The office, my office

The real test came to me after my obsessive vulturing over my inbox; the half-crazed pep talks in my car and bathroom mirror. It came after the interviews that were like gut punches no matter how prepared I felt.

The real test actually came after I sealed my first fulltime job – when one of my co-workers spared me the paranoid silence and cut right to the chase with an ultimate warrior question of initiation.

Still somewhat fresh off the hot plate of university, I had the irrational belief that my answer to his question would be crucial to my longevity at my workplace and any chance of a relationship with my peers.

People sometimes forget that the smell of Easy Mac mixed with the almost desperate need to have answers and be liked still cling to graduates’ clothes months after graduation. This quasi delirium/confidence is said to be what one needs to obtain a job.

So, here’s how the test goes.

My new co-worker, Mark, clears his throat and adjusts his glasses before he asks his question. I can feel my armpits moisten. I might as well have my hand hovering over a red buzzer. Mark wears a buttoned up plaid shirt and khaki shorts, which I learn soon enough is an all year round ensemble. He shifts his weight from side to side in a pair of long socks and black Vans.

My eyes catch what appears to be a shaded gun with a ribbon of wording wrapped around it. I read the words “Han Shot First” on Mark’s wrist. Its positioning and curling blackness reminds me of the Dark Mark Death Eaters use to summon Lord Voldemort.

“My one and only question is: what are your thoughts on Star Wars?”

Another co-worker, Jim, pokes his head from his office at the sound of Mark’s question, and the rest of him emerges. Jim also sports glasses and plaid, but has a distinctive swoop in the front of his hair, like a classier version of Ace Ventura’s. He wears a grin that’s hard to pinpoint – halfway past amused, not quite cynical.  Jim and Mark both stare at me, their eyes the unfilled bubbles on a Scantron.

I unclench my shoulder blades and let them sink back into place. But I don’t relax entirely. I still believe this is some version of a moment of truth.

I know the answer because I believe it, but I don’t answer too hastily. I play it cool. I might as well be a high schooler flicking a cigarette. “Well, here’s the thing. I’m not so much into the episode business. The old school stuff is pretty awesome, though.”

The guys look at each other for confirmation. Mark pauses for effect, then he says deadpan: “I think you’ll fit in just fine here.”

And that’s how my first day went.

For the rest of the week, I studied the hand drawn floor chart with everyone’s name that Sadie, the blue-eyed office guru gave me. Eight people. There was a lot to learn. Sadie only laughed a little when I read the chart upside down.

Up until this point, I’ve never worked in a small office before. But I can tell you one thing: if you’re like me, and you generally like to be surrounded by constant interaction and stimulation, by people of all kinds, you’d find this lack of numbers slightly unsettling at first. But then you’d get over it and take what you can get. You would bounce from office to office, trying to learn the ins and outs of the few faces you see eight hours every week day.

In a small office, you notice your co-workers. You notice the tear drop engagement ring or the roughly five pound weight loss. When they’re wearing their hair in a high bun instead of long curls that day. The bike helmet and the sound their leather chaps make when they walk past your desk. The crumbly pineapple upside down cake not just calling your name, but seducing your name, in the break room. When they blaze through the front door on a cellphone or with a downcast stare. When they’re pacing back and forth, checking to see if the mail has come in yet. You notice the niceties over the phone. You realize “have a great day” can mean so many different things.

You notice when they’re there, but you notice when they’re gone even more.

I noticed when Sadie, our office assistant, left and moved to Florida. Except I didn’t know her as the office assistant. I know her as the skinny girl who eats a piece of pie for every meal and hoards Sour Patch Kids in the top drawer of her desk. I know her as someone who laughs only when she means it and who makes F bombs look classy. I also know her as someone who adores her family, likes to shop at Target, cleans obsessively, and who has two pit bulls who sit in your lap when you visit.

Just recently, I and everyone else, noticed when Jim left for Colorado. Jim has a voice that doesn’t apologize for being loud. Despite his large voice and presence, he doesn’t have a pompous bone in his body. And I know this because I went beyond noticing Jim. I listened to him closely and liked what I heard.

One portion of a seminar I attended for work focused on finding mentors and how worthwhile that is for one’s career. Though I’m sure there’s a million definitions of “mentor” sitting around on countless Powerpoint slides that cover corporate leadership, what I gathered is that a mentor should be someone who does what you do jobwise, is someone you trust, and who would give you plenty of feedback and encouragement.

One day, I waltzed into his office. I looked from his monstrous piles of papers to his half-full bottles of Sriracha sauce, to his imploring face, and threw the role of SARAH’S MENTOR at his feet. He had no choice.

I basically said something like, “Hey Jim, sooooo… you’re kind of my mentor. I’ve decided. I hope this isn’t a problem. Okay, great, bye.”

I was hoping Jim would be a woman. The seminar I went to was focused on women in a male-dominated industry flocking to each other for growth and encouragement.

But Jim’s not a woman, and I’m okay with that. I guess I like that Jim is a hard worker and thorough editor, and is pretty knowledgeable about his industry and media contacts.

But if I were to be completely honest, it’s more interesting to me that he can strike up a hearty conversation on what makes a good Marvel movie. I will miss his start to every morning—the unfiltered, logical yet still passionate discussions he and Mark would have on Doctor Who and Star Wars. Sometimes I joined it, like after we all saw Guardians of the Galaxy, and couldn’t wait to get to work to tell each other our own versions of getting to be a kid in a movie theater again.

If I were to admit that I’m also a little sad that Jim’s leaving, I would. Maybe I even cried in the bathroom when I found out he was leaving and had to compose myself before going back to my desk. Maybe. You see, Jim listens to me. He has the ear of a 20 something, and the experiences of 40 year old. He remembers what it’s like to experience life as a scared shitless and suddenly self-aware human. He tells me to give myself credit, and tells me I’m very put together for a young person. He’s helped me in so many ways stomach my first “real” job.

If I were to tell the whole truth, I’d say he’s a mentor because he can openly say what he cares about. He loves his wife. He loves his Westie. He loves his Packers. He loves his baby daughter, who has the mug of a Muppet and a lot of things to say that she’s just beginning to put into words for the first time. You can tell he loves her more than anything else. Jim’s move will hopefully allow him more time to spend with his family.

Though being a Packers fan or any sports fan for that matter, is something I would generally leave out of any story, it serves a purpose in this one.

Jim is the first man I have ever met who can give a real probing, intimate reason why he loves sports so much. Being more of a film and Marvel junkie growing up, he didn’t play them or really get into sports until his adulthood. But now he can have quite the conversation. It turns out Jim is one of those unwavering fans, meaning he goes down with his Packers’ ship or he barrels through the storm with them. The kind who invites the same people to his house every big game in the privacy of his own home. Not the kind who sits in bars and wages drunken wars. Not the kind who cowardly hides behind his Facebook, attacking other fans when his team wins or loses.

What got me was Jim’s story about seeing Aaron Rodgers play. Since I associate sports talk with small talk in elevators, my instinct is to tune Jim out. But I don’t because he’s Jim, and as I’ve learned, he attaches meaning to most things in his life.

Obviously, I didn’t know anything about Aaron Rodgers. I didn’t know he was the kind of scrawny, unremarkable guy with good grades and who didn’t receive much attention from the football gods until much later in his career. Apparently, he’s a little weird too. Jim tells me he quotes Princess Bride and laughs at his own jokes when his teammates don’t understand his references. Jim says he is the player who people said couldn’t, but who did anyway.

Jim told me he was at a game when he saw with his own eyes Aaron Rodgers getting mocked by players from the opposing team. One player acted like Aaron Rodgers, dressed like him and exaggerated his scrawniness. The opposing team’s mascot was beating up the fake Aaron Rodgers. A clever joke. Jim watched Aaron Rodgers’ reaction. He says he’ll never forget it. Rodgers just stared and stood in the middle of the field. Then he plowed through his next plays like the beast the Packers fans know. They won the game.

It’s not unlikely for sports fans to have heroes. Hero worship is often a critique of sports sociology. And maybe the critics are right. Maybe Jim idealizes Aaron Rodgers a little bit. But so what. Jim can’t help but be inspired by Aaron Rodgers, care about his wins and losses, see him as a quirky, relatable dude with a tremendous spirit that affects his entire team and a screaming mass of people cheering him on.

In the end, I’ve learned that co-workers tend to move on. Sometimes, they send you Christmas cards, grab a drink with you once in a while. But they leave impressions whether they know it or not. In most cases they don’t. It’s my belief that we should tell them.

I wish Jim the best because he is one of the best.

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