Saturday, October 13, 2007


I was working the graveyard shift at a job in a manufacturing company soon after I graduated from college. Every night I was required to run a machine that would coat glass with various chemicals. The machine was a robot of sorts with an arm that would pick up the round circles of glass and place them at various stations along the conveyer. The problem with the machine was that it wasn’t calibrated to place the glass plates in exactly the right position and so the operator, me, would have to take off the guards and tip the glass into the right position before the machine could continue its process. I put in several requests to have the machine calibrated, to no avail. Eventually I gave up and one night the inevitable happened. I had taken all the protective guards off so that I could easily tip each glass into place. It was 2 am and I was a bit groggy. Unthinkingly, I reached under the machine arm to tip the glass in, when suddenly I realized the clearance between the arm and the table wasn’t enough to accommodate my arm. The strong arm of the robot had securely pinched my arm to the solid surface of the counter. I was securely stuck.

When we are young and impressionable our parents or our parent calibrates us to a particular rhythm. Generally, they can calibrate us to nearly any system of being. Later as we mature, we get knocked about and loose our calibration. Or sometimes we’re landed into a situation where the earlier calibration won’t serve us well anymore. So, we need to be recalibrated.

I often think of cross-cultural translating as recalibrating myself to a new way of being. The hope is that I will be able to keep the old calibration settings intact for those times when I return to the other culture. I think of it as rewiring my switches. So that when someone flips a certain switch, it can evoke a reaction of a. b. or c. depending upon my context. I enjoy the complexity of this.

Yet there are times when I loose my calibration a little because of negligence. Sometimes I run into folks who serve as my calibrators and it ends up a little off. Whatever the case, the machine still does its job despite its little calibration problem. All I need to do is take the protective guards off and tip the glass into place and all is well for quite some time. Until some night or groggy morning makes me a little careless and I make a false move. Suddenly, I’m immobilized under the heavy arm of the system I a trying to work with against its own laws.

As for what happened at the factory...

I looked around frantically for options. There was a window to and adjacent room that my only co-worker went to occasionally. But he would enter only every 2 hours for a duration of 15 seconds tops. I looked at the clock and decided I would yell his name only every 10 seconds as he would be the only one who could possibly hear me through the thick walls of the clean room lab. If he didn’t hear me, I would be stuck there until 6 am when the day crew came in for their shift. There was also another window that faced the main production floor. Yet few people walked past it. But I began taking off my shoes so that I could throw them at the window with my free arm, should a person walk past. There I was, pinched to the chemical counter for an hour before my co-worker heard me as he entered the adjacent room for the 15 seconds. My arm was completely numb by the time he came to rescue me. I will never forget the look on his face as he entered the room. He turned white as I immediately began giving him orders on what buttons to push to get the arm to raise. He was so flustered that he shut off the machine and it would have taken 5 minutes for it to start up again. In the end, he simply lifted the arm a few millimeters with his upper body strength and I yanked my arm out.

I returned to work the next evening to operate a calibrated machine.

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