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?”
“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.”