There’s a woman in my office who spills her coffee every day. It happens in the matter-of-fact way you check your news site of choice each morning to ensure the world hasn’t caved in on itself. It’s a part of her routine, spilling her coffee, and I am equal parts fascinated and frustrated by it.
I arrive early to work most days. When given the choice, I will always choose to be early as opposed to on-time or, God forbid, late. Nothing is more nauseating than someone who chooses to be late. I arrive to collect my thoughts, to put away my gym bag and my book-of-the-moment I was reading on the subway, and to scroll through emails. I sit in front of my desk figurines – a gnome wearing a Texas Rangers hat, a Lego T-rex from Jurassic Park, a small figure of the Swedish Chef from The Muppets, a smaller figure of Britney Spears from when she was on The Simpsons, a plush Gus Gus from Cinderella, two different Funko figures of Thor, and a tiny book full of quotes from Friends, all of which I’ve known for years but still make me laugh when I read them – and I mentally prepare myself for what might come down the pipe. Even in a giant office full of people and busyness, it can sometimes feel like I’m alone and sequestered; just me and the knick-knack characters that populate the space beneath my computer monitors. I used to think it was strange when adults had desks covered in toys, but now, I don’t know what I’d do without the denizens of my desktop. They make me feel at home and settled, a nice way to feel when you spend forty hours of your week enduring the abuse of fluorescent lighting.
At some point, I have to rally the gumption to get up from my desk and make coffee happen. Luckily, working in such a large corporate environment, the coffee is gratis and bountiful, albeit shoddy and in need of some love. For me, that love comes in the form of the secret stash of sugar free hazelnut creamer I keep stored in my desk. I slowly rise and make my way to the kitchen where I can make my hazelnut iced coffee and drink my way into alertness.
I have a coffee routine. I choose the iced coffee settings on the machine and I brew a double portion of the stuff. Before I add the ice, I stir in the creamer until the coffee is the right shade of brown, roughly the color of Wile E. Coyote. (It’s not lost on me that the color of the coffee is that of Wile E. Coyote yet the effect of the coffee is that of Road Runner) I then pour my Coyote coffee over the ice in my tall office mug and set about the business of waking up. It’s what I do each weekday morning, it takes less than five minutes, and I’m back at my desk making things both wondrous and mundane happen.
During this routine is when I came to notice the woman who spills. She seems like a nice woman and our few verbal interactions have been cordial. Once, we bumped into each other and both apologized with a smile. Another time, we listened to something moronic the orange-haired President said on TV during a press conference and we both involuntarily began spouting profanity toward our cups. We shook our heads and rolled our eyes in silent solidarity with each other. That’s about the extent of our relationship.
On the days when our timing aligns, I stand back and watch her plod through her morning ritual. Once it’s filled by the coffee machine, she sets her cup in the middle of the counter, monopolizing it. She then retrieves the half-and-half from the refrigerator and pours in enough to make the top of the coffee reach the lip of the paper cup. If she doesn’t get the pour just right, she carefully adds droplets of half-and-half until the cup is so full, breathing on it in the wrong direction will cause it to splash out. The final step is pouring in her sweetener of choice from little yellow packets, and as she stirs it, coffee inevitably spills over the lip of the cup and onto the counter. This doesn’t faze her; it’s become par for the course of her morning routine. She’s now splashed enough of the coffee out of the cup that it’s no longer level with the lip. So with that, she lifts up the cup, wipes off the counter with the paper towels she’s set aside for just this purpose, and walks to her office.
The first few times I watched her morning ritual, it made me twitch a little. Why would you pour so much into the cup that it was destined to spill? Who chooses to spill when they have the choice and ability not to? Also, who needs that much half-and-half in their morning coffee? What she pours in amounts to almost a fourth of the cup and while I understand the gratis coffee regularly tastes like burnt swill, is that much cream necessary? If for some reason the answer is yes, then why stir with such gusto that it creates a splash zone? Also, why hasn’t anyone else said anything about this? Is this not odd to anyone besides me? I’m not alone in the kitchen with her; I know other people are seeing the mess she’s consistently making. Why are people pretending this isn’t a daily (and preventable) occurrence?
I’ve called friends about it. I told them how baffled I was by this woman who regularly spills her coffee and does so without remorse. My compulsive need to fix things made me shake as I watched her, which I did on a daily basis. You might ask, why not get your coffee at a different time or why not watch CNN on the TV in the kitchen as opposed to watching this woman spill? You have the ability to avoid this altogether. I hear you, but her daily routine has become almost hypnotic to witness. How close to the lip of the cup is she? She could probably get a few more drops of half-in-half in there today. Oops, too much. How much more will splash out now? Woof, it’s a larger than usual countertop puddle. She’s going to need another paper towel to get all of that. What a waste. Okay, now it’s my turn.
After many mornings of this, I found myself in the obnoxious position of playing my own devil’s advocate. This irritates me, as I hate when my own rational brain catches up with me, but as I watched her, I wondered, who is she hurting? It’s not like she leaves the mess behind when she’s done; she cleans it up entirely. So she has a quirky and somewhat wasteful morning ritual. Is that the worst thing?
Also, why was I so bothered by it? It didn’t affect me whether the coffee made it to her mouth or not. When I go about my routine, all the coffee ends up where it’s supposed to and since that only affects me, that should be the only thing I focus on. Why couldn’t I just let it go and let whatever will be, be?
The past year has been an exercise in that concept. The company I work for has been in the meandering process of merging with another and when the news leaked to the press last summer, we employees were informed it wasn’t happening and there was nothing to comment on. Basically, don’t worry about the man behind the curtain. But as the year progressed, we may not be commenting on it, but Toto knew there was someone behind the curtain. The merger was very much happening and as we were the smaller of the two companies, we had reason to be wary.
For months, it felt like I existed at the center of a tightrope, watching and waiting for someone to untie one of the ends. The level of emotional exhaustion that sets in while your job is in limbo cannot be underplayed. It does a number on you. A few years ago, my department at the nonprofit organization I worked at was taken in another direction. I subsequently spent the better part of a year and a half working anywhere I could in a freelance capacity. I took to the freedom of the freelance life, but after a couple months of living in the purgatory of if my rent or electricity or cable bills were going to be paid, I realized I needed a safety net. I was frazzled and becoming undone.
The concept of a safety net has a weak and almost negative connotation. Many actor friends have told me they only found success when they “jumped without a net” and how “reckless abandon to their craft” is what led them to working on the stage or screen. That sounds good on paper, but the reality of New York is that reckless abandon doesn’t pay the bills. Not having money to pay rent is neither cute to brag about nor is it artistically subversive. I understand Rent was a musical about the family we cultivate for ourselves, but let’s call a spade a spade, those self-important twentysomethings should have been evicted from their FRIENDS-sized loft regardless if it was the seedy mid-90s or not. You can shout-sing “we’re not gonna pay rent” all you want but in reality, you’ll be doing so from the street corner or a homeless shelter.
Now I was gainfully employed full-time at someplace I really liked being. I liked my coworkers and the money that dropped into my account every two weeks, not to mention my affinity for my desktop toys. Though the unknowns about the merger were nerve-wracking, I mostly played it cool. I spoke with my boss about the question marks hovering over our futures and he didn’t have any more information than I did. Sink or swim, at least we were all in the same boat together. I chose to stay quiet, to stay focused, and to stay sane. I embraced a very “Que Sera, Sera” demeanor: Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see, Que Sera, Sera.
Not everyone around me did the same. One of my coworkers existed in a constant state of loud panic, the Chicken Little of midtown. The sky was falling and the longer we went without any in-stone answers, the louder he became. He began ritually voicing his anxiety to anyone whose ears weren’t plugged with headphones and for most hours of the day, he sounded like he was mid-panic attack. He did this daily, week-in and week-out.
While I agreed our positions felt like they were in limbo, I became more frustrated by my coworker’s state of panic than by the situation itself. I didn’t want to hear any more complaining and I didn’t want to invest in any more conversations about what might happen. I allowed it to become a thorn in my side, a thorn of my choosing, which is embarrassing and unnecessary. His worrying made me worry, which wasn’t very “Que Sera, Sera” at all. Then the fact that I was worrying frustrated me, which in turn made me frustrated with myself, which made me more frustrated with the situation and even more so with my coworker. It was a spiral of nonsense; a spiral of my own making.
Sometimes, God plants things in our lives like a spy à la Tom Cruise in the first Mission Impossible movie. I fully believe He orchestrates situations that are meant to hammer home a simple truth for us. If we’re daft enough to not take the note the first time, I think God smiles and says, Fine. We can try this a different way. I was doing it again. I had become irrationally frustrated with something that didn’t have a single thing to do with me. I was dwelling on it, complaining and calling friends about it. It reached the point where I had to confront myself with the same questions I asked about the coffee-spiller. Why was I so bothered by this? My coworker’s panic didn’t have to affect me. Why couldn’t I just let it go and let whatever will be, be? I’m trying to be all “Que Sera, Sera” aren’t I? Get your shit together Brinson.
Worrying is like adding sand to your own eyes, it stings, gets stuck there and only makes your vision blurrier. My mind was constantly focused on worries that didn’t need to exist so I wasn’t able to be cognizant of the good or possibly great things going on in and around me. I’d allowed something as thin and unimportant as other people’s wasteful rituals to become road blocks. I trapped myself inside an avoidable frustration, something that can happen to anyone. Scrolling through Facebook has the same grabby ability to trap us inside our own frustration with other people’s opinions and decisions. So just like I had to make a decision to stop scrolling through Facebook post-election, I had to make a decision to stop focusing on other people’s routines.
I often say, “Control what you can control and let the rest fall where it may.” So, using my own rational advice on myself, what were the things I could control? I could control the money I put into savings in case the tightrope snapped. I could control not spilling my coffee. I could control directing my focus to something other than worry. When the daily barrage of toxic complaints would commence, I’d close my eyes and think, Alright God. I’m not going to let it affect me. I’ll remove myself. Sometimes this meant turning up my 90’s Spotify playlist to drown out the complaints, sometimes this meant grabbing my book and reading in the kitchen, and sometimes this meant leaving the office and going to TJ Maxx to buy things that make me happy like socks and boxer briefs and picture frames. “Que Sera, Sera.” Worry be damned.
The merger did, in fact, take place and I am, in fact, still sitting at my desk writing and working. My coworker is still here as well, though he hasn’t stopped panicking. He continues to exist in a twitchy, frustrated place, but that’s on him. I will spend my morning with my super fun purple TJ Maxx socks on, my headphones in my ears, and my hazelnut iced coffee in my hand – just as soon as the woman in front of me cleans up her spill.