Letters to My Coach
Journal Entry #1
Coach, at our meeting last week, you said I could write about anything in this Journal. “Your Learning Journal is the tool that will help you unleash your potential so the company may benefit from the unique force of your personality!” you said with the ease that comes, no doubt, from frequent repetition. “It’s fun! It's confidential! It’s a private conversation between you and me!”
Privacy is a quaint notion in this company, don’t you think? Emails flow through the innards of central servers, Internet usage is closely monitored, once a month IT requests to borrow one’s laptop for “tuning.” Every six months, gum-chewing administrative assistants print multiple copies of performance reviews on public printers, assemble them into great binders, and leave them on the desks of managers even if they are away. Not to mention department head BG who logs hours each day touring the building, his belly preceding him, futilely chewing upon special diet snacks.
Speaking of BG, for a whole month before you and I met, he would not leave me alone. He would enter my office without knocking, focus his gaze on a point above my left ear, and begin to talk. Team members had become Very Uncomfortable working with me, he’d say, addressing my ear. I needed to become Outward and Visible. I would do well to develop a Positive Energy Field. He wouldn’t leave unless I let him give me numerous calling cards of people who’d help me change, all of which I promptly threw in the trash.
As I'm sure you know, Coach, I have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering and am an authority on catalytic converters. It's true I stick to myself—I don't need to talk to my lab equipment and treat it nice, as if I were milking cows—but I hold the largest number of patents among all the scientists who work for this company. I’m more or less directly responsible for saving the world from the toxic fumes emitted by more vehicles than Earth can handle.
So I asked BG, “Any issues with my work, BG?” “No,” he said, reluctantly. But he came back, this time suggesting that I make a big effort to Open Up. “You don’t have to change your Unique Personality by a lot,” he said, speaking to his right knee. “A course correction of just a couple of degrees will get you far from where you’re heading now.”
Next thing I know, a meeting with Kelly Clark from EYE! Empower Your Employees! is on my calendar, to take place in Conference Room E, the only conference room with glass doors on my floor.
I hate conference rooms with glass doors. Blame the doors for keeping me from being my usual scintillating self at our meeting, Coach. I checked. There were other rooms available at the time of our meeting. Why were we assigned the only room with glass doors that is also close to BG’s office? It was busy outside, wasn’t it, Ms. Clark? People passed by and looked in all the time. People will always look into rooms they’re passing. Their eyes wandered to the whiteboard to figure out what was happening. People will always try to figure out what is happening. I squirmed when I saw that you had written the word “GOALS!” on the whiteboard in huge letters. Could you never do that again?
Our meeting now—it didn’t go very well, did it? I felt sorry for you, Kelly Clark from EYE! Pinstriped suit and careful make-up that almost concealed emergent crow’s feet. Shabby overcoat yet Cartier watch that said: feels the need to flash iconic item on person. Were you nervous? You looked nervous when I stalked in and took up a position as distant from you as possible. You got more nervous as we went along. All the signs were there: you tooled off twice to the bathroom, you doodled on your notepad, the ends of your sentences took on high notes. (“Can we iterate over your . . . goals?”) Bravely you set me your little assignments. You were a quivering ellipsis trapped in a whirl of capital letters and exclamation points.
But there was something about you that touched me, Coach, which is why I sat down to write you this journal entry. Perhaps it was that you made the effort to say my name correctly. (Believe me, it’s BAD to have the computer ask me twenty times a day if I want to correct my last name to Snotty.) You were so obviously nonplussed by me. “What’s with this guy?” I could hear you think. “Doesn’t he want to keep his job?”
I have that effect on people. No one can cut a conversation short as quickly as I can, by look, word, or gesture. If someone were to draw a caricature of me, it would be a brick wall with a face. My colleagues trip over their feet to get to the safety of their rooms when they see me coming. My wife and I are divorced: like gibbons and bald eagles, people of my ethnicity marry for life, so our divorce was quite the event when it happened. My parents died when I was in my teens but that I had nothing to do with. What you experienced the tip of the iceberg.
In some not-so-remote corner of my mind, Coach, I was hoping you would throw up your hands in defeat after ten minutes with me and walk out. That you persevered is evidence of your intrepid nature, love of challenge, and perhaps a high hourly rate?
Let’s face it, Coach. I don’t know what BG told you when he hired you to work with me, but all of this—our meeting, your assignments, this Journal—this is all about conforming, isn’t it? Individual proclivities are as welcome in the workplace as fungus in the toenails. Be yourself, they say, but within reason. On Mondays, by law, one shall ask one’s neighbor about his weekend. One shall always end one’s emails with the word, so punctuated: “Thanks!” Once a month, one shall bake a cake for the entire office and set it on the kitchen counter with a Post-It saying: “Enjoy! :-)”
Well, the last time I baked a cake was never.
Let’s see now. What were the assignments you set me? I am to (A) project positivity with a better body posture, (B) greet everyone I encounter at the office, and (C) invite at least one colleague out to lunch. And, of course, I am to record an entry in my Learning Journal every week and email it to you.
Ah. Baby steps to a brand new me.
Journal Entry #2
Let’s talk about the first assignment you set me, Coach: my body posture. To back up a little, what made you focus on the position of my body at our meeting? I recall I was sitting across from you and leaning forward with my hands between my knees. Out of the blue, you began pattering about the manner in which I sat. Probably quoting from a book you said that I needed to take up more space and keep my hands in view. You seemed to be particularly incensed by the fact that you could not see my hands. Not to be crude, Coach, but what could I be doing with my hands in a room with glass doors?
Anyway, this past week I went to the staff meeting that takes place every fourth Thursday at nine a.m. in Conference Room K. I avoid meetings studiously but I had reason to attend this one: I wanted to complain about my new lab assistant, who has a predilection for keeping her Bluetooth headset on at all times and speaking into it with clenched teeth without moving lips in an effort to evade detection. I reached the conference room before anyone else did. Alone for a time, I considered my forearms as they lay slack on the table. Everyone is allowed a few small vanities. Me, I’m proud of my forearms. They are strong and solid, not hairy, but not effeminate either. They, at least, are not the reason my wife and I are no longer together. Then the door opened and my colleagues trooped in.
What a tableau they put up! Thespians all, they sat down, backs straight, tummy sucked in, knees apart for space, elbows spread in a wide V on table. As usual, CT made a beeline for a chair by BG. He always does. I could tell he already knew exactly what he was going to say. As usual, YM was quick on the draw with the coasters. She always is. She passed them out in a marked manner and reminded us to use them to protect the table. Maybe I misinterpret and she has a genuine love for the conference table rather than a genuine love of impressing BG who, by the way, presented a cameo at one end with his feet on the table and his belly draped over the arm of his chair.
It’s time to discuss a theory I’ve developed, Coach, about certain behaviors of which I've made a careful study only in order to avoid them. I call it my Theory of Winning Behaviors. I will edge into it by way of an example involving the helmeted hornbill. Please bear with me if I seem to digress. These large birds are named for their casques, bulges that perch like helmets on top of their red and yellow chisel-like bills. The birds are known for certain performances, termed "aerial jousting," in which two or more of them fly up in the air and collide mightily, their casques clashing with a loud CLACK. Episodes of aerial jousting usually result in the participants being flung violently to earth, upon which they right themselves and go at it again. Researchers studying the behavior have found that, while birds that engaged in jousting did not garner any privileges—such as mating with choice partners—the chances of survival of birds that refrained from it weakened over time. In other words the jousting behavior, which serves no purpose whatsoever, had become necessary for survival.
By the way I don’t know how much of this is true but I'm sure you get my point. Like aerial jousting in the helmeted hornbill, sitting upright is a Winning Behavior in this company. Baking is a Winning Behavior. Crafting one’s office communiqués so that they bristle with exclamation points—written equivalents of tail-wags—is a Winning Behavior. Singing and the marking of one’s skin with certain kinds of tattoos may, as you will see, be a Winning Behavior.
Loudly declining to wear one’s nametag around one’s neck under any circumstances and discarding it face-up in a public trashcan where it is sure to be seen is not a Winning Behavior.
Coach, I believe I make my views on your posture assignment clear: I will not do it. To help you understand my position let me describe one of my fellow scientists. Like me, he hails from the Indian subcontinent, but you wouldn’t suspect it to see him now. When he started working here he would place himself strategically—winningly—in the kitchen at times when he might run into someone who mattered, his well-oiled hair arranged on his forehead like a raven’s wing. He would warm his lunch in his little Tupperware container, leaving the kitchen awash in the aroma of mutton curry and coconut oil, and collar me and jabber in our tongue if I did not disappear fast enough. It took him just a year to figure things out. Now he never talks to me and is known for two things: having tattooed the firm logo on his arm when his division met its goals, and karaoke-ing solo to the tune of “We are all jolly good fellows!” at meetings. (Believe me, this last is a scene and not in a good way.)
Journal Entry #3
Coach, I just re-read my journal entries and it struck me how very long and self-absorbed they are. I suppose none of us knows how enamored we are with ourselves until we have a captive audience. (Speaking of audiences, you haven’t responded to my letters. Are you supposed to? But it may be just as well that you haven’t written, for what would you write but something supportive and therefore insincere?)
I know I sound churlish but please do not be fooled by my shrill rhetoric in these pages. It is very difficult to be me. But we cannot choose who we are. We were all children once, pattering about on our little feet and holding out our little hands. Speaking for myself, I was once a schoolboy. When I was ten, my parents made me skip two grades and enter the seventh grade at a new school. They thought I was brilliant, see? I was the only seventh grader who liked to use the playground swing and swing I did the entire duration of the recess, the air ballooning up the legs of my too-big shorts, while the other boys dashed about playing football. Let me say only that I drew comment. Did I care? I did not. Every day I ate my lunch—always a club sandwich –sitting alone on the steps of the basement. It all comes back to me: smell-of-dank-basement-in-monsoon-season-shadowy-blue-and-white-clad-figures-laughing-and-chattering. But after years of solitariness, the notion took hold of me all of a sudden that I should break the ice and that it would be easy. So I walked up one day to a group of boys in the common room. They ceased their chatter and turned to look at me. “May I henceforth eat my lunch with you?” I said. They laughed until they cried.
For goodness's sake! You say. This is no excuse! Who doesn’t have a giant hairball festooned with bits of the past lodged in the pit of the stomach ready to barrel up into the throat and choke one when one least expects it?
I can see I won't get anywhere with you, tough Kelly Clark. So let me talk about your assignments instead. Your second was that I should begin greeting my colleagues everyday, wasn't it? An assignment designed to release my inner chatterbox.
There’s a problem. I love silence. I concede there are times when talking is necessary, such as when I must complain about wayward lab assistants, but I love silence. On the other hand, few things make the pinstriped crowd more nervous than silence. And so they talk because they don’t want to be caught not talking. They spasm into conversation when they see anyone, in elevators, passages, and conference rooms, and on phones, and much talk results: greetings and goodbyes, opinions and inquiries, discourses on vacations and weekends and weather, and expressions of love for BG’s poodle. If you’ve spent even a minute in BG’s company, you cannot fail to know that he has a poodle, fourteen years old and brown, who he loves like a daughter. Of course, everyone in the office has discovered a strong chemistry with poodles, and on its birthday it’s sent a bone and a birthday card signed by everyone in the office.
For goodness’s sake! You say again. All I’m asking you to do is improve your posture and say hello to people. What is the big deal? Call them Winning Behaviors if you will, what is so hard about adopting them? Don’t you, well, win?
How to explain, Coach? Why don't you already know this: one needs to be either very anxious or very young or both to change oneself to suit others. Consider that you’re a new (young) employee of the company. To you, the company is the rich uncle who distributes free coffee, snacks, happy hours, and a salary. The company embraces you. The office bristles with nice people, who pop in your door and lean over your cubicle wall, buy you lunch and talk to you, work you and rate you, are nice to you. Your petals unfold in the warmth of their shine. Soon you need them to affirm you to yourself. Years pass and you aren’t young anymore, but now you’re worried you’ll lose what you have. Nothing, but nothing, makes one feel as anxious as keeping close company with others.
I was not immune to the allure of the workplace when I began working here, Coach. Everything fascinated me. A double monitor! A business card! Aeron chairs! Strange and wonderful things, redolent of meaning. I was profoundly inspired by everything I saw, a trait of the very young.
But at some point, the little voice inside my head that kept me company when I ate lunch alone in a basement for years spoke up. Slowly I began to feel as if every day I was at work, I was in the belly of a huge living thing that would chew me up and spit me out, the perfect employee with a steady eye contact and a firm handshake.
Journal Entry #4
Dear Coach, I haven't forgotten your third assignment. Perhaps it’s moot now, but let's address it for the sake of completeness. You asked me to invite a colleague out to lunch. Well, I won’t do it. I just won’t. You don’t mind if I speak plainly, do you? I often wish that people would get on with it and just say the things they want to say.
Let me relate to you an incident that involves my wife (did I mention that I was once married)? We were together for two years. She was from Warangal, a town in India that simmers in the heat for the better part of the year. Growing up there seemed to have endowed her with a love of spicy tomato chutney, which she would pile onto her plate at every meal. There we sat, opposite each other for our evening meal, our mouths moving in coordinated fashion, hers to the left when mine moved to the right, and vice versa. Tomato chutney makes little wet sounds when chewed—shlip shlip shlop. This I could have borne. But there was also something odd about the angle at which she held her spoon. After some months I bought a second table, set it at a distance from hers, and began to eat at it all by myself, my back to her. I supposed she chafed at my carving out separate dining areas in the tiny apartment. But all's well that ends well. I heard that she learned JAVA and makes fifty grand a year, not bad for someone from Warangal.
What I'm saying is this. I will not eat my meals with anyone. So there.
Journal Entry #5
Coach, I haven't heard from you in, what, four weeks? I presume there is something going on between you and BG. I know these letters aren't as private as you would like me to believe.
Guess what. I’m playing for time too.
Last night I sat thinking in my lab well past midnight. It was quiet in the building. Everyone had left. The streets were quiet, too. Rows of lit windows studded the velvet night. I had worked alone in my lab all day, and heard noises and laughter and BG’s tread outside my door but no one came in. No one has for weeks, ever since you and I had our meeting in the glass-doored conference room.
I felt desolate. What remains, I wondered, of a thing when attention has been removed from it? Does it still exist? What happens in office buildings when everyone has left? What of those rooms full of furniture and devoid of people, those night streets lit by intersecting pools of yellow light? Do they take form only when someone turns a key in a lock or a lone vehicle drifts up the street? What of me when I shut down my burners, lock up my lab, slink down the back stairs, and walk home? And sit at my table at home, waiting for someone to call me. Only purveyors of exercise equipment and Flamenco dance lessons do. I call my cell phone from my home phone and my home phone from my cell phone to make sure they are working. I put them to my ears to check the ring tone. You see, I'm not in the least as self-sufficient as I pretend to be.
Earlier in the day I’d gone to the library in the northwest corner of my floor to borrow a journal. People stilled their chatter as I walked by. They stared after me until my back prickled. SP, the librarian, was standing on a stool wearing a long black dress. She was a column of black surmounted by a shock of orange hair. Like me, she lives alone. She designs costumes for school plays in her spare time and peppers everyone’s inbox with invitations to children’s plays in remote suburbs. She stood on her stool sighing like superheated steam. I was afraid she would precipitate in moisture if I spoke to her. Still I asked her for the current issue of the Journal of Chemical and Engineering Data. She got down from her stool, labored to the periodicals rack, and handed me a copy, her fingernails scattered like jewel-pink petals along the journal’s golden edge. That is, though she spends her day surrounded by stacks of mute paper and piles of unappreciative journals, she regularly refreshes in creative ways the color on the oval nails of her soft, white hands so someone will see. This is her particular vanity.
Usually I leave the second I have what I need but this afternoon I lingered. I said I liked her nail color. She told me about an upcoming performance of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” I said I had always loved “Jack and the Beanstalk” and that I would come to see her play. To my horror I added, “Maybe we can have coffee some time.” Suddenly I saw what was happening: I was trying to be nice to her.
I ran back to my lab and stayed there until midnight. Inside of me, Coach, there lives a poor endangered creature, one that’s not very pleasant, with twisted limbs and furred bat wings and a bad temper. It means no harm. It just wants to potter about life in its own way. I suppose I should have taken it somewhere else: an oilrig, a spaceship, or the North Pole, but here is where it is, in this company full of people who are made uncomfortable by it. But I have an unreasonable fondness for this creature, Coach. I want to keep it. I don’t think I can live without it.
What do you say, Coach? What should I do?
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