Monday, June 28, 2010

The Chameleon's Dilemma

Wanderlust has a firm hold on me. I’m one of its timeless, helpless victims, someone who constantly lives in the future and past, both interconnected, neither allowing ample energy for the present.

At night I dream of my family’s farm, a stretch of land outside of San Antonio where horses and cattle roamed freely. I ride my bicycle up the gravel road to the white gated entrance, and swirl around the circular drive several times before meandering into the house. That front room was one of my grandparents’ finest creations. Behind the sublime wooden dining room table—one big enough to seat practically the entire family—were colorful etchings. Willowy branches crawled along the wall and up to the ceiling. Delicately placed among them were a few, bright birds nests.

I daily fantasize about returning to London, where I easily navigate its cobbled streets, pausing frequently to reflect on magnificent architecture under a low, gray sky. If I were to return today, I’d begin on the Knightsbridge end of Walton Street, my favorite in the city, and enjoy my first sojourn at Battersea or Hyde Park.

Hours, months or years later, I’d turn my thoughts elsewhere. I’d tire of the sprawling metropolis, leafy parks and all. I’d board a flight for Namibia, race by whatever means possible towards Harnas and spend that first evening alone, lulled to sleep by an unusual symphony of African night sounds, most prominent being the lion’s epic roar.

Romantic in theory and on paper, these mental travels are by all accounts equally counterproductive. I grasp at them, and wonder if and when I’ll be able to recreate them, knowing full well that no experience can be properly replicated.

In the meantime, I’ll be content to contemplate the next stopover, all the while worrying that I might become a cliche. I did, after all, read “Eat, Pray, Love.” Perhaps I overrate originality and undervalue the power of tried formulas. In any event, I aim to sit still for a little while longer, at least...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Observations from Within

I recently moved from London to Washington, simultaneously making a dramatic professional transition. From private practice—at one of the world’s largest law firms—to the federal government, where I’m fast learning that the pace is a hell of a lot slower.

There’s no yelling, running through the halls, or panicky late nights barely made sane by caffeine and cigarette breaks. As you’d expect, the work-life balance is—shall we say—decidedly improved on this side of the coin. I picked up my car at the office last Sunday and the guards practically arrested me, evidence enough that few, if any, of my colleagues venture to the office after Friday at 4pm.

Along with my utter delight at this improved schedule comes the amusing revelation that I am now working alongside characters from the Office. Creed, Toby, Michael, Kelly and Dwight. They’re all here, in some form or fashion.

My boss often bemoans “Parks and Recreation” for having preempted what could have been a much better sitcom about life at our agency. I for one haven’t given up hope on writing it. In the meantime, I’ll be content to share a few of the more absurd anecdotes from my "Office."

Despite inventive pranks and myriad hilarious antics, my immediate office-mates and I typically avoid the jaw-dropping awkwardness featured herein.

Such episodes primarily stem from the occasional journeys beyond my comfort zone, when I wander throughout dimly-lit halls like a confused mouse.

On one such occasion, I found myself seeking a conference room that I had reserved for a meeting. After a few missed turns, I arrived at B-504. I could see from outside that the lights were off, so I opened the door.

Much to my surprise, the room I had reserved was otherwise very important people engaged in very important activities: soap operas and fried chicken.

The large conference room was scattered with empty KFC boxes and crumbs. A few savory bites were still being enjoyed, but the women in the room were primarily focused on a much more important task: catching the last few minutes of their daily soap.

This combination undoubtedly has its place (a nursing home circa 1992?). I for one went through a General Hospital phase during the early 90s, but I kicked the habit soon after Jagger left, just before I entered the 9th grade.

Still startled, but not wanting to seem like the resident agency policeman, I began, “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. I, err, reserved this room for a meeting, starting at 3pm.”

At this point, one would anticipate embarrassed, perhaps even apologetic behavior, but my hands-in-the-cookie-jar colleagues were not the least bit distressed.

No apologies. No quick flipping of the remote power button. Just a simple “We’re almost done.”

If only they’d taken the lingering scent of fried chicken with them when they left; it made for an extremely distracting meeting.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some Dreams Always Die

February 2, 2005, Austin, Texas

In the heart of Austin sits a proud, established law school that perpetually ranks among the US News & World Report’s best, despite the lack of ivy adorning its outer walls. This outstanding institution draws students from around the world, enticing them to faded books and lackluster halls with an impressive academic reputation and social promise that leaves even the most composed young 20-somethings drooling.

Wise students, however, aren’t fooled by word of mouth and conveniently jovial accepted student day; these “skeptics” enter law school with expectations lower than the GPAs they are destined to receive at the close of first semester. Anticipating the worst, they arrive for orientation dressed like slobs, notebooks in hand, and a study schedule prematurely devised. Yet, midway through the first day of orientation, a surprising event occurs. The polluted Texas sky opens for a brief moment, allowing now-dusty brochure images to metamorphose into reality, teasing each new student with a bright picture for the future. Attractive and well-dressed youths glide into the auditorium, smiles flashing, with nothing but a cup of coffee in hand.

“You’re all shining stars,” a cheerful, preppy, and honest-faced Dean assures the room full of 1L students, “You are all going to succeed. We are so very proud to have each and every one of you.” To the continuous surprise of the skeptics, this paternalistic approach continues throughout the first semester. Keg parties at professors’ homes. Candy scattered across student desks during torts class. The incredible absence of Friday class. These rituals, combined with the relaxation of the Socratic Method and the homogenous feel of the first year (not to mention student lockers), splash the entire 1L experience with an elementary-school feel. The quarters may be close, but at least the ill-prepared students feel safe as they down pitchers of Miller Light at the Posse East.

Gossiping, dating, studying, partying, gossiping and complaining. These activities keep the herd occupied until finals in December, at which point the sections undergo a painful fortnight of exam-taking that threatens to annihilate the pleasant sentiments acquired since August.

“Finals suck!” reports a student from Section 1 (names have since been eliminated along with all traces of personal identity), “But at least I had my flask with me during my Civ Pro exam.”

Students utilize the subsequent Christmas vacation to rekindle friendships with non-law school friends, suck up to established legal minds (i.e. fathers), attend job interviews for jobs they will almost certainly forfeit to that one attractive Stanford Law student from Houston, and attempt to reintroduce some element of diversity into their daily lives. Several students accomplish this task by traveling to Europe; others simply prostitute themselves in South Austin.

Against this relaxed backdrop, the dispersed 1L team desperately clings to one common thread: the need to constantly check grades online.

This twitch, and its companion of checking email inboxes for notices from potential employers, brings vacationing 1Ls to the computer at unprecedented frequencies. Some students admit to checking grades and inboxes “as much as possible, even if it means waking up several times during the middle of the night.”

And suddenly, the thunderous skies open again.

But this time, the Texas sky splits, creating what seems like a permanent rift among a prideful class of students. The grades are posted, and the commission of secret interviews commence. The lucky ones thank the library and willing professors for having received their sexual advances. The unlucky ones wonder about the anonymity of the grading system and reconsider whether “law school was for them” or whether, according to their parents’ suggestions, they are better suited for “that opening at McDonald’s.”

Despite the seemingly harsh grade distributions, professors seek to remind their students that they are in fact the cozy parental figures they initially promised to be. In an effort to comfort students, and reinforce their connected status, professors send out emails such as this one:
“I needn’t tell you again that you are, by far, the most diligent and impressive body of students to enter the UT Law School. Despite this fact, I am incredibly disappointed in your performance on the exam. It was shameful. I suppose you can’t all be “shining stars.”

This magnificent gesture is only rivaled by the following institutional mandates:
1. Every first year course will begin at 8:15am, or alternatively, at 8:13am.
2. The vending machines will not, under any circumstances, provide cold beverages.
3. God will cause it to rain every day, and we will not, as an administration, contest this policy.
4. All first year professors will take a mandatory course in circular reasoning & lecturing methods and will continuously use such tactics during lectures.
5. No national holiday will be recognized after MLK Jr. Day, except that we will allow the students a week-long spring break (that must be sufficiently close to final exams so as to deter students from going on vacation).
6. Professors must no longer articulate specific assignment schedules to their students; rather the students must eternally “read ahead.”
7. And any other torture device that a professor sees fit.

This memorandum was distributed to the UT Faculty during the Christmas break and was not intended to reach student hands. Fortunately for all students, the Student Bar Association discovered one of the top-secret leaflets and plans to make use of it as soon as the SBA representatives finish their current project of locking and un-locking the SBA office at all times.

In the meantime, other students may catch wind of the controversy, but circumstances suggest that they may also be too busy (feeling bitter about grades and thinking about “that opening at McDonald’s”) to report grievances to the administration or seek legal relief.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Efficiency in Lieu of Sanity? The Rise of the Cubicle.

Nearly ten years ago, directors of mental asylums nationwide felt compelled to explore tactics to increase patient numbers. “People aren’t so crazy these days,” said Abdullah Halsey, Director of The Clearview Institute, during the meeting’s opening remarks, “I blame the increasing availability of illegal drugs… Our services are becoming obsolete.”

Halsey expressed a view held by many of his peers, “Without a healthy, sizeable patient population, institutions experience diminishing revenues.” This certainly proved to be the case during the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, the quality of life within many “havens of health” was called into question. Satellite TV. Weekly pizza dinners. Trips to local skating rinks. These are the types of services that, when sacrificed, lead to infuriation and near chaos among patients and employees.

At the historic meeting held during January of 2001, employees from 213 national asylums spent a weekend brainstorming methods of recruiting new patients. During those exhaustive meetings, an idea emerged that has proven successful for a plethora of world-wide organizations: mass popularization of the cubicle.

The cubicle is cheap. It’s small and easy to construct. It matches the fluorescent lighting that decorates so many offices. It gives employees a bit of space--- not enough to provide a particularly private atmosphere--- but enough to minimize foul play and cut costs without causing irrevocable damage to a person’s mental health.

Lacking the ability to effectively shut out co-workers, employees are often fearful of pursuing activities that could endanger their employment. Infidelity spurred by steamy work relations, along with various unethical practices, has decreased significantly. One young paralegal stated, “After watching American Psycho and the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza ritually sleeps underneath his desk, I was inspired to try some crazy stuff at work. But there wasn’t enough privacy within my cubicle to really express myself. I had to let go of my dreams. I felt cheated.”

Businesses have drastically cut office-related expenses (not to mention ethical hiccups) and enjoyed impressively high turnover rates, while asylums are instituting waiting lists to accommodate an uncharted level of demand.

The most notable success of this story, however, is found in a bright restaurant in New York’s West Village. Amidst the clatter of dishes and youthful banter, a young woman sits alone in an orange leather booth near the window. After spending nearly six months (an impressively long haul) surrounded by the maroon walls of her Sullivan & Foster LLP cubicle, with nothing beyond staples and push-pins to give life to her work-space, Millie Kerr decided to take some time “off.” Inspired by her older brothers and practically commanded by her roommate, Kerr came to the increasingly popular conclusion that a short visit to an asylum would in fact prove preferable to the monotony of office life.

Kerr recalls, “It wasn’t really the size of the cubicle. It was the fact that I stared directly into the hinged edge of its two sides. That little corner reminded me of hell. Incidentally, I also suffered from staple wounds all over my hands. And I just can’t afford that type of danger.”

Kerr, whose long-term career plan involves hand-modelling and starring on Saturday Night Live, let go of her symbolic red stapler to submit to her secret desire to spend several lazy months in an institution. “I really felt like Anthony in Bottle Rocket--- I departed the asylum refreshed. I also met great people there. It was a nice change after spending my whole life surrounded by success and sanity.”

Content in the warm atmosphere provided by the neighborhood cafe, Kerr stares out the window to the busy street beyond.