Saying goodbye to the cubicle (for now)

AKA 8 months and done

Last week I drove into the Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood to meet a friend for lunch (outside in the cold wind) and then head into my nearby office building to clean out my desk and cubicle.

Eight months ago, my team went from working remotely 2 days a week to 5 days as part of the Shelter in Place. We didn’t know how long we’d be gone, and most of us took only the essentials – laptops, peripherals, paperwork. We left behind coffee mugs, photos, tea bags, pens, and desk toys, like my bendable Pink Panther. (Side question: is a yoga toy considered an action figure, or a “steadily held pose” figure?)

For many years, my daughter would give me toys like this (and coffee mugs) and artwork because she knew how much I didn’t like going into the office. The truth is I didn’t like my job. The office was merely the embodiment of that. So she and my spouse did what they could to brighten up my desk/cubicle.

Last month, the Powers That Be at DayJob decided that IT group had no business renting three floors of expensive office real estate in the Bay Area, so they started canceling leases and ordered us to come and get our shit. We had to sign up for 90-min slots so we wouldn’t crowd the elevators or breathe on each other in the hallway. Everyone wore masks. It was all very civilized.

And it was still pretty weird. My cube was on the 11th floor, and between March and November a new skyscraper had sprouted up a few blocks away. Its rising skeleton was clearly visible from my floor’s conference room. Eventually, the new bilding will block part of the view of the Bay Bridge. Not that it’s going to affect me anymore.

I took this DayJob because my last company decided to move most of the web operations to Japan, and my manager and my technical support buddy at the next desk both quit to take other jobs. There didn’t seem like much future there, and the commute was a pain, so I pursued this gig.

Oakland was much closer to home (although in a more challenging neighborhood, to be sure). Once I arrived, though, my new department got shuffled in a re-org and two of the people who interviewed me quit. Then the contracting company changed and two more co-workers quit. Another one was fired.

I ended up in a team of 4 people plus several permanent “remote” workers whom I’d never met in person, including an inexperienced manager with a project list that seemed to change randomly.

So I had conflicting feelings about cleaning out the cube. On the one hand, it felt like leaving the job. On the other, nothing much had changed. I took my box of toys, tea bags, etc., my extra sweater, and drove home. Then I fired up my laptop and continued working.

When the Great Pause is over, I’ll definitely look into another DayJob. I think I’ve proved I can do the work without having to sit in conference rooms and shiver under the AC. I might end up doing something outside the Bay Area. Who knows?

It would be nice, though, to have the option of sharing a cup of tea with a co-worker who isn’t already living in the house.

Word Count Podcast 100

Humans of the Future

The Word Count Podcast – episode 100

Today marks the final episode of The Word Count Podcast, and I wish to thank Mr. RB Wood for giving me an opportunity to contribute a story to his 10-year project to bring free fiction to the masses. The stories are written from a monthly visual prompt and read by the authors. This month’s prompt (above) was “Humans of the Future.” (Earlier months covered humans of the past and present.)

“The Stones of Särdal” is flash fiction, a bit under 1000 words, and around 5 1/2 minutes of audio. My story is third in the queue and starts at 14:30.

As an experiment, I tried to write the whole thing in one quick burst. I think 95% of that draft made it to the final version.

My own inspiration for “The Stones of Särdal” comes from my family’s summer home on the coast of Sweden. I took certain liberties with the actual history and architecture because hey, it’s fiction.

Enjoy!

P.S. You can find my earlier story, “Burial Detail,” on Episode 82.

The Mucus Must Flow

I put on a medical-grade mask and drove into San Francisco today to get a checkup. It’s been over two years since my second surgeon evicted The Squatter, and what with all the events in my immediate family (plus the pandemic) I haven’t done any follow-up.

The good news: my left maxillary sinus appears clear. Not particularly irritated, and no suspicious new tenants.

It’s fascinating to look at the sinuses side by side (as it were) with a scope connected to an external monitor. The doctor gave her best guided tour of the right side (control) and the left (surgical site). Sinuses are weird: you go through a crazy forest of mustache and nose hair, and enter into a strange cavern that would challenge any serious spelunker. At least on the right side.

On the left, the whole of one turbinate is missing, and the remaining area has been fused and smoothed over, like a sheet of drywall you patched after your college roommate punched a hole through it.

From the perspective of the scope, my left sinus is an underground cavern that could accommodate guided tours every 30 minutes.

The downside of all that space is it creates a cavity that allows all the mucus to pool during the day. Believe it or not, your body is continually producing mucus, which it needs to keep the breathing passages lubricated and deter would-be invasive germs.

For folks with allergies, they get more mucus than needed. Same for very dry weather.

I don’t have environmental allergies. What I do get is a release of mucus when I hang my head in a certain way, especially later in the day. The right sinus has baffles and locks and customs official to stop that snot. The left… not so much.

The doctor said that I could explore some additional corrective surgery, but that would be terribly intricate and painstaking work.

Better just to irrigate and keep a box of tissues handy.

Either way, it beats having a tumor near my brain.

The mucus must flow.

Clearing the shelves again

When I added a smaller IKEA bookcase next to my writing/editing chair, I dedicated it to Mt. To Be Read: books I’ve purchased, picked up at cons, and received from well-meaning friends. [Note: you can stop giving me things to read. Seriously. A written recommendation is just fine.]

When I wanted to add some non-fiction history books I acquired from my father, I couldn’t find any space, so I turned to the “main” bookcase to see where I might put them. That was a challenge. The Billy bookcases, which fill one wall of my bedroom, is also nearly full, although it’s not all books. There is one shelf of DVDs, another for toys, and one for photos and toys.

So I thought it was time to cull. The problem is that most of the books have some personal meaning, or I wanted to re-read them (ha!), or loan them to people (hard to manage these days). There are also signed editions, novels from my instructors, friends, and college textbooks. Old friends.

But, really, do I need them? Of course not. And with all the truly great fiction being published every month, would I really want to go back and re-read some of this stuff from high school? Or loan a book with problematic characters (e.g., racist or sexist) just because it was a favorite? Again, probably not.

Perhaps it’s my father’s recent passing but I found I was able to fill up several grocery bags with books. I noticed a fair number of White Male Authors in the pile, and lots of Hard SF. It certainly entertained me on summer break from college, yet it pales next to the work I’m seeing today.

Even the novels of SFWA Grandmasters can age poorly. Into the bags you go.

In the end, I cleared enough space for the new books, and was able to reorganize the remainder so it’s easier to find stuff.

Don’t ask me about the Kindle.

Father’s Day gift, delayed

My father passed away a week ago. In the interim, the wildfires have produced orange skies and hazardous air. Ash falls everywhere, and even taking walks seems like a chore.

We also passed the six-month mark in our Sheltering in Place, which means all the easy things are done. We’ve baked and cooked and binge-watched. We’ve also worked our usual schedule.

But things are a tad easier. I don’t look at my emails, wondering what’s changed. No more texts comparing my father’s cognitive state between one visit and the next. No more tracking the credit cards to make sure my mother isn’t being billed for some service he ordered last year and forgot to cancel.

The grief is there. I dust around it as I clean. I add it to the laundry with the rags. I check it off the shopping list. I add stamps to it as I forward mail to my daughter at college.

When I couldn’t check the air quality app anymore, I started picking up the garage. I was organizing the art supplies and vacuuming last week when my father hit his last stretch. I left things half-finished, including an unopened bathroom faucet.

We had replaced the fixtures in the master bath about 10 years after fighting an incursion of black mold. The faucet was decent, but not great. The water always had a metallic taste. So I asked for a new one for Father’s Day, something expensive and German that should outlast the house. And now I finally unboxed it.

It was hard to fold myself into the space between the sink and the shower, and harder still to unscrew the old connections. The whole process took twice as long as predicted. (I think I pulled a muscle as well.)

My father used to do basic handyman stuff around the house, and it usually had this “good enough” quality. He was impatient, and aligning edges and hiding the screws wasn’t high on his list. I’m not terribly handy myself, although I have the benefit of YouTube and occasional advice from paid professionals (“Didn’t you ground that switch? What’s wrong with you?!”).

At the end of the day, I had a beautiful chrome faucet that produces a strong flow while saving water. And the water is clean and refreshing.

Happy Father’s Day to me. Miss you.

Hospice 10: And Then There Were None

Schlosser Clan, circa 1946

I spoke to my father on the phone briefly last Sunday. We were driving back from the store, on a hot, dusty afternoon. I’d heard that he was slipping, and I had just returned from Chicago, wondering when I might see him again. (I was waiting on the results of a COVID test — airports, y’all.)

He had trouble following the conversation. His speech was halting, weak. I told him that we’d set up our child at college and she was having a good time, despite the quarantine. Her roommate was a great match, at least so far. He was pleased to hear that.

When I asked about him, he said he was tired of sitting on his ass. Just tired.

Two days later, I got word that my father was no longer able to swallow, so he couldn’t take his pain medication. I contacted hospice and they assured me that they would switch him over to sublingual morphine. Then after sitting with that image for a few minutes, I packed an overnight bag and my work laptop.

The drive down wasn’t fast: enough people were back at the office that traffic in Silicon Valley felt more like pre-pandemic times. Once I escaped San Jose, I grabbed dinner, and drove hard. My soundtrack was old Prog rock, a Tom Papas comedy special, and a welcome phone call from my best friend, Dan.

I’d left a message on Dan’s voicemail, and the transcription read, “My father is going shopping.” What I actually said was I thought my father was getting ready to “shuffle off this mortal coil.” We had a good laugh over the foibles of technology.

Santa Maria was quiet at 9:15 pm, and I settled into a spare room. Woke up at 1:30 am, and watched my monkey brain as it jumped through the canopy of my thoughts. Fell back asleep around 3 (?).

The alarm woke me at 6:15, and I stumbled into the kitchen to make strong tea. Before I could finish, the phone rang. Frank had died during the night. The oldest member of the clan. The last child of John and Ethel Schlosser.

Off I went to Hillview to meet with the nurse. In the few weeks since I’d last seen him, my father had shrunken in on himself. He was a corpse: thin, pale, silent.

The temporary room where they’d moved him was nearly bare: only a few photographs on the wall. No birthday cards, no drawings. It might have been a hotel room, or a doctor’s office.

The funeral home sent two attendants about an hour later. They were very solicitous and respectful. They made sure I knew what they were doing at every step, and gave me a choice to stay or wait outside. I stayed, although I had to back into the backroom to give them room to maneuver the gurney.

Their vehicle was a white cargo van. As they left, an Amazon truck passed in the opposite direction, its gray paint job an imperfect mirror of the funeral vehicle. Yin and yang. Pick up and delivery.

Later in the morning, we called the funeral home and authorized the cremation for later this week. The skies are so filled with ash, would anyone notice?

Rest, father. We’ll take it from here.

Hospice 9: On the outside, looking in

Normally, members of the immediate family can sit with a resident during hospice. Due to the pandemic, though, they limited that to one person.

When two staff members at my father’s facility recently tested positive for COVID-19 virus, they cut in-person visits. So I sat outside Frank’s room, along with my wife and daughter. My daughter was scheduled to leave for college in two weeks (where she would undergo her own quarantine before the fall semester), and she wanted to have a final visit with her grandfather.

It was difficult. He managed to position himself close to the window so he could see and hear us. The staff made him wear a mask (even if it slipped).

It’s been almost two months since my father has received a blood transfusion, with a commensurate drop in his blood oxygenation. That translates into even more pronounced cognitive decline and paranoia.

On this visit, he was convinced that “the military” owed him a chunk of money, a reward for keeping his unit expenses under budget. He didn’t have any documentation, but he had a distinct memory of a photo of a number of American soldiers by a river, carrying what might have been German swag.

I assured him that I was very clear on his financial picture, and there were no loose ends with the VA. His financial advisor had all the accounts, and they were invested in boring, conservative funds. Don’t worry about it. (Later, I realized he was conflating one of the many WWII documentaries he’d watched on the History Channel with his never-ending dream to leave behind a sizable inheritance for his family.)

Still, he insisted. Fortunately, my wife interrupted, and reminded Frank that his granddaughter was leaving for college soon. Perhaps we could talk about that?

And we did. He remarked on her “crazy pink” hair, the opportunities of Chicago, and his belief that she would be successful.

It was, on the whole, a good visit, but one that ended in tears all around.

P.S. Two days later, when I was back home, my father called me. This was a good sign, I thought. He’s using his mobile phone again.

“Can I ask you a favor?”

Sure.

“Do you have your mother’s phone number?”

He was asking me for the landline number, which is the first speed dial on his mobile.

The number hasn’t changed in half a century. He called it every day from the office to say he was leaving. He called it from the hospital when he was under psychiatric observation. And he asked the staff at the assisted living facility to call that number when he couldn’t find his phone.

I took a deep breath and gave it to him.

Hospice 8: The Santa Maria BBQ Gambit

My father turned 92 this past weekend, and I spoke to him via FaceTime. The next day, I showed up in person with a card made by my daughter. I’d reminded her that even with his glasses, her grandfather couldn’t see very well, so she should use large lettering and lots of colors.

When I got there, I found other birthday cards and notes, but most were still in their envelopes, or tucked under articles of clothing. So I used some putty to tack Lilly-Karin’s mini-poster on the wall, next to the photo of her tattoo, where he could easily see it.

During my visit that day, and the next, his gaze would drift toward the wall, and he’d remark that “now we knew for certain” he was 92.

Birthday card poster

The next day, I arrived with my wife, and Frank was napping. As soon as I moved a chair close to the bed, he woke and asked about the news. “What’s happening?”

I gave the usual response: the weather, COVID-19, only a month until L-K leaves for college. He sat up a bit. “But what about the BBQ?”

I thought he was referring to the brick BBQ setup back at their house, the one built adjacent to the deck. I replied that it was basically covered since no one was using it this summer. And that once he passed, we’d probably give his equipment to my niece and her husband, since they were definitely fans of BBQ and outdoor parties. Whoever buys the house gets the rest.

No, he said, what’s happening with Santa Maria BBQ? Had there been any news about Santa Maria BBQ in the paper? I looked at my wife, who shrugged. I replied honestly that I hadn’t seen any news, or read anything online or heard mention on the Food Network.

He leaned back and contemplated the wall. “There’s a real opportunity there. You should buy it.”

Buy Santa Maria BBQ? You mean, like, the copyright and the recipe?

Yes, he said. “You could make a lot of money.”

And there it was. For years my father has worried that he wouldn’t earn enough money to see himself through retirement, or take care of his family after his death. He has put money into some dubious investments, and tried to patent a number of ideas all with an eye toward making the Big Score. He didn’t want to be wealthy, per se. He just wanted to have the financial freedom to be able to do what he wanted.

We talked a bit more about the BBQ gambit, and I assured him that I didn’t have the investment capital for such an undertaking, nor was I particularly interested in trying to corner the market on red oak-fired tri-tip beef.

I also assured him that there was enough money in his retirement accounts to take care of my mother once he passed. If we downsized and watched expenses, things would be fine. That seemed to help.

At the end of his life, my father was trying to have one more success, or at least sock away some cash. It’s okay, Dad. You did what you could.

Which is the most any of us can do.

Hospice 7: The breeze compensates for a lot of things

My father has entered a state I think of as Schrödinger’s Patient, or Schrödinger’s Parent.

Intellectually, I know that he’s dying but there are times that I don’t know if he’s dying quickly or slowly. Sometimes he has energy, his eyes are animated, or he sits up in bed and leans forward to engage you. Other times, he lies back, he drifts, he looks at things that aren’t there.

It’s an uncertain state. A quantum fluctuation between this life and the next. Maybe. Yesterday we opened the window when we visited. It had gotten a bit warm, and the predictable afternoon breeze was welcome. He remarked upon it at least twice.

“This is great. The wind. The breeze. I’m really enjoying it.”

He wondered about where he was going. What was the next thing that was happening. What is the next state? What is the transition?

I thought he was going to talk about his faith, or his thoughts about death. Then he shifted a bit in the bed and said, “I might be going here.” And then he turned to the other side, “Or I might be going there.” And he stretched his toes, “Or I might reach my feet down and scoot off the edge of the bed, and use my walker.”

“I don’t know.”

He’s entered a kind of profound lizard brain state, when the smallest movements, actions, and thoughts demand utmost attention. Philosophy wasn’t really on the menu.

It’s both affirming and sad to see it happen to a man who had such intellectual curiosity through his life. He mused that “all one’s accomplishments… deciding which side of the bed you were going to curl up on.”

But the breeze was good. And that was all he needed at that moment.

Hospice 6: Conflation Station

My father was feisty today. He was able to sit in his chair for a brief time, and later, propped himself up in bed and leaned forward to ask questions.

Sometimes, though, he needed two or three tries to find the right subject-verb-object combination, or he’d assemble part of the thought, only to have it drift away like a leaf on a stream.

What I noticed (and had confirmed by a sibling) was the conflating of people, events, and things. He reported that the governor had died (“and that was good”) but couldn’t say which governor. Or when. He also mixed up which grandchildren had called, or which nieces or nephews had brought him early birthday cards.

The paranoia is creeping back. He feels the hospice nurse was “just covering her back” and he was being medicated against his will. When we dug deeper into that, he acknowledged that he liked not being in pain. So pain medicine is okay.

My sister broached the subject of his final arrangements; specifically, what did he want to do with his ashes? His response: “I don’t give a shit.” He was going to be dead after all.

So we talked it over while sitting in the backyard today. I joked that maybe my mother could use him to fertilize her plants (she’s a serious hobbyist gardener). We also talked about putting the ashes in the BBQ. Or near the BBQ, which is where you could find Frank most weekends, in good weather (which is much of the time in Santa Maria).

Years ago my parents had installed a deck and a brick BBQ with power and a gas line so my father could easily prepare tri-tip over oak coals, or chicken cooked on a rotisserie. I think my father burned out two or three motors before he finally had someone build a heavy-duty unit that had enough torque to handle two fryers. (My daughter, who is not a big meat eater, has always liked her farfar‘s chicken.)

So after we had a good laugh, we decided that yes, the plants behind the BBQ should be the final resting place for his ashes. I’d like to remember him sitting up there, listening to his Big Band or Classical CDs, having Costco vodka with lots of ice, and waiting until the perfect moment when he’d pull the birds off the rack and call for a knife to confirm what he already knew.

It was time to eat.