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.
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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.
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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.
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