Workshop


by John Bruce

"Let's share a moment of silent meditation," said T. Robert Lund. "Let's reflect on what we've been talking about and how we can find ways to do a better job for the company." In a past era, of course, the moment of silent meditation would have been unabashed prayer, but in these advanced times, prayer would have been, if not against the law, at least a monstrous faux pas. Nevertheless, of the hundred or so people seated in the hotel meeting room, most bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and folded their hands like docile children in Sunday school.

Lund was the facilitator for a corporate leadership and team-building workshop, one of those hybrids of pep rally, revival meeting, multi-level marketing pitch, and navel-gazing session. The people there were stuck in the hotel for three days (including a Saturday and Sunday, for which they weren't being paid), in the meeting room for 14 hours a day. The bosses were someplace else, playing golf. Lund and his wife didn't even work for the company; they did this kind of thing on contract. "OK, is everyone refreshed now?" he asked. "Let's move on. We're going to talk about thinking outside the box."

Lund had drawn on them a set of dots in a pattern, three across and three high. "Your job," Lund continued to the audience, "is to connect all nine of the dots with four straight lines, without taking the marker off the paper."

The whole nine-dots thinking outside the box chestnut was pretty familiar by this time. The workers who'd been gathered in the room nevertheless understood intuitively that nobody was supposed to volunteer to solve the puzzle if they knew the answer. They understood the point of the exercise was to let Lund and his wife tell everyone they were stupid. A few people in the back of the room groaned.

At least, Jim Burke, who was sitting in the back, thought he heard groans, but on reflection, only a very brave few would do such a thing in such a context. Not all the bosses, after all, were necessarily playing golf, and there was always the chance that Lund would give a report on anyone with a particularly bad attitude. Everyone had nametags so he'd know who they were. Maybe Jim just wanted to hear groans, or maybe he simply heard an involuntary groan coming from his own throat.

Lund, of course, found a yokel in the audience who'd never heard of the nine dots routine and got him up to the front of the room. The guy gawked and dithered and fiddled with his marker and finally tried to draw some lines connecting the dots, but of course he didn't have a clue. Finally Lund, with a flourish, showed him how it was done, to desultory applause from some of the workers in the room, who figured clapping couldn't hurt.

Something started to bother Jim Burke. "Are there any questions?" Lund asked from the front of the room.

Jim decided he had one. He'd taken a quick look around and established that there were at least no bosses he recognized there. Just to be safe, he put his name tag in his pocket, though he was too far back in the room for someone up front to read it. "I'm just wondering about one thing," he said.

"Shoot!" said T. Robert Lund.

Jim pulled the trigger. "This whole nine dots puzzle is saying something pretty clearly to me. The company is pretty specific about how we do our work. We have to do it at a particular time, and in a particular place. A lot of people have to do things using the computer systems that company programmers design for us, and there's no way to avoid doing things in one particular way on the computer. That's part of the point. There are managers and supervisors who make sure we do things in the way the company expects. Isn't that right?"

"Well, I guess so," said Lund, not sure where this was leading.

"But what you're saying is that this enormous, expensive structure of policies and computer systems and supervisors is just kind of a puzzle, a set of nine dots. The reason we can't get our jobs done, the reason we don't get raises or promotions, is because these structures are some kind of a puzzle, and we have to figure out a secret way to work it in order to succeed. The company doesn't mean what it says it wants us to do, and we have to figure out what it really means. Isn't that what you're saying?"

"Well, no, of course not. . ." said Lund.

The workers in the room were starting to get restless. Few, if any, had actually groaned when Lund started talking about the nine dots and thinking outside the box, but they began to grumble actively at Jim Burke's questions. "Let's move on," one or two said.

"Yeah, let's move on. This is pointless." Some of the people in the front of the room turned around and fixed Jim with angry stares. They'd been playing pointless games for years and weren't about to change any part of the sweet deal they had.

In fact, Jim was taking a bigger risk than someone might have thought. He'd hidden his name tag when he asked his questions, but Lund could easily have recognized him without it. Lund was by no means a stranger, though Jim was by then pretty sure Lund had forgotten who he was. He and Lund went back a long way. At one point, in fact, they'd been pretty close. That was decades earlier, when they were both in school and working summers at a boys' camp called Camp Fairweather, in another part of the country.

Lund back then was still Bobby Lund. He came from South Carolina. He was the camp's electronics, computer, and audio-visual wizard, which meant he didn't actually work with the kids. Jim ran the nature hut, but because the camp stressed sailing, the nature lore program wasn't big. It meant he and Bobby were both outsiders, and Jim had a fair amount of time to watch Bobby work, which was instructive, because Bobby knew what he was doing.

In fact, Bobby taught Jim a lot. He taught him how to solder. He taught him how to troubleshoot. Jim was young enough to think that, in learning these things from Bobby, he was getting to know Bobby as well, but Camp Fairweather was a workplace like many others, and people there actually revealed little of themselves. The head counselor, in fact, let it be known that for nine months of the year, he was a sociology professor at a nearby state university. What he never told anyone was that he'd also been a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton. Jim only discovered it years later, in a news story that mentioned the man's name in passing. He did some checking, and it was in fact the head counselor he'd thought he'd known well at Camp Fairweather. The same applied to Bobby. Jim assumed Bobby was studying to be some sort of programmer or electronics technician when he wasn't at the camp. He knew nothing about Bobby's opera career—but that is how work can be. People appear to reveal something about themselves to co-workers, but it's often just a smokescreen.

The only reason Jim discovered anything about Bobby's opera career, in fact, was years later, when he started going to a church in Los Angeles, across the country from Camp Fairweather. He'd forgotten Bobby, of course; there'd been a great deal in between. But a frequent soloist in the church choir was identified week after week in the order of service as "Robert Lund, Tenor", and the name began to sink in. The name "Bobby Lund" began to appear in Jim's thinking at odd times. He searched his memory for where he might have heard the name; then he began to search Lund's face, and after a time, the connections fell together. It was Bobby Lund from Camp Fairweather, with nothing now to link him to soldering or computers.

Finally, Jim went up to Lund one Sunday at the coffee hour after church and introduced himself. Lund acknowledged he'd worked at Camp Fairweather, but Jim was never quite sure if Lund recognized him or remembered him. "Oh, yes, of course," was all he said, in a way that could have been just polite, and he certainly didn't seem comfortable talking about his days in electronics and computers. But the connection with Lund, however tenuous, seemed to make Jim acceptable to the other choir members, and he began talking with them on Sundays. The choir, in a big city with opportunities for music careers, was made up largely of paid members, some of whom aspired to the opera. The first thing he learned was that Lund was no longer Bobby, or even Bob. He was Robert, and if Robert had ever sullied his hands with a soldering iron or computer keyboard, nobody ever made reference to it.

They sang well as far as church choirs went. Whether they'd make it in opera was a different question, and even Jim, who wasn't especially musical, suspected that Robert often shouted rather than sang, and when he sang, he was flat. He gradually found that Robert was living with Maureen Singleton, the choir's lead soprano, who seemed to have somewhat more talent—all of them, notwithstanding, were in their mid-thirties, which was late to be discovered. The whole choir seemed to orbit about the binary star of Robert and Maureen, in the apparent hope that if those two succeeded, they might somehow pull the rest along.

Their shared ambitions extended beyond the immediate circle of the choir. The church's head usher thought that perhaps the choir, as a company, could put on a version of Il Trovatore, with a proscenium erected temporarily in the nave. His role would be to conduct; his view of those duties being largely to stand in a place at the center of attention and wave a stick. Although nobody had mentioned the plan to transform the church temporarily into an opera house to anyone among the clergy, wardens, or vestry, there was a great wave of optimism in the choir.

"Everyone! I have the most wonderful news!" announced Zoe Fleming one Sunday during coffee hour. Zoe, Jim had observed, was closer to the binary star at the center than anyone else.

"What?" was the general reaction. This sounded very exciting.

"I lost three pounds last week!" she replied. Zoe was of average build; it was difficult for Jim to see what was exceptional. But naturally everyone in the choir cooed and congratulated Zoe on the news.

Zoe sang in the choir, but in her day job, she worked for a company that restored pipe organs. The company had located a good one, one that had been taken from an old theater and stored in a loft for many decades, but there were no prospects for whom the company could broker and restore it. In fact, a company that restored pipe organs was the sort of enterprise that was perpetually in hard times, and finding a prospect for the organ could well make the difference between Zoe keeping her job or being laid off.

The church, as a matter of fact, had a perfectly good organ, but Zoe began to plant the idea in the mind of the organist that it could find a better one—and one that in the process might improve the organist's own standing with the church and with his peers. "It's such a beautiful piece of workmanship," she told him. "Why not just come out to the loft with me and look at it?" In this gradual way, she brought the organist along to the point where he became enthusiastic about it, too, and she began to tantalize him with the possibility that other prospects might be in a better position to acquire it quickly.

"Why not do something to indicate the church's interest?" she asked him. "Then we might be able to hold it for a while, at least until you can talk to the rector and vestry about it." She gave him a piece of paper to sign, which he gratefully did. As the parish organist, he wasn't authorized to commit the church to anything, but he didn't understand that—he was an organist, not an administrator.

Someone from Zoe's employer quickly called the rector: their view was that a commitment had been made, even if not legally enforceable. There might be an embarrassing public dispute if the matter couldn't be resolved. The rector wanted anything other than embarrassing public disputes, and the vestry met and determined that there might in fact be a way to finance a new organ, even if other parish work might need to be deferred. A restored organ was on the way, and Zoe had a job for another few months.

But a week or so after that, the news was not as good: somehow the rector heard of the plan to install a stage above the sanctuary and made his view on that development unequivocally clear. Il Trovatore would not be produced by the choir, in the church anyhow, and the likelihood of finding another venue was slim.

Then came another piece of news, good and bad: Maureen Singleton actually got a career break. On the other hand, she would need to move to New York to take advantage of it, and there was no way she could take Robert with her. Unlike the roles he aspired to play, Robert was not a passionate man, and Jim could see no indication that the impending change to his domestic arrangements had any effect on him—nor, for that matter, did Maureen seem anything other than happy at the prospect of her move.

He underestimated the subtlety of the divas in the church choir. One Sunday afternoon at a church event, Jim made the mistake of sitting in an empty chair next to Zoe Fleming. As far as Jim knew, Zoe was unattached, and she didn't appear to have been saving the seat anyhow. Her response was to get up immediately and make an ostentatious search for another seat on the other side of the room. And then soon after, Jim realized that Zoe had fully replaced Maureen in the binary alignment at the center of that little society. The two women had passed the baton, so to speak, as smoothly as a pair of relay runners. And in contrast to Maureen, Zoe's ambitions were more achievable and more local. Not long afterward, an engagement ring appeared on her fourth finger.

In the ensuing months, Jim drifted away from that church. Now and then he saw Robert and Zoe Lund in the vestibules of churches and concert halls, passing out flyers or hosting tables where they were doing fundraising for one or another local opera event, but then he lost track of them even in such occasional appearances, and after a while he forgot about Robert Lund just as he'd forgotten about Bobby.

At least, he forgot about him until his company ordered him to report to a suburban Radisson for an unpaid weekend of leadership and teambuilding. There were brochures on the table in the hallway that led to the meeting rooms. Robert Lund was no longer just Robert; he'd become T. Robert Lund. There were portraits of T. Robert and Zoe in the brochures, of course, heavily retouched to make them seem young and dynamic. In the intervening years they'd become experts in employee motivation, and there was no mention of grand opera nor, indeed, of Camp Fairweather. It was clear to Jim that neither had recognized him when he asked his questions in the earlier session. They were too self-absorbed to notice anyone.

The session took a cigarette and bathroom break. It was the middle of Saturday afternoon; Jim reflected that there was still a good 24 hours to go. Standing in the hallway outside the meeting rooms, he looked toward the back door. A company security guard was posted there, ready to take the name and badge number of anyone who tried to leave. The double doors leading to the meeting room were slightly ajar. T.Robert and Zoe were rearranging the easels and other props at the front of the room, getting ready for the next session. That would be the one where people closed their eyes and fell backward, knowing they'd be caught and kept from hitting the floor by groups of their co-workers, a waterless parody of baptism.




BIO: John Bruce's writing has appeared recently, or will appear, in Backhand Stories, Cantaraville, The Cynic Online, Dark Sky Magazine, DOGZPLOT, Eskimo Pie, Hobson's Choice Zine, Holy Cuspidor, The Journal of Truth and Consequence, Literal Translations, Pear Noir!, Press 1, The Scruffy Dog Review, Word Riot, and Written Word. A recent short story has been nominated for the 2008 Pushcart Prize. He has degrees in English from Dartmouth College and the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. His web site is http://mthollywood.blogspot.com .