Things were changing around the office. We had to adapt, they said, to high velocity change in the marketplace. Rapid innovation was necessary. Customer experience paramount. Engaged employees a must. All of us a part of something, all of us human beings.
They brought in a ping pong table. Put craft beer on tap. Bought a dog, Rudy, an Australian Golden Labradoodle, a veritable melting pot of breeds, who pranced around spreading love and self-care.
We had yoga classes at lunch, happy hours at four. We could work from home whenever we wanted. In-person meetings, even email, went by the wayside — everything could be done via Slack, WebX, WhatsApp. No more eight-person conference calls, no more wading through the crackling black emptiness, hesitating, deciding when to risk speech.
So what did we need the actual conference rooms for? Or the room rooms? Extra space, a waste of energy, efficiency — especially now, in 2019, with sea-levels rising. We, the people, were all that mattered anyhow. In due time, we leased most of the office back to the building, sought new tenants.
It was an odd thing, all these changes. At one point we looked around at each other and wondered, in some still small voice, if we were even working anymore.
Some of us said: I’m working harder than ever before. I never know when I’m not working.
Others of us said: But I never know when I’m actually working either. The TV’s always on. I’m working out in the middle of the day. And the TV’s on!
Some of us said: I’m in total alignment with our core values of process automation, optimization, and a focus on human-centric experiences over mere demographics or data sets.
Still others of us said: They’re optimizing us out of existence, so why am I so stressed out?
And: It’s a hustle, it’s a grind. I haven’t had actual sex in months.
All of us, meanwhile, binge-watched reality television and went to spin classes and took photos of our desserts because we preached, ironically or not, self-care and community, those figurative water-cooler chats of yesteryear.
You know, decency, democracy, that kind of thing.
All this time, I didn’t get involved. I was in communications, after all; it was in my nature to understand both sides, and to also write — albeit in punchier language — what was sent or said or written to me to write.
The only thing I really wanted to know was what others of us meant when they said “actual sex.” Because I honestly didn’t know. And I thought, well, if I don’t know what it means to have “actual sex” then perhaps I’ve never actually had sex at all. And if I haven’t had sex, then have I even really lived?
Lying in bed with my wife at night as she slept with her rose-colored sleep mask over her eyes, her silicon gel earplugs in her ears, and our essential oils diffuser on the nightstand, I couldn’t bring myself to ask her, like I couldn’t bring myself to ask the others. And the longer I couldn’t ask, the more I truly believed I didn’t know.
Instead, I replayed my first time again and again. Rosie Pfefferman and I were in the backseat of my car. We were sixteen years old. She had this beautiful mole smack dab in the center of the pasture that was her right cheek. I loved her, I was afraid of her, she sang in madrigals, I was fully Jewish, but I sang in madrigals too, wanting to understand, or something. She’d asked, on top of my twiggy thighs that night, “Are we doing this?” And I asked: “What?” And she said: “You know.” And I said: “You mean.” And she said: “Yeah.” And I said: “Really?”
And then I think we had sex, though now I can’t exactly be sure.
And then one day, a message from the firm leaders came through on the general Slack channel. It was as short as a Tweet — by then, all our communications were.
Unlimited vacation policy now is now in effect. Because if we trust each other, our employees will trust us. This is true #Freedom
I brought it to my wife that night like a ritual offering. She was in the process of finishing her dissertation — it’d been more than two years now, after the initial four, and then the one, and then another one, but no one seemed to be in the mood to rush. Things in her field kept changing, anyway. Even the name of the field itself was changing. Was it a “studies” ? Or a “department”? Everything was too interconnected, the same, yet different, like everything.
“Finally,” she said, washing her face with an acne scrub. I sat on the toilet beside her, watching her in the mirror while I filed down my toenails. Yesterday’s Fresh Air played from her phone. “We can take a proper vacation.”
“It seems too good to be true,” I replied. I thought about what some of us said, and what some others of us said. Then, as is my wont, I summarized it. “I can’t tell if I’ve been working non-stop. Or if I’ve been on vacation this whole time.”
“No,” she said. “That’s what they want you to think. You’ve been working this whole time, all right. It’s just been so mixed up with traditional leisure activity that you can no longer tell. So you’re tempted to think it’s vacation when in reality they’re exerting more and more control over your life. It’s just outside of the customary node of the workplace. Have you even read Deleuze?”
I shook my head. Where was one to find the time? Aimlessly flushing, I considered her proposal. I had always wanted to take that road trip across America. Like Jack Kerouac, who my wife and I hated, but also secretly admired.
“Ok,” I said. “Let’s take ‘em up on it.”
I wrote back to the powers that be on Slack, limiting my response to 140 characters or so.
That sounds amazing, thank you! I’ll be taking off then. Attached please find a brief overview of my current projects. #YOLO
The next morning, we began packing the car. When I didn’t get a response, we decided to wait one more day before leaving — after all, what was the harm in postponing an unlimited vacation for one more day? Whenever it started it would start, then go on forever, until it stopped. Finally, around midnight the next night, I got a text message from my boss.
“Great to hear about your vacation!” he wrote. I waited. Would there be more? I asked my wife, who was beside me scrolling through an academic paper on her iPad, listening to some new chill-wave band, what I should write back. She had cool cucumbers over her eyes. I didn’t know how she could read that way.
“Whatever you think’s best,” she said.
I turned on CNN. I began brushing my teeth. Sensodyne. With the other hand, I texted: “Thank you! You know, YOLO…Are you ok with my overview of projects?”
Ping. A text came back a minute later.
“It’s great!” he wrote. “I’m so happy for you.”
I stared at the phone, then at myself staring at the phone in my bathroom mirror, the TV blaring over my shoulder, toothbrush still wet in one hand. I was perplexed. I couldn’t read the tone of the text. But it sounded, I was pretty sure, as if he were being somewhat passive aggressive. Maybe he didn’t actually want me to take vacation after all. I talked it over with my wife as white minty foam slid down my chin. Should I write back or not? If I don’t write back, then I might be in trouble, especially if he’s being passive aggressive. If I do write back, maybe he’ll rescind the offer of vacation, or continue being passive aggressive, or, if it went there, call me out for calling him out for being passive aggressive. I just really didn’t want to make it awkward.
My wife — the ostensible love of my life — took a deep breath. The cucumbers gently quaked. I couldn’t tell if she’d heard me or not.
I decided to call up a friend from work and ask her opinion. She was one of those people who thought she was working all the time, all the time. A real overachiever. She’d gone to Harvard, I think. I told her the situation as I flossed.
“I wouldn’t go,” she said, mid-chew.
“Why?” I asked.
“It seems like if you go, you might never come back,” she said.
“How do you figure that?”
“Because he doesn’t even seem to care you’re leaving.”
“I thought that was the point.”
“If he doesn’t care if you’re leaving, he won’t care if you’re gone.”
“Maybe he really wants me to turn off. Recharge. Refresh. I was going to do this whole Jack Kerouac thing. Road trip across America. You know?”
“Kerouac? Wasn’t he a vicious alcoholic misogynist?”
I gulped. Swallowed the Listerine I’d swigged. Coughed it up.
“Yeah. But the idea of it — I mean, wasn’t everyone, back then…”
“Whatever,” she said. “I just think that maybe he’s testing you is all.”
I thought about our weekly performance reviews. Our monthly brainstorms. Our biannual nature retreats. Our yearly earnings talks. I looked to my wife. She had deep purple circles under her eyes. Or maybe they were her eyes. I couldn’t tell anymore. Her cheeks were immaculate, shiny, prosperous. She ate a yogurt curled up on the chaise, or maybe it was ice cream, or maybe it was the rug she was curled up on, on the ceiling. We had both been told, separately, that we needed more fiber in our diets.
“What would you do?” I asked my friend, still on the phone. I could hear her typing. A TV blared in the background, somewhere, and somewhere a fire burned.
“You can bet your ass I’m not taking vacation.”
I closed my eyes. Ahhgh. So what would I text back? I could barely think of anything to say to my friend over the phone, who seemed busy, as if she were talking at and/or listening to three other people at once, as if we were on a conference call — were we on a conference call?
With the phone dangling between my ear and raised shoulder, I stared out onto my now empty bedroom, tongue scraper in hand, and suddenly missed Rudy, wondered what had happened to him. Was he in the supply closet surviving on local gluten-free craft beer? Sleeping under the ping pong table? On a sweaty yoga mat? Or had he starved to death? Then again, was
he even real? Was he an “actual dog”?
Then as if from far away, I heard a voice on the other line. It was asking, “What do you mean? Bill? Billy? William? Dick? Robert? Bobby? Bob? Bob? Bob? Bob? Bob?…”
Joe Eichner is a writer from Chicago.