Man Cleaning

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Laundry room debris field

I’ve done my share of cleaning house over 30+ years of marriage.  I stayed home with the kids when they were little and waged the losing battle of keeping their chaos at bay.  I once told a college class that managing a house occupied by two toddlers was like composing a term paper with a drunk roommate deleting key passages whenever the writer looked away for a split second.  All accomplishments are doomed to erasure.

Doing chores while surrounded by little barbarians gave me a fatalistic approach to house cleaning.  I got in the habit of taking care of the worst of the worst, nibbling at the bits I somewhat cared about, and letting major areas collect dust and debris.

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Dresser top of lost hope

Recently our circumstances have forced me to take on more of the chores than I ever did before.  The kids are grown and gone, so there should be less to do.  But now I’m starting to see things through my wife’s eyes and realize that the cobwebs growing from the ceiling in the back room really shouldn’t be allowed to hang down to eye level.  The strange odor in the laundry room behind the Christmas tree boxes no longer lingers, but its fossilized source really ought to be removed (dead lizard or corn snake?).  Ancient stains on the side of the fridge could be scrubbed off, as well as stratified layers of greasy fuzz on the kitchen ceiling fan.

I eventually come to the conclusion that I could start at one end of the house and scrub inch by inch.  Repainting and patching could follow.  New curtains could replace the moth eaten ones over the front window, and the coat closet could be excavated for usable tennis rackets, tennis balls, and vacuum cleaner attachments from amongst the debris at the bottom.  The job seems endless.

And now I begin to understand a major difference between the sexes.  Women tend to see housework as a manageable project that produces a cozy nest if the right effort is applied, if their housemate abstains from random acts of stinky sock/wet towel dropping.  Men see the interior of a house and shut down.

Housework induced catatonia in males is not always caused by laziness, but more often by willful blindness in the face of overwhelming odds.  The blindness has no evil intent, but is more a matter of self-preservation.  A man who has taken the time to do a thorough survey of his domestic environment is like an astronaut spacewalking and contemplating the stars.  He feels so small compared to a vast number of tasks spread over a mini-universe of domestic space.

When confronted by the infinite, it’s best for a man to pretend that the majority of it does not exist.  He pops a beer, sits in a recliner and waves to his friends, the spiders hanging all around him.  He might knock down their webs down in a day or two, but at that moment he just wants a little company.

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Entropic night stand

Entering Into the Retirement Zone

I recently turned 58, and one of my birthday presents was the realization that I only have 7 or 8 more years to officially belong to the workforce.  I can continue on after that if I still feel some drive to teach and exhibit my work, so the end doesn’t have to be in sight just yet.  But the promise of an upcoming choice made me feel positively lighthearted.

And I had another realization:  my professional ambitions have largely gone unfulfilled.  I am not a tenured college professor, I’ve made nearly no impact in the world of fine art, and I’ve never earned more than chump change selling my art.  If I had known how things would turn out when I was twenty-five I might have chosen to become an accountant or a biological research technician, but I’m happily surprised to say that I’m not bitter about my choices.  I’m largely satisfied by the experiences I’ve accumulated as I made my artwork.  The sweetness of applying paint to canvas is addictive, and I’ve had 30 plus years to scratch that itch.  Teaching has been a trial at times, but helping students still satisfies me.

And it’s good to know that most accounts have been settled, that I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go.  It’s an odd relief to accept that a final sink into oblivion is probably my natural arc.  I’ve never been a fan of suspense, of waiting for the moment when my professional fortunes would finally start breaking good.  The overwhelming evidence suggests that they never will.

I still remember how I used to torture myself when I was twenty-five about every move I made as an artist, how I questioned and doubted my abilities and potential whenever I finished a painting that didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.  Now I know that it’s just a matter of averages.  Like a baseball hitter I’m bound to succeed and fail according to a percentage.  I’m happy when I do well but no longer hope that a streak of good work will continue indefinitely.  In my personal life I also have realized that I will inevitably screw up from time to time, and be thoughtful and kind other times.  I have fewer illusions about my ability to maintain a state of benevolence, and also know that I have a penchant for snarky cynicism.  I still feel guilty when I say or do something hurtful, but am aware that there’s another side to the ledger.

It helps of course that I’m married to a woman who accepts who I am.  The one blessing that I desperately needed when I was 25 was to find someone who saw me in my entirety and still loved me. It took another couple decades for me to figure out that she hadn’t made a self-destructive mistake by volunteering to live with me.  Now I finally can relax in the knowledge that we’ve had a mostly happy marriage and have been good for each other.

The next decade or two may consist of a long downward slide, but at least I’ve gotten some altitude (thanks to Judy) from which to descend.  To quote Edith Piaf, “No, I don’t regret anything.”

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Teach, Breathe, Relax

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My wife, Judy, gets worried about me when I come home after teaching a rough class. My reddened face tells her that my blood pressure is elevated once again. She speaks to me in a quiet voice suitable for calming an angry dog and steers the conversation toward topics having nothing to do with teaching.

Lately I’ve been encountering students who do not listen to instructions, fail to understand instructions but do not ask questions, cherry pick one part of the instructions while ignoring the rest, and who do random things unrelated to the assignment even after getting further instruction and clarification.  This occurs after I’ve shown them examples of correctly finished drawings and done demonstrations of techniques.  I’ve sometimes had to sketch the beginning steps on their drawings to get the basics established.

They think that I’m odd and damaged when I show signs of irritation and frustration after they self-sabotage their work by further acts of blind incomprehension or bored indifference. One student cannot follow any verbal instruction.  I told him last Saturday to start a tonal painting by working from dark tones to light tones.  He responded, “Okay, light to dark.”  This was the third or fourth instance of communication failure between us within a few minutes.  “No,” I pleaded, “dark to light!”

The other night a student nodded along when I gave her instruction, and then proceeded to do the opposite of what I had told her.  She advised the women next to her to follow suite, and I had to deal with a minor insurrection.  She began to do the assignment correctly after I gave her a series of increasingly curt orders.  I relaxed as the class began to go as planned, and she asked me if I felt better.  She spoke to me in a patronizing tone as if illness had been the cause of my irritability. I suffered a relapse when I growled in response, “Don’t worry about how I’m feeling.”

I’ve been talking with Judy about all this and have realized a few insights about teaching and my frustration:  1. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when a student learns something–I’ve made a difference; 2. my classroom is a place where I feel in control; 3. I put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting a class.  When students fail to learn my sense of satisfaction disappears.  When students react randomly to my directions I get anxious because I feel like I’m losing control.  When my efforts are ignored I feel disrespected and unappreciated.

I realize that it’s a fool’s game to rely on others for self-worth.  I can only do my best and let the results come in as they may. Getting churned up over a weak group of students is pointless.

A few months back I tried the technique of watching my breath during times of stress.  If I slowed down and paid attention to air passing in and out of my nostrils I had a chance to relax and reset my emotions.  Recently I read a passage from Yogananda where he advises his devotees to keep their calm throughout the day, and to watch for the instances when they fail.  He says that progress can be judged by how well we live in peace with our surroundings.

And that sounds like a good goal to me.  If my focus is on maintaining a sense of peace and calm while I teach, and not so much on ego driven ambitions (control, accomplishment, praise), I might be a lot more effective…I need a tattoo on the back of my drawing hand that says, “Teach, breathe, relax.”  And on the other it could read, “Keep the calm.”

Landscape Painting Force Field

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Bougainvillea Looking West

I’m still working on a landscape that I started this summer and wrote about in “Front Yard Monet”.   I know that it’s nearly done as some areas are resisting improvement, and additional maneuvers only make them slightly worse.  I tell my students that each painting is a collection of missteps and corrections, and that with every new canvas a painter learns a new way to accept defeat.  But defeat does not mean discouragement.  It means that new territories of experience and expression still await.  A perfect painting means that exploration has come to an end.

I also tell them that painting a landscape usually involves more problems than changing light, fickle weather and attacks by bugs: a plein air painter is often beset by bystanders who comment on the work in progress and share their viewpoints about their lives, religion, politics, and art.  They persist unless discouraged.  On Friday I resorted to a desperate measure to fend off three onlookers and was partially successful.

I was painting a patch of grass in the left foreground when I heard the sounds of a motor and a radio approaching.  A weather beaten man with one lone tooth in his upper jaw who wore a baseball cap, shorts and a tee shirt pushed a mower slowly toward me.  Reuben stopped to look at the painting, but didn’t turn off his radio or the motor as he told me about his attempts at painting and photography.  He had a thick accent, and what with the background noise I had trouble understanding everything he said, but managed to pick out a few of the major points.  The man said that he had several regular customers in the neighborhood and helped them with their gardens as well.  Reuben enjoyed working as him own boss in the outdoors as it gave him time to appreciate the beauty he saw everywhere around him.  A recent sunset moved him so much that he took a picture of the red and purple tinged clouds above a glowing horizon. And then Reuben knocked on the door of a nearby house, showed a befuddled stranger his picture, and pulled his victim out onto the lawn to make him look at the splendor of nature.

He had used up the memory in his phone and now carried a small digital camera to continue taking his photos.  With practice and persistence he had developed a sense of composition that allowed him to isolate the most choice elements in the landscape.  Now when he snapped a picture he framed hidden beauty in such a way that it revealed itself to his viewers.

Reuben also told me that he had financial difficulties and lived in a rented room a few blocks away, but that his life had grown so much richer now that he lived a simpler life.  I didn’t cut him off because he kept saying things about life and art that agreed with my own observations, because it would have been wrong to interrupt his joyous flow, and because the man had a huge need to unburden his thoughts to a willing  (and/or unwilling) audience.  After 20 minutes, however, I began to use a Buddhist practice of following my breaths to help me remain patient. He had begun to repeat himself, and I feared that the sun would set before Reuben finished his harangue.  Thankfully he walked on after he had taken three or four selfies with me and my landscape, and had apologized at least five time for taking up my time.

I painted a bit more after he left, but decided to go inside for a drink of water.  I remembered that I had a cigar on my dresser, a Christmas present from my daughter’s fiance’.  I took it outside with me and lit up.  Reuben returned pushing his mower just as I arrived at my easel.  He grinned and said, “I bet you’re smoking that to keep me moving on.”  I smiled and said nothing but thought, “Damn right!”

A man in a pick up truck pulled up a bit later and asked me what I was painting.  I pointed down the street to my view, and he looked at the painting on my easel.  He seemed surprised, gave me a compliment or two, told me he lived just down the block and promised to return later.  I puffed on my cigar and hoped that he would not.  He drove away, but swung back around the corner a half hour later and pulled up in his driveway two houses up the cross street.  He did not come back for a chat.  “Good cigar,” I thought.

A young woman stopped her car beside me just as I began to place a few touches on the clouds above a tree.  She asked me if I were a professional, and I said, “Yes, and I teach painting and drawing at Crealde School of Art and Valencia.”  She said, “I take classes at Valencia.  What’s your name?”  I told her and said that our department was a good place to  study.  She seemed bright and pleasant, but light was fading and it was time for me to pack up and start supper. I puffed on my cigar.  A cloud of smoke drifted in her direction, and she fled before she was engulfed.

Later that night I sent a message to my daughter on Facebook.  I told her that her boyfriend’s gift, a Quorum Shade from Nicaragua, was much appreciated.  And then I looked up cigar stores online to see if a local shop sold them.  I’m thinking about starting a series of landscapes in my neighborhood and may have to stock up.

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My Viewpoint

Live Well While You Work

I’ve been working hard the last two and half months to finish some paintings for a four man show at the Gallery at Avalon Island in downtown Orlando.  I managed to get three new pieces completed and framed, and when I delivered them on Friday I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.  And the shooting pains in my fingers and wrists eased up for some reason.  I finally was able to relax.

I told my wife when I got home that I had not been feeling all that well (dizzy, fatigued) for the last two weeks and said that I had probably been doing too much.  She laughed and said, “I could have told you that.”  I answered with my standard reply:  “I never know that I’m overdoing things until they are way overdone.”

Judy’s noticed over our thirty-two year marriage that I have a few unfortunate work patterns.  One is that I procrastinate until my failure anxiety overcomes my dread of doing work I dislike.  Then I rush into action like a coiled spring suddenly released.  Another pattern is to cycle from periods of extended, adrenaline fueled overexertion to recovery periods where I appear to be the laziest man alive.  I have trouble working at an even pace on even the most routine jobs and find myself pushing my limits of endurance.  My father drove himself into a heat stroke when he was in his late thirties, and I apparently have inherited his “do until you nearly die” genes.

Now that I’m pushing sixty I can no longer bull through.   I’ve begun to be forced to pay attention to the signals that my mind and body are sending me.  When I’m under a lot of stress, for instance, a vertebra in my middle back decides to shift to one side at odd moments.  A wave of intense pain circles around my rib cage to the center of my chest.  I’ve never had a heart attack, but the symptoms correspond.  They usually subside quickly after I swallow two Advil and lie down with my back flat on the bed for ten to twenty minutes.  I’ve learned that when an episode happens it means that I need to take a day long break from anxiety inducing endeavors.  Sometimes I actually do that.

Judy was always able to work long hours and accomplish a lot.  But she knew when to stop and take a break, when to distract herself with soothing activities, when to take a nap.  She felt little need to test the limits of her endurance, but managed to endure better than I ever did.  She often advised me to take it easy when I first started a new exercise routine and that I should make it enjoyable.  I rarely followed her advice and would throw myself into a breakneck pace that would lead to muscle and joint pain, which would usually lead to injury and an abandonment of exercise.  Even when I took up walking I found myself competing against my time and distance from the day before.  I turned a stroll into a race.

I don’t think that this is a gender issue, however.  I’ve met Type A women who are aggressive and highly competitive.  They don’t seem to be taking good care of themselves.  And I’ve met men who find ways to enjoy a steady flow in their efforts.

My grandfather worked at his business until he was in his mid seventies.  He did a lot but never seemed to be in a rush.  He knew that a good job had its own tempo, that speeding things to completion often led to bad results.  He was confident in his competency and acted as though he had nothing to prove to himself or others.  He made a good living and didn’t feel the need to push ever harder to make his pile of earnings grow into a mountain of cash.

And perhaps his attitude is the real key to endurance and happiness while working.  He was sure of his skills and experience; he accepted setbacks as natural occurrences; he cultivated a calm doggedness in the face of difficulties.

There’s an old adage that advises us to “eat to live, not live to eat”.  I still have to work to live, but it might be a lot better if I put my focus on living well while I work.

Accusers and Their Opinions

 

A few weeks ago as I was walking out of an office I heard one woman tell another that I was “paranoid”.  The woman who described me as such is a serial liar who shifts blame onto others.  If I have any sort of dealings with her I never know if she’s lying outright to me, telling just enough to answer a question but not enough to provide helpful information, or is allowing mistakes that others have made become my problem.  One can usually tell that she’s being less than forthcoming when she shifts into vague language and uses professional jargon in impenetrable, multiple clause sentences.  Another warning that she’s desperately trying to avoid saying anything true or useful comes when she narrows her eyes slightly, tilts her chin up a few degrees and talks in a bored tone of voice.  She asserts her superior position while also conveying that she’s trying to be patient with another one of my stupid inquiries.  Her goal is to drive me away before I ask a question too direct for her sidestep.

I avoid her whenever possible as I get frustrated trying to thread my way through her maze of self-serving obfuscation.  I am concerned that she may try, or has already tried, to spread lies about me, but I take nothing she says or does personally any more.  Expecting respect and honesty from her is like expecting a giraffe to walk on a tight rope. And her insights about my character are hardly worth considering.

I take other people’s opinions of me much more seriously, but I’m aware that some assume a lot based on little information.  Personal biases filter their perceptions, a few of my actions fit into their ready made preconceptions, and I’m labeled accordingly.  It’s useless to try to alter my behavior in hope of changing their minds:  everything said or done will be bent and twisted to fit into the set pattern of their opinion of me.

Of course I’m aware that I’m guilty of putting people into pigeonholes constructed from my biases.  It’s a defense against uncertainty.  The world seems much easier to navigate if I can read personalities, recognize intentions and anticipate actions.  I learned this as a little kid when dealing with unpredictable adults.  It was much safer to keep a low profile when seated next to a man who scowled as he read his newspaper.  Tugging on his sleeve and making a request was an invitation to him to vent his frustrations on me.

The difficulty for a well meaning adult is to choose when to listen to his or her defensive preconceptions and when to reserve judgment.  I’ve learned that in most, nonthreatening situations it’s better to wait until a lot of evidence comes in.  An imperious student who snaps at everything I say may just be having a bad day.  He could turn out to be an easy going fellow when his personal life isn’t in panic mode.  Or he may be an arrogant prick.  Time usually tells.

The woman who called me paranoid doesn’t deserve any more effort on my part.  My opinion is based on years of bad experiences with her.  But I imagine that even she has moments when she’s a good friend, wife and mother, and that others who know her in a different context might describe her as a funny, smart woman who is a consummate professional.  Maybe she bakes cookies at Christmas and hands them out at a food bank.  She’s probably kind to puppies.  Who knows, and who am I, in the end, to judge her?

But I don’t want to try to get closer to her to find out whether she has a softer, truer side to her personality.  We’re never going to be buddies, and I think that we both prefer it that way.

 

 

 

 

I Am a Lineman for an Asshole (With Apologies to Glen Campbell)

After I graduated from the University of Delaware I moved to State College, Pennsylvania to be reunited with Judy. We had spent my last year of schooling apart, she working as a post doc in a plant physiology lab at Penn State, and I painting and playing politics with my faculty advisers. I relaxed for a week or two and settled into my new environment, but then began to look for a job. I was weary of academia and didn’t bother to search for a job on campus, but found a help wanted ad in the newspaper for a tour guide for an attraction about fifty miles north of town. Tours of a water filled cave were given by boat, and the guides would be responsible for pointing out the wonders of an underground fairy land. I had taught a lot of classes at Delaware and figured that it wouldn’t be much of challenge to deliver a standard spiel while pointing at a stalactite or two. I sent in an application.

A week later I got a call and a woman told me that I was hired as a lineman at a tiny airport adjacent to the tourist center. I asked the caller to explain my duties and she said, “You work around airplanes…stuff like that.”

I hesitated to accept. I had learned that when someone offered me something out of the blue I was sure to regret taking the deal. I also wondered why I hadn’t been considered for the other job. I told the woman on the line that I had no experience with airplanes and that I wasn’t much of a mechanic, and she said, “You’ll get trained. Can you come in tomorrow?” I was curious and a little desperate to find a job, so I agreed.

The last country road on my sheet of directions ran between two mountain ridges. Farms and small woods lined either side, and as I drove along I occasionally saw an Amish homestead. Stern looking men wearing beards and black, wide brimmed hats tended their fields of hay and corn. Heavy draft horses pulled wagons and ancient looking farm equipment. The airport lay in a flat and wide section of the valley and consisted of two hangers and a low slung administration building. There was no tower. There was only one runway that ran about 100 yards between the hangers on either end of the strip.

A heavy set, fussy man named Ken explained my duties to me. My work would include cleaning airplane interiors, gassing the Piper Cubs used by our two pilots to give rides to tourists, sweeping and mopping the hangers, cleaning toilets and urinals, hauling garbage to a landfill on the property, mowing the lawn, vacuuming and dusting the owner’s office, etc. A lineman was a glorified janitor.

I had no other prospects at the time and wanted to earn back some of the tuition that Judy and I had spent on my degree. I began to work under Ken’s close and somewhat obsessive supervision. At his direction I mowed lawns that didn’t need mowing and cleaned airplanes that were nearly spotless. He told me that I must never under any circumstances put more than two spare rolls of toilet paper in the main hanger’s guest bathroom. It wouldn’t have been unlikely if he had counted how many new urinal cakes I put out on a monthly basis in hopes of catching me wasting our supplies.

The owner was an ex-military blow hard who still liked to shout commands. One day as I vacuumed the carpet in his office he told me all about his aunt. She painted flowers and dramatically lit studies of the Nittany Lion, the cougar mascot named after Mt. Nittany, the rounded, ancient peak that overlooked the Penn State campus. He showed me a few of her stiff, amateurish paintings hung on the wall opposite his desk, and we suffered through a stilted conversation about their merits.

The mechanic was a twenty something, bow legged man who stood about five feet four. He was heavily muscled, spent a lot of time grousing about his job, and seemed to enjoy throwing his tools down in disgust when a repair went wrong. He owned a plot of land on which he was starting an orchard. He told his fellow underlings at lunch that he hoped to quit the airport once the orchard turned profitable, but that the “goddamned Amish” were undercutting his prices. I understood from him that the English speaking locals despised their peace loving, anachronistic neighbors for reasons that he didn’t bother naming. They were self evident. One day he revealed that he had been forced to hit his wife the night before when she got mouthy with him. The rest of us sat in shocked silence for a few seconds before I managed to say, “If I did that my marriage would be over.”

The secretary/air traffic controller was in her late teens and was visibly pregnant. She had recently become an ardent Christian and confessed to us that her wild days of partying and running with boys had lead to her predicament. She had faith that her shotgun wedding would last and that she and her husband and baby would have a happy life now that she had found Jesus. She was a sweet kid and I felt sorry for her. Her sense of guilt and shame about her past  seemed disproportionate, and her newfound piety appeared to demand that she constantly remind herself of her shortcomings.

The job, of course, was physically taxing, tedious and sometimes a little scary. I was responsible for determining whether the underground gas tanks had any water in them. A water bubble in a fuel line could stall an engine and down a plane. I stood on high ladders and cleaned airplane windows with a noxious solvent that could eat through the rubber housing them in place if I was careless. The fumes from the solvent made me slightly dizzy and a little high, and I often had to catch hold of the ladder when I swayed or leaned too far. But the most troublesome job was to drive the fuel truck from one hanger to the other. The only route was the narrow runway that served both for take offs and landings. I was told on my first day to look above the big oak tree in the field to the south to check for incoming planes, and then to look in the opposite direction for aircraft coming in off the mountain. If I still had a bad feeling about the possibility of being struck by a bogie and instantly incinerated when the truck’s tank full of gasoline exploded, I could always drive my vehicle on the grass median on the side of the runway.

Several things led me to quit after a couple of months. Ken continued to drive me crazy with his nitpicking. Judy hated how useless I was when I came home exhausted. The Japanese manager of the cave tours had begun to have one-on-one sessions with the employees for the purpose of “attitude adjustment”. I was temporarily exempt from brainwashing, but wondered when the manager would escort me to his office in an attempt to make me more cheerful about earning minimum wage as a fetch it boy doing donkey jobs shortly after earning a masters degree. But one incident finally induced me to give them my two weeks notice.

It was a gloomy Saturday and no one else was on the grounds. The sky looked threatening in the northwest, and I was surprised when a small airplane came in for a landing. It wobbled as it descended on cross winds shooting through the valley. The pilot was a man in his thirties, and his passengers were his wife and two young kids. He came into the office and asked me to come up with a flight plan for a trip to St. Petersburg, Florida. I told him that I had no idea about how to do that, but showed him into a room where our secretary listened to a radio for weather reports and where maps were stored in a desk. I called the owner for help.  He lived in a large, two story house near the south end of the complex.

When the blowhard arrived he glared at me and explained how simple it was to develop a flight plan. Any idiot, including me, could figure it if he just took the time and was just a little bit logical in his approach, and then he, the owner, wouldn’t be bothered by such trivialities while he was busy watching baseball. The owner took the pilot in hand and gave him a flight plan, and I made my exit.

I went back to sweeping up a hangar and wondered what my employer would have done if I had randomly advised the pilot and sent him and his family to their deaths in a gale over the Appalachians. I told Judy about the incident when I got home, and she thanked me when I told her that I was going to quit.

I had the pleasure of announcing to Ken that I was leaving. He moaned and said, “Just when I’ve got you trained. Now I have to find someone else before the weather gets cold!” My coworkers kept badgering me to find out my reasons, but I kept mum even when the mechanic repeatedly said, “It’s Ken right? Am I right? It’s Ken.”

A week after my last day Judy walked in the door and told me that she was pregnant with our first child. I was elated for about 30 seconds, and then I felt an oppressive weight settling down on my shoulders: I desperately needed to get another job. I briefly considered phoning Ken and begging for my job back, but knew that Judy would kill me if I made the call.