March 9, 2004
Falling Off The Planet


Ted Dirby is still getting mail, four months after he fell off the planet.

Lots of people who no longer work for the Dirt Company still get mail at the office: people who left to start their own consulting firms, people who left to have babies, people who left to go work for rival dirt companies across town, people who left to become missionaries in South America (and who still e-mail the occasional grainy .jpg of Colombian sunsets and volcanic mud baths for the company bulletin board). A lot of these people were gone before I even started working here: to me, they're nothing more than names on an outdated address label. When the occasional technical magazine or event announcement arrives for them, I simply pass it along to whoever occupies their spot on the org chart these days.

Getting mail for Ted Dirby is a different story.

I actually worked for the guy, for one thing. For ten excruciating, Excedrin-intensive months, I transcribed his voicemail messages. I deciphered his report notes. I sat through his staff meetings. When I see his name on the latest issue of Dirt Digest Monthly, even now, I can still hear his  voice, intercomming me from three feet away. ("Secra, this is Ted Dirby.") For another thing, Ted Dirby didn't leave to have a baby or start a company or introduce Jesus to the masses. He was fired. I don't know how it works at other companies, but in every office *I* have ever toiled, the rule has been pretty much the same: when somebody is fired, especially somebody from the upper echelons of management, it's as though they fell off the planet. Once they're gone, you don't speak of them. You don't think about them. You don't mention their name out loud, even in passing. (Unless a client calls and asks for them, in which case you are allowed to say "I'm sorry, he is no longer with the firm" ... just before you transfer them to whoever occupies that spot on the org chart these days.) As much as possible, you are expected to pretend that they never even existed.

Which -- in the case of Ted Dirby -- may not be such a bad thing.

Still, it's hard not to think about him, at least in passing, whenever the mailman dumps another load of Ted Dirby mail into my *In* basket. This morning, for example, he's got four professional journals, two industry magazines, two association renewal notices, a concrete supply catalog and an advertisement from a local printing company ("Are you missing out on the year's SWEETEST DEALS, Ted Dirby?") As I sort his mail into neat little piles -- junk, more junk, junk continued, non-junk that can be circulated elsewhere, non-junk that should probably be packaged up and sent to his home address -- I have no choice BUT to think about him. It's like remembering an infected ingrown toenail you had last week.

It hurt like hell while you had it ... but damn it felt good when it went away.

I wasn't in the office the morning they fired him. I'd run across the hall for my 10 a.m. Squat-And-Blot -- I was gone four and a half minutes, tops, I swear to god -- and when I came back from the ladies room, he was already gone. Just like that. I think I knew, even before I knew: all of a sudden the lights were off in his office, his door was closed, his raincoat was missing from the coat rack ... most tellingly, there was no sign-out information for him on the In/Out Board. Ted Dirby was a stickler for using the In/Out Board, even if he was just going across the hall to deposit his empty Ensure can into the recycling bin. ("Time out, 10:18 a.m.; projected time of return, 10:18:30 a.m."

"Where's Ted?" I remember asking The Main Nerdy Geotech Guy. I was supposed to do a massive mail merge project for Ted, due before lunch, so it seemed odd that he'd disappeared without at least saying something to me about when he'd be back. The MNGT simply rolled his eyes and made a slashing motion across his neck.

Gone.

The Corporate Suit (aka "The Assassin") who was visiting our office that day spent the rest of the morning dragging us all into the Conference Room, in groups or two or three, to formally announce that Ted had been "released." Isn't that cute? He'd been "released," like a rehabilitated wolf puppy released back into the wild, after paw surgery. By the time my group was called into the Conference Room, of course, Ted's dismissal was old news. A quietly manic euphoria had already begun to spread across the office, like Munchkinland the day the house dropped out of the sky.

No more Monday Morning Planning Meetings! No more Wednesday Lunch Hour Planning Meetings! No more Friday Week-In-Review/Let's-Start-Planning-for-NEXT-Week's Planning-Meetings Meetings! 

Up and down the hallway, you could hear sounds of life, tentatively reborn: laughter, snippets of conversation, doors opening, dusty radios being turned on for the first time in ten months. The hallway sock-hockey teams had already started to reform. Cardboard boxes had begun to pile up outside the front door, as if by magic. Still, I managed to furrow my brow and look properly sorrowful while The Suit was delivering his canned speech about "differing professional visions" and "amicable partings." When he was finished, he asked us if we had any questions or concerns. 

"Well," JoAnne said, "I know that we all wish Ted the best of luck in the future." 

I nodded somberly in agreement. (Or at least I made it look like I was nodding somberly in agreement. Privately, I was wondering if anybody had claimed Ted Dirby's electric pencil sharpener yet.) As profoundly as I may have disliked Ted Dirby -- as cold, as unlikeable, as relentlessly anal as I may have found him to be -- I wasn't about to badmouth him in front of The Suit. That's just bad form, professionally. How about if I hop up onto the Conference Room table and do a little Happy Dance, while I'm at it? Plus JoAnne wasn't that far from the truth: we really do wish Ted Dirby the very best of luck in the future, both personally and professionally.

We just want him ... you know ... to find it somewhere else.

Plus I happen to know a thing or four about getting fired. I know that it can happen to anybody. I know that it isn't a big bunch of fun. I especially know that it would be karmically inappropriate for *me,* of all people, to celebrate somebody else's misfortune, no matter how cold and unlikeable and relentlessly anal I may have found them to be. It's sort of like being an alcoholic: once you've woken up at two o'clock in the afternoon in a pool of your own vomit, wearing nothing but a pair of leopard skin leggings and a charred oven mitt, you're lots less likely to snicker at anyone else who has experienced the same.

Once I've finished sorting all of the day's mail into neat little piles, I grab a manila envelope out of my bottom desk drawer and begin stuffing Ted Dirby's personal mail items into it: the magazines, for instance, which I suspect he may have subscribed to himself, plus the association renewals and an old Christmas card that has been kicking around on my desk for the past couple of months. Lumped all together like this, it seems like a pretty pathetic mail haul. Here the guy devotes ten months of his life and energies to a job -- a job that he was ridiculously unsuited for, granted, but a job he doubtless went into with the best of intentions -- and this is all he has to show for it? It's sad, really. I stuff the printing company advertisement into the envelope, hoping to bulk it up a little.

Who knows? Maybe Ted Dirby is in the market for the year's sweetest deal on inkjet cartridges.

When I've finished packaging his mail, I affix a mailing label to the envelope, run it through the meter and drop it into the outgoing mail basket. I know that eventually the tide of Ted Dirby mail will ebb, as word spreads throughout the engineering community that he is no longer at The Dirt Company and mailing lists are gradually updated. Eventually the tide will turn to a trickle, and then to a dribble, and then to an occasional droplet, here and there. In the meantime, industry scuttlebutt has it that he has already found a new job. One of the Sub-Nerdy Geotechs ran into him at an association function, a weekend or three ago, and spoke to him briefly. I don't know where he's working, or what he's doing there. We're still not allowed to talk about him, after all. I suppose it would be helpful to find out eventually, so I can start sending his mail to his business address rather than to his home address. But it doesn't really matter all that much. The important thing is that there IS life on other planets, apparently.

Which is good to know, since you never know when you might fall off of this one.



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