Posts Tagged ‘absurdity’

Considering how much I dislike authority figures, I have had surprisingly little trouble with them in my working life. Maybe the fact that I am habitually polite in person helps – although it can also give rise to charges of hypocrisy if I criticize someone later in an article. Maybe, too, the fact my acts of subversion are usually covert has something to do with it, too. But whatever the reason, I only remember a single reprimand – and then it was without any intent on my part.

The incident happened when I was working for a small company that was being slowly ground under by its CEO. He was new and. while he was learning as he went along, he lacked the empathy to understand that repeated purges of the staff might have an effect on morale. I mention this background because worry among the top management might have been responsible for my reprimand.

At the time, I had the habit of entering small jokes into the screensaver banner – wry, mildly amusing one-liners of the sort you often see today on Facebook and Twitter. Most were so trivial that I no longer remember them. One might have been “Common sense isn’t,” and another (borrowed from Doonesbury), “It’s tough being pure. Especially in your underwear.” If I didn’t use either of these, the ones I did use were similarly innocuous.

So, too, I thought was the one that caused me trouble. It was a T-shirt slogan that I had first heard about at a Garnet Rogers concert: “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?”

I changed the banner after a morning of editing a manual for publication when I reflected that I was lingering over changes that probably no one except me would ever notice or care about. To me, the expression was a comment about how overly-punctilious I was being and how close I was to losing my sense of proportion. I posted it, and went for lunch.

When I got back, the fourth highest executive in the company accosted me with a look so grim that I thought another company purge had come. Instead, with lips quivering with disapproval, he insisted that I take down the banner.

“Why?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

The lip quivering increased. “I shouldn’t have to tell you. Some things are simply unacceptable in the work place.”

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that comment,” I said, secure in the knowledge that I had a consulting contract with a kill-clause. “What’s the problem?”

But finally, after the executive made a few vague efforts to talk around the issue without being specific, I relented. All I really understood was that he thought I had overstepped and that, more in sorrow than in anger, he had to correct my behavior.

“No big deal, if that makes you happy,” I said. “But you’re making a fuss over nothing.”

To this day, I am still not sure what he thought I was saying. I doubt that he was suggesting that I was making a comment on micro-management, because, if anything, the company management style was too remote.

The most likely possibility, since he was a fundamentalist Christian who had read little outside the Bible, was that he was unfamiliar with the term “anal-retentive” and jumped to the conclusion that the expression was obscene. Maybe he just felt that a phrase whose meaning he didn’t know should be deleted on principle.

But, whatever the reason, I not only felt that the matter was hardly worth bringing up, but that he had over-reacted. I had no point to make, and would have removed the comment at a simple request.

For a month after the incident, I had little to do with the executive. Technically, I was reporting to him, so matters might have been strained, but since his supervision consisted of approving the task list that I wrote for myself and collecting my time sheet so he could initial it before sending it off to payroll, the main difference was that we talked less.

Finally, he decided he had to discuss the matter with me. He claimed that he was the main reason I was hired as a consultant, and insisted that he had done the right thing, and expected me to agree.

However, I was in no mood to give him much satisfaction. “You over-stepped your authority,” I said, “But that’s in the past, so I’m willing to forget what happened.”

That wasn’t good enough for the executive. He tried to get me to apologize, but I simply continued to insist that we move on until he gave up.

We never did return to the relatively friendly relationship we had before. But, a few weeks later, I put in my notice, and the issue ceased to matter. Since then, I’ve thought more than once that the real sign of how anal-retentive I can be is that I’ve wondered occasionally since exactly what he thought was happening.

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My sense of the absurd must be one of my dominant traits. How else to explain why, when entering a funeral home to arrange the cremation of my life partner, it arose like a gag reflex – and was almost as hard to suppress?

I admit that I was put off from the start by the air of unctuous, decayed conservatism with which the place was decorated. Neither the wallpaper nor the carpet, I am sure, was really red velvet, but both seemed designed to make you think they were. The impression I had was a striving after grandeur that I had sometimes seen in classic theater palaces, or in some hotels that are trying to convince tourists that they are glamorous, but cannot hide the fact that they have seen better days.

Nor did it help that the meeting room was decorated with prints of cute children looking coy in Edwardian costumes. Norman Rockwell would have been a major advance in taste.

Some, I suppose, might have found the décor comforting – assuming they were over eighty and never had much taste to start with. I found it a mockery of my purpose, and would have preferred a starkly minimalist modern décor that, although soulless, would at least be unobtrusive.

Still, I had a reason for being there, so I did my best to ignore the furnishings. It wasn’t easy. My eyes kept sliding to the prints or other details so that I could control my annoyance as the funeral home representative half-heartedly tried to nickel and dime me to death.

Only, it wasn’t nickel and dimes she was after, of course – it was two hundred here, or five hundred there.

Somehow, though, we ground on through the process. All went well until I thought to ask about the home’s reception facilities.

First, the representative showed me the non-denominational chapel. To me, “non-denominational” suggested a space that was designed to be spiritual without being specific to any religion. But, to the funeral home, the term meant “generic Christian.” Not only was it filled with the sort of narrow, stiff pews that require your body to do penance while the service works on your soul, but one wall had tiles in the shape of crosses.

“How lovely for your Hindu and Muslim customers,” I wanted to say, but with a surprising surge of will, I managed to refrain. Instead, I asked about any alternatives.

“Well, we have a reception area, but I can’t show it to you now,” the representative said. “It doubles as the garage for our second hearse.”

Thinking that I must have misheard her, I asked if she could show me a picture. She showed me a room with small round cafe tables with red checkered table cloths. Sure enough, one wall was a sliding garage door of corrugated aluminum.

With an even greater super-human will, I managed not to succumb to a fit of giggling. I couldn’t wait to tell Trish about what I had just seen.

Then I remembered that I wouldn’t be there if not for Trish. And somehow, that was the most existentially absurd moment of all: me wanting to tell her about absurdities that I never would have encountered if she were still alive.

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