Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The Glass Is Half Full of Emptiness
The other day at work, I was dealing with a coworker, explaining why a certain situation wasn’t working, when the guy blurted out, “Bill, do you have to be so negative?” I explained I wasn’t being negative, just honest. “Yeah, but, Bill, the situation isn’t that negative.” Yes, it is, I replied – it’s not getting done, which is why you’re talking to me about it, and I’m telling you why it isn’t getting done. If you want me to lie to you and paint a pretty picture, I said, just let me know and I’ll shift gears right now to make you feel better. (It didn’t help that this guy’s sense of office optimism comes and goes like the wind, along with his unpredicatble mood swings.) The situation I was detailing for him would have been like describing the Titanic thusly: “Well, we just grazed a little ice berg, but everything’s going to be just fine, and, hey, the band on the main deck just started playing a pretty waltz, let’s dance!”
I’ve always had problems with relentless optimism: the cheerleader mentality. Appropriate for teenage girls, but not so cool with adults. When I’m around someone so effusively cheery, I feel like I’m in the presence of someone who’s shit her pants, only instead of shit, it’s ice cream, and it bears the overwhelming, generic aroma of a can of cheap air freshener sprayed in the room. I used a female adjective in the previous sentence because it’s more often women gushing this sort of saccharine vibe, but occasionally men, too.
I remember once at one of my advertising jobs, I was sitting at my desk, first day, reading an employee manual or something, when this woman burst around the corner and blurted out, “Welcome to _______, Mr. Repsher, we’re so happy to have you with our team!” I didn’t know who she was. No, “Hi, Mr. Repsher, I’m ___________, and I’ll be working with you in our department.” It was more like being introduced on Wheel of Fortune. She had a personality that was a surly mix of game-show host, stewardess and rodeo clown. (I’d later add serial killer to the mix.) I didn’t like her on sight, just sort of quietly said hello, and that set the tenor for our working relationship: me feeling like I was dealing with a berserk bullshit artist (I was right), and she probably feeling like she was dealing with a dullard (an image I was more than happy to perpetrate in her presence). Frankly, you come on to people like that, you’re demanding that they accept or reject you. I rejected her – wasn’t a question of choice, I felt an impulse to reject her based on previous negative experiences with people this over-the-top. Luckily, I didn’t work directly for her, but she was in my department. And to be fair, she was about a 6 on a scale of 10 in terms of work-place psychosis, and never really did give me any trouble on the job, so I don’t want to portray her in too negative a light, despite our radical personality clash.
Another job, everyone had to deal with the CEO’s daughter, who was relentlessly positive, which I guess I would be, too, if my dad had tens of millions of dollars and I’d been raised in the lap of luxury. (I’d imagine that circumstance produces children who are either extremely positive or morose.) Her old man was a maverick, I think already born into wealth, but he took it to a much higher level in his lifetime – I liked him a lot, one of the few top executives whom I enjoyed working for, because the guy recognized and rewarded intelligence.
His daughter wasn’t a maverick. She was taking advantage of his status and hanging around his company for years – which is fine. If I busted through on that level and had kids, I’d gladly give them spots in the company … with the idea that they’d go out and do their own thing, sooner or later. (A perfect scenario: the kids would say, screw you, dad, I’m going to make my own way in the world and don’t want your help.)
On top of all this, this woman was the relentless optimist. If you didn’t jog along at a similar cheery pace, you could see the wheels turning in her mind: This guy is not a team player, I feel sorry for him. And you got the vibe this sort of skewed, immature take on you was informally making its way back to dad. There’s a perverse sort of fascism with optimists: they demand you feel the same way they do. Not quite realizing most adults are realists, have enough negative experiences in their lives, enough stress, enough responsibilities, that after a certain point, very few people go through life with a permanent smile plastered on their faces. It’s not negativity. It’s called being a fucking adult, and we should all be more concerned with people who deny that reality and pretend life is one big summer-camp singalong when they know better.
And to be fair to her, she was on the young side, twentysomething, so I’m sure she’ll grow out of some of that vibe. I liked her in general – a basically good person. But again, there was that strange sort of condescension she carried around with her, which I’d bet she wasn’t fully aware of, that was born of a fortunate upbringing most of us don’t have. You want a sure-fire method of pissing off people older than you? Condescend to them, especially based on your wealth, whether you’re aware of it or not. Always works – at least with me! After awhile, I found myself avoiding this woman as much as possible, just because I picked up on the sense that her takes on co-workers would quietly filter back to the old man, and that struck me as being mildly off-kilter, although I’m not sure how much weight this held with the old man. You couldn’t even talk shit about the company – a very healthy, positive way for workers to blow off real steam provided they don’t grovel in it – for fear that it would get back to the upper echelon of the company. (She also tried to set-up one of her girl friends with one of the bigger sociopaths I’ve ever met in an office, sort of an American Psycho in training … thus confirming my take on her limited world view. You mirrored her bubbly personality, and that was a sign to her that you were a good person. She would have thought the world of Ted Bundy. I was a little too old for that shit by 1990, much less when I was in that company years later.)
And she remind me of another woman in another company, hired because her father was a key client. Again, relentless optimist, perky, vivacious, already fairly wealthy, but looking to strike out “on her own.” A humanitarian. I remember her quietly telling me in her office that she planned on ditching all this corporate stuff real soon and doing charity work in Central America, because she really cared, and this was her dream in life. Yeah, well, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. She got married to a guy who looked like Dilbert, moved into a mansion her father bought them and dived straight into the wealthy suburban lifestyle from whence she came. Which is fine! I’d probably do the same damn thing in her circumstances and accept the same incredible gift from my father.
But I don’t think people like this realize how galling it is to those of us from the lower classes to hear this sort of well-intentioned concern about others “less fortunate” and understand that this person just isn’t geared for that hard, humble way of life. Don’t say it aloud, repeatedly, if you’re not going to follow through, take that huge leap of faith, and do it. This woman and I got along vaguely, but I was always butting up against that rich-girl optimism and her inability to see herself as she truly was. Maybe she did, I don’t know. And who she was seemed fine to me: a basically good person who was taking full advantage of opportunities thrown her way in life. But if there’s one thing you can give non-wealthy people, i.e., most of us, it’s that we tend to see ourselves clearly, warts and all, and be able to go on with life without dealing with some sort of mild, self-delusional psychosis that quietly seeps out of optimists when they think no one is looking.
What do I consider genuine optimism, if I find these other surface varieties so shallow and open to derision? Simply-stated and paraphrasing that old biblical quote: let the tree be known by its fruits. If you’re an optimist, you do optimistic things. In my case, like working out routinely, or even writing this right now, or being helpful to coworkers, making effort to be nice to genuine pricks on the streets and on trains and buses, trying to see the good in people, etc. Your actions speak far louder than words, and I’m also used to dealing with overly optimistic people on various mood-enhancing prescription medications, which is a given in New York City offices. Christ, people, just crack the nut of being reasonably honest with yourself, a majority of your various mental problems will melt away.
I’ve met enough people in life who aren’t making it in some sense, who are having a very hard time, or even failing in some sense, to know what real optimism is, and that there are people out there genuinely lacking even a morsel of it. Forgive me for routinely noting the ersatz variety often associated with wealth – but it seems like that perky can-do attitude I routinely run into like a brick wall is a certain by-product of the American Way, I gather you don’t find that attitude so much in other countries (they probably laugh at it in Europe), and you sure as hell don’t find it so much in poor people.
So, even at this late date, I’m never sure how to handle people who are eternally happy and upbeat. I think part of it might just be the way I smile. I have a smaller mouth, not a big one, filled with gleaming teeth. I’ve noticed when people with larger mouths let out a huge guffaw or crack a big smile, it’s more of a Broadway production than my off-Broadway grin. I just look like a maniac when I do a big, full-mouth smile, like I’m getting ready to bite someone – it’s just having a small mouth more than anything! And I think sometimes people take that, and an acerbic sense of humor, and a general quiet demeanor, to mean someone who must be dark-minded and pessimistic. That’s not me at all, never was, never will be. Of course, I’ve been knocked around enough by life to have any sort of breakaway optimism tempered by caution and experience. If I’m too careful in life, I can sure as hell live with that.
Holy cow. I have today off, am typing this in my apartment before heading out for boxing class later this afternoon, and there’s a car parked out on the street, blasting a song from its stereo. Hiphop? No. Crappy Top 40 dance high-school musical nonsense? No. Awful Greek pop? No. “Five to One” by The Doors! Man, I’ll take that as a positive sign. How often do you overhear a good song being blasted from a car stereo on the street? (Of course, I’m glossing over hearing “Shake Your Booty” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band blasting from another car stereo when I was out raking leaves earlier, but you get the picture.)