Who among us hasn’t come home from a tough day, gone down into the basement and pointed the cathode ray gun right between the eyes, hoping to blow his brains out with a few episodes of ER? And in the course of this therapy, would it be surprising if one were to look at the figures on the screen scurrying to and fro in their earnest, sometimes frantic, attempts to save lives and warm hearts, and wonder, “What have I done with my life?”
No, the surprising thing would be if that thought never crossed your mind.
Over the nearly two months that I have been writing this blog, I have gone to some lengths to avoid being specific about my line of work. Partially, that’s because work is work—my experience of it is probably much like yours in many ways and totally different in many others. Partially, it is because, like the man says, “some mystery becomes the proud.” When I was younger and still had the stomach for difficult little novels from the dark recesses of European civilization (to this day, Prague seems less like a city to me and more like a corner of my mind, next to the hypothalamus, where melancholy is stored), I used to feel a kind of thrill whenever I came across that convention of replacing a name with just the initial cap and a line, as in, “ This is the story of Dr. K_______ from the provincial town of S______.” You know? That’s cool, right? Like, who could that be? If the author is that concerned with keeping these things obscure, we must be on the verge of great secrets and great scandal.
I also loved the long line on the page. It looked so wrong, it made me think, “Wow, if you’re a writer, you can basically do anything.”
So there’s that.
But there’s another, more practical reason for holding back on the workplace details: I find that I’ve become attached to my job. Now, I can hear my boss saying, “We don’t need people who need their jobs. We don’t need people who are merely comfortable. We need challenge and change. We need people who don’t know any better. We need people who don’t know what can’t be done.” So let me hasten to add that I am extremely uncomfortable in my job. In fact, some days I am so challenged by it, so unsure as to what can and can’t be done, so full to the brim with the vast opportunities for growth afforded me by my shortcomings that I can hardly get out of bed.
That, my friends, is not just a job, it is a whole world unto itself, located just south of Prague. I don’t want to lose it and I certainly don’t want to have it taken away all of a sudden, so it probably makes sense to use some discretion and at least try to follow the confidentiality and non-disclosure guidelines contained in the HR policies handbook, which is, as we say in my business, top of mind with me right now since it is undergoing a small management-requested rewrite by my hand. All that “cause for dismissal” and “action up to and including termination” and “conditions of severance.” If ER makes one feel it’s a miracle to be alive, the HR manual makes continued employment seem every bit as tentative.
As you know, this blog is about ER, but other subjects pop up here and there, apropos d’ER, and when those subjects concern work, I end up in the delicate situation of the King’s playwright: I know what I want to say, I know what I ought to say and I search for a set of words that will do both jobs.
Of course, I’m overly concerned about this. Any reasonable, thoughtful client or coworker who happened upon this blog would immediately see whatever bitching and moaning might be contained herein as healthy, harmless venting. And, now that I come to think of it, all my clients and coworkers are reasonable and thoughtful. How boring is that? In fact, just to spice up the narrative, I may have to invent some ridiculous, blinkered, small-minded characters as I go along, and hope that it isn’t confusing to anyone who insists on seeing himself or herself in the gross outward characteristics of these fictitious creations.
As I write this, I am in an airplane making a controlled descent into the provincial city of P_____, a beautiful gem in the ______ of the _______. Whenever Mark Greene gets into an aircraft, someone, somewhere is in immediate danger of losing their grip on the planet and Mark has, within him, the collection of knowledge, skill and judgment to reattach the soul to the body, however impermanently. I am coming back from dealing with the bunny rabbit crisis and, I’m happy to say, we’ve achieved agreeance. My argument centered around seeing the rabbit’s movement from left to right as less of an errand—“I’m off to get something, I’ll be right back”—and more of a journey—“Here I go to the next stage, leaving all this behind.” In the end, there was a moment where you could practically hear it click with the client and he said, “Oh, I see what you mean. I never looked at it that way.”
We talked a little about the way he had looked at it and the way we’re looking at it now and the differences between them. We talked a little about how funny it is, the way people can have different takes on things and how easy it is to misunderstand one another, especially when most of the time you’re not really listening to what the other person is saying. Except, I added that last part.
So, victory. But it’s the Prague in me that makes me ask, “What if I hadn’t fought for this?” Yes, it’s important to fight for the things you care about. But it’s also important to be smart in choosing what you care about.
Anyway, I could go on about the frustrations of my chosen industry—the inefficiencies, the obstacles, the sheer mind-boggling futility of it all. But instead, let me just say something about airport security.
Before I could go up and fight for the bunny, and again before I could come back home, my government had me go through a series of security checks run by an army of white shirts—and some were jovial and some were rude and some were so entirely bored with what they were doing that you couldn’t help but wonder what this show was all about. The young woman who scanned my bags had reached a level of proficiency where she no longer needs to consult the screen in front of her. But at the same time, the guy next to me in line who mistakenly sent his boarding pass through the x-ray was automatically pulled aside for a physical search—because that’s how the terrorists get us. They send their boarding passes in ahead to clear a path.
Well, here’s the news. The terrorists already got us. And now we’re getting ourselves. The money spent on this army of inconvenience and incivility—if it worked, who would begrudge one penny of it, but do you really think we’re safer now? What if you spent this money on schools? Or energy independence? Or gift baskets for Islamic religious leaders along with an invitation to come and learn what it means to be American? Or what it used to mean.
As I was standing there, holding my bag and my computer, trying to get my shoes on and watching all the other folks around me doing the same—some crouching, some kneeling, some hopping up and down on one foot—I had a flashback to this episode of the Dick Van Dyke show in which Buddy gets a friend to prank-call Rob (played by Mr. Van Dyke), saying that he is a telephone repairman working on Rob’s line. He then, step by step, gets Rob to do more and more ridiculous things with the phone, until finally he tells Rob to put the phone in a paper bag, go out in front of his house and scream like a chicken.
“Are you gonna do it?” Buddy’s friend asks.
“No,” Rob says indignantly.
“Why not? I thought a jerk like you would do anything?”
As the mastermind of this practical joke, Buddy fears and anticipates reprisal from Rob. Now, at the time, I thought Rob Petrie/Dick Van Dyke was just everything a man should be—smart, tall, attractive, funny and, of course, those great skinny suits—and so, his way of getting even, which was basically to do nothing, to sit back and let Buddy sort himself out, left a strong impression on me. But I have to say, when I look at the jokers in charge today, I suspect we might need to employ more active forms of discouragement.
All in all, the trip was a mixed bag and by the time we touched down I was feeling pretty low. But there, just the other side of security, was my wife, a smile on her face, a baby in her belly, and together we rushed home and into the company of our busy friends.
These days, with the Season 8 DVD release inexplicably pushed back to January of next year, we are rewatching Season 6 and I have to admit that there’s this moment, just before I press play, where I find myself wondering if this will work, if the magic can persist. Then the music comes up and I’m back in and there’s always something there, some kind of message or moment or feeling waiting there for me.
Last night, it came 35 minutes in, in the parting speech of an incredibly minor character, a young wannabe painter who had sought treatment after eating his art supplies. Lucy Knight has tried to get him into a treatment program but Carol took the last spot for a pregnant heroin-using mother who lost her job and, well, at this point the artist has heard enough. Lucy wants him to come in to an outpatient thing. “You need help,” she says. He disagrees, kind of convincingly:
“I need a real job. I watched you here today, running around. You, the doctors, the cops, the paramedics. Everybody’s doing something important, helping people, saving lives, and I’m in here for eating paint. It’s pathetic.”
It’s also really well said.