Entries: April 2005


Several years ago the print shop I worked for went through one of its “employees first” episodes that typically develops in the fertile valley between layoff seasons. In an economy classified by irrational exuberance, the shop’s management were the very embodiment of giddy generosity, which I likened to a congregation of apple-cheeked uncles, fresh in from abroad, whose pockets were filled with all manner of exotic gifts for their favorite nephews. It was complimentary bagels every morning, and pizza for lunch on Fridays. Of course, during such periods of cherubic generosity a long memory would serve the employee well, in particular the understanding that a jocular manager should be treated with the same respect afforded to a freshly-fed pit viper: they’re only docile for the time being, but when that first hunger pang hits…

Desperate to avoid the euphoria overtaking them completely, management quickly set about the production of our annual performance evaluations, and the attendant reports were presented to us as nothing less than the revelatory maps with which we would ford a path to new personal insights and spiritual growth. And, in order to reassure the staff of the utter informality of the review process, the meetings would be held one-on-one, manager to employee, at the stations of each respective employee.

I felt like a buoy buffeted by the tide, helpless to extricate myself from the pomp and circumstance of the corporate friendship campaign. At a kindergarten field trip to the zoo, an animal handler once used my name when responding to a question I had asked, much to my shock. Recognizing my confusion, the man reminded me of the large magenta name tag affixed to my shirt, and my shock turned quickly to humiliation. When one is made to wear one’s name emblazoned so prominently, it does make one vulnerable to such forced intimacy. Similarly, there is no audience so captive as the employee set upon by her manager.

To the extent that there’s any explanation at all, this background may account for why I shoved a small ceramic penguin in my mouth moments before my manager paid me a visit. To be sure, nothing else could come close to explaining my deed, I simply felt the need to assert myself decisively. Very little forethought had gone into it, other than, “I wonder if I can sit through this entire performance evaluation without Klaus realizing that I have something in my mouth.” The ceramic penguin—one member of a suicidal penguin family that lives on my monitor—was simply the closest item within reach.

Needless to say I immediately regretted my impulsiveness. How could I risk something so stupid just to reassure myself of my individuality? My capacity for self destruction was now well established: mission accomplished. But surely it was no better than displaying my creativity to my Cub Scout leader via self immolation over the campfire, all the while shouting, “I am the phoenix, I am the phoenix!” My child psychologist would later classify my behavior as symptomatic of a flagrant disregard for personal well-being. At the time I thought it was good to have a name for it, finally.

Obviously I had refined this inclination over the years, and I was now smiling at my manager, not two feet away from me, with a small but uncomfortable figurine tucked under my tongue like a tuxedoed lozenge.

“So!” said Klaus, and thus began my moment under the merry interrogation lamp of behavioral quantification. “How we doing?”

I nodded and considered the question perhaps a bit too thoroughly before gesturing at the corporate letterhead design on my monitor, as if to say, what can I say? In fact the very thought was occurring to me just then: what could I say, really? Perhaps I could get by without using an “L” or an “R.” Oh, and “ch” was out of the question unless I procured a bib.

Klaus supplied his own rejoinder, fortunately, with mock seriousness: “Work must go on!” He wiggled his head from side to side like the cliche authority figure. Oh how the self destructive side of me hoped that he would force me to laugh, only to produce the hapless penguin. What would I say then? So that’s where it was? “Okay, so you know why I’m here,” he continued.

“Mm hmm,” I said. That much I could manage, and well. So I relied on it heavily, being sure to set the bar for my participation in this conversation early on. When I needed a variant I tossed in a the odd, “Yuh,” which served well enough as a vague affirmative.

And before I knew it Klaus was asking me, “Any comments? Questions?”

I pursed my lips and shrugged, and it would have been well enough to have left it at that. But that would have been too easy. Once you’ve established the pit bull’s range, as determined by the chain around its straining neck, it’s hardly a challenge to set up a picnic just outside the circle perimeter. That’s not living. Life is about stepping inside the circle from time to time. “No,” I said. “Sounds good.” Only it sounded like, “Go, shougkh gook.”

Klaus looked up at me with a bemused grin. “What’s that?” So I set him on fire.

Not really though.

But I do continue to walk that fine line between humility and humiliation, because it’s the only thing that keeps me from the cloying safety of comfort, which is the true temptation. Attending to customers at the service window without pants actually feels like an act of virtue when you keep that in mind.

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Small Steps

It began like everything begins: with laziness, which is the true mother of invention. Let me just say that there came a time when I was tasked with moving a small appliance from one room to another room, and by sheer coincidence I realized at that exact same time that to subject myself to said mission would literally liquify my brain. What could be less engaging, after all, than picking something up from one place and putting it back down in another place? Material transferral has got to be the most cripplingly banal task a person could ever perform.

So it was only a matter of time before the light of reason revealed an alternate path: if carting items from one spot to another is the absolute dullest thing one can do, then carting an item only half way to its terminus must be merely half as dull. Of course it doesn’t completely solve the problem, but it does allow one to take a break from one’s vapid existence long enough to participate in, say, a distracting game of Tetris.

But, armed with an obsessive nature, I’m never fully satisfied until I’ve exhausted every opportunity for behavioral refinement. That’s not about laziness, but it has everything to do with efficiency. In fact, because of my aversion to inefficiency, I quickly devised a way to perform the most meaningless tasks in such a way as to be transparent to my otherwise enthralling existence. Here’s how: If the new door hinge needs to get from the garage to the bedroom, and I happen to be on my way to the dining room anyway, then I’ll carry the hinge half way down the hall—to the point where our paths would naturally diverge—and just leave it there, and then continue on my way. The thinking is that if I move things in very small increments I can actually get work done without expending a precious ounce of surplus effort. The only flaw with this is that it can take a tremendous amount of time before any given task is complete.

Still, even if I progress at a glacial pace, you can well imagine how many small tasks I’m getting done at the same time. Indeed, you might say that my life has become a kind of immersive tile game, with each tile sliding into the next vacant spot. And there are the social problems that arise from moving at what is, essentially, stop-motion speed. Most obviously, my house looks like an absolute dump. I say “looks like,” mind you, because it’s not actually a dump, unless you haven’t taken the time to appreciate the order of things. Ichor-crusted babies sluicing from mothers’ wombs aren’t much to behold either, but when those same babies grow up to be your manager ordering you to move something from one place to the other, you can finally begin to appreciate the universe’s plan, and your part in that plan.

It’s not all wine and roses though. Everything I see before me is in a state of gradual transit. Grommets, mixing bowls, batteries, bills—these I’ve deposited at their respective junctures. At the same time, I’m picking up other items that I left along the way who knows how long ago. Keeping track of where everything needs to go exerts a great cognitive burden on me, and I’ve been known to forget which direction a given object was meant to go, carry something the wrong way, throw things into the air to foil myself, smash my left fist through a plate glass window, run down my block wearing only socks, setting progress back by a month or more. Also, I’ll sometimes overlook something entirely, perhaps because it has become obscured by something larger, or because squirrels have come in through the vents again. Diabolocal squirrels—they live to thwart me, but I am, eventually, assembling the parts for a varmint trap. By the time I’ve completed the trap, squirrels will have evolved and formed their own government, and will no longer care about pilfering shiny objects from me.

There are times when I do wish that I weren’t so lazy. I don’t know how people manage to break from what they’re doing just to convey an object to another room without feeling like there’s a wet towel wrapped around their heads. But whatever it is, I don’t have the facility for it. I need to take small steps. I’ll pay my toll as I go… in itemized micro-payments.

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Agent of Change

The Physics professor takes his place at my side five minutes later than usual. If the rest of the crew at the metro stop notices Nathaniel Whippingposte’s tardiness you could never gauge it from their outward appearances. Acknowledgement would be crossing that delicate social boundary that keeps a morning commuter safe from commitment. In all honesty, I can’t be certain that the man next to me is a physics professor at all, nor even that his name is “Nathaniel Whippingposte,” because I’ve never actually spoken to him. It’s not to say that we live in a society of strangers. In fact, I call this motley collection of characters “the crew” because we’re that tight-knit. We’re the regulars. Sure, there are the travellers through, the one-time companions, the sight-seers, but the core group remains. More than that, we all tend to stand in exactly the same spots from morning to morning, scattered, and equidistant from one another. Physics professor might call that a stochastic diffusion.

The social burden of engagement is a real threat, and I’ve seen it destroy otherwise stable communities. This is how it has to be, because breaching the wall means an ever-lasting commitment to intimacy that no single member of our crew could hope to shoulder. Me, I’m a pocket fidgeter—a fidgeteer—which affords me some flexibility as far as observing my fellow crew mates. I while away the morning minutes by constructing intricate fantasies about them, notions based on the most frivolous of details, the most sweeping assumptions.

Take Mlinzi Majji-giza, a man whom I’ve never seen in anything but a colorful dashiki. He’s the haunted man who stands back by the wall nursing some foul tea concoction and muttering to himself at length, often to the point of self-argument. I’ve seen him miss the train on more than one occasion simply from being so lost in thought. Dierdre Scruggs, standing by the station map, is a reader of prurient romance tomes, their spines invariably broken by her little sausage fingers. She’s a whale of a woman, with frayed orange hair like old yarn, and she looks comfortable as an old sofa. Dierdre is the housekeeper for a dreadfully aged statesman who lies affixed to his bed like a barnacle, and is forgotten to the outside world, save for his bank account. Meanwhile, off to my right is Phineas Boyd, who stares at the concrete sound baffling of the tunnel wall, and doesn’t shift his stance until the flash of the train’s approach lights. But he does listen, I know that. I’ve seen the corners of his mouth twitch reflexively in response to the wails of a tantrum-racked tyke. In fact, he loathes children with such a passion that it’s caused him to be wary of women. As for Nathaniel Whippingposte, he has an unmistakable professorial air, and his hair… well if you saw him you would understand.

I’ve told you these things only so that I can tell you about Bartholomew—he looked to me like a Bartholomew, you understand—who assumed the position of a regular for nearly a year. I say “assumed” because he never managed to actually become a stable part of my metro stop. My old metro stop, that is, the one before this one. There was something about the man’s manner, a restlessness of disposition, a defiance of regularity. He exhibited a need to engage others when something noteworthy happened. It was an insatiable hunger for connection, as if he had no sense of private assessment. He was as communal as they come, and saw things only in terms of how they might be viewed by a shared audience. An old man tripping on the escalator, or a nun floating a bouquet of multicolored zeppelinettes was reason enough for Bartholomew to fall to compulsion: “Wow, did you see that?” And for that he was ostracized, not as you could gauge it from the crew’s outward appearances.

Winter forfeited to Spring reluctantly that year, and we were assailed by storms for a straight month. So it was that Bartholomew arrived at the metro stop in late March drenched and breathless, his lenses white with fog. If it was possible, he was more restless than usual that morning, the erratic element in a stable system, and the rest of the crew drew together—spiritually, you understand—to keep him out. A closed system will inherently resist change as a protective measure.

But it wasn’t enough, for in a moment Bartholomew was approaching me and asking for the time. “I left in such a rush this morning,” he explained, “that I left my watch sitting on the bureau.” The vulgar details fell upon my ears as if the man were detailing the results of his most recent colonoscopy. Why should I be subjected to this? How could a person be so ignorant of social mores?

“The time?” Bartholomew asked again, raising his eyebrows. “The wall clock is broken, see, and I left this morning-“

I couldn’t take it anymore. Bartholomew had caught me unprepared, so I held my left wrist out in front of him. “Oh,” he said, and tilted his head to the side as he leaned forward, lifting his glasses for a better look. Then he nodded once. “Thank you,” he said. “Very much.” How distasteful. He seemed crestfallen, but I felt like a traitor.

I knew it would happen. For the week following I took my usual spot on the tiles, standing as demonstrably silent as I could manage. Yet Bartholomew greeted me every morning—without exception—and I felt obliged to greet him in turn. He would greet me at the station coffee shop, always with that same, “Hey.” Even if I were standing next to another of the crew, he would greet only me. Why? Because we had broken bread. Or, more accurately, he had broken my bread. Once he saluted me as we passed each other on opposite escalators. Now he was tormenting me, this agent of change. It was a drawn-out violation committed over the course of several weeks. And that’s precisely the danger of forfeiting to politeness. It’s a gateway that leads inevitably to the expectation of social intercourse. Impulse leads to habit, which leads to expectation, which leads to tradition, which leads to a life of automation that I, for one, have no stomach for. I looked at my watch. The train was late.

I suppose it’s obvious by now, but I ended up abandoning that metro stop. The experience had become too tainted for me to continue, alas. I had little choice but to find a new stop if I was to maintain any freedom at all. The freedom of regularity—the freedom of stasis—should never be taken for granted. Here at the new station, my crew understands that… not as you could gauge it from outward appearances.

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