Andrew Perry

Posted on March 5, 2012

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Max Weber and the Fig Tree

I was reading the Bible during my commute into the city each morning, and when I stepped from the train that day, I was wrestling with the story about Jesus cursing the fig tree. I’d read the footnotes that relate it to the adjacent story, where Jesus chases the Pharisees from the temple, but I wasn’t convinced that the two stories worked together, and I suspected the fig tree’s story didn’t make any sense at all.

I climbed the stairs from the subway station two steps at a time, passing the people who were half my age.

Walking toward my office, I brushed back my coat sleeve so I could see the time on my wristwatch. It assured me that I was early for work, and I responded to the news by slackening my pace.

My wristwatch was easier to interpret than the story about the fig tree, but its accuracy was equally suspect. Clocks possess the ideal Poker face. And this one was becoming forgetful. It was twelve years my senior, and it was an anachronism in the age of smart phones.

Entering my building, I glanced at the digital clock perched on the security guard’s desk. I read the correct time from its luminescent red numbers, and I cursed my watch for making its seductive, but false assurances.

It was no grand matter. There was enough time before the morning meeting to retrieve my notebook and tie my bow tie. If I moved quickly, I could capture an inconspicuous seat at the back of the room, far away from the other attendees, and I could pass the hour drawing in my notebook.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor, where my office is. I opened the door, reached inside for my notebook, and then slipped down the hallway toward the men’s room to twist a knot in my bow tie.

Before the bow tie came back into fashion, it was nearly impossible for the casual shopper to purchase one. In college, I made the mistake of attempting to purchase a bow tie in a department store. The salesman responded to my effort honestly, which is to say with confusion, and then he led me across the floor to the formalwear section where he showed me the black ties and cummerbunds.

Many of the bow ties for sale at the time were made of fabric that was too heavy to tie properly. Of course, without a lot of options, it was difficult to be discriminating, and it was easy to make a bad purchase.

Standing before the mirror in the men’s room that morning, I tied a perfect knot in my bow tie. The knot was neat and tight, and the bow was crisp and straight. It was also indistinguishable from the pre-knotted bow ties that the amateurs wear today. Popularity required the bow tie to be easy to wear, and being easy to wear had cost the bow tie its poignancy.

I walked past the crowded elevators, and climbed the empty staircase to the third floor, where our conference room is located. Its heavy wooden door creaked when I opened it. Behind it sat the junior employees who had nothing better to do than look punctual and attentive. Two of them wore brightly colored pre-knotted bow ties on their necks. They looked like a pair of birthday gifts. I smiled when they spoke to me, but I quickly scooted past them, and found a seat in the back of the room.

There was a new junior employee at the table, a young man whom I’d not met. His face was pink and bulbous, like a newborn baby’s behind. Someone had shaved his head to hide its premature baldness.

Our senior staff entered the conference room and quickly took their seats. Count Dracula entered first, followed by his zombie entourage, then Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, and the rest of the ghouls.

Count Dracula called the meeting to order, and immediately began to suck the life out of it. Opening my notebook, I began to draw him, adding long sharp teeth and blood stained lips to his otherwise pleasant face. I’d done it countless times before, and my notebook was filled with similar depictions of him and the other fiends in my office.

Dracula was surrounded by ambitious zombies, whom I also drew. Zombies want brains because they believe that brains are necessary for advancement inside the company. They want to be like Dracula, and they think brains will turn the living dead into the venerated undead.

After drawing the zombies, I drew Frankenstein’s Monster, a burly man with a big neck, fat hands, and swollen fingers. He’s successful at recycling other people’s discarded ideas and proposals. He’s even pitched ideas his to their originators.

I drew the spark of ingenuity dancing in front of the Monster, and I drew an expression of terror on the Monster’s face in response to it. Meanwhile, Dracula talked about making the office “look and feel more professional.”

We’re already professionals in the sense that we’re paid for what we do. Amateurs don’t do what we do, and dream they will do it professionally someday.

But we aren’t the type of professionals who have professions. We must explain what we do when asked about our work. If we had professions, then we wouldn’t have to explain what we do. Physicians and plumbers don’t have to explain their work, because they have professions that people understand. This is precisely what makes them professionals.

We’re like the professionals I heard a street performer make fun of. The performer juggled fruit and bowling balls, and then he announced he’d juggle knives. Reaching into his suitcase, he produced three glistening scimitars, and he displayed them to the crowd.

Don’t try this at home, he warned us. I can juggle knives, because I’m a professional, and a professional is trained how to do stupid things.

He understood our professionalism.

I looked at my notebook, and I began to sketch the middle-aged accountant I have called the Wolf Man. His fickle personality and his frequent and unprovoked attacks on his coworkers have earned him this name.

But the Wolf Man’s calculations and spreadsheets sickened me that day, and I recoiled from the idea of drawing him. Instead, I turned my attention to the Mummy.

The Mummy works on a mysterious project that only he understands, and he’s harmless until someone proposes doing something with it, thus invoking its curse. When this happens, the Mummy rises from his polyester-walled sarcophagus, and he terrorizes the people who have disturbed his centuries of slumber in the organization. To appease him, management must kill the offending proposal, and return the Mummy’s project to its proper resting place.

But the Mummy sickened me too that day, and I chose not to add another drawing of him to my notebook. The whole affair of drawing my coworkers had become tedious.

Dracula droned on about the virtue of standardization. I turned my head away to read the time on the clock by the door. It was a familiar clock, and it was easy to read. Its ubiquitous face had followed me from elementary school into middle and high school, and from college into the various offices where I‘ve worked over the years. The clock imprisoned me in a Weberian cage of measured time, but on that day, this particular clock had stopped running.

I lifted my jacket sleeve so I could read the time on my watch. I reminded myself that it was running retarded, and I twisted its crown to advance the time.

Even when my wristwatch was accurate, it’s time-telling was a thing of the past. No matter how precisely the antique watch anticipated the future; it spoke in the present, with a voice that came from the past. Simultaneously inhabiting the past, present and future, it was ever-present, and for practical purposes, it was timeless. It had achieved eternal life in Wittgenstein’s view of things.

I remembered the fig tree in the Bible, and I imagined the fig tree’s owner confronting Jesus. I imagined the words. You God-damned hobo, you killed my fig tree.

I remembered the scholarly footnotes I’d read on the subway. They insisted that the fig tree was a metaphor for the Pharisees that Jesus chased from the temple. I sympathized with the scholar’s effort to read meaning into the story, but I felt no compulsion to do so myself.

Dracula cleared his throat. I followed his eyes as they moved around the room and came to rest on the young man with the bulbous pink face and bald head.

Dracula apologized for not introducing him earlier. He said the young man’s name, and he itemized the boy’s credentials. The youngster had spent one-third of his life in school, and if his luck didn’t change, he’d spend another third of it working in an office like ours. The company had promised health care and pension benefits to him, along with job security and promotion penitential. The boy was charmed by these promises.

The ghouls welcomed the young man and Dracula smiled to assure the boy that he was in the right place.

Good quality of life, Dracula boasted. That’s what we offer our employees; good quality of life.

We offered no such thing.

****

Andrew Perry lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.

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