Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thoughts From a Cubic-hell

I have loved this line from The Great Gatsby since I first read it: “My commutation ticket came back to me with a dark stain from his hand. That any one should care in this heat whose flushed lips he kissed, whose head made damp the pajama pocket over his heart!” Nick speaks of the train conductor, an ordinary man with no name who appears to take the tickets and fades back out of the action, Prufrock-like[1]. When I can, I try to remember those lines when I’m waiting in line or on hold or stuck in traffic or in a cattle-crush of people trying to leave the subway. We’ve all, all the mundane strangers, got beating hearts and people we love and who love us and varied and beautiful passions far beyond our employment situations. I can be more patient when I remember this. I cannot always remember this.

I am currently working a most ordinary job. As the wilds of Boston have yet to yield the perfect job for a snarky rabbit with a knack for metaphor, I am signed up with a temp agency. My current assignment[2]is data entry for a professor at one of the local universities. All that is well and good, but at heart, I spend seven hours a day in a windowless basement warren of cubicles transferring numbers from a pdf file to an Excell spreadsheet. When it doesn’t make me angry, it makes me sad. However, the budding pragmatist in my bunny suit recognizes that paid monkey-work time beats unpaid time on my paws to fret about how I don’t have a job.

I wouldn’t call the good points of the job even saving graces—anything “good” is more like a straw to grasp to keep from totally losing my cookies. Straw #1: They do pay me so I can eat. Straw #2: I can see where the data I’m compiling is useful, and would even be a little interesting to extrapolate. Straw #3: I can listen to Adele all day on Pandora and no one has to know. Straw #4: I’m not the only person on earth trapped in the grumpy world of cubicles. To wit: I spend the better[3]part of Monday emailing rapidly back and forth with a friend who was similarly stymied in his cubicle across town[4]. At one point, I realized that we were, essentially somewhere between a Dilbert cartoon and a depressed outtake of “The Office.”

Follow me here—I’ve been told my logic is “creative.” I have no friends who could safely be called dispassionate[5]. Ergo, if one witty and passionate friend is stuck not perhaps fulfilling his potential in a cubicle somewhere, and I am in the same situation, and judging from the opera-singing, law-degree holding, divinity school-attending temps surrounding my basement cubicle, so are many many people, might it be possible that a good portion of the world is similarly position? That, even though no one cares, lips are still kissed and pajama-pocket hearts made damp? Conclusion: there is an enormous amount of passionate energy tamped down under pressure in all the cubicles and ordinary jobs of the world. I mean passion for everything, for all that Kerouac lists out with his quest for madness--"mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."

I was imaging all this frustrated passion as a sort of steam engine, driving the work of the world, but somehow, while it started off on a good note, the thought was sad. Although, the thought of that much passion stored anywhere—that is amazing.

In the midst of all this philosophizing, Adele listening, and sardonic webcomic and video exchanging[6], another friend emailed me. I’d used the phrase “ferocious passion” in an earlier email, about how it would take such a thing to write a book about something jaw-droppingly precious. He wrote back about turtles, “I've wondered if there's enough violent fury in any living turtle to provide sufficient balance to life's occasional letdowns (feel free to interpret however you wish)[7].”

The basement cubicle feels a little like a turtle shell. My arms and legs and brain and heart, all tucked safely into a tight little packet, seethe with the need to violently stretch out and do more. As do we all.

Of course, this vague sense of humility and perspective did not stop me from getting angry with my car insurance representative, nor am I actually looking forward to descending to my cubicle tomorrow. But, as ever, the thought that I am not alone in this, nor is it permanent, helps make it all a little more bearable.

God help me, though, if I pin a cute kitty “Hang in There” poster in my cubicle. Calm and patient with perspective is one thing. Earnestly embracing cutesy-wootsey office humor is an entirely other department. Gross.

[1] Yes, I DID enjoy the snot out of high school English. Thanks, Mr. Timm and Mr. Brandt and Ms. Donovan!
[2] I love that they purposely call these “assignments” as if the word will make it as exciting as a spy mission
[3] In all senses of the word.
[4] However, I think his cubbyhole might be above ground.
[5] You know, “the only people for me are the mad ones…”)
[6] And data entry, of course. Always my primary concern in a workday.
[7] Oh, Sir, I will. I will interpret this just as I please. Clearly.

1 comment:

  1. "there is an enormous amount of passionate energy tamped down under pressure in all the cubicles and ordinary jobs of the world."

    YES. As a chronic office temp myself, I can relate to this so much and have so many thoughts. About how tragic it is that so much creative energy is shut down every day. That there are so few meaningful jobs left. That a better way of living feels simultaneously within reach and galaxies away.

    I think it's also important to keep in mind that this *isn't* temporary for a lot of people. Not everyone has the choice to say "at least this isn't permanent." I wish it weren't that way.