician in a military warehouse. I’ve held down jobs in biotech and pharma that paid almost twice as much as I’m making now, with more impressive job titles, better benefits, more perks, nicer restrooms and great coffee. I’ve been a Manager, and an Associate Director, supervised people and got to go to company meetings across the country. I felt like a somebody.
Now? Well, I won’t say I feel like a nobody, that’s a little too cliche. Maybe I just feel lost … and frustrated, impatient, and out of place. I took this job because I’d been unemployed for 6 months and nothing else was panning out, and I applied for dozens of jobs in my field. But the more I work there, I am reminded that I am capable of so much more. Why can’t I find THAT job? More importantly, why don’t I know what it is? That, my friends, is the $64,000,0000 question. Or I’d settle for $64,000 a year. My job now primarily consists of reviewing charges in our financial tracking system from freight forwarders we deal with – FedEx and DHL are the primary ones for the sites I’m responsible for. I have to make sure we’re being charged the correct rate per pound or kilo from that country or state, checked against rate sheets, that we’re not getting charged any unnecessary extra fees, and that the shipments have all been correctly posted as both shipped and delivered in our other tracking system, that the shipment is being charged to the correct accounting code, there is a delivery signature, the weight matches what we said it was, and so on. A lot of checking and cross-checking. I seem to be pretty fast at doing it and pretty accurate, and my boss now keeps assigning extra work to me, usually some kind of historical troubleshooting, as in why haven’t these charges from the last six months been paid yet or why didn’t these shipments get there within our acceptable timeframe? In addition to my regular job. I guess the goal is to try and clear about 100 invoices a day on average. I seem to be paying closer to 160, sometimes almost 200. My only reason for not being able to process more than that is that the tendonitis in my wrists flares up, so I have to slow down.
Then a day comes along like today, where I find myself sitting there and thinking, “what the fuck am I doing?”. There are maybe 8 of us there that are contractors, including myself. The rest are civil service employees, mostly retired military guys. From what I understand, all of us contractors get paid the same hourly rate – regardless of years of experience in the job. So I’m making the same per hour as someone who has been there 10 years. Okay, that seems a little strange. From the government’s point of view, I can see why the contracting route vs. civil service is a cost-effective measure for them.
As for the civil service folks, well, I’ve heard all the jokes about how little work government employees do and how hard it is to get rid of the slackers. I think my coworkers are a mixed bag. Some of them seem very dedicated, some less so. Some of them seem to have a hard time figuring out how to remember their passwords, let alone doing their job. There is a group that comes in at 6 am and leaves at 2:30, then another group from 7 to 3:30, and then a few more from 8 to 4:30. I’m in the middle group and pretty much always the last to leave from that batch. From about 2:50 to 3:25, I notice the bulk of my same shift coworkers (only one in that batch is a contractor aside from myself) pretty much are sitting around and shooting the shit until they leave for the day and don’t seem to have anything to do. Either that or they aren’t doing it. Meanwhile, I’m still plugging away and wondering if I’ll ever get caught up this week (it doesn’t help matters that one of our systems was offline a couple of weeks back and shipments that should have posted automatically didn’t – and still don’t – so we’re having to do that manually now, which makes everything take more time).
The eyelid twitch sets in when I start to ask myself “why”? Why do I bother to have a work ethic when I could just plod along, tell my supervisor I have too much to do and ask for some of it to be offloaded onto someone else (after all, someone else(s) used to do my job – I am one more person than they had before), and relax? I don’t get paid any more per hour if I clear 100 transactions in a day or 200, and it seems like all I will end up getting for myself is more work and more special projects with no sign of monetary reward.
Needless to say I came home in a foul mood. I drove home thinking of my backyard. Oddly enough, now that it is devoid of grass and beginning to be devoid of weeds as well, I’m enjoying being out there a lot more. Maybe I will finally appreciate the appeal of digging in dirt. As long as I have decent gardening gloves. I’m not into bugs and I’m allergic to weeds, and grass, and just about every plant I touch, including Christmas trees. I used my lunch break to look up fake landscaping boulders online. I had no idea that Costco carried such things on their website. And they even had a limited selection of do-it-yourself pond and fountain kits. Very cute.
One of the things I’ve always wanted to do with the backyard of this house is put in some kind of fountain or waterfall at the back of the yard, by the retaining wall. My house is a split-level home; the first floor meets the street, the second floor meets the backyard as it is built into a slope. There is a flat section of yard and then a retaining wall and a slope filled with red apple iceplant and three eucalyptus trees going up to my neighbor’s backyard behind me. I let the grass die off last summer as I couldn’t afford the watering bill, and since my kids and I all develop hives if we touch grass anyway, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep something lush and green that we never used. Since then I’ve been in the process of clearing it out and killing it. The existing retaining wall was probably built shortly after the house was, in 1981. Or at least it looks that old. It consists of large boards held in place with brick planter stands. The middle section of boards has been bulging out the last few years, and that section happens to be where I’d want to put in a fountain. Behind that same section of boards is also where Oggie is buried.
I suppose because I feel so out of control of the destiny of my career of late, I guess I need to feel in control of something, even if it’s just a large amount of dirt. By the time I got home, I decided I was going to tackle that middle section and start tearing it out. Just what I propose to do with it is beyond me, since I can’t afford to hire anyone to build the new retaining wall I want to put in about 5 feet beyond the current one. Nor can I really afford to buy the materials for doing it myself. But maybe I can come up with something and just dig in that section to put in my fountain where I want it, so I won’t have to move it later – reinforce the sides until I have the time and money to move the entire wall back. If I were my ex, I would probably sit down and calculate the cubic footage of dirt I’m proposing to move out of this one section (roughly six feet across, three feet high, and maybe four feet deep). I’m not. I’m not a real analytical chick, either. When it comes to something like this, I just start doing and figure it out as I go along. I’ll probably end up dragging up garbage bags from the garage to fill with dirt that I will either use elsewhere or I’ll weasel it out in my trash, week by week. When there’s a will, there’s a way. I’m not under any major deadline to get this done and hopefully the worst of the rainy season is over with, so I don’t have to worry about the hillside sliding down into my yard.
(Note, if you click on the photos, it should bring up a larger version; click again and you will get the full-sized one – hit “back” on your browser to get back to this post)
My ex and I bought this house 4 months after we were married, back in 1992. The previous owners were planning to retire and travel across the country in their truck and 5th wheel trailer, taking their smallish yappy dog along with them. They also had a cat, and reasoned that the cat wouldn’t really enjoy traveling in an RV for miles on end, so we (or rather, I) offered to take the cat when we moved in. My ex liked to say we paid $181,000 for the cat and got the house thrown in for good measure. I can’t remember what the cat’s name was when we got him. Sweetie or Kitty Cat or something lame like that. Supposedly he was about 5 years old but I think he may have been a few years older. I renamed him Oggie, which I didn’t tell my ex was the nickname of a cute guy I met in Norway back in 1986 – I think the actual spelling of his name was Augie (pronounced more like “ow-gee”), but it was close enough for a cat. Oggie was some kind of mix that was closest to resembling a Turkish Angora, a creamy white with gold highlights, and a lion-like ruff around his neck in the winter months, a shapely Siamese-type head. He was about the snootiest cat I’ve ever encountered, and the pickiest eater as well. He picked at dry food during the day but preferred the canned he got at night, and we soon learned that the smellier the food, the more he liked it. His favorite was some god-awful Fancy Feast Fresh Catch variety which, thankfully, they don’t carry anymore. It was like mackerel, sardines, shrimp, and eyeballs in jelly. Okay, not quite, but pretty close. It was all shiny and gelatinous and stank like dead fish to high heaven. He couldn’t eat it fast enough before it stank up the whole house.
Three years down the road, Oggie ended up with kidney failure, a very sad and drawn out saga that made me resolve never to treat a cat for that ailment again in the future. We ended up having to put him to sleep in early 1995. We brought him home from the vet, wrapped him up in a small white bath towel with a rainbow stripe from a set I’d had since college, and buried him in the backyard. Under the red apple iceplant, behind the middle section of the retaining wall that is now rotting apart. I hated losing Oggie.
Later that year, we adopted Purrthos from a shelter, a little six-month old kitten who purred like a jet engine almost constantly. He’s 15 now, diabetic, arthritic, and hypertensive, just had bladder stones removed and now has an enlarged liver. And he still purrs almost constantly. His sibling d’Artagnan, adopted several months later, is 14 now and definitely the alpha male of the house. He probably has yet to wash himself in all those 14 years but I love him anyway. Life goes on, does it not?
For some reason I needed to find Oggie’s body in my hillside once I started digging into the retaining wall. Maybe to see what was left of him, or because in some macabre way I feel my life is like Oggie’s, like I’ve just been buried away somewhere, never to see the light of day again. Not to say that my life isn’t good or lacking in joy – that isn’t what I mean. I guess it’s my ambitions that seem to have fallen by the wayside. I don’t think anyone knows just how scared I was being without a job all those months. I’m able to put on a pretty good front, much like Purrthos always purrs, even when he’s getting a shot or some other procedure that I know can’t be pleasant for him. Months of figuring out how to pay $5800 worth of bills on $1900 of unemployment income and my child support checks. After I took this new job, I told myself that was it, I was just going to be happy with this and let my previous, more driven self go underground. And convince myself I could do it.
As evidenced by the beginning of this post, I’m starting to fray a bit around the edges. I’m no intellectual by any means, but I have often thought that I would be happier if I were dumber, or at least I would be more easily content. I could just watch TV in the evenings and not ponder my existence, just do my job and be happy with my lot in life, rather than go through my days feeling as though I’m failing to fulfill the promise of my existence. If I were a monk, I’d be that dude in The Name of the Rose who’s always flogging himself with the cat-o-nine-tails for whatever his unmentionable sins were.
I finally found Oggie. I broke out the top board and dug in behind it by a couple of feet, and started digging down further. I wondered if a bath towel would survive 15 years of being buried underground in regularly irrigated soil. Surprisingly, it did – sort of. Not exactly like finding the Shroud of Turin or anything; in fact, if I hadn’t known what it had been before, I wouldn’t have guessed bath towel with rainbow stripes. There is a huge hole in it where a tree root thicker than my arm grew through it. I dug around the remnants of the towel and finally was able to pull the whole bundle out of the hole. I put it on the ground and unwrapped it, not quite sure what to expect. I’m used to skeletons from my anthropology classes, clean and dried out white bones, hundreds or hundreds of thousands of years old.
What shocked me about Oggie’s remains was the fragility of them, the smallness. Tiny little pieces here and there that were indistinguishable from the twigs in the ground next to him – what were those? Fingers, feet, ribs? They are brown with age and dirt, crushed by the weight of the ground above and the invasion of a tree root, and probably not helped by my initial efforts with a shovel. Without knowing why, I pick out all the pieces I can recognize as bone and put them into a bowl from my kitchen. I bring them inside and wash them off, spread them out on a couple of paper towels to dry. Once they’re dry, I gather them back up again into a plastic bowl and look more closely.
This isn’t Oggie, the cat. Yes, these are his bones. But nothing here shows me his beautiful light blue eyes, the soft silk of his fur, the bushy brush of his tail that he’d always manage to swipe across your face, the inquisitive nature that had him always wanting to lie on my husband’s Evening Tribune newspaper (back when San Diego still had a morning and an evening paper), where he would purr contentedly and demand that only his head be petted, and woe to the unwise hand that drifted elsewhere, only to be greeted with claws … in short, his soul.
In like fashion, I realize as I’m doing this little excavation project that the me that goes to work now everyday isn’t the Cathy that I know. While I am scarcely bones (my increasing thigh girth certainly belies that theory), I am a shell of what I should be. Trouble is, where is the rest of me? Hence the reason I blog here … because I have lost that soul. I kind of doubt it lies behind my retaining wall, but maybe building one will help me find it, who knows?
Before I go to bed, I put the bowl of cat bones outside on the patio table. I don’t want it in the house. I’m not dead yet.