Metaphors aren’t for real

I found myself staring with blank bored eyes at the scribbles Martin was making, self-absorbedly waffling on about advantages and challenges and bla bla bla.

And just like every week, I desperately wondered. Weren’t team meetings supposed to lead to decisions we all can support? Generate common purpose? Utilize hive intelligence? Not with him, they weren’t. The moment Martin stepped up and grabbed those flipchart markers, it was about to become as one-dimensional as it could get. And boring as hell, too: invariably, after about fifty seconds of his talking it was obvious what he wanted us to do — no suspense, and no surprises making surprise appearances in his presentation, either. Ver-ry predictable. I suppressed a yawn, and let my eyes wander with a languid pace along the table.

Wait for it…

Drew, sitting to my right, had just written it in nice, clear letters on his pristine writing pad (which should have been holding business relevant notes necessary to steer the project ahead in line with our jointly made decisions… no, wait, I’m digressing, forget this parenthesis!) — but wait for what?

He will say it!

I just caught myself ahead of giving off a sigh, knowingly; of course he would. Sure as hell Martin would say it. He always did. Drew was having some sarcastic fun at his expense, he had clearly written those words so that everyone this side of the table could read it. I heard a snort that might have been a giggle had it been freely expressed, coming from further along to Drew’s right, where Paige had rested her head in her hands, elbows on the table, with a frozen frowning face that might have passed for that of an attentive listener (but which we all knew was really just a facade for the same boredom and annoyance we all felt…). Where was I?

Well, Drew was correct of course. It would be only a matter of moments now, and Martin would say it. He had already launched into that part about how it all was a team decision, how he was “only” making suggestions, how we should give it at least a try, just for a while, … and then he said it, he said it:

“It’s not set in stone, of course!”

Embarrased silence all around. Yepp. Exactly the same as last week. Exactly the same as every week. And as always, that stupid thing about how it’s not set in stone…

“The asshole.”

For some reason, Drew seemed more upset with the stupid phrase than with having just wasted an hour of our lives. We were sitting in the bar down the street, finally escaped from the office, holding on to our first bottles of Lager for that evening.

“It’s a plague, you know, these incompetent middle manager types. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst is the bloody metaphors.” He still hadn’t calmed down, and as he spew out the last words, he literally thumped the counter with his fist.

“How’s that?” Paige was more polite than intrigued. But her bullshit detectors were in good working order; although she knew that she could forget pretty much everything Martin said right away, when Drew talked she would at least listen.

“You hear a metaphor, you know they’re not honest. And what’s worse, you also know they don’t even care whether you know.”

“Come on…” For my part, I wasn’t buying this one. “Aren’t you reading a little too much into this?”

“Well, look… He could have just told us what he wanted us to do, right? After all, he is sort of in charge, and he could just have played the authoritarian boss type. Would be nasty, but at least we’d all be clear about what’s what.”

“Yeah, true, but…”

“… but instead, he wastes an hour every week with this stupid ritual of fake team decision-making. He never listens, he never asks, it’s all just for appearances. In the end, we do as he proposes. He completely ignores all the brains on the team.”

Paige nodded. Truth be told, she was the one with actual brains. Drew had great intuition about the customer’s data patterns, but whenever it came to the clever coding work, it would be Paige who figured it all out in the end. And it meant, of course, that she also was the one paying for bad decisions with long extra hours ahead of those deadlines. She knew exactly what she was talking about when she added: “And he pretends to be prepared to make corrections further down the road. Which he never does.”

“Precisely.” Drew was warming to his psychoanalysis. “He neither considers the opinions of others nor even how actual reality plays out. He just assumes he’s always right and always will be. It’s pure ego.”

“And why the metaphors?”

“Because it elegantly eliminates any guilt or shame. Metaphors are out there, aren’t they? He says his stupid phrase, and everybody can see it’s ‘only metaphorical’, and so in his mind, he has openly admitted that he was just bullshitting. Now, since nobody has confronted him, that must mean that everybody has agreed, right? And by some subtle transposition, now the team has also agreed to his proposal.”

My head began to swim. Perhaps it was the beer (we were on the fourth round at that point), or perhaps this was getting a little too intellectual; but I could also see Paige frowning and getting a speculative look on her face.

“Right… I don’t know, maybe we should call it a night.”

Drew gave off a sharp, short laugh, which seemed a little inauthentic to me, too; but then he agreed and we got up and left.

I was late at the office the next morning, and so although I was practically still walking in my sleep (as is the customary thing for an office worker ahead of nine o’clock), I skipped the coffee machine and went directly towards our office on the third floor. Better not be late too much.

It was just as well, though, for there seemed nobody in there. Still standing outside in the hallway, I squinted through the glass walls; against the light from the huge windows, you would usually only see heads and shoulders, and the upper bits of our computer screens. There were no heads today, just the dark-gray top edges of the monitors; four of them.

No, wait. Why four? The team consisted just of the three of us: Paige, Drew, and me. (Martin the Prick had his own, separate space, of course. Up one floor, too.) What was going on? Had they added another workstation? Had they dared to seat someone from another team in our room, even?

One way to find out. I stepped in.

There was a dark grey slab of marble sitting on the table. It was about as wide as a gravestone, about as thick as a gravestone, and about high enough for its top edge to look just like another computer screen from the outside. But it was solid stone. (Of all the questions that should have gone through my head at this moment, curiously, the one that actually went through my head was how on earth that standard issue office desk could sustain the weight of a rock of such dimensions…) On its front, in solemn golden letters, a stupid goal-and-mission statement was engraved. It could have been something along the lines of what Martin had just given off yesterday at the meeting. But then, this kind of bla bla is so generic, you could never be certain.

But if it was the proposal from yesterday, they’d have gotten it down impressively soon.

They also had cleaned away Drew’s things, and his laptop was gone. Only a disconnected monitor and a lonesome mouse dangling from its cord were left.

“We need this database update. The top three customers have demanded it for weeks…” When Martin wanted something and didn’t get a commitment right away, he went into a red-faced screaming mode not unlike that typically employed by three-year-olds. “Tell me you’ll integrate it this week. Say, by Thursday?”

Paige gave him an exhausted look. “And what if we can’t make it?”

Martin just shrugged. “Come on. You don’t have to sign with blood!” A dark flicker went over Paige’s face as he uttered the insipid metaphor. But Martin was oblivious to such interpersonal subtleties. “Let’s just say we’ll make it a priority and give it our very best effort. Okay?”

Paige rolled her eyes. Martin wouldn’t even see it. He was already storming out the door, leaving the words hanging around in the office: “Okay then. Thursday. Great!” With Martin, there weren’t even decent exit lines.

Paige and I were sitting on a bench in the park near the office building. I could tell that something was wrong.

“What’s on your mind?”

“You remember when we talked about these metaphors? Somehow, I can’t stop thinking about that.”

I wouldn’t argue. I felt the same way. Since Drew had disappeared, and with that ominous stone plate looming dead center in our office, I had cold runs down my spine everytime a sentence like the one about “signing in blood” emerged from Martin’s lips.

Also, things were getting difficult.

“We’re not going to make that deadline. You know that, right? Not without Drew anyway. Plus, I suspect the database code they send us will be shit.”

I didn’t know what to say. I knew that every single bit of it was true, though.

“You know… I’m a little frightened here.”

This job was beginning to get to my nerves.

Now Paige was missing, too, simply didn’t show up for work on Monday, never answered her phone. I had noticed the sprinkle of dried-in red droplets on her desk, close to the mouse pad, but I’d never mentioned it to anyone. What was the point?

She had refused to update the databases anyway, after she had seen the software we had been sent. So it was on me now. But when I grudgingly set out to apply them, I noticed that the scripts were buggy as a compost pile; on many of them, evidently the programming hadn’t even been completed. Using them to make the update was guaranteed to create some major data inconsistencies. I couldn’t allow that to happen.

I tried to fix and finish just one of the scripts. Mid-afternoon, I had given up. No way I would make it through all of them until Thursday evening, which was the stupid deadline Martin had set. I sighed. I swore. And then, I took a deep breath and went to see him about it.

I’m not sure why I thought that was a good idea. While I explained the situation, Martin fumbled absent-mindedly around with his cellphone, and when I was finished, I could tell from the Face of Incomprehension in front of me that those ten minutes of talking should have been invested in more profitable pursuits. I could have got some coffee. I could have picked my nose. I might even have done some actual work on those godforsaken scripts. Anything…


Martin wasn’t thinking, although a casual observer might have (wrongly) inferred that from the tone of his voice. He was prompting. Prompting me. He wanted me to tell him a way out.

“So there’s no way I can do it until Thursday. That’s less than two days now. We have to postpone the update.”

“You mean, … to Friday?”

(Do I have to comment on that? I hope not.)

“No. I mean at least two weeks, Martin.”

His face started getting red and puffy again. “You can’t be serious! Get it done next week at the latest!”

“We cannot make data updates next week. There are schedules to be followed, you know that… It’s going to take two weeks, Martin. You better call the customers and tell them.”

“When hell freezes over.”

That did it. I stood up and left his office without another word. I didn’t even go back to my desk. I simply went home.

For a late summer day, it was surprisingly chilly when I woke up the next morning. I felt a shudder as I stood up. The bedsheet wrapped around my shoulders, I made a few steps towards the window, but stopped dead when I raised my eyes. I could see the frostwork on the windows from across the room. On all of the windows.

I stood in shock for a few seconds. And then I heard it: a sharp dry crack, just as if an icy surface had broken. Only louder. Much louder.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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