Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Clang, Clang, Do It Right

A hundred years ago, or so it seems,  I did piece-work for a local paper-maché artist whose basement studio was filled to the gills with suspended fairies, these:

There were several dozen of us women taking work home, most of us looking for a way to be  with our kids and still bring in some cash. I spent endless hours at my kitchen table, doing various stages of construction of these pieces, while my sons took naps, ate lunch, started school, got on and off buses. (The table a heap of rice paper strips, wheat paste, paper towels, scissored-lengths of aluminum foil and my toirtoiseshell cat named Alice who liked to sleep in a box in the middle of it all.)

It was nit-picky work, with zero margin of error. A piece not up to snuff at the weekly check-in clanged into the garbage can with a dismissive sweep of the hand by the supervisor, and the garbage can did not equal dollars. Standards were standards, and when your paycheck depended on the quality of your work, you did it right. It was often grueling, but it allowed me to be home for my kids. And that was enough.

Some time in the late 1990's, the business owner laid off all her piece-workers after a successful foray into offshoring; production moved to China. The owner and her partner moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea, in California. My piece-work career thudded to a halt. Alas. (No tears shed.)

I was reminded of all this today when dealing with quality-control issues at work. My role tends to lean to the bad-cop side of things, as I'm the person final-checking each piece of glass prior to shipping. Some days roll along smoothly, no bumps, no cracks. Today repeatedly tried my patience, with several hours spent fixing other people's sloppiness. The back door was (repeatedly) left open (it's c-c-c-c-cold outside), and when I forcefully pushed it closed, I inadvertently squeezed the cat's paw, resulting in a a feline shriek of epic volume. I felt as if I'd committed a diabolical and intentional act of violence. The cat skulked off to the farthest corner and disappeared in the back of a closet under bags and boxes. I slunk back to my chair and continued the fixing, repairing, repainting, waiting for the day to end.

Meanwhile there was a small typhoon brewing which resulted in a spectacular display of emotion from Someone Else. The boss and I managed to keep our wits together and modeled a united front, with only one outburst of complete indignation (from me).

I shall not disclose more, except that I was reminded of the many jobs I've had where I was given a task to do, and I had to do it correctly, period. No arguing, no questioning, and, especially, no tears. I couldn't stop thinking of the paper-maché fairies I used to make by the dozen, how the angle of the chin required the precision of the width of a single millimeter.

Mostly, I kept hearing that clang into the garbage can. And before long, that recalled-clang drowned out the sniffling and sighing that was going on beside me.

In a way, I'm thankful for the clang. I resented it fiercely back then, but the point was well-taken, sound effects and all.  And the larger lesson — do it right! — was the take-away from those years hand-sculpting rice-paper figurines, while my sons napped, the cat snored, and (mostly), no one cried.
The work got done, I got paid, everybody was happy.

But there was more to it — there was the necessity of releasing the ego. So easy to consider now, to look at the young and relatively-inexperienced with an air of disdainful impatience. Easier now, after-hours, with the perspective that only time and distance allows.

A part of me wants to suspend one of the imperfect glass vessels high above the garbage can, let it go at the perfect dramatic moment so that it ends its usefulness in a spectacular, gravity-driven crash.

I won't, of course.
But I'll keep this little fantasy tucked away close-by for quick reference.
Listen up:


  1. We have several of those paper-mache figurines -- some at least twenty years old! I have no idea whether you made them or some poor soul in China, but this piece really resonated with me. It made me think of some of the kitchens I toiled in under exacting classical chefs who would either scream at mistakes or less than perfect work and throw it at either you or into the garbage.

    1. Elizabeth, if they're twenty years old, then there's a pretty good chance that they passed through my hands. (I worked in the studio in addition to the piecework.)

      For all the 7.125 billion people on the planet, I'm continually astonished at these connections we continue to forge.


  2. I work in health care and it's still the same problem. I want to yell at someone, just do your fucking job!, but I can't. That's my little fantasy:)

  3. I have been on the receiving end of exacting specifications and the supervising end. We forget how thin skinned the young and inexperienced can be. Yes, letting go of the ego is key, but the young are mostly ego! The gift of egoless ness usually comes with age and wisdom, if at all. It is quite an art to instruct and enforce standards in a way that encourages rather than discourages. Carry on, m'dear.