“Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.” -David Graeber
When I was a kid I loved professional wrestling, or rasslin’, as it was lazily pronounced in rural Indiana and a lot other working and lower-middle class enclaves. Still, even as naive kids and adolescent country bumpkins most of us were intuitive enough to get that the contests and conflicts were staged. But not everybody was. There were a coupla grandmothers, including my own, who, by the genuine emotions elicited by the drama, sure made it seem like they thought is was real.
Back in those days, before all the tricks and secrets of the rasslin’ trade got exposed, they maintained the illusion of it being a true athletic contests through “kayfabe.” It’s been said the term kayfabe originated as carny slang, a sorta secret language spoken among carnival workers that allowed them to communicate without giving away the tricks and deceptions of their games or their manipulations of their marks. Other folks have argued that maintaining kayfabe in wrestling is akin to maintaining the illusion of films. How like, during the shootout in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, the film isn’t interrupted with a trigger warning that some violence is about to occur, but rest assured, no actors were actually wounded – that it’s all just Hollywood (or in Spaghetti Western fashion, Italian) magic.
Within wrestling circles, maintaining kayfabe meant maintaining the illusion of the drama and contests as real…..that the conflicts and characters were authentic and that the contest was being executed to ensure a settlement to those conflicts. Wrestlers weren’t to speak to or near outsiders about the real workings of the business. In-ring rivals weren’t to be seen commiserating outside the arenas, where they were often friends. The wrestlers and promoters knew that maintaining the illusion was part of their bread and butter so they went to great lengths to preserve the illusion. A common practice was to utter “kayfabe” in the presence of an outside who may have wandered into the dressing room, signaling to everyone to keep talk about business on the low-down and/or don’t break character.
When I graduated from college my first job was in low level administration. My degree was in Safety Management. It was an utterly stupid but practical career choice for me (I finally admitted it to myself near the end of my original stint into university), but that’s another story for another day. But let’s just say, after 4 years of hard earned grades and a degree, I was still quite anxious to prove something of myself. It took several months to land my first “professional” job. For the first time, I wore collard shirts and slacks, not just pants, regular. The pay was fair but nothing glamorous. I just wanted the chance to prove myself and fit in somewhere. To prove that the hard work and effort I’d put into that degree would be transferable and recognized and appreciated somewhere outside the university.
The job pitch was that my boss did a lot of regulatory work for this small company. It was basically a lot of high level administrative work (preparing and managing requests for technical documents). Her department was Regulatory Compliance, which should have encompassed some safety and environmental stuff too, but she wasn’t finding the time to get around to that since she was so bogged down preparing and managing the flow of all the technical documents. So the pitch was, they were gonna hire me to help her out with all that technical/administrative stuff. And the side benefit was, with my degree in safety, I’d be able to pick up some of her other neglected responsibilities too.
I realize now that her boss (the CEO) was probably concerned that if she got ill or went on maturity leave or accepted a job somewhere else, the company would be up Shit’s Creek without somebody else to pick up the ball and that backup was supposed to be me. But my boss was canny enough to understand that as my value to the company would grow, hers might proportionally diminish, which is sorta the opposite of moving forward in a career.
So the weeks and months and years went by and the part of her daily routine that was supposed to become part of mine never came. I’d ask about it, feeling that maybe I was expected to show some initiative. Maybe that’s what she wanted to see. But I was consistently fed the same old line, “I’m too busy today….and maybe even for the rest of the week. We’ll try again when I finally get caught up.”
“Let me know,” I’d replied. But she never let me know. Asking and being politely rejected eventually became embarrassing and crushing to my morale, like a guy continually rejected by the same romantic interest. After a while, you disappointingly accept that she’s not just playing coy or hard to get…..rather, she’s genuinely uninterested.
Within a coupla years or so, I had most of the safety stuff in order. The company was small, roughly 100 total employees and, at 40 hours a week, week after week, that was a good amount of time to get a lot done. So after things were in place and set into motion, they ran pretty smoothly on their own. After that, I had lots of free time to waste, which I detested. I mean, free time’s cool, but I can never stop imagining when I’ve got free time but nothing to do with that time what else I could be doing: writing, running, fishing, going to a drive-in movie, etc. But I was a prisoner to that taupe cubicle, in the days before the internet. A prison to my own inability to manufacture suitably interesting bullshit to occupy myself with. It was like being trapped in an utterly useless and pointless conversation….a conversation of white noise……people talking just to be doing something instead of nothing……while communicated nothing of substance. It was the same in that cubicle, except it was mostly quiet within it’s puffy confines. Puffy and padded not unlike a mauve nuthouse cell – though ostensibly there to dampen noise and nicely handle the pushpins that kept schedules and other nonsense tacked there.
I sensed too (rightly or wrongly), that there was some politics in place outside my department. I was “office”, not “on the floor”. And to go down on the floor and help out where most of the real work was being done was a smoke signal that most of my job was bullshit. I wasn’t above their labor. In fact, I frequently envied it. There were times when I wanted it and even stepped in to help shove shit around. But I felt I understood an unspoken rule of us versus them, so I didn’t step in very much. Didn’t wanna break office kayfabe.
From time to time, the CEO would talk to my boss about my and her progress. She’d always say, “We’ll be getting there but right now I’m too busy.” She could easily point to her 9 and 10 hour days and popping into the office on weekends as affirmation of being overwhelmed. And at the end of the year, she seemed satisfied with what I had and hadn’t done. But her technical work never came my way. I questioned sometimes if I had been deemed to stupid for it. I questioned if I really belonged there. Why were they complacent with me just sitting there twiddling my thumbs day after day while there were things to be done? Was this their way of silently and politely shunning me? Did I lack the common sense to get the message as loud and clear as they were so cordially trying to make it? I began to dread it all. The sickness would infect me on Sunday morning, growing like a fever and raging through my system all week. I’d drink on Fridays and Saturday, which would temporarily allay the discomfort. But under the intoxication, I always knew it was there, awaiting its rebirth of dread on Sunday….cursed Sunday. And I learned that the alcohol in whiskey and beer and vodka didn’t have the same effect on anxiety and dread that alcohol has on bacteria. I doesn’t kill, it only conceals.
But now I think I get it. What we were doing….me, my boss and the CEO…..was maintaining our own version of kayfabe. The CEO would come around and ask about things and my boss would say she was too busy to get me up to speed. And my role in the kayfabe was to not contradict. Don’t burst the illusion. From her perspective, I was being paid to do little, with little expectation or pressure to do any more. So just sit back and relax and enjoy it. And what could her boss do? Threaten her or call her on her bullshit? What if she said “fuck it all” and left? No. He couldn’t. He played along with her bullshit……that was his role in maintaining our kayfabe. Meetings and pencil pushing and paper shuffling and all that meaningless drudgery – just the mimicry of actual labor that Ox Baker’s exaggerated flailing and expressions of torment given from Jack Brisco’s figure four leglock was. The CEO was my grandmother who suspended her disbelief because she desired the escape and entertainment. She “believed”, I imagine, because she wanted to. She wanted that excitement and drama. Perhaps it entertained her as no soap opera or the The Harlequin Romance novels she kept in her bedroom could, so why not let it, even with the expense of its accepted absurdity? We desire engagement. Relief from the real world where husbands die and you’re a single mother in the 60’s with no education and three children. Or another grandma who’d been left alone after a drunkard, abusive husband had passed years before.
I hung onto that job for 4 years full time. Then I decided to quit. By then they’d hired a lady full time to relieve my boss of the technical stuff that I musta been too stupid to handle. When I gave my notice, they asked me to hang around, saying they’d hire somebody else to do the safety stuff and I could stick around and get paid to help get him get on board while I went back to school for fine art. So I did. Where else was I gonna make that kinda money while I was spending my mornings drawing? I did that for another year until I severed all ties with the madness.
You see, not only did they hire somebody to replace the safety position (which could have run pretty effectively on its own, with just a tiny amount of administration), they hired a lady, college degreed and having experience in a big food company as well, to pick up the administrative stuff that never came my way. As a solution, they effectively doubled the bureaucracy. In that year of my administrative and fine arts limbo, I saw the same thing happen with that poor soul, sitting in her cubicle begging for table scraps from a boss that didn’t wanna jeopardize her all-star position. After months of the bullshit, this rookie started calling off kinda regular and I thought that was a shame, knowing her excuses were mostly bullshit too. I hate to see somebody compromise their integrity with lies. But maybe it wasn’t bullshit. People don’t deserve to get played like that, even when they’re getting a paycheck for mostly doing nothing but playing some bullshit game.
I’ve since moved on to a profession and job that actually produces things. But in this current line of work, we get bounced around through acquisitions and downsizing with incentives to leave, which forces you into working elsewhere when you accept the incentive. Organizations are much like relationships, good and bad in different ways. But overall, all things considered, you can generally rate the quality of one as more of less better than another. Sometimes the difference is significant, other times, not so much.
I’ve worked in some organizations that are pretty well organized and others that are utter shit shows. Imagine it being the difference between doing your work around and over a few turds versus a two ton pile of shit in the middle of your work space. Well, the upside to all that useless work and bureaucracy that is the metaphorical shit, the layers of bloated bureaucracy that hinders the qualify and efficiency of production, there’s at least plenty of layers in the bureaucracy for everybody to point their finger at as the fault of shoddy production. Authority and responsibility get diffused, so nobody’s really to blame. At the lowest level there’s all sorts of layers of supervisory and lower to middle management to blame. And so long as everybody’s kayfabing the two tons of shit in the middle of the room, it’s okay. That’s the rules of the game and so long as you play along. You get to collect that paycheck, not matter the quality or quantity of the work.
Now that’s not to say all management or administration is useless. There’s been instances of downsizing when a manager retires and nobody steps up to fill her shoes. So what were once her decisions to make – decisions about productivity and quality – get loosely and ubiquitously divided among those who remain….those who already got enough shit to do due to downsizing. So nobody takes ownership. And why should they? More responsibility for no more pay? And that’s when the few turds start to pile up with nobody addressing the ever growing shit pile in the middle of the room.
And a lot of this is the stuff of career, I imagine. Ya quit one bureaucratic nightmare for another that just gives you more money. And when ya interview, it ain’t so much your skills in …….whatever……you’re being measured on, but your skill at maintaining kayfabe.
“Tell me about your current position as Transportation Manager and Senior Logistics Technician,” the interview asks.
The truth: I drive trucks.
What’s spoken: the poetry of the cubicle: administrative pablum.
“So why are you interviewing for Senior Administrative Transportation Manager with us?”
Here’s the administrative kayfabe translated:
“I wanna do bullshit to get paid more for the bullshit I do now.”
“You seem experienced enough to know the bullshit you’ll be getting into with this promotion. And you actually want that?”
“You’re not going to upset the apple cart? My kids’ college educations could be riding on this. Don’t fuck it up for me.”
Tacitly acknowledging the game they’re both playing, he’s hired, as thus begins a glorious career in Logistics or whatever the fuck else. A career of pretending in real life that you’re something other than the truth…..like Abdullah the Butcher really being just Larry Shreve. This current job of mine’s pretty stressful but I guess I oughta be thankful that it at least allows me to be me.