Nine to Five

Photo from NSF

Eager to re-enter the 9-5 work world, before you could even say 401(k), I was halfway to J.Crew and Banana Republic to stock up on office-friendly wear. But adapting to my colleagues' taste in music? Ah, now that's much more difficult.

When I told people that I was going back to a full-time office job after nearly two years of working from home, I encountered a lot of skepticism. Most people believed I'd have a hard time adjusting to the 9-to-5 schedule. It was going to be a shock to my system after such a long time taking my daily lunch break with the Cosby kids, they promised; behind their words of encouragement, I could sense that they would get a certain pleasure out of my suffering. After all, they'd had to do it for what seemed like an eternity already.

Much to their surprise (and mine), I had little trouble becoming a card-carrying member of the rat race. In my first week, I was already making my lunch before bedtime and catching up on meaningless news in the local commuter paper on the train. Before you could even say 401(k), I was halfway to J.Crew and Banana Republic to stock up on office-friendly wear. Though there's no dress code where I work, I thought my co-workers might be slightly put off by my usual daily wardrobe of old fraternity t-shirts and mesh shorts. ("Don't dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want," my mom always says. By that logic, I must've been gunning for something like "IM sports ref".)

My routine has become so predictable, I no longer need to consult my cell phone for the time; I can tell if I'm late just by checking the progress of the short, spiky-haired Asian guy I pass every day on the way to work. If he hasn't totally crossed the bridge yet, I'm cool. We've yet to acknowledge each other, but I'm pretty sure he uses me in the same way. One of these days, I think I might gel up my hair and carry a travel coffee mug and messenger bag (with an iPod case on the strap) identical to his, just to see if he notices. I need to stir things up. I've merged into the mainstream so quickly, I'm starting to feel like my life should be soundtracked like an episode of The Hills. Every time I finish a particularly trying editorial assignment and head to the water cooler for some refreshment, I've got my ears perked up for the strains of Rihanna's "Umbrella". I even look off wistfully into the distance, just in case.

There has been one major issue of transition during my first few weeks of work, though. Back when I was a work-from-home freelancer, I was totally in control of my own listening choices. Whether I was putting my iTunes on shuffle, checking out the podcast of my choice (sadly, I've only latched onto three with any regularity: KEXP's "Music That Matters", the OddioFile and, of course, The BS Report) or dipping into the stack of promo CDs I get from who knows where, what I heard was my doing. But when you work in an office, things change. You have to be at least a little considerate of the people who sit near you.

Eager to ingratiate myself among my new colleagues, I even agreed to indulge one of my co-worker's tastes for modern country, at least on Friday afternoons (which, she said, were made for the Dixie Chicks). I've been writing about music for this publication for over a year, and I didn't want others to think I was going to come in and dominate the playlist. That said, I may have been a bit too passive, a fact I realized on my first day when I ended up enduring a steady barrage of Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant, both of whom the genii at Pandora seemed to think would appeal to fans of Fiona Apple. Idiots.

Eventually, my self-described "clueless when it comes to music" co-worker (she thought "Trapped in the Closet" was some sort of gay man's anthem...which I guess it is, in a way) proposed that we listen to the Internet version of her favorite Chicago radio station, WXRT. I agreed, thinking that it might be nice to give radio a chance again -- the last time I'd listened regularly was during showers in my fraternity bathroom. I'm not saying it was a horrible experience, but you try enjoying alternate doses of 50 Cent and Traffic (two different stations, mind you) while also trying not to touch any surface whatsoever. My subsequent attempts at Chicago radio had ended with little fanfare -- the few times that I've driven a car around the city in the past few years, I've stuck to sports talk. At least it's a known evil.

Actually, the first day or two of WXRT was pretty enjoyable. The station plays a decent mix of older bands (Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac), '90s hits ("Don't Speak", anyone?) and newer choices (Spoon, Wilco, the White Stripes), and keeps the annoying chatter to a minimum. It was kinda nice to hear the strains of a song in the background and think, "oh, this sounds like White Wedding" and find out it actually is "White Wedding". Had I kept going along as a shut-in, there was a good chance I might never have heard Billy Idol again. But as the days have gone on, I've been surprised at how much tolerance my office mates have for the inevitable repetition that comes with mainstream radio. Honestly, if I hear Green Day's version of "Working Class Hero" one more time (by my count, it's been 11 already), I might go Mark David Chapman on someone.

It's my own fault, of course; I know that if I provided any alternative, the others would be more than amenable to trying it out. It's not like there aren't options, either; seemingly every day, we get a press package proclaiming the virtues of a new band. Every once in a while, I'll play snippets of tunes as I'm "researching" artists to feature in my weekly list of concert picks (it's a sweet job), but I do keep that to a minimum. For someone who usually seizes any opportunity to play DJ, I'm being strangely reserved in this situation, maybe because I don't want to accidentally put anyone off. I've considered headphones, but that would be kind of antisocial, especially when we've made it a regular thing to ask each other questions about proper em-dash and semicolon usage throughout the day.

After much consideration in between bites of turkey sandwich (I'm gonna have to learn to vary my brown-bag routine, because I refuse to drop $10 for lunch daily), I think I've figured out the issue. Up until this point, I've been under the mistaken impression that there needs to be a "work Ben" and a "non-work Ben". In other words, I think I need to keep parts of my out-of-work personality under wraps when at the office, as I feel this separation is necessary for my job success. A big portion of that personality is, in my opinion, the music I listen to. But this idea makes little to no sense when you consider that I got this job pretty much based on my choices outside of work, having been a columnist and contributor for over a year before taking the full-time gig. My success, in a sense, depended on my ability to be myself, rather than creating a false self for the purpose of impressing others.

So I need to heed that lesson before it's too late: a Ben divided against itself cannot stand. At the next opportunity, I'm gonna throw caution to the wind and play that Spank Rock album I've been enjoying lately. Actually, that may not be the best choice; even if I do work in a laid-back office, the "tap dat ass" mantra could still be a little much. But there's definitely going to be a change in the airwaves around these parts, because if there's not, I'm liable to do something crazy, like, I don't know...put two spaces after a period instead of one. We'll see how it works out. Today is where my book begins. The rest...well, that's still unwritten.

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