Races with Rats

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

So I wrote something. I decided to try my hand at one-day short stories again. Not sure there's much of a story here, but it is words, and since I wrote it, I decided to share it with warts and everything. Sorry about the style. I've been reading DFW again, and you know how that goes.

Planning is something you do after you finish a job. You learned that the hard way after you started your first job out of college. You thought that the smart people who ran successful businesses thought and planned and did their homework before they decided anything. You used to think a lot before you ended up in a cubicle repeating the same motions and same thoughts day after day. Most of the times you spent looking for something to distract you. You wanted a few moments of peace; thinking that if you could find peace then maybe you would find an explanation for the drudgery, and with that explanation perhaps things would get better.

When you’re trapped in a cubicle you don’t think much about why you’re there. You don’t even think about how to escape. It’s not like you’re physically restrained in any real sense of the word. You’re sitting there surfing the internet or doodling on a post-it and thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch. You’ll have lunch with the same three people and have the same conversations. You’ll laugh at the same places in the banter and you’ll wonder why this is the highlight of your day. You’ll lose touch with these people as you move up and on, but you’ll always think back fondly at this time because you’ll never have work relationships that are this easy or close again. At lunch you’ll all complain about your jobs and how people who are not as skilled or smart or good looking as you always seem to get promoted before you do. And you’ll wonder why you care so much about promotions since you’ll tell yourself that it’s not about the money; that there’s something else out there—something bigger. You won’t delve too deeply into what that something bigger is because, if you were to tell yourself the truth, you would find out that that deepness is actually as petty and small as the rest of your thoughts. You are about the status and the money and the head-turning cars. You do not care about the happiness of the people on this planet in any real sense of the word, except to perhaps drive a hybrid car and pretend like the batteries aren’t going to poison the lakes and streams to save a few cents at the gas pump.

The days pass like this and you step on others shoulders and maybe stand on their heads just a small bit to get ahead. You wander through the hallways of your building and marvel at how many people’s lives now depend on your mood and ability to deliver, which your bosses (because you always will have bosses in one form or the other) pat you on the head to reward you for understanding the flow of business and how to weather the worst recession since the last one in the 1970s.

And you’re getting places now. Your house is growing, albeit a bit smaller than your neighbor who you thought you had outpaced until he inherited money from his dead grandmother, which is not the same thing as earning it yourself, you tell yourself, as if the scoreboard really changes based on where the money came from. It doesn’t, you know. But you tell yourself that as you look at your neighbor’s ugly children and yappy dog and wonder why you even care about the scoreboard with all its beeps and blinking lights—some of which seem to have blown out during your reverie and consideration of the new garage your neighbor dropped next to his house to store his new Ferrari.

Then you go to work. Not too early anymore, since there’s no need. You spend most of your time at your desk browsing the internets still. But this time you have an assistant who sits outside your office at a desk that’s bigger than the desks you sat behind in the cubicles so many years before. She answers your phone but doesn’t get you coffee as that’s not something the executive assistants can do anymore for their bosses. She does get coffee for visitors, which is nice because she’ll grab one for you when she’s on the way as a favor. Before going to work you stop by a breakfast place inside a hotel for a meeting. Lots of your meetings now take place a breakfast places or lunch places or perhaps lobster places where they forget to tell you it’s lunch time and you need them to remind you because you just had your third martini and are wondering why the room is spinning so early in the morning. But it’s not that early anymore. That’s the point.

And your home life—because you still have one since unlike most of your colleagues you’re still married and you still know the names of your children and even spend some time with them on weekends and afternoons when you decide you’ve had enough of office life and clock out for the day—is still distinct and perfect. Your wife still greets you when you get home and you’re genuinely happy to see her since that’s another checkbox in your life: happy marriage, something that after the 1950s seemed to exist only in the lands of fairytales, where there is a possibility of living happily ever after if you didn’t spend the eighty hours a week at the office like they told you you would have to if you wanted to get ahead. It turned out that the hours didn’t count for bubkes and you got ahead the same way you believe your forefathers did: not through hard work since hard work is for suckers without luck. You rose through the ranks through knowing the right people and saying the right word at the right moment when the right person was there. It was rarely said to that right person. That would have seemed too self-serving. It was enough that the right person was there to hear what you said and to think or perhaps know that you did not say what you said solely for his benefit and certainly it was not premeditated the night before way after your wife had gone to bed and you were sitting at your desk thinking through the quagmire that was your peer ring and wondering how you were going to crush the last two contenders and impress your boss’s boss who barely even recognized you except on that one occasion where you wore that red tie and you ended up washing your hands in the bathroom at the same time and he made a comment about your tie and you were too tongue tied to even thank him or come back with a witty retort. You wouldn’t make that mistake again. And so you meticulously planned out what you were going to say and even wore a red tie, a different one, of course, since you didn’t want your boss’s boss to associate you with that moron he ran into in the bathroom who couldn’t think fast enough to respond to a simple compliment even though at the time that he made that comment there were so many more bosses between you and him that you doubted you were in the same planet let alone hemisphere as this all important man.

It wasn’t like all you thought about at home was work. It was just that work was the more interesting thing to think about when you were sitting around and staring at your children and trying to figure out what half of them belonged to you. Was it the eyes? the brains? or perhaps something between? You weren’t worried that they weren’t your kids. Not that worried, at least. You were home at the right times and you still had that good relationship with the wife. She still greeted you at the door and told you about her day and you were still amazed that she could spend so much time at home and still be as interesting as she was. And she was interesting. You chose wisely on that front. You make good choices. But you know that already. That’s how you got to where you are, sitting behind your large wooden desk on your overpriced office chair that would have been more useful to the people that sit in cubicles down the hall since they sit behind their desks for more than ten hours a day and you barely manage an hour behind your desk before the internet bores you or your hand cramps from signing so many agreements that you stopped reading years ago and just relied on your underlings to flag the right places and sign the right documents without asking questions because if you asked too many questions you might find out that there was more going on in the company than you were willing to acknowledge and perhaps it was better that way for the company that you didn’t think too much about it or plan ahead or have any idea what was going to happen next. You didn’t want to spoil the ending. And perhaps you do a little spin in your chair marveling at the smoothness of the motion and the ease in which you can push back and turn to face the window and look down over the sixty floors to the small wet streets where a parade of umbrellas of mostly black but some color here and there greeted you. Those were the workers. Those were the people who made the city buzz with activity and put the zeros on your paycheck. On the backs of others did you climb up these floors and on the backs of others did the cash registers sing. Except your company doesn’t actually sell anything real since selling stuff is for suckers. You sell promises and packaged funny money products that don’t add much to society except for the percentage you take off the top. The percentage that lets you buy your fancy cars and your oversized boat that sits at the dock where you promise your wife you’ll put into the water this summer for a small cruise down south but never actually make the call because it turns out that you don’t actually like the water after a mishap in your youth with a fishing boat and a bucket and your father who had to hold your head as he explained for the fiftieth time that a real man does not get sick on a fishing trip in a bay; that the waves weren’t even big enough to rock the boat in any real way and that if you didn’t get off your hands and knees and get back to the rod you would never catch that fish that you didn’t even want to eat since what eight year old actually wants to eat fish when there’s a plethora of grilled cheeses and macaroni and cheese in your mother’s fridge.

Perhaps it was all for the best. Your life, that is. Perhaps you’ve lived it the way you lived it because you were trying to prove something. You were trying to find some meaning in a game where they didn’t tell you the rules or winning conditions so you, like everyone around you, decided that since it was a game there must be a way to win it, and since winning in every other sport was based on that big scoreboard in the sky, you would just tick on the numbers until they came up green. On your third trip to Paris you thought about checking out of the game. You saw life for what it was: a pursuit of something bigger than a high score. You stopped reading the internet and picked up fulfilling books that you thought would enlighten you as you sat at a corner cafe and stared at the crowds of workers and school children who you knew would be impressed by the author of your book if only they read English. But you tried to put that behind you since you were here on business and not just to escape your home life which was on the rocks because your children were at that age where they were questioning everything and you were not around to give answers so you instructed your wife on the simple truths in your children’s life and then hightailed it to the nearest airport where you took a plane to Paris to arrive at this very spot where you were drinking that very large coffee and hoping that someone—and by someone you hoped a beautiful French woman with long black hair and a slight but not overbearing accent—would sit down and enter into a deep conversation about your life and the truths and not once ask you about your work or what you were doing there or, worse, what you had left behind and why you had left it behind.

You’re older now and all of that happened a long while ago. You don’t need to worry about it. You’re beyond such worries. You left your job when they paid you too much of a bonus to justify working anywhere anymore. They looked at your askance when you did so. The young guys didn’t know what to make of someone like you at the prime of your career, a prince of the industry, where you just landed your second executive assistant to manage your busy lunching schedules on a floor where they didn’t allow cubicles because the people that sat there (which they didn’t do too often) didn’t want to share the same bathroom as those who work in cubicles, who do the real work that kept the zeros added to your bonus checks. You imagined that those around you thought you insane. Or perhaps going through a midlife crisis where you would drive one of those hot red sport cars that you had when you were much younger before your children came around and changed your life—because they did do that and you didn’t need fancy sports cars to change your life yet again.

You’re not a bad man, you will concede after you sit down and introspect longer than you thought possible. Yeah, you will acknowledge that you didn’t plan any of this. This will be evident from now through all the time you will spend in boardrooms for the various charity boards that you will sit on to occupy your time and get the accolades of those around you and eventually, after many years of doing this, to help people because that turns out to be the most rewarding part of that work. There will be no planning for that either. You’ll fall into and it will not be as bad as you fear. There will be nobody to impress in those boardrooms. There will be goodness that you will do and you will be happy to do it. You’ll get a accomplished sense and it’ll make you think of perhaps going into politics until you tell your wife and she looks at you like you grew a third eyeball in the middle of your balding pate and wonder if perhaps your coworkers (who would have spoken to her after you announced your retirement and wondered if you had perhaps jumped off that pier that you were always talking about, and wondered if it wasn’t better for you just to take a little time off, perhaps a sabbatical, and come back when your brain was a bit more screwed on properly) were right when they told her about your impeding insanity and bad choices. But she won’t really believe that, and she’ll encourage you like she’s done all your life and hold you and tell you you can do whatever it is you want to do and will do it well because she believes in you. And you will try not to cry but you won’t succeed because that’s what her belief does to you.

Politics won’t be for you, you’ll realize, and you’ll continue to stay with the charities and give away larger and larger parts of your fortune much to the chagrin of your growing children, who will only understand what you’re doing after they’ve lived many more years and had the opportunity to run their own rat races and see that the cheese they were promised all throughout school and their life turns out not to be the purpose of the maze. They will look back at you with a smile through all those years and know that while you didn’t give advice on the matter, they knew through your actions that for all those years you had spent chasing the cheese, it was only when you left the maze by crawling up and over the walls (which you always secretly wished the rats would just figure out to end the experiment) that you found the answers that were always just sitting there staring you eyeball to eyeball. Your kids will learn that and they’ll laugh and laugh and you’ll wish to join them in your laughing but they’ll be old by then and you’ll be long gone. But don’t worry. There will be many more generations that will live similar lives and some will find the answers, many will not be given that opportunity, and others will refuse to see the answers. But you’ll know that that’s okay because it as the cliché says: about the journey. And the ending turns out not to be as important as they told you when you were young and foolish and believing in such things.