Proxy Voice

entry_224Agent of torment Fred Brookbank is recounting a conversation we shared earlier. As I spin interest from revulsion–a latter day Rumpelstiltskin, I am–Kelly will listen attentively to anything the man says, because she’s not really listening to anything. I know this because whenever Fred looks at me, I glance at Kelly and see her take advantage of Fred’s redirected attention to adjust something on her person. Straightening her blouse, shifting in her seat, or brushing her hair behind her ear–she wants to impress Fred. She’s doing it slowly, the way a lioness creeps forward only when her prey isn’t looking.

Meanwhile–and I need to get back to this point–Fred’s reciting words two octaves above his normal register.

And that’s the thing, see. It’s not his own voice, but his proxy voice; that dumbed down caricature of a voice that people use to fill what would otherwise be gaps in recounted dialogue. Most people use a proxy voice of some kind, typically to mock their siblings:

Victim: “Ow! Stop touching my neck!”

Assailant: “Dop duching by neck, yuh yuh yuh!

That’s a good example of the hapless wean. There’s also the huffy voice of authority, the whine of the disinclined, and the dullard’s babble. Interpretations of these archetypical anti-heroes are present across cultures. I first realized that the proxy voice was universal on a trip to the Songam Art Gallery on an Incheon city bus a few years back. I passed the time listening to a conversation between two Korean women who were, by all outward appearances, well-adjusted and mature. Yet it was clear to me that they were talking about someone else–a third party who was not present–because their dialogue was punctuated in that very distinct way:

“Boeeo jeff sahm, ‘Chawn mahn yawng kyeh!‘ sum nee, dah kaseyo.”
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entry_218“I talked to him about the loan and he said he’d call me back.”

I know every single detail about Fritz’s life, because he is a man without propriety. He is not a practitioner of “polite phone volume.” His intonation is the same whether he’s speaking with his boss at his desk or on his cell phone with Dr. Nathan Baldwin, who is his gastroenterologist. I wouldn’t even mind so much if his life’s minutiae were interesting–I’m a sucker for a good story. But the fact is that since his house burned to the ground and his daughter perished in the blaze, Fritz has become the most annoying coworker I’ve ever worked with.

Everything in his life is about logistics now. “Our insurance guy is staying late, so tell Amy I need the car back before tonight,” he says. The request is particularly unnerving because he’s looking directly at me when he makes it, and I feel compelled to tell Amy that Fritz needs his car. Except I don’t know an Amy, and Fritz isn’t looking at me so much as he’s staring through me. He tends to stare in my direction when he’s on the phone the way a grocery store fish stares up at you from its bed of ice.
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entry_215The path from my office to the microwave bank in the kitchenette takes me through each of my office’s departments like the “It’s a Small World” conveyor at Disney World. Every tribe is huddled into its respective cluster, each with its own unique culture. For the hapless isolationist this trip affords a greater than ideal opportunity for engagement, but as I’ve been treading the same route for nigh on a decade, I’ve come to rely on my instincts to see me through. In fact there are times when I don’t realize I’ve made the trip until I’m back at my desk, hunched over my gruel.

Living an automated life puts me at a disadvantage, insofar as it sacrifices flexibility for routine. To wit, my near encounter with Gerald earlier this week. Just feet away from my goal, I was forced to break my steady pace to dance around Gerald, who was staring down at his tray as he walked. The grace of my pirouette was such that he took no notice of me. Even so, my momentum had been compromised, and where I normally arrived at the microwave on my left foot, I now arrived on my right, and had to make an additional half-step on my left just to be positioned appropriately. It’s a small matter, but I only realized the consequences as I went to enter the cooking information into the keypad. My mind was a complete blank.
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entry_214My friend Julia is so slight, so unassuming, that meeting her is like having a premonition that you’ll meet her. It’s not so much that she doesn’t leave an impression, but rather that it’s difficult to interpret it. “Let me show you something,” she was saying to me.

Her office isn’t far from mine, so, weather allowing, we meet in the park for lunch once or twice a week to mull over anthropological observations, or to make conspiratorial plans. The latter has become a rather long-standing tradition between us. Before we part ways we exchange details regarding corporate espionage, ranging from the cleverest way to take out a stairwell, to the smaller matters of psychological warfare, such as using up 98% of the ink in every pen on her manager’s desk. Of course we never go through with any of it, but it’s not in the accomplishment, but in the planning.

Julia rummaged through her backpack, and I tossed a cookie crumb at a pigeon. Looking at Julia, you’d never know these thoughts were going on in her head. That was the beauty of it. In fact you’d only remember seeing her a few moments after she’d gone. She would make a great spy–a fact underlined by the object she held out to me.

I read the nameplate: “Chris Berkovsky.”

“My boss,” she said.

“You have his desk plaque thing.”

She hugged it to her chest, “I do, and for an hour it’s mine to do with as I please.”

This was new. “You stole his name,” I said, laughing.

“Borrowed it,” Julia corrected. “I have to return it after lunch without being caught. That’s the challenge.”

“Of course,” I said. “This is the guy who pissed you off about a month ago, right? About… something about micromanaging a project you were working on?”

She returned the nameplate to her bag with some satisfaction, and brought out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. “Oh, he’s always doing that. He’s on me constantly for the tiniest of details, but his criticism is baseless. I know he’s making it all up because after he’s barfed all over a project, I’ll take it back to my desk for a half hour, make a new printout, and take it to him. Then he’s fine with it. As long as he’s had his moment to press his thumb to my spine he’s okay.”
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entry_210My office used to be a place where I would hide in fear as the besuited folk plowed their cubicle crops. But now my office resembles the aftermath of a freak industrial accident, and as I lay draped over my designer chair my superiors fall over themselves to praise my good work. It’s no accident that papers are strewn across every available horizontal surface, or that my desk is festooned with dozens of writing instruments, redundant office appliances, and stray pieces from things that I didn’t know what they were to begin with. The fact is that the cleanliness of my office is inversely proportional to my standing at the company, and right now I’m a superstar.

My projects are delivered ahead of time, and I take care to innovate in ways that the unexceptional minds of project managers could never anticipate. As a result of this a rather curious dynamic has become manifest: my impeccable output has rendered me untouchable.

Do my high standards stem from the desire to gain the appreciation of my colleagues? Certainly not. It’s an infallible principle that I’ve simply taken advantage of: The better appreciated the worker, the weaker the requirement for the artificial façade of personal fastidiousness. I leave management with no options. Make yourself likable and people will miss you when you’re laid off. Make yourself essential and you can lay ruin to your workspace with nary a concern.
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entry_199Several 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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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_182Jan is going over the production schedule, his words spilling out at maximum velocity. He’s well-versed in the intricacies of project management. It’s his passion, so there’s no need for him to search for words, no witty asides to pad the monologue. Further, he knows how to speak like an adult, with an even staccato cadence and an impressive vocabulary by any measure. He makes preemptive oblique references to counterpoints I might raise without breaking the flow, and raises a single eyebrow as he riffs on a matrix of potential implications. The man is a maestro of the salient point, a rhetorical surgeon.

But Jan still eats like a starved rat–so I judge by the daily saliva symphony that winds its way down the hall into my cubicle–and all I can focus on at this moment is the glistening post-lunch rivulet clinging to his beard. When I first experienced it I thought the volume and clarity of Jan’s gustatory prowess might have something to do with the acoustic peculiarities of our office, which was converted originally from an industrial loading station. Perhaps the concrete walls of the past century worked in concert with the 21st century floor-to-ceiling frosted glass partitions to act like a massive inner ear, with myself at the focal point.

No matter how articulate Jan is, it’s impossible for me to take him seriously when I can still hear the juicy click of his last gulp ringing in my ears–it’s all I can do to block the thought of the sloshing of his gastric contents. I know that I tend to focus to the point of obsession, but it wouldn’t be an issue if he didn’t lick his apple after each bite to keep it from dripping. I witnessed as much as I passed by his office in search of a fire hatchet with which to behead him. So horrified was I that I lost my way and ended up wandering around somewhere in Human Resources, I don’t even know where. The image haunts me to this day–there are some things you cannot unlearn.
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entry_181We’ve gathered in the cafeteria area.

Despite the fact that no one is enthusiastic about holding the meeting, the meeting happens anyway, as if of its own will. What sort of world is it where events can take place that satisfy neither need nor desire? Only diseases are more insistent, in my estimation. But such is not a good way to begin a meeting if I have any intention of outlasting it. I must keep up appearances, feigning engagement so as not to draw attention to myself. For my colleagues a meeting is the measure of work rather than a distraction from it. Their currency is a blue square on the schedule grid.

As time passes I’ve managed to contribute a few salient points, and quietly disengage to seek the sustenance of thought. At the other end of the cafeteria an employee unfamiliar to me has sauntered into view, an older man. Cup in hand, he’s heading toward the water cooler, really taking his time. In fact I think it’s safe to say that he’s shuffling. Too many meetings, I suspect. Having finally reached his destination, he holds the cup under the spout and depresses the lever… and promptly drops the cup on the floor.

Immediately I refocus on the meeting, posing as guy-at-a-meeting guy so as not to be caught witnessing the show. But the shuffler is fully engaged in retrieving the cup. He holds it back under the spout and presses the lever again. I listen to the meeting, but secretly I’m thinking about multiple sclerosis. People with MS drop things at the beginning. Maybe I’ve just witnessed the onset of what will eventually be a debilitating malady. In a few years this guy will be helpless with MS–or Parkinson’s disease, maybe.

In spite of my diagnosis, he’s managed to fill the cup this time. So far so good–until the cup slips to the floor again, spilling water all over the yellow linoleum. “Damn,” says cup-dropper under his breath. I sneak glances at my coworkers, but no one else has noticed. This meeting is particularly resistant to interruption, not so different from the new drug-resistant virus strains. Perhaps meetings are becoming stronger over time, and eventually we’ll come face to face with the meeting that never ends. If so, then we only have ourselves to blame. The thought of it makes me uncomfortable, and I shift on my chair, sitting on my left leg.
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“You’re here for the eleven o’clock interview?” she asks.

“That sounds about right,” I say, feeling lost. “Since I can’t seem to find my desk.” The receptionist squints a smile and makes a single-note hum, which I find unsettling. This musical acknowledgement isn’t new to me, in fact I’m quite familiar with the practice. Nicole from my office does the exact same thing–that curious tonal response, “Mm!” Thing is, it’s always been endearing when Nicole does it because it’s hers. Now, with this girl pulling the same schtick?

She’s caught me off guard, but once I’ve made the realization it’s obvious. Suspicion eclipses any sense of rapport. I have half a mind to call her on her infringement. “Nice hum you have there,” I could say. “Zat something you just came up with all on your own?” Then, like lightning, I grab her mouse and sprint back out the front door.

As the receptionist sends off an instant message, I study her profile. Amazing: she looks like Nicole, too, except that her cheekbones are shallower. Her hair is a touch lighter too, with a kinkier curl, and her eye color is all wrong. If I didn’t know Nicole I wouldn’t even recognize the inconsistencies, but there they are.

The thing that sticks in my craw is that there’s a Nicole-like person doing Nicole-like things, and everyone around her will just assume that she’s the original, when in plain fact this is a myth, and an easily dispelled one at that. Anyone who saw them side by side would understand that this receptionist entity is nothing more than a hastily-cobbled together knock-off; a puppet drone blandly mirroring the real deal.

Still, this receptionist, the impostor, sends me to the couch to wait for my appointment.

“Hey, Chet, howzit going?” she says moments later. I look up and see Chet easing on over to Nicole’s doppelganger. Chet’s just like our lead programmer Erskine, it turns out. He even saunters the same way, in spite of being pigeon-toed. Same floppy ears though, same steam shovel jaw. Chet’s the laid-back guy with a slow sense of humor, and that one sideways tooth. Only he’s duller than Erskine, like the mold got gummy after the first pressing. Secretly I hate them both for blatantly perpetuating this deception.

“Hey, Michele,” he says, and I can’t help but snort. Michele, is it? They both glance over at me for a moment, but I make like I’m working some gristle out from between my molars with my pinky, and they avert their eyes.

When I look back at them, Chet is leaning over Michelle’s desk and planting a peck on Michele’s cheek. Wait, so Chet and Nicole are an item? Michele, I mean. Chet’s obviously unaware that Erskine is gay. See, and that’s the show-stopper. If you’re going to impersonate someone then you can at least strive for accuracy.
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