The Suburban Refugee
I have said it before and I will say it again: we would make bad refugees.
Our society is long on vacuous insight but painfully short on the realization that we live in the greatest country at the greatest time in the history of the world. We complain about waiting in lines for two minutes, non-apocalyptic traffic, dealing with red meat which is hours old, deteriorating customer service and all that crap which comes with a society surrounded by many things and even more amenities. At times, people with no real problems (or any problems at all for that matter), feel compelled to have others see them as either victims or general targets of unfortunate circumstances. If no real problems or circumstances exist or not readily available, they decide to fabricate some trivial tension in their life so they can be separated from the mundane crowd. If they can’t find anything small to complain about, they will begin to escalate their complaints until something else happens. If failing that exercise, all which is left, is the art of re-defining oneself to at least become celebrities at least in their own minds. You have to become a celebrity to have a legitimate cause: if not, you are just some crazy person shouting at the wind.
Larry Koch was an enigma or at least that is what he constantly told people when given the chance. Most of us have been placed into the contrived, awkward situation in which one is supposed to enlighten their fellow meeting mates with a personal anecdote. Larry always stated that he indeed was an enigma and would ironically go against the enigmatic code by pontificating on all the reasons why he was the living embodiment of the term. I had run up against Larry on numerous occasions, ranging from obligatory holiday parties to obligatory summer picnics with a few company-mandated meetings thrown in for good measure. I did not care for him for several reasons but the main reason was that he wasted by time but suffice it to say he also gave me the creeps.
In my very first meeting with him, he continued to use the phrase "another perfect example" when attempting to make some goofy-ass point about some inconsequential circumstance in which he played the part of either the victim or the oracle. And if that wasn't enough, he continued to jab his finger as digital exclamation points which quickly transported the conversation from annoying to painful in just a few syllables. I wanted to challenge him about the use of "another perfect example" but his lack of social skills combined with his overall creepiness (see above) to result in only a desire to escape the Larry Koch vortex of social retardation.
Larry was also known to push a variety of social boundaries, both assumed and formal, in the work situation. He would take more than his fair share of food, constantly liberate low-level office supplies such as legal pads, post-it notes and dry markers, use up every single hour of vacation and sick time alloted to him and when faced with assisting someone in a manner that fell outside his already vague job responsibilities, he would flatly and loudly refuse. These behaviors obviously ostracized him to all that knew him but his ongoing behavior gave the impression that he didn't know, didn't care or most likely, didn't care to know.
Undaunted by generic stories of humdrum existences, Larry would always look around the room, surveying it for key faces, before he would drop his descriptive e-bomb. For many years, he never really knew the working definition of an “enigma” but he liked the respect that the phrase apparently won him. He estimated that half of the people also didn’t know the working definition but were impressed with the term and the other half were just flat-out impressed. Once satisfied with those odds, Larry expanded his self-proclamations into as many social situations as possible. Initially, he didn't use the term to describe himself but legend had it that he had heard someone else use it and saw the response it received. Contrary to his usual style, he wrote the word down several ways and actually went and found a dictionary and after several attempts, actually found the definition and immediately fell in love with it. When he got around to finally looking up the word’s definition, he was pleased with its innate flexibility. He didn’t have to elaborate as he, of course, was enigmatic and thus, above providing detail. Furthermore, Larry didn’t have the interest in standing for anything significant so the self-described enigmatic personality fit him well. His personal nature, a combination of sloth, general stupidity and selfishness, did not lend any positive descriptive attributes to win friends or influence people. The term gave him personal carte blanche to re-create himself in a manner that avoided accountability or hard work.
He always was part of the crowd; trends didn’t interest him, tragedies didn’t move him, injustices didn’t enrage him and most importantly, nothing ever compelled him to stop and change his own simple choices. Days evolved into months and months into years with no appreciable change in his personality; maturity and direction were not destinations, they weren’t even on his radar. If asked if the world revolved him and his little-minded priorities, it was a good bet that your answer would be the enigmatically positive.
During a scheduled team-building seminar that he was forced to attend, he was pleased to see the traditional item of “icebreaker” on the agenda. It was sandwiched neatly between introductions and seminar overview; nicely tucked in between two topics which held no intrigue or personal appeal. He sat quietly in the conference room; playing with the provided notepad and taking an inventory of things, he could eventually steal when the seminar concluded. He wasn’t listening to the facilitator’s opening remarks as he was already preparing his response to the icebreaker. He was not positive the icebreaker would be a variation of “tell me one thing about you” but Larry did not see any icebreaker props such as markers, post-it notes or graphic-rich handouts so he was safe to assume that the icebreaker would be verbal to force needed participation. The stage was set for his favorite game and he was quietly practicing how he was planning to deliver the comment. He knew that if he just blurted out, “I am an enigma” he would run the risk of losing critical impact with the audience. He needed to slightly contemplate his answer; even through he may have already heard twenty people’s response. His answer had to appear sincere and extemporaneous no matter how staged or prepared its genesis. The first row of participants began their pitiful, unrehearsed responses while Larry sat and pitied their lack of stage presence.
“I am a proud grandmother of six grandchildren.”
I said, “I am taking sailing lessons.” I always said that even though it wasn't true. Everyone likes hearing something in that general topic area: some harmless continuing education that does not offend or inspire.
“I was born in Maine.”
“I have been to both Mexico and Canada.”
“I have been with the company for twenty years.”
“I almost have my pilot’s license.”
“I have a brown belt in Karate.”
“I am an enigma.”
There was a huge inhale of air while the group’s pregnant pause to try to figure out what that meant caused a delay for the next participant. The momentum of answers was postponed for several seconds before Larry’s neighbor kindly grabbed the moment and continued.
“I just got married....”
“And I just had my wedding anniversary....”
A slight titter of laughter was caused by the linkage between the two date-related answers. Larry didn’t like the audience’s changing concentration yet there was nothing he could do until someone engaged him at break or lunch. He used to hope for someone to ask him for a definition of “enigma” but people’s vanity got in the way. Several people discretely wrote down the word in their notepad with the intention of looking it up in the dictionary when time permitted but usually it was forgotten about immediately at the conclusion of the seminar.
The next piece of the seminar was to identify some societal ill that, if given the opportunity and means, we could resolve. Larry was the first one to answer and I was going the last. The pressure was off me because I had plenty of time to assess the level of solutions but the Larry and the other first folks had to guess at the correct level of injustice to eradicate. Larry was rarely this exposed; he couldn’t pull out that old enigma saw yet again but he was a one-trick pony and this trick wasn’t going to apply to the problem. I kept running through scenarios in my mind: equal pay, racial injustice, public education, dairy, lack of social tolerance, widening gap between the haves and the have nots, the utter void of common courtesy or the inability for people to embrace accountability.
Whatever the direction of the group, I was going to hit a social home run. I was practicing my mannerisms and phrasings in my head while I waited. The list was in front of me and depending on the level of answers, I had it under control.
Larry kept doodling on the provided memo pad and then he placed his pen down on the table and said, “As an enigma, I really can’t say what I would do because it is not my place, enigmatically speaking.”
The non-attentive facilitator actually accepted that answer without rebuttal and went to the next participant who was still looking at Larry as if he had just grown large, pancake batter-producing antlers. The shock was so complete that it was likely her hearing actually ceased to function once Larry stopped talking. The next participant continued to stare without acknowledging the requests for her answer. Everyone knows that off site seminars are not real education or does your actual participation or contributions have any effect on anything but Larry’s answer formally stopped the process. It was likely that our certificates of participation were already signed and sitting somewhere near the podium as legitimate answers to (hopefully) legitimate questions were not required. However, in this case, incredibly stupid and contrived answers to stock questions can do nothing but plug up the works.
The facilitator was wondering why things had slowed until it was obvious that she was likely not listening as well. The rest of the group were backed up and couldn’t speak due to the answer pipeline was plugged with a general sense of incredulousness. We were all there to improve ourselves without having our egos inflated. Just when the leader had woken up out of her momentary daydream, the power went out. All the lights and the incredible amount of electronics went dead. Alone on the twenty-fifth floor, we were all in an inside; generic conference room with no windows and no clues how to exit.
I was wondering how Larry’s enigmatic personality was going to help him through this ordeal. I quietly went over to the main door and propped it open with several chairs to assist in bringing in a small amount of light from the hallway and then, found the blinds to the only working window to also allow for some backlighting. Other people were coming out of their offices and looking around with a similar unbelieving belief and trying to figure out their next move. I motioned to the group to follow me towards the light and I only said one thing; a suggestion that the ladies to take their purses and everyone take their phones and keys. The group fell in behind me as I walked towards the light with a moderate hope that an exit sign would make itself obvious to me.
Luckily, an illuminated sign emerged and we trudged down twenty-five flights of stairs in silence, except for Larry, who continued to explain to anyone potentially listening, why he was not leading the exodus was due to his enigmatic personality. By now, his monologue was stale and indifference was rampant with the rest of the group. Down the stairs we went, elegantly merging in with other floors so by the time we found the underlying cause of, we had ceased to remain as any known entity. We gravitated towards other co-workers, abandoning our temporary team for one that had some credibility.
I saw the facilitator later that morning; long after any question of us, returning to this underwhelming training was answered. She dimly looked at me with a dulled, rote facial expression and asked me what societal ill I was ready to rectify. I, with no expression, said, “We need more fire drills.” She made a mental note to document my contribution and she wandered down the hall. I had actually thought that was the last time I would ever see her but I would be mistaken.
The following afternoon, we re-convened and the individual attempting further facilitation literally picked up where the agenda was interrupted the day before. There was no discussion about our non-traditional departure from yesterday and within minutes, insipid questions about team building began to be generated onto post-it notes and the madness continued again. We were in the conference room, slogging through the well-worn agenda when the lights went out again. This time the darkness was coupled with an electronic alarm and a pre-programmed voice that all inhabitants had to leave the building.
The crowd fell into the same sequence as the day before and we all walked down the same flights of stairs. Everyone had their car keys, purses and other easily hauled equipment. No one was going back to a cubicle or office as we all had learned a small lesson in survival. The groups converged again outside just as the fire trucks arrived.
The facilitator looked at me and said, “I think this class has to be rescheduled.”
I said nothing and walked to my car.
The smoke from the middle of the building was contained in a corner and it appeared to be an impressive but minor fire. The building was filling with smoke and it was obvious that we were not going back into the building for a while. While we milled around, awaiting formal notice to go home, I noticed Larry sitting on the curb with his face in his hands. He was the only person I saw with nothing near him and I surmised that he had not learned from yesterday and came back to the seminar with no personal effects. All his stuff was upstairs in his enigmatic cube, rendering him hard to understand or explain combined with no visible means of transportation. He was the first homeless person in the building and due to his self-defined enigmatic nature; he was the office version of a man without a country. Armed with only a lukewarm cup of premium coffee, Larry was enigmatically screwed.
He began asking people to use their cell phones to arrange a ride home while trying to find out the extent of the damage to assess if he had a small chance of getting his personal effects. If this was twenty-four hours earlier, he would have found a far more sympathetic group of people but it was obvious that he was the only one that failed to learn yesterday’s lesson. It was determined that the building was still too much of an unknown to estimate any chances of going back in to retrieve personal effects yet again.
Larry continued to sit; no place to go and technically no possessions except his clothes. All around him, people continued to head to their cars, talking to loved ones and initiating their own personal plan B’s with the flexibility of people who had made decisions before. Larry, the king of non-decision and anti-accountability, remained in a semi-inert state waiting for someone or something to move him to a new state but this time, no one was coming and he would be forced into making decisions on his own.
When I drove away, I saw him waiting for something that would eventually come. Someone would take pity on him, some family member would be reached with someone else’s cell phone or he would eventually have to show some initiative to get a taxi or begin walking towards a nearby restaurant. I didn’t feel too sorry for him because this refugee status would be temporary at best and soon he would be back being his own underwhelming self. In the scheme of things, Larry was likely the worst refugee on the planet due to his inability to get up and do what is needed to be done as well as his further inability to grasp the obvious.
As I grew closer to home, I decided to switch my answer at the seminar. We could have dozens of fire drills each year but people like Larry wouldn’t learn to lesson of self-reliance. My new answer is that we, including me, need to prioritize our rants to deal with things that are worth complaining about and learn to show simple appreciation for basic common courtesy and basic creature comforts. Our momentary inconveniences are laughable when compared to real problems throughout the world so it is good to treat this type of event as learning experiences rather than problems. Problems need to be reserved for real anguish and sadness; not trying to get a ride home or wander up a few flights of steps in the dark to retrieve some car keys.
The next day, once we returned to our offices, I was surprised to see a meeting notice for the continuation of our interrupted seminar. In light of all the productive time lost, I thought (wrongly) that the last thing on the collective psyche of senior management was the completion of that generic seminar. As I was frantically reading my email and trying to move other activities due to the meeting, everywhere around me people were calling customers to assure them that it was business as usual while other people were assisting employees to regain basic communication tools (phone, email, etc) so they could begin reaching out to their customer base. The conference room, which could have easily been converted into back-up offices for ten employees, was cruelly reserved for the seminar.
The continuation of the seminar made no sense before the blackout and made even less sense afterwards. I needed to vent my frustrations and unfortunately, I would have to do it during the seminar. I saw a co-worker who had also attended the seminar and wanted to take her temperature regarding time wasted versus insight gained. We were officially co-workers but rarely talked; the shared experience of the enigmatic Larry and the blackout had forced us slightly closer as peers. I remember her from meetings past and had a vague recollection of her constantly picking at herself at the original meeting or it could have been the second iteration: I had lost count.
“Amanda, are you coming to the seminar this afternoon?”
Amanda acknowledged the question as just one more interruption in her ongoing desire to ignore all outside influences. She slowly turned her head towards me and said, “I have to go. My boss required that I attend.”
“My boss had nothing to say about the matter,” I said. “I am coming because someone sent me a meeting notice.”
Right when I had uttered those words, I realized that I would be vulnerable to the question of “If someone emailed you to jump off the cliff, would you?” question but luckily Amanda wasn’t engaged at that level. She was busy, or as busy as she could be, readjusting her possessions while picking at herself. Watching her subconsciously pick at herself reminded me of the same behavior in the seminar right before the lights going out (the first time). I noticed the odd habit between Larry’s enigma-saturated soliloquy and the blackout but had not given it my full notice due to the hubbub that accompanied the darkness. In fact, I would have enjoyed psychoanalyzing that picking symptom during a boring seminar but wouldn’t give it the proper attention until the seminar later that day.
I was looking forward to the diversion of her rhythmic inquisition as it allowed me to concentrate on my hobby of observing the human condition. The constant picking continued as we talked until I paid attention to the actual content of the conversation. Amanda was more than happy to stand there, pick at herself and just continue to complain old clichés while waiting me to say something.
I excused myself and prepared for the afternoon’s abbreviated seminar. I didn’t even care what the topics or the agenda; the entire rhythm of the experience was shot to hell and my only incentive was to avoid the enigmatic world of Larry and the curious world of Ms. Amanda.
The group assembled promptly at 1:00 pm in the same room that was exited twice the day before. The materials were still undisturbed from the day before and the facilitator appeared to hope to just slide into the next step of the agenda. However, Larry did not want this opportunity to slide by without reinforcing his enigmatic ways and started waving his hand. The facilitator knew what was coming and ignored his non-verbal cry for help.
“Excuse me. Oh, excuse me,” said Larry while waving his arm progressively more and more frantically.
The facilitator kept her head down and began reading the agenda. Before she could say anything, the lights went out for the third time in approximately forty-eight hours. In the darkness, I heard what only could have originated from her snapping her pencil in her hand. The crack of the wood sounding like a small caliber rifle shot and I could tell that she had enough of the whole thing.
In the darkness, she said, "That’s it. We’re done.”
We all got up and exited expertly. Even Larry shut his mouth and walked out with no further elaboration. Amanda walked out directly in front of me, her silhouette showing her adjusting her bra strap or something but my eyes were straight ahead, planning a strategic retreat back to my cubicle for my car keys and then, out the door. There had been enough anguish for one day.
Therefore, in the spirit of that observation, I shudder to imagine what would happen to people if Larry were forced to walk to Mason City with all his possessions on his back. I wonder if enigmatic individuals realize that sooner or later you have to start walking, even if it the wrong direction.
I am still working to figure out
the origin of this little story....
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