Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Moving the Peanut

Sitting in an airport bar, my boss Ted shelled a peanut and put the kernel on the countertop between us. “I push it to you,” he said. “You push it back to me.” I nudged it back his way. “Now,” he said, pushing it my way again, “we’re moving the peanut. If we wear neckties and do this ad infinitum, this is called a career.”

And that was how Ted, fifty-eight years old and owner of one of America’s most successful advertising agencies, viewed the office grind. His theory was that ninety percent of the work we do is meaningless and that many of the people he employed were there for largely ceremonial purposes.

Working freelance in a crisis economy has stripped away the fat from my work life and shown me which jobs were simply peanut moving. Editing and writing for local English-language magazines? Gone. Despite my best efforts to create quality, advertisers seemed to only want something cheap. The Moscow jobs where I was paid good sums to stay awake through hours of market research presentations? Gone, too. You don’t need market research to sell soap to Russians: paint the package gold and say it’s “lux.”

I’ve been reading lately in the Estonian press about saneerimine, which I understand is the equivalent in laymen’s terms of getting protection from creditors while you fire a truckload of people and make the survivors work harder.

Like the receptionist. She gets fired and they put the youngest, least valuable employee closest to the door. He’s too inexperienced to see the writing on the wall and so he’ll still smile at guests. The company drivers are the next to go. These are glorified deliverymen, and all the company bigshots drive their own cars, anyway. Next go the boss’ mistress and his various friends, relatives, and pinginaabrid still on the company payroll. Then goes the blonde bombshell marketing manager, the Estonian CEO’s ultimate fashion accessory. After the staff is reduced, the socialist trappings are cut. The company starts charging employees for coffee. The order for corporate-logoed ski jackets is canceled and the company ski event in Otepää is rescheduled—for July. Employees are made to pay for personal calls. Finally go the company cars. After much hand wringing, the board of directors decides that an employee doesn’t need a BMW 7-series to drive from his apartment in Kesklinn to the office in Kesklinn. And then so much for underground parking…

Ah, the crisis. It can turn a job into work.

I was stopped on the street the other day by ETV and asked if I was suffering because of the crisis. Was I cutting back on my cultural caloric intake and attending fewer plays and shows? Damn right, I said. I explained how I now see everything in its fully-taxed splendor. That coffee in Old Town might be priced at 25 kroons, but as both employer and employee, it will cost me enough in taxes to make it a 40-kroon cup. And I told the interviewer I also didn’t have the several thousand kroons anymore to take the family to a Saku Suur Hall “Broadway” production of Phantom of the Opera, which would turn out to star the understudies of the understudies of the understudies. I’ve become so suspicious of any heavily advertised show, that if Kivirähk, Tüür, or Pärt hasn’t written it, my wife Liina has to both pay for my ticket and promise to buy me a half dozen Byeli Aist brandies at intermission. For my money, I’d rather see Chalice’s Phantom. Though I still don’t understand why a grown man would go by the name “goblet.”

See what happens when you take away my peanut? Fog enshrouds the soul. A foul mood sets in.

But I have faith. I read somewhere that the Estonian state employs nearly 160,000 people, an astronomical percentage of Estonia’s work force. The state is currently thinking, reflecting, coming up with a plan. One hundred and sixty thousand is a lot of peanut movers. And that movement requires the tax money of those who really do churn the wheels of industry. Hopefully, that’s you and me, my friend. So cross your fingers. And keep your peanut ready.

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