Rat at Rest

“Every time I come out here,” I tell Julian while the steaks sizzle on the grill, “I realize how crazy Boston makes me.”

“Well, but how much of a rat race are you really running?” he asks.

It’s a fair question. When I feel my spirits starting to sag, I remind myself that, reduced to its essence, my life only really requires that I play games, write, read, and cook. For most other people, that’s a vacation, and I don’t ever have the right to feel bad about it.

Except for the last couple months, I have felt bad about it, and then I realize what I’m feeling, and feel even worse about having those feelings in the first place. Which is how I came to be here in the middle of November, at the Rivendell that Julian has carved out of the backwoods of Massachusetts, fleeing what is starting to feel like the depression I fought in college.

If I were running the rat race, I’d have a respectable reason for feeling burned out or overwhelmed. I could blame my boss or my coworkers. I could resent the drudgery of office work, the early mornings and the late nights. I could vent to family and friends about how hard things are and they’d understand and sympathize, in a way they can’t with someone who is ultimately his own boss in a professionalized pursuit of pleasure. I could sympathize and forgive myself, because the fault could reside somewhere outside of me.

In Boston, I can’t escape accountability. I dwell on the things I haven’t gotten done, or haven’t done well enough, and I go into each day feeling like I need to catch up on weeks worth of work. My “to-do” list gets longer and less flexible, and I start putting in day after day of nonstop effort to catch up. Except I’m feeling frustrated and defeated, so everything gets harder as well.

Most of my friends have jobs, and they have lives. The two don’t perfectly overlap. But if you work for yourself, chasing a passion? You enjoy no such existential escape.  You chose to do something, you and your loved ones have made sacrifices so that you can do it, and now you’re tired? You need a day off? Too fucking bad. Get out of bed and get over to your desk and be creative. Or play a game for ten hours, like your life depended on it, because that’s the job. You wanted to play games? Fine, but you don’t get to choose anymore. Oh, and if you’re tired of looking after the house and baking and cooking all the time, maybe you ought to make more money so that you can occasionally afford a night out. The answer to every problems is always mercilessly simple: work harder.

There is no limit to what we can ask of ourselves. But there is, however reluctantly and shamefully we admit it, a limit to what we can accomplish. The reasons might not be obvious. You might have the time you need, and the opportunities. If you were just more efficient… but you’ll never be the machine in your own factory. You try to become that and you end up breaking your own spirit, with too much to do and no energy or confidence left to do it with. And it will look to all the world, yourself included, like laziness. Or indulgence.

Julian is skeptical that I need this break as badly as I say I do. I get it. I’m skeptical, too. But it doesn’t change the giddy sense of relief I feel.

Somewhere on the floor of my apartment is a bag with a laptop and a folio, gathering a thin layer of dust in some corner of the living room. Fully loaded the bag doesn’t weigh much more than seven or eight pounds. But as we stand here beneath clear, cold starlight, about to sit down to dinner with our friends and loved ones, I feel like I have left something much heavier behind.

    • Spades
    • November 14th, 2010 10:01pm

    There is no such thing as an easy job…except maybe a cushy and bland job at the Pentagon doing meaningless paperwork. I think you should be happy or at least grateful that you job has some variety. Doing papaerwork for a living sucks and crushes your soul especially if you are alone. Enjoy your vacation though! The only time you truly appreciate sleep is when your an adult! ;)

    • Dan
    • November 15th, 2010 1:16am

    Ah yes, Zen Master Rob, you have just discovered the secret to surviving grad school (among other non-stop work environments where you are supposed to motivate yourself). You need an escape. The more you dislike what you are doing at the moment, the more you need an escape. When I was really hating poli sci, mine was setting aside 6-10 hours every Sunday to drink.

    The life of a dissertating grad student is actually very similar. Instead of having to playing games for review, I read. And then spend hours playing games when I decide I am not going to get much learning done by reading anymore. The secret is not to feel guilty about it.

    • julian
    • November 16th, 2010 4:18am

    Ah, grasshopper.

    The Rivendell is where you make it, and I fear you have taken too much from my casual scotch-soaked comments. I lament the rat-race even here in the land of Lembas-Smores and pipeweed. Never let another mans burden of obvious weight lessen the chafe of your own.

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