Friday, February 6, 2009

Upon Closer Inspection :: Part 2

0730. The work day has begun. I work at a small stairs and doors shop that sits, as if trying to avoid the bustle and intrusion of the metropolitan buzz, just outside the city of Saskatoon (a city without much buzz, sure, but the detachment is nice, if sometimes a little awkward), and we specialize in, as the logo says, Curved Stairs & Railing And Custom Doors, a strange little sign - one obviously amended at some point to include "And Custom Doors" - that I guess is geting the job done since business, even in this depression-panicked economy, has been steadily growing. It's a fairly new shop, only a few months old right now, but it's quickly established itself within Saskatoon's industrial milieu. Its production team consists of exactly my father, my brother, and me, and I'm a fairly recent addition at that. In addition to the three of us churning out product there are: three sometimes four installers, of which Boss is one; an office manager-type/customer relations person, Boss's Wife, who is our go-to person when a question comes up; and one very small, very energetic dog, a terrier/chihuahua-looking thing, named Bear, who spends most of his days in the office with Boss's Wife but who, immediately upon release during one of her many quick visits to the back in order to relay information, tears around the whole place, runs up to you, runs away from you, and is generally too adorable to believe. Besides this core team, every once in a while someone else will pop their head into the shop, fiddle around, and disappear, their actual contributions to this whole thing being a mystery to me. (EDIT: Ah now, some clarification: these are not employees that I'm talking about. Nope. An employee's contribution, especially in a business this size, where everyone's work is noticed, is not questionable or mysterious. Naw, I mean the random people, people unknown to me, who occasionally are present and seem to be doing... well, something, I'm not sure what. This happens in every shop I've worked in and seen.) But now so, in the silence before the day's labour of dust and noise begins, a small, impromptu meeting occurs. It's not really a meeting, though I'm sure some executive somewhere would insist on calling it a Power Meeting or something like that but really it is only a few words exchanged between Boss and the three of us to make sure that we are all pulling in the same direction. The factors influencing what work gets done in a day are various, some predictable, some incomprehensible, some occult. A white board calendar hangs over the shop desk, on which the month's schedule is only occasionally sketched out, but this rarely determines the day's actual events. Attempts to impose vision or order upon any of this are almost always futile gestures. Most of the time, the official-looking schedule is abandoned in order to deal with the sundry pressures at hand: railing orders that are suddenly due; orders that were modified are filled incorrectly (rarely our fault, but oh-well); completed orders that have been standing around for weeks, slowly being pirated for parts, all of sudden being demanded, requiring a hasty effort to once again fill in the now-pirated pieces. You see, the construction business is apparently not at all as devoted to schedule as you might imagine. When a half dozen companies or contractors are all involved in, say, putting up a house, a condominium, etc, juggling everyone's activities becomes an exercise best left for fuzzy thinkers and laid-back hippies. The truly anal retentive or highly organized person will quickly lose, or hurt, his or her mind in the confusion, cunning, and compromise involved in staying afloat here. So scheduling is often myopic and changes day-to-day. However, the day's (or at least the next few hours') schedules established, the actual work begins.

0735. I'm sanding. Like I said, I'm fairly new here, only one and half months full-time now, so my role is often that of sander. Nearly all parts produced need sanding, see, and sanding is, in terms of production difficulty, fairly easy and doesn't require a very deep knowledge of a whole lot. You stand in front of a bench for hours, holding a palm-or orbital-sander (think world's worst, and most aggressive, sex aid), running it back and forth over the piece, making sure all machine marks are gone, all chatter marks are removed, all rips smoothed over, etc, and basically making sure the part looks good. I actually like the work. Me, I'm a fairly obsessive guy, with just a hint of perfectionism - not the kind that manifests in odd compulsive behaviour but the kind that demands that I make sure things are done right. Sanding is all about getting it right. During production, parts are man-handled (sexist, I know, but this is the third shop I've worked in and I've only met a few women, okay one, who does this kind of work, so if it isn't politically correct it's at least a well-established commonplace), bumped, dumped, and generally treated like pieces of wood. So I'm left to clean them up and get them ready to ship. It's not quite as mind-numbing as it sounds. Obsessive behaviour aside, the job does require careful attention. Sure, you can doze off, hit automatic for a bit and enter the zone, but then you start to miss things, important little things like cross-grain scratches, or chips in the joints, or holes that should be filled with wood-filler and cleaned up. Basically, at any given moment, there are a half-dozen things for which you should be alert and watching. So, the sorts of things you start thinking of while you're sanding aren't very involved. You start singing to yourself old songs that you like but haven't listened to in months or even years; you begin going over your favourite scenes from movies, imagining yourself within them, striking impressive poses (in your head) and spouting menacing one-liners; you relive moments from you own life with a revisionist sweep - this is what I should have said to That Guy at That Time, or if I had done this then, maybe this would have happened. You know, things like that. None of these thoughts are very important and they blink away the moment something interrupts them, popped like evanescent mental bubbles, only a slight residue, a mental scum, left remaining afterward. A thousand of these thoughts develop and vanish over the course of a day. They are byproducts, really, side-effects of a mind occupied but not entirely occupied.

0845. I'm still sanding.

0900. 0900 is an important hour. It represents a cross-over, a step taken past the first moments of the day into the day proper. It's a mental thing, I guess. When you do the same thing over and over, you establish little goals.

1000. Coffee break. Our work day is divided thusly: 0730-1000, coffee break, 1015-1230, lunch, 1300-1500, coffee break, 1350-1600, home. I've taken to thinking of the day in terms of three acts and an epilogue. Or denouement. Act one is long. Long like a son of a bitch. But each following act is incrementally shorter, meaning that once you've pulled yourself across the threshold of Coffee Break 1, you can tell yourself that you are more or less done for the day and almost believe it. Coffee Break 1 is a good thing. After 2.5 hours of work, depending on what you've been doing (some jobs are less strenuous than others), you are still feeling pretty good. You have that satisfying newly worked feel. Later in the day, that feeling will disappear and be replaced by other, less pleasant feelings. Coffee break with my brother and father is, for the most part, much like breakfast, i.e. quiet. If someone else is in the coffee room, like Boss or Boss's Wife or anyone else, conversation tends either to be politely hollow or filled with minor bits of business. Generally not serious stuff. If it's just the three of us, though, it's mostly quiet. Fruit, yogurt and protein-rich energy bars are eaten; a few pages of books are read (reading a book exclusively during coffee breaks and lunches is unique - it gives you a strangely saturated feeling, like you've been soaking in the book a lot longer than you expected); newspapers are perused and either guffawed or huffed at; walls and ceilings are vacantly observed. Occasionally, a news story is picked up in brief conversation. Even more occasionally, a philosophical or theological query is offered, though the time limitations don't usually afford the kind of treatment any of us like for this sort of thing so usually we leave this for supper (or dinner, if you're an ass), where a full, lively debate can be unleashed. We are a family of debaters. Throughout most of my life, supper time has been a time not only of eating but of higher learning. When I moved away to go to college,* I found that in terms of critical thinking I was better equipped than most people my age. This isn't bragging, just noting. Most people, as you no doubt already know, are very hard to engage in serious conversation. In colleges and universities, where I've spent most of my time for the past eight years, it's not too hard. It's even expected. But outside those temples of thought, serious conversation is difficult. You certainly don't talk about predestination, or the fundamental differences between Left and Right, in the coffee room, so any talk like this usually breaks off, out of polite deference and not embarrassment, whenever someone else walks into the break room. But so anyway, the main thing I'm trying to say is that Coffee Break 1 is usually quiet, a time just to pause. All the machines are off, the dust collector silent, the door closed (installers or Boss might be working on something), and we just sit, eat, and read. It's nice.

1015. Act two begins. I've not yet figured out what sort of play this is. I doubt the metaphor actually works, but I like it.

*Maybe now is the time that I should mention that, yes, I'm living at home at the moment. I moved away for five years to go to college (5 years = two degrees) but then moved back home afterward in order to attend another university (2.5 years = third degree). Canadian student loans being what they are, the Saskatoon housing market being what it is, and me being me and determined to keep my grades up as high as possible, all meant that renting, much less buying, a place was a silly thought. I've only been out of school for two months now, and I plan to enter school again in about seven months, so I'm probably just gonna continue living at home, at least for the next year or two. It's not as bad as you'd think** and pretty damn convenient when three of you work at the same place.

**Sometimes it is.


Nevis said...

Again, lovely post. You are such a wonderful writer, Dan.

Daniel Terner said...

Really enjoyed reading these last two entries. I agree with Nevis.

Dan (brillig)