A Songwriter Swears (warning, contains excessive and gratuitous profanity)
Working, killing, and dying in a fully profane world
MAKING AMERICA WAIT AGAIN (How a life in Telecom perfectly illustrated what’s wrong with American Corporations)
*the names have been changed and the events synthesized and fictionalized because I’d rather not deal with lawyers for the rest of my life.
The Conference Call
The man talking is wearing the most expensive suit I’ve ever seen. He’s between 35 and 40, fit and perfectly groomed. His hair is unnaturally shiny, aggressively slicked back, and he looks just like Christian Bale in American Psycho. He’d be the perfect young executive, hand-picked for a light speed rise to the top except for one obvious flaw.
It’s the era of “Lean in.” Business language shorthand for “everybody who is meditative and rational is no longer welcome at the executive table.”
Speak now, speak quickly, speak loudly or get the hell out.
Our young superstar has used that phrase “lean in” at every possible opportunity. When we, we being the sales department, take our morning shower we should lean in and strategize our day. Unless one happens to be jacking off, in which case just lean into that. When we are driving to work, look around at the businesses we are passing and lean in. When we get to the office and spend 60 minutes scanning eBay or searching the internet with the term “My Company Name Sucks,” while our manager communicates the latest three, or seven, or 11 prong strategy that will “transform” our business we should lean in. Especially then. Because leaning in to the business strategy is what makes us all team players. All leaning in. A team of brilliant, leaning in, individuals who make up a team where it’s never one man for himself. He actually says this shit.
He doesn’t tell us to lean into fucking our wives and/or husbands, which is the only time leaning in might actually be useful. I make this clever observation to my peer in Kentucky via text message. He sends back, “I bet he only fucks himself.”
I’ve been through at least 4,236 useless, low-information, completely pointless, business meetings. This year.
I should be inured to this, but for some reason, this is the meeting that crystalizes my feeling, a “go with my gut” feeling based on the 6 cornerstones of observation that I learned in the sales training class “Getting to Greater,” that this new company, a merger of a once great regional company and a truly despised company into a behemoth (that adopts a legendary name) is run by people who are completely, obviously, and unapologetically, full of shit. Mergers are never a marriage of equals and in this case, the great regional company had lost an extra innings battle to an organization that is lead by people who seem to have combined the worst traits of an ADD toddler with a High School Head Football Coach kind of “laser focus” arrogance.
I had been struggling with the company changes all along, through six years of sleepless nights and a digestive system that felt like it was processing razor blades. Things had gotten progressively worse and most of my friends and peers from the original regional company had already moved on to other, less-shitty companies. But I worked in a small market where job opportunities were hard to come by for men over 50 and I had children in the house and needed the job. The commonly heard phrase from post-merger employees, I heard it so often that I was taken aback when it wasn’t used as the answer to “how are you doing,” was “Just happy to have this job I hate.” Even my boss, a guy I respected and liked, somebody equally as likely as I to try and inject optimism into a conversation, had used that phrase in a team meeting to tell us that he knew we were just “happy to have this job we hated.”
Our young psycho killer has another character flaw. He has that frat boy swagger that results from mistaking watching UFC and MMA for knowing how to fight. A character flaw that is, nonetheless, impressive to the new sales hires, young male twenty-somethings in ill-fitting and unremarkable suits from Men’s Wearhouse or Joseph A. Banks, who are openly leering at the equally overdressed female twenty-somethings who are doing their best gender traitor impersonations. They all hail from a variety of MBA factories and they all buy into the ABS, philosophy, “always be selling.”
They all, male and female alike, desperately want to be like, or with, the psycho. So they lean in real damn hard, asking fabulous questions designed to show Psycho that they are ready for anything, ready to kill for a sale, ready to “trim the fat,” ready to flash a little leg, pretend to be gay, slap skin with a brother, cheat, weasel, steal, leave their preconceptions at home, apply the nine steps of the success ladder, skull fuck anybody who gets in their way, and blow this shit up!
That’s still not the worst of it.
The worst of it is that he’s so impressed with his brilliant core idea, that we should sell more stuff so everybody makes more money, that he pauses between “lean ins” to ask his subordinates to repeat almost exactly what he’s just said, extending the meeting by another precious 60 minutes of my life.
Since it took me exactly three minutes to realize that he’s a never-learned-to -drive-stick-because-that’s-too-many-pedals, has somebody else “program” his contacts into his smart phone, never heard a catch phrase he didn’t like, liked Bush because he was a regular guy, fucking idiot, I have 57 minutes to kill. And by kill, I mean kill myself.
I’m not on board. I’m not “working the program.” I’m not even analyzing today’s data using the four signposts of need, or thinking about how to add extra sales when I find their “pain points.” I’m on my fourth cup of coffee and I’m sitting in my home office in a t-shirt and jeans and “strategizing” how to avoid talking to the half dozen customers I’ve managed to sell an overpriced, underperforming internet service with sketchy, unreliable, outdated telephone service. Customers who have not seen an install truck in 20 days since signing a contract, while their brand-new business, which they are already advertising in the newspaper, is unable to utilize their non-existent internet or telephone to do things like take payments and make appointments. They also can’t answer the phone, because that’s part of it. To get the least shitty price they needed to buy the phone service as well. They might even have gotten their first bill already and have left me voice messages calling me “asshole,” “motherfucker,” and “moron” because in the post-merger world we are “leaner and more productive” so there is often nobody available to install the services. I am not “allowed” to contact the installation managers directly, but I usually “lean in” and call anyway and when I do I’m often told, “they only hired two service reps and we need 32 so we are backed up, and no, no manager is allowed to speak with a customer, how did you get this number, I’ll be sending your supervisor an email since you aren’t allowed to call us, goodbye,” click.
American Psycho is still droning on and when the goddamn meeting heads into its second hour, I snap.
I’m on video chat but my camera isn’t on. So I pick up my phone, carry it into the bathroom, unmute, and flush the toilet. Hard. Then, as silence on the conference call starts to grow, I flush it again, then again, and once more for good measure. It’s an industrial strength monster toilet so it can flush a whole lot of shit at one time. It roars and roars.
There is silence on the call, then more silence.
Psycho barely pauses. And then he’s back, leaning in. And nobody says a word about the still audible, echoing rumble of water going into the sewer.
They are all just leaning in. They are all just scared, and helpless, like me. This is the place I work now: a place where even the obvious evidence of shit isn’t enough to bring in the cleaning crew.
My Kentucky friend texts me, “was that you? Leaning in?”
Before I can respond, my phone rings. It’s the owner of the gas station that has had a non-working internet service and phone line for at least three weeks, the one who called me “motherfucker.” I don’t answer. I’ll never call him back. He’s fucked. I’m fucked.
It Can’t Wait
The IPhone and the advent of the touch screen smart phone fucked up texting and driving. The Blackberry, with its actual keyboard, was a reasonably effective way to quickly answer a text you shouldn’t be reading but this damn touch screen smart phone is a whole different story.
I texted and drove. We all did, and probably they all still do. I stopped when I realized I was being a fucking moron.
Actually, I stopped right after I scared the crap out of my wife and kids by answering emails with my right hand while driving down our winding mountain road.
Like I said: Fucking moron.
It was expected that a sales rep would reply immediately to emails and texts. It would be impossible to run the business without knowing, ASAP, if each particular sales rep had sold two, or three, virtual office systems.
The company had a great slogan and symbol, a version of “You can do it later.” But it never could.
I knew personally of at least a dozen people in my department who had their laptops open on the passenger seat of the car so they could check email, and reply, as they drove. As they drove!
The big communication companies had the combined buying power to require that handsets have an automatic shut off after a vehicle reached a certain speed, but dead people don’t buy phones, so no efforts were made to change anything in the equipment. They did hand out cute stickers.
The Day Larry Killed Somebody
I’ve always blamed myself. I knew he was a world class fuck up. But after several tries at “running it upstairs” with no results, I gave up. I’ll always wonder if the next try would have done the trick.
Somebody always forgave Larry. He had something that appealed to people, a broken, hangdog, kind of wounded that, when he wasn’t sexually harassing or molesting women, made him seem less a criminal, addict and sociopath and more just a lost soul.
Before the merger, before local management control was farmed out to a centralized office where, it appeared, people spent the entire day riding up and down the elevators or taking long working lunches, or just rushing back and forth from the parking garage while speaking business speak into their Bluetooth headsets, a local market manager kept track of Larry. He was still stealing stuff, just less stuff, and it was hard for him to use the company vehicle as his personal shag van since sometimes that van actually had to go somewhere where it was needed to do an actual job.
After the merger, when nobody was looking, his job title was changed to something nonsensical (Manager of Inventory Integration and Surplus Utilization, or something bullshit like that) and his duties appeared to consist entirely of driving the company van around to faraway places to impregnate vulnerable women.
As my friend Dave used to say, “I shit you not!”
He always appeared to be drunk, but I learned later that he was actually incredibly high from a combination of cocaine and other opiates, that he ingested every day at the moment he awoke .
And because he lived the junkie’s code, he was also completely untrustworthy and willing to go behind another manager’s back in a heartbeat.
He ran his shop with an iron hand, at least when it came to his male employees. He was fairly lax, however, when it came to the hours and behaviors of his female employees, who seemed to come and go at will, refuse to help anybody, depending on their moods, and often arrived at the shop in the morning in Larry’s lime green sports car only to disappear into the restroom until lunch.
After a few months they’d have stopped coming to work altogether and could only be spotted on rare occasions in the shag van.
The mob calls this a “no work, no show” job. If the no-work, no-show woman wasn’t being mind-fucked by a predator, that might have seemed like a pretty good deal. But it would only last until Larry had found his next victim. Then these poor cast-offs would be back in the office, considerably worse for the wear, doing even less than they had before while retreating back to the restroom for regular crying jags, until, one morning, there would another new girl in their place.
I still don’t know what kind of mojo was protecting Larry because every report, every complaint, and Human Resources investigation was met by management with disdain and disbelief.
I reported him a few times, at least once formally.
I should have waited for him behind the building with a baseball bat.
One day he got drunk, piled some people, including family, into a jeep, and ran into a motorcycle from behind, killing two people and putting others in the hospital.
I think about this too much. I could have stopped him ten years before.
When Dick Almost Died and Heard the Voice of God
Dick was always an asshole. He hid it by being larger than life and loudly affirmative. He was equally as loud when he was belittling and berating those same people after his affirmations couldn’t overcome a person’s reluctance to lie and cheat their way to sales. And he was used to following only the voices in his head, voices that had been planted there by a modicum of athletic success as a young man. He was a jock sniffer and a serial misogynist. He demanded total fealty and he hadn’t met a legitimate argument that he couldn’t shoot down with a sports-oriented saying.
Dick was also supremely unhealthy. So it was no surprise that he had health issues that lead to hospitalization, an infection, a long hospital stay, bringing the family in to say goodbye, to a leave of absence stretching out for months (during which time his hand-picked asshole in waiting fucked everything up even worse), which lead to regular emails from company email accounts admonishing all to pray for Dick.
My favorite email pointed out that just one single person not praying might be the reason that Dick didn’t recover. This email came from a sales rep who would eventually try to claim money as her own, that I had earned.
There must have a been a lot of praying, and maybe some good science, because, eventually, Dick returned.
He came back convinced that God had personally saved him so that he could use his time at the office to save those of us who had yet to see the light.
Instead of berating me about my “numbers,’ he began badgering me about my relationship with God. At work. In meetings. At a publicly traded company.
He had traded in absolute certainty in his own wisdom for an unwavering confidence in God, who had spared him so he could return to his rightful place and…
A few months later, die anyway.
It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.
Dick’s collapse, resurrection, and collapse, were some of the heartbreaking events that would lead me to an office bathroom stall, flushing and flushing, over and over, as a great company I’d loved working for went straight down the toilet.
Hang in there, friends.
Do the work, don’t be the work.
If you want to read what somebody really smart has to say about all this, I highly recommend the following from the Atlantic. Caitlin Flanagan is my kind of hero.
Sheryl Sandberg and the Crackling Hellfire of Corporate America- by Caitlin Flanagan
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