The Zen of Meeting

entry_186I’m humming almost inaudibly to the fan of the overhead projector. Occasionally I vary my pitch just to hear the two tones beat, but overall I prefer to match the even tone of the projector. It’s easily the warmest thing in the conference room. None of my coworkers seem to have caught on to the fact that I’m humming, which is ideal, since I’m subscribing more and more to the belief that it’s the only thing keeping me from losing my mind altogether.

Fortunately, someone has brought us delicious secular holiday cookies. But even then my appetite is dampened by the the tinkling of our shackles–the accessories of professional captivity–as we reach for the complimentary confections. To be fair, there are but two things that explain my aversion to meetings: the topics of conversation, and the actual rooms they take place in. The two concepts are not as distantly related as one might imagine.

The conference room’s troublesome feng shui baffles concentration. The attempt to form cohesive thought is as easy as urinating while a puppy is staring at you. Yet, other than my coworkers, there are no obvious physical obstructions to speak of, so what’s the problem? The company hired hip young interior designers when it was flush with cash, which all but ensured that the walls would be strewn with red state-sized canvases featuring abstract splashes of corporate camouflage. But though the interior designers were well-versed in feng shui, they failed to take into account the fact that 30 bodies is enough to change the balance of any room. Indeed, feng shui is akin to quantum physics in that physical constants do not exist. Balance can exist only so long as no one enters a room, because to occupy a room is to change its nature. In fact, if a room is to maintain its integrity then no one should even be allowed to observe it, which would have the additional benefit of solving the meeting problem once and for all.

At the heart of any meeting is the discourse, and this meeting is no different. This morning the captives are told about the exciting business opportunities that abound, and the voice becomes a weightless silk wound around detached syllables and phonemes. I look down at my soft feminine hands. Baby hands, really. They’ve seen no work, and my bones would shatter if I ever dared pick up a hoe. And how long has my skin been transparent? I can see the grain of the table through my palms. Meanwhile, we’re told that not taking advantage of a business opportunity is just, “leaving money on the ground.”

I’ve heard the phrase before, but it was different last time. Another executive had said that letting opportunities pass us by was akin to “leaving money on the table.” The idea of loose money–cash money–is beyond their ken. The real story is revealed in their narrative: Perhaps the money had been on the table at one point, but no one had claimed it, and eventually the wind came through and blew the money to the ground like autumn leaves. The chance to witness a nascent business metaphor in its gestation, before the terms have settled, is fascinating, like observing the development of a new breed of poisonous hornet. Before the metaphor is delivered we’ll hear about money on a desk, or cash in the stairwell, or pennies off a dead man’s eyes.

The solution is clear: What we need is to have automated furniture that changes position relative to the number of bodies in the room. The movement might be subtle, and silent, but everyone would benefit from the harmonious redistribution. Even more effective would be furniture that acted to increase meeting efficiency by redistributing ineffectual members of the team right out the door. An energetic young manager prattles on about something he learned at a conference, not failing to use the phrase “low hanging fruit” at least three times. Then, slowly, his chair pulls away from the table, and begins moving toward the door. Without breaking the soul-depleting narrative, our middle manager grabs at the edge of the conference table, but the furniture’s servos are insistent, and pull until the employee’s knuckles are numb. We watch the manager wheel by, and he modifies his rhetoric in a heroic attempt to remain relevant, but as the door closes behind him there’s no denying that the mood of the entire room has lifted perceptibly.

My belief is that it’s the very structure of our meeting rooms that foster the banality of trade discourse. The wide convex conference tables, the track lights with frosted glass shades, and the chairs that force recline upon touch, draw sophistic colloquy from our lips like ship-farers drawn to shoal by the sirens’ song. It would be a different story if my coworkers were made to cling to ropes over a fiery pit. The points of discussion would be ticked off in record time then, with the primary order of business focusing on how to reach the ledge to safety. Contamination by flesh-eating bacteria might also enliven our assemblies, particularly if the antibiotics were hidden somewhere at random within the building. Raise the stakes and a few essential things become relevant, that’s the idea. You’re never more relevant than when pieces of your body are actually falling off as you dig through your coworkers’ waste cans.

Alas, these things are but the futile dreams of your hapless onlooker. Futile, perhaps, but why not also spiritually lucrative? To overlook these things, that would be leaving money in the bear trap.


entry_185At the base of the hill the long driveway comes to a T. From there it’s possible to turn either left or right to get to town–the direction doesn’t particularly matter because both roads meet up again after after a circuitous half mile. The fact that it’s a loop is the most interesting aspect of that road. Otherwise the two directions are about the same, and there’s nothing that makes one direction more compelling than the other. So it is that each morning is like participating in some recondite experiment: which way to go?

The one thing that saves me from numbing routine is the choice that I have of the two directions. I typically don’t know which way I’ll turn until I reach the bottom of the driveway, and even when I have a vague inkling, I’m often proven wrong. And that’s how I like it. This is one of those few perfect decisions that exists independent of cause or effect, and abrogates entirely the risk of routine.

But I’ve lately come to suspect that the specter of routine hides within the gestalt of my actions, if not in each one individually. It’s a difficult thing to know for sure, but still the suspicion haunts me.

For no discernible reason I began favoring the left route one morning, and stuck with the preference for a long while. Several days had passed before I noticed an elderly woman walking her dog just over the first hill–noticed her because she was always in the same place at the same time. A creature of routine, she was.

As days passed she took notice of me as well, and offered a friendly wave as I passed by. Despite the familiar burden of forced social graces, I waved back that first day, and continued to do so each morning. Meanwhile I worried at my foolhardy flirtation with regularity. Not only that, but I inferred expectation in that old woman’s smile, and it became more and more difficult to take my daily decision without regard to consequence.

A curious feeling of confinement set in–a kind of “claustrophobia of deed”–and my fingers tightened around the steering wheel. I found myself tempted by irrational thoughts, of routine-defying actions. I wondered at the consequences of swerving suddenly into the embankment with none but the woman and her dog as witnesses. Surely that would free me from any possibility of routine, unless I found a way to swerve into the same embankment every day.

Fortunately, the day did come when I turned right rather than left at the end of my driveway. I didn’t realize it until the deed was done, but it was just the beginning of a long run of right-favoring mornings. The drive was uneventful, though I often found myself preoccupied with thoughts about the old lady walking her dog. That she had no seed of variability made her vulnerable. Nature has a way of weeding out homogeneity, and I imagined she would be dispatched in short order. She would fall, and her dog would drag her into the bushes and eat his fill, and then dash away into fields of clover.

It was partially out of curiosity that I took the left route again, after two contiguous weeks of right turns. I felt I had barely avoided a pattern in the making, but still I couldn’t avoid the niggling feeling that my perfect indecision had been tainted by a baser desire to know what was happening on the other side. There was no turning back now.

Over the crest of that first hill I spotted the dog walker again, but this time she did not wave at me as I came fully into view. Instead she stood there with her arms akimbo, and waited for my car to approach. Then, just before I passed her by, she put out one hand as if asking why, and mouthed something like, “Where were you?”

Clearly I had misled the old woman, and now she felt betrayal. I had become a part of her routine, even as I foiled my own. We follow our little furrows, finding our little patterns, and try as we might to avoid them, sometimes even the lack of something is something.