"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

We Are Authentic

We Are Authentic

    Judy should never have chosen the Dell laptop, but it was too late now.  The Dell was a signal sent to the whole office about how uncool, and how old she was.    Being old and uncool was never a thing she even thought about until she started at WithUs, the co-working, co-living, co-eating, co-everyfuckingthing start up that had hired her as their Operations Manager.  

    Her boss, twenty-five-year-old, Maisie, had given her a choice of a Dell laptop or a MacBook.  

    She was comfortable on a PC, and she had never worked on a MacBook before.  She desperately wanted to have the laptop with the Apple logo.  The white glow from the Apple logo on the front cover carried a cache, an unspoken signal, unspoken but still loud.  I am one of you.  I am part of the tribe, we may have differences, but we can begin our relationship from this point.  A Dell logo said something else entirely.  We’re from very different worlds, different customs, another language altogether.

    She looked up at the distressed wood paneled wall in WithUs office commune space and sighed.  The WithUs core values were prominently displayed and number 1 was:

    We are authentic

    She thought she was being authentic by choosing the Dell.  She was just being honest with herself.  She was 44 and out of the work force for 10 years, so she was afraid of having the extra added burden of not knowing how to figure out her own laptop, having to constantly ask one of her much younger co-workers how to operate it.  She’d thought about sneaking in some lessons at home, but honestly, once she was home, there were the kids and there couldn’t be anything else.

    She was still baffled by core values and the need to have happy signs that told everyone how to behave, no, not behave, but how to live.  Part of her job was to ‘always demonstrate WithUs core values in her work and in all of her interactions with her co-workers, oops, community.’  She had always assumed that anyone who could figure out how to interview successfully, land a job, make their way to work every day and continue to hold that job would already have some core values.  Maybe things were different now?

    Maisie stood in front of her. “Hey there, how’s it going?”   She banded her hair back with a scrunchy, checked her phone, while holding her MacBook and 2 bottles of water.

    “Great, I’m still trying to learn everything.”

    “Cool, cool.  You still have a few minutes?  I’d like to go over your OKRs.”

    Judy saw core value #2 in back of her boss:  We are Engaged!  

    “Sure!”  Was enthusiasm engagement? This one she couldn’t figure out. She had thought that engaged simply met put your phone down when someone is talking to you. She couldn’t remember what OKRs were either.

    “Cool, let’s go sit over in the Hack corner.”

    Judy picked up her Dell laptop and followed her boss to a pair of bean bag chairs in the corner.  She looked down at the chair and imagined all the billions of germs nesting in there from co-workers.  There was no graceful way to sit in one of these things.  She plopped down and brought her knees up to rest her laptop on.  Was there something really that wrong with a table and a chair?  

    Maisie put the 2 bottles of water on the floor.  

    Judy reached for one of the bottles but she fell short.  She tried shifting herself in the cascading beans within her bean bag chair, but her laptop slid off her lap.  Maisie finally reached down and handed it to her.

    “Thanks.”  First the Dell, and now this.

    “Okay, so, Garrett wants us to have our big OKRs, like for the whole year, but then we have smaller OKRS every quarter that we can track.  Usually we’ll do 3-4 OKRs per quarter and 1 of them should be reachable, another 1 or 2 should be 75% reachable and one should be like almost impossible, like aspirational.”

    Ah! OKRs must be goals!  She made a mental note not to say ‘goal’ out loud. Re-entering the work force was already fraught with so many landmines, but she also had to learn a whole new language.  ‘Okay’ or ‘yes’ was no longer an acceptable acknowledgement.  ‘Cool’ was the affirmative answer.  Marketing was now ‘Influencer’, Human Resources was now ‘Empowerment Specialists.’

    “I’ll help you set up your first quarter OKRs, but for next quarter you should get the hang of it, ok?”

    Judy nodded

    “Cool.  So every quarter, at one of our weekly all in meetings we go over all of the OKRs with Garrett, so you have to be able to speak to them.”

    She nodded again.  She liked Garrett, the CEO.  He was a smart kid.  35 and already working on his 2nd startup.  He had championed her hiring.   ‘I really believe we should give women returning to the work force a chance.  I mean you took time out to raise the next generation of heroes.  That’s an invaluable resource for the community.’

    After Maisie left, Judy quickly googled OKR and found:  Objectives and Key Results.  In other words, goals.  She returned to her workstation after her ‘meet up’ with Maisie.  She was wedged between Decker, a twenty-two-year-old intern who was hoping to become a Social Media Analyst and Leesha, a 25-year-old Director of Shared Experiences for the Co-Living sector of WithUs.

    Leesha was facing Decker, twirling her hair and giggling, and also blocking Judy’s seat.  Decker was leaning over the back of his chair, apparently telling her about a concert he saw this weekend.

    “Excuse me, could I get in here?” Judy pulled her chair out.

    Leesha moved her chair back an inch, “No worries.”    

    Maybe it was returning to work paranoia that was eating at her thoughts, but she got a vibe that her two desk mates wished she had never been hired.  Not because they didn’t like her, but she wasn’t sure they did, but because it was a lot more work to flirt with each other when she was in between them.

    When she left the work force 10 years ago, she worked in a cube farm.  Everyone holed up in their own little personal pen.  She remembered how much she hated the sameness and the banality of a cube, the corporate overlord vibe she got from standing up in her cube to see all the ominous glass offices for upper management that framed the office floor.  The days she pined away for an office with a view.  And now?  She missed those evil little cubes.   She missed the privacy, the ability to focus within those 3 beige walls.  

    The next generation’s response to the impersonal cube farms was open offices like this one she was in.  Everyone sat at community tables, elbow to elbow, so they could engage easier and feel part of a community.   This was the future.  Authentic, engaged.  

    Happy Shiny people, right?  Fuck you to the corporate overlords!  Not quite, Judy mused while she looked at invoices for office furniture.  A table and 12 chairs was less than half the price of 12 cubes, plus you can stuff twice as many people in the same space and scream shared experiences and cover your dark overlord ass.

    Society was going backwards, not forward.  The office reminded her of a sweatshop.  Albeit, a sweatshop with Café Mochas on tap.

    Automation was the next step, bots instead of ‘community managers’, right?  No need to program the bots with signs on the wall, just feed the instructions directly into their memories.  

    How could she manage this…community?  Another word she couldn’t get her head around.  She should never have majored in English, she should have studied business and then maybe all of these buzzwords wouldn’t bother her so much, but she took language seriously.   You can’t just slap a bunch of people together in an office and start proclaiming it a community.  Community was born out of a bond.  A deeper bond than laptops and lattes.  She always felt an instant sense of community with any moms with young kids trying to manage a shopping trip or sitting in a playground.  They had a sense of each other’s struggles, of the effort it took to keep that one small life, safe, fed, loved.  

    A ping noise went off on her Dell.  She’d been ‘slacked.’  An instant messaging system for the office.  What was wrong with e-mail?  She took a deep breath.  She had to stop the internal whining.  The old man in her head yelling at the kids to get off of his lawn was threatening her learning process.

    “All In Meeting in 5 minutes in the commune.   Vegetable and meat samosas afterwards!”

    Judy found a seat in the Communal space.  As she surveyed her co-workers filing into the room, she thought: one of these things is not like the others.  She was probably the oldest person in the room.  Two weeks ago before she started her job she was a young mother, how did she become so old so quickly?

    Garrett stood up in front of the employees, “Hey everyone.  Let’s get this started, so we can get to those samosas!  Today I’d like to celebrate a few of the successes we’ve had since the last meeting, but first let’s go ahead and meet our new hires. After I introduce you, we’d like to hear where you were before you started here and also one interesting fact about you, okay?  First we have Aydin who just started two weeks ago and is a senior software engineer.”  

    Aydin stood up and waved awkwardly. “So, I’m Aydin.  I’m working mostly on the membership pages for the co-working site.  I’m like, really, really jazzed about it. “ 

    Judy shifted in her seat.  He looked to her to be about 14 years old.   There was nothing senior about him.

    “Before this, I was at Hug Addicts, that’s the dating site for people with dogs.  It was amazing there; you could totally bring your dog into the office!  So, let’s see one interesting thing…my hobby I guess is sky diving.  I been doing it since like I was 10 with my dad…”

    Judy took a deep breath.  Interesting fact?  How about my kid woke up vomiting at 2 in the morning, and I managed to clean her up, talk to the emergency room doctor on the phone, get her back to sleep and still got to work on time this morning.

    Aydin sat down as Garrett stood back up and led a round of polite clapping, “Sky diving, huh?  I was thinking about a community activity like that for us, well maybe for the brave and willing.  Welcome!  Next you probably have all noticed as you walk in everyday, our new welcome officer at the front desk, Sheree.”

    Sheree stood up and brushed her hair out of her face.  “I’m Sheree, I started yesterday and I’m so happy to be part of this community.  My job is to make sure I greet everyone and make sure y’all feel really good about coming into this space every day.  So I’m still learning all of your names, but I promise I will know each and every one of y’all.  My last job was a work desk coordinator for one of our competitors, Mobspace.  That was a lot of fun, I mean I really liked working with so many different individuals every day.  And one interesting fact about me is I am actually in the Guinness book of World records.  I was part of a tap dancing team that tapped for 36 hours…”

    Judy sighed.  She was not only old but totally uninteresting.  She searched and searched but could not think of a single thing that was really interesting about herself.   Nothing like skydiving or team tap dancing anyway. She used to be a bartender, not that big of a deal.  Maybe a bartender for a strip joint would make it better, or how about she was a stripper?  Or on weekends she still stripped, but she only did it to donate the money to charity?

    Sheree finished her introduction and Garrett stood up again, “We also have Harlow who joined our WithUs style team as a Senior Stylist.”

    Harlow popped out of her seat to polite applause.  “Hi everyone!  I’m Harlow and I started last month.  Right now I’m working on branding the Co-Eating site and I’m learning so much here, my team has been working on a new official font for the site next week so it’s really super exciting.  We’ll give everyone instructions on it later in this meeting.  I think they’re gonna show you the mock up with the new font. It totally changes the look and feel of the site, it’s really amazing.  Anyhow I love this stuff, so I’m super psyched to be part of this team and learn all these new things.  My last job was with Evite where I was working on the new graduate collection.  So…one interesting thing…I mean it’s not like that interesting…I like used to live in Budapest for a couple of years after graduating and so I speak fluent Hungarian…”

    Judy was sure she’d be called next.  She didn’t know what to say.  She didn’t have the capacity to be so happy about a new font like Harlow.  How does anyone have enthusiasm for fonts?  Is this the next ‘generation of heroes?  She could not, would not raise her own two daughters to be passionate about fonts.   So what would she say? How about: ‘I spend my weekends teaching glassblowing to underprivileged kids.   I know it’s not that interesting but I am the secret daughter of Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy but I never met them because I was raised by a family of wild swans, also I have two functioning vaginas…’

    “And her name is Judy.”  Garrett was pointing at her.

    Judy stood up and faced her co-workers, her new community.  Behind them, the words WE ARE AUTHENTIC glared at her from the wall again.  

    “Hi, I’m Judy, I’m the new Operations Manager,”  

    All the tricks she had to learn to re-enter the work force and learn all over again; how to interview, how to dress, how to be confident and she managed to ace it all.  Now she was in a totally different universe where kids ran everything, made their own rules, invented their own language and she felt outside of it. 

    “I’m so very happy to be here and I want to thank Garrett for giving me this opportunity.”  

    She wanted to learn new things too, maybe even learn about fonts but how could she do that in this unchartered world where she constantly walked on pins and needles, not nearly as confident as people half her age with less work experience but more interesting life experiences. 

    “I’ve been out of the workforce for a few years to raise my kids, which has been the best thing that ever happened to me.”  

    Polite clapping.  One interesting fact?  She thought, no there isn’t anything that could be interesting about her to these kids.  That she was once their age and thought their thoughts but never assumed she or her generation would be the most interesting people on Earth.  I will be authentic, she thought.  

    “My life is kind of boring, so I can’t really come up with something interesting.”  

    “Aww, c’mon,” Garrett chided her from the sidelines, “At least then tell us the names of your kids.”

    She knew at that moment that they knew too, that she would never be part of them, part of this community.  Authentic just wasn’t enough.  

    “Rose and Emily.”  

    Her gorgeous girls, who taught her how to be a grown-up, who taught her how to love someone more than yourself, who reminded her every day that while her life might be uninteresting it was a vital life, who’s pictures would never adorn her work space because there simply wasn’t enough room.  

    The polite clapping went on as Judy sat down.  She would sit and wait for samosas.  She no longer cared about OKRs or new fonts because she knew she would leave this place soon and not come back.  She would look for another job, someplace that still had cubes where she could hang her pictures, do her work comfortably on a Dell laptop and be as uninteresting as she wanted to be.

    She had to be authentic.

Ross Dreiblatt a Florida based fiction writer with a background in journalism and business.

Cover photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash

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