Thursday, September 16, 2010

Observations from Within--Worst Meeting Ever

I have decided to quit my government position, unconventionally leaving an enjoyable, steady job for a series of question marks. A traditional type-A planner, I’ve steered left over the years, completing what I consider a Freaky Friday swap with my brother Jeff. Five years ago, I was working through law school with focus and ambition while Jeff drove idly through the southwestern United States like some lone intellectual wolf. I worried at the time that he might never return, or fall victim to his heavy crates of philosophy books like some alternate ending to Into the Wild.

These days, we’ve swapped: Jeff is happily married, moving into his first home, and about to start working for a judge in Atlanta. I, on the other hand, can’t seem to sit still and want nothing more than to embark on my own journey of self-reflection. I may not come to life at Walden Pond, but I know a pretty magnificent alternative: the Blue Ridge Mountains. October will be spent there, and in London, where cool air and fall foliage will no doubt inspire me and lend focus to my many wandering ideas.

Before I go, I have the painful task of wrapping things up at work. Finding a replacement. Handing over my portfolio. These verbs conjure up fun rainy-day games, or parents preparing for a child’s birthday, misleadingly describing the task before me. I am eager, distracted and stressed, and—did I mention—naturally impatient?

At 2:39, my colleague approaches my desk and asks me if I’m coming to the meeting. What meeting? I’m too busy planning my weekend in New York and writing an article about Costa Rica to even remember that I occasionally have to attend meetings. Perplexed, I grab a pen and yellow legal pad and follow him to the conference room outside our office.

Through the glass slats is a small cast of familiar characters, sporting some of my favorite dated hairdos.

One, whose short hair always matches the color of her long fake nails, both an impeccably consistent auburn tint that foreshadows a feisty personality. I’ll soon discover that her typical grumpiness is sky high today.

Another, who has recently joined our ranks. Her petite tanned body and general physical appearance scream Florida, where she may one day be, sipping iced tea by the beach and playing mah-jongg with friends. For now, she’s here with us, fighting old battles, and orchestrating new ones.

The rest of the motley crew merits a more limited introduction. They sit around the conference room table quietly, an occasional spin of the chair or blackberry click called upon for innocent distraction. I’m more old-school when it comes to entertaining my self: I discreetly draw cubes on my notebook, still flustered that I haven’t mastered the art after some 20 years of practice. “Look, this one is good,” I seem to say to my colleague with a slow raise of an eyebrow. He’s bored enough to grin, now that our briefing has commenced.

We hear everything about nothing, this being Washington’s torturous way. Constant chit-chat, negotiation, networking and faux-action. When you stop to think about it, or attempt to deconstruct the alleged efforts, you discovery nothing more than hollow, longwinded speak.

I’ve moved on to my second activity—daydreaming—and am getting pretty excited about the prospect of starting every fall morning with a dip in a picturesque mountain lake. Will I need a wetsuit? What if I get a cramp? Are they even real, or just part of a cautionary tale parents tell their children to prevent them from having any real adventure.

All of a sudden, the fiery red-head steps up to her metaphorical podium, feeling the need, as she always does, to ask questions for the sake of engagement.

A normal person might say, “What’s the status of [X],” but a lawyer can’t resist posturing and puffing, particularly in the presence of other lawyers: “I know that we’ve discussed this already, but I wanted to bring it to your attention again. We are wondering when we might see a list of the issues in the document, or a summary. Either one would be great. Actually, could you just send us the document directly? My boss would really like to read it…”

Her second phase begins, “Back when I was a newspaper reporter” and I am pinching myself beneath the table to keep myself awake. This meeting should have finished twenty minutes ago, but it’s lingering and we’re all becoming antsy.

Bored, frustrated and tired faces appear around the circular space, some demonstrating a level of focus particularly difficult to attain in moments like these. They seem to say, “I am interested. I am paying attention. I promise!” I know this face very well, having mastered it myself.

Others appear to drift into their own dreamy states, places I would rather not visit. One woman, whose hair sits atop her head like a dark, soft bird’s nest, scrunches her face into a peculiar, chipmunk-like position, in a desperate attempt to understand what the red-head is going on about.
All of a sudden, the podium-hog/gunner breaks into a rampage, directly slandering a colleague who isn’t present today, “Honestly, don’t even get me started on her (Too late. Also, no one asked). She can’t write. She doesn’t get it. She’s an idiot.” The fury is unleashed. Randomly directed insults, visible anger, and a severe tapping of her long fake nails on the table. I’m worried for my safety: should I twirl my chair around and scoot for the nearest exit?
Some time and many blank stares later, she digresses to yesterday’s primary elections, one that dethroned the current DC mayor. “Any person who voted for that man is a stupid idiot. Honestly, he’s just terrible. He lost this primary all by himself.”

I’m shrinking into my chair. Although I never pretend to know much about politics, and forgot to vote this go round, I did recently meet Mayor Fenty, when he happened upon a daytime party I was attending while soliciting door-to-door votes. He was friendly, attractive, and fun enough to stop by a daytime picnic on a random summer afternoon. I didn’t vote, but I would have voted for him (I even have a sticker of support somewhere). These shallow criteria are the sort I draw upon when making important decisions.

This is obviously not going to fly as a defense if grilled by the lunatic beside me, so I continue to avert her gaze until someone else has the decency to change our meeting’s topic. It’s a welcome change, too, when the other firecracker politely turns to me and my colleague, “So how are you two doing? Just wanted to check in.”

Phew. An easy question with some easy answers. I am seconds away from discussing my recent trip to Costa Rica and an upcoming weekend in New York. Brad has two young children at home and football season frenzy, all of which make for amusing chatter.

We aren’t easily deceived, and pause before answering. These people can’t legitimately care about our personal lives. This is DC. We work in the government. We comprise a giant, heartless, political beast.

“I just wondered when you’d vote that item” she finally offers.

We stumble for an answer, eventually submit one, and continue to draw circles, cubes and notes until the painful hour comes to a close. Next time I’m bringing my blackberry—classic mistake—I’ve been meaning to hone my brick-breaker skills.