Sunday, May 30, 2010

In the Belly of the Box

The other day, I attended a work-related seminar in a swank midtown conference room. These things are always the same: stiffness, awkward, forced laughter, stifled yawns, sage nodding of the head, left finger posed thoughtfully under the chin with crossed arms. That look of corporate serenity you hope to have in your coffin: yes, I understand that I’m dead, and this is the last major roman numeral in the outline of my life.

One of the speakers actually was very good, guy in his 50s, really spoke with a down-to-earth, “seems like I’m just winging it but think about all the details I’ve imparted” sort of vibe. One of the things he did stuck with me. He stopped and asked: “All right, so you’re at a barbecue, kicking back, beer in one hand, burger in the other, and someone asks you, ‘What do you do?’.”

When he asked the rhetorical question, he stopped and looked one person in the eye, as if he were play acting and actually at a barbecue. Slight, uncomfortable silence, nervous laughter, maybe people don’t get it. So he said, “I’m a Vice President at a Public Relations firm … what do you do?”

The concept was to get the person to say something more basic than “I work in a museum.” To look at a question like that as a networking/business opportunity. “I work as a loan officer in a community bank.” “Oh, you know, my brother is looking to take out a loan for his small business.” “Well, here’s my card ..” Etc.

I only had one small problem with this: if you’re the kind of person who goes to a non-work event and immediately starts in with work-related junk, I walk the hell away from you. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want you asking me “what I do.” I don’t care what you do – profoundly so. No one does. We’re there to hang loose and enjoy each other’s company. I’m not there to shake you down for a job. You’re not an object for my financial gain. I won’t make you feel small if “what you do” doesn’t subscribe to some bullshit standard I hold. The only standard I’ll hold in a situation like that is whether or not you’re interesting and likable enough to hang around and talk with for awhile, maybe even become friends if we really get along.

And chances are if you’re networking, I’ll smell it like a hard-boiled egg fart and evacuate the premises in exactly the same manner. Of course, I picture the guy who was speaking, his world is that kind of suburban barbecue where a bunch of uptight guys walk around in polo shirts and $90 shorts talking nothing but work and the amounts of money they make. If not directly, then indirectly by listing thing like international vacations, cars, second homes, wives’ shopping habits, kids’ Ivy League affiliations, etc. If it’s not money, it’s what money can buy. Not who you are. Who you are is generally buried underneath tons of carefully-piled debris, like a doll in a garbage dump.

(Sidenote to “what do you do” way of life: This always makes me think of old friend John S. in high school, when the topic of “what we were going to do with our lives” came up. I can’t recall the class, but a teacher asked us just such a question. Most kids gave the same stock answers: doctor, lawyer, carpenter, nurse, etc. The teacher knew when he got to John, things were going to get strange, so he saved him for last. Finally, he says, O.K., John, what do you want to be when you grow up? John says, “I have it narrowed down to two choices: a gynecologist in Hollywood, or hot-dog vendor on the beach in Maui.” Of course, he was lying. “Cindy Crawford’s bicycle seat” was the stock answer we gave back then to this sort of question.)

I always feel like a spy at these sort of corporate seminars, because this isn’t me at all. Of course, I realize, you go around the room, and the thought balloons over most people’s heads will be saying, “What the fuck am I doing here? Not just this conference room, but this place in my life? How did I get here? Why do I stay? Do they stage these things so I can have these desperate moments of quiet crisis and make me feel like I pussied out on my life and have turned into some kind of corporate cyborg?”

The answer, of course, is money. And free donuts. Free alcohol if you’re really lucky. But I’m assuming most people in that room are doing what I’m doing: putting on the work face for work. Although you’ll get that glint in more than few people’s eyes, the true believers. And I don’t fault them for that. These displays of public disaffection are meant solely for people like them, who buy into whatever’s being sold and believe in it with a religious fervor. They’re the ones who are perfectly at home in an environment like this, and people like me are intruders in a sense, who may never openly balk at this sort of nonsense, but surely roll along with it as it’s part of the deal of making money.

Something about these things always brings out my inner 19-year-old. That’s roughly the age, for me at least, where everything seemed like bullshit. Strung out between childhood and adulthood. In college? If not, working one’s first job, probably living at home, thinking, “Is this how life works now that school is out?” Teenage kids seem like assholes. Adults seem like assholes. Your friends seem like assholes. You seem like an asshole. Everything’s a joke. Who are you doing this for? What are you doing this for?

I have a few friends with kids right at that age, and, man, do their kids seem lost. Not in a horrifying way – actually in a pretty typical way most people go through. But I can see, you have any romantic notions about being a teenager or young adult, you should eavesdrop on a family that has a 19-21 year-old kid who doesn’t quite know what to do with his life, and that awkward lack of direction will kill that nostalgia. It doesn’t look like any fun – more like a teenage purgatory, stuck between that carefree, private lifestyle they’ve had the past few years and the approaching adult world they’ve been drilled to view with fear and disdain, but now it has to be breached somehow in the next few years.

And I wouldn’t know what to tell them, as if some magic answer will appear through the mist. It won’t. There will be things that suggest themselves, and more than likely, situations that just present themselves as a way to make ends meet, and they’ll often grow into some type of vocation. Some people will aim themselves like missiles to get through life, every step carefully planned and conceived. And I always get the feeling that everything else in their lives is secondary to that game plan. Marriages and children are part of the deal, but not the deal. You’ll find executives with three kids who don’t know a damn thing about child-rearing … because you can’t learn a damn thing about child-rearing when you’re working from 8:00 until 8:00 every day and lining up high-end social engagements every weekend that don’t involve kids. I got no problem with people espousing the way of life, but I wish they’d drop the illusion that they “have it all” in some sense when anyone can see through this charade that goes on with that lifestyle. People who work that hard love work. Whatever else they attach to it is not even a close second. I’d guess that realization becomes fairly obvious to the un-close seconds after awhile, and they either see the truth of their lives and accept it, or decide to kick up a fuss.

That’s what I’d tell these kids: you can’t have it all. You can give yourself the illusion that you can have it all, but you can’t have it all. Something will always be out of place. Something will always be out of balance. One thing will be greater than another. Come back a year later, and those things will have changed places in your life. Where they’re at now, everything looks like it’s out of reach. Not quite knowing they have youth, looks, time, a casual laissez faire attitude towards the future that people will spend years trying in vain to recapture as they age. They have a lot, but are not experienced enough to recognize its value. What they don’t have is that standing and sense of belonging in the adult world they’re un-easing into, which will come in time, but unrecognizably, like a disease that unfolds over the course of years. And as it spreads, that hang-loose vibe of taking life as it comes will disappear.

That’s all I could think of in that corporate boardroom. How does this uptight, nowhere feeling I have in the pit of my stomach have anything to do with that kid I was once, that loose sense of freedom I once had? Should it? On some level, no. When I was that age, I wanted to do nothing but be a writer, not quite realizing that it’s pretty rare that anyone gets to do nothing but write, and even more rare to write only what they want to. Usually there’s a lot of shit attached to that. Teaching. Senior editing. Day-jobbing it. You’ll get paid a $30,000 advance for a book and often not see much more than that. Try living on that for a year. It won’t happen, unless you’re depending on someone else for money. Try freelancing. Even the few people I know doing that successfully spend weeks or sometimes months sweating it financially as their assignments and late-arriving payments ebb and flow.

So I’ve had friends with the same aspirations go do the teaching thing. Only to find that they’re so burned at the end of each work day, and have papers to grade, that there is no time to write anything. Or the senior editors, who spend endless hours at work, I mean 12-hour days as a given, with longer for deadline days and weeks, that the concept of writing whatever they want to write disappears like a ghost in the fog. They surely do write, but nothing they want to. Throw in families on top of that, and the aspirations of a 19-year-old look only like a faded question mark in the backs of their minds. Not something to ever be taken seriously again. There's no time.

This is why I find the “thinking inside the box” paradigm sprung on me by someone who has always lived his or her whole like this bad cliché so offensive. Many of us have tried to live our lives “outside the box.” But live in a society where it really helps to have that box to get by. We need to resort to convention to make a living, while we chip away at things we really want to do. Very few people get to do exactly what they want to do, and I suspect their worlds are fraught with countless threats to their ability to go on doing so, which gives them a different kind of box that is a box nonetheless.

Sure enough, while that guy was speaking, he had another trick question where the object was to get us to “think outside the box.” I can’t tell you how rank I feel when I hear that phrase uttered in an office. The person uttering it invariably owes his existence to the box. I’ve known people who’ve lived outside the box, and most of them are dead or beat-down the way you’d get running into a brick wall repeatedly. I’ve trained my mind to think “outside the box that you live inside of” when it comes to people like this. Since I was bored out of my skull, I started entertaining my inner 19-year-old, thinking of how I should really answer this question if I wasn’t worried about losing my job in a shit economy, and walking away from this questionable way of life. And this is what I came up with:

I AM THE BOX. There is no thinking inside or outside of me. If I was, as you say, “thinking outside the box” – I mean really exercising true thought – I wouldn’t be in this room, nor would you, spouting a bad corporate cliché that tells me you’re really not all that smart beyond the blind ambition. If we were thinking outside the box, we’d probably be driving through the Badlands in a 57 Cadillac with a Yes album blaring from the cassette deck, high on magic mushrooms, on a death trip, one of our friends who had died a few days earlier from a brain tumor, wrapped up in plastic in the trunk, and we’re on our way to California to give him a viking burial at sea as his unofficial will stipulated, the one we verbally agreed upon when we were seventeen, drunk and gazing at the stars on the hood of an abandoned school bus at a bush party, but we wanted to get high and drive through the Dakotas first because he always wanted to see the Badlands, and we only have enough money to get us to Utah and will have to improvise thereafter. Motherfucker, THAT is thinking outside the box … not trying to make me feel like an asshole because I’m playing your game and need to reduce my mind to an uncomfortable place where I can figure out solutions to your wayward marketing campaign that’s going to be a piece of shit no matter how far anyone goes “outside the box” on this one.

Maybe the box is a casket and to think inside it is death? Maybe the box is this fucking job, this way of life, the irrational urge to pile hundreds of thousands of dollars into your life because you feel naked and weak without it? I need to think outside the box? Buddy, you don’t want to know what’s outside the box. You can’t handle it. You don’t want to. Last time you went outside the box was decades ago, and it scared the shit out of you, so much that you took that native intelligence, that spark of life you had, and twisted it around to some pre-defined career path because genuine freedom was something that blew your fucking mind and didn’t fit in with what your parents wanted for you, which sucked you in like a vacuum, and turned you into them, like you knew it always would in your little caste system world. So you’ll forgive me if I’m not all that crazy about spending time anywhere near your box because I need money to survive, but at least still have enough sense of personal freedom to wander around “outside the box” in ways you find counter-productive and childish, but I can assure you, no worse than the rampant insecurities and crippling fear that’s hidden beneath your fortress of solitude, you annoying, sell-out prick with enough arrogance to make Hitler blush, you putz.

And I know that tie is a clip-on!

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