Back when I first moved to Washington, I landed a really cool temporary assignment on a special project at work. Up until then I had always worked in call centers, and this was the first job in seven years with that company that I actually enjoyed. Within the project, there were five of us from the call center, selected because we had worked with the order and billing systems and were pretty savvy with them. The rest of our project team sat on the third floor of the office building, while we were sequestered on the fifth floor with the rest of the call center, so we didn’t have ultimate freedom but we still had a lot more than we did when we were tethered to our desks with headsets. The work itself was fast-paced and interesting, and I learned to do a lot of cool things that no one would ever have taught me when I was on the phone with customers all day long.
We five all got along pretty well, but one of the guys was training for a body-building competition and was really moody most of the time (I like to think that the lack of carbs was just getting to him and that hopefully he’s since eaten some bread and mellowed out), plus his insane diet consisted of a fair amount of dishes that smelled absolutely terrible, which I know because he took his meals at his desk and we were all subjected to the stench of microwaved fish and the like. His name was Patrick, and the rest of us took to calling him Patrick the Starfish (from the show Spongebob Squarepants, in case you live under a rock as opposed to in a pineapple under the sea and do not recognize the reference).
I would like to pause for a moment to note that the Starfish now lives in Hawaii with his extremely hot wife, so he is doing just fine and the story I’m about to tell neither significantly scarred him or ruined his life.
The Starfish had a rather intense personality, which made him a good person to talk to if something wasn’t going right but also made him difficult to joke around with. Any sort of good-natured teasing was out: he was easily offended and each of the other four of us had a row with him at some point during the months we were on the project. The nice thing was that no matter how heated we got, usually by the next day he’d be back in good enough spirits and all would be calm again, and over time we learned what things would make him mad and (for the most part) tried not to do those things.
One day in early fall, the Starfish brought in a tiny box filled with sand and placed it on his desk. Intrigued, I said something along the lines of “What’s up with the dirt box?” to which he rolled his eyes at my clearly uncivilized self and explained to me that it was a Zen garden. He showed me that it came with a little rake, and he could rake the sand just so and apparently when all those grains were perfectly organized then his mind also felt decluttered.
Several of us on the project team were intrigued by the Zen garden. For the most part we’d just ask him questions and have him indulge us by raking it while we watched, but one day my friend Maggie came upstairs from her desk and, upon seeing the sand, was curious about the texture and poked her finger into it. This action unhinged the Starfish, who had such an epic tantrum that the rest of our project team downstairs heard about it and asked me later on what had caused his meltdown. “Oh, Maggie touched his dirt box,” I replied with a dismissive shrug. My explanation amused the others, not just because of the ridiculousness of freaking out at work because someone poked your Zen Garden, but also because I kept calling it a dirt box and apparently that made them think of a cat’s litter box.
Not long after the poking incident, the Starfish came to work in a worse funk than usual (even for him) and in his mood he got on the bad side of a couple of the IT guys on our team. They decided to take their revenge on him and waited until one Saturday afternoon to carry out their plan. Only a few of us from each group in the project team worked Saturdays, including the Starfish and me. The IT guys popped up under the guise of visiting me while the Starfish at lunch, and then, inspired by my referring to the Zen Garden as a dirt box, placed a mini Tootsie roll into the middle of it to make it look like a dirty litter box.
I knew the Starfish was going to lose his mind when he saw what had been done so I made sure that I was in the bathroom before he came back from his lunch break. When I returned, he glowered in my direction and demanded I tell him what I knew about the defiling of his dirt box (I will give him some credit for never accusing me of being the one who messed with it). I walked over, took a look at it, burst out laughing, and told him between giggles that I had been in the bathroom and had no idea who was responsible. He flounced off to go downstairs and tattle to the boss about what had happened, and since there were only a handful of us around the suspect list was rather short. My boss totally could’ve pushed us to fess up to who had played the prank, but he was a super laid-back guy and just told the Starfish to take his Zen Garden home if having it on his desk was causing problems.
And so, that was the end of the Zen Garden at work and the Starfish was a lot more Zen himself with his dirt box safely at home in its raked perfection.