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.