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Study Hall

Working and what it's like to work and whatever.

It's still the same as high school. I'm the new kid, too fat, a little weird. The designers are standoffish, embarrassed to be talking to me about a project. I look at their mutual stack of music CD's, primarily bands that use vocoders and drum machines, and I feel their annoyed peripheral eyes watching me, each eye flashing "out, out of our space."

A week ago, I didn't care about these people, had no desire to please or impress them. Now, I am looking at the face of a coworker as I ask him to move a text box up a little on the screen, trying to make sure I don't say the wrong thing. I try too hard to be cool, blurt something awkward, some word like a sarcastic "surprise" or an over-bright "yeah!" For a flash I feel like I'm wearing a bow tie and spats, spittle coming out of my mouth, paint flecks on my safety goggles, and I brush my lips to make sure they're dry.

They have asked my boss about me: "he doesn't work here, does he?" And peered at me, withheld positive judgment, a little disappointed by default, just in case I turn out to be a failure, a dickhead, a glory hog. Enthusiasm would be an error this early. I would do the same thing. Strangers can fuck up the works if you don't keep an eye on them.

To make the job real, I must earn their trust, so I will relay little personal details in conversations, helping out of my turn for helping, proving my value across the board, offering my sympathy for boring work. Some know I have a girlfriend who lives upstate, that my father was a professor, where I used to work, quick conversations in the first few days. They can begin to piece me together; sooner or later, someone will ask if I write creatively, and I'll say, "no, not really." They do not know about Ftrain, and I won't tell them, unless someone asks "do you have a web page called www.ftrain.com?" Then I will say yes.

I am an okay fit for the place, if early indicators are accurate, a wild little design shop. When the honeymoon ends, we'll see, and so will they--the faults of the firm, and my faults (a certain sluggishness that is really fear) will out. Rock, Paper, Scissors Inc. Looking out the huge plate glass onto 5th Avenue, over to the Flatiron, it seems to come together--I can write, and there are no other writers there. I understand design, computer programming, HTML layout, information architecture, project management. All the droplets of ability that make up the cloud of agency business, I have touched--but not excelled at any of them, except my bit in writing. The color wheel is a mystery; the grid is distant; the world of C and Java programming a complete perplexity, although I understand the models for building computer programs and crafting databases. I can discuss the issues, offer sympathy, and bring forth criticism, and then I can honestly say, "all these criticisms aside, I could never come close to what you're doing. It's phenomenal work." And I am humble, then, and express it. This personality, this humility matched with a random mess of skills, will work well. But this is only day 4; there are 361 to go. I hope I work hard, keep the fire burning.

Because I am an outsider, the only writer, I can do my piece without threatening a soul; I can be excellent, if I work very hard, outstanding, unbound, and not hurt a single feeling, not make an enemy. Errors will come, but I should be first to spot my own. I can learn, I hope.

Coming from a job where the raw ambitions of those around me--ambitions less for excellence and refinement than for political mastery--predominated. The politics are all somewhere else at Rock, Paper, Scissors, and in a month the designers will begin to speak openly, forget my newness; I'll lose my outsider status, make a friend who tells someone else that I'm okay. I'll listen to a complaint in a kind manner at 10PM, there late, and suddenly be considered okay enough. Of course, it could all fail, collapse, and I could be looking for a job in two weeks. I don't know; I can't guess, only hope and use prior evidence of my own behavior and that of others. And in the meantime, I am still in high school, new to the area, met with frowning distrust, my heavy feet creaking the battered wood floors.


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Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.

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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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