Saturday, April 28, 2007

Quip as artform, II

The phone quip:

You're going to spill that coffee, jack-ass.

Much better, but can the person on the other end see the cup?

See Quip as artform for background and definitions.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Quip as artform

Quip \ˈkwip\
– noun
1. a clever, witty remark; a cutting jest
2. quibble, equivocation
3. something strange, droll, curious, or eccentric
– verb (used without object)
4. to utter quips
sources: Random House, Merriam Webster

Survival in the office depends largely on the skilful and appropriate use of humour to, among others: draw attention to your strengths; camouflage your weaknesses; highlight, with subtlety, the failings of others; deter critique while inviting praise; and, at the far edge of the realm of the possible, to make friends.

To be precise, not all forms of humour are appropriate in the office environment. Slapstick, for example, unless carried out with the highest level of skill, would fall into mere corniness, and not win any favours.

There are, to be sure, many forms of wit. In my opinion, however, the highest level of workplace humour is the quip. If treated rightfully as an art, practiced, and eventually honed to a sharp verbal edge, the quip can, over time, advance, and perhaps make, your career. This holds true for all office-based professions. If you are a neurosurgeon of course you should focus more on your skill with a scalpel.

I work in a two-person team, and my colleague is a near-master of the quip. It is, in that respect, an honour to work with him. It would be banal to repeat here many of his best remarks, but I will provide a small canapé to whet the appetite:

> The scene: I arrive at work, wearing a dark taupe suit, solid black shirt and a flat, unadorned brown tie.
> Colleague (attired in conservative blue business suit, eyes on computer screen, mug of coffee in hand): "Hmm, fascist chic is back?"
> Me (looking down at shabby suit): "Ya, I was sort of going for the Italy-1930s-Il Duce look."

The comeback is irrelevant; the initial quip is the point of humour in this exchange. But as a non-expert in delivering the quip, it is not my place to advance your skills in the key verbal aspect. Merely, I would like to point out the often overlooked physical element that lies behind delivery of the cutting remark.

Office work is normally carried out at a desk, with a computer, keyboard, some paper arranged appropriately, and so on. As such, the quip is most often delivered while sitting down. The remark should be a rapid pronouncement, and eye contact with your subject is not necessary. In fact, as the sketch below suggests, it is indeed preferable that your gaze falls in neutral territory. Your computer screen is the obvious choice.

The reasons for this are: not looking at your subject reinforces the off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment element of the exchange; it helps remove you from involvement in any subsequent conversation; and, however crass to mention out loud, it affects a certain superiority over your subject that in the long run will reinforce your status as a wittician.*

The sketches highlight another aspect worth noting: the role of the coffee cup. The ability to deliver your verbal laceration just prior to taking a sip is, in the realm of quipdom, the master stroke. If you are calmly sipping your coffee or tea while others are laughing uproariously at your quip… well, need I say more?

The presence of a beverage is also the crucial component of the quip non plus ultra, but that awaits a future blog post. Next up: a discussion of failed and false quip postures that will reveal you as an amateur, and hence should be avoided.

Good technique:

Excellent technique:

* A person highly trained and/or highly skilled in delivering wit.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Trained monkeys

I used to joke with my colleague that we were the trained monkeys of the department. People come to us when new guidelines or instructions are developed for staff; if we can figure it out, then I guess everyone else can. Maybe we're the lowest common denominators on our floor.

In any case, I don't make the monkey joke anymore. Not after seeing what happens to the real monkeys who make our coffee.

"You know how it is,
they just give up after a while"

Soon after I started at the bank someone walked past my desk, bitterness evident on their face, holding a cup of coffee and muttering in disgust, "Bloody monkey screwed this one up."

I thought that was an odd turn of phrase, although I knew the coffee was very bad. It's just instant from a machine, though, so you wouldn't expect it to be good, would you?

I did notice that it was not uniformly awful, however. Some days it was almost palatable, other days less so. Then early one morning I made my selection on the machine – 'coffee, strong, with milk' – and I was greeted by what can only be described as hot, bitter piss-brew.

When others arrived at the office, I told them the machine was broken.

"Oh, that one probably needs changing," my colleague said in a somewhat distracted, nonchalant way. "It's about time anyway."

Someone called Building Services, and then everyone went back to their work. I waited quietly, to see what would happen. When a man with a large cart rolled down the corridor toward the coffee station, I followed him. I just had a feeling that watching him fix the machine would be interesting.

"Hullo," he nodded, when he saw me standing there.

I didn't feel out of place. This was after all my coffee station.

"Machine broken?" I inquired, making it look like I was waiting for a drink.

"Ach, you know how it is, they just give up after a while."

He whistled suddenly,
and tapped his finger on the panel

He shrugged like it was no big deal and then released a latch at the top of the coffee machine. The heavy front panel swung open.

The first thing I could see was the multiple stacks of plastic cups. The repairman refilled the empty rows and then leaned forward and peered into a dark space behind the second, inner panel.

Then he did something strange. He whistled suddenly, and tapped his finger on the panel.


He whistled again, and tapped a little harder.

And there it was: a very faint, intermittent hissing sound. I leaned forward as well, because the sound was somehow familiar to me. What was it exactly? I couldn't place it. But when the hissing became a little louder, a little sharper, it struck me that the noise, whatever its source, sounded like fear.


The repairman had put gloves on now. He reached out quickly and opened the second panel with a snap. What I saw then was almost too much to believe.

"They think it's the caffeine"

Inside the back panel, in a small cage, was a monkey. It had panic on its face and it pressed itself as far as it could against the back wall of the enclosure, its arms outstretched and trembling.

I could not believe there was a monkey in the coffee machine.

"They think it's the caffeine that does it to them," the repairman said. "They just have sugar, coffee powder, milk powder, so… you know," and here he shrugged his shoulders, as the result was obvious.

"Some last for a while, but they all need changing in the end."

The repairman had no hesitation or concern in his manner when he opened the cage and grabbed the monkey by the scruff of its neck. The animal seemed to just give up, and it barely struggled as the man removed it from the machine.

"Do they go back to the company or something?" I asked.

The man paused for just a moment, and looked at me with some concern.

"No, once the caffeine gets to them, they're gone," he explained.

He seemed puzzled by my ignorance, but it didn't stop him from carrying out his work. The monkey was clinging to the man's arm with growing desperation, like it was trying to save itself. With one quick, sudden motion, the repairman snapped the animal's neck, the head twisting right around like a rag doll. For a split second the little black eyes were pointed straight at me. The body went limp immediately.

He threw the carcass in his big cart, and reached down to a curtain that shielded the tray at the bottom. He took out a new cage, with another, completely calm little monkey, cleaning itself without a care in the world. He opened the cage and the monkey obediently crawled into the coffee machine.

It looked very much at home, and even began to fiddle around with some of the many knobs and dials that stuck through the wires.

"You have to know
when to pick your battles"

The repairman replaced the containers of coffee, tea and milk powder, and then closed the front panel. To test the machine, he punched the selection code for 'coffee, with sugar, with milk.'

The machine leapt into action with no hesitation. A cup swung into place and hot dark liquid poured in with a familiar woosh sound. The repairman took the cup, blew on the hot liquid a few times, then took a sip. He nodded in approval, then grabbed the cart and pushed it back toward the service elevator.

I stood there for a while, then went back to my desk. I didn't drink any coffee that day, or the following day.

I thought a lot about my new workplace. Questions I hadn't pondered before, like if trained monkeys make our coffee, what controls the window blinds that go up and down automatically? And what the hell is running the computers?

I remembered something the boss told me shortly after I was hired. During our first meeting, when we were just getting to know each other, he said something unexpected:

"You know, working at this bank, you have to know when to pick your battles."

"In a company this big, you'll always come across things you don't like. But everyone is careful about their own work, or territory if you will. So if you run into any problems… just pick your battles carefully."

This seemed a melodramatic statement at the time. I really didn't know what to make of it. But the monkeys in the coffee machine were my first test, in that sense. I decided not to kick up a fuss, because no one else seemed concerned.

After considering the problem for a long while, here's what I did: I pack my own lunches, and I always have some fruit or vegetables. Just before leaving to go home, I stop at the coffee station and slide an apple slice or a carrot stick as far around the back of the machine as I can. I have relatively small hands, and I can just reach a little ledge near the inner panel.

And come morning time, low and behold, the little snack is always gone.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The perils of street photography

I'm peering into the viewfinder of a rather large camera when she surprises me.

"Do you take photos of people?"

I look up to see an extremely attractive young woman, face done up with a bit too much make-up, perched casually near my left shoulder. My camera was pointed at a purple wall, so I suppose it's a legitimate question. She's speaking in English, so I must look like the sophisticated international photographer of her dreams.

"I'm looking for someone to shoot my portfolio, do you take photos of people?"

"Uhh, ya, but street photos, I don't do glamour photography."

I didn't want to disappoint her, so I assured her that my network of contacts included some fashion photographers, and if she emailed I could put her in touch with someone good. She scribbled down my email and walked off. I returned to my work, trying to find the right shutter speed to catch the rapidly moving people traffic, with just a bit of motion blur.

I flubbed this one completely.

Those two are a marginally better. The girl never emailed, of course. The film shots weren't much better than these digital proofs. Not a great day, then, all things considered.

Catch me if you can.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The alchemists in the basement

Now that I'm on contract, I can relax a bit, right? Take some time to walk around the two towers and get a feel for my new environment. The trading room, the artwork – there's a lot to look at in this enormous structure. But I never figured on finding a bunch of very small men in the basement, churning out lumps of solid gold.

I needed a break one afternoon last week, so I announced that I was going for coffee and slipped out of the room. On the far side of the bank, near where I park my bike every morning, there is a small café on the ground floor that brews the only palatable coffee in the building.

I took the elevator down to the second floor and headed past the trading room. It was the middle of the day and the dealers were busy. But I didn't linger too long above the action. Maybe it's bad form to stare down at the screens too long? I'm trying to fit in here and I don't know all the rules yet. So I moved on.

If this bank had a workshop,
I just had to see it

When I turned away from the dealers my eye caught a short hallway that I hadn't noticed before. There was a stairwell halfway down the hall. To get to the café, I had to walk all the way around the back of the trading room, then down to the first floor. Maybe if I took this staircase, I could find a shortcut on the first floor?

I took the stairs down and emerged into a long hallway that brushed up against the trading room. I turned down this hall and soon found another option to consider.

A door was held open by an old cardboard box. I walked toward it and stopped to listen. I could hear a jumble of noise in the distance. It wasn't voices, however, as I would expect in an office building. It was some type of banging and the sound of machinery, but muffled by a long distance or a number of walls.

My interest was piqued. If this bank had a workshop, I just had to see it. A printing press? Not in this age. A repair garage? No, everything like that is outsourced these days. I stepped over the box and through the door. Another staircase led down to the level below the trading room. Guessing this was just the parking garage, I almost turned back and continued down the hall. Only my curiosity about the noise moved me forward.

I was now in a narrow corridor underneath the trading room. No sign of the parking garage. As I walked forward slowly, the noises grew a little louder. Several pipes lined the ceiling of the hallway, which I thought was rather sloppy. Open piping underneath the dealing hall? Don't they have building codes in this country? Somebody should call Compliance, I thought.

I stepped forward…
and that's when he saw me

The strange hallway led directly toward the far side of the building, where I hoped to get a coffee, so I continued forward even though I was unsure of my precise location. When I reached what I thought must be the very centre of the complex, yet another staircase emerged, twisting down in a tight spiral to a hallway just visible below.

The industrial noises were much louder now, and I could make out some voices as well. There were some shadows being thrown around just outside my line of vision. I stepped forward to peak down the staircase, and that's when he saw me. The floor above the staircase was metal grating, and the hard soles of my dress shoes made a loud clang as I stepped forward. I found myself staring into the face of a peculiar little man wrapped up in a heavy apron, wearing a cap and a pair of leather work boots.

"Hullo there," he said, a smile emerging on his face once the surprise of seeing me faded.

"Can I help you?" he added.

He seemed completely unthreatened, so I took a few steps down the stairs.

"I was looking for a shortcut to the café," I offered, pointing in the direction I thought it might be.

"Well, that's two floors up from here. But now that you've made it this far you might as well follow through on your swing, so to speak."

I had continued walking down the stairs, and shortly I met the unusual man at the bottom landing.

He really was incredibly small, the top of his cap coming no higher than the middle of my chest. He had a round, cheerful face and long, bushy sideburns of the sort popular last century, during, say, the industrial revolution.

I was wearing a dark gray business suit with a blue and yellow tie, and in my slim pointy dress shoes I suddenly felt ridiculously out of place – as if abruptly I had become the freak in this unexpected meeting.

A hiss emerged from the press
and steam billowed forth

It was much darker down here than in the hallway above, but as my eyes adjusted I could see a room before me filled with similarly attired men, all of the same tiny stature, moving about with great industriousness. The air was dirty with an odor I couldn't quite place. The noise that had attracted my attention came from a row of machines that looked like presses of some type.

"Come, I'll show you how we get along," the man said.

We walked into the room, and several people looked over, one or two nodding hello.

It was a workshop indeed, and it took me several moments to take it all in. One of the men had just loaded a press, and after fiddling around a bit he grabbed the long handle at one end by reaching up almost on his tippie-toes, before pulling it down strongly with both arms. A hiss emerged from the press and steam billowed forth from the pan at the far end.

What the hell was this show about? I thought.

"Let's take a look shall we?" my guide interjected, before I could speak. He grabbed my arm and led me to the machine, which I could now see was an ancient-looking device of great complication. The second man lifted the handle of the press and quickly reached forward with a pair of iron tongs.

"Cool it off and let's have a gander," said my increasingly cheerful companion.

After dipping the tongs in water and waiting not a minute, the little technician pulled them out again and plopped the result of his work right onto the palm of my guide.

It was a chunk of gold the size of a squash ball. A bit rough around the edges, but unmistakable: solid gold.

"Now that's something you don't see everyday, ah?" the little man said with a wink.

The other workers all smiled at this, like it was a well-worn line, oft-repeated when the suits came down for a visit.

"Wow," was all I could muster, not quite believing my eyes.

But there was even more. As I looked around I found the source of the strange odor. In the corner of the workshop was a large container of pitch black rocks, and a small ray of light showed the air above the rock was heavy with dust.

The dry odor of impurities
wafted through the room

I pointed at the container in amazement, like a three-year-old at the zoo.

"Coal? That's coal."

"Yes, yes," my guide enthused, "Amazing isn't it?"

"Of course it's old hat for us, but I gather that you're new around here."

"I started a couple of months ago. I never knew this place… Can I… see that again?"

"Sure, sure. Frederick, line up another one," he said, waving at one of his fellow workers.

Little Fred grabbed a lump of coal, dipped it into some sort of liquid, then plopped it onto the small pan at the end of the press. Underneath the pan, he sparked a burner and a red flame shot up. He fiddled with the nozzle until the flame settled to a brilliant blue. Then he added a coating of what looked like a thick, gelatinous grease to the open side of the pan, before closing the two sides together. Back at the other end, he reached up to the long handle and pulled it down with all the force he could muster.

"I cannot believe you are turning lumps of coal into solid gold," was what came out of my mouth just as the steam hissed loudly from the end of the press and the smell of sulfur hit my noise. (Christ it’s not even good coal, I thought, as the dry odor of the impurities wafted through the room).

"Oh indeed, indeed," the little man said. "It's a fair game for sure. Of course it's not just coal, we do add a bit more to the recipe, so to speak."

"Has the bank always done this?"

He gave a pensive look and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I've been here a long time, but this bank has been around longer than me. I should think they've been doing this a long while, in one form or another."

I could sense I wasn't going to get very clear answers from my otherwise helpful escort. I thought this whole scene might be some clever joke, but it seemed too absurd to be anything but true.

I decided humour was the only way to cope.

"Wow, you guys make a pretty good margin on this," I said, in an obvious understatement.

"You must even kill the folks upstairs," I added, lifting my head toward the trading room two floors up.

This got a good laugh from the workers.

"We do in a relative sense, the margin is quite pretty. But not the absolute numbers, mind you, as we're a small operation compared to the global deals."

Did my colleagues know
about the gnomes?

He was obviously enjoying the role of guide, my little friend was. But work called, and he hinted with a look that maybe I should move on.

"Does everyone know about this place?" I asked as we headed back to the stairs.

He gave an unclear shrug of the shoulders, as if that wasn't his concern. "Mostly the business side just sends someone down now and again to make sure we're meeting our targets."

"Sure, sure," I agreed readily. I'll fucking bet they do. No wonder this bank is so god-damn big.

"Wait, do other banks have the same thing?"

And here it seemed I had asked one too many questions, although I thought it was a perfectly reasonably query.

"I really don't know," was all the man said.

"Well then, take care," he added. "Maybe you could move that box on your way out, to close the door. We just wanted a little fresh air."

With this, I made my way back up the stairs, down the hall, up the stairs again, and back to the hallway outside the trading room. Now I realized that I had, in fact, covered a fair bit of ground. I quickened my pace as I walked to the elevators.

When I got back to my floor, I straightened my tie and instinctively brushed off my suit jacket, in case I had picked up some of the coal dust.

"How was the coffee?" my colleague asked when I sat down at my workstation.

I had completely forgotten about my drink.

"Ah…" and here I paused. What to say? Did my colleagues all know about the gnomes in the basement, turning lumps of dirty coal into solid gold?

When you're new to a place and you're trying to fit in, sometimes you feel uncertain of mentioning what you've seen. If everyone knows, then you look foolish for bringing up the obvious. And if they don't know, maybe you look like a braggart, or at the least very nosy. It seemed to me that people in these enormous companies keep their cards pretty close to their chest. I decided to play it safe.

"…Ya, the coffee was fine," I said. "Thanks for asking."