“Stress Management” Write Up by Laura Mercado

SUMMARY of “Stress Management” by Glenn L Diaz

At the call desk, the main character recounts about how employees immediately know when supervisors begin to listen in on the phone calls. The audio becomes echo-y and ruins the phone calls for everyone, even Karen, a woman who purposely feminizes her voice in order to lure men to buy whatever she’s selling. It’s revealed through more of the internal monologue that most of the employees had liberal art degrees, and this was the only place work was available. An example of a normal day is given, emphasizing the monotony of daily life with that of the job itself. Something different happened that day, however- that night, their supervisor Brock alerted the team that they were to be evaluated for call flow compliance. No one was working, instead being distracted on computers, except for Mitch. As a result, a software block thing like HISD’s *sigh* would be installed on everyone’s computer. No one’s happy about this, and then it’s revealed they all have mandated Stress Management talk/therapy, too, and even less people are happy about that. Cut again to the unnamed character’s internal monologue; they look back fondly on their graduating days, when they were younger and freer, and compare it to the “dull and unchallenging” life of now. The working hours are in the night, so they think about how their sister company in India is working at the same time as they are. They gossip about the latest American Idol contestant, a Hawaiian resident named Jasmine. The bump into Mitch there, who drops cake and acts really embarrassing, so the group half-unwillingly waves back.  They talk and go back inside after their lunch break ends; they’re almost there when Philip shares a method to not have to talk phone calls, thus giving the department some freedom for the four hours left in the shift. Mitch is the only one working after lunch, with the rest of them adopting the new technique. Finally, the shift ends and Brock proceeds to give the Stress Management talk; the PowerPoint fails for a moment before going back to working. It seems to be a few hours of slow nothingness, and everyone struggles to not fall asleep. Mitch asks a question, and Brock goes off on a philosophical tangent no one quite grasps. Cut to some time later; Jasmine makes it to round 3 on American Idol, Mitch arrives late to work, and Philip lends her a 100$ bill. They go to McDonalds’s, and gossip some more. Lunch break is over, and Brock tells them to go back to work. A bit after they begin to answer calls again, Brock’s supervisor passes down information about 1/3 of the calls made from the center were to American Idol (this was Philip’s workaround). The company lost a load of money and the initial source of the calls was undetectable so, as a punishment, everyone’s lunch would get cut down from one hour to half an hour until the guilty party was ratted out. The day continues as normal until the last two hours of the shift; Mitch had directed an angry customer at Brock, who yelled at the VIP customer thinking it was Mitch. Mitch retaliated by quitting right after the phone call was finished, citing harassment in the workplace once Brock made it clear leaving would not be easy. Mitch turns to leave, her stuff already packed, as Brock rushes the rest of the employees to get back to work because their lunch break ended 7 minutes ago. The go back to work, put on their headsets, and listen for the next caller’s “beep.”

***

Acute tension: office problems, specifically dealing with the bureaucracy of the call center.

Chronic tension: no one knows what to stand up for/ what to do with their lives

***

A couple unconventional things drew me to this story. First of all, it starts off with a three-paragraph internal monologue, rather than being in scene. We’re thrown into this new story with new characters and new plot, which already can be pretty confusing, but Diaz takes it one step further with throwing us into the speaker’s mind, as well. Usually, when I see this attempted, the author cannot pull it off- before reading a story, I  weigh the amount of attention and energy I will have to put into the piece in order to semi-decipher what is going on, and will end up picking a different piece if getting “into” the story resembles any sort of maze, and I’m kind of sure the majority of readers to the same- but Diaz’s mastery of “weaving” drew me in.

So, what do I mean by this “weaving” thing? “Stress Management” has a perfect ratio of exposition to plot, which is commonly intertwined in the same paragraph, constantly giving us real-time updates as to what is physically, plot-wise going on in the piece; but also what is being set up to occur behind the piece. In other words, the chronic and acute tension are spatially woven together to the point where it all feels like one mega-system. I recognize that this concept of fluidity is a basic idea in writing, but honestly, I have a hard time reading stories where both tensions seem to flow into and complement each other; this piece stood out to me with the ease that it is accomplished. I believe it is because the theme it itself explores deals with the concept of “weaving,” so the piece’s physical form of weaving the two conflicts into same paragraphs and sentences is elevated in effectiveness when it works to emphasize the topic it speaks about.

So what about this “topic” I speak of? In my highlights, I tracked mentions of American customs/ideas, Philippine customs/ideas, and the meeting point between these two topics, most commonly in the form of an interaction. (Before we proceed, disclaimer: I’m latina, not in any way Filipina, so apologies to the 103.3 million people I may be insulting if I get a cultural aspect wrong; no harm or misrepresentation was in any way meant. Now continuing.) The very first example of this happens a mere 1/3 of the page in, with our first observance of the Filipinx, unnamed main character.

 ‘Thank you for calling US-Tel Consumer Services. My name is– ’

‘Hello?’ the American on the line would say, already outraged.

Already, we have a clear we vs they; phone operators are usually not the most respected, stuck dealing with cranky and usually self-entitled customers. The employees must shut their mouths and stick to reading a script which consists of mostly

…thank(ing) our callers for calling us, introduc(ing) ourselves with made-up names and convey(ing) a most ardent desire to help them, in all the ways we could, and more.

The phone operators in the story also seem to mostly be primarily from the Philippines. On the other hand, the Americans in the piece never seem to have to filter themselves. They are the ones in positions of power, whether they’re the customers or the direct supervisors. Additionally, the Philippine culture originally appears to be the one suffering the most “damage” from the phone operating job; it is revealed the main character and their coworkers must

…step[] into the shower just as the chicken adobo for dinner had started to settle in our stomachs, leaving the house as the parade of primetime telenovelas began…

A side-effect of this job is their being deprived of the intimate aspects of their culture. As the piece evolves, however, so do the freedoms of the Filipinx characters. The coworkers go out for tapsilog and sisig rather than eat at McDonald’s, for example, a change they gladly welcome. Even with all this, however, there seems to be one place the main character can never go: the courtyard dubbed the Lung Centre where Americans, British, Canadians, or Aussies hang out. Eventually, at the point in the plot where the staff’s lunch time gets shortened from an hour to 30 minutes, some of the staff suggest a protest of sorts. The only person to ultimately rebel is Mitch, earlier described as someone who would “cozy up” to those who’d hang out at the Lung Centre, as well as portrayed as a disgrace to Filipinos everywhere as she stumbles through the market.

Through this, Mitch represents the ultimate intermediary between the cultures; she is the weaving of America with the Philippines personified. Once this is taken into account, it is not surprising to note that although Mitch is not the narrator, she is the main character, having gone through the greatest character change than anyone else. Paralleling Jasmine’s, a Hawaiian (never specified if Native Hawaiian or Hawaiian), victory at American Idol reaffirms that yes, Polynesian culture is a prevailing part of the US. As Jasmine reaffirmed the audience’s view of Hawaii as being a part of the US, or the “American” part of American Idol, Mitch’s actions of standing up for the lessened lunch break and taking back power places her on a rank with that of Americans like the company’s customers and her supervisor, thus distinguishing her once and for all from the lower-power positions of her fellow Filipinx immigrants.

***

Writing assignment:

First, flush out a character. What would be their go-to poem? Favorite comfort food? Are they a cat person, dog person, or allergic to both? Second, pick an injustice/important issue you would like to convey in a piece. Now combine the two- the injustice should not define your created character, but instead serve as the character’s motivation to perform a specific action.

***

Questions:

What did y’all think of the irony of everyone smoking in the Lung Centre?

Were the employees right in not protesting the cut lunch time? This came as a consequence of other things being done apart from answering phone calls; do y’all sympathize more with the phone operators, or the company and their loss of money?

The stress management PowerPoint/lecture itself is only a small portion of the piece; what did y’all think of its use as a title?

Was this a single-read story to most of you, or did it take a few reads to fully understand/capture everything? What elements made it a single or multiple-read piece?

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