Several years ago now, when I was still on the right side of thirty years old, I worked with Chip.
He called me to his office one day to discuss an issue he was having with some software my team supported, but when I arrived he wanted to talk grievance.
“What I can’t understand…”
Chip often started conversations this way. I think it was to stake his claim among the practical, “working men” of our organization, who had to make do with stupid penny-pinching decisions tossed down from the C-suite. He showed me a memo labeled “Confidential,” which I suppose was technically verboten but cool in this case because we both attended the University of Florida.
“Look at this. They want us to create metrics.”
Big Data, apparently, was elbowing its way into his professional life. Certainly, house calls such as this – What, a systems analyst troubleshooting in person rather remotely using a screen-sharing program? – were the stuff of an earlier, analog era, when the typewriter and push-button phone were the ubiquitous tools of office automation. But now the stock-options crowd was asking him to justify his existence by identifying certain numbers TBD, then guiding them upward or downward with deference to the bottom line. They said he had to think of himself as an entrepreneur.
We both laughed.
“And the figures can’t be fuzzy crap like ‘hours saved.’ They want to see actual dollar savings or extra revenue, or else – ” He paused to allow me to draw my own conclusions. “Aw, hell, let me show you that issue.”
I pulled up a chair next to his. It took him awhile to go through the process of finding the application link and remembering his password – not to mention re-creating the system error – so I started scrutinizing him, the way one might examine a body at a wake. Chip was a slightly doughy, stooping sort, with large, doleful eyes that loomed like weather balloons over his salt-and-pepper mustache. They conveyed a weariness that I considered apt for middle age. His wardrobe was entrenched in the casual Friday safe zone: think khakis or jeans blossoming into the striped or checked straitjackets known well to Gap fanboys. I liked Chip, in the way one likes unbroken sidewalks.
His cabinet was filled with books, stuff like Who Moved My Cheese? and quite possibly the entire Stephen Covey catalog, but one volume stood out: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It was the only novel on his shelf. Now I wasn’t much of a book guy in those days, so I hadn’t read it*, but I knew it was a classic. It was a satire, I’d heard; something acerbic, trenchant, ironic, a takedown of sorts. (But of what?) It was the sort of thing I figured I could appreciate, if I ever managed to crack its cover.
Chip was feeling the passage of time and offered an olive branch: “Did you see the Gators kick butt on Saturday?” Ah, yes, Florida Gators football. The basis for easy chit-chat when we met on the elevator, in the parking lot, in the cafeteria. I often wondered: did our small talk actually make our captive moments together less awkward, or more so? What’s so bad about a moment of peaceful quiet? I wanted a life of big things, drenched in meaning and import from dawn to dusk, and Gator talk or the weather or this job managing software projects – none of it was big enough. The immense void of silence alone could reliably meet my expectations.
“Yeah, great game,” I said and pulled Catch-22 off the shelf. “What’s up with this?” I tapped the cover.
Chip pulled back from his keyboard and turned to me, removing his glasses. “Well, it’s a very cynical story.” He was choosing his words carefully, as if straining not to offend. (Ha! Like I could be offended. Offense and bluster were the dagger and shield of my adult existence.) He grabbed the book from my hands and stroked its fore-edge with his thumb. The pages fluttered, whispering something essential about the nature and value of cynicism. I thought about my college mentor, with whom I discussed politics (campus and otherwise) on many lazy afternoons, and how he challenged me to look past charade and artifice and double-speak to see “life’s greater reality.”
Each challenge introduced a tiny puncture to the idealistic bubble that I lived in; by the time I sat in Chip’s office, a decade later, that bubble was in a tattered mass caught around my ankle. I didn’t dare throw it away, but I didn’t dare repair it either. Both options were too painful to consider.
And in that realization, I too felt wearied. But I believed that I hid my weariness well, unlike Chip, who’s life-long slog manifested in his manner of drive-by greeting. Whenever he saw me – usually at a distance, down the hall, say, as he flitted between meetings – his free hand would shoot up from his elbow in a mock-Hitlerian salute, then just as quickly slacken to a renewed state of repose. I took it as an admission that the floor under foot, the fluorescent lights above, and the clattering of keyboards everywhere were just part of the same terrible lie we had to live to earn a few bucks and enjoy espresso drinks morning, noon, and night. Whenever he flashed his neo-fascist wave, I’d think, “Heil!” though I wasn’t sure what exactly I was saluting.
Chip put his glasses back on. “Now don’t get me wrong. It’s a very funny book. But -” I’d all but forgotten the software issue I’d come to discuss. I was grappling with a new feeling of awkwardness, of the type when a near-stranger gets real for a moment and bares a certain corner of his soul. Will he burnish or destroy my stereotype of him? Part of me preferred the status quo.
Then he continued: “I used to think that sort of cynicism meant maturity, but now I know it’s the exact opposite. You have to believe in things in order to make them work, to find purpose and satisfaction. Meaning, you know? I keep that book there to remind me of how wrong I used to be and to never be that way again.” I muttered something like “Wow, cool” in reply then quickly segued back to the computer screen and the reason for our meeting. Any further engagement, I figured, might have forced me to reveal some truth about myself, truths I didn’t wish to think about. So instead, I told him that his issue, while valid, was of such little impact – and so uncommon – that he probably couldn’t expect a fix any time soon.
“Well, I just thought I’d bring it up anyway.”
I admired that he was doing his duty. I wasn’t sure if I’d do the same.
*I’ve finally given it a go and am on page 77. I’m still not sure if I share Chip’s view, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.