Ever since I sent my mortar board sailing at college graduation four years ago, I haven’t been sure-footed. I had always been a good student, but those nearly 20 years of riding on someone else’s ship, with their hand firmly on their rudder, being obedient to their vision, that makes for a lot of habits that are hard to break. Be on time. Follow directions. Have enough to share with the class. Get a doctor’s note. Go to the restroom only with permission. Focus on your assignments. And the grades that come back.
One day I found myself a college graduate. The world was looking at me and expecting an adult. But I sure as shit didn’t feel like one. At least not like the adults I knew growing up, the ones with nice cars, perfectly rounded families and – more than anything else – drive, vision and answers. I have no answers, no real ambition or direction. Just debt.
I guess that’s not perfectly true. I did have some ambition, but it was like a Prius-strength drive to have drive. To fall in love. To have a fulfilling career and lifelong friends. All the things everyone else seems to have. A life that’s something more than being a lab rat hitting the lever for another little pellet of fleeting contentment.
I could see a little glimmering sliver of hope with Sara. I met her through my friend Sam a while back. She was beautiful in that ever-so-slightly flawed, natural way that puts an instant cavity in your chest like the first dip in a roller coaster. Her smile made me reprioritize my life. Her eyes hinted a soul so warm, sweet and unabashedly true that I had no choice but to prematurely fall in love with a veritable acquaintance.
And I couldn’t pursue her as a jobless loser. That’d be disastrous.
So that’s what led me to this job. I needed to find something. Anything for the time being. Then I saw Sh:ft was hiring. Whoa. Sh:ft? Coming to this little flyover city? That was way too interesting to pass up. Supposedly they could “fix people.” The year-round resolution solution, as the ads said. Just about anything you didn’t like about yourself, they could change. It seemed too good to be true, but their ads boasted a 97%+ success rate.
The “Sh:ft Leader” position only required a college degree. Any college degree. Filling out the online application was about as easy as creating a social media profile. Next thing I knew, I was sitting in an immaculate white room at a white table in a white chair on slightly off-white carpet watching the Sh:ft orientation video on a Sh:ft-branded white laptop.
I had never realized Sh:ft stood for Supra-Hypnotic Impulse Fluctuation Technology. SH:FT. As the video explained, it was basically technology-assisted hypnotism. Customers (aspirants in Sh:ft nomenclature) would go into a room that’s also pure white, sit in a big, cushy, body-hugging chair, put on noise-canceling headphones and watch a screen that pulls them through a hypnotic state. This resulted in what Sh:ft termed “supra-hypnotic, a highly suggestible higher consciousness, previously thought unattainable.” In this state, the problematic impulse was Sh:fted™. Impulse Sh:fting. Precise procedures weren’t revealed, of course, but it was clearly very effective. Immediately. And permanently.
After the video, the assistant director came in to see if I had any questions. Without thinking, I let out the first one that popped into my head, which also completely revealed my hand. “Can I get Sh:fted, too? I mean, is there a discount?”
She smiled knowingly. “Of course! You know, you’d be surprised how many new hires ask about that. Seems like you’re interested. And qualified. Can you start tomorrow?” She asked.
“Yeah – I mean, yes, definitely!”
“Great!” She said with a smile just one size too large for her mouth, “We open at 9, but get here around 8 so we can go over some of the details.”
“Sounds good!” I said, trying and failing to match her enthusiasm.
And just like that, I was a Sh:ft employee. It felt pretty good. On that first drive home, I passed a billboard I’d never seen before:
UNBEATABLE DEPRESSION & ANXIETY?
Cocaine Therapy Now Available
It struck me as laughably silly. I’d seen Ketamine, then MDMA. Now cocaine? What’s next, crack? And it seemed so absurd when I had the potential for real, meaningful life change right here at Sh:ft. And Sh:ft could really change things. It could turn me into a person Sara might want to be with. No, Sh:ft would change things.
In my first few months working there, I saw slobs become fitness freaks. Workaholics suddenly found time for their families – even picked up new hobbies. Dozens of people lost dozens of pounds. Alcoholics dried up. Addicts cleaned up.
Part of the deal was that aspirants were required to come back at specific intervals to check on their “Sh:fted impulse” and reinforce the hypnotic suggestion if necessary. And ingeniously integrated into that was a simple survey that verified the success of the Sh:ft. And only the Sh:ft. That’s where the nearly flawless success rates came from.
It was intoxicatingly seductive. It became all I thought about. It could work for me. I could lose some weight, gain confidence, find love. I could start to feel like I have some answers, some direction – even my own rudder for once. And I knew exactly who I wanted in that boat with me. I could finally be like everyone else out there, filling the world with their Starbucks cups, LOLs caught on iPhone XIV cameras and big, ludicrous hats.
Even with the employee discount, though, each impulse Sh:ft would cost around $3,900. So, I saved.
As the months went by, there was, well … a shift. In the mood. Unhappy aspirants came back in, demanding refunds from management. It was always a variation on the same melody: former alcoholics had gone sober, but their nerves grated raw. They couldn’t sleep. They were always angry. Some had even tried to drink again but couldn’t get even a sip down without violently convulsing and throwing it right back up.
Newly minted vegetarians and vegans craved meat all day. Dreamed about it at night. Woke up drooling and famished, never the least bit satisfied with their kale and chia seeds.
Countless others had lost so much weight I didn’t even recognize them. But they were tired, hungry and unhappy. Worse still, the permanent Sh:ft wouldn’t allow them to relapse.
The Sh:ft had worked, but they hadn’t changed.
Then one afternoon, a woman in her mid-forties burst through the door, dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex as she came up to the desk. “I need to speak to the manager,” she said, voice wavering between indignation and desperation.
“Sorry, she’s at lunch, but I expect her back in the next half hour or so. Is there something I can help you with?” I asked.
“Goddammit. Sorry. I just––” She stammered, preemptively wiping the tears starting to form near the crows’ feet of her eyes.
“Did your Sh:ft not lead to desired results?” That last part felt so disgustingly corporate, but it’s what I was supposed to say. It subtly separated the Sh:ft from whatever endgame they hoped for.
“No,” she said firmly. “No it didn’t, as a matter of fact.” I could sense a rant coming, but instead she collapsed in a chair next to me in the otherwise empty, white Sh:ft lobby. “I knew he was cheating on me for a long time, but, I don’t know. I guess I felt like I deserved it. So stupid. Fucking STUPID, Whitney. I mean I hadn’t exactly stayed in great shape. I lost interest in sex, lost interest in him, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt, being passed over for a woman only, like, ten years younger. And a dumb one at that?! I always thought he loved my intelligence as much as my body, but I guess he doesn’t have two shits to give about either.”
What could I do? I didn’t have any words. I just let her continue, staring out the glass street front at the wealthy, fashionable young window shoppers perusing our little district, oblivious to my predicament, silently pleading for my boss to reappear and save me.
“So what did I do? I came to this godforsaken place. Paid more than I can afford for your stupid Sh:ft to make me thin and sexy again. Now he doesn’t even try to cover his tracks. Clearly I’m not as intelligent as I thought.”
I couldn’t help it. I quickly and discreetly looked her up and down. She was fit. Athletic. And very attractive.
Shit. She caught me looking.
“Jesus. You are just disgusting. I should have known better than to spill my heart out to another MAN,” she said, dripping with brokenness and contempt. She stormed out, sending an irate “I’ll be BACK LATER!” through the slamming door.
I watched her peel out in her slick little silver German coupe, wishing I had been quick enough to find the words to make her feel better. As the adrenaline found places to cool off in my fingertips, and my heartbeat started to return to a manageable pace, I returned to the sales sheet I had been eyeing before she came in. It was the Sh:ft procedure I had been working towards all these months, the “Comprehensive Upgrade”, an entry-level buffet of Sh:fts to diet, sleep, fitness and habits. $3,900. I had about $3,200 in savings. Just one more paycheck.
I have to admit I might have felt a little shaken by all these unhappy customers. But I consoled myself with the notion that they were unhappy because they chose their Sh:fts for the wrong reasons. I was so close to being able to afford it. Then I could take Sara out. I texted Sam, “Can you see if Sara is available next weekend?”
My boss came back in just as I sent the text. I quickly hid my phone and told her about the upset aspirant. She interrupted me halfway through the story, seeming to already know where it was headed. “Can you come in tomorrow?” she said.
“Aren’t we closed tomorrow?” I asked.
“Yeah. Corporate is sending a marketing team to help us work through some of these issues. I need you there, because you’ve been seeing these problems first-hand. You’ll get time-and-a-half for it,” she added.
“Oh. Cool, sure.”
As she went back into her office, I pulled out my phone. The note from Sam on my home screen sent prickles of hot-cold sweat all over my body: “Dude, I’ll check. I kinda think she moved on.”
Driving to work the next day, I saw the “cocaine for depression” billboard again. I wondered if Sh:ft aspirants were trying that, too. Wondered if they were willing to throw money at anything that might solve their problems. I had big hopes that this marketing company’s “roundtable” might provide some answers. But they were all but completely unconcerned with unhappy customers. “They got precisely what they paid for,” was corporate’s response. And it was technically true.
The dapper marketing dudes were only interested in ways we could “remarket” to these customers. The idea was that if we could convince them their unhappiness was due to yet another Sh:ftable impulse, we could double business. Maybe put a dent in the dissatisfaction too, but that was beside the (very lucrative) point. They were obsessed with uncovering or even inventing new flaws to make people feel insecure about.
At one point, their creative lead forgot himself, talking about how “if we can just make people feel more inadequate, more incomplete, we’ll drive sales through the roof. There have to be more resolutions we can shove down their throats, more things to fix. More impulses to Sh:ft. And I think young people are the ideal target, especially as we take this beast mobile next fiscal.” I could feel my spine filling to the top with disgust, realizing I couldn’t discern truth from sales points. Then I realized his eyes were locked on me.
“Zak, what makes you feel inadequate? What do you wish you could change about yourself?” My eyes met his. They were nearly throbbing with soulless mania. Could he be on that cocaine depression treatment? The world swirled.
“Zak! Zak?” he asked, as an acidic spike of anxiety shot from my gut through my heart and straight into the center of my brain. “Hey, are you okay there, trooper?”
I shook my head and tripped over the Herman Miller chair as I ran from the room, down the hall and out into the parking lot. My boss followed me out. “Zak! You okay?” She shouted.“No-o,” I sputtered, fumbling with my keys, trying to get in my car and away from all of this.
“You look awful. I don’t know what just happened, but just, just go on home. We’ll talk Monday.”
That night, sitting alone in my studio apartment, after I calmed the anxiety with every mind-cooling substance I had immediate access to, I tried to piece it together. But the distraught woman and the heartless marketing jerk just blurred together with all the other disappointed aspirants. All these poor souls believed that one change, one superficial fix would remedy whatever ached for change deep inside them, as if they could grow friends with by cutting out Facebook, cultivate love and appreciation with nightly CrossFit or fill the gaping hole in their spirit with veganism.
Or find love and wholeness with a $3,900 “Sh:ft Comprehensive Upgrade”?
Was I falling for it, too? No. My reasons were pure, right and true. And that was the difference. It had to be. My nerves cooled and head righted, I eased back into an old Vonnegut paperback, and came across a passage that resonated deeply, cementing my resolve:
“No young person on earth is so excellent in all respects as to need no uncritical love … As youngsters play their parts in political tragedies with casts of billions, uncritical love is the only real treasure they can look for.”
On Monday, I patched up the incident with my boss – claiming food poisoning – and asked when I could schedule my Sh:ft. “Well, the chair’s empty now,” she said, eyes glancing towards the Sh:ft room.
“Now?” I asked. I had imagined having to wait at least a few days.
“Sure,” she replied, “Why put it off?”
“Okay. Sure. Why not, right?” I said. I put on a face of confidence, but I still had doubts deep inside, doubts that this is really what I needed, doubts that easy, superficial tweaks would lead to inner change. But I’d come this far. I was just a few minutes from the me I wanted Sara to see.
After a quick transaction brought my bank account down to double digits, I was in the big, body-hugging chair with noise-canceling headphones on. I realized I had been holding my breath for too long.
I let go of the air – the last air I would breathe as the old, imperfect, inadequate me. The new me would breathe new air. It was time for my world to change. I looked at the screen and hit “SH:FT.”