Sunday, August 14, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Crying in Restrooms

When I achieve ultimate wisdom and figure out how to perfectly balance emotional, economic, and social reality, I will write a self-help book and I will call it Crying in Restrooms.

I used to do a lot of that.I'd be trapped in an office eight hours a day with a bus ride at each end, and I'd be doing stuff that didn't matter a lick to me and in many cases didn't matter a lick to whatever entity was writing my checks, but I couldn't leave and I couldn't do anything constructive and nobody in the office would be anybody I could talk to honestly about anything and it would build up and build up and build up and somebody would be a jackass and I'd be losing control of my voice and hands and posture with the force of internal pressure and I would be in entire sympathy with those people who come to their workplaces and commit mass murder and the only possible way to deal with this state without getting fired (which I would have preferred but couldn't afford) would be to go into a restroom stall and hit the wall and scream and cry until the pressure let up enough that I could control it.

Even this was enough to get me lectured, censured, and occasionally treated as a vandal (Look, I am not physically strong enough to break a metal stall door and I never could see what they thought was wrong with it anyway - it still locked, for crying out loud) by self-important tinpot dictators who appeared to be under the impression that the proper treatment for a stress fracture is more stress. The ones who pretended to be sympathetic weren't any better, because they never were. All my life I have been surrounded by people who didn't care if I was bleeding, as long as they could get me to stop bleeding on the carpet. If I did that, they could pretend nothing was wrong and even feel good about having solved the problem by getting me to pretend to feel better.

Actually addressing anything that might be wrong in the workplace - such as contradictory imperatives, bullying (in a workplace, the noogie-givers of the playground are restrained but the nasty queen bees get managerial positions), inequitable rules or rules applications, dishonest practices, counterproductive policies, malfunctioning equipment, or inadequate training - is never, in my experience, considered as a solution. No, if a worker is unhappy enough that her work is disrupted, the worker is to blame; and half an hour spent telling the worker this is much to be preferred to five minutes spent in addressing the source of the problem.

So a self-help book providing something more useful than the usual platitudes and unconsidered conventional wisdom about dealing with stress would be a public benefit. In order to be useful, it would have to include diagnostic tools to help the afflicted figure out why she is the only person in an obviously malfunctioning office whose physical stress symptoms are so bad she has to resort to crying in restrooms; because this does vary. Some people could handle the existing level of stress and frustration better by eating the correct thing at the correct time. (It sounds silly, but truth often does.) Other people are handling the stress less well because they're getting more of it than those around them, because they have somehow gotten the position of office omega - the one person everybody else relieves stress by dumping on. It is vitally important to distinguish between those two cases and adopt a strategy appropriate to the real situation.

Such a book wouldn't sell as well as the platitude/conventional wisdom books do, because the most successful self-help books are always those that allow the largest number of people to feel that they're being active and insightful, without actually requiring them to do any work. But if it could reach its target audience, and enable them to deal constructively with their problems, it would do all kinds of good in the world.

Alas, I have no such wisdom. The only thing that worked for me was getting out of the soul-sucking day job business entirely, which unfortunately leaves my poor husband trapped in one. And that's why I keep having to give myself permission to be unproductive on days when I don't feel I've done enough. The workplace problem looks to me as insoluble as crime, poverty, and war, and for similar reasons.

Because the problem is insoluble, I don't use it for fiction much, either. One of the satisfactions of fiction is that, at the climax, the core problem of the story is resolved, one way or another. The big exception to this is the horror genre, which is allowed to be purely cathartic and to resolve the core problem by escalating it into primal inevitability and scorching the earth behind it. A modern corporate workplace is the natural abode of monsters, and it puzzles me that we don't see more horror stories addressing this directly.

I have used it successfully once, myself. It took me over 20 years to do so, horror not being my natural genre. The story is "The Restroom Murders," and it appeared in Realms of Fantasy in August 2008, though I first conceived the basic plot while temping for a certain bank in the early 80s. It took me that long to understand enough about workplaces and workers to get the story into the hands of the correct viewpoint character, to gain the narrative ruthlessness to work the premise out to its necessary conclusion, and to be out of the workplace long enough to write about its horrors with equanimity.

If you can write the self-help book envisioned here, please do so. If you can't, but rather need to consult it yourself, consider the horror option. Mystery might work, too, if you can thus gain the satisfactions of messily killing the worst person in your office and sending the second-worst person in your office to jail for it. Just don't put a word of it onto the company computer or leave your notes for it lying around, as security personnel are likely to take such things seriously and unlikely to have any policies that allow them to grasp the difference between fictional catharsis and planning.

And if you can't handle the fictional options because the situations you'd have to tap into are still too raw to handle, please, start today devising the plan that makes quitting your day job practical. You'll function better as soon as you feel less trapped.

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