Attitude – Short Story – 2,000 words
Gina comes home tonight with a new goal. She's going to become Chinese.
"I can see where that would be a symbol of difficulty, a good metaphorical obstacle to illustrate the meaning of attitude adjustment," I say. "So is your course now finished?"
"It was a seminar," she says, measuring me with a disapproving look. I feel like a scanned box of cereal, about to be packed by the cashier and then re-scanned on cancel because the customer has changed her mind.
"I thought you said your company makes all new employees take the 'Attitude Adjustment' course," I say, fighting to stay off the shelf.
"It's really many seminars, grouped under the collective umbrella of attitude adjustment," she says.
"Are you finished then?"
"I'm just starting. I've completed all parts of the course. Now I'm going to put the knowledge into practical use."
"So it was a course," I murmur. She ignores me. It's her way of putting me on a shelf with the generic brands.
"Positive thinking is the way to reverse the X-branding that the society imposed upon our generation," she says.
"If you reverse the X, it'll still be X, and no one will even be able to tell it's been turned upside down," I say.
"That's precisely what the seminar was about - negativity and pessimism. Maybe you should look into attitude adjustment."
"I'm an accountant. My company doesn't force us to take courses on attitude adjustment. We adjust numbers. It's a very precise science."
"Well, marketing is an art," Gina declares and suddenly waves her hand. I hear a snap and then feel draft on my face. I jump backwards.
"What's that?" I stare at the crescent shape in her hand.
She moves the frilly red-and-black lacquer fan in front of my face again. "It's an aid, a tool just like any other office tools, except this is a motivational tool. It reinforces my determination, maintains my positive attitude at the level of intensity where it needs to work for it to be effective, and it focuses on my goal."
"Flapping a Chinese fan is going to help you become Chinese?"
"Narrow-mindedness and skepticism are poisons for positive attitude. They neutralize ideas. The fan generates energy to power thoughts and transform them into action."
"I suppose the wind that the fanning motion produces can be called a form of energy," I say carefully. I don't want to sleep on the futon tonight.
"You will be a prisoner X forever," she delivers her verdict and turns around, heading for the kitchen, fan flapping.
Half an hour later, we are eating spaghetti sprinkled with sesame seeds. That's all Gina's positive attitude could locate tonight in our cupboards. Tomorrow, she promises, we will implement our new positive-attitude eating regimen. There wasn't time to shop for it yet.
We met in college, Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a campus bookstore. She wasn't sure whether she really needed the course textbook, recommended by her professor.
"Accounting" and "Art of Marketing" subject headings were in the same aisle, nearly side by side.
The book she held out to me would have fallen through the waxed-cardboard tray we use today as a retro TV-tray. "Do I need this?" she asked me, a blank-faced stranger because I wasn't attuned to her dilemma, trying to read the book spines without my glasses.
"If it's the main textbook for your course, probably," I said, feeling as if I had awakened in a stats lecture to find out we were going to have a surprise quiz.
"I mean it's ninety bucks. Do I need this?" she repeated.
I chose "Business Writing" for my elective course and so far managed to maintain a solid "A" in the subject. In the business world, people are stressed-out and believe that there is no time to read lengthy prose, only abstracts and slogans. Business words must be multi-purpose, each must carry several meanings; a sentence must be a layer of concepts. The business writing must be structured like a pyramid and the reader's first look is directly, from the top. That's where the emphasis lies, on a single point.
"Do you need money?" I asked the girl whose name I didn't know and whose face I could hardly see, because my glasses were in my friend's car where I'd left them last night, and I couldn't wear contacts.
"What makes you think I need money?" She sounded offended.
"Emphasis and sequence," I said.
"Words, statements, questions."
"Are you a math freak?"
She had to see I stood in front of six shelves, filled with books on the art of accounting, but I gave her a benefit of doubt that it wasn't a rhetorical question.
"I'm majoring in accounting. How much do you need?"
She laughed. "About sixty bucks."
"No problem," I said. I had enough books on accounting; besides, my friends didn't mind photocopying off theirs and that's how I'd get my chapters.
A week later, when we went to dine at "Pliny's Burger Shack" for the third time, she said, "Marketing is so imaginative, so creative - I just love it."
"Which part of it do you love - advertising or selling?" I asked.
It turned out she was good in both. That's how I learned about initiative. That's what she said it was, when she posted leaflets around the campus and in the neighborhood, advertising my accounting skills and how these could be applied to assisting citizens with their tax returns. It wasn't exactly the kind of part-time job I'd have chosen, but it did bring in enough money for me to get my car fixed and drive Gina to her part-time job, doing customer opinion-poll at the mall.
"I can't wait to do some real marketing," she sighed, when I picked her up at ten o'clock, in the parking lot, when the mall closed.
"You're already doing part of that, you're training," I said.
"Are you kidding? That's just a minimum-wage job. I'll have to dress up my resume when I'm ready to start looking for a real job."
"Why lie on your resume?"
"Not lie, Nick. You're so harsh. Just choose the words carefully to mean the right thing. I can't very well say that for four hours I stand in the mall, trying to drag shoppers into a booth so they can lie to me about a bunch of products they don't buy in the first place, just so they can get free samples. That's lame."
My mother worked in a high school cafeteria, the same high school she had attended and finished - without going to college. Dad worked on the assembly line at General Motors. He too had never gone to college. I never heard my mother say that her cafeteria job sucked or that it was lame. She liked working in familiar surroundings, as she called it. Dad complained about the shifts he had to work but he was happy with the company health and dental plan. They were happy that I wanted to become an accountant, but I felt they would have been just as happy had I gone to work with Dad on the assembly line. Work was work, as Dad used to say. It brought in money and paid the bills. To them, it would have been lame to lie, or not be able to pay the bills.
"You are so different," Gina said. "You don't worry about these things that plague our generation. You don't feel abandoned by your parents. You take these courses and believe that they'll actually help you in getting a job, that you'll make enough money to buy a home and have a future."
"I will get a job, and so will you. Our prospects are not that bleak."
"Are you kidding? Everyone expects our generation to fail and that's probably why it will too. We're the group of people who grew up with no one at home after school."
"Why should that harm us? Why should that prevent us from building a good future, with hope and everything else the other generations before ours had?"
"Nick, you're just not of this world. Don't you see how harsh it will be for us, having to support the largest amount of senior citizens ever, our parents, the Boomers? These same people who abandoned us when we were growing up, who hung latch-keys around our necks and left us watching TV. We won't be able to handle this shit. We'll fail for sure."
"Any generation can fail, Gina, collectively as a whole, but what about individuals? Don't you believe in your own resourcefulness?"
"That's what I'm talking about, Nick. We won't have any resources. No jobs, no homes, no money. Oh, we'll give it a try and get a job and adjust to the company attitude and values but how long will that last? We're expected to have many jobs, unlike our parents, and you know what that means - failure to hold down any job long enough to become a part of the company culture."
"But variety can also mean you don't get bored, that you don't stagnate," I said, unable to understand or even feel the source of her deep-seated negativity, when she was still in college, still in the training stage.
"You have such parochial attitude, Nick," she snorted. "Must be all those numbers you deal with, or your parents did that to you."
"Condition you to believe the lies, illusions."
"The only lies I've ever felt are those others choose to propagate about our generation. It doesn't make sense to me to feel that I'll fail at everything in life, when I'm still training in methods on how to approach it."
"You need to adjust your attitude to reflect reality," she said, dismissing me with a nod and went to watch TV with a hooded viewer over her head. I had made it for her from a carton box that still had Kellogs Special 'K' cereal stickers on its sides. She claimed it erased her surroundings and helped her focus on the messages ingrained in the commercials. Watching her sit there, on the extruded plastic stool that used to be my "tiny-tykes-meal" table during my parents' backyard parties, I wondered whether this was what the world of media, that had been our cradle, had given us, as a legacy; a generic birth certificate that in place of the baby's name, bore the commercial slogan supposed to define our generation: I. M. Failure.
Why did people feel the need to name the generations? I wondered. Wasn't it enough to name the individuals that came to populate this world? After all, for tens of thousands of years, the individuals had kept our world wet and green. Why would the individuals of my generation fail to keep the garden, fail to grow that which would nourish them and see them thrive? Every generation that ever walked the Earth had left behind traces of attitude in one cultural form or another. Why would ours have to wear the shackles of adjustment?
"Why are you trying to be something you're not?" I ask.
She answers with a question. "Why can't you try to understand the awesome power of positive attitude, Nick? Attitude can move mountains...."
I interrupt her. "Yes, but not genes. Why can't you be happy with what you are, who you are?"
"And who am I?" She flings her arms apart, shouting. "Who am I but a label that someone stamped with 'X'?"
"You can't define your worth as a person in marketing slogans," I say.
"You are a numbers man, and always will be." She spits the words as if these were bitter almonds.
"Don't go," I say quietly.
She turns and looks right through me. "I've failed at everything I tried to achieve. I can't visualize success. I can't channel the positive energy into producing results. What's there here for me?"
"I am," I say.
She raises a hand and makes a sign of a cross. I know she's not blessing me. Neither is she solving a puzzle. She's filling a last square on a tic-tac-toe board. It's not a winning line.
"I'll give you a call in a couple of weeks, when I settle my head. I need to find out who I am," she says as she heads for the door and leaves.
There's no need for her to wait a couple of weeks. I could have told her who she was if she'd stayed.