Adventures in Corporate Teamwork

The other day, the company that I work for had an off-site corporate retreat. The sort of the thing that supposed to foster “team building” whatever that exactly means. The company (I’ll call Y) has little events like this seemingly every week. On the one hand there’s always free beer, and there’s never anything wrong with that. One the other, there’s a forced joviality that sort of creeps me out. It reminded me of going to pep rallies in high school. Part of me rejected them wholesale as groupthink idiocy while another far less verbal part felt vaguely jealous of my classmates who were utterly possessed with school spirit. They cheered, whooped and jumped up and down, utterly unselfconscious about how silly they looked or how artifiscial the event was. As with pretty much any social situation I attended in my late teens, I was more comfortable with scowling in the corner.

For the five months or so I’ve been working there there’s been two trivia nights, a karaoke night, cinqo de mayo celebration, bowling night, and a free Counting Crows concert. (I probably could have done without that last one.) But this retreat seemed different. First off, it was located way up in the hills between Malibu and Agoura Hills. Second, they strongly recommended that we wear old, loose fitting clothes. Third, there were numerous liability waiver forms to sign for the ambiguously described ‘ropes course.’ I started imagining of some brutal HR department culling program where we’d be dragged up a cliff face, given a bowie knife and three matches and told to fend for ourselves for a week. Those who survived got a 5% raise. Those who didn’t lost their jobs though their next of kin did receive a gift card for Jamba Juice.

We rolled in around 8 or so in the morning. The retreat’s coordinators were impossibly perky. They all had names like Kira, Sepulveda, and Oceana (“call me Osh”) and I surmised they listened to a lot of Jimmy Buffet. They quickly divided us into groups and forced us to do some mortifyingly cheesy exercises. I could handle the hand holding and group hugs, but publicly making an ass of your for the sake of group identity (20 of us doing the Travolta while singing “Do the Hustle”) almost had me hitchhiking home.

After that, they lead us to a field where I quickly figured out that “ropes course” was a euphemism for “tempting death and gravity.” There were a pair of telephone poles with a third intersecting the two to form an “H”. The horizontal beam was at least 25 feet in the air. The objective was to climb up one end and cross the beam to the other side. Meanwhile, your partner did the same from the other side. The trick was negotiating yourself around your partner without falling off. There were all kinds of ropes and harnesses that, in theory, would keep you from cracking your skull. In theory. My partner and I were fifth in line. The first four pairs met in the middle, spent a few minutes in a half embrace, their feet fumbling to get past, before one or both fell. While this was happening, I was getting suited up in a harness that seemed one part safety gear and one part fetish garment. I was strapped in five different ways across the back, under the shoulders and very very snugly through the crotch. When it was my turn, I took a couple deep breathes and started climbing, wondering why the hell I was doing this.

There was only one person who opted out. A punk chick in a huge black sun hat. I hadn’t seen her before but I knew that she was a kindred spirit. She and I no doubt would have be talking about cool music were this a pep rally. So why wasn’t I sitting this bit of foolishness out? Simple. I hate losing. That’s not the same as needing to win. I’m fine with coming in 6th place, so long as I’m not last. When I was living in Asia, I found myself eating all sorts of bizarre things (grasshoppers, snake blood, raw horse meat) for the same reason. My dinner companions inevitably liked to play ‘what will the foreigner eat,’ ordering the most exotic things on the menu. My rule was if my host ate the squid testicles then I would. I refused to lose. This same sort thinking got me naked and drunk in Russia and got me very nearly gored by a rhino in Nepal.

Climbing the pole was trickier than I thought because the little flange things were set irregularly, but that was nothing compared to when I got on the crossbeam. I realized that I was very high off the ground and the beam was very narrow and round. I stood there for a very very long moment gripping the pole behind me with white knuckles. I knew that the harness could supposedly support a Hyundai but that argument seemed awfully unconvincing when a couple million years of evolutionary impulses were telling me I was about to die. The reasonable thing to do would have been to climb back down and sit under a tree with a beer in hand, but instead I let go of the pole and started shuffling towards my partner with my arms splayed out either side of me. When we met in the middle, we grabbed and supported each other like a couple of drunks. We stood there in a modified tango pose for something like ten minutes trying to figure out how to get past one another. I tried to get one foot past her, then the other. Nothing worked. Then my partner got impatient and just went for it. I don’t remember what she actually did, it was a blur, but all of the sudden we were on the other side of each other. The crowd below us cheered but I didn’t feel the glory. I just wanted down. And that required us to jump. When “Waldo” the rope guy told me jump down, I retorted “Why the hell would I want to do something like that?” When I did, I fell about five feet before the harness caught, making it even more snug in the crotch.

I sent the rest of the day talking music with that punk chick under a tree with a beer in my hand. There was an opportunity to do another course — one that involved climbing up to the top of a forty foot telephone pole and then leaping to a trapeze — but I felt like I proved what I had to prove that day.

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