The Final Report of the Smell Committee

A few years ago, I wrote this story. It’s long and odd and has no chance of finding a paying market, so I thought I would finally just put it out there. You’ll find an excerpt below. The full version is available for sale on Amazon, bundled with some other pieces I’ve already published here. Because Amazon does not allow you to give Kindle books away, I have to charge $.99 for it. If you don’t want to pay, you’re welcome to download the free versions linked below; they also contain the full text of the story.

THE FINAL REPORT OF THE SMELL COMMITTEE

TO: The Board of Directors

FROM: Mr. A.V. Jascowitz

Mr. B. Sykes

Mrs. E. Drake-Avilas

Mr. T.S. Holm

Ms. T. Burke

 

BACKGROUND

On Tuesday, September 8, 2012, Joseph Schultz reported a strong, musky odor near his workstation in the payroll department of the Dubuque office. Schultz claimed that he had begun to notice the smell days earlier and had assumed it would dissipate of its own accord. Instead, it had grown increasingly palpable and had begun to significantly impact his ability to work. Facility Services investigated and noted a “faint” odor, which they traced to some old food in the nearby kitchenette. That weekend, the refrigerator and all fixtures were cleaned vigorously, and the issue seemed to be resolved.

The following Monday, September 14, Schultz reported that not only had the smell not been eliminated, it had actually grown in strength; he claimed he could now smell it in a radius of 20 feet from his workspace — a distance that encompassed nearly a quarter of the building’s third floor — and that its character had changed from a simple food-related odor to a fouler, more pungent stench altogether, one that Schultz described in a garrulous stream of emails as a “stink of death” or “what hatred must smell like.” Several of Schultz’s coworkers began reporting the smell on their own, attributing it variously to paint, cleaning solvent, new carpeting or other prosaic sources. In response to the volume of complaints lodged with Facility Services, a professional steam-cleaning service was contracted to clean every square foot of the payroll department. This operation was performed on September 22, again to no avail, and the payroll staff reported to work the following day to find the smell had returned undiminished.

With no options apparently remaining, Facility Services had little solace to offer Schultz or his colleagues, who resorted to their own methods to attempt to restore comfort to their workspace. Payroll Director Dot Freidburger organized a floor-wide effort to improve the work environment, with employees bringing in, at their own expense, a variety of air fresheners, air purifiers, potpourri sachets and other similar items. These invariably proved ineffective: potpourri turned dry and brittle within a few days; a potted fichus plant took on a peculiar chalky texture before crumbling into dust; and chemical air fresheners either had no apparent effect at all or else made the odor worse. Freidburger and her colleagues abandoned their efforts, and no further attempt was made by the employees to combat the smell.

Several emails from this period subsequently reviewed by the Committee reveal instances of poor work performance, unusual behavior or cognitive difficulties whose potential severity went unrecognized at the time. Payroll Specialist Amelia Beakman filed a quarterly Paid Time Off Usage Report that actually consisted of a thousand-word description of an erotic dream; she later claimed to have included the material through a simple cut-and-paste error and was not disciplined. Several employees were cited for failing to report to work, explaining later they had confused the day with Saturday or Sunday, though one in particular claimed, with no lack of embarrassment, that she had forgotten she was employed by the Company at all. Formerly outgoing men and women were observed to become quiet and withdrawn, and several emails sent to Human Resources took on an ominous cast. “I can’t sleep at night,” one employee wrote, “because all I think about is having to come back here and work in this smell.” Another wrote, “Do something. If you don’t, somebody will. This isn’t any kind of a threat. But you don’t understand how people are feeling here.”

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Misunderstood at Christmas

I am assuming you’ve seen the ad. If you haven’t, it goes like this: a teenage boy goes away with his family to visit relatives at Christmas. He appears to spend the whole time glued to his iPhone. Come Christmas morning, he commandeers the flat screen TV and streams a beautiful home movie he has spent the preceding few days shooting and editing, right under his family’s loving noses, and they are delighted by the surprise.

It struck me as very heartfelt, and a good exemplar of the human-centric values that Apple has always espoused. Naturally, many people can’t stand it:

The problem is that while he was creating, he wasn’t really living the day, he was a mere voyeur during it. The message? Life is better through video. Don’t live life, tape it.

(Jennifer Rooney, Forbes.com)

I was initially not without sympathy for this view. Smartphones certainly have eroded some of the one-on-one interaction from life, at a time when manners seem to be growing coarser. And when faced with people with antisocial tendencies — teenage boys chief among them — a smartphone is a pretty high barrier to establishing any kind of conversation or eye contact. But the more I read these responses, particularly the piece linked above, the angrier I got.

First of all, if the boy in this commercial had been seen with his nose in a book rather than an iPhone, it would have prompted none of this high-handed moralizing. “These kids today, and their reading.” Smartphones are the bogeymen of our time, the way Walkmans were in the ’80s and comic books were in the ’50s. These things are nothing but a lurid distraction obscuring a universal truth: to most kids in their mid-teens, adults are boring. Look at the kid’s family. He has a baby sister, a lot of younger cousins, a bevy of aunts and uncles and grandparents — and no one his own age to talk to and hang out with. No competent child psychologist would blame this kid for spending his time posting to Facebook or otherwise communicating with friends who actually understand him and like the same things he likes. Except, of course, that’s not what he’s doing.

You see, some of us in this world are observers. Not that we never get into the thick of the action, or that we don’t love spending time with people we care about. We just function better when we can operate with a slight buffer around us, especially when not at our ease. His family gets him; when granddad lobs that mitten at him, he’s being playful, saying in effect, “I’m not going to bother you over there, but don’t forget I’m thinking about you.” And if we’re creative types, as this boy certainly is*, we’re apt to express ourselves best through whatever our particular gift may be.

What we see this unnamed boy doing is, quite simply, an act of love. Cookie-making and sledding and snowman-building were all well and good, but he had an idea for something special he could give to his family, something only he could do. Who else but the kid who doesn’t quite fit in — neither adult nor child — could show his family who they really are, and what they really mean to each other?

And I’ll make one last point, at the risk of taking a little holiday commercial even more seriously than I have already: I’ll bet he was having fun making that video. I’ll bet when his granddad threw the mitten, he was thinking Aw man, that’s gonna look great in the final version. I’ll bet he had just as much fun watching his family sledding as he did sledding himself. And I’ll bet his family will remember that particular Christmas lump in the throat for many years to come.

By all means, let’s be vigilant about the effect that technology has on our lives. But let’s not get so cynical, so priggish, that we assume that the addition of a smartphone automatically renders an experience mediated, detached, invalid. Sometimes this technology really does bring you closer to the people around you.

*I’m not discounting that the Harris Family Holiday video is actually the work of a professional director (though it really was created on an iPhone), but it’s not beyond the abilities of a perceptive and capable teenager — if it were too good, the spot wouldn’t work as well as it does.

We Allowed This to Happen

That is all I could think as this horrible story unfolded. Sure, some of us speak up every time a new outbreak of violence occurs while others of us make excuses. But we all settle down afterwards and, in effect, shrug our shoulders. Yeah, there’s some nutcases out there. What are ya gonna do? We’re horrified, and then we get over it, and then it happens again, each incident somehow more senseless — and in an appalling way, less surprising — than the last.

We have decided, as a culture, that these endless massacres are an acceptable price for what we choose to interpret as “freedom.” We’ve decided this because a substantial number of us feel that without free access to weapons, our liberty is not guaranteed — and that any effort to restrict gun ownership is, ipso facto, a direct prelude to enslavement.

We as a culture have to un-decide that.

There are legal remedies that would help prevent these incidents, were they properly enforced. But laws can only go as far as the culture will allow. There is a faction in this country — and yes, I am shifting from first person to third at this point — who have long ago made some kind of accommodation in their hearts to the mass murder of their fellow citizens. I have no problem with hunters who want to be able to take out the occasional deer or pheasant; it’s not my thing, but I don’t begrudge it. I have a huge problem with Second Amendment absolutists who talk tough but who are consumed with fear: of their neighbors, of other races and religions, of their personal existential powerlessness, and most of all, of their government.

It’s dark moments like this that lead me to think the American experiment has failed, and that there really are two distinct and incompatible cultures striving for dominance in this country. One is pledged to the values of the European Enlightenment, embracing one of mankind’s finest inventions — secular representative government — as a means of expanding the potential for success, happiness and progress for all people. The other is permanently stuck back on the frontier, believing that man is essentially ungovernable and that the only liberties you have are the ones you can defend with your own hands.

“We have met the enemy,” satirist Walt Kelly once said, “and he is us.” How is it that the thought of the government taking away your assault rifle is more frightening than the thought of another group of kids being senselessly cut down? How do we stop choosing to let things like Newtown happen?

How pretty is *your* iTunes library?

I am more-than-averagely obsessive about my iTunes library. And yet, this is what most of it looks like. Ever see those pictures of ancient relics being restored in museums, when they’ll have exactly six pieces of some ancient textile and try to somehow fill in the gaps? It’s kinda like that.

Assuming I am more diligent about matching graphics with my albums than most people — and assuming most people acquire their music the way I did, rather than buying it exclusively through iTunes or Amazon — then it stands to reason that most iTunes libraries in the world look like this, or worse.

Kinda depressing, somehow.

24 Cigarettes and One Pipe: Hammett and Chandler

When I was a writing student in college, I came across a how-to manual called The Essence of Fiction, by Malcolm McConnell. It was not like most other writing books I had read before or have read since. My professor, to whom I showed it, was mildly appalled at its strict focus on the mechanics of story construction, and indeed, The Essence of Fiction has no clever exercises a la John Gardener’s The Art of Fiction, nor does it inspire you to live a life devoted to creativity a la Natalie Goldberg’s excellent Wild Mind. Essence is plain and direct and even, to my old teacher’s point, rather crude, but one of its precepts has stuck with me over the years: the rule against “cigarette action.”

Cigarette action is McConnell’s term for the meaningless physical business a writer will assign a character in order to pace a scene. When writing a dialogue scene, you can’t simply follow one speech with another and then another: it gets fatiguing to read, and the scene gradually loses its sense of place, its physicality. (Not that that stopped Elmore Leonard.) So writers solve this by having their characters do … something. Get up and look out the window. Check themselves out in the mirror. Change positions on the couch. And, of course, light cigarettes.

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