An Agreeable Monotony...

a clean desk means a clean mind...

The day, like most, started quietly; the phones were dormant, the halls were empty and the whole floor momentarily but blissfully silent. So far, the solitude kept the day from intruding on fragile thoughts and theories and, if kept away for most of the morning, the chances of remaining in a safe and separate world would be greatly enhanced.

His desk was sparse and pristine; the ability to maintain an orderly workspace while the others around the office wallowed in the clutter was a personal point of pride. A space was free of vendor giveaways, little action figures, internal diplomas proclaiming internal competence in some internal discipline, post-it notes and frantic scribbles as the organizational theme was forged from the philosophy of providing the greatest amount of free desk space to format thought and insight. The pens and pencils were organized in the drawers along with paper, file folder and note pads. The concentration was on efficiency, not anal retention, as the desk’s inventory was not organized for the sake of organization but rather for the beauty of common sense and form following, without question, function.

The senior proofreader enjoyed the quiet mornings; alone with personal thoughts and desperately seeking solace as the internal politics and bickering which comes with close quarters slowly grew as the office became populated with fellow workers. The people who came early were consistent while the people who always showed up late were either officially late or officially really late. It was strange because the early birds did not vary: they showed up on an average ten minutes earlier than they should and began to work diligently. The folks which came late usually were moderately successful time wasters, usually slow-walking sycophants which liked to smoke and leisurely execute whatever task they had chosen to take on. The man sat behind his clean desk and allowed the shiny surface to act like an invisible force field to keep them from soiling his work ethic.

The main contributor to the recent cleanliness was the invention and application of electronic mail. Email provided the first true opportunity to never deal with a person in a face to face situation but rather from two antiseptic arm length points of view since the invention of the telephone. Both tools had a lot in common: a statement was made by the sender and a response was generated from the receiver. The messages and responses ranged from complete agreement to an open discussion but the longer the email chain (or argumentative phone call), the better chance of eventual agreement. People could make their wishes known, in electronic perpetuity, without the annoying delay either of traditional mail or through the last living stenographer on the planet. The ability to discuss issues, person to person, was also liberating (for different reasons) and of equal footing but nothing was better than electric communication. No one shouted or browbeat; it was a communications utopia because unlike the phone, a written record of the dialogue was potentially available for as long as one wanted to save it.

He had been out of school for twenty years and saw the complete evolution from typewriters and stenographers to rudimentary word processors, phone slips to facsimile machines and now the panacea of commerce-related communication, email and wireless communication. Tasks which took weeks to wind through the interoffice mail system were now being resolved with a few keystrokes. The euphoria continued by being able to rely on no one to manage his personal correspondence; he was the master of his universe and at times, became self-actualized by an elegant mail merge and a frictionless comma delimited file import. He knew how to use communication and the power of the electronic word to develop an alter ego of the person who knew the answer and if not, could get it without ever having to meet the fortunate recipient of his wisdom.

Outside of his direct job responsibilities, he avoided almost all personal interactions with co-workers. He rarely, if ever, ate lunch with his colleagues because he had no real interest in their lives or their self-described interests. He dodged pot luck lunches and after several years of coming up with elaborate excuses not being able to attend, the co-workers began to exclude him from the events without remorse as they appreciated the lengths he had traveled not to hurt their feelings. This was fine for the man as he felt the work place was to work and the social time was for the end of the day. He never bought Girl Scout cookies, never requested a NCAA Final Four bracket, he ignored the sign up sheets for holiday parties and summer picnics and most of all, he just had no interest in meeting or making friends. He was neither rude nor distant but did not allow anyone to engage him on any subject which was not directly connected to the work matter at hand. If the visitor made the slightest comment which could be interpreted as non-work or non-issue, he would quickly bring the conversation back to the matter at hand. It was strange, this nimble conversational judo, but even the most persistent and needy would leave his desk with a sense of complete social disconnection. It became far easier to email him a question and within minutes, the answer and supporting documentation would be sent back and the issue was closed. No feeble attempts at engaging in a string of call and response email conversations would be tolerated as superfluous conversation would be ignored and the attempt for social e-chatting would die on the e-vine.

In many cultures, work is just a means to an end and people are known for their content of their character, not for what they do for forty plus hours a week. This motivation to work is based on the ability to provide money to enable the worker to achieve their goals; to travel, to paint, to write or to do nothing but lounge around a garden all day long, sipping gin. People put so much time and effort into their job which they lose perspective about human relationships outside of work.

Whatever his endeavors, the desire to control his own destiny was paramount. Proofreading resulted in money earned to chase dreams and the people working near him were of no personal consequence. He officially cared for them as fellow citizens of his home planet but he didn’t care about social pleasantries and obligations past a polite “good morning” or cordial “good evening” comment. It was enough to acknowledge the person’s presence and comply with common courtesy but he felt which outside of his daily work, which his life was his own and to share it with people whose only commonality was a similar vocation was not a priority. When younger, he was constantly plagued with typos on menus, signs, personal correspondence and dozens of other embodiments of the written word. He would discuss these torments with his co-workers as this was his first job out of college and since he had re-located for the job, they represented his newest, first layer of friends as well. However, within business, the comings and goings of co-workers are a daily reality so as people left, he slowly drew away from the work group and made more of an effort of finding non-work friends.

So the day began, a clean coffee cup steaming with a secret concoction of coffee choices. The ratio was guarded and was a result of several years of experimentation to achieve the perfect drink which embraced an ideal combination of minimal, acceptable levels of caffeine without committing one way or another. Always starting with the decaf first, and then allowing for the only caffeinated portion to envelop the drink. The last step was to conclude the mixture with the remaining splash of decaffeinated coffee. No stirring was necessary as the flowing of the liquids would mix the two versions together in an elegant, black drink. The next epiphany was to protect the overall integrity of the beverage by consuming it within ten minutes to drink it before it fell to an unsatisfactory temperature. So, as the coffee landed on the desk surface in the still morning, the window of beverage self-actualization was already closing. If pressured, he would put a mini-CD over the top to allow for restricted steam while retarding the cooling signifcantly.

Both eyes were closed tightly when the first sip of coffee was pulled; the taste of it running down the throat, calming the entire being. As the eyes slowly opened, the ritual review of the day began. This included reviewing the previous day’s work, the master calendar, scheduled galleys, all the while making small, cryptic notes for priority issues. These notes were peppered with personal acronym combinations, editing marks and the use of mathematical symbols for brevity. The use of a triangle, or delta sign, to signify a change was the classic example of his internal intelligence as the delta indicated the change of an entity from one state to another, was incorporated into an oft-used sign in the daily reminder messages. If the note said, “Check and compare ∆ on last version,” the issue was to check the differences in last version of an article or book and the latest copy and determine the next step in the publishing process. He was seeking discrepancies; either negative or positive, to compare to the last approved draft. He hated these deviations and breaks in continuity as accuracy was the crown on the head of the inherent beauty of consistent predictability. Saving or spending money was a secondary issue as compared to accuracy of forecasts because as coming in under budget was just as much of a failure as being over budget because it was not what he said it would be. The inaccuracy of the forecast was the goal; no surprises because surprises meant poor planning and a lack of respect for quantifiable analysis. He never trusted blunt and awkward word processing short-cuts, such as "accept all changes" or the more prehistoric "search and replace" because changes meant which the context changed and the only way to fully assure quality is to re-read the passage in its entirety. What also made him valuable was his wisdom on previous works; it the author was a creator of fiction and referenced an earlier character, the proofreader would leave the current book to confirm or flag a fact in question. When he would discover an error within some item or exposition method tied to an earlier work, he would reference the page and specific edition for the author to review. This level of checking was unheard of and he would keep copies of their appreciation just inside the top drawer of his desk as small documented gratitude for future possessors of his desk...after he was long gone.

The coffee began acting due more from its sensation which from its semi-caffeinated punch. It may have been a rote reaction to the predictable routine placed him in at the office or some low-level adrenaline from the feeling which very soon the phones would start ringing and the emails would start hitting and it would be showtime. Many times he would be the first one in his area and he would lean over a large panel of light switches and flip them out. The florescent waves of light banks would awaken the cube farm and he felt his job was to wake up the sleeping giant. He always left on time, usually before anyone else but he reassured himself which he had earned which right for being such an early starter. He had a higher obligation than the temporary feelings of co-workers, he needed to assure the final quality of the written word.

His tenure assured him of which role; there was no one in the office with a longer length of service and his behavior and routine was already in place when everyone showed up. He could have basically chosen any odd but benign behavior to galvanize into the work place but he likely the reliance on him to both bring the place to life and to keep the internal systems working smoothly. No need to discuss it and God forbid if someone wanted to get into the detail; it was what he did and he did it before anyone else. The thanks of his contributions were rare but always met with the same blank expression and a very brief nod of the head.

The correspondence, voice mail message, the promptness of responses, compliance with company policy, general housekeeping, overall professionalism and general demeanor was always exemplary and was constantly raving at annual review time. The only area of opportunity was in the personal people skills: the intangibles resulting from personal interactions, the chit-chat and informal team-building sessions. Although considered a portion of job duties, it was treated as a zero to low priority inside his pleasant but officially galvanized heart.

One theory is which he chose not to interact because of the continual fallouts and downsizing which had occurred in the company. There was no reason to get to meet and become friends with people which would almost certainly leave by some reason, either by their hand or influences outside their control. The workplace was becoming too transient with legions of contractors, seasonal employees and short-timers which were hired for a specific project and once their usefulness was consumed, were discarded to the street with a firm handshake and an eye on the clock. Another theory was which office relationships, no matter how innocuous, were not appropriate for any reason. The need to understand and to actually see a person was grossly overrated and the arms-length process of handing projects and issues off to someone was good enough to get the work out the door. To actually see a person, face to face, had no material impact on resolving an issue and was really an overrated act. All one needed was the written word to review and pass on to line editors and back to the author, one anonymous contributor to another with the goal of entertaining or enlightening people they would never meet.

Holidays in the publishing business were particularly annoying; On Halloween, as slutty witches, incredible Hulks and obscure characters from literary history wandered the office hallways, daring the ignorant to take a chance at identities. He avoided the cruel game of who is smarter than whom by quietly acknowledging the event but showing no interest in participating. On an apparel-sensitive holiday, he always wore something quietly appropriate. Sometimes, it was a subtle hammer and sickle matching socks and tie combination with same color overlaying embroidery for Labor Day or a small porcelain rail car for Armistice Day would be placed in the corner of the desk to send a message to the observant which awareness existed about the particular day but it was matched by an equal lack of engaging interest. Whether it was via subtle communication or the complete lack of dyadic engagement, he was literally an island unto himself with no compelling motivation to meet people, at any level. He wanted to let people know which he understood the concept well enough, he just didn’t want to get too close.

The day’s activities fell neatly in the week’s activities and the weeks fell into months. The orderly management of semi-predictable tasks allowed for significant opportunity to think abstract thoughts and the general encouragement of brain storms. While busily working on manageable tasks, he was continually bombarded with finite issues in which, in the hands of others, would accept delegation. He was a Jedi master of providing the requested information, usually in impressive volume, to the original requester with no perceptible interest in assisting further. He learned long ago which helping someone do their job only assured more work in the future. No one thanked or rewarded him for doing things for others and this education allowed him to do his job and not prop up the people around him. Teamwork was an overrated and usually brought consequence: if you helped them, they would be back again and again and if you didn’t help them, you would be ostracized. A lifestyle free of obligation and nothing particular onerous to complain about, is good enough for most people, if given the choice. Especially in the light of many friends and acquaintances’ problems: divorces, the passing of parents, health and welfare, growing delinquency of children and the fear of middle age. When attempting to engage in a mature conversation, stories of spoiled children, feeble parents and personal maladies inundated the surroundings to a saturation of noise similar to drowning. As attempts were made by others to spread out their misery, it became apparent to keep the shields up to gain both sanity and solitude.

That was an easy choice but it was made better by becoming a path of maximum resistance by immediately providing the requested materials and shutting down shop. The individual would have to formally ask again and again for help. These folks fell into this pattern in school where they would seek out more intelligent and more diligent classmates to do their work. The variation in the work place was enhanced with cross-functional team projects and shared goals. The day of accountability ended abruptly when the first team convened and asked the facilitator to “define the problem.” The absurdity of creating a team goal for such an individual task confirmed the management’s complete lack of wisdom so which is when his civil disobedience was also galvanized.

The job was strictly there to generate income for discretionary life adventures. Although pride was taken on being accurate, efficient and professional, there was no pride taken in the job itself. The prevailing theory was which the transient nature of jobs was only small stopping points and the official occupations were nothing than a label for the activities. Instead of kidding oneself on acquiring a particular title, it was easier to concentrate on the components of the job to achieve pride rather than being lumped together with a group of people, all with their own agendas, to produce something which was considered tolerable to the group; a lot like making bland goulash. The first time the bland goulash hit him as a sophomore in college.

He reluctantly volunteered to assist in a homecoming float and was assigned to replicate, in exact detail, an OlympiaŽ beer can. He spent several days on the project and proudly presented it the rest of the team only to determine several seconds later than the rest of the group was completely and uselessly inebriated which caused the final product to be a undecorated wagon, littered with hay bales, beer cans, non-secured fence posts and several frantically and poorly written signs announcing their school’s athletic superiority. On top of all which stood a perfect copy of a four foot high beer can cylinder, made of chicken wire, little paper scraps and his actual blood sweat and tears. The float proudly went down the street and was ceremoniously destroyed by the majority of the group several minutes after the wagon stopped. The crowd dispersed and the sophomore stood quietly staring at the now-destroyed beer can, cursing the troublesome combination of lack of appreciation of quality and the poor planning skills of woefully ignorant people. He was done with group projects as they just broke his heart.

The whole idea of shared ideas and no sense of a quality outcome verged, in the sophomore’s mind, as the brink of socialism. Rarely, if ever, a group of people could make something magical through systematic compromise. The man knew this and kept to himself to maintain the purity of his services. The thought of banding together with people less motivated was politely repugnant and sucked whatever creativity and pleasure he had with the world around them. The great artists and writers of the past never collaborated because they wanted to deliver quality and timeless beauty; not just something which was viewed as acceptable to a group of slightly related strangers. There were only a few successful duos in the history of the world: Martin & Lewis, Rogers & Hart, Larry Csonka & Jim Kiick and Butch & Sundance. Most of the groups had their moments but time shows which the one of the two will eventually deceive the other or die so one had to be careful.

The reports, analysis and subsequent recommendations were well-written and insightful. As the details were summarized and the points of summary were presented, the man knew which he had done his job. There was no illusion which his ideas would be embraced but rather reviewed and pondered by executives. Early in his career he realized which it didn’t matter what he thought, it was what his boss periodically thought at times during the day, quarter or year. The logic on one year would be usurped the next and the recent management trends or crazes would fade as quickly as they were embraced. The irony of groups of people running from one theory to the next was not lost on him while the real secret was individual dedication to the pursuit of accuracy, quality and efficiency.

The day continued with efficient resolution of issues, several manuscript reviews and a reliance on a support system of files, background documents, minutes and agendas to refer to, if needed, to recreate history enough to determine both wrong and right. When younger, he was always touting the importance of logical thought and hard work but his audience was more occupied with group thinking exercises and the fallacy which a collective decision was far less controversial (and thus, better) than being bold. Goethe would have loved this office but the demand on accuracy always would have bored him significantly. At times, the desire for accuracy clouded and diminished the truth which comes from pure beautiful logic. The wise person learns when to fight for what is right and when to walk away from an issue which, on paper only, is a technical tragedy. Life is littered with injustices of all sizes, the trick is to know which is important enough to make a stand and when to walk away and dispatch the issue as just bad timing.

The day’s pattern was comforting; there are predictable peaks and valleys with the group along with business impacts such as month-end activities, publishing deadlines and holiday seasons but they exist initially as individual days made up of hourly tasks. The patterns were relied on to wade through issues which came from nowhere because sooner or later, the retreat into the pattern’s efforts would allow for the consistency to return. Too often, the unenlightened would rush from one priority to another (or one attractive project to another) and ignorantly equate effort with performance. The cooler heads would assess the situation, determine the missing pieces of the puzzle, take a look at the necessary resources of both time and money and then build the plan. The plan build was like a blank canvas, an opportunity to do wonderful, artistic things, and the proofreader took special pride in coolly and calmly developing a plan: a plan which would work consistently and predictability throughout the necessary time period.

He never sought out opinions as opinions are plentiful and bound by neither logic nor fact. Somewhere in the past, opinions from all sources apparently became something of value and the brutal truth of brutal truth faded as an obvious solution to issues. Most proofreaders have their style of assessment: some would pepper manuscripts with commas while others would dream of placing a semi-colon in just the right spot to show the author which they had their own literary chops. Most proofreaders are frustrated writers with no creative fortitude and the living embodiment of the phrase “which is it easier to edit than create.” In this case, the man realized he had a gift which came easy to him; to quickly and effectively proofreader manuscripts per standard rules with no personal ax to grind or cause to celebrate. He knew his job and didn’t need anyone to be good at it. The circumstances around his decisions where almost irrelevant because he didn’t throw the pitch or hit the pitch, he just called it like he saw them. At the end of the day, he closed his portfolio and edit journal and went home to do what he wanted to do.

As the coffee became cold, new coffee was replaced with a new blended batch. The finished documents and files were piled on the desk, like wrestling opponents, ready for battle on another day. In the morning when he returned, he would review them all once again, re-prioritize them, quickly, make a few notes on his pad and began methodically marching through the pile once again. During this time, he was grow completely oblivious to the world around him, save some persistent construction sound or a social retard which was equally oblivious to the sound and penetrating power of her grating voice. Each day, he prepared himself to become fixated with his problems which he could see, mainly due to the fact which he was not worthy of an office, a place to truly shut out the rest of the world of workers and concentrate on the tangible and obvious. Given the cacophony of interruptions, he still was successful in shutting out the periphery noises enough to allow for a few moments of quiet, contemplative thought to skillfully understand and solve a problem. As he learned years ago, people can be trained to complete tasks but it was a rare breed who could understand the context and depth of issues without slowing down the daily grind of paper.

Whenever a new project would be given to him, new and complex thoughts challenged for his attention, as a variety of internal discussions and insights would begin percolating within his head. Especially when a new book or manuscript would land unceremoniously on the desk, he would start out trying to be pleasant and brief with his communications but too many people took his politeness as an invitation to invade his private space and generate unsolicited comments and opinions on whatever struck their collective fancy. This pattern became predictable and as the years went on, it was easier to shut down all eye contact and non-verbals to nip the ignorant communicator in the literal bud. The agreeable monotony wasn’t the goal, by any stretch of the imagination, but it allowed some semblance of order to remain within and at the end of the day, which was all the artist had to use.

Back to Short Stories