A Sharper Pencil

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The traditional definition of a pencil pusher is that of one who lives a rather monotonous and routine-oriented existence that seems devoid of all fun and spontaneity.  We don’t like being around pencil pushers presumably because the connotations of normalcy are supposed to be derelict in a society that values adventure.  Pencil pushers seem to many to be rather sad, lonely creatures content with an existence that lacks the drama that so many of us find intriguing yet somehow manage to loathe at the same time.  There are some times in life where you pick your surroundings and there are so many more where we don’t have a choice.  When we pick a major in college we likely give little thought or consideration to the environment we’ll be working in rather we focus on a romanticized vision of the vainglorious job that awaits us at the end of the next vista.  Rarely are we keen enough to realize that vistas appear at the end of a trying journey or on the tail end of some difficult struggle.  Nothing in life is so magnificent that it makes you forget the road you have to travel to get there.  Even those who have climbed Mt. Everest had to worry about climbing down.

I raise questions regarding struggles and journeys not merely to depress the reader though that is no doubt a benefit but to point out the fact that none of us knows what we’re getting into.  We make choices.  We use logic, feelings and judgment.  None of that matters if you find yourself in the middle of a perilous situation.  When we are in over our head there is always some magnificent coward who can always be relied on to take the cheap shot and point the difficulties of our situation.  Such people can’t be avoided and there is very little we can do other than to take our punishment.  When hours of desolation fall upon us we can either go with the doomsayer or we can forge on ahead knowing full well that no one remembers the fellow who stood back at the time of risk and said: “I told you so.”  The doomsayer is so often a passive character, one who merely preys on the mistakes of others to make their own life seem less monotonous, but it is rare indeed when once comes across a contrarian with a plan.  Such people should be noted for they will fail in the end.  If by some bizarre act of fate such a person finds success one would be well advised to make nice with this person because everyone always needs someone who understands the problem so that they can clean up the mess.

Were you to take a gander into my office you would likely think me a messy person or someone who is busy with lots of messy projects.  I am not in such a position to say this would be an incorrect observation but it is not at all how I would describe it.  It’s all organized chaos in my view.  I don’t see myself as a disorganized person and it would be difficult to find someone who knows me who would describe me as disorganized.  Everything makes sense in my head.  The papers on my desk are stacked a certain way for a certain reason.  I have pens scattered around my office, but my pencils have been placed strategically with the kind of precision normally reserved for a fine craftsman.  You see once you have had a bad experience with something you make damn sure it doesn’t happen again.  The problem is that it is a rarity for one to get hit with an attack they were expecting.  The reason we find ourselves in so many unpredictable situations is because we are naturally cautious and because we are far too busy thinking of what might be or what could have been we often lose sight of what’s happening right in front of us.

The only time we are awake to what is going on is when we perceive it to be going wrong.  We are not the optimists we pretend to be.  We place our faith in people, groups, organizations and institutions that are undeserving of our trust.  Indeed we act surprised when things break against us despite the rational part of our being that is left wondering what wondering what we will do should things go wrong.  We pay no heed to this voice because we think of it as a situation in which something could go wrong instead of a situation where something probably will go wrong.  The only time we make seemingly brilliant decisions is when we are completely prepared for what’s coming.  This is why teachers beat you to death with material before a final and have you study certain areas more than others.  You need to be prepared for what is going to happen not react to what has happened in the past.  Yet this is how our hiring process works.  We hire people based on what they’ve done not based on what they’re capable of doing.  It makes sense if you don’t think about it too hard.

We value certainty above potential and that’s fine if certainty is what you are really looking for but most companies are looking for potential and thus hire the wrong person for the job.  If our hiring system were based on potential there would be no need for all the background checks, multiple interviews, and massive training programs that companies invest heavily in because development comes over time.  If you’re looking for someone to help you solve problems it would be beneficial not to send them through the same program that brought about the problem in the first place.  Bearing all that in mind I ask you to consider the story of my continued relationship with Manic Mark, the pencil thrower.  It may seem like sheer lunacy that I followed him en route to his next adventure but bear in mind the words I said earlier: everyone needs someone who understands the problem so that they can clean up the mess.  Anyone who believes that Mark would not leave a trail behind so wretched that it would require someone methodical like myself and someone well versed in what makes a man like Mark tick simply hasn’t been paying attention.

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Following a maniacal pencil thrower with anger management issues may seem like a bad idea in the abstract but to a writer who’s not a big fan of monotony and is always looking for the interesting and not merely the stable this seemed like a wonderful opportunity.  Keep in mind that I hadn’t run into any problems with Mark.  Mark had always been a very kind, fun, and witty man when I was around him.  In many respects I didn’t get what all the fuss was about then again all I needed to do was look around at the tattered remains of the Eagles and Penways that had since been swept away to see what he was capable of.  The way I saw it everyone else seemed to be causing problems for him and he was merely reacting to their issues.  It was his co-workers who were corrupting him with their problems and their uses that so polluted him and led him to madness.

It didn’t dawn on me until much later that my environment was quickly descending into the jungle from Heart of Darkness and I myself was quickly shrinking into the role of a follower of Colonel Kurtz.

“How do you like my ivory?” I ask now with the full benefit of hindsight.  If I was a follower of the Colonel though then who in the world was Marlowe?  We hadn’t been introduced to the players in the company at this point in time so I had no way of knowing, but to this day I still have my doubts as to who the real Marlowe was in my story: was it a man or an institution?

I was quite surprised at how well the company adjusted to his attitudes.  They didn’t scorn him or his ideas, at least at first.  He was given an office on the second floor.  It was the second from the front.  He only passed one person – the receptionist – on his way to and from work.  No one screwed with the receptionist she was a dicey woman.  She was that woman who everyone talked about during breaks but never mentioned by name for fear of reprecussions which could come in virtually any form.  Her first son had committed suicide using the most ghastly method: slitting his wrists with razors.  I remembered reading about the low fatality rate in some nationally syndicated magazine when a co-worker brought it up with me.

“Don’t talk about shaving,” he told me.  “The very thought will unleash a torrent of emotions that no man wants to be on the other end of.”  She was divorced.  Her first husband left her after the suicide.  Apparently it was too much for them to take together, but why they would think they would fare better on their own is anybody’s guess.  I took pains to avoid her at all costs.  She wasn’t what I would describe as a mean person just a tempermental person.  She might say ‘hi’ to you one day and try to hit you on the head on the next.  Mark, of course, needed someone who wasn’t afraid to hit him.  He found her propensity for physical violence to be intriguing.  I’ve learned that a man who is not afraid of getting hurt can be a dangerous fellow to be around.  I have also learned that sometimes I am a bit too safety conscious at times so perhaps being around a lunatic wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to me.

The philosopher Jim Morrison once remarked that “people are strange…when you’re a stranger.”  This was, I imagined, the case with Mark.  If I hadn’t known him I would have taken cover along with everyone else when he got his pencils out but by this time I was numb to the pencil throwing.  I’d even stay back to help him pick up after his tirades and he’d thank me for helping him.  The whole business of pencil throwing as a means of expressing anger was an afterthought to me.  Occasionally I’d throw pencils at him as a joke and though he might smile or roll his eyes I’m still not sure how comfortable he was with my mockery.  I could see the past events unfurling again in the present and like an omniscient narrator I regarded it as my duty to stop the madness before it began anew.  What a strange turn of events indeed.  Perhaps I was the Marlowe in this story after all.

One thing that I learned rather quickly about Mark was that he was an environmental pencil thrower.  That is, he would only throw pencils when he was in a situation where he felt the need to throw pencils.  It’s a strange idea to fathom I know, but look how far analyzing strange behavior has gotten us thus far.  Mark’s routine didn’t change.  He still brought his pencils to work in the morning.  He still sharpened them when anyone was looking.  What he didn’t do so much of was actually throw his pencils at people.  This seemed rather to me.  Keep in mind that I had worked with Mark in a world where pencil throwing was his stream of consciousness.  Some people thought, others complained, Mark threw pencils.  That’s just the way it was.  Entering a new environment however had an almost rehabilitating effect on Mark and for a while not a single pencil was thrown that is until she arrived.

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Margaret was one of the tallest and also one of the thinnest people I have ever seen.  If I were to reach the deep forests of the Amazon I’m not sure I’d find women that looked quite like Margaret.  For starters she was white and extremely pale in complexion.  Then there was her second most defining feature – her laugh – which distinguished her from everyone else.  In a crowded room of people you’d still be able to hear Margaret’s loud, boisterous laugh over everything that was going on around you.  It wasn’t an overly obnoxious laugh – the kind that made you want to run in the opposite direction – but it was one that certainly alerted you to her presence.  I don’t know why Margaret turned out to be the catalyst in Mark’s lead-based tantrums but that’s the way it played out.  It’s not like he was throwing pencils at her.  The problem came in the form of a discussion of rock music.  For the uninitiated music might seem like a rather bizarre subject to cause such a visceral reaction but with the exception of maybe politics or religion music seems to stir tensions as much as anything else.

Margaret came in and took over the role of receptionist.  Everyone assumed that she got the job based on her looks whereas both Mark and I knew that she got it based on her charm.  Mark wasn’t the type to be charmed however and he took it upon himself to figure out what her “real deal” was.  In the course of attempting to figure out whatever character defects she may have had Mark discovered that she liked country music.  This is a death nail in almost anyone’s coffin with Mark but it was moreso with Margaret because he thought something nefarious was going on when she was being introduced – that is before she actually arrived on the job – a fact that led everyone else to abstain from judging her.  Mark was not the kind of person to be held down by rules.  Once he found your flaw he wasn’t just passive aggressive about the way he attacked you he would often do so without your knowledge.  The majority of insults in this world come not while facing our adversary but when their backs are turned.  Such was the case with Margaret and Mark.

We had an unfinished ceiling in the main office.  This made it possible for Mark to engage in what he jovially referred to as “artillery fire” that is pencils flung over the wall dividing his office from the receptionist’s desk.  Poor Margaret didn’t know what hit her.  She asked me once if Mark was careless and by that I think she meant to imply that perhaps Mark’s intentions were innocent enough but I knew better.  A week after she started it would not be uncommon for Margaret to be walking down the hall pulling pencils out of her sides.  This usually came after she changed the radio station from something previously agreed upon to something that she and she alone liked.  Perhaps to add insult to injury Margaret also suggested that the only way she could get work done was if the music was turned up as loud as humanly possible.  It is not difficult to see that Margaret was trying to get back at Mark for his pencil throwing tirades but the problem here was that no one could ever catch either person in the act.  Mark didn’t walk down the hall with a quiver of pencils he picked his time to strike deliberately and practiced his delivery in his office beforehand.

Watching Mark throw a pencil is like watching a quarterback throw a football.  If you were to stand on the sideline you’d swear he was doing it wrong.  He would grab the pencil with his thumb, index, and middle fingers and let them slide down the pencil as he threw it.  His accuracy was unbelievable.  Even at a distance he hit at least ninety percent of his targets.  The trick at least as far as Mark saw it wasn’t just to injure someone by throwing a pencil at them but to throw it with enough force so as to jam it into their skin.  He used to tell me that the psychological impact of someone seeing something sticking out of their side was much more brutal than any pain he could possibly inflict on anyone physically with one of his pencils.  As Margaret’s behavior got more and more out of hand so did Marks.  Mark began planning his day around “missions.”  These “missions” were something that was clearly the highlight of Mark’s day and you could tell just based on the elaborate maps and planning that went into them that he planned these out when he went home at the end of the day.  Here was a man who was so passive aggressive that he literally spent all of his down time figuring out ways to improve his skills in that department.

If you walked into Mark’s office you would probably think that Mark was an accountant of some kind.  Maybe you’d think he was an accountant who liked to play darts on account of all the dart boards scattered about.  Only the dart boards weren’t scattered, they were deliberately set by Mark based on the average distance he had to throw a pencil and the desired area on the human body that he wanted to hit.  Mark studied Hindu and Buddhist ideas about Chakra in order to find out the best place to hit someone.  He was always looking to debilitate without completely disorienting or totally disabling his target.  He wanted the illusion to exist that his target had the capability to strike back despite the fact they would normally be so confused by what was going on that they would have been hard pressed to do anything of consequence in the wake of an attack.  The calmness and deliberate nature of what Mark was doing became deeply troubling to me over time.  I remember when we were all going to go out for drinks on a Friday night.  Mark wasn’t interested he had too much to do.  There was so much planning to take care of for the next weeks forays, but that isn’t what bothered me.  What bothered me was that he asked me to stay back with him to help him plan and I suppose he also wanted me to help him carry out these attacks.

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The madness at this point was positively Nixonian.  Mark was talking about wet work teams and black bag missions like he was ready to break into the Watergate.  What was really frightening about this was that he believed that those around him would be better off as a result of what he was doing.  He honestly believed that he was doing everyone a favor by hiding behind plants in the conference room and unleashing a torrent of number two lead upon his coworkers.  He used to tell me that nothing inspired productivity like fear.  Mark was resigned to the fact that he hated his life and everything attached to it and it was no matter that he was taking out his frustrations out on everyone else because he had to take them out on someone.  I often wondered about what it was that sent him over the edge.  It wasn’t until Mark’s second to last day that I realized it had been her all along.  Throwing pencils at her had been Mark’s way of saying he liked her.  The poor man didn’t know any other way to impress someone other than his ability to throw a pencil so he had no other means to show her that he cared about her.  Regardless of Mark’s motives I had resolved to put a stop to it.  Although I had never been on the receiving end of his pencil-laden tirades I knew plenty of people who were and it was only a matter of time before someone responded with something other than a pencil.

One day when Mark was out of the office (I assume he ran out of pencils) I went to HR and explained how Mark had been showing off his knife.  I asked, as if completely blind and ignorant, if I should be concerned and much to my surprise I was told that these kinds of things happen and that was all part of the process of adapting to a new environment.  It was then that I realized that there was no corporate policy against people throwing pencils and why should there be?  It’s not like this was a normal occurance.  There wasn’t an epidemic of pencil related violence going on.  I then saw something quite unusual and it’s something that wouldn’t faze a normal man nor would it cause him to think anything suspicious about it but my mother was an accountant so when I saw the financial services division in the office next door using pens to fill out their books I realized that Mark had not merely been throwing pencils he had been stealing pencils as well.

Stealing office supplies isn’t a huge deal.  Most times it’s not a fireable offense but if HR took away Mark’s pencils I knew he’d flip out.  I decided to tell them about the large cache of pencils he had in his office and openly opined as to why anyone would do such a thing.  The HR representatives looked suspicious but not alarmed.  That is until they saw the drawers full of pencils in Mark’s office.  I asked them to take a look in Mark’s office when I would be in a meeting across the hall and when Mark would be returning from whatever vendetta he was likely carrying out.  Mark was fine with HR being in his office, he was fine with them knowing that he had a lot of pencils, but what he wasn’t fine with was them taking his pencils away.  When they grabbed the drawers of his desk Mark completely flipped out and started firing his three inch pencils the little cannons as he liked to call them.  By the end of the day security was escorting him out of the building and my mission began anew.  You see Mark had been incredibly good at his job that’s why he hadn’t been fired earlier.  My goal, at least according to the company was to help with the retention of the workload.

I studied the books and looked at every facet of their operation and I simply couldn’t figure out how Mark was able to be so efficient and yet still find time for his odd little hobby.  I couldn’t do what he was doing and I wasn’t spending my free time planning black bag missions.  I tried all sorts of things.  I let everyone work outside, we had teleconferences instead of face-to-face meetings to save time, but it didn’t matter what I did I simply couldn’t attain Mark’s efficiency level.  So I set out one Saturday to find Mark and inquire into his methods.  It wasn’t easy finding him let me tell you.  The man was paranoid on top of everything else.  He must have had ten different locks on his door and he lived out in the country.  There must have been a mile in between houses.  Who on Earth would have the energy to rob this place?  When I found Mark he was a very sick man.  He was suffering from lead poisoning oddly enough though this was seemingly unrelated to his love for pencils.  I walked into his home and was immediately struck by how well organized it was.  When I stepped into his home office I was shocked to see not a single pencil.

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“How did you do it?” I asked.  Mark made his way over to his desk cup of coffee in hand and looked at me with a wide grin across his face.

“Everyone works harder when they’re up against a deadline,” he said.  I looked back at him puzzled.

“What does that mean?”  I asked.

“Didn’t you ever wonder why I stole all those pencils?”  He asked and I had wondered about that.  I just assumed that he was preparing for some sort of D-Day operation and needed lots of weapons but then it hit me.  I looked around me and noticed that from the time I walked into his house I hadn’t seen a single pencil.

“You made them write in pen,” I said.  It finally hit me.  He was stealing the pencils so everyone from finance on down had to write everything in pen.  This was a brilliant strategy seeing as how he was in charge of making everyone more efficient.  He was what people liked to call a “streamline specialist.”  He could walk into a room and figure out what was working and what was not.  Like most things in life Mark figured out that the devil was in the details.  When I got back to work I began thinking of a way to get people to forfeit their pencils without any violence being unlashed.  The pencil served a security blanket for everyone who used it because it had an eraser.  A pen on the other hand means you need to be extra careful and if you screw up one part of a document you’ve got to redo the entire things.  Such a system keeps people on edge but it also makes them more aware.  How could I get rid of the pencils?  I finally realized that I couldn’t do what Mark had done and simply steal all the pencils but I could create a climate in which pencil use was discouraged.

The next day I took all the pencils that had been recovered after Mark left and put them on a tray which I covered with aluminum foil.  I announced to the staff that we would be working with pens but that if anyone felt they could not do their job with a pen they could admit as much by walking to the center of the office and grabbing a pencil in plain sight of all their coworkers.  Needless to say few people opted for the pencils though we did eventually have to monitor people who were bringing in pencils from home.  I was a changed man after my experience with Mark.  Maybe he wasn’t crazy.  Perhaps he was really onto something.  I don’t know but productivity was highest when he was there and no one could debate that point.  What kind of man takes delight in throwing pencils at people though?  Now at the end of my journey I had my answer: the kind of man who is so good at his job that he has nothing else better to do and an unlimited supply of something he doesn’t want.

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