July 14, 2011

Are we there yet?: The value of timelessness

No one likes to wait, which is probably why everything’s getting faster. But for all the time-saving technologies, we’re still waiting. Just for different things. That’s okay, actually, because there’s value in waiting. You don’t have to use your phone to pass the time.

I think the value of waiting is in its eternity, and I don’t mean that hyperbolically. If the present is the portion of time most like eternity, then how we spend that time is crucial, even preparatory. Blank time forces us to deal with our essential existences, and that can be scary. Some French Irish guy wrote a play about that, but I’m not going to mention it until the end.

Anyone who’s played a video game on any sort of disc has waited. Even this time doesn’t have to be wasted. Once, I was playing Half Life 2 with a friend, and we were waiting for the next stretch of one of the hovercraft levels to load. There was nothing to do but wait. We stared at the word LOADING and watched the ellipsis’s animated stoppage. In an uncharacteristic moment of inspiration, I hacked the blank time.

“Looks like we’ve encountered my old Chinese friend again, Loa Ding.”

Lame? Yes, but that hasn’t stopped me from using it again and again, in every applicable context.

Friend: “Looks like we’ll have to wait fifteen minutes to get a table.”

Me: “I guess we’ve encountered my old Chinese friend again, Loa—“

Friend: “Nathan, this isn’t a video game. And you really shouldn’t make Asian jokes in a P.F. Chang’s.”

In an effort to court the worst parts of waiting, I’ve developed a taste for elevator music, smooth jazz to be specific. There used to be a radio station that broadcast in Chicagoland, 95.5 WNUA. It pioneered the smooth jazz format, creating imitators the nation across. I used to tune in to 95.5 and accompany the blank time of driving with the silky sounds of saxes. Sadly, at 9:55 am on 22 May 2009, the station switched its format and began playing Spanish pop music. I don’t care how many times they play it, Daddy Yankee’s ‘Gasolina’ can’t soothe like a lazily improvised clarinet can.

Now, I like smooth jazz ironically, but smooth jazz is also a warning. Fall under its spell and you will’ve lulled yourself into accepting inactivity. Many people sleep or take drugs to do this, but smooth jazz can do the trick just as well. Subdued inactivity is very nearly lifeless. To enjoy waiting is to be active. To wit, I was just reading a G.K. Chesterton essay the other day called ‘On Running After One’s Hat’. He’s a man who knows how to wait:
Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys' habit in this matter. They also serve who only stand and wait for the two fifteen. Their meditations may be full of rich and fruitful things.
You can be in this same spirit at airports, bus stops and queues of all sorts. Waiting’s only boring if you let it be.

When enjoying blank time in public spaces, you may find yourself laughing, singing or talking to yourself. I was doing the penultilatter walking the south bank of the Thames the other day. (No, I wasn’t dancing: the penultilatter is not a Victorian version of the Robot. I should’ve just said ‘second’ here in reference to singing, but I pride myself on having coined penultilatter and antepenultilatter to describe the next to last and next to next to last in a list. It’s actually wordier and more confusing than just saying ‘second’ or restating the item, singing in this case, but this is my blog. I’m going to use made-up words from time to time.) As I said, I was ‘doing the penultilatter’ on the south bank of the Thames the other day, pleasantly working through the first verse of ‘Jerusalem’ when I saw a round man with an ear piercing. He was wearing a mesh top, carrying a messenger bag and talking to himself. “He’s a crazy,” thought I. Then I realized I was probably freaking people out myself, singing an English national hymn in an American accent and pushing quickly past all other pedestrians on the path. Rather than stop singing, I made a mental note of how extraordinary it is to enjoy blank time. Too few do.

But waiting is not always an event. Sometimes, it’s a season. Time spent in the desert can tax even the most patient and imaginative. At worst, waiting can push people into existential despair as in Waiting for Godot. (I regret that I couldn’t write this post without mentioning it, but it’s got waiting in the title!) As memories fade along with hopes for the future, the present becomes increasingly bleak. It’s hard to hear anything above the sound of your thoughts which are not, at this point, cheering you.

It’s a wonder to discover there are created things outside yourself. Some of these things are visible. Some are invisible. And people kind of fall into both those categories.

So as you wander in the desert or simply wait for your laundry to dry, enjoy. But know yours is not the only story. Compositions have some instruments resting while others play. And even though you may not have the score, you can still enjoy the harmony.

July 01, 2011

A Single's Guide to the Workplace

Couples look to each other for validation. As a single, you validate yourself through your work. And what’s unique about the workplace is that it’s one of the few places you have to interact with others. You probably spend most of your time in agonizing isolation, but you must work for a few reasons.

First, working gives you the opportunity to lord your skills, honed in utter darkness, over your colleagues. This not only assuages your deep insecurities, but will probably get your promoted — which is a great transition to the second reason.

You must make more money to hoard. You and I both know the economic argument for staying single: dating is expensive! But so is living comfortably or, in fact, living at all. Ideally, you’ll reach the point where you have moonshine tastes and a champagne budget, pushing a shopping cart of all your possessions down the street but sitting on assets that put you near the top of the Forbes Rich List.

Finally, we all know the real reason you keep showing up for work. Without work, you’d have no reason to get up in the morning. So here’s how you should spend your time at the office.

1.      Be the most intense commuter. No one works as hard as you do because your workday begins the second you wake up in the morning. And since you’d never tolerate incompetence at work, you can’t abide it in strangers slowing your commute. If you drive, bottle up your road rage and let it explode one day down the line. If you take public transportation, study up on Olympic speed walking techniques, and make sure to stare condescendingly at those insufferable others on the bus or train with you.

2.      Ironically acquiesce to on-site security. These days, most workplaces have some form of security. Most workers would become friendly with these security guards. After all, they’re just doing their jobs, too. But you know that security only distract from your work. Do whatever they say just to get back to working as soon as possible, but do so with an eye roll and a smug smile. Then go home and memorize your company’s security policies so you can throw them in the face of the guards. They’ll like that.

3.      Compete against yourself so no one competes against you. Once you get started on your formal tasks, you might notice there are other people around you. They work with you, unfortunately. Whether it’s blatant or subtle, there’s a competition going on with these people. Everyone is trying to show they’re better than everyone else. Lucky for you, you actually are. Frustrate your co-workers by refusing to play their game, and compete only with yourself. When someone else does well, say nothing. In fact….

4.      Only express positive emotions. Unfortunately, your brain releases chemicals that make you feel things (read: emotions). Get in the practice of only expressing the positive ones. You will rarely feel positive emotions. You’ll most often feel stressed, angry at yourself for your own perceived incompetence and entirely sick of everyone around you. Internalize all of it. The only way to get ahead is by pretending everything’s okay. This will also freak everyone out. They’ll think, “How’s he doing that? I’ve never seen him stressed or angry!” That’s because those emotions don’t contribute to productivity. It’s either robotic apathy or mild pleasantries for you.

5.      Time your trips to the bathroom well. Most people go to the bathroom to avoid getting assigned unfavorable tasks. You go to avoid breaking down in front of everyone. Sometimes your emotions will get the better of you, but you can’t let anyone in the office know that. Just check to make sure your supervisor isn’t in the stall next to you before you start weeping.

6.      Always look focused. Even if you’re done with your work and you’re killing time — after all, you’ve just a shopping cart to go home to — let no one know. Read the news or do someone else’s work, but do not have any fun. Fun is unproductive.

7.      Feign weekend and leisure activity. By working hard and only displaying positive emotions, you may fool your co-workers into thinking you’re not dead inside. They might ask you what you’ve done the night before or how your weekend was. Since you obviously did nothing, make stuff up. Just don’t go too wild. People will think you’re mocking them if you say you went spelunking in Switzerland over the weekend. Say you went to a national park or something. People love that crap.

8.      Get too much sleep. Pass the time between working hours by sleeping, a lot. Don’t let anyone disturb your slumber, either. You need your rest to get up for work the next day and do it all over again, and again, until you grow old together, er, alone and die. Retirees are quitters after all.