1.

A small, framed sign is mounted to the office lunchroom wall. Decades ago, it was stamped from tin and painted red, and gold letters were spelled across its face:

Small personal items have from time to time mysteriously disappeared from the coatrooms, and it is suggested that all staff members take their gloves, purses, and like items with them to their desks for safekeeping.”

The vocabulary, the outmoded serial comma, the implication that “all staff” carried purses and gloves, these features suggest an era of ladies-only office space, typing pools, hourglass figures poured into woolen skirts. I ache to lunch with those working girls, to hang with them and their severe hair, their wrist-length gloves; to politely make our way through the work week then attend Friday’s cinq a sept and, sometimes, follow it up with snacks at someone’s modest two-room bachelorette. I long to meet ladies who needed reminding that not all ladies are ladylike, that some are even thieves, and that clothing and coins should therefore be kept under guard.

Instead, I’m surrounded by dour women who bolt for the train at 4:37, and traveling executives who skip lunch to attend three-hour budget meetings then fill the nearby lounges, frisky and determined to get scotch down their necks as fast as it will go before happy hour, and discount drinks pricing, is up.

Best to lunch alone.

I shrug into my coat then walk to a café where lunch is a simple beauty. The place is small and crowded, with a din that swells while coffee machines crank and steam. Cooks in white shirts and soiled aprons load sandwiches onto plates and shove them across the steel counter. Today, it’ll be chicken salad with lettuce and diced apples, two tiny pickles tucked between the bread and waxed paper. The waitress wipes her hands on her thighs and calls, “Next! Pay attention! We have no more quiche!” I always take mine to go.

I come here each Tuesday, not for the counter staff, their uniforms, or the perfectly crusted bread, but for the brown bag folded twice at the top, creased just right for carrying. Also, for the moment at my desk when I arrange my lunch and dig in. It reminds me of my favourite picture book from when I was small: Bread and Jam for Frances, the story of a badger who ate only one thing until she was changed forever by a schoolmate who laid out his meal then ate it in rotation. A bite of sandwich, a bite of pickle, a bite of hardboiled egg, a sip of milk, and made it all come out even.

 

2.

I have two résumés: the one I wrote down and send to prospective employers; and, the one that tumbles around in my head, and which I wish I could submit instead. The former is full of action language, false-sounding adjectives, and boastful statistics about project management, mergers, and proficient grammar-wrangling. It sounds nothing like me. The latter begins more honestly:

I am quiet. I’m pretty, but in a sensible way, and like equally pretty but sensible shoes. I am a thinker – I have a great idea that just needs the right person to get it off the ground. That person may or may not be me.

This week, I will begin looking for more challenging work, after six years behind the same desk. Sunday night, I set my alarm for fifteen minutes early, the perfect balance between ridiculous and enough time for a new start. I lay out my clothes and climb into bed.

Monday dawns roughly. I slip out of bed without waking my kitten and head to the bathroom without turning on the lights. I make it through the shower, the cosmetics, the brushing of teeth just fine, but the ambush happens as I reach the kitchen, toweling my hair and debating between granola in a bowl (at home) or granola in a bar (on the go). This morning has some fight in it. It’s laid my crocodile belt as a booby trap and dispatched slacks and a blouse to land the first blows. As the scaly leather cinches around my right ankle, I step on the buckle and go down clutching my heel. The pants kick at my face while sleeves muss my hair. I’m going to look like hell at the audit meeting.

I put up a fair struggle and the battle has no clear victor. At one point, the blouse snaps at my thighs like a locker room towel, and becomes wrinkled beyond simple ironing. The dark pants bristle with carpet lint and cat fur, and a cuff lets down its hem. With five minutes remaining if I’m going to make the streetcar, I bodyslam my fight-weary shirt, flattening it against the kitchen tiles and using my shower-hot belly to press out some of the more obvious creases. The pants can be fixed with a staple or two at the office; the belt, that fucking traitor, stays home today.

Strappy heels and a lunchbag packed the night before, and out the door, running fingers through my freshly tangled hair. A cereal bar wrapper (raspberry-filled) pokes from my breast pocket.

 

3.

It’s 10:15 and the office ladies are sharing recipes for Sunday roast beef: the best way to oven-cook, to barbecue, to stew the carved remains Monday night. They speak of optimal cuts, broad flat brushes, rotisserie rods and the best utensils for boring holes the perfect depth and diameter to accommodate peeled garlic. The foundation, I learn, for a nice moist rump is to slather the raw beef in pungent condiment, sear it, then lower the temperature and have patience. No opening the grill hatch to monitor charring, no peeling back the foil to peer into the roasting pan. Park yourself on the deck or in the TV room, have a few wine coolers, and let the mustard work its private magic.

There are basics, but each lady favours a minor deviation from the universal guidelines, individualising her technique and thereby the meal that is brought to table. Each takes pride in casting her voice loudly above the others, pronouncing the superiority of basting over a single liberal mustard application (it’s a roast, after all, not a poultice!), poo-pooing the addition of root veg to the pan, or advising that in her opinion, Carla’s cooking duration is far too short for these days of Mad Cow and listeria. Apparently one needn’t splurge on ridiculous fancy mustard; an ordinary yellow-plastic squeeze-bottle variety, the same as for burgers and dogs, is more economical. And geez, do you know what they charge at those gourmet markets for stuff with grains and chunks? Outrageous! Practically criminal!

I feel left out as this culinary moment is shared by the sporty mom from accounting, her butch yet fancy supervisor, the twenty-two year old clerk who has never traveled outside her hometown, the wizened temp who seems up for anything yet excited about nothing, and the Filipino office manager who agonises over minute daily operations. Until now, I’ve prided myself on having nothing to contribute to their nattering daily salon; I’ve set myself apart from these women with whom I pass more time each week than I spend with my boyfriend. But, clearly I’ve underestimated the cross-cultural significance of a well-done pot roast. The only one with nothing to say is me.

Eavesdropping on their finishing touches (plating and carving), I think of television commercials depicting holiday meals, the montage of suburban scenes and swelling soundtrack, the family all smiles as someone presents a platter of grilled meat, basted turkey, or heaped pasta to her eager kin. And now, I know how to cook the dish that’s about to be dined upon a few moments after a brand flashes on-screen and a giddy child is swing high into the air.

TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , ,

AMANDA MILLER is a writer and editor who lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. She moonlights as a baker and is currently writing a book about the intersections between cake and love. You can find her work in the anthology, The Edible City (Coach House Books, 2009). She also appears online at http://cakesandneckties.wordpress.com and http://hangoverhelper.wordpress.com/.

54 responses to “More Time Than I Spend with 
My Boyfriend”

  1. […] about the various offices where I’ve passed the past fifteen years of my worklife, please check out my latest story at The Nervous […]

  2. bill says:

    Bbq, and an electric carver

  3. Jordan Ancel says:

    This reminds me very much of when I was stuck in jobs I had no passion for— the monotonous routines of the day, the familiar cafés on the corner, the idle chit-chat by the photocopier, the longing for somethingto change.

    Very vivid portrait of that world, Amanda. I really feel a profound and familiar malaise, and the yearning to be set free.

    • Things are in motion…griiiiiinding slowly, but grinding toward *something* good nonetheless! Ohhh the idle photocopier chitchat…it seems especially cruel that I sit adjacent to the fax machine where congregating is inevitable…

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely piece, Amanda. Your tone is just lovely.

  5. Matt says:

    This essay just made me want to quit my job. And in a very spectacular fashion, setting-the-copier-on- fire-cussing-out-my-department-manager style.

    As Jordan mentions, this does a very good job of capturing the sense of ennui that can set in within this sort of office environment. And it is spectacularly well-written.

    • Today, I went for three (three!!) walks, partly to enjoy the sudden May sunshine, and partly because I was going to reenact the Peter freakout from Office Space at any moment. Ennui is shorthand for danger, you’re both dead-right.

      • Matt says:

        I’ve never lasted longer than three years at any job. I’m currently halfway through my second year…and starting to feel the urge to move on. Because I swear, it’s getting harder and harder not to knife to death the yahoos who bring their dumbfuckery to my desk instead of figuring it out themselves.

        Might just be time to move on….

        • Amanda says:

          I feel that way about apartments and jobs…settle awhile but don’t get too, too settled!

          With living quarters, the sign to move on is typically the moment when I realise I am no longer keeping my closet space under control, or attempting to be polite to freaky neighbours, haha.

          When it comes to jobs, it’s definitely the dumbfuckery and miscellaneous fucktardation.

          : )

  6. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Jordan nailed it – so well-written that I wanted to hang myself (then again, I’m “having a moment” of my own, work-wise). And, traveling further down Matt’s road, I would never recommend that someone make a – ahem – career limiting move in the current economy but…. When Constantius Chlorus invaded Britain, the first thing he did was burn his own ships. Sometimes you do your best work when there’s no turning back. At the very least, I’d send out a few resumes with the real opening. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    • Recently, a friend asked me to proofread her resume and cover letter and my gut impression was “I am so fucking jealous you had the nerve to put that in your second paragraph!” and then I quashed that with “ohhh, this second paragraph? Sounds totally unprofessional, you really ought to change that.”

      But, I shut my mouth, copyedited as requested, she left the jealous-unprofessional bit in, and landed a sensational job she really loves. As I cast my own net outward, I’m trying to channel a bit of my friend’s sense of self in the face of needing to make a good first impression.

      Nothing ventured, nothing gained indeed.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Oh how perfectly you recall those closed-into-work days, Amanda, when only a few topics are appropriate for group-speak, and breaking out of that mold is unimaginable. When tasks and coworkers have become habitual, predictable and dull. Nothing challenges. Everything could be done on automatic pilot. All is boring. You are shut down from it, and you see nothing further ahead that’s exciting. Ennui, indeed! The emptiness that needs filling.

        And you’re now especially aware of what will fill that emptiness, because your gut told you when you reacted to your friend’s “unprofessional” cover letter paragraph. It’s perfect timing, your brief episode of schadenfreude. You discovered that your instincts about what “works” in a cover letter are correct. Have fun with those cover letters, then—-one could go to your friends’ new place of work! A good book of Way Wildly Strange cover letters would be a fun and freeing read, as well. Oh, why not?!

        • Amanda says:

          Hmmm, I wouldn’t call it “emptiness”, so much as a sense of having landed in the wrong place…

        • Judy Prince says:

          What would the right place make you feel like, Amanda? I’m so continuously struck by a negative thought, especially if it’s persistent, being flipped. Like your initial reaction to your friend’s “unprofessional” paragraph in her cover letter. Your gut told you that it worked. It’s that “gut” response I can’t quit spotlighting.

          What are you up to, then, re the job search? I wish I could wish upon you the joy of paid unemployment (i.e., retirement) that I soooooo fortunately experience every day! Oh I wish all young people could retire—–if only for a year’s paid sabbatical or something—–with no downsides. It’d be, I’m convinced, something like a trip to a nother country: the intellectual/emotional/physical jolts of adjusting and surviving and trying to communicate and not knowing where the hell you are when you wake up or go out on the street; the shock of odd sounds and behaviours; the joy of having done a difficult thing, p’raps over and over and over again; the triumph of the spirit and of new understandings.

          You got me started, Amanda!!! Now what are you doing? What are you writing? How about that suggested book on Way Strange cover letters?

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    I think you should steal that sign. I’ll buy it from you.

    “This morning had some fight in it” is wonderful.

    I am very happy to say that I never in my life had a job where I had to wear a suit, or do battle with things like white shirts and ties.

    By the way, do you know the work of Pat Lasch? She does amazing artwork, much of which is based on cakes. I have 3 of her pieces, but they aren’t cakes. She has a book called, I think, “If You Make a Mistake, Put a Rose on it.”

    • Amanda says:

      No, I don’t know that artist’s work but intend to take on finding out about it as today’s office research project! Thanks!

      (and, once I brought a screwedriver to the office, intending to take the sign, but never had a chance…)

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Maybe you can use that “office research project” to suggest to the office ladies that the next “culinary moment” should involve extremely complex cakes. Then show the flag, as it were, and retire victorious from the field.

        You’ll find a few nice cake images right away if you Google “Pat Lasch,” but for more than that, you have to dig. And some of material on the net is old. For example, I found a review from the NYT and started reading it, saying Wow, looks as though she’s returned to what she used to do, the Pompeii series, the bird bones/silver wire/beads/paper things! All right! Then I looked at the date, uh, 1978. Oops. It was some of my pieces being reviewed, several years before I bought them.

        • Amanda says:

          Unfortunately, I have already tipped my hand in the skilled cakery department, and doubt the office ladies would accept my challenge. My five-year plan to get outta here is launching a bakery of my own, and since friends have barred their doors against the flood of sweet creations (threatening me with dire consequences if I continue to fatten them up with butter, sugar, flour and chocolate), I’ve been testing recipes on the office posse for awhile now.

          Latest inventions include: chevre cheesecakes topped with wafer-thin salted chocolate shortbreads in place of crust; incredibly intricate stacked cakes made from lemon curd, brandied cherries, and separate layers of bittersweet chocolate and chocolate cake; and, red fife cookies layered with pastry cream, all stamped out in the shape of stars and each no larger than a nickel.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          My god. Amazing. I’ll now force myself not to think about your cakes, since I’m trying to shed enough weight to get back to where I was in my fifties, in the next month. I don’t know whether I can or not, but thinking about your cakes isn’t going to help.

          Say, you’re in Toronto, right? I’m about 30 minutes south of Buffalo, and I only mention this because there’s an extraordinary little bakery in West Falls NY that makes the kinds of things you’re describing, although theirs may be less complex. West Falls is the proverbial wide spot in the road, but the bakery has a fairly wide reach in WNY.

          http://www.butterwooddesserts.com/

          I mention this only because it might amuse you to see their place and talk to them, because although WNY isn’t metro Toronto, what they must have learned about making a go of it might be useful to you. If you ever want to do that, Ruth and I are just 8K down Rte 240 from them and that would give you a base in the area.

          The guy also makes ice cream when he’s in the mood. Sweet curry and habanero/vanilla are two unusual ones. The habanero one is pretty strange, but it works for me.

        • Amanda says:

          Nice! A longstanding friend lives in Buffalo, actually, and I visit her and her family far too seldom. Perhaps a summertime road trip is in order, incorporating the various sites (and sights) of upstate NY. Habanero-vanilla indeed!

          : )

        • pat lasch says:

          Dear Don Mitchell–do you won some of my work?? Are you the person who bought white bird?
          thanks
          Pat Lasch

  8. Aaron Dietz says:

    I used to have two query letters for submitting book proposals to publishers–one was the one I used, and one was the one I made fun, with charts and graphs and timelines and fun questions and answers. After a certain number of rejection letters, I decided it couldn’t hurt to switch the two, and use the one I’d always wanted to use. Because then if I got rejected, I’d at least be having fun. This isn’t necessarily related, but that’s what I thought of when you went into the resumes thing.

    More importantly: I love your story-telling style, here. You’re leaving plenty of subjective ground for the reader to work with, while still putting a lot of paint on the canvas. That’s tough to do.

    • Amanda says:

      I did once submit a resume and cover letter to a magazine for an editing job I really wanted, and thought the cover letter was a stroke of genius. I went through the magazine itself, and noticed a copyediting error in one of their editorial pages, so I cut and pasted that chunk with a gluestick to the cover letter, with appropriate red penned mark-ups, and then attached my resume.

      Sadly, they had no sense of humour, haha, and I didn’t receive a callback. But…it was at least fun to be a smartypants, and justifiably so!

      : )

      • Aaron Dietz says:

        That’s exactly the kind of cover letter I’d enjoy receiving, you know, if I was important enough to be hiring people or whatever.

        Plus, use of the glue stick says you’re crafty.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Amanda, I’m totally gonna use this idea; it’s stunningly simple and got to be the best thing for the psyche!

        Re your described bakery goodies? I don’t blame your friends for warning you about their not eating them. Who could possibly resist??

        My dad was a baker; I worked in his little bakery all my kid and young adulthood. I never had breakfast or lunch, just my chosen baked good that I ate at the baked shop, usually the same fave for a week, then switch to another fave: e.g., soft chocolate pies for breakfast or a TRUE Danish pastry or cinnamon square (sweet roll dough rolled in butter and cinnamon).

        What you’ve made me imagine is pastries in N’Orleans: NAPOLEONS!!!!!!!!!!

        How do you avoid becoming Ms BLIMP?!

      • Judy Prince says:

        I meant totally use your idea about writing TWO cover letters, the one you send and one you don’t until possibly later, Amanda. My comment didn’t hook up immediately after yours I was responding to.

  9. Becky says:

    Whoa! Easy on the serial comma, sister.

    And one of my office ladies gave me the recipe for rommegrot the other day…a dessert I didn’t even know existed, but that is arguably the most delicious thing on planet earth.

    It’s basically cream cheese frosting pie.

    Sort of. But in bar form.

    Anyway, it is filled with frosting.

    • Amanda says:

      Ohhhh don’t get me wrong! I have sincere affection for the serial comma, but since it’s fallen out of common, accepted editorial popularity, I feel like it’s a ring around a tree trunk or similar method of dating a piece. Unless it’s academic publishing, if you find a serial comma, 9 times out of 10 it’s not been placed there recently.

      • Becky says:

        Unless I wrote it, in which case it is a pointed rebellion against unhelpful and confusing novelty in writing standards.

        • Amanda says:

          High-five! I use Canadian spellings and particular punctuation for exactly the same reason. Also, I spell out words in full in emails and text messages, and format my workplace emails like business correspondence. Sometimes, I do it to show off and be a total jerk; other times, I use it to counter the dismay I feel at how few colleagues can align a salutation on the page never mind correctly utilise the words “however” and “presently”.

        • Becky says:

          The only time I don’t spell out words in emails and texts is if they were already, prior to the digital age, common shorthand abbreviations. “Rec’d,” for example. And “appx.”

        • Amanda says:

          Ohhhh I am super-stubborn about things like that, haha, and tend to spell out even the obvious. That’s the “total jerk” part in my previous comment, coming to light.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Isn’t the “no serial commas” preference a Commonwealth thing?

        I seem to remember from my time in Australia/Papua New Guinea (and from exchanging letters with Canadians) that they were very comma-adverse.

        My favorite Australian letter-closing was “Yours faithfully.” I’m not making fun of it. I like it better than “Sincerely,” but it would raise eyebrows if used in the US, I think.

        • Amanda says:

          At my office, the standard is “Yours very truly” which makes me feel like a twelve year old girl learning to navigate penpalmanship. ugh!

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Yeah, ‘Yours faithfully’ would be perfectly acceptable usage over here.

          I stole Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘OK’ as a sign-off. It’s not that I want to ape Thompson, I just liked the succinct and unique nature of it. Of course, I can rarely use it in a business sense.

          OK

          Simon

  10. Irene Zion says:

    Amanda,

    I, too, would love that sign. I’ll arm-wrestle Don over it!
    Lacking that, do you think you could get a photo of it that is good enough to read?
    You’d make lots of people happy.

    • Amanda says:

      I will see what I can do…I think that’s how the Hollywood agent hooks Kermit at the beginning of the Muppet Movie, isn’t it? “Millions of people happy…”

      : )

  11. reno says:

    damn. great essay. amanda, you SO know how to write. period. i’m jealous. jobs. fucking jobs. now, i can fill this whole page up w/ job junk, but i’ll spare you the boredom, etc. i think you can write about just anything, amanda. and you cook, too! please send cheesecake…

    thanks for the great read. great way to open up a delicious thursday.

    always, reno

    • Amanda says:

      Any particular flavour? I make a mean cherry-brandy sauce to top that cheesecake, fyi.

      Psssst: I likewise believe you can write about anything, too.

  12. 1159 says:

    To Hell with all that
    To Hell with the Devil
    To Hell with Oppression
    in all it’s wily forms
    to Hell with Lethargy
    to Hell with Conformity
    to Hell with Diffidence
    to Hell with those
    Dead-eyed Zombies
    & their gospel of
    faithless restraint
    passionless aggression
    of their
    apathetic stupors
    & stuporic phlegm

    Who are these
    unwashed Philistines
    that come against
    the Armies of the LORD?

    Rise UP!
    Fight the Power!!
    Stand the bastards down!!!

    You You You!!!!
    NOW NOW NOW!!!!!!

    • JM Blaine says:

      Forgive him dearest
      he’s been hit in the head a lot
      & suffers from Thoreau-fetish
      & Apocalypse Fever.

      • Amanda says:

        …an understandable afflication, though one that I suspect gets in the way in the supermarket checkout and other small-talk situations, now and then.

        : )

  13. Irene Zion says:

    11,

    I am TOTALLY agains stuporic phlegm, in all its manifestations.

  14. Amy Shearn says:

    You write reallllll purty!

  15. Simon Smithson says:

    Yeah, for serious, lay off the serial, or Oxford, or list comma.

    Lay off.

  16. […] Since I do such a sensational job telling off irritating clients, and apply ethusiastic effort to shit-talking my colleagues and running down my past and present workplaces, it only seems right to give things balanced […]

  17. bestdhoes says:

    Thanks for sharing!! I will wait for your next post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *