Fenceposts & Butterflies
Around a month after I began working at my current job, while sitting through our morning scrum meeting, I noticed an unused whiteboard sitting by itself against a wall. Meant as a scheduling planner, it had 4 separate calendar grids printed on it with spaces to fill in the month titles and days as needed. It was a beautifully free piece of office equipment that had absolutely no justifiable use for our team. So I stole it for us to use.
I initially propped it up against the back wall where it would be largely out of our walking path. At the time, we had four devs crammed into a room slightly larger than the average bathroom, so real estate was valuable. I had no specific plan for how we would use it, I just knew our office needed something entertaining aside from the cubicle walls we had devoted to geekier comic strips. Sometime that week, before leaving work, I added a tiny doodle of a necktie to represent the important clients from California that had flown out to our office to visit that morning. The next day, someone drew a box of popcorn that we had snacked on all afternoon. Purpose found.
I happened to be reading “East of Eden” at the time, and in it discovered the quote that I included at the beginning of this post. It left a huge impression on me. It stood as a call to further appreciate life by ensuring there were more proverbial fenceposts to remember it by. By preserving the pieces of the day that were unique, memory of that time feels less of a blur in retrospect.
The calendar quickly became our historical log of these fenceposts. Each day one of us would add an increasingly more elaborate doodle. Even if the day in question had no significant happenings, we would find some small aspect to latch on to and memorialize.
We finished a month. Then two. Then three, four months. We photo-documented July’s grid before erasing it to make way for November. Fall passed in spectacular color. Our marker collection grew from the meager black and red beginnings to a palette of 8 hues. In-jokes and shorthand became common; doodles of objects smoking a cigarette or having an orange beard could instantly denote which one of us was being represented. There were illustrations of bison floating in inner tubes, pizzas forming lemniscates, a gravestone for the kaput coffeemaker. An arrangement of unrelated objects and scenes that would have left any outsider absolutely baffled in their attempts to decipher.
As the endeavor grew, we attracted the attention of the rest of the company. Coworkers from other departments would drop by daily to see what had happened the day before. Much commentary was offered; at one point the board was labeled “An HR nightmare” in reference to the abundant use of brown marker (in both fecal and ethnic cases). We wore the title as a badge of pride.
Our team had never been tighter. The calendar wasn’t the cause of this, for certain. All fall and winter was spent in incredibly late nights/mornings of crunch time over an expansion for a client, we programmed in close collaboration during the day, we ate at restaurants outside of work, celebrated birthdays in full swing. We truly enjoyed being part of the others’ lives, and the calendar arose as a manifestation of that enjoyment.
We couldn’t always fill the day in. If there was an especially intense crunch at work, or everyone was tired or in a grumpy mood, we’d forget. Usually we’d come back and doodle something a few days later, but sometimes the day would end up blank- almost a starker reminder of that time period than a drawing could have been.
This gathered complaints from passers-by. None serious, all joking and typically said with an air of awareness that there were more important things to do. But they came all the same.
At first we placated them, taking time out of the schedule to fill in a half-representative doodle of the day. Usually it would just be what we’d eaten for lunch or such. Sometimes we’d have to look at our Slack history from that date to remember anything of significance to draw. At one point in frustration we even meta-filled a week of blank slots with a stick figure pointing at the calendar, concernedly questioning why it was left blank.
Higher-up figures in the company dropped by often, encouraging continued use of the board as a method of team building. Comments were made about attempting to export the exercise into our other offices. Ideas of a calendar web-cam floated about. Blank days were frowned upon - jokingly, and yet with the slightest tinge of seriousness. There was an unstated pressure to always have a new scene on the board each morning. And our enthusiasm suffocated.
With every passing remark, each entirely innocent comment of “Looks like you’ve got some days to fill in!”, the odds of us drawing anything in those blank white boxes plummeted. As expectations and discussion rose of how to spread that drive to the rest of the employee base, the creative motivation of our team slowly and quietly suffocated. On April 19th, the board saw its last doodle.
The entire thing is largely forgotten now. We’ve found other, less public, outlets to have fun. The whiteboard sits unnoticed on the floor of our office, wedged between the backs of two desks, hidden from sight of all but my corner of the room, faded illustrations from the final 4 month span still visible. Occasionally I will zone out on a phone call and notice one of the panels and laugh. A stick figure trying to talk on a cell phone while standing in a waterfall, the coffee maker rising from the grave on the third day, General Tso
the famed military chicken standing in front of saluting troops. Every remaining panel lets me remember exactly what happened that day. It keeps the flow of time in perspective. When I actually focus on February with that calendar in front of me, It’s obvious that we lived a lot of life in one month. And in stark contrast, April 20th through the current date is practically nonexistent. There are key moments my brain still remembers, obviously, but most of them are external to my time at work. That range exists only through my own significant events, no longer as a group. The day that spontaneity finally succumbed, the fenceposts fell too.
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