This morning my boss gave me a vision of my future. I know that’s unlikely considering that my boss is a database administrator rather than a voodoo priestess. Yet it occurred. My boss announced we’d have layoffs today, and I saw myself living in a sewer tunnel and eating Styrofoam, while my cats deserted me for better-employed owners in the good part of town. This was a hell of a thing to face while my first cup of coffee still dripped through the filter.

When my boss announced the layoffs, my senior coworker, Andy, dropped his Dilbert coffee mug and collapsed into his chair. Our assistant, Jill, turned away from my boss and pulled out her iPhone. She was presumably tweeting that she needed a new job, or maybe she was calling on a thousand friends to come besiege the company headquarters on her behalf. All I know is that she turned back to us several seconds later wearing a smirk. After a few heartbeats of stunned terror, I did something constructive. I asked, “All of us? The whole department?”

My boss looked like she was on her way to kill her dog while selling orphans into slavery and kicking her grandma in the head. But she brightened a tad and said, “No, not everyone. Just one of you.”

I squinted sidewise at Andy. Jill faded back until she occupied a strategic spot behind us. Andy said, “That’s just terrible. I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do without one or the other of these guys. They really help me to keep stuff going around here.” Andy shook his head and looked at the floor. I thought he might work up a couple of tears, but after decades of soaking up coffee and overhead projector radiation, I’m sure his tear ducts had atrophied.

I organized my argument for why Andy was the worst thing since smallpox, but my boss spoke first. “I’m sorry Andy.” She looked at Jill and sighed, “You’ll have to get by without your trusty assistant, Jill.”

Andy and I both moaned as if we were on the rack, which I thought was pretty good since we were trying not to laugh like idiots. I looked at Jill, who had cocked her head at my boss. She didn’t show any other sign that she understood she was being tossed out onto the chilly, rat excrement-covered street. She said, “I’m the sharpest one here, and you know it.” In my heart I knew it was true. Jill was young and not jaded by years of futile striving to accomplish something that made sense to real people. In fact, she busted her ass. I saw my boss look down, and I felt uncomfortable. Jill continued, “Plus I’m the cheapest employee you’ve got. Keep me and you get more done for less money. You’ll look like a frickin’ hero.”

My boss chewed her lip and nodded a bit. Then she swiveled her gaze to Andy, who rocked back in his chair as if she’d shot him in the forehead. “Andy, I’m sorry, but Jill’s right. It’s unfair to single her out because she’s young and she’s a woman.” Andy looked confused, because no one had said anything about Jill being young and a woman, and in fact no one cared. But I realized that my boss was already creating a plausible line of bullshit reasoning to justify her actions to her VP. She didn’t look regretful now. She looked like a lioness that’s just spotted a slower gazelle.

Andy didn’t remain slow. He sputtered. “I’ve memorized a whole 20 years worth of totally undocumented code, and I’m the only fellow who knows where to find those mainframe emulators. Without me, you’ll be crippled. And if you fire me, I’ll sue y’all all across Hell and half of Georgia. I make the most money, and I been here the longest, and laying me off ain’t right.” Andy leaned forward, reminding me of Clint Eastwood about to pull his Navy Colt revolver. “I mean I’ll sue you, yourself, personally. That little lake cabin of yours looks sweet, and my wife’ll have chintz curtains on that thing by Christmas.”

My boss literally took two steps back from that. Then she pointed at me. “I’m sorry, but we have to let you go. It’s just business. It has nothing to do with you.”

Neither Andy nor Jill even pretended to feel bad for me. I think Jill may have giggled. My ears felt as if something were shrieking into them, maybe one of those big dinosaurs so horrible that they eat even bigger dinosaurs. Then the dinosaur ripped my ears off and pranced around the cubicle waving my ears around and roaring into them. I closed my eyes and spewed the first stupid thing that hit my tongue. “But, my employees love me. If you fire me, you’ll make them sad.”

My boss stared at me, apparently unmoved. I went on, “And then you’ll have to talk to them.”

As far as I knew, my boss had never spoken to any of my 30 employees, nor come within polite speaking distance. I think she was afraid of them. Perhaps she should have been. I brought in sandwiches, or candy, or pie for them, three or four times a week. I praised them as if they were cocker spaniel puppies, and I let them do whatever the hell they wanted. I did this on the theory that in a company environment of undirected, fitful bursts of random activity, a totally chaotic mob of employees would prove just as effective as a highly regimented staff. I was wrong. They were more effective. And they were far more terrifying to anyone except the man who dispensed love and treats.

My boss’s jaw fell slack in obliterating horror. She glanced at Jill, who growled. She looked at Andy, who leaned back and crossed his legs, radiating danger.

My boss didn’t get where she is by being uncreative and indecisive. She lifted her chin and said, “I see there’s only one fair way to do this. Jill, I’m not going to lay you off because you’re the lowest paid and a woman. Andy, I’m not going to lay you off because you’re the highest paid and a senior worker. I’ll prove that I’m fair by laying you both off, so you can see that I’m not discriminating against either of you.”

I jerked in high-voltage shock. Andy slipped his left hand over his mouth and looked down. Jill yanked out her iPhone, hissing like a cross-wired coffee maker. My boss continued, “Andy, Jill, thank you for your valued service to this organization. We regret that you have to go, and please know that you’ll be missed. Security will be here in ten minutes, so you should pack up fast.”

She smiled a mother’s smile at me and said, “I’m happy you’ll be staying with us. I hope you appreciate the trust that the company and I are placing in you. You’ll take over Andy’s and Jill’s groups, so they’ll roll under you. I know that’ll bring your staff up to, what, 70 employees or so, but you’ve demonstrated that you can handle it.” Without waiting for me to say anything, she whirled and floated from the cubicle, a thousand pounds lighter than when she’d entered.

I sat down, facing my laptop, and avoided looking at Andy and Jill. They didn’t speak, but I heard a lot of useless desktop detritus being hurled into cardboard boxes. I assessed my situation. Now I was alone. I had no one to lean on. I had no one to shift blame to. I had no one to scheme against. And I didn’t have to worry about those two sweaty hyenas anymore.

True, I had a lot more people to manage, but what did that really mean? I’d spend more time wandering around telling people how great they were, and trying to ignore the appalling disasters they were creating—disasters that would end up saving the day once corporate got its head out of its ass. And I’d have to buy a lot more sandwiches and pie. I wondered whether I could push for a raise out of this.

And they say that people skills aren’t relevant anymore.

I think that a Rolex watch is a foolish thing to own, so I guess it says something that I own one. In my defense, I didn’t buy it. Some nice people gave it to me as a gesture of appreciation. But now I own it, and I have to figure out the proper way to use it. I can’t bring myself to slap the thing on every morning and wear it to the gas station and Tom Thumb and the donut shop. That seems massively ostentatious, right? But I don’t want to wait until that date where I try to seduce some exotic, European babe and assume that flashing the Rolex at the critical moment will clinch the deal.

Over time I’ve figured out that the only way I can use my Rolex is to distract people while in the process of intimidating them. I know that sounds stupid as hell. It sounds stupid as hell to me. In fact, I was shocked and a little horrified when I discovered that my Rolex can be used in this manner. But it seems to work.

I have to be wearing my intimidation suit to properly employ the Rolex. If I’m wearing jeans and my Hoops and YoYo t-shirt, intimidation is pretty much out of the question. But I will put the intimidation suit on when I anticipate I’ll need to intimidate someone. It works equally well on surly mechanics and corporate executives. This also sounds stupid, I know. But it works as well as an alligator chained to my wrist. My intimidation suit is a non-flashy gray suit, light gray shirt, and plain tie running from light gray at the top to black at the bottom, plus some expensive Italian shoes. Who the hell knows why this works? I do know that a pop of color, like a Jerry Garcia tie, makes you seem human. And if you wear all black, then people think you’re from a bad gangster TV show and ignore you. Maybe this gray get-up says, “I’m not trying to make an impression on you, so you’d better be impressed by the fact that I’m not fucking around.” I just have no idea.

This morning I put on my intimidation suit and my Rolex. My mom broke her femur a month ago. Her femur, like the rest of her, is 75 years old. It broke kind of like a handful of dry spaghetti. So her past month has been hospital, surgery, hospital, rehabilitation center, nursing facility, home like a god damn moron, same hospital, different nursing facility. The place she’s at now is far nicer than most of the places I’ve lived. It has a phalanx of nurses, hot and cold running physical therapy, breakfast areas, reading nooks, wireless internet, a hair salon, and a damned player piano in the lobby. My mom of course refers to it as a “place of horrors.”

Despite the grandeur of the amenities, I had some insurance questions to ask on my mom’s behalf. I needed the answers pretty quickly. I was there last Thursday, so I went to the receptionist and said, “Hi, who can answer some insurance questions for me?” She said that the Business Director was out, but she’d pass on a message and the Business Director would call me back. No sweat. As the receptionist bent over the message book, revealing her Brown #7 dyed hair pulled into a bun tighter than my rectum, I began spelling out my name for her. She broke in, “There is no need to spell it. I am an excellent speller.”

Well, my name has often been mangled, but what the heck. It looked like she was getting it right, and we were all friendly. Hell, the piano was playing Rachmaninoff in the background, so who could get upset? She proceeded to explain how to properly underline the small “C” in my last name, evidently assuming that I needed help writing my own name. She began to remind me of my worst English teachers crushed together into a size 16 rectangle with arms and a head bolted on. But, I was being nice, so I thanked her and left.

Yes, I received no call that day.

I called back the next day, and I again spoke to Frankenstein’s English Teacher. I asked for the Business Director, and she told me that said person was on vacation that day. This was the second day of my efforts, and I was being nice. I politely asked whether anyone else in the building knew enough about insurance to help me. She told me, in an equally polite tone, that she’d pass the message on to someone else in the office.

You guessed it, no call that day. I called in the afternoon, and Frankenstein’s English Teacher told me that everyone was in the staff meeting, but she’d pass on the message. An hour later I called back, and Frankenstein’s English Teacher told me everyone had gone home, and that no one from the Business Office would be there on the weekend, but they’d be back Monday and she’d pass on the message. I refrained from saying that clearly no one from the Business Office was there on business days either.

Clearly I needed to change tactics. I needed the intimidation suit.

This morning at 9:00 am I was standing at the reception desk, clad in the intimidation suit and sporting my Rolex. In my most business-like, cordial, and “you should in no way consider me your friend” manner, I asked for the Business Director. Frankenstein’s English Teacher looked at me with doubt and asked who I was. This is common when wearing the intimidation suit. People think you’re there to audit them, or sue them, or maybe give them an unpleasant medical examination.  I explained who I was, and she relaxed, telling me that everyone was in the staff meeting. It would end at 9:30 and she’d pass my message on to the Business Director. I said that would be fine, and I thanked her in the tone that a lion would use to thank a wildebeest for wandering around on the veldt.

You may wonder why I wasn’t yet actively intimidating, or maybe screaming and throwing things. That’s a great question. I’ll answer it in a moment.

By 10:00 am I had received no phone call from the Business Director. I asked my mom to excuse me, and I walked to the reception desk. I picked up speed as I got closer, so that by the time I arrived my Italian shoes sounded like Joe Frazier punching the heavy bag. I interrupted Frankenstein’s English Teacher in the middle of whatever bullshit she was doing and said in a crushed gravel voice, “I’d like to speak to the Business Director.”

She said, “Oh, she’s on the phone dealing with a resident issue right now, but I did pass on the message.”

This was the most delicate time in the intimidation process. I had to handle it just right. I had to show that I’d had enough of this shit and wasn’t going to put up with any more. But I also had to show that I was not out of control in any way, so that if I possessed the means to hurt them I would have no problem employing those means with dispassion and efficiency. But most of all, I had to make it evident to them that THEY HAD DONE WRONG.

I leaned on the desk, subtly flashing my Rolex, and raised my voice somewhere between speaking and shouting. I said, “I do not intend to wait for her. I’ve been put off since last Thursday, and I am not happy about it!”

I know that sounds weak. But consider that I was leaning forward and looming above her, I had pulled a moderately furious expression, and my tone of voice sounded the way a shark must sound when its eyes roll back. It was important that I speak no words that were improper in any way, while I put serious threat into my body language and tone.

Frankenstein’s English Teacher’s eyes flicked to my Rolex. I swear they did. She sure as hell didn’t want to look me in the eye, because I was mad and she knew I was mad for a good reason. And if she wasn’t looking at my eyes, she had to look somewhere, and my watch was the sparkliest thing around.

She began explaining and apologizing at the same time. I turned my back to her as she was babbling and stalked away to a chair across the lobby. I sat in the chair, pulled out my phone to check messages, and pretended that she didn’t exist.

Forty-five seconds later she scurried over to me and said the Business Director would be with me in just a minute. Thirty seconds after that she invited me into the back office to meet with the Business Director. As she did so, I smiled at her and thanked her with all the sincerity in my being.

What the fuck? Why did I do that?

I was walking the fine line of intimidation. When people are doing wrong, and they know it, that’s when I have to give them negative feedback. If they don’t know they’re doing wrong, raising my voice and so forth will do no good. But once they start doing what they should do (such as finally letting me speak to the god damn Business Director), that’s when I need to give them positive feedback. Then they’ll want to start doing the things I want them to do.

Is it sneaky? You bet. We’re talking about intimidation here, not the three-legged race with your sweetie on Fourth of July.

The Business Director was a harried young woman sharing a tiny office with two other people. I immediately felt sorry for her. Then I metaphorically slapped myself around and focused on intimidating her. Apparently Frankenstein’s English Teacher had started the job by telling her about me—she looked terrified of me already. So I gave her a business-like smile that promised to smash her into splinters if she disappointed me, and I shook her hand. As we shook, she addressed me by something that was absolutely not my name. This thing and my name didn’t even have any letters in common. I corrected her, and she said that Frankenstein’s English Teacher must have written it down wrong.

“Really? I’m surprised since she’s such an excellent speller,” I said. I couldn’t resist, and the Business Director tried a smile that made her look as if her husband had just bought an emu farm.

Over the next five minutes she answered all my insurance questions. With each answer I became more polite and understanding. By the end of the conversation I had my answers, and we were both smiling and relaxed. I saw her about to stand and get me the hell out of her minuscule space, so I said, “Just a moment. I have a couple of other questions.” I swear to God, she glanced at my watch. Is it an expensive watch? Or is it a cheap knock-off of an expensive watch? As if it matters one damned bit.

I asked her who to talk to about food. I asked who was in charge of medication. I asked about therapy, diet, and transportation. Over the next couple of hours I talked to all of those folks, and I was as nice to them as I could possibly be. They had never done anything wrong by me. They were doing exactly what I wanted—they were talking to me and giving me answers. But I got the sense that they all expected to see me coming. By afternoon, I suspect the people running that facility knew I had been there.

So, this was all great. I got to intimidate, and I got to flash my watch. It was a fantastic distraction from the fact that I didn’t accomplish a fucking thing this morning. My mom’s hardly eaten in a month, she only gets out of bed when threatened, she’s not much stronger now than she was just after her surgery, and the whiny twit doesn’t want to do a damned thing to help herself if it causes her the least discomfort. The doctors and therapists are on the edge of giving up on her. I can intimidate answers out of people all day, and I still won’t have the answer to that problem.

I have an addiction, as dirty as they come, and I expect it will destroy me eventually. This addiction writhes at my left hand every day like a surly viper. It lurks behind my desktop computer, to the left of my secondary monitor, in the shadow of my laptop, and beneath my iPad. In that spot I keep a notebook. I mean the kind with dead trees in it. And, God forgive me, a pen. There’s nothing digital about the damn things. They are as analog as a rock.

This wouldn’t be so bad if I just kept them out of some misplaced sentimentality, like my mother keeps her wind-up Victrola phonograph. But I actually take them out and use them where people can see me. When I show up at a meeting, the others sit focused on their laptops, their faces drawing nearer and nearer as if they plan to French kiss the screen. I glance around holding my notebook thinking about all the emails I don’t currently have to answer. When the meeting starts, my buddies attend 10% of it and spend 90% answering emails, checking auctions, and flaming people on Facebook. I attend 50% of the meeting and spend 50% doodling. I’m five times as effective as those guys and a hell of a lot more relaxed. But I know it’s wrong.

Doodling is becoming a lost art, by the way. A person’s doodles reveal a lot about him, and it’s pretty therapeutic. I like cross-hatch doodling myself, but flower doodles, airplane doodles, and penguin doodles each have their charms. If you try to doodle on a laptop though, you just get smudges and odd looks.

I don’t hate technology. I love it. Around my workplace I’m the guy to go to when any of those Microsoft products is kicking your ass. I can make them sing like Beverly Sills. But I can’t get over one thing, despite my shame. Technology is really, really good at doing stuff with ideas once you get them into the document, or spreadsheet, or whatever. But technology sucks at helping you come up with ideas in the first place. I’m a little afraid to say that, in case Microsoft hears me and changes all the keyboard shortcuts just to make me throw myself off a bridge in despair.

I’ll try to explain what I mean. Last week I asked my assistant, Flex, to solve a hard, creative problem for me while I sat around thinking up ways to intimidate people who annoy me. Flex works hard and is a smart young guy, so I felt confident he’d knock this out in an hour or so. I strolled down the hall to see Flex after an hour and said, “Is your solution perfect yet?”

“Almost,” Flex said, although he was thinking so hard his face was wrinkled like a Shar Pei. “I just need to work out a couple of things…”

I leaned over his shoulder and saw a screen full of bullet points so disorganized that each might have come from a different country, or maybe a different reality.

Flex pushed his blond surfer hair out of his eyes and said, “I’m trying to get these dumb boxes to line up and be the same color, and the font looks worse than my prom date.” He squinted and flailed at the mouse like it was a live rodent. “Aw, man! That’s even crappier!”

I sat down beside Flex and leaned over to switch off his monitor’s power. He looked at me as if I’d just given him a lobotomy. I said, “Flex, swear not tell anybody I said this, but the software is in your way. Every time you start thinking about the problem, the software distracts you with details that only it gives a shit about. We don’t care whether the text is red or orange, or whether the font looks like it’s passed through a moose intestine. We just want a good, creative solution. We can address any moose intestine issues later.”

Flex narrowed his eyes and curled his lip at me as much as he could and still seem respectful. I knew what he needed. He needed a hit of the non-digital hard stuff. But I wasn’t sure Flex had ever touched a pen. He might recognize one from an old movie, but then again he might think it was a chopstick.

I stifled a sigh and said, “New assignment, Flex. Tomorrow is my anniversary. Yeah, I’ve been married longer than you’ve been alive, so just shut up. I want you to come up with a love letter for me to give my wife. If you do a good job, you can have the rest of the day off.”

“That’s pretty weird,” Flex said.

“Wait until you’re my age. It’ll seem as tame as ‘See Jane Run.’ Don’t make it sound too romantic. It’s got to sound like an old guy wrote it. You’ve got an hour.” I shoved down the feeling that maybe I’d done something wrong, and I walked back to the Cave of Vengeance and Woe, which is what people call my office.

One hour later Flex poked his head through my office door. He smiled the smile he normally uses when telling me about the latest girl he’d like to sleep with. “Here’s your letter!” he said, and he set his laptop on the corner of my desk. He tossed himself into a chair in that way only fit, young people who’ve never been to the chiropractor can do. The screen read:

  • Significant “I love you” challenge
    –   Previously sounded good
            >   Positive impact on self and others
            >   Extremely high ease of use
            >   Overall satisfaction at highest levels
  • Current “I love you” has diminished in quality
    –   Satisfaction dropping on several dimensions
    –   Root cause of quality problems identified
            >   Partial mitigation achieved, but quality still lacking
    –   “I love you” still operational
            >   Reduced functionality may be acceptable

I leaned back and looked at Flex’s eyes, which were full of mischievous glitter. “You know I like to start with positive feedback,” I said, and Flex nodded. “Well, this is appalling. This is probably the worst love letter in history. I’m sure chimpanzees do better all the time. It’s repugnant to anyone with a brain, and if I were to show it around I think every woman on Earth would want to murder you, and quite rightly so.”

Flex mumbled, “That’s the positive feedback?”

I nodded and said, “Yep. The constructive feedback is that this may be salvageable, and if you want to avoid spending the next three weekends revising labor projections, I’ll give you another chance. I’ll bet you used Powerpoint for this, right?”

Flex nodded.

“I can help you with that,” I said, standing and towering over Flex with the majesty of the Statue of Liberty, if the statue was a little more butch. “Shut off your god damn computer and use this!” I didn’t quite hurl the notebook and pen at Flex, but I think he did get a paper cut on his chin.

He looked like he wanted to question me, or maybe slap me. I stared from my vantage point of confidence and authority that was partly false. I knew I was right, but to the rest of the world I was just a near-extinct organism scratching on stone tablets in the primordial ooze. Then Flex’s shoulders dropped and he stood to drag himself back down the hall. “You have two hours!” I called after him.

Later that day Flex shuffled into my office, and he held out the notebook. He showed all the confidence of a schoolboy handing in a three-page assignment with big letters, lots of spaces, and liberal use of the phrase, “And then the next thing that happened was…” I accepted the notebook and read the page:

My “I love you” is not what it was. It once rang like a polished chime, and yours made a harmony. We split the air, and we laughed at how we sounded, and people smiled when they heard us. I poured myself into the way we sounded, and you held all that music with no strain. No one could convince me that we weren’t the biggest celebration, that I wasn’t the luckiest, that no sound could touch us.

Not what it was. I clash sometimes, and you make sour notes, on occasion. Where is that harmony that felt like the best holiday, that was the most fun, and the one that would last forever? We’ve made music that no one ever makes if they can avoid it, although everyone plays it before the end. It was hard, but at least it wasn’t silence. We held hands and said no to silence. My “I love you” is not what it was, but it’s my chime against the stillness. It rings if you listen hard, and you make a harmony sometimes. We laugh at how we sound, and once in a great while people smile when they hear us.

I looked hard at Flex and said, “Holy shit! This is just what I need. Good job, man!” Flex offered a crust of a smile. “Do you see what you can do when you think about the ideas instead of the software and all its formatting and bullet points and crap?”

He breathed, probably for the first time in two hours, and he gave me a bigger smile. “Yeah, that helped,” he said.

“This will work great,” I said. “Take Friday afternoon off, son. And by the way, where’d you find this? Some romance site? Google+? What? I want to tell my wife where it came from.”

Flex looked surprised and said, “You said write you a letter. Do you mean I could have just copied something off the internet?” Flex turned a little red under his tan. “Well, at least if you do this kind of junk at Christmas I know I can just rip off a song or the Bible or something.”

“You wrote this, Flex? Damn, you’re like the Muhammad Ali of romance.” He stared at me, and I realized he had no idea who Muhammad Ali is. “Take all day Friday off. Back to work for now though.”

Flex grinned at that, and he bounced out of his chair. That’s when I did it. I know it was wrong, but I did it anyway. I said, “Hey, keep writing love letters, and I bet every girl in town will want to sleep with you.”

Flex paused, and then he smiled as if I’d given him a chocolate Corvette full of bourbon and Superbowl tickets. He walked out of the Cave, swaggering a little, and I thought, “That’s right, son, it’s like crack. The first hit is free.”