If only workplaces were just about work. They're also about ambition, love, fear, fashion, bad pizza, worse jokes -- and at one Washington office near Capitol Hill, the right to shoot Nerf basketballs.
"Call Me Ishmael" says that he and the gang in this cubicle cluster have shot free throws for many years with these small foam basketballs. It's a way to bust up tension.
Whenever a deadline looms, or tempers threaten to flare, "We pick up that squishy little ball and start aiming at the little hoop that someone hung over the main wastebasket years ago," Ishmael says.
Anyone can play, and just about everyone has, according to my informant. "Ours is the rare Washington office where a senior vice president and a brand new secretary can have some friendly competition," he says. "Nerfball is a godsend."
Make that "was."
The Big Boss retired last month, and a new one took over.
His first edict: Nerfball will cease forthwith.
Unprofessional, he declared.
Time that could better be spent on work, he said.
Hard to explain if some Washington Biggie came to call, he said.
And the clincher:
It's too hard for the cleaning crew to empty a wastebasket when a Nerf hoop is hanging from the lip of it.
And you thought your boss was the weirdest?
The workers in this office have obediently suspended their Nerfing. They have bills to pay, after all.
But they are looking for arguments with which to trump the boss's anti-Nerf mentality. Knowing that Levey is a child locked inside a columnist's body, they came calling.
Let me assure you that you have come to the right place, gang. I am the free-throw-shooting geek of all time.
Way back when, I pined to be a great hoops star. But genetics had a lot to say about that, and the news wasn't good.
I wasn't going to be 6-feet-9, alas. Nor was I going to be faster than a speeding bullet. I needed to turn myself into a great shooter, or I'd never get off the bench.
The neighbors had a basket nailed over their garage door. Every evening for more than two years, I'd practice free throws upon it. I refused to come in to dinner until I had made 100 in a row. Miss, and I'd start over.
Many is the time my mother would call out to me, through the thickening gloom (or, all too often, the falling snow). "Just a minute," I'd reply. Then: Thump, thump, swish . . . thump, thump, swish . . . until 99 became 100.
How our neighbors put up with this noise every single night, I'll never figure out. But I learned to shoot, and I learned to appreciate the "settling" that regular basketball practice provides. When these Washington workers say that Nerfing clears the air, I know exactly what they mean.
So to my partners in hoopistry, I offer the following advice: If you like today's column, clip it and leave it on the New Big Boss's chair. Even the humorless can sometimes change.
1. Office camaraderie -- real office camaraderie -- is as rare and as precious as a pearl. A good boss understands that happy employees work well. He also understands that happy employees work well together. When employees figure out a way to foster that camaraderie, in a genuine, spontaneous way, it's a blessing, not a curse.
2. Nerfball cannot break a window, cause a lawsuit, make anyone pregnant or earn a company three negative minutes on the Six O'Clock News.
3. Nerfball walks across gender lines -- especially at this office, where women have played as long (and as well) as men. How many offices sputter because the guys go to lunch together, play the NCAA pool together, trade golf lies -- and always exclude the women?
4. Nerfball never lasts for very long. I don't know of a single office where people spend more than 10 minutes a day at it. Does the New Big Boss really think that every employee works flat-out, eyes down, like a machine, all the livelong day? Does he think that every employee should?
5. Nerfball can help build a better community. Seriously. Last year, I received a $100 gift to Children's Hospital from an office in downtown Washington. The dough was entry fees kicked in by those who entered an end-of-year office Nerfball tournament. I'm not saying that the same $100 couldn't have been collected by passing the hat. But Nerfballing for the sake of sick kids was two-for-the-price-of-one. People had a good time -- and they also gave to a good cause.
6. It isn't self-destructive. I've never seen anyone packed off to rehab because he had a Nerfball habit.
7. It isn't as undignified as the New Big Boss thinks. I won't name the congressman, but if you walk into his office in the Longworth Building, the first thing you see is the receptionist. The second thing you see, right behind her, is a Nerfball hoop taped to the wall. If a serious player like a congressman isn't afraid to reveal his Nerfdom, why should the New Big Boss be?
8. It's young. Whenever I walk into a workplace where the walls are full of fake French watercolors, or diplomas, or pictures of the Big Boss shaking hands with a big-time politician, I think: "Party poopers. Old before their time. No fun." Nerfball says, "This office doesn't take itself too seriously." I'm instantly relaxed, instantly at home.
I'm so confident that the New Big Boss will see the error of his ways that I say, to the gang on Capitol Hill:
Happy continued Nerfing. Just remember to bend your knees before you shoot.