Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Let The Chips Fall
I now have two tattoos. Both about the size of a silver dollar. Both kinda crappy. The first was a Celtic knot in homage to a pendant from Scotland that I wore through high school. The intricate weaving has since bled together to leave a sweat-me sexy blob on my hip. The second, a desperate plea to my self to stop the madness. Immature, I know, but I branded myself a promise.
It started the spring of 2012, at 29 years old. Finally graduating Cal State Bakersfield with a BS in Business Marketing. Okay, okay. It's not physics. It's not law. It's not Berkley or Brown... But man- you don't know what I've been through. I spent my 20's working every weekend, paying my way through school, sometimes two jobs. Up late, slinging booze, pretending to enjoy the company of assholes treating me like a second-rate citizen. Turning down trips, parties, and evenings out in the name of term papers and dinner rush shifts. Investing in real-estate after the crash, buying a home on the nice side of town at 25. Making grown-up decisions. Changing majors from teaching, to psychology- to something that both utilized my creative needs, and could make some real dough. My mother would later tell me that I made some very wise choices, but perhaps ignored what I truly wanted.
Spring of 2012, I 'm a month out from graduation. I'm in the interview process for a major produce company; my foot in the door of the sales department. No other graduates have found a job as quickly as I have. I'm very lucky. Also- so panicked, that most days I'm on the verge of barfing, or punching the next person to ask, "So what now?!" I should be thrilled to be finishing this trying chapter that I've bitched about for 9 years. But I'm not the barrel of monkeys I expect to be. I'm anxious. Dreadful. I feel both lost, and glued to the tracks by momentum.
Graduation comes, and I parade around with my square hat and get thoroughly plastered like any over-aged college student worth her salt does, yet the dread stays. "So what now?" All that hard work for a goal. The goal is in, nothing but net, clean score, job on the way; what's my beef? My good friend Kyra, whom I met working the seedy steakhouse scene, was always a rather- bohemian character. I say bohemian, because it is the sophisticated version of 'hippy.' Kyra-the-sophisticated-hippy thinks this is my Saturn returning; the either chaotic, or reassuring season in ones life every orbit, or 29.5 years. Maybe I need a new goal. Maybe it's the structure and striving that keeps me going. I pick up cycling again, join a team, and that summer I make it my mission to tackle every local challenge available. I wake at 4 am, climb thousands of feet, ride 65 miles at a time, my wheel inches from the cyclists' wheel in front of me, building myself the ass of back-up dancer. This is good medicine for a while.
Come fall, THE CAREER begins. I wear a Banana Republic wool suit. I carry my coffee mug to my desk at 7 am. I have a badge, full bennies, dual monitors, a chair that spins. Everything is going according to the plan I laid out like first day of kindergarten school clothes. The salary is competitive, yet I'll be paying some real taxes now, so I'll get a roommate. I'll tend bar here and there, but I'll see what real-life weekends are like. What do people do every Saturday evening?! I envision laughter and live shows, dining out, beach bonfires, carefree BBQs. I see some frozen imagery that looks a little like a cigarette magazine ad. Attractive, worry-free folks mingling, and being. On a Friday night.
A respectable career. Something that people innocently and insultingly call "a real job." A future.
Two weeks in at this opportunity filled mega-company, and I've declared an outright war on the very nature of my day. Yes, my chair spins- and I know- that's a huge deal. I'm not ungrateful for that. But as the dust settles, and I see the tracks I'm following- I realize I've made a grave mistake. I'm simply not the girl that's built to sit sweetly in a grey padded cubicle for 40+ hours each week, eyes fixed on spreadsheets, my soul withering with each manila filed, field trips to the bathroom to play with my phone twice a day.
The atmosphere is competitive, and never the positive kind. Egos bloat to overshadow others, loss of temper equals power, image is almighty, and the more nonchalantly and expertly one lies, the more he is to be admired. The days are spent hunched over inventory databases, and chatting about golf scores through headsets in the phony voice of that newscaster, Troy McClure, from The Simpsons. No creativity, little face-to-face interaction. Vacations are still working, and I don't care if little Becky is on stage for her first recital, if that phone rings, you damn well better answer it. This group lives off kudos and success. A real- 'live to work' environment. Which I get, if you love it, and man- they fucking love it. You can tell from the smug smirk after a big sale, by the saunter down the hall to the Starbucks machine, the sarcastic barking to those lower on the pecking order, or when one of them let slip, "everyone else in the company is jealous of our department; we are KINGS." One particular salesmen, a native to the small, poor, immigrant town that hosts our massive plant, eyed me one afternoon over a beer with co-workers.
"You're weird, Katie. You're different." He slightly sneers, a look of distaste crossing his upper lip. I look at his watch the size of a small apple, and the meticulous attention to his brand embossed, pastel polo shirt. I remember his habitual bragging, his stunted swagger and his imminent divorce. I nod.
"That's okay," is all I say, thinking, "Thank God I'm not mistaken for one of you."
I start a ritual, unbridled sob each evening all the way down 99. I don't just hate the job I've worked so hard to secure, but I kind of suck at it too. Go figure, data entry just isn't this day-dreaming 'weird' girls' cup of tea. Strapped to a desk, drooling at a screen. I look like an extra off the 1984 Macintosh commercial. Mistakes can't be glossed over with charm, or replaced by a beautifully crafted cocktail. Hard work just doesn't fix a mis-shipped pallet of fruit. No, it costs some suit upstairs some big, green, crispy bucks. My name is recorded in some digital fuck-up file and emailed to my superiors. My self-esteem plummets. Stress rages. Each weekend, because that generous salary still doesn't match un-taxed tips, I flip my early-bird, on-the-road-before-dawn schedule to tend bar til the wee hours for the sake of the mortgage.
The mortgage. The large house and it's hoard of domestic goods and solo honey-dos has become my own suburbian iron maiden. Too many tablecloths, linens and towels. A weighty collection of beveled mirrors and casserole dishes. Napkin rings. Spare furniture. Why do I have four TVs? Pool supplies. Lawn fertilizers. A pump that needs replacing. Sprinkler lines needing to be dug up and replaced. A broken AC in a heat wave. Property taxes. Tree trimming. Grids of houses in the same hues and floor plans. All of it, it smothers my airways with an invisible pillow embroidered in the Morning Glory vines that never stop taking over my yard no matter how often I hack at them. I tell myself I have an acute case of White People Problems. 'Dear God! Whole Foods is out of arugula!' Let's put on our big girl pants and figure out how to fix this. But my throat is too tight. I tumble and scratch my way down a long Wonderland tunnel of a dreary, predictable, cubed future. I become anti-social. I can't get enough sleep. Melanie squints through her cigarette smoke one night and flatly accuses me, "You don't belong in an office, Katie."
A relationship softly ended a couple years ago when my boyfriend could no longer stand living in this great, twisted country. Starting my senior year at the university, I balked and declined the invitation to join him as he sold his worldly possessions and took off to Costa Rica. To live in paradise... and see what happened. His sister had ran abroad after college to teach English in Germany. A childhood friend now lives in Canada. Another in London. A writer friend tells me of traveling to Europe to speak publicly and run marathons. Spending his winters in Mexico writing his memoir and deep-sea fishing. Recording music, hopping between the US coast lines, popping up into Canada, writing a comic book, blah, blah, all this excitement I'm not having- BLAH. I've grown envious of these people. Traipsing about like they don't have a goddamn lawn to mow. Bastards. I always envisioned myself traveling the world. Accomplishing great things. But I was much too level-headed for a plan that ridiculous. Where is the security? I mention to someone once that my ex boyfriend left everything to go live in the lush and lonely South American jungles. "Sounds like a smart one," they scoffed.
"Actually...yes. He's bloody brilliant."
Come the holidays, I'm so scared that I might soon be lost in my stagnant swamp of self-pity, that on a whim, I stamp myself with a vow. Another crappy tattoo; a compass rose on my inner wrist- not as easily hidden as my first. To be conscience and of my direction. To go beyond this dusty San Joaquin Valley, no matter the cost. Because apparently, I'm a dramatic, 13 year old girl. You had no idea, did you. By spring, I begin to feel fierce again. I paint again, and sell a piece in a gallery in LA. I pick up running, and kick ass in a San Francisco half marathon. I look for new opportunities, jobs, and roommates in new cities, industries and weather zones. I start to actually DO something about my life crisis instead of whining and waiting for Mom, or God, or Prince fuggin Chumbag to pull me out of my pit of despair. Nearly a year later, my friend Tim- a mischievous conservative- spies my new accessory and says, "Real classy, Kate. Did you have to announce to the world that you're still not a slave to the 'man'?" Keen guy.
One summer afternoon, I stand in the kitchen and chat with my brother on the phone. He- as a much more adventurous spirit than I- suffers a similar trial. His trial is cushioned by a beautiful baby girl and devoted wife, but it's a bit of a harder cell. A marriage and offspring have a way of capping your options. He tries not to dwell on this, but I can hear the strain in his voice when he reminds me around the time of my graduation, of my position. I have the freedom to do so much. Things he might do were he in my shoes. I should not forget my options. On the phone, he updates me on his long-time best friend, John. John finished school with me, and spent some time backpacking around Europe. He returned home, became certified in teaching English as a foreign language, sold his shit, and took a single suitcase on a one-way flight to China. CHINA, man. He didn't just move to Orange County, or even Boston, like most of the local brain-drain phenomenon participants. He picked up, and moved to freaking China. He loves it. He may never return.
"That's so John." My brother and I sigh, pausing before one of us, not sure who, says, "I'm kinda jealous..."
"Me too..." Who said that?
My ears pop. Something in one of my chakras rattle (that's for you, Kyra.). Clouds part, and some length of my intestine twitches.
"I could do that." My words drop, causing a poof of dust.
I could DO that.
I don't have a reason not to. I'm single. No kids. To be in that state at 30 'round these parts is rare. What else have I been wanting but to break free- Eddie Mercury style (kinda)- and find my adventure? I can rent out my house. I can move abroad. Hell, for many years I'd wanted to teach English, study the arts, travel in my off-time, trot the globe. This could be my means. Some women talk of meeting their future-husbands for the first time, and just...knowing. I'm the same kind of romantic. I fell in love with the concept the moment I considered it for myself.
I get in touch with China-John and he gives me the low-down. I read everything I can get my Google hands on about teaching English as a foreign language overseas. My sights are first set on the wine, art, and food mecca, my dream destination: Italy. But after reading of the immigration red-tape in Western Europe, I look towards South East Asia. Thailand; the 'Land of Smiles.' Bangkok, the other 'City of Angels,' offers both an old world culture still intact, any Western convenience desired, some of the best cuisine to ever touch tongues, and elephants jamming traffic alongside rickshaws and sky trains.
A boy I briefly dated, and still admire, once talked about making life decisions. He said there is a time when one can toss the chips into the air, and just see where they fall. One can do this for a while. Make mistakes, see cool stuff. For most, there is then a point of no return. Whether it be children, or marriage, or some other life change, there is a time when one can simply no longer just throw their life chips into the air to see what happens. I don't know where that line will be for me, but I realize I'm on the side where I can do just that. Wait a few years, and I might cross over. I might have to play it much safer, if I cross that line.
I tell my family. I tell my closest friends. I contact a property management company for my house, arrange to rent a room from my buddy, Schub, around the corner, promise away furniture, schedule a yard sale, and select my certification school. I give myself til Fall of 2014 to save my money, make my arrangements, single-file my ducks, and buy a one-way ticket. I expect patronizing compliance from my nearest and dearest, but either I am blissfully blind to it, or they are downright supportive.
One evening after cooking dinner for my family, I put clean sheets on the guest bed for my visiting father. My brother, Robert, stands against the door jam and watches me before coming to help make box corners.
"You really need to do this, Katie." Rob looks intense. He sounds desperate.
"I know. I'm scared I'll fail. Scared I won't get it together. But more scared of not trying."
Melanie's first response is explosive. For her, anyway. Through her typical stone-faced expression she scolds me, "You're gonna end up in some Thai prison like Claire Danes in that one movie. You're gonna end up some unknowing drug camel or something, and get put away and I'm not gonna come rescue you. You can rot."
I tell her how safe Bangkok is, how it's the number one expat country for westerners. I tell her about the paradise beaches, the food, the palaces, the water markets. I tell her I feel good about this. For some reason, this shuts her up for a moment. Probably because most every mistake she's watched me make, I made knowing it was a bad decision.
A few days later, a text comes through from Melanie. "What about your car?"
"I will probably sell it."
"The schools provide it, otherwise international coverage is affordable, and equivalent care is a fraction of the cost as it is here."
"What about your DOGS?!"
"My dad has agreed to take them on his ranch. They'll have more exercise."
Some time passes before the next text.
"This is what you are supposed to do. This is your destiny." And that, is what I call, a Melanie-blessing.
I will probably be swindled. I will probably be homesick. I will probably get lost, get food poisoning, get stuck at the border on a Visa run, and get caught in a monsoon. I will hopefully get to experience all of these things because this is the kind of life I want to have led, instead of racking up years alongside filing cabinets. Maybe a year in Asia. Maybe skip over to Prague. Maybe return to the states soon, maybe return later. I want to make a decision that I'm excited about, instead of one that makes total, my-what-a-good-head-on-her-shoulders sense. So give me one year, I'm throwing in chips.