Shangri La

Shangri La

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Off Topic: The Author Pretends to be a Writer

Occasionally I'm hit with a jolt of creativity and find myself beginning what I imagine will turn into a novel. Because my muse invariably skips town after about 20 pages, I'm always coming across a forgotten file or notebook containing the beginning to a story that I only remember as mine after 3 or 4 pages. I ran across one such start last night, and I'm posting it because it captures some of the mid-life restlessness that let to the cabin adventure in the first place.


It began on a commuter train from the “gold cost” of Connecticut to New York City. As usual, I boarded the train in Stratford and slowly made my way to the last vestibule in the last car. I had begun doing this after the terrorist attacks in the US, London and Spain, figuring that the evildoers were more likely to set off bombs in the front of the train to maximize the damage. What can I say – I’m a whacko. I made a habit of standing in the vestibule rather than finding a seat for two reasons: 1) The rush hour trains were always packed, and I didn’t want to be stuck next to Tony Two-Ton and his breakfast burrito, and 2) it was easier to watch the scenery go by standing by the doors. Not that the scenery changed much day-to-day, but it seemed the best of my limited and mind-numbing commuting options. And besides, the seats are so uncomfortable, wrapped in a frictionless vinyl and canted so you couldn’t help but sliding into a ridiculous slouch until your knees hit the hard plastic back of the seat in front of you. In that position it was impossible to read the paper, drink a coffee, or even comfortably listen to an iPod. I hope the designers spend eternity confined to these seats in hell. The head of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, too, for running these tired old heaps for over 20 years beyond their ‘sell by’ date.

I’m semi-conscious, thanks mostly to the coffee, and on auto-pilot for the first 5 stops: Bridgeport, Fairfield, Southport, Greens Farms, Westport and East Norwalk. Then, after we pull away from South Norwalk I see something I haven’t seen since high school: A ‘punk’. He enters the last car behind an anorexicly thin business man from the car before, looking for a seat. When the Thin Man takes the last one, he skulks to the vestibule and takes the pace immediately opposite me, dropping to the floor in a sprawled seating position that is bound to trip anyone trying to board at the next 4 stops before we express to Manhattan. I immediately tense up imagining the reaction of these commuters, the glaring looks and the inevitable confrontation. I am also immediately aware of his legs and my feet, afraid that they are inadvertently going to make contact and he’ll want to clock me for it.

He doesn’t seem particularly confrontational, though, and immediately digs into his bag for a couple of donuts and a coffee purchased before boarding. Now I’m thinking, wow – what a normal breakfast, as if he were somehow alien and should be eating babies or a two-headed eel or something. He pushes the tab back on the coffee lid and gingerly takes a sip, careful not to burn his tongue. Pussy, I think. As he digs into his donut, I realize that I’m staring at him, fascinated by this fresh sight of a once tired cliché: Jack Boots, leather pants with too many zippers, black Sex-Pistols tank top, nose and ear piercing, artificially black, spiky hair, tattoos on the neck and arms. He is a violent, stark contrast to the conservatively dressed workaday Joes and Janes sharing the car. I am struck by the understanding that this effect is what the first punks were reaching for, before they became a style: A jarring and confrontational contrast to conformity. There is no one else on the car that looks anything like him, and a few people who look nervous about him.

Cool, I think. Good for you. And the odd thing is that his face is almost angelic, very much at peace, striking such an odd contrast to his costume. Is that what it is? Some sort of joke? Biff the preppy going to a dress up day at Darien Academy? No – the tattoos look real. There is a snake spiraling up his right arm, coiled from the wrist to the top of the shoulder. On the neck and left arm are a series of geometric patterns and what looks like a band logo, although I don’t recognize the name. At one point he looks to the right and I see that he has a bright red heart just below his left ear. It seems out of place with everything else about his appearance, and I immediately wonder why he got it. At the Darien stop, he seems to barely notice when the doors open and a handful of people step over him to get in. He makes no concession to them, but continues to sip his coffee and stare at the floor. A few people cluck disapprovingly, and one mutters “asshole”. He looks up and mumbles “sorry” – seemingly sincerely, and then “fuckers” after everyone is out of ear shot.

I am fascinated by this. I am fascinated by his outrageous appearance and his lack of concern for the opinions around him. I am fascinated by his tattoos and the juxtaposition of the soft face and the “sorry”. I am nothing like this. Suddenly, 20 years too late, I want to be like this – whatever this is. I spend the rest of the trip to grand central fantasizing about shaving off my hair, getting a tattoo, wearing ratty clothes, and telling everyone to fuck off simply because they were breathing my air. By the time we reach 125th street station, I am convinced that I am going to transform myself – maybe during my lunch break that very day! I’m going to come back from lunch long enough to shock my boss and tell my coworkers that they could have their grim drudgery and daily grind – me, I’m freeing myself from this pale shadow of a life. So long, suckers! And I’d be laughing my way out the front doors without so much as a backward glance, my middle finger raised in defiant victory on the way.

By lunchtime, my enthusiasm for a grand gesture had been sapped by an inbox of 120 e-mails and 4 seemingly pointless meetings, all of which managed to cover well-trodden ground while arriving at no new destinations. My favorite seemingly endless discussion centers around a software upgrade project for which we have no resources and to which no one outside the IT shop seemed committed. The meeting minutes could all read as follows:

1) We want to do the upgrade, who have we got?
2) No one – we’re already over-committed to existing projects and over-budget in supplemental resources
3) Let’s schedule another meeting next week to discuss options

We’ve repeated these meetings each week for the past 2 months, looking for a miracle that would allow us to squeeze productivity blood from and overworked and over-committed stone. We can’t, but my manager just won’t let it go. The software is in my 'application portfolio', and I can’t help but see the storm clouds brewing on the horizon. The fascinating thing about this process is that we actually had a pretty tight deadline when we began, and we’ve now squandered a month of that time in a group circle-jerk over how to begin. When our miracle arrives we’ll need a fresh one to meet the new time frame and the meetings will begin again. Only this time, they’ll have a different character:

Me: We no longer have adequate time to accomplish the work, what should we do?
My Manager: This upgrade is your responsibility – figure it out.

I’m not sure why this still bothers me - I’ve seen this pattern repeat for as many years as I’ve been here. On the macro level we have ‘the circle of life’; at the corporate level it is ‘the circle of business’. I keep telling myself that they are paying me good money to dance the same, tired dance over and over again, so why not keep them amused? A year prior, I had thought that I could ‘affect change’ by stepping into management, but it turns out the same patterns repeat one level above you until you are at the top, in which case you’re dancing for the board, who are dancing for the stockholders, all of whom likely have someone they are dancing for. The whole world is lost in a wild ecstasy of dancing, spinning and twisting to the hypnotic strains of unbridled commerce! You’d think it would be more fun.

Preoccupied as I was with planning for my exit strategy from the project – that is, who to throw under the bus when it fails – my dreams of sticking to the man becoming sticking it to a man - my grand gesture of defiance had been reduced to opting for a hunk of white – rather than wheat – bread to go with my a cup of tepid split pea soup from the cafeteria. For the next couple of weeks, though, the memory of this punk and my reaction to him would lurk on the fringes of my consciousness, occasionally popping up when I least expected it. And then one day, a few weeks later, I found myself at a tattoo parlor on the way to the hardware store.


There's more, but you get the gist. Maybe a quiet cabin in the woods will provide just the right environment to finish it some day...


Renee True Potter said...

I want to read the rest!!!!

CabinFever said...

OK - twist my arm - I'll post one more section.