John Greenleaf Whittier 9 p.m., Nov. 22
- Community Blog
- Memorial Life
Laughing At The Guru
Ten years ago, I took a job with the government which was supposed to be temporary. As it turned out, they kept me on and I may have ended up working in that department permanently, if I hadn’t suddenly one day decided the job wasn’t worth the hassles I was having at home over the job. That’s a story for another day.
The project I had been hired to work on had several dozens of people working in a large space which had been divided into smaller spaces, with a few people working out of the office doing field work. Over months the operation rolled into different phases, more and more people transitioning into field work and fewer and fewer people working in the office. In the last phase of the operation, aside from the project supervisors, only a handful of us were still working inside; four people, including myself, had been selected to move over to data processing, there were a couple of people in supplies, and a few people doing tasks as needed. I knew the other three data processors, two women and a guy, because we had worked together in other phases of the project. One of the other DPs had been an office manager for many years and had mad computer skills, we soon all learned to go to her with whatever material problems came up; she naturally became our group work leader. Mainly, we functioned as a group, training together, problem-solving by literally huddling together and figuring things out, passing around what we learned on our own with each other, helping each other out when we had difficulties, sharing our successes and working out issues and keeping our problems to ourselves.
The fifth and last DP was a guy who showed up one day, after the others of us had been working in that section for some time. This fellow was late middle-aged, or at least looked it. Slim, maybe 5 foot 5, longish brown hair, his face was leathery and wrinkled in the creases. He wore old beat-up corduroys, an old beat-up shirt over an old beat-up teeshirt. The first day this guy came in, he looked around and without saying a word, set his backpack down by one of the computers. I glanced at his badge which verified “Bob” was one of us, said to Bob that computer was being used by another DP, looked around and said the computer at the end was open; before I had finished speaking, Bob, who had been about to sit down, stood back up and picked up his backpack, went down to the computer I had indicated and quietly sat down to work. This behavior pattern became familiar. When Bob set his soda can on the table, I said that we couldn’t keep drinks on the table, we had to set drinks on the floor; he had immediately taken the can off the table and put it on the floor, causing me to hesitate in the middle of the explanation why (to avoid accidentally spoiling any documents), an explanation which in any case he didn’t respond to. Friday evening, when I told him we all took turns cleaning the lunch room on Fridays during the last half hour of work, he set about cleaning the lunch room; again, I hesitated in the middle of explaining that because there were so few of us now, whoever was around, in this case myself and him, would clean up. It was just odd the way he did things, never saying a word, never questioning why. Because there was no discussion, no friendly back and forth, or bantering, or questioning, or protesting, nothing but instant and silent acquiescence before I could even give an explanation, I often felt like I was ordering him to do things, unnecessarily pulling rank, somehow being mean. It wasn’t just me who thought he was odd, though the rest of us never talked about it; we accepted him as a DP, but he kept himself apart. Bob came in to the office every day without saying a word, did his work, and left every day without saying a word.
We DPs were pretty much left alone back in our section; us three women DPs enjoyed each other’s company for the most part, we would chat amongst ourselves, joke, laugh, as we worked, went on breaks together, often ate lunch together. The guy DP who had started with us was a scientist/engineer married to a lawyer and more reserved, but we liked him and he liked us; the four of us were quieter when we had a lot of work, more talkative between batches of work; when we were finished doing our batches and waiting for more work to come in from the field, we talked about whatever people talk about in offices, movies, restaurants, weather, events in the news, music, previous jobs, schooling. Bob rarely joined in the discussions, unless specifically asked a question, and only to answer briefly and very quietly.
I remember one day, when he first came to work with us, I was sitting next to him and while we were working, out of politeness trying to engage him in some light conversation; as I recall it had to do with the Pepsi and snack machines not being refilled often enough, something all of us in the office complained about. I said something trivial and playful about it, which any one of my other colleagues would have replied to in a similar fashion. Bob turned and looked at me, then came out with an answer that not only managed to make me see myself as shallow and trifling, but also widened the subject to a matter of profound philosophical consequence, and as I recall he did this in a sentence of very few words. Though I was impressed at the time, I have forgotten now what was said (proof of said trifling shallowness), but I do remember my reaction: Wow. Okay, won’t do that again. And I didn’t. That’s not to say I didn’t talk to him; as a matter of fact, I was the only one who did talk to him. The other DPs had quickly given up on Bob being a part of our socializing. I had given up on that too, but I did occasionally talk to him about a particular book or some other subject I thought he mind find interesting or have something to say about; mainly, he listened and didn’t reply. The times he did reply, it was some short but intense insight that always left me thinking how utterly stupid I was and how wise he seemed to be. Sometimes in his answers he mentioned the Tao, or Tao Te Ching, which he seemed to have studied: Wikipedia explains that “practitioners are cautioned to be unobtrusive, undemanding, and unsophisticated in their actions, and to know when to let go so that the unseen workings of Tao can carry the act to its completion.” That was a good description of Bob, so it seemed to me.
Then one day I was talking to him about something mundane, I think it may have been our pay, and how hard it was to make ends meet. By this time I hardly ever spoke to him; I was always coming up at the short end of the stick, and I’d end up cringing and blushing at myself. But in a rare moment I would find myself talking to him about some basic and common subject, something within the everyday experience, I guess thinking that keeping it on that level I wasn’t likely to go too far wrong. In any case, he didn’t answer. I babbled on for a moment, as I recall I made some follow-up comments on my not owning a car or a home, being a single mother, etc., then finally, petering out with “well anyway, it’s hard,” I dropped it. He turned after a moment and said, in that quiet, almost unearthly, voice, “Reality is not the cup. Reality is the emptiness inside the cup.”
Oh. Oh, wow. Oh, shizzle. Oh, man. That was deep. That was really really really deep.
My mind was blown. I was convinced Bob was some kind of all-knowing guru. It freaked me out. I stopped talking to him. I stayed away from him. It was like that episode of The Outer Limits where someone whispers the Secret of Life in a person’s ear and they go mad; I thought I was going to crack if I heard one more wise thing. Long before the movie A Few Good Men, I found I couldn’t handle the Truth.
Two days later, the receptionist came into our area of the office and said there was a call for Bob. He went over to a nearby desk and picked up the phone; as it happened, we were the only two in the DP section, and as it happened I was working nearby and could see and hear Bob from where I was sitting. At first, busy with what I was doing, I didn’t pay attention to him or what he was saying, but soon couldn’t help overhearing, and becoming interested in, the conversation. Bob was talking to his ex about their kids, subjects, ex and kids, he had never mentioned in the office. I knew what Bob was talking about because Bob had raised his voice. The first time I had ever heard his voice raised, for that matter the first time I heard him speak more than ten words together. Bob’s face went red. Bob’s eyebrows creased in anger. Bob yelled at his ex-wife in the common everyday language of the average jerk who has fallen behind in his child support payments, making excuses and accusing his ex of everything average jerks accuse their exes of doing to make their lives miserable. Bob the guru slammed the handset down.
It was an awesome thing to observe.