I wrote this when my editor-in-chief retired. I hope it captured the nature of our sometimes-prickly relationship. Anyway, I don’t think he said he liked it, so I assume he took it the way he took most of my work. Ah, well. His retirement party in the cafeteria was one of my favorite episodes, too late and too radioactive to make this column: In his parting remarks he figured out a way to slice the legs out from under the chainsaw-wielding cost-cutter who was pushing him out the door, using a neat bit of corporate jujitsu that I will always admire him for: “I’ve been telling people that if I have one piece of advice for them at the end of my career, the most important thing I’ve learned, it’s to always consider the opinions of others. Because they frequently have great ideas you never would have thought of. When our new publisher came to town, and we had our first meeting, I told her I was getting close to retirement, but I had a number of projects I wanted to finish first. She said, ‘Why don’t you leave now instead?’ And I thought, if I really believe what I just said about considering others’ opinions, I needed to do so. And so I thought, That’s a really good idea…” The look on her face suggested she’d just swallowed a turd. I had to dig my fingernails into my palms to keep from guffawing. Good times, good times.
January 31, 2003
Late in my mother’s life, when she was leaving us behind but hadn’t yet said her final goodbyes, my brother and sister and I noticed a rather alarming phenomenon. “I have to get back,” she’d say after we’d had her out of her room at the nursing home for a while. “My break’s over, and my supervisor will be looking for me.”
How awful, we remarked to one another, that after a life fully lived, one that spanned the Depression and World War II and the moon landing, one with a husband and children and grandchildren and dogs, with ice cream and roast beef and salted peanuts, after all that, when she left us behind, she went to work. At Ohio Bell.
“If I spend my last days on earth talking about Joe Weiler, it will be proof of something,” I told my sister. “Maybe that if there is a God, he has one sick sense of humor.”
Joe Weiler retires today, leaving The News-Sentinel after 20 years. Eighteen of those years I worked in the same newsroom, a distinction only a handful of people here can claim. We’ve worked with Joe through his mustache period, a successful weight loss, three cars, the Halloween party where he wore a purple Mohawk wig, the death of his beloved Dalmatian and the famous story about arguing the paper’s editorial stance on school desegregation with Ian Rolland while both were stark-naked in the YMCA locker room.
I was struck, reading the story about his retirement that sketched out the high points of his tenure here, how much it sounded like an obituary, but that’s what retirements are – a funeral where the corpse stands upright and cuts the cake. Like a funeral, only your good traits are remembered. The worst thing anyone will say about you is you had a bad memory for names or you were always getting your car stuck in the snow.
I hasten to add I’m not here to tell unflattering stories about Joe. (That’s Ian Rolland’s job, snicker snicker.) I only want to talk a little bit about how we know the people we work with, why we remember them, and why, maybe, they haunt us in our last days, the way that ghostly supervisor haunted my mother.
The workplace – an office, anyway – is like a perpetual date. We think we know one another after a few dinners-and-a-movie, but of course we don’t. We leave home behind and step into our workplace persona, which may be Funny Guy, Office Mother, Efficient Robot or Executioner. The only clues to our real life are the ones we willingly offer: family photos on a desk, a bumper sticker on a car in the parking lot, the stories we tell around the coffeepot.
At work, unlike any other area in our lives, we can be almost entirely self-invented. We write the script of an endless movie starring ourselves: The Receptionist No One Appreciated, The Secret Life of Tech Services, and that famous documentary, Payroll: What They Know About You, You Can’t Even Imagine.
Everyone else in the office is watching our movie, perhaps coming away with a message different from the one the director intended. And we’re all one another’s supporting players; in one, we’re the sympathetic friend, in another, the villain. Sometimes both.
Joe and I were both, to each other and to others. There were days I wished he’d go join the Merchant Marine, others – swear, Joe – when I admired him, and I know he feels the same way about me, perhaps without the admiration. Oh, I could tell you some stories, flattering and otherwise, but they wouldn’t mean anything to you. They’re for his colleagues, co-stars of The Joe Weiler Story: The Fort Wayne Years.
As for whether I’d watch it again in 2039, ask me then. I’m hoping there’ll be something better on cable.