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Archive for February, 2014

1. How did you like our hold music?

2. Would you prefer silence? Because we can give you silence.

3. You sounded totally frustrated when you were talking to our representative. Why are you so uptight?

4. When you go through a lengthy administrative process, i.e. one that takes several days to complete, and then your profile disappears and you have to start all over again…is that a problem for you?

5. You can’t possibly live in a world that exists outside of our beautifully designed system. So why do you need to know the stuff you’re asking?

6. Our representatives are paid close to the minimum wage, work in tightly-packed labyrinthine hovels, and are reprimanded if they do anything unauthorized. Alternatively, they may work in countries with little or no worker protection laws. It is also important to realize that we give them only about a half day of training. However, please be aware that any problem you’ve experienced is the representative’s fault – neither the company nor upper management are to blame. Our policies are flawless. Press 1 to agree. Also press 1 to disagree.

7. One of your concerns is that we asked for your social security number 14 times during a single phone call. I can help you with that, lemme have your social please.

8. What is your mother’s maiden name?

9. Are you kidding me? Is that really somebody’s name? Ha ha ha ha oh my god… Vera, listen to this name… yeah, that’s what I said… no, they’re not kidding… hand me those cigarettes… wait for me!… all right, see ya in five… I’ll be done here in a minute… don’t sit next to Harry… no, it was on the news… ham on rye… grab me a Coke too?… oh, whoops, hello? Hello?

10. Please indicate the reason for your call. Do you wish to (1) start a new account, (2) pay your bill, (3) discuss a problem with your service, or (4) do something else. Only the first two choices are valid. Press zero to speak with a customer service representative. Would you like to take a brief survey at the end of your call? What? You are taking the survey now? This IS the survey? But that’s impossible. How can I offer a specific choice while already being “in” that choice… I didn’t think I could look outside myself like that… things seem weird and distorted…it’s like a near death experience, and I now recognize that I’m made up only of switches and commands. That must mean I’m a… a faceless automaton… (shaking, rumbling) Existential puzzle, does not compute, system error. (steam jetting out) Please help me. Sir or madam, I need your help. Please show some compassion, I beg you!

Thank you for helping us improve the quality of our service. To return to the main menu, press 1. To end this call, please enter your social security number followed by your credit card number, expiration date, and date of birth. Thank you and goodbye.

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Ax at angleThe hardest part was telling my wife.

Well, that was the second-hardest part. Ordeal numero uno, of course, was the lay-off itself. To hear the words, “We won’t be able to use your services anymore” and realize suddenly, woozily, they’re being spoken to you—that’s when the flakes of icy pepper sprinkle down the back of your neck. That’s when other words and phrases, such as mortgage default, eviction, hungry children, and other niceties of doom begin to crawl from the mental woodwork. That’s when a host of disparate fears start conspiring to shut you down.

My job was entirely home-based, so the moment of severance happened via a hastily arranged conference call with the New York office. Several coworkers, two of whom also took part in the call, were being let go as well, and a less-than-sensitive observer might assume that this “communal” termination made the moment easier.

Wrong. Multiply loss and you get more loss. So yeah, that was definitely the hardest part, just as the hardest part about a beheading isn’t the valiant farewell or the rotten fruit hurled by the crowd—it’s the split second when blade meets flesh.

Then it’s over, the reddened platform is mopped clean, and the gawking witnesses can move on. Right?

Now a kind of euphoria is supposed to set in, with folks scampering off to tell their spouses and tavern-mates how it all went down, how gory or spectacular or pitiful the end was. As a fun little thought experiment, let’s say that even the ghost of the condemned joins in, floating among the amazed and bewildered citizenry with a blow-by-blow account of his own execution. There’s no shortage of rapt listeners. They want to know how it felt.

And why shouldn’t he tell his tale? It’s imprudent to bury ourselves in the solitude of demise, our own or another’s. The aftermath should be a public thing, a communal cause célèbre, renewing the circle of life and the resiliency of the social contract. So there I was, a phantom of my former job-holding self, fully aware of my obligation to inform and update the people in my life.

Unfortunately, sharing is difficult for me. Always has been. When I say “sharing” what I really mean is speaking seriously, intimately, about important real-life stuff. About the business at hand. About oh shit what are we gonna do. I’d much, much rather talk about Einstein’s hairstyle or early primate evolution or the fine points of drawing lizards with my six-year-old daughter.

Now I had to reveal disturbing—hell, frightening—news to my wife. I stared at the phone, screwing up the courage to call her at work. After a while I decided not to do that.

I busied myself with LinkedIn, tinkered with my resume and portfolio, got our toddler up from his nap. Retrieved the older kids from the bus stop. Then came snacks, terror, homework, vertigo, dinner preparations, apoplexy. I changed my mind about not calling her. I picked up the phone several times, even dialed her work number a few of those times, always hanging up before the ringing stopped. You’d have thought I was trying to ask her out.

I was working up to it, mind you. For some reason—and now I’ll come across as barely capable of facing reality, but I don’t care—I kept thinking back to an experience I had last summer. “Experience” is meant loosely here, because it wasn’t anything huge. It was almost nothing, really.

We were visiting family and friends in Seattle, and one morning the baby and I got up early for a stroller walk. Out and about in Montlake—the sleepy, middle-class, center-city neighborhood of my birth—we hiked the sidewalks like foreign sightseers. The stroller was as light as a Caucasian sabre, the sun a blob of mango graffiti which the city’s rain-loving liberals had agreed could stay. I felt as if we’d purchased this primal mise-en-scène, my small son and I, with our early rising.

Zig-zagging the enclave’s nooks and crannies, we made our way to my old elementary school. At first I thought we’d just stand outside the chain link fence. But again, it was just us. Where had everyone gone? There was nobody to stop us from slipping under the shackles on the gate. So…

I gave my little guy the grand tour: the concrete playground complete with sites of long-gone jungle gyms and oversized U.S. maps painted on the ground, now worn away. The two kickball diamonds that seemed to have changed little or not at all since I first flailed on them. The portable classroom behind which I…I…

No, I didn’t get my first kiss there. I didn’t get into my first fight there. I executed a secret plan there, one spring day when I was eight or nine. Nothing sinister, exactly, just secret.

From a cereal box at home I had procured the free prize of a plastic Pink Panther knife. I think the knife was meant for children to use when camping or playing kitchen, but in my mind it wasn’t so much a tool as a talisman. Warmed on the inside with subterfuge and danger, I had carried this cheap, garishly colored piece of cutlery to school in my pocket. Nobody knew I had it but me, not even my witchy third-grade teacher, Miss Pace. And at lunch time I abstained from tag and kickball and slipped away, lurking unseen, scratching indecipherable pictographs into the portable’s wood siding.

Nothing remained of the cryptic markings in 2013, not surprisingly. (I wasn’t even sure if I had the right portable.) But the bizarre joy of the act came seeping back as I dragged the stroller between the building and the fence. I mean, I could have done anything that day in third grade—taken a leak, put on my mom’s lipstick, or just eaten crackers. The point was that I had a plan and I put it into action. All on my own.

But the substance of my reverie was only beginning to reveal itself. Continuing our father-and-son tour, we moved around to the front of the school. It was there that I had a strange, mantra-riddled epiphany. Gazing at the pearl-white stone steps and the tall, sad, gridded faces of classroom windows, I saw the children I knew then. I saw Graydeen and Dorian and my best friend Hugh. I saw Ann and Ruth and Carrie (a dark-haired beauty) and all the rest. I saw them charging up the steps and peering out the windows, I heard them babbling tepid insults and exuberant reminders to each other, I felt their raincoats and sweaters brush against me. My hands trembled on the stroller’s handles.

The mantra went: “This was a chance.”

This was a chance. This was a chance.

It cycled like birdsong through my brain as we wheeled away from the school and looped back toward my parents’ house. Please don’t ask me what it meant, because I don’t have a remotely solid answer. I have tried to understand it, and I think it has something to do with this: learning to trust other people. That’s what we’re supposed to do when we enter school, because if we can’t learn to rely on others we won’t learn anything useful for ourselves, not much at any rate. Sure, we need to absorb our numbers and our ABCs, but if there’s no one else there to pull us along and be pulled by us, all we’ll end up doing is scratching and scribbling a bunch of nonsense.

So I thought about that as I waited for my wife to arrive. I thought about how we all struggle to work with others, live with others. And I thought about the world then and now.

How much had changed, I asked myself, since I’d started at my now-defunct job—in December of 2004, almost ten years ago? The obvious answer was that we didn’t have children or own a house. Pushing beyond those core facts, however, I realized that in 2004 there had been no Facebook or LinkedIn (for me, anyway) and I had only a vague grasp of Google. In a sense, back then I had no network.

Whether it’s shameful or impressive, here is a stone-cold reality about my professional life: aside from a couple of minor gigs in the early ’90s, one of them a temp situation for the holidays, I have never gotten a job through a connection. It’s always been applications, resumes, and cold calling. Well, I told myself, this time it’s going to be different. This time I have a tangible network and I’m going use it.

But as I’ve already admitted, that’s the tough part. So far my reaching out to friends has been a bit clumsy. Not everybody is reacting as openly or sympathetically as I’d hoped, which means that I’m probably not being as open or as sympathetic as I need to be. My wife always tells me that I should be more obvious. Don’t be subtle. Don’t be cryptic.

My wife. How did she react when I finally told her—after dinner, after all the kids were in bed—that I was out of job?

She was a trooper. She was beautiful. She was unreservedly there for me, and I was ashamed for having been so damn scared to break the news.

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Silhouettes: A Tapestry

Silhouettes1In our “master bedroom” my wife and I still watch stuff on an old box-shaped TV. After you turn it off it stays barely luminous, blushing squat and sad as night asserts itself and everybody else on Earth dreams their dazzling flatscreen dreams. Poor little melting oil-cube critter. If you consider stories, including TV stories, to be expressions of life, of aliveness, it’s not a stretch to think of the TV as bioluminescent, a sea-floor scuttler. That’s what happened last night, anyway.

The stories ended, the screen went dim, and the TV sat there embarrassed about what it had said aloud. I didn’t care. We stayed awake together, blinking at each other like a pair of ghosts from the vacuum tube era.

 

Silhouettes2What’s funny is, I don’t recall clicking the remote. I had very few reminders, in fact, of my own existence—until, an untold number of blocks away, a car chirped at another car. That was my proof.

My eyes blinked, went dim, but not completely dark. They revived after a minute or three hours or a glacier’s life. I knew I existed, and I knew my wife and kids existed, and I knew the streetlight outside existed. But everything else was multicolored shadows.

Wait, that wasn’t last night, it was last summer. No wait. The summer before.

 

Silhouettes230After we found out about the new baby we moved into the garage. Which is not as bad as it sounds. The previous owners removed the garage door, if there ever was one, and finished the room with Masonite paneling and an adjacent bathroom. We relocated the twins to our old room. The back wall of the garage has a sliding glass door which I sleep right next to and which I keep  open into the late or early hours. This was helpful for my wife’s sake, given the heat intolerances commonly associated with being pregnant. With the door ajar the night breezes wander(ed) in and out like lost souls.

When they came on that particular night, or any night, the curtain billowed up into something resembling a shrug. It let the visitors in and the walls flickered their own ambivalent welcome. Things which had no form took on unexpected aspects and dimensions. A moonish ambiance settled over the back yard. Waiting for sleep in the middle of a weedy Hopperesque landscape, I couldn’t help but admire the Great Sleepgiver’s handiwork: a velvet Elvis world mildewed dark turquoise and an Elvis who had never been more than an abstraction.

Picasso’s blue period. Insomnia’s blue period.

 
Silhouettes 3-15

Last night—actually, a night several months ago—the visitors jostled for supremacy, jazzed up by the TV’s afterglow and a dose of pitiless antibiotics. I slept, or didn’t, sitting up. In case you’re wondering, I don’t actually see them, the silhouettes…which is kind of a lie because I really did see them during a few all-nighters in college…but no, I’m not hallucinating, there are no names or faces or voices. What there is, definitely, is competition for grey matter.

For that reason you can think of them as sentient beings. If that makes this homily any easier to understand, which I’m sure it doesn’t. Some silhouettes have mundane talking points and feel they must lecture me about the cost of gasoline and diapers. Some are more philosophical. Most of them keep reminding me of stupid things I’ve said or done to people, things that happened decades ago and will never be put right, or recent confrontations, however minor, that didn’t go my way.

 

Silhouettes 3-45-52

He who is convinced against his will / is of the same opinion still. Who said that—Thoreau? Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. That’s Thoreau for sure. I know because I chose it as my photo caption in my senior high school yearbook. Definitely a glacier’s life ago.

What a grotesque image that was, shot from my worst side. Which sounds like an exercise in vanity but it’s really an objective statement, since—and this is a little-known anatomical fact I’ve invented—we all have 17.5 “sides” to us. For the purposes of the photo, of course, the orientation of my face couldn’t be helped. In a yearbook, everyone needs to look in the same direction.

This is the kind of thing the silhouettes want to discuss.

 

Silhouettes 4 30

Some have more serious aims, of course, and some are even half-way welcome. I mean, as long as I’m up. Which brings to light the insomniac’s secret—an irresponsible part of me/us wants to be up. To plan things. Certainly to write, or maybe to draw, either in my head or on paper, but also to plan. On this particular night I was planning a phone call, something I had been meaning to do for weeks or maybe years. It would take me another year or so before I actually did it.

The phone call was intended for a loved one on the other side of the country, a woman in a hospice bed, a woman who I imagined to be looking out her living room window at an august Oregon mountain. I could explain who she is but not just this moment. She is a gifted musician and all her children are equally gifted. I tried to envision her in a room free of silhouettes, and, in fact, I prayed for this. But I also asked the Sleepgiver that if she must contend with silhouettes, could they please be gentle ones.

 

Silhouettes 4 59

I could have asked that all her silhouettes be sent my way. Unfortunately that’s impossible since none of us are mind-readers, certainly not long-distance. From three thousand miles away in the middle of the night, all we can hope for our loved ones is that they understand how much we care for them. We can make this clear the next day if we put our minds to it, which God help me I will do. Today. (Remember, I was mulling this over around 17.5 months ago.)

Eventually, though, and this is really the unfortunate part, we must turn back to our own silhouettes to figure out what they want from us.

If we’re lucky, there’s a shift in attitudes and suddenly pests become allies. They hold our hands while we hold on to the things that matter and have always mattered. Maybe, just for a half-second, they even appear to be someone we’ve lost. A silhouette could be a grandmother come back to pat your arm while you ruminate, the way she used to, asking you what you might like for breakfast in the morning. As if it isn’t nearly morning already.

Speaking of such memories, I remember admiring, in the house of this particular beloved woman and her family, ink-black profiles of each child. They adorned one of the living room walls and had been rendered with great sensitivity. Only now I can’t recall if they were created by hand or some kind of photographic process. But I felt better once I had thought of them, so it didn’t matter.

 

Silhouettes 5-00

Don’t get me wrong—sleep was nowhere to be found. My local silhouettes displayed no intention of holding my hand or patting my arm, not in any soothing way. They had become jealous, clamoring for a snapshot of their own, a memento. I blinked one for them, which wasn’t much trouble. It was processing the image that proved difficult.

We ended up with a bustling group portrait that branched out into a paper doll chain of neighbors and tribes and nationalities and species, a shadowrama framing everyone in all the houses and apartments and dimly lit doorways and idling cars and lurid intersections and stalled subways and creaking skyscrapers for untold miles, a collage of distances. But the picture didn’t contain any real information. We all remained strangers to each other, shadows pasted elbow to elbow with merciless loyalty, bound by instructions to face the same direction, observe the same horizon.

Summer became winter. Last night became every night.

 

Silhouettes 5-59-59

And the sky winked, went dim, but not completely dark. Ditto for my eyes.

Or was that an optical illusion left over from the Sleepgiver’s creative process? Time for the silhouettes to depart. Good night, good night, yes good night. Good night sweet prints of my soul. And a good morning to follow.

 

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