the thin green line


Today I went into the office for the first time since my first day almost two months ago. It was windy and wet and grey; I took three trains to go a little over three miles and nearly overheated on the way. I was the first person in so I sat at a random desk. This turned out to be a terrible choice because I could not see anyone else when I looked up but they could all see me. Most of the work I was planning on doing was postponed until tomorrow because my coworker didn’t have time to meet with me, so I spent most of the day trying to look busy. I had forgotten the feeling of captivity that offices evoke—that regardless of what I have to do or what I want to do or when I want to do it, I must sit in my chair looking at my work things until sometime after six PM but not right at six PM because then I look like a clock-watcher even though nobody knows or cares how long I have actually been here. If I had a lot of work to do this probably would have been a great, productive day, but instead I scrolled through the same three github pages over and over and looked for catchy disco songs on spotify. In my old office I used to drink lots of water and go to the bathroom extra often just for an excuse to get away from my chair. Occasionally I would even take the elevator down to the basement to sit in the far-away single-user bathroom. Today I went to the bathroom ten times (some trips required, some not) and filled up my water bottle three times. My new office isn’t big enough to have a defined social space and I am not quite outgoing enough to swivel my chair around and start talking to one of the five other people there who I just met. But luckily I had more or less one good face-to-face conversation, and this almost made up for the rest of the day. A week ago at all-hands meeting the general counsel/interim CEO shared the fact that we have fallen far short of our fundraising targets for the year, and that things were going to have to change and “everything is on the table.” I felt extreme deja vu to that exact same conversation at urban labs a year and a half ago. The difference this time was that the blame was not on the pandemic but on us—“we are not innovating,” “we are not working at our highest capacity,” “our funders can sense the tension and distrust in our organization.” I sat there feeling tired and dissociative and betrayed, but the kind of betrayed that makes you feel stupid for not expecting betrayal in the first place. Today in a meeting my manager said our project is probably safe (but not that layoffs are coming!) because we have the Important Data. My coworker said that we are in the union and so management has to negotiate before laying anyone off (but not that layoffs are coming!). At the end of the day I was talking to the general counsel/interim CEO in the office and I was, in a moment of idiocy, honest about my capacity and capability: “I am hoping I will learn much faster once there is more pressure on me,” I said. “That could be soon, don’t get too comfortable! It could be soon,” he replied, sipping a Tito’s and seltzer with two-year-old ice. “I’m glad you’re on the VIP project, because as the initials suggest, it’s very important.” I don’t know what this was supposed to mean, but I left work feeling sour. For the past three years I have been trying to live (read: work) in the intersection of morality and comfort. I have been lucky and privileged to get paid well to do work that seems worthwhile, even if only slightly, and to not overwork myself to the point of tears, or at least not on a regular basis. Many of my friends and coworkers have not been so lucky and so privileged. I do not always know what is my responsibility and I rarely know how to act according to my responsibility. I have not, for a long time, felt confident that the work is worthwhile enough to justify the harm that it—or not it but rather the imposition of it by its creators—seems to cause. I am less and less confident that I want to continue in this intersection. On Sunday when my Mom was in town she asked me “if you could do any job without having to worry about failure or money what would it be?” and when I told her I didn’t really want to do a job at all she didn’t seem to understand. “What would you do?” she asked. Then she told me a story about her friend who landed his “dream job” working at Les Claypool’s winery (??) almost entirely by chance and with very little effort. I don’t know if this story was supposed to have a moral, but if so I couldn’t figure out what it was.