A Box Framed with Grass

I Work in a Box

It’s a cubicle life, my life, 160 hours per month.  I work in a huge building for a major bank in Minnesota.  (Yes, we received a ton of TARP money.)  I take phone calls eight hours a day, helping small businesses balance credit, demand deposit accounts and overdrafts.  I handle their credit complaints, their complaints of excess fees, their ludicrous charge that we are just trying to make money.  Hello?  We are a business, you know.  The only odd thing is that businesses would expect that we aren’t in this to make money.

A portion of my job is to refer customers to products that will make their banking life simpler, and we are expected to get the customer to say “yes, I will sign up” on at least 15% of the calls.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but considering that we only talk to decision-makers on half the calls, the percentage success required now is 30%.  Also consider that on a large portion of the calls, people are just calling in to get their balances, last 10 transactions and then end the call.  They don’t want to chat, they are in a hurry, they have their own customers waiting, and they don’t want to take extra time to listen to a sales pitch.  Finally, many of the customers are stressed by the current business climate.

So, yes, it can be a stressful job.  Working in a cubicle in a steel and glass and concrete box with weak coffee.

Our breaks are regimented.  They are preset, and I get two 15 minute and 1 half-hour breaks per day.  I am a smoker.  On those breaks I go outside.  I go outside not only to smoke, but to get out of the box for a few minutes and decompress from a spate of calls from rude customers and nice customers alike.  I go outside to network and chat with coworkers. In fact, most of my friends from work are fellow smokers, because with staggered breaks and differing schedules and the otherwise lack of a common meeting place, the smoking area is the rare opportunity we have to socialize.

Prairie Grass

Prairie Grass

I also go outside because of the unusual landscaping at our building.  It is a strange blend of carefully manicured lawn and garden mixed with unmown native prairie grass.  The building and the landscaping include large parking lots mixed in with natural drainage and what otherwise would be considered weeds in an urban landscape.  In this case, it was designed to slow the flow of water towards the river.

The lakes in the Twin Cities and suburbs have been overrun by plants and algae from runoff.  I lived until a few years ago near Lake Phalen in St. Paul.  The water in Lake Phalen is clear for about two weeks in April before it blooms and turns green.  Lake weed harvesters roll through two to three times a summer to clear it temporarily, but it quickly chokes up again.

A main source of excess nutrients comes in runoff from the lawns and gardens of the East Side, as people keep their grass short and green with watering and excess fertilizer.  The rich nitrogen that gives the houses their exterior “carpet” of short, neatly trimmed grass, combined with sprinkler water runs off into the curb then to the storm sewers and finally down to the lakes and rivers.  Lake Phalen’s biota is the recipient of the added nutrients.

I used to bike around the lake frequently when I lived over there, and from June through September the lake water was uninviting.  Ramsey County started a plan to ameliorate the overland runoff several years ago.  The County Soil and Water Conservation District replaced the grasses around the edge of the lake with natural prairie wildflowers and the sorts of grasses that root deep into the sandy soil and absorb nutrients coming in through runoff.  This has ameliorated the situation somewhat but hasn’t fixed it.

It can’t be completely fixed, and the problem can’t be solved as long as residents insist on turning their yards into living carpets made of grasses not originally bred for the Minnesota climate.  Ramsey County has also instituted advisory grants to assist homeowners in turning their lawns back to plants designed to grow in our climate and will advise people on how to landscape to make attractive, more natural gardens.

The wetlands that are being fought for by conservationists have a purpose beyond providing breeding grounds for ducks, frogs and mosquitoes.  They absorb runoff. A factor in the in the flooding of the Red River Valley is the rapid flow of water from plowed fields into ditches and drainoff towards the River.  The reeds and grasses in wetlands soak up the melting snow when they can and slow the flow towards the river.

In Ramsey County, conservationists recognize a similar principle even with a differing effect.  Deep roots and reedy plants slow runoff.

Surrounding the box where I work, there is a mix of wetland, prairie grass and manicured carpet.  Even if the building I call my home for 160 hours per month is unattractive, the landscaping is inviting.  I like to go outside and envision myself living in an urban prairie.  While it is making a small, if valuable contribution to slowing the over-nutrification of Shoreview’s 17 lakes, it is also providing me with a brief oasis before I head back to my desk, slap on the headphones and start repeating “Good morning and thank you for calling (x bank).  How can I help you?”

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6 Responses to “A Box Framed with Grass”

  1. August 17th, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    khan says:

    I spent ~20 years as a cubicle dweller (mainframe maintenance programmer).

  2. August 17th, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Yes, but did you have prairie grass to make it better?

  3. August 17th, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    I spend my 10-12-hour work days in a cubicle – on wheels. It’s tiny, but for part of the average 300 miles it travels per day, I have a great view. That’s most of what keeps me doing what I do despite declining commission percentages on less work, with no benefits other than what I can afford to provide for myself. (Incidentally, that no longer includes health insurance. Another topic.) My view includes watching weather, roaming wildlife, changing seasons, and various landscaping ideas. The worst ones are always those large green lawns. I’ll always go for the no-fertilizer ragged look, including in what I call my lawn – which my neighbors describe in other four-letter words. In my yard, if it survives neglect, occasional mowing, and lack of hose watering, it’s welcome to stay and fill in the spaces between the trees and bushes. The clippings of these varied life forms go into a no-maintenance compost pile, better known as the path through the garden which holds down weeds and eventually feeds the berries growing on either side, and which I confess we do water when it’s dry. My yard drains eventually into a trout stream which empties into the St. Croix, so I try to be aware of what goes on it. Considering how much less work and expense go into my kind of lawn, I puzzle why anyone does it any other way. And I positively ridicule the lawn-Nazi across the back fence who mows in a different diagonal pattern every week and who took out two beautiful blue spruce because they disrupted his pattern!

  4. August 17th, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    khan says:

    My cube was in the basement.

    There actually was some nice outdoor stuff in the area.

  5. August 17th, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I always wondered if in growing a natural lawn, neighbors might try to get petitions going to force you to change.

  6. August 18th, 2009 at 6:57 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Luckily for me, my neighbors are all busy raising kids. The extent of their complaints seems to be whining to each other. Besides, all have some of the same yellow flowers in their lawns that I do. And I suspect (personal prejudice) that they secretly envy the purple carpet of violets I get early every spring. City ordinance only requires lawns to be kept under 12″, which ours complies with much of the time. Now, it’s likely different in a gated community, but the only one of those I’d live in sits in Arizona and has rocks for a lawn. But if you want to get your own answer to that question, give it a try!

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