Own Your Transition
My boss, Mark, calls me a good worker. Mark is maybe thirty, almost fifteen years my junior, and I can see uncertainty in his eyes when he says this. I suspect the fear of giving his power away at such a young age is why he stopped talking to me about my work and instead began sending me emails with titles like “Daily Feedback” and “Opportunities for Improvement.” I used to read his emails but now I have a rule set up in my mailbox that sends all of Mark’s emails to a folder labeled “Mark’s Motivationals.” I think this is clever, Mark would not.
Mark uses phrases like leading performance and iterative decision making. He treats these words like they are special or esoteric, like the phrases are incantations that are only known to people in our own company. But I know that there are Marks in every other company like ours and that they all went to the same schools and learned from the same bearded professors. Mark knows this too and I think that is where the uncertainty in his voice comes from.
Our team used to have meetings; now we have Innovation Stand-ups. Larry, our Operations Advisor, once joked in one of our sessions that if we were truly innovative, we would work for a renewable energy company and not an oil company. The team laughed nervously, all looking at Mark. Mark was laughing too, but in a small, childish way; like he was embarrassed by the immorality of the language.
“I probably shouldn’t have said that,” Larry said when we returned to our cubicles after the meeting. Larry is older than me, balding and overweight. He usually sweats through his shirt by lunch even though most of our co-workers complain how cold the office is.
“Said what?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Larry replied, and went back to hiding in his cubicle.
At LOGCO, our cubes are our homes. The felt-covered metal panels shield us from the ambient sounds of productivity. We are snails, soft and fragile, and the cubicles are the shells that protect us from each other. My desktop is barren, empty. I only keep a phone, a computer, a couple of ball point pens, and two photographs – in separate frames – on my desk; one photo is of my wife, Jeanie, the other is of my daughter, Chrissy. In the photograph of my daughter, Chrissy is wearing a blue felt dress and she is holding a vibrant purple flower in her small hands. She is in a grassy field and her eyes are the same color as the sky. I don’t feel that the things I keep on my desk define me as a person and I sometimes don’t feel that my job is really who I am. Occasionally co-workers will ask me about the people in the photographs. I tell them that Jeanie is still a teacher and that Chrissy is much bigger now, that she is in high-school and wants to be an artist.
Linda, a Systems Engineer, once told that she wanted to be an artist when she was Chrissy’s age. I think that we all want to say this, that we all want to be something else: a doctor, an artist, a writer, a fireman. However, we are not these things. At this moment we are infantry in the cubicle army of inefficient snails. I don’t remember my high-school guidance counselor giving us this option during Career Day.
I am sitting in my cubicle when a notification appears in the bottom right of my computer monitor. The email is titled: owning your transition – Leaving LOGCO. The title is in all lower-case, except for our company name, because LOGCO decided last year that capital letters aren’t necessary in our brand anymore. I tried to explain to Mark that capital letters are important, but he explained that they are most certainly not important, that capital letters are stuffy and pretentious and that LOGCO isn’t that kind of company. I think that Mark is wrong, and that Mark has never tried to help his Uncle Jack off a horse. I think this is clever, Mark would not.
I click on the notification in lower-case letters and an email opens on my screen:
LOGCO Employee Aspirational and Work-Balance Services is hosting a four-part webinar series to explore change and transition related to Transformation. All employees are invited to participate in this series, which is meant to provide strategies to help you manage angst you may feel during this time and tips to help you maintain good mental health. The first session, titled “Owning your transition: Leaving LOGCO,” is scheduled for Tuesday, June 23 at 10–11:30 a.m.
When the price of oil drops to less than $50 per barrel, rank-and-file employees start to get nervous. If it goes to $40, management squirms and begins talk of re-organizing the rank-and-file. When the price goes below $20, evidently your company begins sending emails about Organizational Transformation.
“I miss the days when we just had lay-offs,” Larry tells us once over lunch. “In the 1980’s, we once had a fire drill and when everyone was in the parking lot, management started handing out pink slips.” I think about being handed a pink slip, and if being handed something tangible somehow makes the abandonment less painful.
“I don’t understand what a Transformation is. What am I, a fucking butterfly?” Larry asks. The other three workers at the table shake their heads. Larry doesn’t look like a butterfly.
“I won’t make it through this one. I think I’m in scope,” Charlie says. Charlie is an engineer. He has three children in school and an ex-wife who left Charlie for a man she met on the internet. Charlie has never told me about his wife, but I know the details because the office knows the details.
“I asked and Mark said we would know who is in scope by the end of the week,” Nicole says. Nicole is also an engineer. Nicole is married without children, a DINK couple – Double Income, No Kids. I’ve met her husband a few times. His name is John and he likes to talk about fantasy football. John wears colorful shirts that actually do make him sometimes look like a butterfly.
“The waiting and the not knowing is the worst,” Charlie says. “The email actually used the word ‘angst.’ How am I supposed to get anything done?”
“I’m an inefficient snail,” I say, but nobody seems to notice.
I find myself getting mad at Mark for reasons that have nothing to do with Mark. We are in an Innovation Standup and Mark is talking about Transitioning to Win. I think of Charlie Sheen and if his winning is the same as my winning and then I think how we could all use some tiger blood. I imagine receiving a pink email, with words in all lower-case letters: owning your disillusion, or maybe owning your shame. I think that when I get laid off, maybe I’ll go back to school and take some creative writing classes. I think that maybe I’ll start a side hustle cutting grass or doing landscape. I could call it owning lawn equipment. I think that I am too old to start over.
Mark and a woman from HR are standing in front of the room and the woman is talking about severance packages. The woman’s name is Diane or Carol or Mary, I am having trouble focusing but I think I should be paying attention. I look over at Larry and his shirt is surprisingly dry. I write a note on my legal pad to research if a lack of sweating is a sign of having a stroke. The only other writing on the page is a doodle of a palm tree on an island. Linda isn’t the only person who wanted to be an artist in high school. I wonder if Larry has thought about punching Mark. If he has, I don’t think Larry could do it now. Larry looks too old and tired. I don’t think I could punch Mark any more than I could punch my own spleen.
Diane/Carol/Mary from HR is talking to us about resilience. Mark is staring at the woman like he wants to tear her clothes off and make love to her, but not in a sexual way. She is seducing him with corporate porn as she wipes the jargon from her lips. I know that Mark would never be inappropriate with the Diane/Carol/Mary from HR because he has a girlfriend named LOGCO and is dating a woman named Lucia. Mark has never told me about Lucia, but I know about her because the office knows about her. Mark never talks about his family, but he has pictures on his office desk as well. He has a picture of a girl that looks to be about Chrissy’s age. I assume it is his sister, or maybe a close cousin – I’ve never asked.
“Transitioning is about focusing on what you can control and not being anxious about what you can’t control,” Mark says.
Mark is tall and white and looks like every other executive in LOGCO. His transition will be one to upper management, he is cutting his teeth with us. Mark is wearing a blue dress shirt, and his sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, making him look like a politician. He isn’t wearing a tie, because at LOGCO we don’t want to look stuffy or pretentious.
“Everyone will be required to develop a Personal Transition Action Plan that will be submitted for review during the Transformation. Your Action Plan, as well as your previous performance evaluations, will be used during the upcoming Employee Selection and Notification Event in August.”
I suddenly feel as tired and old as Larry looks. I think about what I would say to Jeannie if I lost my job. I imagine she would look at me like she does any of her third graders when they hurt themselves on the playground or find themselves on the business end of a bully. You’ll be okay, sweetie, Jeanie would say as she used her soft and careful hands to brush the thinning bangs from my forehead. I would close my eyes and feel her cool, manicured nails scrape lightly across my skin. My third-grade self would feel better and Jeanie’s fingers would brush away any thoughts of the future.
“Imagine you are going on a whitewater raft trip,” the HR woman is telling us. “You wouldn’t go on a trip like that without being prepared, would you? It is the same thing with our Transformation. You need to be prepare yourself for new opportunities.”
Below my note to research the signs of a stroke, I write down another memo to research the difference between Transition and Transformation. I begin to think of the Transformer toys that I played with as kid. I decide not to think about rafting trips as I draw the box shape of a robot semi-truck, with large mechanical arms exploding from the sides of the cab.
“Finally, we understand that this is an uncertain time for the entire LOGCO family. Please be empathetic with each other, but most importantly, give yourselves some space to understand your own feelings.” Diane/Carol/Mary is standing in front of the group now, appearing pleased with herself for finishing her serious talk. She asks if there are any questions, as if someone will ask what type of paddles we should bring on our raft trip or if packing an extra rain coat is over-kill for such a short adventure.
Mark is standing and waiting, lingering the appropriate amount of time to let this information settle among the corpses. The corpses stare back at Mark and the HR woman. We are all cadavers on stainless steel tables waiting for our turn to be wheeled out to the autopsy. I lean over to Larry and whisper, “Dead people don’t need life jackets. We are all naturally buoyant.”
“What?” Larry asks.
“Exactly,” I say, and the meeting is adjourned.
After the meeting, I am mad at Mark for decisions that I no longer have time to make. I look at the gray walls of my cubicle and I don’t feel confined; I feel the weight of wasted opportunity. I reflect on my white-water rafting trip and think that life is more like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster the paper goes. It doesn’t matter how much paper your ass actually needs; you’ll always use too much. How much paper did I use in my twenties? Way too damn much I think, and decide it is in fact a universal truth.
My eyes are closed as I sit in my cubicle. Larry’s labored breath tells me that he just walked up the stairs from his afternoon cigarette, and I can hear Linda on the phone with someone about a contract. I can smell the pot of cheap Folger’s Coffee that Charlie is brewing in our shared kitchen space. I don’t need to open my eyes to know that Mark’s door is closed, and the HR woman is with him in his office. I also know that he has a list of names in front of him and that those names are on his list regardless of what is written on Personal Action Plans or previous performance evaluations. I think about how, when I was younger, I might have barged into his office and told Mark to kiss my ass. It is amazing how brave we think we might have been when our toilet paper is full. For now, I just sit and wait in my cubicle with my eyes closed. This way, Mark won’t see the uncertainty in my eyes when he comes to talk to me about my transition.
Joey Jonathan Poret is an Industrial Engineer and part-time fiction writer from Lafayette, Louisiana. This is his first work of fiction to be published. He currently lives in Bangkok, Thailand, with his family and is working on a novel about Southeast Asia.