Friday, October 21, 2011

Ikea: A Guided Meditation

Ikea! Or, if you're pedantic about capitalization (and in these times of internet grammarian smackdowns, who isn't?), IKEA! I like to say it with a Swedish accent for added authenticity, but it really makes no difference. I also like reenact their commercials by barking "You feel sad for the lamp? DON'T!" at unsuspecting family members from time to time. But actually shopping at Ikea? Ay carumba.

For those of you who have never been, Ikea is a wonderland. It's also a hellhole. Let's go together, yes?

Enter the gigantic blue building through double doors. To your right? A child playground, where the kids are wearing numbered jerseys and being half-heartedly cared for. They are likely chucking ball-pit balls at each other or crying in the middle of the room. Don't worry! This is normal. Little Number Seven is only crying because there's a five-foot-long stuffed ant hanging from the ceiling (the theme of this childcare is "forest") and it will haunt his dreams forever. You can check them in there while you shop! When they've exhausted themselves through playing/hiding from the ant, you'll be able to pick them up and take them to the cafeteria. Make sure they are crying by then, or else they'll feel left out.

Wander upstairs. Grab a cart. Feel your sense of optimism - look at all these storage solutions! Be charmed by the faux-Swedish names of things. Oh, a Borgnine convertible sofa. Adorable. A chaise lounge woven from wicker and bamboo. Sustainable. A loft bed that will safe space and also sway like a drunken pirate when you attempt to make love in it. Remarkable. Feel a creeping sense of despair that the Ikea showrooms are nicer than anything you've ever owned. Hang on to that feeling - you'll be needing it when you attempt to put your new dresser together using only allen keys and curse words.

As you pass through the displays, note that the stylish display clothes are bolted to the walls and the display books are all in Swedish. Idly pick up a book as your family members debate the merits of the Svang chair when compared to the Jagerstruedel rocker for 57 minutes. Note that "idiot" in Swedish is "idiot." This will come in handy in the checkout lines.

Coming to the bedroom section, look around you at the children's rooms. Wonder if Swedes have a notion that childhood should be as Seussian as possible. Become irrationally attached to the bed canopy that gives the appearance of a covered wagon. Fall deeply in love with the small-spaces display - a daybed! A kitchen with little sink dividers! Fantasize about becoming an interior designer who specializes in treehouses and cruise ship cabins. Reject this fantasy when you realize how much school will be involved for what is probably a fairly specific market. Hate your day job.

Realize that you haven't seen a window to the outdoors in three hours. Or a bathroom. Realize none of the fake bathrooms have toilets.

Head downstairs to the small-items and pick-up zone. Pick up thirteen different styles of vase. Reject six. Reject nine. Carry around four vases until you find your shopping partner, who will have been staring at knives for ten minutes with a vacant expression on his face. Force him to carry the vases, and the tea-towels, and the gingerbread men cookie cutters, and the 100-pack of candles, plus plates, plus a seventeen-pack of shitty off-brand Tupperware. You will be dragging a rug behind you like an animal carcass; you can't carry the vases. Your hands are full.

Arrive at the warehouse. Consult the list you've compiled of items you want: dressers and beds and tables and entire kitchens, nay, entire apartments. You will see "aisles" and "bins" in your scrawling handwriting. Make sure you have been accurate! The warehouse is about the size of metropolitan Detroit and twice as depressing. The aisles and bin contain your choices. If you change your mind about colour, know that your alternate choice will be in another bin, in another aisle. Why? Because the warehouse has been designed by an algorithm written by a computer. Human beings would never do this to one another. The Geneva convention would not allow it.

Once you've piled your new furniture onto your cart - or what is probably your new furniture, because things here are labelled with codes, not names, not the the names would even help - go the checkout. If you've come on a weekend, you are a fool. Wait in line for 45 minutes. Weep softly, if no one is watching. On the other side of the cashier, there is a commissary, with 75-cent hotdogs and pasta in the shape of caribou. Coffee and fountain pop will never be as sweet as it is today. Over and over, pick up and set down the same candle holder with the absentminded grace of a sedated nun.

The rest is challenging, but you can go at your own pace: loading your hatchback with heavy boxes and stuffing the empty spaces with vases; frantically trying to get onto the freeway with zero rear visibility and weighing an extra 700 pounds; setting up your new belongings, which will take three hours longer and require, in addition to the allen key Ikea has sent home with you, a cordless drill, a stud finder, a hammer, a square-head screwdriver, and the help of your least stupid family member. Know that what you have made can never be unmade, because disassembling Ikea furniture is a mission for only the foolhardiest of movers. It's easier to chuck it out and start again.

On the plus side, we can all agree that Ikea's 99-cent chocolate bars are second to none, and they sell lingonberry soda, which will lead to much quoting of The Big Lebowski if your companions are the least bit human. Maybe you can watch The Big Lebowski tonight, as you sit on your new couch and idly wonder if the whole thing is going to collapse.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Barbie's Dream Job

Last week I wrote about Dream Jobs - god, how evocative is that phrase, even? Don't you feel like Dream Jobs have Katrina and the Waves playing in the background all the time, and the commute is you, in a convertible, on a freeway beside the ocean? And your office, even if you're a grunt who's on some no-health-benefits one-year contract, is massive and decorated with healthy plants. Oh! And there's another cute new-job person, and he's got a chin-dimple and clear eyes and is fun and easy to talk to? Dream Jobs! So good!

My last Dream Job was at a Toronto non-profit that specializes in housing. Given that I was fresh out of school and riding a three-year wave of enthusiasm for, and interest, in co-op and alternative housing options, I was so stoked. It was a real office job, with my own email account and a phone extension and everything. In hindsight, I should have picked up the fact that things were not totally right when 1/3 of the hiring committee was late to my interview: the company president showed up half-way through my Xanax-enabled babbling about agency and community and punctuality, and yet I still managed to get the gig.

Six months into that job, I was having anxiety-induced hallucinations. I had to get the hell out of there. My boss was rude and the hours stank, and the small company that I had admired on paper turned out to treat its employees like garbage. It's hard for me to buy into the idea that offices that ignore despicable behaviour - and this was a place that rewarded one particularly awful manager by giving her a spot on their board - can be places that really understand how to effectively implement social change. You know how charity is supposed to begin at home? It's my opinion that, for social-justice organizations, compassion begins at the office.

My Dream Job, when I was 18, was waitressing at a popular downtown noodle house. I loved it. I made a ton of money, got a name for myself as a cute local girl, was flirted with and tipped well. I was also working for a boss who, when I fell carrying a full armload of plates during a jam-packed Friday night rush, coldly told me to quit fucking around and get back to work. He was a man who was widely regarded as a jag-off and a meanie, generous one moment and enraged the next. I was nervous every time a table sat down - dealing with the public, despite a decade of practice, is still not something I really enjoy. And after a summer of Dream Job, I was burned out. I was working with a crew that focused on getting drunk and chasing girls, and since I rarely (at that time) drank, and I rarely (even now!) chase girls, I was lonely.

I've had a variety of idiosyncratic bosses and weird working environments - I had a boss who insisted that employees show up fifteen minutes before their shift started, but screamingly refused to pay for the extra quarter-hour. During the the blackout in 2003 that paralyzed the Eastern seaboard, we worked until it was too dark to see the gas fryers in front of us. While I heard stories later that friends of mine had enjoyed the blackout in various outdoor pools and states of drunkenness, we held off zombie-like hordes of folks angrily demanding french fries from the only open restaurant within a thousand miles. I've worked as a factory two blocks away burned to the ground, the heat from the fire strong enough to be felt inside our building. I've held jobs where we were required to evict drunk transients from student housing, where we found violent Japanese pornography, where we found a laptop bagged stuffed with fake penises.

But in those other jobs, I've felt a sense of cameraderie with the people I work with. Some were friends, some were just laid-back co-workers, but they always made me feel safe and secure. There was no loneliness in my workday, only the satisfaction of doing a hard job well. My Dream Jobs, despite the fact that they held the promise of new and interesting work, never made me feel like mistakes were acceptable. I lived in fear of screwing up.

My Dream Jobs now are a little vaguer: I love writing, but I also feel deeply satisfied when I tie on an apron and make meals in my kitchen. This fall, cupcakes and cookies have been pouring out of my oven with a regularity that borders on diabetes-inducing, but it's proving to be therapeutic to follow recipes and explore new cuisines. My reluctance towards returning to an office is tied directly to my last Dream Job, where I was so stressed out that my brain chemistry was changing. Safety, security, compassion: as it turns out, some basic things to consider when entering into a new workplace.

I hope to God that I find work soon. I don't need a Dream Job. I just need a job I like doing, one that isn't going to ruin every single day or make me anxious and crazy. I need Katrina and the Waves, I need sunshine, I need agency and punctuality. I need compassion.