The Day of the Pens: Escaping the Windowless Routine to Pursue Life as a Ski Bum
BLEEDING AND DAZED, I sat in the snow – disoriented, but my senses tingling; calm, but the adrenaline still coursing through my veins: The result of a long and brutal struggle. The recurring dream that occupied my every thought amidst both sleep and presence of mind was finally realized. The escape a success, I was free at last. Drunk with satisfaction, and impatient to relive the experience, my mind traveled back just a few months and thousands of miles away…
“HEY!…Hey You!” a woman’s voice prodded towards me.
Startled, I looked up to find the source, the disruptor of my peace and quiet and my intentions of drifting off into my subconscious, away from here and into a serene, unworldly environment somewhere between here and the Pacific. It was just somewhere I had to go—for an hour, sometimes longer—in order to shelter my fragile sanity, and to avoid saying or doing something here that I would “regret.” It was the only way I could continue on living nameless in this place. Like “Prisoner 24601” of the Beltway, I suffered under the humiliating designation of “Hey You.”
I really didn’t have to look up. I knew exactly who it was. Doctor Valenzuela was a ‘big-shot’ in the foreign-policy world. The envy of her colleagues, the bane of her minions, she was the final arbiter of the office social order, vanquishing new arrivals to their humble, pre-destined caste according to the mark of their pay-grade. Tall and slender, with long, dark hair, penetrating eyes, and a fondness for pant-suits, she was a brutal woman—an authoritarian—my strangely attractive, if not insufferable, “Inspector Javert.”
“Hey You…what are you doing? What are we paying you for?!” She was ready to pounce after discovering someone’s apparent failure to distribute “a box of pens” for the seminar. She cried “Havoc!” and her eyes wandered the room as she let slip the dogs of derisiveness and contempt, connecting with all but mine though her direction was clear. I tuned out the specifics of her rant.
“Why all the shouting?” I thought calmly. (I always found myself wondering that; most of the program’s other directors had also quit functioning like normal people.) I didn’t know anything about the box of pens. And I didn’t give a shit. But I didn’t like my co-workers to suffer her; they were sensitive to her scoldings. So I feigned responsibility, knowing that I could always handle her well—like the Dog Whisperer, disarming an aggressive pitbull with a sharp, “Pssht!” and a quick jolt to the snout. She didn’t know how to deal with my rebellious sarcasm.
“Sorry boss. I didn’t quite get to those pens yet,” I said walking towards her, smirking slightly, summoning my best Cool-Hand-Luke. “I was just on one of my union-mandated breaks.”
Valenzuela wasn’t amused. She scowled and grit her teeth, searching for words to convey our apparent “failure to communicate.” She hated my humor; she hated everything about me, I’m sure—not least of which my ‘Christian name,’ never once offering it from her mouth.
But my subtle defiance left me unsatisfied. I considered launching her pen box across the conference room—an act of flagrant disobedience that her kids, and certainly her husband, would never chance—knowing that I could gain a fleeting sense of satisfaction from a look of utter disbelief on her face
I thought better of it. I took a deep breath, exhaling my vengeance, grateful that the incident occurred in the U.S.-of-A. instead of her native country, where she may have enjoyed the authority, and certainly the whim, to have me “punished” for my suspected efforts at organizing the labor-force(3 other interns).
Almost another day gone, I told myself as I circled the room, laying a pen at each place, making sure they were all “facing-the-proper-direction,” in compliance with strict orders that—according to whispers—had come straight from the top. I was hoping the participants (mid-level government officials and other “experts” and “big-shots”) would arrive soon and take their seats, allowing me to sneak away to my inner sanctum where I dreamt about that elusive “freedom,” finding refuge in the mountains with deep powder-snow, steep chutes, inviting rock cliffs…and ski-bunnies.
I was no union-leader. And despite my best performances, I was neither Jean Valjean nor Cool Hand Luke. I was just a “ski bum”…but the saddest kind. It was just another figment of my imagination; a celestial barricade to my misery fashioned from memories of fonder days spent on the outside—though a futile resistance to the drudgery of my daily routine.
I HAD BEEN WORKING—ironically, without pay—in a government department in Washington. It was mandatory punishment for obtaining a master’s degree, which I was studying for at the time, as well as moving furniture for a local company on the weekends (and holidays), just trying to keep my head safely above water and my ass tentatively in an apartment.
Dr. Valenzuela, who had so rudely interrupted the ski-porn rolling in my head, was…well…I guess my “boss.” But in my mind, I would have to be a paid-employee to afford her that title. And plus—by any assessment—she was a cruel (w)itch, whose management style wouldn’t fly in the environs of third-world sweat shops. In hindsight, my “owner” or even my “custodial guardian” she might have been, but not my “boss.”
But mercifully, “The Day of the Pens” was my last day and it drastically changed my life. As 5:30 struck, I was already in the midst of my escape: out the door and sprinting for the parking lot. As I turned the key, I stared back up at the depressing, featureless building, preparing myself for one final gauntlet. I would have to suffer the traffic in order to make it home. With any luck, I might make it with my sanity. My dignity was long gone.
I lived only 12 miles away in Virginia, but during rush-hour—and somehow during any regular-hour—that expedition could last anywhere between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours of the most excruciating madness a man could ever experience. (I’m convinced that people living in the surrounding-DC-area could laugh their way through a torture session with al-Qaeda, the CIA, or anyone else.)
And so with hesitation and dread I drove up the on-ramp to the thruway, slowly creeping to the top of the incline as if not to wake a sleeping beast, hoping that somehow—just maybe—I would have a clear path to my exit…
…No such luck. The top of the ramp revealed a living, crawling nightmare of steel, exhaust, incompetent drivers, and vanity plates. Northern Virginians love dim-witted vanity plates. But on that particular day, the radio loud, the proverbial “shit-show” fermenting all-around, I made a profound realization. As I tried looking into the faces of the other robots, into their poor souls—many of them having suffered this routine for years and years with little return on their investment (aside from the tangible)—it became clear to me that we’d lost touch with our visceral desires. “Self-realization” and “fulfillment” weren’t real-life concepts to us anymore.
I understood why. The search for whatever it is that can offer each of us a deep sense of satisfaction is generally (unless you’re extremely fortunate) in direct conflict with “the current plan” that already required a serious investment of time, money, and effort to initiate. Trashing that plan in exchange for a new, far more ambiguous one requires a serious disregard for the standard principles of economic rationality—and for our fratricidal companion that we’ve so amiably dubbed “stability.” Looking around, it was depressing to think that at the end of the day, it was just another day over for us—nothing more, as far as I could tell. But we were different in one important respect. Their grown-up sensibilities—in conspiracy with that soul-devouring environment—had long ago closed the doors on the manufacturing of dreams…those romantic caricatures of ourselves that we’re able to summon with childish exuberance, unwavering optimism, and a defiant imagination…the age-old practice of maintaining hope of a better day. Thank God—or Buddha or Allah or whoever—for my immaturity, for I was still dreaming like a fool—mostly day dreaming to elude the rancor of Inspector Valenzuela. But it gave me tremendous perspective, not so much on what I wanted, but on what I didn’t want out of life. I mean, has a kid ever thought, with wide-eyed enthusiasm, “When I grow up, I wanna be a bureaucrat!”
As the character “Pete” astutely reminds us—from the doldrums of his steel-mill break-room—in Rudy, the iconic film about boyish aspirations of playing football at the University of Notre Dame: “Havin’ dreams is what makes life tolerable.” Well if I learned anything about life from that movie (and I feel that I’m somewhat of an authority—I’ve seen it somewhere in triple-digit figures and had a peculiar homework-routine set to the triumphant sounds of the film’s orchestral soundtrack on my Walkman) it was that, in my current existence, my life was painfully stagnant, on a congested road towards disappointment and lost time.(Thankfully, the allegory of Rudy’s silver screen life has remained palpable and untarnished by subsequent allegations, involving millions of dollars in fraudulent stock market returns, leveled against the real-life Rudy—for dreams come in all varieties, licit and illicit.)
It pained me that I couldn’t help my miserable friends as they suffered anonymously around me in their motionless vehicles. But I had to save myself this time. I decided it was the last day I would ever spend in defiance of more passionate pursuits. I gotta’ get the hell outta’ this town I concluded as I finally caught sight of my exit, battered but not beaten by God’s punishment for bureaucrats: the Beltway traffic.
FIRST THING THE NEXT MORNING, I picked up the phone to petition the university for consent to register for additional classes on top of my already “full-time” course load. This little maneuver would make it possible to wrap-up my very costly and unsatisfying educational excursion within the next 12 weeks.
The woman on the other end explained that I would need to submit a formal request, “showing cause for the expedited bestowment of a diploma as a matriculated candidate in any one of the University’s degree fields,” which would then go to some kind of “panel” for a review process, and at some point, a decision would finally be handed down.
Awww, Horse Shit! I thought as she rattled off the University’s “policy,” which I was convinced had been contrived long ago by a bunch of D.C. “big-shots,” just having a grand-old-time, amusing themselves with the thought of “the simpletons” clambering through their maze of ‘red-tape.’ I hated that I’d become so cynical; but I couldn’t help it; no doubt a case of “nurture” trumping “nature.”
Why would I need your permission…to work harder… in order to graduate… from school early? Did this somehow become “our” degree when I wasn’t looking?…and in that case where should I send the bill—to your summer home or just the “regular one”?…and can I maybe swing by the yacht club after I mow your lawn this weekend, Judge Smails? (Well…technically the government was paying, but I don’t think Obama would ever let a “Hey You!” like me mow his lawn—although he does seem cooler than most cats in the District.)
The Guardian of University Policy was still on the other end of the phone, rambling incessantly, trying to foil my plans of escape. But I wasn’t listening; the sliding ‘soundproof’-doors on the exterior of my brain were shut as soon as I heard the words “expedited” “bestowment” and “matriculated”—the language of bureaucrats. I sat quietly pondering negative thoughts about the entire system, and the “business” of education. I stumbled back into the conversation when I heard a pause.
“Um, pardon me?” I was lost.
“So what is the reason for your request?”
Pretty inquisitive for a secretary…I mean Guardian I thought suspiciously. Not expecting to have to somehow justify my request at-all, let alone over the phone, I froze for a moment trying to cook something up, but the gears wouldn’t turn. Honesty’s always good I guess.
“Umm… well…under the current mitigating circumstances, I can’t live here anymore,” I said matter-of-factly.
“And what is the reason for that? Is it financial?”
Sticking with the ‘honest approach,’ I responded, “No, but I have cause to believe that my dreams are dying in this town.”
“Oooo uh oh…I’m not sure that qualifies” she said giggling into the phone. She thought I was telling jokes. She was one of them…
But no matter. She’d already leaked the “intel” I needed. “Financial hardship” it is. Recalling some informative tales from my weekend adventures in ‘piano-moving,’ I hung up the phone and began drafting my clemency papers.
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