Out of the Box




The last time I lost a box, it was a big one—an Empire blue, twenty-gauge steel casket. My dad was in it. My dead dad, obviously.


I’d been assured by the funeral director that the casket would be waiting for me at the airport. That all I had to do was go up to the check-in desk, give them my dad’s name, and inform them I was taking his casket with me on my flight, like he was luggage. The check-in gal (Peggy) typed into the database for several minutes. She looked concerned, her lips tight with concentration. “I can’t find him,” she said.


*   *   *


Today at the office, I purposefully placed an empty cardboard box on a chair in the wood-paneled conference room. Our boss wanted the box for some icebreaker exercise, a tool she was overly fond of using to kick-start our weekly staff meetings. She was big on building trust and comity.


But someone had taken the box. Now I had to scramble to find another one, all the while condemning the scoundrel who had snared it. Who would do that?


I was out of the box. Our boss was always telling us to think out of the box.


Our boss was an out-of-the-box hire. She brought new things to our conference room table: vision, diversity, strategy, the phrase “first and foremost,” and fashionable clothes.


But we were a global agricultural firm and only wanted results: fewer employees, lower costs, improved revenues, relatively contented shareholders, non-activist Board members, and dramatically inflated compensation for the executive team.


Our boss wouldn’t last long.


Our previous boss was young, fair-haired, and callow—a boy wonder. He tried unsuccessfully to grow Elvis muttonchop sideburns, perhaps to distinguish himself from the more formal, older leaders in the company. Tufts of peach fuzz dotted both sides of his face, like a blurry map of an archipelago. He talked constantly about meritocracy. All of us would look at him in wonder when he used that term, given all the luck that had brought him to be our boss. But whatever. He left for a promotion.


We also had a lot of tall, efficient European bosses who snapped their fingers instead of clapping and who required O-1 visas. Do you know what O-1 visas are? You have to prove the individual is “extraordinary.” You have to document it convincingly in mounds of paperwork before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services deems them worthy to work in our country in a particular job.


Who is extraordinary? Unless any of us can figure out how not to die, are any of us extraordinary?


I’m the first to admit I’m not extraordinary, although I do use three different brands of toothpaste daily. My husband tolerates this abundance and the resultant counter-space hogging. But he also conveys his annoyance when I butcher the tubes.


I considered asking Rita to help find another box. She was one of those rare and reliable office people who can do anything. But at the moment, she was juggling calls, texts, and updating PowerPoint slides for our meeting, and doing all of it with a smile on her face despite having unruly teenagers at home and a brutal commute. In my mind, she is extraordinary. Normally, it would be Rita’s job to set up and find boxes for our meeting. But since she was so busy, I had pitched in and found the original box, caught up in a “we are all in this together” esprit de corps moment.


*   *   *


It would be an understatement to say I was stunned when airport Peggy couldn’t locate the box of Dad. I had two immediate thoughts: one, My family would blame me for losing him. I envisioned the shattering looks of disgust from my sisters. When one of them once complained about the irritating earworm ad “Kars 4 Kids,” I confessed I didn’t understand it since kids can’t drive. They wrote me off after that, I think, yet entrusted me with the care of our beloved, cheerful, formerly strapping Dad.


The sisters lived halfway across the country, in the city where I was headed with Dad and where he’d be entombed in a mausoleum drawer—another box of sorts—next to our long-deceased mom. Although my sisters had no day-to-day involvement in caring for Dad over the years, they did have constant commentary about how hard it was for them to be so far away from him during his lengthy illness, an illness that sliced away at him until there was almost nothing left.


Our pseudo-Elvis boss once took our team to a Brazilian steakhouse for a holiday dinner. Men in embroidered vests repeatedly wheeled a parade of various, vertically hung slabs of meat to our table. With surgical precision, they gruesomely sliced the meat according to my colleagues’ preferences, piling it high on their plates. If I were a meat eater or a drinker, which I’m not, I might have avoided spending the entire evening silently gagging over my empty dish in-between forced conversation with a gym-addicted, secret-steroid-using new leader who wanted to discuss murder mysteries. As my dad whittled away, I couldn’t help but think of those vested, slab-slicing men.


My second thought after Peggy told me my dad was missing was, Where the hell is he? One last escape? Entertaining his friends again with his bad Bogie impression? Or out on the links, his favorite place to be? Part of me sort of hoped so.


But eventually Peggy found him. He was at the wrong gate. It happens. My sense of relief was immeasurable. Everything worked out. Well, except that Dad was still dead.


I was grateful he was out of pain.


I was grateful I was not yet in a box myself.


Being out of the box can be good on so many levels.


*   *   *


Now I had about three minutes to find a new box in the office before our team would start filing into the conference room and then answering in politically correct fashion some question along the lines of, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be and why?”


I considered using a clean garbage receptacle underneath an absent employee’s desk. It wasn’t a box, obviously, but it was a container. And it was handy. Harry was going through a divorce and working from home a lot. He hadn’t tossed anything in that receptacle for quite some time. It appeared tolerably clean, but I knew our boss would make that smudged scowl of hers at the sight of it.


I scooted down to the mail room and found a fairly not-beat-up old USPS box. If I folded back the flaps, it might do.


Since it was faster than the elevator, I raced up the glass-enclosed, circular staircase—a staircase with glass our employer proudly touted as bulletproof (an employee benefit during an era of workplace shootings), a staircase that made it easy to track everyone’s comings and goings. I looked out and saw coworkers bustling below, readying for their strut to the staff meeting. Did they see me? I caught my reflection in the curved glass, and I admit it was jarring: a woman in a well-tailored suit, a woman with frizzing hair that would never look corporate-sleek no matter how much time and money she devoted to it, a woman moving with crispness and urgency, yet with a slightly slowing spring in her step as she neared the top, a woman carrying a used, undignified cardboard box.


Slightly out of breath, I pushed open the heavy, fireproof stairwell door with my hip at the exact moment rippling city church bells chimed on the hour.


As the bells echoed, I tried to wander into the conference room with an “everything is under control” attitude. I placed the “it will have to do” box on the appropriate chair to the left of our boss, who was already standing at the podium. She was setting up, rifling through slides, looking preoccupied but pleasant, gulping her latte. She nodded at me, looked at the box, and seemed okay with my effort. I got no scowl.


I took my seat as my colleagues brought in their caffeine fumes and devices. They noticed the raggy box sitting on the chair. Instantly, collectively, their tired, putty faces registered awareness that we were (yet again) in for some enforced fun. And that we’d have to act as if we enjoyed it.


I usually try to be the first one out of the gate to answer the icebreaker question. You have more options to choose from, you can come across as confident and quick-thinking, even if your answer is only so-so (speed over content), and you can then relax and watch the mild panic in your colleagues’ eyes as they try to come up with something no one else has already said. The ambitious ones want to look both clever and insightful. I just want it to be over.


“I’m a willow. I can bend,” I said.


Folks mildly chuckled.


No one seemed to recognize I stole the line from the movie 9 to 5.


And no one ever admitted they stole my box. So much for trust and comity.


Now the question is: Since the “tree” icebreaker didn’t involve items or scraps of paper being thrown in or taken out of the box, why did we need it? What in the world does our boss have in store for us next?


If I could think out of the box, I would already know.







Nancy Ford Dugan’s work has appeared in over 45 publications, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.