For *those that have just lost their keys *those that are well-versed *inebriated ones *wanderers *mermaids *those that belong elsewhere *whippersnappers *marvelous ones *those that are not included in this classification *those that flutter because the moment is fleeting *boundless ones *those colored with slippery fingerpaint *others *those that resemble someone I know from a distance

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Really, my whole life is an existential crisis.

In addition to my CAD (Cubicle Adjustment Disorder), I am also having a tad more of a career-related existential crisis than usual. This is because I am in the middle of a fairly meaningless and boring (i.e., soul-crushing) project with no end in sight. I am scanning all of the old alumni files so we have them digitally instead of, oh whatever, the opposite of that is - paperly? materially? analogically? I am going to spend about three months doing this and the raw, hard truth of the matter is that NO ONE IS EVER GOING TO LOOK AT THESE FILES. Ever. What I am doing serves absolutely no purpose. I am, in fact, trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. In a cubicle.

Now, if it was up to me, I would have had these old files destroyed without a second thought. Well actually, if it was really up to me I would have commissioned someone to turn them into art in some way. Or done it myself. This office would be overflowing with those fortune-tellers you made in elementary school, sailor's hats, paper snowflakes and silly poetry reconstituted from students' letters of recommendation. Paper airplanes would fly from every window. You wouldn't even be able to make it to the copier because you would be knee-deep in origami cranes and couldn't take a step without crushing their wings. And you don't want to crush the wings of cranes, do you? No, you want to nestle down in the middle of them and think of all the people who need wishes. But this is not the reality, alas, as this project was started before I got here and I am the one to finish it.

Here is the thing. Student files from 1970 are just as boring as student files from 2007. Sure, there is the occasional black and white photo to stare at. I get to think about the differences in paper over the past forty years and how paper varies from country to country. It turns out that other countries aren't so fond of the 8.5" by 11" paper size. Turns out that some Asian countries use really tiny staples, at least in comparison to our (possibly exceedingly wide) 1/4" counterparts. These are things that are vaguely interesting to know. Yes, I get to read letters of recommendation from 1971 and think about how language and ideas about politeness change over time. Yes, I get to imagine what it was like for a woman or an international student to be a young scientist back in the day.

But, just in case this ever comes up, you should know that these sort of things are only interesting for, oh, maybe four days. Five days, tops. And I am on day 30. I have officially extracted as much meaning as possible from this situation. The only meaning left is that generated by thinking about the lack of meaning. Which is what I am doing right now. Once this blog entry is done my brain will officially turn itself off, become jelly, and slide right on out of my ears. And possibly my nostrils. Which seems like it might be gross, because then I might smell my own jellified brain and possibly even taste it. Which then leads to the word blech, which makes me kind-of happy because I like the word blech. (If it is even a real word and not something I have made up and used so many times that I actually think it is a word now. Which, after consulting the dictionary, appears to be the case).

Okay, maybe this is the thing - I like the idea of old files. They seem like they should be interesting. They seem like they should be full of magic and wonder and secrets and discoveries. They seem like when you open them your face should be doused in rainbow colored light and you should be able to hear the faint whinny of tiny, tiny unicorns who prance through the old brittle pages and live and love and raise even tinier baby unicorns in the files of every dusty and neglected filing cabinet across the nation.

It turns out, shockingly, that this is not the case.

So I have been thinking about what I would want to be in these files (besides the unicorns, I mean). And the answer is, basically, truth and beauty. I want all files everywhere to be filled with truth and beauty. I want to turn the page of that file from 1974 and see that grad student's dreams represented visually, perhaps through giant swaths of color, perhaps by a very complicated flow chart. I want creased pages of poetry about their insecurities and anxiety. Especially if it might be bad and drunken poetry. Especially if it might be fabulous poetry and the words might drip moon nectar. I want blueprints of that great conversation they had with their friends about science at the coffee shop where they totally joked about semi-permeable membranes and RNA and their professors' weird power-hungry nature. I want paper sculptures of the relationship they had that made them stop caring about their lab work for weeks on end. I want transcripts of the phone calls they made when they were on the verge of quitting grad school altogether and didn't think they could do it and their friend or sister or mother had to talk them down and remind them who they were and what they wanted. I want a collage of that moment when they suddenly understood what that enzyme was doing to the DNA and how they could experimentally prove what it was doing and how fucking excited they were to tell their supervising professor about their idea. That is what I want in the files. I want the best and worst moments of their graduate school experience distilled into something I can understand. Not cover sheets and memos and test scores.

But what I get is cover sheets and memos and test scores. So here it is again. The gap between dreams and reality. The gap between what I desire and what I get. The difference between tiny unicorns raising babies and memos scheduling a dissertation defense. It is a big difference. Maybe it is so big that it has its own kind of beauty. Or maybe that too is a dream. I keep facing it, again and again. Maybe I will always be facing it. Maybe everyone is facing it. Maybe this is what it means to be human - to try and see what it is right in front of your face instead of getting lost in your own dreams. Maybe that is only the first step, the one you have to take over and over again until you stop falling down. Maybe I am learning how to walk.

Or maybe my brain is just too damn big to fit into this godforsaken cubicle. Maybe that is what us modern day shamans have to do - find God in the cubicle. It seems sort-of difficult. But I'm on it. Somewhat unwillingly and annoyed that I have to start at 8 in the morning - but I'm on it.

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Blogger David said...

Shoveling snow, like walking labyrinths, is always an exercise in patience, humility, and mental decisiveness. Are you too smart for your job? Probably. But unlike shoveling snow, the pile of folders will become smaller over time, there will be progress, and you will be a modern-day monk copying illuminated manuscripts. You are to be commended for taking an interest in the task, for inserting unicorns between A-Ack and Ben-Bou, this is much farther than most people take it, they just sigh and carry on, but at least they have podcasts and music to listen to while they are shoveling way. So get some headphones, use the time as an opportunity to think, and collect some words from these memos to use on your resume for when you need it. And by all means fold these papers into cranes before you recycle anything.

12:41 AM

Anonymous Seraphine said...

I think all those old files are like people. Pass a graveyard and see all the old forgotten graves. After a generation or three, nobody knows who these people are anymore. It's rather sad. Nobody wants to look at their old letters of recommendation, their refrigerator drawings, their graduation pictures. Save for anthropologists, nobody cares if they don't know you personally. We're all landfill.

9:21 AM


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