Friday, October 25, 2013

Confessions 3-The Blunderdome

"This fucking arm has safety issues!"
 In this place it seems like such a shame. Though it all looks different now, I know it's still the same. Everywhere I look you're all I see. Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be.

"Something I Can Never Have" from Pretty Hate Machine

Unlike the Salt Mine I'd yet to encounter, I didn't have to wander around in the desert 7 months to get here. I walked directly across from an overworked realm of career stagnation and ethical doom to this wild west of pilot plant research. I was overworked, underpaid and taking on additional responsibilities each time I proved myself capable and I'd had enough; so I jumped ship to The Blunderdome for the same salary. Pretty shrewd, I thought.  It was called sponsored research, which means roughly private companies pay university departments to do potentially dangerous experiments that would make their company safety managers shit a brick. Clear and present dangers involved with the experiments must be addressed of course, but unknown unknowns however are a different story. It's amazing the lack of due diligence that occurs when someone is waving money in your face. Oh excuse me...not OUR faces, those of us who tote bucket the or turn the valve don't see to cent of that. Ours is a fixed salary, no matter what the risk, known or unknown. Only the University gets the real bucks, but it's Dr. Strangelove  who names the price. He runs Bartertown...and he hired me so who am I to argue?
Strangelove made more money for the university as head of Sponsored Research than their entire mediocre sports program. At least that's what Sgt. Rock said.

Sgt Rock was a former marine from the Vietnam era and the man who built the Blunderdome. At least the core money-maker, a huge belching mock up of a specific refinery unit which shall remain unnamed. Most of his sentences began and ended with the word, "Fuck". If there weren't at least half a dozen "fucks" in his explanation of how to do something, he just wasn't being detailed enough.  Rock was digging a ditch at another location on campus when Strangelove approached him and made him a proposition. Taking him to the empty warehouse that would become Blunderdome, Strangelove showed him piece of archaic equipment from a refinery and asked Rock, "Can you make that work?"  Possessing  mad engineering skills coupled with the  endurance of  a mad-man, Rock did just that.  Soon, there were research dollars pouring in from diverse corporate sources interested only in being privy to anything approaching a breakthrough in the industry; they mostly settled for the mundane. Where Stranglelove was the architect, Rock was the muscle. For years, Rock and Stranglelove ran the Blunderdome like the fictional Master-Blaster. It was long hours of dirty, dangerous work, done dirt cheap considering the risk. But, the nature of academic research, no matter how practical, is that the timeline to completion is nebulous. It worked for a while until the workload obliterated the number of hours in a day. Finally, Rock requested some help. That's when they hired Moon.

Moon was a self-professed hillbilly, as if that were a compliment. Some people spend a lifetime trying to get away from where they came from. Others simply never forget. But there are some who embrace their origins to the point of vanity, as if humble beginnings are the only dignity they have left. Moon clung to tightly to the perception of a humble past whereas I perceived it as resource rich compared to mine. But I never mentioned it. He'd been rather successful in sales management, at least according to him. But he quietly bemoaned his lack of a college diploma. I was never one to equate a person's intelligence with a piece of paper, but the feeling that people were judging him on that single basis was a self-imposed illusion that Moon used to torment himself.  Sure, in academia, the doctorate was king, so Stranglelove ran this rodeo. My relatively modest education was absolutely no threat to anyone in this domain. Except to Moon.

Moon had the constant need to prove himself  "smart". He was intelligent, anyone could see that. Even clever, sneaky and insidious, but I'm getting ahead of myself.  But smart is something totally different. He told me the story of his father-in-law challenging the notion that Moon could do anything he set his mind to."I'll bet you can't get to the moon," he told...Moon. Moon assured him that with the proper information that he could find on the internet coupled his innate hillbilly ability to construct post-apocalyptic looking equipment that technically could do the job, he was fairly certain that he could indeed get to the moon. I never doubt the ingenuity and perseverance of a person, but I do question the wisdom of anyone who truly believes they can accumulate the sum total knowledge of dozens of life-long experts in their profession in the blink of an eye. To me, it shows a lack of pragmatism and experience. While I feigned interest through-out the long winded details of how he could really get to the moon, I couldn't help but imagine Tom Cullen, a dim character from Stephen King's The Stand who thought everything was spelled "M-O-O-N". True, that wasn't very nice, but it kept me amused.

After he was done informing me of the fucking steps he would take to build a fucking rocket to get to the fucking moon, and how he'd solve all the major fucking issues, I realized that this was a person who would never be satisfied with just being intelligent. He had to constantly prove it. Problem was with no degree to wave around for bragging rights, he was left only with bragging about the clever things he had built or done. I'd been down the "degree envy" road many times before. In fact, I'd learned to hide some shit I'd accomplished.  In many jobs you can be either resented for a degree or disdained for a lower or no degree depending on which pissing contest you happen to walk in on. In some industries, it's not the degree itself, it's the discipline. Degree snobs never really work out well for me, so I tried to mollify his need to self-edify by giving him the respect for his brain right up front. It usually works, but not in this case. No matter how I tried to reassure him that a degree is not the entire measure of a person's smarts, he thought otherwise...and apparently projected those assumptions onto me. Yes, he was intelligent, but he wasn't smart, or right. Oh, and did I mention he was my supervisor and Dr. StrangeLove's "right-hand man"?

I knew I had to convince him quickly  that I wanted neither his academic admiration nor his jacked up  job. I just wanted to do my little task of rocking a Bomb.  That's right...I'll get to that later. Moon had a tendency to surround himself with familiar people. So the rest of the crew who ran Blunderdome were largely either his friends from the same neck of the woods or childhood friends of his son. But as Rock muttered under his breath during a frustrating attempt to stop Moon and the crew from short-cutting yet another project, "He thinks those boys respect him. But, they've seen him drunk and naked, they don't respect him at all. They just need a job."That was the first inkling I had of just how damned doomed I was.

There were quite a few pilot plant apparatuses operating at any one time in the Blunderdome, all manned by crews supervised by Moon. This way too much territory to be on top of to the degree one needed to be. But  Moon's massive ego told him differently.The crew that did the back-breaking work that fueled the primary money-maker consisted of Baby Huey, a classmate of Moon's son, Madhatter who ran and fixed the instrumentation, Rock, myself and Big Bertha, a bombastic six foot tall woman with the screeching, high-pitched voice of a Munchkin.  In the beginning, these social  dynamics were not hand-picked by Moon. Only one of Moon's "homies" was part of this particular team, but that balance would change drastically in a few short months.

Bertha was a chemist like myself and similarly doomed for the very same reasons. Unlike many in a similar situation she at least knew it. Plus, the rest of the crews did not like her at all.  They all suspected her of nefarious schemes involving lawsuits and walked on egg-shells around her in legal fear. I didn't believe it.  While she was somewhat talkative with a voice that could crack glass after first getting on it's fucking nerves, I really didn't mind her that much. I can't hear that well anyway and her voice range was well within my dead zone. She was an odd duck, but then again so were most of the people in this fucked up place. She was also a bit too anal retentive for the professional environment but that did not bother me either. But, it certainly bothered the shit out of everyone else. I tried to maintain good relations with her as well as the rest of our core crew, not to mention all the other crews. My motto: be on good terms with all and maybe they won't want to kill you. It was a good plan however it didn't take everything into consideration, like rocking a bomb.

The Bomb was a  part of a proposed research project for which I was hired. It consisted of a 50 year old piece of equipment found in the back of some old warehouse on which some of the original research of this kind was done. Problem was, the original research was performed in a reinforced bunker.  Where this piece of crap of a pressure vessel had been for the past 50 years living under an alias was not really known by anybody. This thing had "I will fucking kill you!" written all over it. Plus, no construction  integrity analysis had been done on it at all by any of the parties involved. The "client company" just expected us to "hook it up" and run it.

The process were were testing was archaic and abandoned years ago, but for some reason it had been resurrected by a new generation of young chemical engineers lead by the industry equivalent of Yoda. In actuality, it had been last used BEFORE Yoda's time so even he didn't know anything  about it,. In a nutshell, we were to take some refinery poop, combine it with a mixture of highly volatile gases (in the proper proportion), heat and pressurize, then rock the Bomb back and forth in 4/4 time to mix the contents. All without blowing the damned thing up. While we were rocking the Bomb just to make sure it was balanced and the pivots not rusted into immobility, a couple of Phd's from India stopped by to observe. After briefly shooting the technological parody on their smart phones, one of  two Docs remarked comically, "In our country, we use a mule for that!"  Of course, that made me feel even safer about it all.

It took a few more weeks to hook up sensors,  replace valves, tie in fluid circulation, pressure and heater controls and everything else to "make it work". What was missing from the master plan were a few small things like an exhaust fan in the small 'closet' that housed the device, grounding the device so that transferring the volatile contents didn't cause an explosion from static electricity and a gas sensor to detect when concentrations in the room reached explosive limits. I'm no engineer, but I do know a thing or two about safety. And they might have considered that the operator might require a gas mask when sampling unless he could hold his breath for 15 or 20 minutes. Long story short, safety was never part of the plan at all. That would even make a mule nervous. After failing to elicit ANY interest in these issues among others, I solicited the help of Rock. And he was appalled at what he saw.

His first suggestion was that I express my concerns to Moon and if necessary directly to StrangleLove. Cutting to the chase, neither option worked. StrangleLove didn't really talk to the minions unless there were accusations to be made. Moon was too busy making it work to worry about making it safe. After all, he wouldn't be running it. That was short-sighted and almost deadly decision as he would discover. Rock took it upon himself to redesign a few issues, grounding the damned thing first of all. He agreed with my reasoning that moving a vessel full of volatile gases and liquids through a hose, standing on concrete in the dry, cold winter air just might just be an explosion hazard. Truckers ground their hoses when transferring flammable materials, so I wasn't being totally paranoid. But I certainly was made to feel that way by Moon. One by one, Rock helped me make the safer. It would never be entirely safe, and he gave me some advice: "If you don't feel safe doing something, don't!" Truth be told, I didn't feel safe coming to work in this toxic, smoke filled man-made cave of  Mad Max technology. But, I needed the money. Still, it should have bothered me more a little that even in this hazardous environment, they put ME and my Bomb...outside.

The rest of the crew was similarly concerned about my isolation with such a dangerous contraption. "Try not to kill yourself," Baby Huey once joked. "We'll have to send your wife flowers and it'll just be sad and awkward!"  Madhatter likewise cracked wise about it. "If something goes wrong, you WON'T be the first to know about it," he remarked. His running joke was to say, "BOOM!" whenever I expressed some concern about the integrity of the vessel. But he was equally serious at times. "Moon and StrangeLove do not care about your safety. Only YOU care about your safety." Like Rock he advised, "If you don't feel safe about it, don't do it."  Big Bertha told me she would simply flat refuse to do it. "What kind of a boss expects someone to rock a bomb for 4 hours a day?" But, here's the catch: doing this particular project is what I got paid for. It wasn't what I thought I was signing on for, but it was too late now. The best I could do is make it as safe as possible by hook or by crook. So that's what I did. I didn't rely on Moon getting back to me to approve purchasing another bit of safety equipment or sensor. I asked twice, then I bought it. If a design issue vexed me, I asked Rock for help. Which meant Rock did it most times...but he let me help, trained me so I could fix it if necessary. He also explained what could go wrong, and how wrong it could go. I considered this entire process taking care of the issues rather than taking up the precious time of my superiors. However, it began to dawn on me that all this was stating to piss them off. And I couldn't figure out why.

As the assembly stage of the task neared completion, StrangeLove pushed Moon to have it ready to run actual tests, yesterday if possible. Meanwhile, I was shooting for a slightly more prolonged testing cycle to make sure this son-of-a-bitch didn't fail catastrophically. I suggested we fill it something less explosive and flammable and run an entire cycle, so we could "shake down" any issues in a safe manner. But Moon wasn't having any of that shit. He'd read...on-line..about a ratio of one toxic and flammable solvent coupled with another that when mixed with the refinery goo and shaken, not stirred, for several hours yielded a product that they were after. He volunteered to take the first shaking shift. He wasn't even positive we had any of the solvents at the facility, at least in the volumes we needed. Thus ensued the the wild goose chase through several other locations in the BlunderDome in search of process materials. After spending the morning locating and hauling the 5 gallon buckets to the test "closet". we...I mean I reluctantly loaded the materials. I distinctly recall asking, "Do we really want to fill this thing completely up? I mean, we may want to give it some room to expand." Moon poo-pooed my concern with all the confidence he did everything else...totally misplaced and unsubstantiated. "Fill it up,' he said. But, once again, this was their log-ride and I had no reason to doubt their expertise in these areas. Yet. So, I went to lunch and left it to him. I heard about the near explosion when I returned from MadHatter, who informed me it was good I wasn't anywhere around or involved. After recklessly heating highly flammable and expandable solvents, a drastic and "'unexpected' spike in the pressure sent the pressure gauge spinning like a top. Moon almost got his trip into space, it appeared. "B-O-O-M", that spells ill-thought out.

According to the rumor mill, Moon had only been this frightened once in his life. I thought this might slow things down, but it didn't. All it got me, I discovered months later, was accused behind closed doors of NOT being aware of the potential risk for such as pressure spike from completely filling up the reaction chamber leaving the materials nowhere to expand into, the literal definition of the word bomb. Moon's cockiness became my fault, his miscalculation made me a dumb-ass because as I would later learn, that's exactly how he rolls. By not being in that particular meeting with StrangeLove, naturally I was assigned all the blame for the oversight without opportunity to retort, "Oh, no, I told you that and you still made the call." Deep down, I was simply happy it was Moon and not me. I didn't even know at the time where the water hose was he'd used to cool down the reaction vessel to sub-explosive levels. But the real professional damage was done. From this time on out, the seeds of my lack of chemical prowess were firmly planted in StrangeLove's brain like kuru, while Moon set about a longer term strategy of proving me less than worthy as a chemist. And he was winning the game since I wasn't even aware that we were playing.

Rock and MadHatter maintained their advisory status, warning me about taking Moon's frequently hasty and often incomplete direct instructions as gospel without double-checking and asking for verification. I did go around him at times when it came to safety equipment. Despite his contention that a gas mask and gas monitor was not required, I bought them anyway. When it came to my safety, I found it more expedient to apologize later than to ask permission. The only thing running full steam ahead was the time table for running of the apparatus, not the safety of the operator. The mask embarrassed them since it presented the image of imminent danger involved with the process.  Even the grad students called me "DangerMan" when they saw me in that get up. When the engineers from the client company showed up to observe a run, I lost even more confident in the wisdom of this collective carnival of carelessness.

I began to question the preceding months of misguided trust I'd put in ANY of these individuals after their assumptions on one basic issue: they did not seem to grasp the practical concept that a gas existing as a liquid under pressure could not be collected as a liquid at atmospheric pressure once the pressure dropped during sampling. I'm no chemical engineer, but it was apparent to me that even if you collected the product under pressure, once the pressure was gone, so was the thrill. Without the capacity to test a pressurized sample, all was for naught. The material you want is a mixture of liquid AND gases so it off-gases upon reaching atmospheric. They, however, expected only a highly refined liquid stable at atmospheric. Sure, the goo might give up some refined liquid, but the gas was still gonna be gas at the end. And it had to go somewhere, i.e. into the test closet with me. Only then did they seem to comprehend my use of mask and monitor. Hell, I needed a spark-less vent fan to keep the fumes below explosive limits and they couldn't even get that done!  That's when  I got scared, because if they were having trouble with THAT concept, they didn't give a fuck about me as far as exactly how dangerous this process really was. In  fact, I don't think they gave a tinker's damn about safety at all. "M-O-O-N" that spells safety.

I was a fool but no HUGE fool, just a minor one for not quitting right then. But under the misconception that I could fix this situation, I stubbornly persisted.  I brought the safety issues up in a polite manner and got Rock to help with them as I discovered them. I set up my own procedure protocols to add safety into each step as best I could. Mind you, the original procedure document we received from the client was 15 single line steps on a half a page. Cliffs Notes of Cliff's Notes would have been longer. Once I was finished, we had a multiple page procedure, a spreadsheet giving theoretical pressure to be expected and other things including percent gas in air/concentration explosive thresholds. But, I also saw the con the client was running on these business amateurs. Mentioning to Bertha that this was a process the client safety department probably wouldn't let then get away with on their own sites, we deduced they could indeed farm it all out to a place like this where such restrictions are unknown and not their responsibility in case anything went wrong. I also mentioned that I thought we were being suckered. Sure enough, once the half dozen free tests were done, they evaluated the results...and ceased the project. Net profit to the university: zero. And that's when things got really hard on me at the Blunderdome. Hired for a dangerous project no one else would do, I suddenly found myself in limbo now that it was gone. Soft money gone even more flaccid, I had to go. And the their tool of choice: making me look unsafe and incompetent before I did it to them. The ejection seat was set.

This wasn't my first rodeo in the area of co-workers and/or supervisors trying to make me look bad so they could ride me out of town on a rail. I had another set of duties that involved testing samples coming off the primary pilot unit, the real money making operation. No issues arose until the last Bomb pilot run was completed. Silently, a bad sample slipped into my GC analysis. But I actually caught it because I pay  a-fucking-ttention to the results, not just run the samples. The analysis and posting of results was a total rat fuck due to the frequently breaking down old equipment and the crappy semi-functional spreadsheets we posted results into. MadHatter had warned me months ago to back up results on thumb-drive because they can just disappear at anytime. These weren't gremlins, these were motherfuckers at work. I had that happen a few times, but thanks to his heads up, I was prepared. Then they apparently shifted tactics.  MadHatter had told me the results are NEVER really reviewed, simply made available. "No one even looks at the results, so why are we even doing them?" he questioned more than once. Well,  on April 22, a green-wienie of a sample came through my analysis stream. After rerunning several times, it was apparent that what was in the test vial was NOT my proper sample. So, I resampled and reran with success. Then I updated the data on-line and moved on. End of problem, right?

Three weeks later, Moon and StrangeLove "questioned" my testing, suggesting that the data for a particular sample "did not look right".  And out of the dozens of analyses with multiple samples each, they zoned in on only one: the problem child sample I'd discovered. I was ready. Like I said, I'd been through this bullshit before. Generally, when you prove yourself more than capable, people quit fucking with you. But not in the BlunderDome. After showing them that not only did I catch that bad sample, I re-ran it several times to verify before re-sampling. The data they were questioning, I informed them, had been corrected weeks ago. But, I wondered to myself, WHY exactly would you be so on top of THIS one particular sample, yet not notice it was corrected, unless you were in on it at the exact time of the infraction? A mere point in a vast sea of good data that you could find was most likely because you put it there. I knew the truth but Moon was actually too stupid to just drop it all after presented with the new information. So I let it be known that I knew by remarking candidly, "If you'd checked the data before coming over here, you would have seen it was good. Why bother with good data that was bad three weeks ago?"

Then Moon struggled to find a hole in the records, but with MadHatter as witness, I showed him the records which showed several retests, subsequent renaming of the test result as per proper protocol, reflecting the day and batch that was run, as well as notations that followed the retesting. An airtight paper trail even an idiot could follow. MadHatter laughed out loud. "He wrote it all down!' he proclaimed to Moon, who couldn't hide the disappointment on his face. MadHatter's punishment for his jocularity was retesting all the GC runs I'd performed in the past 5 months. My punishment was Moon having an unwitting Baby Huey toss some of StrangeLove's customer samples during a cleanup only a week later. I witnessed it and thought nothing of it, assuming that Moon knew StrangeLove's wishes better than I. But when StrangeLove came down a few weeks later looking for them, the mere suggestion that someone had accidentally tossed them was not acceptable. How could I tell him that my supervisor, his toady Moon had allowed them to be trashed.

It was suicide to make that accusation, so I took the ass chewing rather than tell a truth Moon would certainly deny. Remarking only when asked repeatedly why I did not know where the samples were that, "They were not under my constant observation." Then he asked me in a nasty manner, 'Do you think this good chemistry?" The question threw me, as the context made no sense. What exactly did losing some samples have to do with chemical technique? Why would you even ask this in such a accusatory manner? Yes, it pissed me off. I'd finally had enough and answered, "Actually, I don't consider this chemistry at all!" He finally gave up with the interrogation. I'd won the battle of this very public trial but a week later I lost the war after they wrote me up as if nothing I'd said mattered. But the write up betrayed a false assumption carefully inserted, using a inflammatory language I'd heard a few times in the past year, casting doubt as to me actually having a chemistry degree. And those accusers were ALWAYS without degree, and like a painting that's not completely dried, apt to smear.

The light suddenly went on in brilliant luminescence. A person I'd known from a previous employment had recently told me recently that she'd overheard a problem employee I'd once had telling someone on the phone, "I don't even think he has a chemistry degree."  Words to that effect were in now my review and at that point, I knew I was fighting the illusion of illegitimacy. With my supervisor cutting me off at the knees in front of the king whose ear he had exclusive rights to, I had no chance to undo the damage  StrangeLove had made up his mind and there was no turning back his stubborn false assumptions. They apparently wanted me to cut and run like a guilty person, to quit and in effect give the impression that my "degree con" had been discovered.  Instead I dug in. And that's when the environment got intentionally dangerous.

It started with me being assigned to some of the most mundane, dirty work in the Blunderdome, maintaining, operating, repairing another hot, pressurized piece-of-shit contraption used for grad student research. The grad students were supposed to learn by operating and getting results from this ugly little thing, but as it was, we, the operators, did the lion's share of any work. I guess personal lab assistants came with their high tuition package.  There was more than a little discontentment among the other denizens of the Blunderdome about this practice. They get the Phd, and we get the satisfaction of being the first mule to carry their crap up the mountain. Welcome to the modern higher education system where the financially endowed    get to buy their credentials. "So this is where Phd's learn that don't have to do any fucking manual labor," I reflected silently to myself, weighing the arrogant behavior some "baby docs" exhibit upon graduation into the real work of industry. But, it all paid the same in the Blunderdome as far as I was concerned. We were paid for a task that made us some form of educational mercenary hired out by the university.

Madhatter added context to that peculiar reality. "No matter what you do, how little or how much, it's never enough for StrangeLove. Everybody here makes the same," he said. He went on to explain how he'd accidentally come across a spreadsheet that StrangeLove had accidentally attached instead of data to an email. 'What a dumbass!' he remarked. I didn't know whether to take that with a grain of salt or not but months later, snooping in a public database of legal filings, I came across definitive evidence that he was not telling the entire truth. MadHatter actually made more than me. That was certainly a revelation, but it didn't bend me out of shape despite what I considered my advanced education and experience. First of all, I'd ALWAYS been underpaid. Secondly, it verified to me that the pay scale at universities is just fucking arbitrary below Phd level. And last but not least, MadHatter understood the social dynamics in the BlunderDome better than I ever would. In that vein, he was a lot smarter than me.

I endured a final season of working for the university AND a half dozen grad students who shall remain nameless due to the fact they hadn't earned one in the real world yet. But here I was running the tedious experiments while they collected the data for their thesis. There was always a goat grad student who got stuck doing the lion's share of any physical work and I got to know them well. One of them, a diminutive Malaysian female hauled heavy loads while her stocky Nigerian male counterpart spent the time playing on his iPhone. Some worked directly with me and not all of them were bad. But some were utter assholes! Being inexperienced in real world politics, I could smell their complicity in the grand design of my demise. But as a grad student, you are a slave to the whims of the professor responsible for the piece of paper you are spending so much time working...or just waiting on, so I understood the professional dynamics and pressure. I just did not know if the open valves, broken reactors and other malfunctions and hindrances I was experiencing daily were by their active involvement or only their passive enabling of someone else. But then there was more than one perpetual student who was in school not to graduate, just to be in school. school is a lot of fun when you have no responsibilities or financial worries. Some were in absolutely no hurry and actually did little more than sit through an experimental run and jot down some data. This certainly wasn't  what I imagined as doctorate level research, but in this game preserve of society, how much work you did depended more on how rich you were rather than how hard you worked. I suppose some were so rich they didn't do shit or even pretend to.

Plagued by open valves, bad apparatus assemblies and other malfunctions that repeatedly delayed runs, I found myself increasingly under the gun and taking all the blame. I knew what was happening to me but  I still thought I could endure the back-breaking tasks and outrun the harassment. In a hostile environment , the main mistake one makes is suspecting anyone in particular. That lead to a whirlpool of suspion and paranoia only to discover later you chose the wrong antagonist. It's a waste of time that drains mental resources, so I refused to be lured in by the sleights of hand that cast the blame to others. Making Moon and StrangeLove aware of the problems provided neither remedy nor remote interest from them,  so I reluctantly realized I could not win a game rigged from the top down. Still, the possibility of 500 degree F tar under pressure spewing out of an open valve created much more of a menace to me than lack of job security, and the closer the calls, the more I understood the need for me to get the hell out. I had already figured out that projected funding for my job was based on pilot runs on the Bomb, which no one was buying research time on. They could have just told me that and the parting would have been a bit more....civilized. But the duplicitous can never just tell it like it is. Not in their nature. Lacking the mechanical skills at 7 months to put together random configurations of equipment as well as a person who had worked on rebuilding four-wheelers or centrifugal pumps for two decades, I was trapped, pinched between at a "weak point" I couldn't excel in at the moment and the deep blue sea. I'd tenaciously held my ground against the initial onslaught, selectively targeting my professional reputation as an organized profession scientist, but the mechanical demands were starting to eat my lunch. And time was running out.

In addition, I had no really good instruction in my weakest area anymore. No second set of eyes keeping me safe. Rock had been forced into retirement shortly after my confrontation with StrangeLove, reportedly for asking him why he allowed a relatively new and untrained person to build and rock a haphazard Bomb with absolutely no supervision. When StrangeLove replied he thought everything was safe and didn't know Moon was being negligent and leaving me alone like that, Rock replied, "Why didn't you know?" eerily identical to what Strangelove asked me about those goddamned samples he had to have known his own goon Moon had tossed. Catching him off guard with no real reply, Rock was suddenly a short-timer...after building the whole damned place. As if on cue, a well placed howitzer shell from Bertha in the form of a hostile workplace complaint landed in his bunker. The incident stemmed from Rock working late one night and the unexpected appearance of Bertha with her shrill, unnerving voice suddenly shaking him from the illusion of being absolutely alone in a quiet warehouse. Yes, that would unnerve anyone, but no one could match Rock's  descriptive string of profanity when startled. Before he was allowed to retire, he gave me one last set of instructions, including, "Always be safe. If it's not safe, walk away." With that, he walked away and I never saw him again.

That day for me came in early September. I saw crystal clear than any safety issues I had with the reckless way they were conducting sponsored research were in part ignorance, in part willful negligence...and in part purposeful.  By allowing Moon  (now operating without Rock's experience and pragmatic wisdom) to run amok with dangerous fixes and solutions to problems with issues he did not completely understand,  Strangelove was only one bad day from a major incident. I realized that was meant for me. Of course, without Rock, I was left high and dry, captive only to Moon's rapid fire, incomplete and on more than one occasion completely misleading instructions.  He wasn't even hiding he had it in for me anymore. One day, sitting at the computer console that operated the newest dirty little pilot test, I was testing the pressurization of the vessel. I felt a drop or two of warm water hit my face and tracked down the culprit: a valve had been removed and no plug inserted, leaving that portion of the apparatus open and aimed directly at the operator. Very fucking dangerous if we had been running. So, I fixed the problem and left the valve off  (assuming any number of people with complete access to this unit had a real REASON for removing the valve) but inserted a plug.

A day later....even the plug was removed. It could have been a grad student, it COULD have been anyone. I had no way to find out and the only person with access to the vast array of cameras situated all around the warehouse certainly wasn't interested. No reason for that little "equipment alteration" other than to cause injury, I decided, so a week later, I resigned. All the efforts to make me appear "unsafe', I took head on. All efforts to make me look incompetent, I took head on. I took on every dirty task, every mechanical challenge on an increasingly steep learning curve, plus every effort to make me quit. I'd experienced these sorts of things before, but an effort to inflict bodily harm? That was unknown territory for me. I knew no one had my back anymore and the wiser option was to hit the dusty road. Not because I was defeated, but because I was smart enough not to make a pissing contest the reason I was horribly injured.There are many hands that can open the many valves of a monster machine like this, but only one set of eyes to spot them. I was outnumbered and no one man can win every battle alone. All it took was one small oversight to leave me permanently scarred or worst.  I thought the employment interlude might be short...but it ended up being a resource draining 9 month journey in the darkest intergalactic space before I crash landed in the Salt Mines.

In leaving the previous job for this one, it now occurred to me that I chose badly in seeking to escape being responsible for everything to end up labeled irresponsible in all things. It was a career blunder that landed me here in the BlunderDome. But being responsible for everything was the only thing Moon aspired to. It was his mental bling, a solitary adornment on an obviously blank slate of self accomplishments. As Rock put it, all he needed was a sign around his neck that said, "I R smart!"  Sadly, that is the mark of a smart person...who truly doesn't believe it. And smart people will sometimes do heinous things and tell terrible lies to hide their insecurity. I, on the other hand only wanted to be,  "The best at what I do," no matter what it is, and left the fuck alone. I didn't care who knew it as long as the job was done at the highest level possible. That didn't work out in the Blunderdome.  I'm not sure if a little more ego would have gotten me through, but it certainly would have gotten me more fucking respect! Moon remarked as I was packing up to leave, "It takes a big man to admit when they just can't win." Yeah, well it takes a small man to gloat after winning a rigged game.
"M-O-O-N" that spells prick!  Thus, I was driven out of yet another job on  a horse with no name, wearing a clown head i didn't deserve. But, in a previous job, I was increasingly responsible for everything and miraculously became certified as an expert in the field after only 3 months on the job. And no one was more surprised than me....

Epilog: A parody of "Beat It" I might have overheard on Moon's iPod.
Then again, it could have just been the fumes.

Hey, chemist don't you come around here!
It's my single goal to make you disappear.
It's your college education that I definitely fear,
So beat it, just beat it.
I've lost so many brain cells I'm not thinking really clear.
I'm on so many meds, can't even drink a beer (Oooo).
I can make it tough, and make you really sad,
So beat it, and I don't care if you get mad!
Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it
 I'll cheat rather than be defeated.
I don't wanna hurt you, then again I just might.
It doesn't matter a rat's ass it's not fuckin' right.
Just beat it!

I'm out to get you, better run while you can.
Make your mind up now or I'll give you a hand.
If you want to stay alive, you' ll be safer if you ran!
So beat it, just beat it
I'll have to show you that you're really not smart.
And if you prove me wrong, I'll tear your world apart.
I'll  embarrass and harass you, 
and make you look bad,
So beat it. Yeah, I'm crazy...just a tad!
Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it.
I've come too far to be unseated.
I'm the head honcho, so screw your damned degree.
I can get StrangleLove to agree only with me,
So beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it!

What? You still here?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Confessions 2--Prisoners of War

"In a salt mine,  no one can hear you scream. They're all screaming, too."
God money's not looking for the cure. God money's not concerned about the sick among the pure.
God money let's go dancing on the backs of the bruised. God money's not one to choose .

Head like a hole. Black as your soul. I'd rather die than give you control.

"Head Like a Hole" from Pretty Hate Machine

In one week, it will be the 6 month anniversary of my arriving at a small, privately owned chemical business I'll call the Salt Mine. This labor camp is run by the attention impaired owner I prefer to call The Warden along with a VP he captured a couple of decades ago I'll call The Orck. The Warden was the cheap son of  a dead rich man and a scatter-brained entrepreneur who ironically had the air of being a know-it-all. Unfortunately, he frequently was a don't-know-at-all type, making arbitrary decisions based not on what was, but what should be. Constantly chasing new ventures while his old ones burned, he was the distracted captain of a slowly sinking ship. He was also a liar. I came to know that a week or two into the job when I walked out of the lab for less than a minute. When I returned, he told me I'd l overflowed a vessel and flooded the floor while in plain sight, the reservoir in question wasn't even full yet. Pragmatically I reasoned that he was just trying to reinforce the need to keep an eye on that little issue. But, it nagged me inside the ease with which he overtly lied and then cruelly chastised over a minor issue.

The Orck had good attention to detail depending which side of the bi-polar imbalance she was on but also had a nasty habit of allowing things to go wrong so she could bite your head off and eat your brain. And perhaps I should say she had good attention to detail but not perfect, which really pisses off a person with a nazi like sense of perfection. Then, there are the four other people who run the place: The POWs. I hired in as one of those. Gollum ran the plant operations, i.e. did all the work. I call him Gollum not because of his appearance or any unnatural obsession with anything the plant had to offer. It's only because he was small and wiry and knew his way around the forest. "You are in an unsafe workplace," he advised me as he leaped from tank top to tank top like Spiderman. The Warden and The Orck worked him 7 days a week under the mistaken notion that their last minute whims were the flawless decrees of a Pharaoh. If there were any problems, any at all, then Gollum took all the blame.  If Gollum were fortunate enough to have a that lasted more than a week, that is...then shit ran downhill. Let's say rather it "rolled down a gentle incline".

There was an office manager, Persephone. Persephone was highly skilled and captive, occasionally escaping only to be dragged back into this madhouse of misshapen egos. Like a good prisoner of war, she bestowed savvy advice to the new forced labor between repeated escape attempts. One day, she finally got away. Ironically, they tried to lure her back into her cell by promising her more freedom. She politely declined and disappeared over the hill in a cloud of dust.

Then there was my cellmate, Skywalker. Actually, he was anything but. However, in his mind, he was the final hope of mankind, a genius of unparallelled intellect and defender against injustice. What he was was an inept, deluded, egotistical megalomaniac. Only two types of people exhibit that level of confidence: experienced employees and arrogant assholes. Skywalker fell into the later category, and I met him at the Gates of Hell one morning in April.

I was standing beside my car at the front gate of the plant as I was repeatedly pressing the "Call" button trying to get in. I briefly wondered if maybe I should have called ahead, afterall, what kind of an idiot would forget a new employee just might be arriving at 8:00 a.m. and either be on the lookout, or at least leave the gates open. Ah, but if you leave the gates open, someone might escape. That should have been my clue.
After a few minutes of inane button pushing up drove Skywalker in his TIE-Fighter.  He certainly looked the part: Hollywood hair, sunglasses and an arrogant attitude that permeated out of his vehicle like a scent. Thinking he was one of the regular minions I approached his car, asking if he knew the code. His solution was to call someone. Genius! So what was the phone number? Riiiiight, we're both new, we know nothing.
But suddenly, in the eerie fashion of a a haunted house movie, the gates suddenly opened. I returned to my car and entered, Skywalker following closely behind as the gates slammed shut.This began my first day in the Salt Mines. Many had entered those gates before us, but few had survived.

The Orck cheerfully escorted us to our cells. I barely heard the cell door lock behind us in the lab. We were given our inmate numbers. Our inmate duties had me as he-who-is-responsible-for-absolutely-everything and SkyWalker, Lord of Ego and ill-defined research, responsible for nothing. I admit, it irked me that this inexperienced narcissist son-of-a-bitch was making the same money as me. But as if to add insult to injury, we were both making only as much as the college intern who came and went at will like a trustee. But this was the only circus in town, so I had to travel with it, at least for a while. They told me they wanted a juggler but they put me in a trapeze act. And what they really needed was a mind reader.

So I performed all three acts, walking an emotional tight-wire while juggling an increasing number of responsibilities and trying to read the mind of an Orck. It's hard to read the mind of an Orck...there's just not a lot there. And what is there is dark and twisted. All of this while trying to tunnel out of this cell and into a holding cell on higher ground lest I drown my career in the rising tide of despair flooding the place.I was the only one digging, though. Skywalker was actually happy to be in the cell despite the rising water. He did provide support in the form of endless chatter about his favorite subject: himself. It wasn't easy trying to keep a dozen balls in the air while being chided as being unable to juggle if I ever dropped just one. On top of that, walking the tightrope of keeping a job in such a harsh environment was complicated by someone constantly trying to knock me off thhe tightrope. And it didn't take a mind-reader to figure out who.

Skywalker and his personal troubles were the center of his own fucked up universe, an ever expanding black hole of delusion and woe that threatened to encompass the entire lab. I curtailed that shit at every oppotuniity. What I couldn't control was the sadistically odd Warden and his bi-polar Orck who alternated between sycophantic pandering and wailing rage. The outbursts occurred in situations where time resources were inadequate for the magnitude of tasks. This translates to the majority of the population as every fucking day. On top of all that, hidden elements in the environment had a perchance for trickery and sabotage. Having existed in such a dangerous universe before, I determined to nip it in the bud.

The problem with sabotage is the culprit likes to leave clues implicating others. I learned long ago not to play that game. You'll find yourself self-guessing yourself about everyone. You'll diminish your resources chasing phantoms. Instead, I took away the means for mischief. Valve left open flooding lab? I turned the water off at the source. Sampling irregularities? I got them myself. Salting an internal audit with fabricated nonconformities?  I'd seen that trick. This was not my first rodeo.

So how do you catch a rat while not looking for them? Generally, every time you fail to fall into a trap, whomever screams loudest is the likely culprit. Or maybe only a culprit. Doesn't matter. The bottom line is you don't really give a fuck who it happens to be. All you want is to annihilate their ability to affect you negatively. But what if you discover the saboteur in question is the very person or the people busting your balls to achieve more and more in return for your meager intern salary? Awkward.

Imagine being in a prison run by maniac, in a cell with a lunatic, tormented by a sadistic guard.
Then add a dash of collective illusion colored with the pretense of business ethics. Couple with the soundtrack of mock indignation timed to play in an endless loop at the smallest of errors. If that doesn't get inside your head then endure the complete mental collapse of your manager and witness the vile exhortations that spew forth about all who came before you. The worthless, useless others who produced nothing. According to this manager, only they really do anything around here. All the while, you're buried under a steaming pile of their previously neglected issues. The bitter flavor of hypocrisy was never an acquired taste but it was a taste I'd come to know well over the next few months.

Five months and  four batshit crazy breakdowns later, my time there was up. Skywalker never accomplished a damned thing other than pissing off some Sith Lords in the legal system and talking non-stop. The Orck led him from the cell for execution a mere two weeks before they shot me at dawn. Even with a noose around his fucking neck the poor deluded fool was expressing how fortunate he was to be there. He was still babbling when they finally dropped the trap-door. I heard the snap and the Salt Mine went silent. I sat in my cell juggling, watching my time slip away like sand through an hour-glass, no possible parole and no escape. They actually gave me a hammer and attempted to get me to construct my own gallows, but executing my right as condemned man, I requested, 'Shoot me, motherfucker!" As they scrambled around, cussing and trying to find a bullet, I watched the final two weeks of my employment trickle away. It bought me two weeks but it wasn't enough.

When they finally came for me, they forced a sign around my neck that proclaimed, "Cannot Juggle". That's the thanks I got. For a few months, I'd briefly held the world upon my shoulders while The Warden and The Orck stumbled blindly in search of golden apples I already had in my back pocket. I had witnessed the insanity and ineptitude of management, endured the babbling of a madman and managed organizational dysfunction with duct tape. For this I was banished into the desert of unemployment.  Again. It had taken me nine months to get here in the first place and only five to leave. But, I proved to be a hard act to follow. Going through three more chemists in only 6 weeks, I shot the sheriff and I shot the deputy right in their puny ass bottom line.

But, the damage to me was already done. I divested myself of my most precious items in return for some stale bread and water, making plans to cross the night.  At this age, my wife and I were forced to take only what we could carry on our backs and disappear into the darkness. But, I wasn't always just a chump chemist for a couple of trolls running a salt mine. Once upon a time, I did university research....

"What do you mean you expect me to juggle, too?"

Epilog: What's On The Warden's Playlist

1. "With Orck, Without You!"  by FU2
2. "I Get Money 4 Nothing (U Get Shit 4 Free)"  by Dire Poverty
3. "Welcome to the Bungle"  by Huns and Moses
4. "Smells Like Broken Spirit" by Delirium
5. "Welcome to Your Nightmare" by All Us Cooped Up

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Confessions 1--The Nightshift

"I must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque!"
Wrap my soul in bandages.
I'm tired of this war.
Go ahead and cut me.
I can't even feel it anymore. 

"Ringfinger' from Pretty Hate Machine

It's 2 a.m. I'm sitting in my library on my "day" off. It's not a fancy library, it's just hundreds of books that I've read and collected over four decades. Of course, there are the scattered first editions of books I've never read sitting next to the worn paperbacks of those I've read over and over again. References. No, not just references, definitive references. Math, chemistry, business. The list goes on. Books I thoughtfully accumulated assuming if I ever needed them, I'd have them. I'd share them. I did both.

The internet was supposed to makes books obsolete. Bullshit!  the book industry is on the ropes but the real need for books is undiminished. What bookstores that remain operate on such thin margins, they buy a complete works of Shakespeare for a buck so they can sell it for two. But the value of a book is not the price, somewhat arbitrarily assigned in my opinion. The value is in the contents. If you use books like I do, you already know that what you can find on the internet for free is a far cry from the global repository of all knowledge we were promised. There's more porn than knowledge out there and the trending topics of the masses involve more celebrity scandal than schematics. I use books, I know. And more often than not, the "mundane" information you need is in chapter one of a text, not in the contents of a search engine. Information that is USEFUL is locked up in paid subscriptions to niche sites which still may have 1 billion documents...but not what you need.

I love my library, but it's time is short. What I have spent a lifetime putting together will vanish to the winds in a few short weeks. Why? Well, it started with me losing my job. Again. Unable to afford the modest accommodations which house my library, my wife, our bird and until a few days ago, our dog, are no longer within reach of my economic means. Simple as that. We find ourselves at a crossroads with a bucket of woe in all directions. We even had to scrap together $53 in 1976 Kennedy 50 cents pieces, two dollar bills and loose change to put our 17 year old dog out of her misery. We've always given to animal charities. Play it forward, you say? That's a myth.

If you are are a sterotypical member of society reading this right now, you've got two stereotypical trains of thought going on. One is that of a snotty, well-to-do book-nerd sipping cognac, going on and on about books, surrounded by the smell of leather volumes in immaculate condition bitching about falling on hard times. The other is that of an inept, problem employee who reads all the time and can't seem to hold down a job. You'd be wrong on both counts. Don't fucking judge me!

What I am is a floor cleaner for a large supermarket chain. Graveyard shift. I work with the unseen employment ranks, laboring when most of society is asleep. We serve you the burgers at Jack-in-the-Box when you stay up past your bedtime. On the other hand, they serve us food they would think of serving in the day time, just because they're the only place open when we eat. We guard the storage units, clean the office buildings, flip the switches on the technology you depend on when no one is watching. We work with the sad, the lonely, the freaks and the refuse relegated to the darkness because society doesn't like to look at them in the harsh daylight. Nightshift is the last refuge of the lost and rejected. It's purgatory without a dress code. The hardworking rejects operate right next to the idle slackers just like a classic hardback sits along side a cheap romance novel in a dark storage shed of unwanted books, gathering dust.

Some are the people the day-timers don't want to look at or talk to. The person with the knife scar across the face doesn't 'fit-in' to the office decorum. The awkward deaf dude who doesn't get your jokes gets the 3rd shift. It's pathetic that the "Chatty Cathy" on days who wastes everybody's time with her personal issues simply cannot tolerate "Prison Patty on days, even if Patty has truly learned the value of just doing her job and shutting the hell up. Introvert? Nightshift. Minority? Nightshift. Lazy-eye? Working on the nightshift. "I do not tolerate laziness in any form.You'd better get both of those eyes working, mister, else I'll cut your pay in half. Of course, you do have the option of quitting." Nightshift is the Pliocene Exile of a modern society, the only country for old men these days.

One would be in error to assume the majority of night-workers are druggies. Actually, most people working nights can't even afford drugs. Plus druggies seem to prefer they can party all night and harass the waitresses working at the 24 hour diner. They catch up on their sleep during their day jobs. Nights are where the undesirable and unfortunate meet the totally normal. Much like the blending of late night and early morning shifts at 3:00 a.m., it's not where you are now, it's where you started that defines you. Every person who works at night is a book with a story to tell that no one reads because it's dark.

I clean up the discarded chicken bones and empty soda bottles carefully stowed in the corners of aisles by people who like to consume while shopping. They are not always the stereotypical poor or meandering derelicts one might assume. Some are the entitled, filling baskets with their goods while they cheerfully consume beverages and candy they are simply too lazy to pay for.  Maybe they try something new for the first time before stashing it in my janitorial cart if it's not to their liking. Night crews draw suspicion of larceny like a lightning rod, so thanks for that, asshole! I wish I could say they wear diamond rings, fur coats and drive off in Cadillacs but that would be as big a fairy tale as the stories about welfare queens using food stamps. Fairy tales are for those with weak arguments and no facts.No, these freeloaders look like everyone else and drive ordinary cars, albeit looking a a little bit better fed than the homeless, who do a similar supermarket buffet shuffle. At least the homeless are sneaky about it rather than so goddamned arrogant. And security never seems to follow them around the store like they do the blacks and the Hispanics so no wonder they consume with confidence.

I wasn't always a floor sweeper, though. Once, I was somebody else. Not a "somebody". Never a somebody, just someone else. All that I have done, seen and experienced has brought me to this particular vanishing point. If you've come this far, you might be curious how I came to be here, too. I'll tell you, but maybe not in the conventional way. I'd personally prefer satire, but satire is sometimes not about what I think, it's about what I make other people think. But this is a confession of sorts. It's all about my perspective, a subjective view of the lack of objectivity in others. It's a forensic examination of an entire career spanning three decades, one that brought me here despite my destination. I will take you back, step by step to the point of origin. Or maybe just a point of origin. There were many permutations along the way, so who knows exactly where things went awry. Still, I think it is reasonable to start not at the the very beginning, but rather a time preceding this one. Three weeks ago, it was 8:00 a.m. and I was just a chemist...


   "Just Get Through The Night" by Styx--Written by Tommy Shaw--Kilroy was Here

This could be the longest night in recorded history.
And as for sleep, you might as well just cross it off the list of possibilities.
Now I'm as brave as the next man. I won't turn and run from a fight.
And I could last a million years if I just get through this night.
I could be a novelist, tell secrets never heard.
Pour my soul into each and every sentence, but I just can't find the words.
Still I know that you're out there, and you can relate to it all.
And I could bear the cold and stormy winter, if I just get through this fall.
Don't you know there's no place on this earth where you can run to escape the pain of a broken heart.
It's useless to spend the time it takes you try. But can't you see that I'm here and I'm looking just the same. And I don't know why...

I could be a movie star, the King of Hollywood.
Make them cry, dramatically pretending to keep romance alive.
And I would humbly thank my director, and everyone involved from the start.
I could blow them all away, if I'd only find the the part.
If I just get through this night
If I just get through this night