Monday, June 27, 2011

Good Samaritan

After having worked for about a month as a software tester, I had come to the end of my first assignment. At around 10 PM, the project lead gathered everyone together for an announcement. Thanking us for our hard work, he let us know that we had finally made it to the finish line. After three weeks straight of 12-hour shifts, we had earned some time off, so he told us to go home, rest up, and wait for a callback for the next assignment. Since most of us were temps, and this was actually kind of a competitive position, I knew the reality was that many would not get called back, and for them this was essentially goodbye. I wasn’t even sure where I stood, since I had received only minimal feedback from my supervisors.

Before he let us go, the lead asked for a few able volunteers to help out with another project that was just about to wrap up. All that was really needed was some warm bodies to fill seats, so that the company could record that a certain number of eyes had inspected the product for a certain number of hours. But these bodies would have to be in those seats from 9 AM to 4 AM over the next two nights. He didn’t expect a lot of people to jump at this opportunity, after having just been told that they had finally earned a return to a regular sleep schedule. I recognized this as a chance, however, to stand out from the crowd by showing my commitment to the job, and so I raised my hand along with three other guys.

The lead thanked us, told the four of us that this would be remembered, and then dismissed everyone. Only one other team still working on that one project, the building cleared very quickly; people were ready to start living again.

Knowing that my longest nights were yet to come, I intended to get a good night’s rest. Having parked in the relatively empty back lot, I got into my car, my father’s Cadillac, and turned the key for the ignition. Nothing but a pained wheezing sound. I had never experienced this before, but I knew it was no good. The engine wasn’t starting. I tried it a few more times, but it was a no go. I knew just enough about cars to guess that the battery was dead.

What was I to do? I needed a jump-start, but the parking lot was emptying rapidly, and it was a bit late in the night to be calling anybody. I supposed my only option was to go back into the building and find someone.

Still in the driver’s seat, I turned to open the door and get out, and I was startled to see that there was somebody standing right outside my window. It was one of the guys who had been working on the same project as me, although I didn’t know him too well. Like some kind of ninja, he had snuck up on me, or perhaps I had just been so rapt in my own predicament that I had failed to notice anything going around outside my vehicle.

Opening the door—one of the things I sure missed about older cars was the crank handles that let you roll down the windows even when the car was not running—I asked him what was up, even though the question probably should have been his, and the answer should have been obvious. Apparently, even though he had parked a ways away, he had heard my car struggling, and so he had walked over to see if I needed help. I explained the situation to him, and, agreeing with my assessment that it was probably the battery, he offered to give me a jump-start, for which I was exceedingly grateful.

Besides being personally grateful, I was impressed, humbled, even inspired. Now, I was not a complete cynic when it came to human nature; I fully expected that, had I gone back into the building to ask for help, someone would have obliged. But what shocked me was that this guy had taken the initiative to lend a hand without having been asked. Had our roles been reversed, I honestly think I would have just ignored his wheezing car and abandoned him to go home. And I would have thought that a normal reaction. But his act of good Samaritanism changed my mind, and it made me want to better myself toward that example.

Three projects later, I was still working as a tester, and I had by this time established myself as a strong contributor, such that I never had to worry about getting callbacks. For my next assignment, I found myself seated next to that same guy, Murphy, who had saved me months earlier with that jump-start. It was the first time, since that first project, that we had been assigned together.

Seeing each other for the first time since that night, we shook hands, and immediately he asked me how my car was. Yes, that was our shared moment that, at the time, I should have hoped would bond us for the rest of our lives. Indeed, I will be forever grateful to him for what he did for me, but unfortunately that had little bearing on how we got along as coworkers.

Over the next three months, I sat next to Murphy and got to know him as a tester. The truth was that he seemed to do hardly any work. By the end of that project, he had submitted only 5 bug reports. The average, consistently employed tester, over the course of three months, would have turned in about 50. I had over 200 to my name. And, even as pressure increased as we got closer to deadline, his lazy attitude never changed. Instead of stepping up and getting serious, he only continued to distract people with his bizarre hickish stories.

He was eager to remind us regularly, for example, that his father owned a gun shop. And, on one occasion, when someone attempted to break in and rob them in the middle of the night, Murphy, who was sleeping at the shop, caught and shot the burglar in the leg. Sure, I had heard ghastlier stories from the military veterans at work, but those were actual war stories. Here was a nineteen-year-old civilian, who was apparently shooting people and later describing it, totally unmoved and matter-of-fact, as though it were every bit as routine to him as purchasing deodorant. Of course, many others believed that Murphy made the whole thing up just to sound hard. Either way, it made me hate him a little.

He also told us about his girlfriend, a farmer’s daughter, who was strong enough to literally lift him off his feet—he was 5’9” and over 200 pounds—yet was also petite, pretty, and “far too good for anyone in this building,” hence why he adamantly refused to show anyone a photo of her, lest we picture her with impure thoughts. That didn’t stop him sharing with us how her mom would stop by their apartment once a month to supply them with condoms, which made us picture things that none of us wanted to imagine.

Most annoying for me personally, as the guy who had to sit next to him, was his peculiar disorder that led him to make “bleep” and “bloop” noises with his mouth throughout the day whenever he wasn’t speaking. When I asked him about it, he told me he couldn’t help it. If it was a legitimate psychological issue, I had to be understanding, but, even so, it did get on my nerves.

It all left me in a very conflicted state. On the one hand, I could never forget what he had done for me, and I was forever in his debt as a result. On the other hand, I found it hard to tolerate him, and a part of me hoped never to see him again once this project was over.

On my next project—a much smaller one, with only five testers assigned to it—somehow the others got into a discussion about what an annoying fellow and sorry tester Murphy had been. I never joined in on such gossip, but neither could I work up the courage to speak up for the defamed, and so I just kept silent. When our project lead walked in and joined in on the slander, however, things got more serious, because now they were actually deciding upon this guy’s future with the company.

I should have thought that Murphy’s work (or lack thereof) should have spoken for itself, but the lead proceeded to take an impromptu poll of his peers on whether he should get a callback. The other four guys had only negative things to say. I had planned to just keep my mouth shut, but then the lead asked me directly what I thought. I still couldn’t understand why my opinion mattered, especially as there already seemed to be consensus among everyone else in the room, but suddenly I felt the weight of having Murphy's fate hanging upon how I responded. Was it my turn to go to bat for this guy and save him as he had once saved me? I still owed him, but I also couldn’t deny that he was objectively a poor fit for this job. Finally, I tried my best to be diplomatic, speaking about him as favorably as I could without lying.

“He’s dependable,” I said.

Then, when asked in what way, I related the story of the time he jump-started my car.

“But what does that have to do with his work here?” my lead asked me.

I had to admit that there was little connection between the two, and so that was that; I never saw Murphy again.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Princess Bride

My coworker stationed across from me had an amusing/annoying ritual of saying random words with a fake speech impediment throughout the day. She joked that it was a coping mechanism of making fun of herself in order to get over her own traumatizing past of having to wear a speech-crippling retainer. Usually it would just be any random long “s” word that she found funny to say with a lisping “th” instead. But other times, again for no apparent reason, she would go into quoting the clergyman character from The Princess Bride, who memorably could not pronounce the letter “r.”

Again, these were not conversations. She would just utter things randomly without any provocation. Headphones on, I made every effort to appear as though I was paying attention to my work and not to her. Yet the less distracted I made myself appear, the more she would try to directly distract me, waving her hand and yelling "Hey!" to get my attention, then saying, "You get it, right?" as if there were anything really to get from such surface-level humor as pronouncing words incorrectly. And so, just to make sure that I was on the same page with the Princess Bride quotes (as if my following along with her running gags was somehow of more importance than either of us getting any work done), she asked me whether I was familiar with the movie.

Indeed, I had seen the movie many times as a child and had once counted it among my favorites. It has probably been close to twenty years since I last saw it, however, and I don't remember too much from it.

What most struck me as a child (and what I most remember now) were the darker moments of the Cary Elwes character being tortured, apparently to death, and of the Robin Wright character, believing her love and all hope lost to her, resolving upon suicide. These moments of despair made it all the more blissful, of course, when the heroes were reunited, and love and goodness prevailed. And yet, I'm not sure whether it was that final promised hopefulness or rather the despair itself that so drew my young self. But even at that age, I could recognize a thematic trend in the material that most consistently engaged my attention.

There was that similar moment, previously discussed, in Disney's Robin Hood, for example, when Robin Hood appeared dead, and these anthropomorphic cartoon animal characters were so masterfully drawn and animated that one could precisely discern, just from their exaggerated facial expressions, the very moment of their hearts breaking at the realization of the loss of their leader and dear friend. No matter how many times I watched these movies, no matter that I knew that of course there would be a happy ending, nevertheless these scenes never lost any of their emotional power over me as a child.

Perhaps it was because, for me, it was in those moments of witnessing the despair of those left behind that I understood best and felt most acutely the intensity of their love for the one they believed lost to them, as though pain and grief over the dead were just more “real” to me than romance and warmth between the living. Perhaps this reflected a secret wish that, like Tom Sawyer, I could somehow attend my own funeral, and only then determine how people truly felt about me. Or perhaps there was a sadomasochistic streak in me that demanded to see people in pain, because grief was the only emotional high that could move me one way or another . . . .  Hrm, no, let's go with the first theory.