AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following excerpt is from House of Cards, a memoir of my years writing greeting cards for Hallmark. But as this excerpt will show, it’s also about the difficulty any geek has in getting along in the real world. As the chapter opens, I’ve just been kicked out of Humor (which I dearly loved, but I drove the boss crazy) and moved to Main Writing. To preserve identities, I’ve given all my friends from Humor some rather odd nicknames. That should do it.
Chapter 12: Works Well With Others, If They’re Not Touchy
Once I knew I was moving to the Main Writing staff, I accepted it with a sort of desperate hope, optimistic that maybe, in some way, this new position would surprise me with its challenges and differences. At the same time, a cynical part of my brain said, “Dave, you’ve read the sorts of things they write up here. Unironic paeans to a Very Special Daughter. Card after card featuring some design variation on watercolor flowers in a vase. This isn’t your place and you know it.”
Not that there’s anything I could have done about the actual transfer or the shape my job had suddenly taken. But if I’d listened to that voice, I think I might have faced my Main Writing tenure with less frustration. But I was hampered by two things: First, I was a recovering fundamentalist. Conservative Christians learn, almost as an instinct, to ignore their own tastes and preferences, since desire is inherently grounded in sin and selfishness. So the very fact that I wanted something didn’t necessarily make my own desires non-negotiable. Second, I really was tragically optimistic about my own creative malleability. I was nice! I was people-pleasing! I was young and full of energy and inspiration! How could my muse not get along in any circumstances, no matter how pastel?
Anyway, there was one good thing about the move. When the co-head of Main Writing, Constance Blandish, told me in an almost gushing excited-girl voice that I would be joining their staff, she also noted that Evan Wilson would be my mentor.
“Evan Wilson!” I couldn’t help but exclaim. “I love that guy.”
Evan was generally described to visitors as “That guy who looks like Santa Claus,” and while the writing staff had pictures of famous writers all along the walls—Poe and Woolf and Shakespeare and Twain—it was surely no accident that his cubicle sat under a picture of Papa Hemingway. The best thing about Evan Wilson was that he was a legend in light verse. He was so good—able to pitch a line at any age, any gender, and to keep it light and clever and winning, no matter what the topic—that, as I heard the story, he rose to the top of the profession, Writer V, so quickly that he got bored. He detoured into management, didn’t like it, and when he came back to the Writing staff, they created a brand new rank just for him: Master Writer. There have been Master Writers since, but he was the first, and he’d been the best for decades. This was my mentor.
“You should feel honored, too,” said Constance, who was selling my new workplace really hard. “He’s been at Hallmark over twenty-five years and he’s never mentored anybody. He’s so shy, he just hates to do it, and of course we just let him do what he wants. But he’s been noticing your work and he made an exception for you.”
Amazed as I wanted to be, I thought this had to be a hyperbolic sales pitch, since it was pretty clear that I was dubious about the move. But then when I actually met with Evan in a tiny conference room, just the two of us, he was also visibly excited, and he said, in a voice that seemed all the more earnest because it was so quiet, “I’ve never mentored anybody, but I’m going to retire pretty soon, and I see you as my legacy. I want you to be able to carry on in the tradition I’ve sort of made for the company.” I may have developed a bit of a man-crush then.
I was still dubious about the move, but one thing was certain: Main Writing wanted me. And as long as Evan was in my corner, it felt like things could turn out all right. Somehow. I’d just have to figure the details out later.
When I first told Josh Broward that it looked like I was moving to Main Writing, he told me a cautionary tale about a mutual friend of ours. This friend—an ebullient, irrepressible woman I’ll call Joy —did a six-month rotation in Main Writing from another staff. She was widely loved, had lots of friends across the company, and spent a certain portion of her workday on the phone, talking, laughing, and expressing other human emotions.
Two weeks into her rotation, she came to work and found, in her mailbox, an anonymous slip of paper containing nothing but the definition of “silence.” The entire definition, from etymology through 1.a. and all the way to the end, taken from Webster’s Third New International Unabridged, which is a pretty windy dictionary. It had been hand-copied. And this was the first hint she had that anyone might have wanted her to quiet down.
When Josh told me this, he added, as if smiling through the pain, “What gets me about the story is that they hand-copied it. They didn’t just Xerox a page and clip it out. The painstaking obsessiveness of that gesture just creeps me out.” They never figured out who was responsible. Presumably this person was still there on Main Writing somewhere, hiding behind a cubicle wall, quietly judging, judging, judging.
As it happened, however, my early days in Main Writing allayed my worst fears. I did the rounds and discovered at least four good eggs I seemed to get along with immediately. Everyone was happy to see me. People brought me welcome cards and baked cookies. If this was passive aggressiveness, at least it tasted great.
Make no mistake, however. Main Writing was a huge change from the sort of ugly bachelor apartment of Traditional Humor. In Trad Humor, I’d been working shoulder to shoulder with eight twenty- and thirtysomething men, all sort of geeky and overeducated and utterly skeptical of everything. When The Professor had come back from a trip to Italy, the next day at work he’d brought in a commemorative plate with the Supreme Pontiff on it, which he hung just outside the conference room, where it hung, quietly kitschy and disdainful, for the next several years.
You could have never done such a thing in the Main Writing staff. My new coworkers were over two dozen women in their forties to sixties, half of whom were unmarried and childless. They loved nothing better than to work on condolence and grief cards. If you stood in the hallway outside Main Writing, you could practically smell the Zoloft. All this leads to a stark change in creative culture, and nothing epitomized this change more than the Crying Room.
They didn’t technically call it the Crying Room. It was called the Quiet Room—from outside it was just a label on a door between the conference room and the soda machines. When I asked what it was for, Constance just waved her hand and said, “Well, you know, sometimes the work we do can become sort of…overwhelming.” She didn’t elaborate, and I got the hint. I never asked again. It had been rude to even bring it up.
It was indeed a very quiet room, and I found myself going there a lot—not to cry, but just to get out of my goddamned cubicle. The room—about the size of a walk-in closet—contained a rocking chair, a table, and a rolltop desk. There were books of poetry and inspiration along the desk’s top, a few handmade pillows, and track lighting on a dimmer switch. Any time you wanted to, you could close the door, hug a pillow to your chest and rock quietly in the dark. Or you could turn the lights way up and do a little research, reading a little handbook of Shakespeare’s sonnets or a 1959 collection of humorous verse. I preferred, however, to dim the lights, because if you turned them too high you’d notice that it was still obviously a standard Hallmark room, with the off-white unornamented walls and the sturdy ’80s-era carpet.
I should add that, while the Quiet Room is fun to talk about anecdotally, in actual practice I hardly ever saw it used. So it’s not like everyone was having constant emotional breakdowns. Or if they were, it’s possible they simply wept quietly at their desks. The cubicles on Nine were built too tall to peer over, and many had plastic doors you could close.
For the first few weeks of my tour of duty, I wandered and chatted mostly with the funniest or most friendly people on staff. Laughter ensued. Polite goodbyes were shared. Except for my newfound habit of being distracted by breasts, everything seemed to be going fine.
At the end of my second month, however, Evan came by and said, with an embarrassed look, “We have to talk.” He led me into the Quiet Room, closed the door, cleared his throat, and said, “Dave, you’re using too many literary allusions in your casual speech, and people are complaining.”
I defy you to quickly come up with a sensible reaction to that statement. My first instinct was to ask, Was this about my cards? But of course it couldn’t have been. He’d said my casual speech. I was flummoxed. “What does that mean?”
He shrugged, looking even more embarrassed than before. “I was just told to tell you.”
I had to say something, react in some way, so I said, “Uh, I’m sorry. I guess I’ll have to work on that.” And Evan Wilson, my mentor, changed the subject—”How are things going creatively?”—and five minutes later our meeting was over.
It’s a measure of how insecure I was that I didn’t press the issue. Part of my passivity was just because it was clear any straight answer was going to be hard to get to: some unnamed higher-up had told Evan to tell me this one weird thing that other vague unnamed people were saying. Obviously, accountability wasn’t at a premium. But even if there had been a clear chain of provenance, I don’t think I would have pursued the question. I thought of Hallmark as literally the only job I had skills for—the only job I could ever have that I wouldn’t utterly hate. If I was fired, then, I had no options except a life of misery doing something else I would face with actual pain rather than occasional weirdness. And since I hadn’t worked out in Humor, and hadn’t liked editing, this stint in Main Writing was essential to my survival. So when my meeting with Evan was over, I also felt as though, by agreeing to change and by nodding with a show of comprehension, I had waived my right to go back and ask, “What the hell does that even mean?”
The only information I had to go on was that single sentence of warning, and for the rest of that day I turned it over and over from every possible angle, trying to glean sense:
You’re using too many literary allusions in your casual speech.
Literary allusions? What literary allusions? It’s not like I was going around saying things like, “My god, that meeting was as dull as the Customs-House chapter of The Scarlet Letter!” or “It’s been a Metamorphosis kind of morning—and I mean Kafka, not Ovid!”
But even if I had been that kind of pretentious ass, it left other questions unanswered. What were the unwritten rules I was breaking here? Was this a ban on literary allusions, or was pop culture also judged and wanting? Is opera a literary allusion? How about Monty Python? Would it be rude to name all the dwarves? For that matter, what if I said—as I often did, fully aware that I was in Kansas City—”oy vey”? Was that counting against me?
Then there was that phrase “too many,” which suggested not that my literary allusions were annoying, but merely that I was indulging in them at a level that exceeded local standards of taste. How many was that?
Problem was, I could only think of one bona fide literary allusion I’d committed. Three days earlier, I’d wandered into a conversation with two other writers, one of whom was complaining, “It’s so frustrating! I not only have to do eight lines of verse, but the editor is actually demanding a specific rhyme scheme! I’ve never seen that before!”
I’d never heard of such a thing either, but I said, “Well, you never know. It might help. I don’t know if you can have art without limitations. G. K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, said that the essence of every picture is the frame.”
I admit that was excessive. But it was the only literary allusion, qua literary allusion, that I could point to in my entire fortnight’s tenure. Is one literary allusion in two weeks excessive? And where did they get off judging my frequency anyway? With only one allusion on the books, the next one might be months off! How could they be so damned sure another was due?
I also want to point out that the reason I cited G. K. Chesterton was out of intellectual honesty. I could have simply said, “The essence of every picture is the frame,” and it would have been faster. But it would have left the impression that I’d come up with the line, or—worse—had read it on a t-shirt. Chesterton, an author I love, deserves better than that, and if I slighted him in this I’d know my sin and I’d have to live with myself. So I mentioned G. K. Chesterton—and as soon as I did it, I thought, “My interlocutor might not know who G. K. Chesterton is, so I’d better mention the book so they know he wrote books.” Besides, Chesterton wrote dozens of books, and I’d hate for someone trying to track down the quote to have to go vainly through volume after volume of Heretics, The Everlasting Man, The Club of Queer Trades, etc. I like to save people time.
So I wasn’t trying to be pretentious. I was just offering helpful and considerate footnoting. That’s some responsible goddamn scholarship right there! If I’d been them, and I hadn’t gotten the reference, I would have thanked me for the extra help.
But they didn’t. Which led me to the second half of the accusation:
…and people are complaining.
It was spooky. Not just one person, but people. Faceless, genderless, misty and omnipresent, like Mr. They in “They say…” I could never confront my accusers or gauge their sanity, because they barely existed. Even the warning had come to me indirectly, reporting not on a specific incident and such-and-such a time. It was more like a weather report informing me that the atmosphere had changed. I had two options: dress differently or die of exposure.
This is the part that most amazed me: people are complaining. I’m no stranger to office politics, and goodness knows I’ve complained about my coworkers before. But this statement meant that people had gotten together—at lunch, in meetings—and someone had said, “God, that Dave and his literary allusions! He makes me so upset!” And someone else had said, “I feel exactly the same way!” And a third person, maybe, said, “Isn’t it intolerable? Something must be done—and quickly, too, before another week passes, because I don’t like this situation’s current trajectory!” And they—whoever they were, in whatever numbers—decided that this problem (me saying things) was so out of control that it could only be handled by upper management!
Or else—and I’m just blue-skying here—they were spineless hypersensitive weasels so utterly helpless that they relied on their superiors as proxies for their own attenuated social skills. Try as I might, the friendliest spin I can put on the story is that maybe—maybe—people thought the behavior was annoying, but were also afraid of hurting my feelings because I seemed so guileless and tender-skinned, so they made the criticism oblique in order to not make me cry. But even when I try to see it that way, it falls apart: that sentence is a threat, not a helpful hint. This was something a little more territorial: the old cats hissing at the new one.
In any event, I didn’t have to think very long about it before I realized two things. First, I was in actual trouble–enough trouble that my boss had apparently seen fit to point out that I was playing a dangerous game not even a month into my second-chance position. Second, whatever the problem was, it couldn’t possibly be what I had been told it was. Literary allusions as a bad habit made no sense however I dissected it. I wasn’t sure what the real problem was, of course, because these professional greeting card writers, alleged experts at the marriage of words and feeling, had failed to clearly express themselves. The only thing I could think of was that I must be doing something really annoying that felt, to an inarticulate person, like something they might plausibly describe as “too many literary allusions.”
I mentioned this to Josh Broward, and he shook his head and said, “Welcome to the Ninth Floor,” with a look that was equal parts smile and wince. I talked to other friends in all corners of the company, and they all professed to share my bewilderment and my high dudgeon. But they could offer no advice.
In the meantime I had to go to work each day in a new department, not trusting anyone, wondering who hated me and for what petty reason, terrified to say anything for fear that one distant echo of Poe would bury the needle and make the boiler explode. I found myself wandering away from the ninth floor and spending my days working elsewhere: The Crown Room, the lobby, the glass walkway to 2440. I exiled myself at my own job.
I had a notebook with me—a habit I’ve had since high school—and I found myself writing in it, not only when I had a card idea, but whenever I felt the urge to say something that might be taken as a literary allusion; something I thought I maybe shouldn’t say, but blurted out anyway. With notebook in hand all the time (rather than in my pocket), I began stifling myself by writing down what I thought instead of telling it to someone.
When a week passed, I did an assessment and I discovered that I wrote five to ten completely work-irrelevant entries every day. And most of these related to puzzles or word trivia. “CHANGELESS is ANGEL inside CHESS!” “MARTHA STEWART is MART plus HASTE plus WART.” I ran across an unfamiliar word—neoteric—in a review of a U2 album in USA Today, and I wrote not only the definition (“modern”) but noted also that it was an anagram of “erection.” And so on.
I only wrote down one actual allusion. Someone said, “I don’t think people can really get along if they don’t have the same level of intelligence,” and I bit my tongue and did not say what I wrote: “In an interview, Alma Einstein once said, ‘I don’t understand relativity, but I understand Albert.'”1 So this review of my methods complicated my situation, because on the one hand, it was obvious that literary allusions really weren’t the problem. And while I found that writing down these urges was soothing, and made the urges retreat, the fact is that most of my urges were wordplay related, and I almost never share any of the wordplay trivia I notice. If these people hate my literary allusions, I thought, imagine if they knew all the stuff I’m not saying. Disturbing though this was, I vowed to continue taking notes and reviewing them each week, on the theory that eventually some helpful pattern would emerge. But in the meantime, I felt distinctly freakish.
The one place I felt safe to be myself was among my fellow humor writers. Not because I wasn’t a freak there, too–I was, after all, the wacky neighbor–but because they knew me and, except for my old boss, seemed to like me anyway. Of course, I wasn’t technically a humor writer anymore, and they weren’t my fellow anything. But I still went to lunch with them and hung out when I could. In a company that had suddenly and unpredictably turned on me, it was the one place that seemed to make sense.
In the second week of of my note-taking experiment, I was walking to lunch with a group of the Humor guys, including Blues Man, Edgar Allen, and The Professor. We had just crossed the glass walkway into 2460 when Blues Man stopped and said, “I was just thinking. We do a lot of monkey cards, and we call them monkey cards. But they’re always using photos of chimpanzees. And I don’t think chimps are monkeys, are they?”
As it happens, I had done a report on apes in fourth grade, and for some reason I had remembered it. So I said, “Actually, chimpanzees are apes, along with gorillas, orangutans and gibbons. They have no tails and they’re not exclusively arboreal, although they still have those long brachiating arms. And you know what’s weird? In the Planet of the Apes they don’t have any gibbons, and they never explain it!”
A silence fell over the group, and I knew I should stop. But I had more to share, and when would this subject ever come up again? Quickly, Dave! “But you know,” I continued, “my real favorites are these weird primitive monkeys they call prosimians—the lemur, the tarsier, the galago or bush baby, the kinkajou. Really cool, strange-looking animals. If they had a movie called Planet of the Prosimians, I would totally watch that movie!” Whew! Done!
The silence furthered. Then Edgar Allen laughed and said, “Hey, Dave, speaking of animals, would you like to see the rat’s ass that I give?” Then everyone laughed, and we continued on to lunch. And I thought, Oh. It’s stuff like that, I bet. That’s my vice. I inform people against their will.
That’s when I felt cold dread seep in. Because although I could possibly change my behavior in little ways here and there—take extra time to iron a shirt, keep still for an entire meeting, etc.—stopping my exuberantly irrelevant brain was a hopeless task. I was obviously already clamping down on it as much as I could bear to. But what was worse, that moment of actually using and sharing the information I knew had given me such a rush of joy, made me feel so connected, somehow, to both the books in my past and to the friends who had agreed to put up with me, that shutting it off would be misery. And if I wanted misery, wouldn’t any job do? I began to fear that, while I had friends at Hallmark and people who understood me, none of them were on the ninth floor: the best that floor could offer was polite endurance. So within a month, it was quite clear that moving me to Main Writing had been, and was, a terrible idea. All that remained was for the doom to play out.2
1This quote, by the way, turns out to be apocryphal. So it’s a good thing I didn’t speak up and perpetuate a myth. What would people think?
2I feel compelled to add that, in talking about apes to my friends, I was misremembering the facts. Apes may be “not exclusively arboreal,” but so are some non-apes, like baboons. And apes may be tailless, but so is the Barbary macaque. So the only real distinction between apes and monkeys seems to be genetic–which is why people get them confused.
Also, I’m embarrassed to point out that despite what I said back then, the kinkajou isn’t a prosimian. I should have referenced the pygmy loris instead. In my defense, I would like to point out that “kinkajou” is really fun to say.