The Joys of the Job
Each day at the Meadows we witness courage, commitment and compassion. All of the extraordinary men and women we employ have developmental disabilities, and it is their desire to excel at their jobs, while dealing with serious challenges, that inspires us every day. In previous posts I have written at length about their strengths and abilities, as well as their achievements and accomplishments. I have attempted to emphasize their positive qualities without neglecting to address the issues that they face on a daily basis.
However, one subject I have not written about, that is just as important, is the amount of fun we have at work. At our business we do everything in our power to create an atmosphere where people feel relaxed and comfortable. We want them to enjoy themselves and to feel good about being here.
As far as my job as Program Coordinator is concerned, every day is an adventure. When I unlock the door each morning there is absolutely no way of knowing what will happen during the next 8 hours. Some of it will be hilarious, and some of it will be heartwarming. The clients we work with never fail to amaze me with what they will do or say. Their spontaneous behavior, their lack of pretense, their complete honesty and their sense of joy gives each day a special meaning.
So with that in mind, I want to share a few stories that I think will give you at least some idea of the fun we have while working together.
Quite some time ago one of our clients was helping me fold some items when out of the blue he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was fifty-three years old at the time, and it had been thirty-five years since someone had asked me that question. “Well, I would like to play center field for the New York Yankees.” I answered, although I knew that ship had sailed many decades before.
I decided to give him the same opportunity to express his dream, “What about you? What would you like to be when you grow up?”
He thought for a moment and then he said “I’d like to be a firefighter.” He was in his early forties. Obviously there was no chance for either one of us to live out our aspirations, but I was flattered that he actually thought I was still young enough to have a future.
Unfortunately, there will be more about my advanced age later in this post.
A few years back I was asked to teach a course in daily living skills. The topics covered everything from the proper way to wash your hands, to calling 911. After we practiced dialing the emergency number on a disconnected phone, I asked the group of clients to give me some examples of why we would call 911.
Some of the answers were:
“So we can talk to grandma”
“To tell the TV man our cable is out”
“To order a pizza. But not the kind with thick crust.”
And my personal favorite……
“To tell them that Dad ran over a skunk, and Mom won’t let him park his smelly car in the garage.”
Later on in that same session we began to discuss the concept of right and left. We talked about how people prefer to write with one hand or the other and how a person typically uses their silverware with the same dominate hand. It seemed like everything was progressing smoothly until I casually mentioned something about having a right foot and a left foot. At that point a lady immediately stopped me, and in a disbelieving voice she said, “Are you saying that my right hand and my right foot are on the same side?”
I smiled and said, “Yes they are.”
There was a short pause while she considered my response and then she asked, “Have they always been that way?”
It is the sincerity of the workers’ questions and answers that has helped me appreciate the importance of trying to understand the world from their perspective.
As some of you undoubtedly already know, old age is a comprehensive attack on the human body. It never retreats, and there is no defense. You are held hostage while it slowly ravages your physical state and relentlessly transforms you into that shockingly unrecognizable person squinting in the mirror.
For those of us who are racking up the miles at a frightening pace (you know who you are), we can take some comfort in the fact that experts claim that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty. I sure hope they’re right. My side of the family has never been what you would call “classically handsome”. We lean heavily towards being “barely presentable”.
One positive quality I have discovered is that as we age we become more sensible, more level headed and more reasonable. However, that is not by choice. It’s a requirement.
A good example of this would be the difference in the way we dress as we get older……
When you are young you dress to look good because you care about fashion. When you are older you dress to be comfortable. There is now more of you, and it has to go somewhere.
When you are young you dress in a way that accentuates your youthful body. When you are older you dress in a way that keeps everything covered. If you don’t want to see it than certainly the rest of the world has no interest in it.
When you are young you dress in a way that reflects your personality. When you are older you dress in a way that gives you the quick access you need in case of a bathroom emergency – every second counts.
Now the reason I’ve returned to the subject of growing old is because it’s a frequent topic of humor at work. Our clients love to tease the staff on a variety of subjects, and, because they get so much practice, they are highly skilled at it. In my particular case, it is age that makes an inviting target.
Because I am sixty years old I might as well be walking around with a bull’s-eye on my shirt. I’m one of the oldest people at the Meadows - and don’t think I don’t hear about it. My gray hair and beard continuously draw sharply barbed remarks and comments. However, the low point was reached five years ago when one of our workers bought me, what she believed to be, an age appropriate gift. After all, nothing says “Happy Birthday!” like an embarrassing present that candidly points out the fact that you now qualify for senior discounts on personal care items that you hoped you would never be forced to purchase. On this occasion her thoughtful and heartfelt gift to me was a cane. But not just any cane. This one came complete with a magnifying glass to allow me to read large print. A pill container to hold the numerous old age medications that were beginning to be an evil necessity in order for me to function. A plastic cup to hold the dentures she assumed I would one day have, and a loud obnoxious horn to warn people to get out of my way. It was a lovely present that reflected her deep respect for the experience and wisdom I had accumulated by living such a long life.
A few years later she allowed me to pass it on to an even older staff member at his retirement party. I was more than happy to do so.
I have now been employed at our workshop for fourteen years, so it is difficult to remember all the particular details regarding the interviews I went through when I was being hired. However, I am absolutely certain that at no time was it mentioned in the job description that an employee could be required to dress up like a Muppet.
Each year we have an annual fundraiser called the Walk-A-Thon. We divide everyone in the building into two teams that compete to see who can raise the most money. Two staff members are chosen as team captains and the losing captain has to pay a price, which is usually some type of public embarrassment such as taking a pie in the face or some other form of “fun” punishment. But a couple of years ago, when I was a team captain, it was decided that the loser would have to go through the humiliation of dressing up as Miss Piggy. Obviously I’m writing about this sad moment in our corporate history because…I lost.
After being denied multiple formal requests for a recount, (actually it was a lot of pathetic begging and pleading) I had to face the fact that my team had indeed come in second and therefore I would soon be forced to cavort around our highly respected place of business while dressed as the beloved female porker.
Reluctantly I went to a costume shop to rent the outfit. It was even worse than I had imagined. It came with a full length gown, gloves, pearls, feather boa and a plastic head of Miss Piggy complete with a long flowing wig. Unfortunately, before they would let me take it out of the store, they made me try it on. Total strangers stood and laughed. Some wise-guy asked, “What happened did you lose a bet?”
I answered “Yeah, something like that.”
The next day at work, I struggled to get dressed before going out in front of the assembly to accept my punishment. Unfortunately, the costume came with an artificial backside and bosom. Somehow it had always escaped my notice that Miss Piggy is quite shapely. Finally after several minutes of bending, twisting, turning, tightening, hopping up and down and a wide assortment of other physical contortions, I was able to corral the voluptuous body parts into their proper place. I paused, took a deep breath, gathered up my courage and sashayed out.
Instantly countless cell phones started taking photos while my friends, colleagues and coworkers whistled, hooted, cheered and heartily enjoyed my misery and shame.
It was not my proudest moment as an adult.
Through the years of working with our clients, I have learned that a person should be careful about what questions you ask them because you might not like their answers.
Years ago a young lady came to work at the Meadows, and she remains with us, still happily making my life difficult in many ingenious ways. Because our facility is very casual, everyone (workers and staff) goes by their first names. But from the moment I met her she began to call me Mickey Mouse instead of Michael. This went on for a couple of weeks, and I just assumed she was calling me that because she couldn't remember my name. After all, she had sixty people to get acquainted with. But finally after a month it was clear that she had all the other names down and yet she still referred to me as the famous Disney character. I didn't understand. So one day, while we were working together, I decided to find out. I asked her point blank, "Why do you insist on calling me Mickey Mouse when you know my name is Michael?"
She looked me straight in the eye and said, "I call you Mickey Mouse because you have the biggest ears I have ever seen."
I shouldn’t have asked.
Over time it has become my official nickname at work, and I hear it far more often than I hear Michael. In fact our workers have bought me so many Mickey Mouse items as birthday and Christmas gifts that my desk is now covered with them. Of course it could have been worse. With the honker of a nose I’ve got she could have called me Pinocchio.
There is nothing funnier to our clients than when staff members manage to embarrass themselves by making humiliating mistakes that defy rational explanation. Believe me when I tell you that I have personally provided countless hours of entertainment, thanks to my clumsiness, my awkwardness and my overall ineptitude.
Job wise I have done a little bit of everything at the Meadows. But my lack of mechanical skill and hopelessness with tools has often led to great amusement among the clients, and it has earned me a couple of trips to the emergency room due to minor injuries that were completely self-inflicted. However, there is no doubt that the job I was most poorly suited for was being a truck driver.
About ten years ago I started driving our trucks into the community, on an as needed basis, to pick up information to be destroyed. I was a terrible at it. I cannot go around the block without getting lost, and I would spend each day wasting valuable time trying to find my destinations. It got to the point where I hated to call back to work to ask for assistance, and I’m pretty sure they hated getting those calls.
However, one day in particular stands out in my memory as being noteworthy. It had a rough start and an even worse ending.
I had taken one of our clients and had gone out to a government facility for an early morning pickup. We had to go through a security check which included me climbing up on the back of the truck and raising the door so they could see inside. As I was stepping back to close the door after their inspection I took one step too many, and I fell off of the truck! I landed flat on my back on the concrete which knocked the wind out of me. It took a couple of seconds for me to catch my breath, and when my eyes refocused I looked up to see two large security guards doubled over laughing at my ineptness. Our client watched in silent amusement as I struggled to get to my feet, and then he joyfully proclaimed, “I can’t wait until we get back to the Meadows so I can tell everyone you fell off of the truck!” Something to look forward to.
Despite considerable soreness, the day continued, as usual, with me being constantly lost and forced to make multiple phone calls back to the office for help. But finally we finished our last stop of the day. After we had loaded everything up, we climbed back into the cab of the truck, and I reached for my keys. Nothing. My pockets were empty. I began to frantically search under the seats, behind the seats, in the floor board and even in the glove box. There were no keys. Again my partner sat quietly, watching with interest as sweat broke out on my forehead. Just the thought of having to call my supervisors and ask one of them to bring me a set of keys was giving me heart palpitations.
After a thorough search it was obvious that the keys were not in the cab. I told the client to stay inside while I got out and looked all around the truck. Nothing. There were no keys to be found. The horror that swept over me as I realized I had no choice but to place the inevitable phone call made it hard to breath.
I climbed back in the cab and got out my phone. I stared at it, hesitating as long as I could. We sat in tragic silence until finally the client shook his head and spoke, “They are not going to be happy about this.”
I took a deep breath. There is nothing quite as helpful as someone stating the obvious. I swallowed and started to push the number on my phone – but then very calmly the client said, “Michael?” I turned and looked at him. “Are you looking for these?” As he broke into the biggest grin I have ever seen, he held out his fist and opened up his hand revealing the keys. I almost fainted from relief. He broke into hysterical laughter, stomping his feet and clapping - and then I realized he had been hiding them the entire time! Finally his laughter subsided, and he slowly resumed his calm detached manner. As he looked out the window he stated rather matter-of-fa