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Retro Redux: Music Works Its Magic On Stress

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A recent news article was the trigger for my latest exercise in musical memories. To be more specific, reading about my former employer swallowing up a smaller company led to memories of when they did the same thing to the company I was working for. It was a time of high stress for everyone and although it turned out reasonably well, we all had different ways of dealing with the pressure that existed in the early days.

I found I was coming in earlier, working later, and often churning right through my lunch hour. That lack of a break, coupled with the increased stress levels, soon had me as nervous as a rhino on roller-skates. Of course, the uncertainty of our future probably had something to do with it too, but in any case I decided that if I wanted to keep my sanity, I had to take at least part of every lunch hour off.

At first, I tried just leaning back in my chair and closing my eyes for a while — not dozing exactly, but trying to mellow out a little. It worked pretty well except for one thing — interruptions. Our offices were located in the front part of our big manufacturing facility, and that meant that guys from the factory floor knew exactly where to go whenever they had a problem or a question, and it didn't matter if it was nominally the lunch hour.

I didn't really blame them. They had a job to do and a quick answer sometimes saved them a lot of trouble, but the situation created an interesting dynamic. Obviously, I was fair game if I was working at my desk, but if I was leaning back with my eyes closed then it made them hesitate. And even if I'd caught a glimpse of their approach through slitted eyes, I wasn't inclined to make it any easier for them because doggone it, I wanted my break.

Sometimes they'd go away but usually they'd stand for a minute and then clear their throat, and finally either say something or knock on the door frame. One especially bold guy would just walk in and loudly slap down his paperwork right in the middle of my desk, startling me into almost falling out of my chair. (I always felt like he resented me relaxing in the office while he had to work, but maybe I was reading too much into it.)

I realized that I needed another layer of insulation from interruptions, or at least a way to slow them down to just the really important ones. Closing my office door wouldn't help — I had a glass wall so couldn't really hide anyway, and in our company you only closed your door if you were chewing out someone. (Or if your own boss was reaming you.)

So I turned to music. I brought a small CD player and headphones from home, and began listening to music for a while on almost every lunch hour. Whether it was the headphones or just the whole picture I presented to potential interrupters, it seemed to help. It didn't stop them all, but it definitely slowed the flow. And as an added benefit, I found that the music itself helped relax me.

I tried classical music at first, but found that what worked best was soft jazz. Not "smooth" jazz, but the kind of silky music that was a specialty of Henry Mancini. I could lose myself in some of his lush pieces; orchestral works with a touch of strings and the lead carried by muted brass or soaring saxophones. One of my favorites was "Lujon," a sparkling tune that was later featured on the soundtrack of The Big Lebowski. When listening to that one I could almost imagine I was on a tropical isle somewhere — at least until someone had a problem that just couldn't wait.

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