This collection of vignettes was first published as a series on my original website (2001-2010), Wave of Consciousness . The vignettes were written in 2003 and 2004. I have reprinted them in a book format so that readers can access them as a cohesive presentation.

These little sketches are about the social work profession: places of employment, the intertwining of workplace and personal dynamics, and the possible impact of politics on how problems are viewed. They are written as soft science-fiction and take place somewhere after the year 2025. Each protagonist enters a realm of unusual or stressful happenings, then struggles to understand the alterations to his or her life, and finally develops ways to manage reality with greater self-awareness and purpose.

Originally, back in 2003, each story was intended as a separate piece of work. And, there was no plan as to how many stories would be written. However, the character of Hester was pliable. So, I wrote three stories in which she was the main character. When I decided to bring this phase of my writing to a close, I got the idea to tie all the stories together. As a result, in the eighth story, Hester and Jerry meet up. Then, in the ninth story, most of the main characters come together in a culminating theme.

Chapter 10 was written especially for In the Zone and does not appear on the Wave of Consciousness website. Since the collection began with Hester, it seemed fitting to update the series with an ultimate outcome of her life and career. (Written 12/01/10)


In the Zone is a fictitious work: no actual people, places or events are depicted. Any resemblance to actual people (living or deceased) or events (past or present) is coincidental and unintentional.

How to Navigate This Blog

Look at the upper right column and you will see a list of Chapters. Click on any Chapter you would like to read. Or, just continue scrolling to the bottom of the page.

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You may quote or reprint any material from In the Zone so long as you give credit to Natalia J. Garland and provide a link to this blog or reference this blog in your bibliography.

Posted on WordPress blog 04/27/11

Copyright In the Zone 2010 Natalia J. Garland


Chapter 1: Her Social Worker Zone

Hester Wright was an old social worker trying to coast into her retirement years. If only she could hold on to her job for three more years: then she could quit, and collect her pension. She could travel to Europe, read paperback novels, and take up oil painting. Suddenly, Hester was aware of the red light before her. She stepped on the brakes of her old gasoline-propelled car, a relic from the year 2015. Once again, Hester had been daydreaming about her golden years….in Her Social Worker Zone.

Hester drove into the parking lot of the substance abuse clinic where she worked. Her old compact car could nearly park itself, she had parked it in the same spot for so many years. She walked to the clinic door. The walkway was dotted with the stubs of marijuana cigarettes, not more than a quarter inch long each. She tried not to step on them. She hated even getting the bottoms of her shoes soiled with them.

Ever since marijuana had been legalized by every state, these little stubs were more common than tobacco cigarette butts. Somehow, though, filter tips had not caught on. Marijuana cigarettes could now be bought in supermarkets and vending machines. Marijuana was sold in bulk as well. You could buy it in different grades and in artificial flavors. Some of the old-timers, those who could remember back when marijuana was illegal, still preferred to grow and roll their own.

The problem for Hester was the way legalization had changed her career. There was no longer any concept of marijuana abuse or marijuana addiction. Everyone nowadays talked about marijuana use. How much an individual used depended on how much was needed to relax or to reduce pain. And everyone seemed to have a need to reduce pain these days.

Around 11:00 a.m., Hester’s supervisor rang her on the phone. The supervisor, Mary Jane Fulbright, ordered Hester to come to her office on an urgent matter. Hester felt her pension slipping away. She knew that tone in Mary Jane’s voice. It meant trouble. Hester was old. She had a preference for the old days when she was able to help people recover from marijuana addiction. This irritated her supervisor. Hester knew that behind her back the supervisor referred to her as a throwback, a drug czar, a Prohibitionist, an uptight old lady who could use a few tokes herself.

“There has been a complaint about you,” Mary Jane said crossly. Hester sat quietly, waiting to be fired. “One of your patients said he gave you a pack of marijuana cigarettes for Christmas and that you refused it. What do have to say for yourself?”

“Well, um, the clinic has a policy on not accepting gifts from patients. I didn’t want it to appear that I had accepted a bribe, or that I was having an inappropriate relationship with a patient.”

“Don’t quote policy to me, Hester. If it had been a box of cookies, I know you would have accepted it. Your behavior was an act of discrimination. Your patient is suffering from feelings of rejection over this.”

Hester started coughing. “What’s the matter?!” demanded the supervisor. “There’s some marijuana smoke coming in through your window. There must be some patients outside smoking,” Hester meekly replied.

Mary Jane rang the secretary and scowled, “Are there any patients outside smoking?” Hester could overhear the secretary saying that Joe Blunt, one of the counsellors, was outside taking his break. Mary Jane slammed the phone. “What did she say?” asked Hester. “Nevermind!” retorted Mary Jane.

The supervisor regained composure and coolness. “Hester, you have got to get over this old-fashioned view on marijuana. It’s legal and many people find it beneficial. It is no longer a diagnosis. The marijuana issue is no longer an issue. Therefore, I’m placing you on report. And, I’m recommending that you enter psychotherapy as a condition for maintaining your job. If you do not show improvement in your attitude after eight weeks of therapy, you will be suspended without pay.”

Hester hung her head and walked out of the supervisor’s office. It was going to be a long three years. Hester thought to herself, Now they’re trying to make me look like I’m crazy! Just because I don’t want to get high on marijuana. Just because I want others to have the option of a completely sober life. She could see that marijuana had the potential to be her gateway to an old age of doom. On that day, she had a spiritual awakening. Hester made a vow to herself that from now on she would be cognizant of each and every red light. (Written 01/06/03)

Reprinted on WordPress blog 04/27/11

Copyright In the Zone 2010 Natalia J. Garland

Chapter 2: Job Interview Zone

Donald Fox had made all the right moves in his young life. He had wanted to study medicine, but did not have the stomach for blood and other bodily secretions. So, he went to law school instead. The competition was too tough, however, and he could not maintain his shining star self-image . He dropped out and toured Europe. One day, while basking on the French Riviera, he had a brilliant idea. He would go to social work school! He knew that social work was not as academically demanding as law. Social work dealt with feelings and meant keeping a box of kleenex on your desk so female patients could dab their tears and mascara.

Donald graduated from social work school with straight A’s. He found a job immediately. He knew he was a prized catch for any mental health agency. He was a strapping young man in a profession often dominated by overworked women. His good looks, charm, and sympathetic air endeared him to his female co-workers. He knew they all loved it when he would walk into the office and say, “Bonjour, Mesdames. Je vous aime.” They were so starved for flirtation. Everyone praised him for choosing a career in the helping professions. After all, a bright young person like himself could have become a doctor or lawyer.

After working at an entry level job for three years, Donald decided it was time to move on to something prestigious. He got an interview for a position as Assistant Director at the new Central Treatment Facility in the renovated downtown area. He could hardly wait. He called in sick to the agency, and began getting dressed for his 11:00 a.m. interview at Central Treatment. He put on a crisp dress shirt and chose a stylish silk tie. He knew that in a profession where so many workers dressed down, there was nothing like a well-matched silk tie to spell out success. It gave him a lawyer-look.

Donald took a last minute glimpse of himself in the mirror. His teeth were dazzling. His hair was a warm, toasty brown. And that tie! Ooh, la, la. He would make the tired female interviewers swoon and intimidate the incompetent males with his Windsor knot. Suddenly, Donald saw strange shapes in the mirror. The shapes twisted and turned, and began to look like the letters of the alphabet. The letters were floating and wiggling around. Donald blinked his eyes. What was happening? He reached out to wipe off the mirror. His hand went through the mirror as if the mirror were nothing but fog. The letter S wrapped around his hand and pulled him into…..the Job Interview Zone.

It was 11:30 a.m. when Donald, nervous, walked into Central Treatment. The receptionist mistook him for a patient. “Uh, no,” stammered Donald, “I’m here for a job interview, for Assistant Director.” The receptionist looked at him in disbelief and led him to the Director’s office. Donald found himself obediently following her, stumbling over a chair and dropping his portfolio. He had never been late for anything.

The Director introduced herself and the interview panel. “Hi, I’m Angela Lamb and I’m the Program Director. This is Rafael Beauchamps, our Team Leader. This is John Eaglefeather, our Outreach Coordinator. And this is Hope Meriweather, our Administrative Assistant. Please have a seat and tell us about yourself.”

Donald cleared his throat and began his well rehearsed speech on his job achievements and his goals for the future. “Well, that’s nice,” said Angela, “but here at Central Treatment we think it is very important that our employees have undergone a spiritual awakening. We come across many job applicants who have excellent education and job experience, but we are really looking for someone who can implement spirituality into our other clinical services. Have you had a spiritual awakening, Donald?”

Donald felt his tie tightening around his neck. For the first time in his life, he was speechless. He had considered spirituality something only for alcoholic and drug-addicted patients. All that stuff about a Higher Power was for people whose lives had been devastated by addiction and emotional disorders. They needed spirituality as a substitute for their self-destructive behaviors. He was not self-destructive. He was a candidate for Assistant Director.

“Yes, of course,” lied Donald. “Oh, good,” said Angela, smiling, “tell us what your spiritual awakening meant to you and how you think it will help you to perform the duties of an Assistant Director.” Donald tugged at his tie knot. “Well, um, it’s very personal,” he said in an almost pleading tone. “Yes, it is,” agreed Angela, “it’s just that people who have had a spiritual awakening are so much more capable of true compassion and kindness, and so much more able to stay on the job with conviction and dedication, that we need to know about your spiritual awakening before we can possibly consider you for the job.”

“Is this legal?” asked Donald. “I mean, I have my college diploma. I have my state certification. I have three years of post-graduate employment. I’m wearing an expensive silk tie, I have perfect teeth and hair, I, I…..I speak fluent French, I, I…..I’m sophisticated, I, I…..” Donald felt his confidence slipping away. He fainted.

It was 10:00 p.m. when Donald woke up. He was lying comfortably in his bed. His co-worker, Daisy, was sitting at his bedside. “Are you feeling better, Donny dear?” He looked at her, puzzled. “Don’t you remember? You called in sick today. I called you to see if you needed anything, and no one answered the phone. I kept calling all day. I got worried about you. I came over right after work. I knocked on your door, but no one answered. So, I asked your landlord to unlock your door and let me in. We found you on the bathroom floor.”

Donald scratched his head. “I, um, yeah, I guess I really was sick. I mean, Daisy, I really have been sick.” Daisy smiled down at him, “The important thing is that now you have awakened. I’ll make you a cup of hot chocolate.” Donald sat up. “Daisy,” he said softly, “Je t’aime. Really, I mean it.” (Written 07/07/03)

 Reprinted on WordPress blog 04/27/11

Copyright In the Zone 2010 Natalia J. Garland

Chapter 3: Order in the Court Zone

Stacy worried that the storm might cause her to miss going to court for her boyfriend’s trial. She and Skip had been living together for eight years. Skip had gotten his fifth D.U.I. and he was facing a long prison sentence. Stacy wanted to be at the trial to support his plea of innocence.

The rain was pouring. The sky was dark and gloomy. Stacy finished putting on her make-up, grabbed her raincoat and umbrella, and headed for the bus stop. Her car had been wrecked in Skip’s D.U.I. accident, so she had to rely on the city bus for transportation. She took the bus to court. The storm got worse on the way. As she climbed the steps to the courthouse doors, a gust of wind snatched her umbrella out of her hand. The umbrella blew furiously across the courthouse lawn, smashed into a tree, and destroyed her protective defenses as she entered….the Order in the Court Zone.

Her loving albeit self-imposed task was to get the judge to listen to her legal and clinical defense of her boyfriend. If only the judge knew how hard Skip tried to stay sober. Once, he had stayed sober for a whole month. Skip did not feel comfortable in A.A., so she had been acting as his sponsor. It was really her fault that he got the D.U.I. because she was not at home that Saturday. Her mother had taken her to the mall to do some shopping. If only she had said no to her mother, she would have been home and she could have stopped Skip from driving. Stacy made a mental note to herself: just say no to outside activities.

The lights flickered in the courtroom. The storm was getting worse and worse. Stacy could hear things blowing around outside. Thump! Bam! Boom! It felt like there was a storm inside the courtroom. Then Stacy heard the judge call her name. “Docket Number 11032003, Stacy Nocar.” Stacy was puzzled. Why was the judge calling her name? Shouldn’t he be calling Skip’s name? The public defender turned toward Stacy and motioned for her to come forward. Stacy approached the judge.

“How does your client plead?” asked the judge. “Guilty as charged, your honor,” answered the public defender. The judge looked directly at Stacy and began questioning her. “Ms. Nocar, whose fault was it that Skip was arrested for his fifth D.U.I.?” Finally, Stacy was going to have her chance to speak on behalf of her boyfriend. “It was my fault, your honor. You see, my mother and I went…..” The judge interrupted her, “By the defendant’s own admission, it was her fault that Skip was arrested for his fifth D.U.I. This court will hereby acknowledge the defendant’s criminal offenses and determine a sentence.”

The judge continued his oration. “Ms. Nocar is hereby convicted of extreme co-dependency. Ms. Nocar allowed her alcoholic boyfriend to stay in her house for eight years. She allowed him to stay without any expectation of counselling or A.A. involvement. She allowed him to stay even though he was intoxicated much of the time and incapable of a satisfying relationship. She allowed him to stay after each of his four previous D.U.I. convictions. In summary, Skip has never experienced the full impact of his alcoholism because Stacy Nocar continued to allow him to stay.”

“The court has therefore decided to treat Skip’s fifth D.U.I. in a different way. Instead of sentencing Skip, the court will sentence Ms. Nocar to ten years in the state prison. Her home will be impounded. This way, Skip cannot stay in Stacy’s home any longer. Skip will be forced to face some personal consequences, such as not having dinner made for him each night. Skip will not be allowed to stay in prison or to stay in Stacy’s home.”

Stacy could not believe what she was hearing. She wanted to defend herself, but she had come prepared to defend only Skip. She was at a loss for words. She had never been at a loss for words in all her life. She did not know how to speak on her own behalf. Ten years in prison! Five D.U.I.’s! Eight years with Skip! Ten years without Skip! Oh, my!

Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck above the courthouse. Zap! The lights went out. The courtroom was enveloped in musty darkness. Stacy heard the judge announce, seemingly from nowhere, “Order in the court! Since we have no electricity, we will not be able to start today. Court is adjourned until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Please drive home safely.” Everyone got up to leave. Stacy, confused, got up from her seat in the back of the courtroom. Nothing had happened? And, yet, so much had changed.

The public defender walked over to Stacy. “Too bad we weren’t able to try Skip’s case today. Hopefully there will be light tomorrow. Will you be in court again tomorrow?” Stacy stared. She still had that feeling of wordlessness. She managed to squeak out, “Um, no, I don’t think so. I can’t take another day off work. I need money to buy a new car. I’ll let you handle Skip’s defense. Besides, I guess Skip needs to go to A.A. and get some counselling before our relationship can grow. Maybe I could use some counselling, too. Life has been too weird lately.”

“Counselling sounds like a good idea,” replied the public defender, “would you like a ride home?” Stacy thought for a moment. The storm was clearing. She would not need her blown-away umbrella for protection. She could see sunlight peering over the clouds. It had seemed like the sun would never shine again. Funny, how even a few sun rays from the sky could light up the whole earth.

“Yes,” Stacy smiled brightly, “I’d like a ride home. I can use all the help I can get.” The public defender smiled back, “Can’t we all!” (Written 11/11/03)

 Reprinted on WordPress blog 04/27/11

Copyright In the Zone 2010 Natalia J. Garland

Chapter 4: Potato Zone

Jerry Chatworth was an experienced social worker who had seen all kinds of cases. Not much surprised him. He was a hardworking agency employee with several years of seniority, and he had a part-time private practice on the side. He actually managed to support his wife and their daughter on his income. Life was not easy, but he loved his work, his wife was understanding, his daughter was not quite a teenager, and he felt like he had done all right in his 38 years. What could go wrong at this point?

On Wednesdays, Jerry made his rounds at the county jail. There were always some of his alcoholic patients in jail, awaiting their court dates and sentencing. They were usually arrested for D.U.I., disorderly conduct, assault, or robbery. They were always under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they committed these crimes. This was one of the disturbing aspects of his job: the arrest rate and repeat incarcerations among a certain percentage of his caseload.

Jerry’s optimism for his incarcerated patients was sometimes ridiculed and sometimes appreciated. Some inmates referred to him as Jerry the Jerk (and this was the least offensive of the derogatory pet names), and some referred to him as Jerry the Gentleman. Jerry had learned not to get discouraged with the abuse, and to accept the compliments graciously. He tried to maintain objectivity and neutrality, but he was human. Verbal abuse came with the territory. He knew that he had to behave professionally. But as a man he could not let the inmates view him as a sissy just because he was a social worker.

The drive to the county jail gave Jerry time to reflect. Today the heat was oppressive. Jerry turned his car’s air-conditioner on high, put in a music tape, and mentally planned his advocacy strategy for his patient, William Bloomfield. William had gotten drunk over the weekend and was arrested for assaulting a police officer. Since he had prior convictions, William was facing a heavy prison sentence. Jerry was already thinking that the best he could probably do for William would be to get him a psychiatric exam and, pending the results, recommend that William be permitted to finish out the end of his prison sentence in a rehabilitation facility.

Jerry arrived at the county jail and went through the usual security check. The guard had brought William into the telephone room. William was already waiting on the other side of the security glass-divider. William looked strangely happy. He picked up the phone, greeted Jerry cordially and began talking non-stop without giving Jerry a chance to structure an interview.

“Look, Jerry, I already know everything you want to say. I could do your job standing on my head, I’ve been through counselling so many times. You’re a good guy, but you don’t have anything to offer me and society doesn’t have anything for me, either. It’s too late for me now. I couldn’t catch on to things when I was in my 20’s, and now I’m too old to start over. I’m 38 years old, Jerry. I never graduated from high school, never got a G.E.D., I have a prison record and I can’t even find a minimum wage job.”

“I got drunk on purpose, Jerry. I wanted to get arrested. Jail is where I belong. I don’t have anything else and nobody wants me. My girlfriend threw me out. I refuse to live in a shelter. I’m not smart enough to go to school. The only thing I know how to do is to cook, and there aren’t any restaurants that will take a chance with an ex-con like me. Employers are afraid I’ll rob them or come to work drunk and wreck the place.”

“It isn’t like the olden days, Jerry. My parents were alcoholic and died young. My grandmother raised me. She had a little shack of a house and a vegetable garden. We grew potatoes, string beans, corn, cabbage, tomatoes. We had a few chickens for fresh eggs. We had a milking cow. We picked wild berries. We were poor, Jerry, but we ate well and we had each other for support. My grandmother had a million ways to cook potatoes. She fried them, baked them, boiled them, mashed them, and even made pies out of them.”

“That was the only time in my life that I was ever happy. And the only time that I was ever sober. My grandmother kept me alive and I was happy with our simple existence. After my grandmother died, the state took her property and put me in foster care. I ran away and then I started drinking. I can’t take the stress of modern life. Nobody lives like Grandma anymore.”

“Don’t feel bad, Jerry. It isn’t your fault. I know you tried. This is my decision. This is the only way I can survive. The court will send me to the state prison. I know how to survive there. I’ll find some other guys like myself. We’ll play cards and make bets with our cigarettes and deodorant and writing paper and stuff. I’ll use the exercise equipment a lot. I’ll play basketball and watch T.V. I’ll get enough food. I know how to watch my back. There are preachers who visit weekly, so I can even save my soul. So, don’t try to talk to me about counselling and support groups and educational assistance and halfway houses. I have everything I need in prison.”

“Besides, my being here keeps a lot of people employed. Recycling myself through the prison system helps keep the economy going. I’m a part of things just by being a drunk and a criminal. I know that sounds sarcastic, Jerry, but there’s an eerie reality to it. Society doesn’t need ex-cons taking jobs away from average citizens. Society needs us in here where our presence creates more jobs for average citizens.”

“Look, Jerry, I’m going to hang up now. I want you to know that other than my grandmother, you’re the only person that I ever trusted. Someday we’ll meet again in the Sweet Bye and Bye. Grandma will be up there frying potatoes and she’ll be singing and we’ll all sit at the table together. Good bye, Jerry. Don’t visit me again.” William hung up the phone, stood up and turned his back against the window.

Jerry had no choice but to pick up his notepad and leave. He walked slowly and hesitantly out of the jailhouse. He had wanted to give William hope, wanted to make a plan, wanted William to still have the opportunity for a productive life. Jerry felt so helpless. He dreaded going back to the agency. He would have to write a progress note and then close William’s chart. It would be a solemn process.

William’s monologue would haunt Jerry throughout his career. William was convincing, and even enlightening in some aspects. Jerry could feel William’s despair and he could respect the practicality of William’s decision. Jerry had always coped by moving forward. The world is always changing, he reasoned within himself, and no one can stop it. Can they? Jerry located his car and just sat inside its air-conditioned cocoon for a while, perhaps himself trying to stop the world for just a few minutes. The heat was brutal today. Finally, he drove away. He had work to do. He would stop and grab a hamburger on the way back to the agency. (Written 11/17/03 )

Reprinted on WordPress blog 04/27/11

Copyright In the Zone 2010 Natalia J. Garland

Chapter 5: Therapy-Mart Zone

Rose woke up early Saturday morning and quickly got the twins out of bed. Her plan was to go early to the 24-hour Trade-Mart discount store and buy new school clothes for the twins. She gulped down a cup of coffee and gave the twins a glass of juice. They would have breakfast at the Trade-Mart restaurant. That was Rose’s way of bribing the twins to get up early, as well as making the day’s chores a little easier on herself.

The Trade-Mart was a 30-minute drive from home. The twins fell asleep in the car. Rose was a safe driver and accomplished a smooth arrival at the enormous Trade-Mart parking lot. The twins woke up automatically, as though answering the call of the shopping muse. Or, perhaps, just getting hungry for pancakes and sausages.

Pamela was the first to notice it. “Look, Ma,” she exclaimed while pointing to the store’s sign, “we’re in the wrong place.” Peter, taking pride in the role of a protective older brother since his sister was, after all, a few minutes younger than he, looked up and confirmed Pamela’s sleepy morning observation. “Yeah, Ma, look, the sign doesn’t say Trade-Mart. It says Therapy-Mart. What’s that?”

Rose looked up at the sign and had no idea what was going on. The store appeared the same, but the name had indeed been changed. “Ma, Ma,” said Pamela, “you’re a therapist, don’t you know what it is?” Rose, a successful psychotherapist of several years, and courageously living in a compatibility of career and motherhood, replied, “This may surprise you, Pamela, but there are some things even your mother doesn’t know. Let’s go inside and find out what’s going on.” The family of three fearlessly entered…..the Therapy-Mart Zone.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” said the young man in the burgundy polo shirt with the logo Therapy-Mart embroidered on it. “My name is Johnny and I’m the weekend supervisor here at the Therapy-Mart. What kind of therapy are you interested in? Family therapy? Marriage counselling? Drug addiction? Sexual abuse? Domestic violence? We have an opening that just became available in our cancer survivors’ group. What can I sign you up for?”

Rose was appalled. She did not know if Johnny was serious or if this was some kind of joke. She looked at him in dismay and said, “I only came in here to buy the twins some socks and things. What kind of place is this?” Johnny chuckled arrogantly. “Ah, yes. Many people come here on a pretext. You say that you came to buy socks, but we both know that you really came to see about some therapy for yourself and your maladjusted children. There’s no need to feel embarrassed. Therapy-Mart is here to help you.”

“No,” protested Rose, “I do not want any therapy of any kind. In fact, I happen to be a psychotherapist myself and I never saw a place like this in all my life. Are you licensed by the state? What is going on here?”

Johnny answered her with feigned shock. “What! You are a therapist and you have never heard of the Therapy-Mart?! I would be happy to explain our services to you. We offer pre-packaged therapy deals to fit any insurance company’s requirements. We put your name and diagnosis into our computer and match you with a therapist. It’s very much like a dating service, except we pair up consumers with therapists. We cut right through the trust and confidentiality problems because our computers produce perfect matches. We are open 24/7 to fit the busy schedules of consumers like yourself. We have therapists working around the clock.”

Rose found all this difficult to believe, but she was seeing it right before her eyes. The store was arranged in aisles just like it used to be, but now each aisle was labeled according to the type of therapy offered. Aisle #1 read D.U.I., Aisle #2 read Grief Counselling, and so on. But Rose still was not convinced. “What are your credentials, Johnny?”

Johnny answered her in an sing-song voice with obvious annoyance. “I graduated from the local community college with a Business in Our New Century Certificate, and I’m a member the Humanitarian Business Club. Most insurance companies prefer to work with us because of our efficiency with our paperwork. We have a full staff of clerical workers who are specially trained to fill out all the various insurance forms of every insurance company across the nation. We do not need to be licensed by the state because we operate on a business to consumer level.”

Johnny had a swift answer for everything, thought Rose. Can mental health really be bought like clothing off the rack? Had Johnny outsmarted the insurance companies, or had he reduced human behaviors to the least common denominator in some horrible Nazi cattle-car manner? Before Rose could let her mind travel too far in that direction, she felt a little hand tugging at her jacket. It was Peter. “Ma, I’m hungry. Can we go get our pancakes now?” The needs of the innocent brought Rose back to her Saturday morning world. “Sure,” said Rose, “let’s get out of here.”

“Wait,” shouted Johnny, “could I have your names for my daily census, please?” Rose answered him in a tone of proud defiance, “My name is Rose Frood, and these are my twins, Peter and Pamela.” Johnny smiled a crooked smile, “Oh, how nice, Rosie. I really enjoyed meeting you. Byeee, Petey and Pammy.” Rose reacted to that remark like a protective mother bear. She looked Johnny straight in the eye. “No, our names are Rose, Peter and Pamela. The twins are ten years old now. They decided for themselves that they don’t want to be called baby names any longer. They’re growing up. You don’t have any aisle numbers to fit my family do you?! And speaking as a so-called consumer, you don’t have any bargains here, either. You can quote me in your census, Johnny.”

Rose and the twins jumped into the car and started looking for a place to have breakfast. Rose had worked up an appetite herself. “Guess what?! I have an idea, kids. After we have breakfast, let’s forget about shopping. Let’s go and spend the day at the zoo.” The twins bounced up and down in their seats, “Hurray! We’re going to the zoo!” They were at a great age, and Rose suddenly wanted to enjoy them as much as she could. “Ma, can we visit the baby bears?” asked Pamela. Everyone was wide awake now, and it was going to be a great day. (Written 12/01/03)

Reprinted on WordPress blog 04/27/11

Copyright In the Zone 2010 Natalia J. Garland

Chapter 6: Her Job Evaluation Zone

Hester Wright, the oldest living social worker in the world, was scheduled to meet with her supervisor in the afternoon. Hester dreaded it. She closed the door to her office and turned on her pocket media player. She tried to calm herself by listening to her favorite piece of music: Piano Concerto No.4, by Beethoven. She found this piece to evoke such serene and joyful moods in her. But her private world was interrupted when the supervisor paged her for their meeting. Hester reluctantly walked into….Her Job Evaluation Zone.

The supervisor of the substance abuse clinic, Mary Jane Fulbright, was waiting in her office. Mary Jane had Hester’s personnel file spread across her desk. Mary Jane sat silently while Hester took a seat on the other side of the huge desk. “It’s that time of year again,” said Mary Jane mechanically, “time for your annual employee evaluation.”

“Hester, these evaluations are always difficult to do, especially when you personally like the employee but you have to be an impartial judge.” Hester already knew that she was in trouble. Mary Jane was trying to insert friendship in order to make the oncoming bad news more palatable. Sure enough, “This is going to hurt me worse than it hurts you,” continued Mary Jane. “I really value your past contributions to this clinic, and it saddens me that your work performance and attitude have deteriorated so much over the past year.”

Mary Jane had an unnerving way of looking people directly in the eye when making criticisms. “We work together here as a team. But your job performance far excels the other counsellors. I gave you a grade of excellent in all but one category. Hester, this is inexcusable. You are only required to be average. No less and no more. Excellence and achievement are old-fashioned ideas. You are still living back in the year 2015. Your excellent work makes the other counsellors feel bad. You do not function as a team member.”

Hester wondered if it would do any good to defend herself. As a matter of principle and self-respect, she decided to try. “I know we come from different schools of thought,” said Hester, “but I feel the proof of my effectiveness rests in the fact that many of my patients go on to live stable lives. My recidivism rate is less than that of the other counsellors. Isn’t that our purpose? To help our patients?”

“I’m glad you asked that,” retorted Mary Jane. “Your question only illustrates your narrow-minded view of counselling. We are a team. In order to be cohesive, we all need to function at an average level. Without cohesiveness we have no team, and without a team we have no clinic. We cannot help our patients without teamwork. Your excellence causes the other counsellors to feel inferior and this has a negative impact on their work.”

“Not only is your excellent work intolerable, but your attitude is also an obstruction to teamwork. Let me give you an example. At last year’s staff holiday party, we drew names for gift-giving. Remember? You gave a nice, thoughtful gift to the employee whose name you drew. Everyone else gave impersonal gifts: keychains, paperweights, pen and pencil sets, etc. But not you. No, you had to give a book of poetry signed by the author. Your caring outshone everyone else and placed you above our team.”

Hester remembered the holiday party and the awful box of stale cookies she got. Not even her dog would eat them. Moments like that used to be disappointing to her, but over the years Hester had learned to take it in stride. Now the thought of the cookies made her want to chuckle. She tried to put a serious look back on her face. The way things were going, she doubted that she would be here for the next holiday party, anyway. Oh well, that would save her the trouble of having to dispose of another unwanted gift. That was classic Hester: always turning her disadvantages into advantages.

Hester wanted to get it over with. If things were going to get worst, she wanted to know now so that she could begin making career plans. “What is my final score?” she asked. Mary Jane looked Hester straight in the eye again. It was almost hypnotic. “Not so fast,” replied Mary Jane. “There is still the matter of the one category in which you did not get a grade of excellent. Your penmanship. I gave you a grade of needs improvement in penmanship. Your handwriting has deteriorated. Sometimes you do not cross your t’s or dot your i’s. I have difficulty reviewing your chart notes because of this.”

“Now, for your final score. The categories of excellent and needs improvement are extremes and are each worth zero points. Therefore, I have no choice but to give you a total of zero. This means that you will be placed on a 30-day suspension without pay. When you return to work, you will be expected to perform at an average level. If you have not reduced the quality of your work to average within 60 days of being reinstated to employment, your employment at this clinic will be terminated. Your suspension begins immediately. I have already arranged for another counsellor, Joe Blunt, to take over your cases. You may go to your office and gather your personal things, turn in your keys, and leave.”

Mary Jane withdrew her stare and began writing in Hester’s personnel file. The evaluation was over. Mary Jane had made her decision, and Hester knew that to protest was futile. Hester had been given her final score. This was not a time for a self-defense. This was a time for self-protection.

While cleaning out her office, Hester mentally cleaned out her mind. Ever since the Department of Senior Security had raised the retirement age to 80, Hester had worried that she would not be able to work for the clinic that long. She was 77 years old. She could try to find another job over the next month, but she knew that she could never be average. She had to be true herself in order to be true to her patients.

Hester loaded her things into her old car. She would go home, play with the dog, and then make something special for dinner since there would be time to cook. Yes, time. Thirty days of free time. At this point, Hester did not relish her free time. She wished that she was already 80 years old and eligible for her pension. Her thoughts were starting to go in a depressing direction. She shook herself free from this trance. Hester made a vow to herself that she would never look back. From now on, she was going to pioneer a new path to her own final score. (Written 07/05/04)

Reprinted on WordPress blog 04/27/11

Copyright In the Zone 2010 Natalia J. Garland