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It Takes a Genius

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It Takes a Genius


            “Stop being paranoid!” Reba responded, throwing up her hands while staring at me through squinting eyes.  It was a look I knew well from my peers these last few months as my worry grew steadily like the blackness of a solar eclipse.  “Nothing's going to happen.  You'll be fine.  Nobody's going to lose their job, genius.” 

It was the last thing I would hear her say.  Following our afternoon meeting, our boss – whom I like to dub “Darth Vader,” though not to her face - asked Reba to remain with her in the conference room, the former's deep, masculine voice masking the fear I heard in Reba's meekly acquiescing response.  The remainder of us filed out through the door.  Although the others appeared happy-go-lucky enough, I felt as though I were a pallbearer at a funeral.  Number sixteen, I remarked to myself.  It didn't take a genius to figure out that.  And, although others were surprised by the news later as it sailed from room to room, cubicle to cubicle, I remained oddly contemplative, almost unconcerned, as the buzz filled the building.  I suppose they thought me calloused, you see, for Reba was “no longer with us.”

Although it had been only five months since Vader had assumed the helm of our office, it didn't take her long to transform it into the Death Star.  Like lines of stormtroopers filing into ranks for inspection, Vader ensured that every minute detail imaginable was regimented.  And just like Vader who removed every inferior who appeared even remotely incompetent, we too were living in our own version of The Empire Strikes Back, seeking yet fearing any sign that may indicate we had displeased the Dark Lord. 

The changes, of course, were nearly imperceptible at first but grew at an ever-quickening pace.   There were eighteen of us in the department prior to the arrival of the Emperor's apprentice, now only two of us remained, two of the original group who continued, beyond all odds, to outlast the others, a meager rebel alliance against the might of the Empire.  Others had come into the department to join us, but they were her creatures, fell, fetid beings that lapped at her heels in a constant race to gain their new dark Master's favor.  They were among us, but they were not of us.  Now, that “us” consisted of only two people, Larry and myself.  The others had fallen by the way side, a couple promoted into other positions, but many more terminated or forced to quit. 

The fact that I did not shed tears over all of them, however, should come as no surprise.  I had plotted the downfall of one in particular, as a lion stalks its next meal.  No, that's not quite right.  It's more like how the hyena plots to take away the carcass from a lion.  Nathan had been very difficult to work with, the size of his ego exceeded only by his domineering need for control.  Nat had threatened once to inform the new boss of some transgression in which I had been involved, so getting him fired by the same method which he had threatened me only made his termination all the more ironic – and delicious.

I suppose, then, that Karma is catching up with me.  Or, maybe not . . .  Who knows.  The only thing I am certain of is that only two of us remain, like some surreal workplace version of a Mad Max movie, where the twisted onlookers chant “Two men enter, one man leaves” over and over again in some fevered, post-Orwellian pitch. 

I went to see Larry the next morning to see what he thought of the news.  Larry, a studious, thinking man like me, had few personally-held illusions about the security of his job.  Larry was not only my coworker but also my friend, and while at work, we were inseparable, like R2D2 and C3PO.  Don’t ask who was who.  He had the most unique appearance, his lips and jowls being unusually large for his head so that when he smiled, his cheeks and lips almost drew back to his ears, much like a frog.  Anytime he would smile, I found it almost impossible not to laugh.  It wasn't so much that his smile was contagious but rather the recollection in my mind that somewhere, sitting in his apartment, were terrariums full of lumpy, slimy amphibians!  You see, Larry raised frogs. 

“Did you hear about Reba?” I asked as Larry came to work that evening. 

“Oh, yeah.  I heard.”

“I told you yesterday someone was going to be fired soon – it was overdue!”

“Yeah,” Larry chuckled with his patently wide grin, “you called it.  I'm just glad it wasn't me.” 

We shared many cynical tirades together poking fun at everything from the meeting agendas to our boss's peculiar obsessive-compulsive behavior, such as her fascination with dust and everything it covers.  With all of her myriad duties as manager, I stand amazed by how many hours she spends each week cleaning every room, every cubicle.  I am certain even Howard Hughes wasn’t that obsessive!

Most often, though, I would bring Larry to tears with my impression of our supervisor riding a Harley while I sang aloud Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.”  There were moments in our day when, while mocking Vader, I was almost caught, recovering quickly with one hastily thought explanation or another of why I was acting so weird.  Thankfully, Vader would only laugh and shake her head, clueless, just like the rest of the staff who had fallen by the wayside, so self-assured - and deluded - by their job security.  All but Larry.

I recall once when Larry and I were working together on a project we affectionately called “the Black Hole.”  There was no rhyme or reason to any of it, and we both knew it.  One day, we received an e-mail stating the immediate addendum of one particular policy or another that we had to institute – “immediately.”  Then, hours into the process of updating the procedure, we would receive a second e-mail contradicting the directions of the first e-mail, which we also had to implement “immediately.”  They were always marked “High Priority.”  Once we had begun updating the procedure in our training agendas and introducing it to the personnel in the workplace, a third e-mail would arrive, informing us to ignore all previous directives to change the policy.  This one, it always claimed, was the final word on the matter.  High Priority, of course. 

Well, by the time Larry and I arrived in the office the next day, we had a running bet on how many e-mail were sent, forwarded, replied to and resent, each one changing the directions of the previous message or adding to the ambiguity of the ongoing e-war struggle until practically full corporate paralysis had set in.  The one closest to the correct figure without going over was the winner.  I guessed a sarcastic 55.  Larry guessed a more modest 20.

There were only 37.  Larry had won.

In fact, by the time we had gone through every e-mail in our inbox, nobody assigned to the “Black Hole” knew what the final decision was of the e-mail exchange from the day before.  Were we or weren't we?  Only the continued influx of e-mail from sources throughout the organization responding to the debate gave us any hint that indeed there was no decision made.  So, I just made up my own answer and went with it.  Besides, it was days before someone important issued any official decision, and that "final word" itself was superseded by another decision just one week later.  Efficiency at it's finest.

Still, for all the fun, the intensity of scrutiny we received daily nearly made us ill, so to compensate, Larry and I would spend hours surfing the web or discussing mundane topics like the creation of the universe between teaching our assigned classes.  Inevitably, our bond of friendship and camaraderie grew until we would burst in laughter almost simultaneously at the most paradoxical and oxymoronic incidents at work, exchanging a glance that showed we were thinking the same thing.

During one meeting, Terry and I sat across the conference table from each other while Vader sat at the table’s head.  A few other sycophants filed into the small room, mostly newer employees or those who, like Reba, refused to read the writing on the wall.  It was a precarious position, I knew, but I simply could not pass up the chance to exchange a sarcastic or caustic look at my buddy who often replied in kind.  We hushed up quickly once Vader entered the room.

“We need to discuss the break and lunch schedule,” the Dark Lord breathed, “It’s being abused.  How long are trainees’ breaks and lunches?” she inquired, peering across the motionless bodies seated at the oval table.

“Ten minutes,” I responded quickly, never missing a chance to appear by-the-book.  “One in the morning, and one in the afternoon following a thirty minute lunch.”  I smiled wryly, pleased by my patent answer.

Larry looked at me with his characteristic amphibian smile, and I nearly burst into laughter. 

It was once well known among the department that employees do best in settings where there are ample breaks from the monotony of learning.  Trainers held one class for eight hours a day – eight hours of reading from a computer monitor - even graduate school didn't require that many hours of continuous reading.  The break and lunch schedule was a bit Machiavellian, in my opinion, and many of us were a bit more liberal when it came to discipline.  Vader, however, wasn't having it.

“Well,” she breathed, piercing eyes and hawkish nose lending her the profile of a bird of prey.  It was never comfortable to find oneself fixed by that predatory gaze.  “This is not what's being practiced.  I have been told that several of you are giving your classes hour lunches and 20 minute breaks every 40 minutes.”

Go fish, I thought to myself.  This was Vader's notorious trick for getting others to tell on themselves.  Since her Jedi mind tricks didn't work on me, she had to resort to deception and outright lying.  No bite today. 

Sitting in the conference room and listening to her, I recalled a time once when Vader thought I had committed a policy infraction.  After calling me into her office, she had the audacity to accuse me of letting my class off Saturday – the same weekend where I had taken three days off for vacation.  I informed the other trainer and her newest creature, Randolph, that if he so chose, he could excuse them from class Saturday as I knew from speaking with him that he had already made plans for the weekend.  I sent him an e-mail at the end of the day on Thursday to inform him exactly where we had stopped in the itinerary.  No problem, right?  Wrong.

The following week, Vader almost terminated me for violation of the company's attendance policy by not informing Randolph in writing that if he let the class off Saturday, he must contact our supervisor for approval.  No amount of common sense could persuade her that Randolph himself should have been aware of the policy.  No amount of explaining could convince her that I had told Randolph it was his call.  Since the latter “could not recall,” she chose not to believe me.  Thus, Vader disciplined me for something somebody else did when I was not even at work.  Does anyone else get this?  That’s what I thought.

Oddly enough, what annoyed Vader the most was not the fact that I had somehow tricked Randolph into letting the class off that day but instead the fact that I refused to “agree” with her decision to discipline me.  Repeatedly, Vader said, “But, you must understand...”  Yet each time I said I understood but still thought she was wrong, she sat at her desk open-mouthed and incredulous.  Why was it so important to her?  I can only imagine what she would do if she knew that was not my real signature on the bottom of the write-up!

Now some people’s supervisors are the kind who allow their employees a little leash, taking a laissez faire attitude toward their underlings.  Some people’s.  Not Vader.  Her management style – how shall I put this – was a bit overwhelming, and I often pondered how she went through life without experiencing a coronary or aneurism.  Vader, in fact, was the epitome of management, and I was certain that had I looked up the definition of the word in the dictionary, I would surely see her picture there.  No detail was too small, no tidbit of information too inconsequential for her to be absolutely and completely in charge of knowing and regulating.  She could instruct the most notorious micromanagers how to micromanage and still have time to look in upon us.

What to do now?  The answer for me is simple: hang on.  Since Vader’s demotion to supervisor, she has run the department like a gulag with coffee breaks.  Demoted, I say, because she was once just below the vice president of our department until that fateful day of “the fall” when her pain, anguish, and ten to fifteen thousand dollar pay cut rained down upon the earth like Lucifer and the third of the angels who fell from heaven like stars.  It doesn’t take a genius to read the portents in the heavens or to anticipate the will of the gods.  It does take a genius, however, to thwart them.

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