Last week I finished reading a book, The Gentle Madness, that outlined the lives of some of the great book collectors and personal libraries assembled over the last five hundred years. It also covered how many of those libraries were broken up over time – sold off in toto or in part, lost to fire, stolen, gifted to public institutions, or released back into the wild through glittering auctions. These were the “important” libraries of history – the first printed books, manuscripts on velum, hand-copied tracts carefully illuminated by monks in the Middle Ages – the incredibly rare and the magnificently expensive. These were the libraries of royal dukes and titans of the industrial age.
It makes me extraordinarily happy that such collectors and such libraries even exist. Even so, I walk away from that read feeling just a little bit sad – mostly because, unless there’s a multi-state lottery jackpot in my future I’ll never be able to possess books like that. I’ll never have the opportunity to walk into a room filled with five hundred year old volumes and revel in their smell and feel and the sheer joy of knowing that for just a short slice of history I am custodian of such rarities.
I love books. I love being surrounded by them. If I had but the funds, I’d like nothing more than to assemble a first rate, proper library – old classics well made and maintained dating back from the dawn of printing and beyond. Given the reality of not having fabulous mountains of wealth, mine is a simple working collection of books. It’s hardly worthy to be considered a library at this point – just 500 or so volumes of history mixed with fiction, some government and politics, and a few outliers straying into sociology. Hardly a blip when compared to some of the lions of book collecting, whose personal libraries swelled to hundreds of thousands of books.
I read what interests me at the moment, acknowledging that it would be impossible to dive down every rabbit hole – or even one tenth of the rabbit holes given the limitations of time. Sure there are a few modern first editions living in places of honor on my shelf. There are a few well worn favorites that I keep coming back to time and again. If nothing else, I can at least claim that every book that ends up on one of my shelves is one that I’ve read. Nothing earns its spot there simply for decoration or adornment.
I could save a shitload of money if I were just able to borrow books from the public library like a normal person. I’m touched lightly by that gentle madness, though. The books possess me at least as much as I possess them… and I don’t mind it even a little bit.
I can feel my brain turning to jelly just a little bit more every day. We’re squarely in the middle of what can generously be described as my “busy season.” It’s roughly analogous to trying to hold a diagram of 1,745,381 moving parts in your head and knowing exactly what they’re all doing and without getting any of them confused at any given time. Some of it you can write down, but much of the rest relies on (occasionally) faulty memory and the natural sense of how things *should* go together which may or may not bear any resemblance to reality.
There’s an ebb and flow to things here. Spring and on into summer is usually peak demand. November through the new year slows down. The periods between are somewhere splitting the difference. It varies from day to day. In some ways this cycle is just the nature of the business. In other ways it’s entirely self-inflicted – with people stacking up requirements however they best fit one or another particular schedule.
For me, the only option to stave of madness is in realizing three things: 1) Accept there is only so much you can do with the time and resources allocated; 2) Understand that some (read all) decisions are actually above my pay grade; and 3) Trudge through while trying to avoid blood pressure spikes and heart attacks due to actions or inactions that are outside of my decidedly limited span of control.
Some days I’m more successful than others at keeping all that in mind. This week, however, has been made up completely of days that fall distinctly towards the “unsuccessful” side of the ledger.
I learned something new today. Well, it wasn’t really new, but it’s something I had completely forgotten. It seems if you play really pretty bad music from the early 1990s at as high a level as your radio will manage, and keep just the right pace to maintain a healthy dose of highway noise, you can reach a kind of nirvana. Just before your ears start bleeding there will be such a clash of sound flooding into your head that it will push out every other coherent though. More importantly it will silence, at least temporarily, that part of your brain that keeps telling you to cash it all in, sell it all off, drive to nowhere, get a shit job that requires no skill or independent though, and spend the rest of your days reading every book in the public library of whatever small town you end up in.
The only side effect is a blinding headache and inability to hear anything below a dull roar. Whatever it takes to stave off the madness one more day, I suppose.e
Spend enough days in a row sitting through meetings where nothing is ever decided, writing emails that no one ever reads, and dreaming up good ideas that will never see the light of day and one might be forgiven for tending to adopt a healthy cynicism about their profession. In a bureaucracy where every cog has its own agenda and can through even the best laid plans off the rails, frankly I’m surprised when anything gets done at all. It’s practically a cause for celebration.
I suspect that’s why I spend so much of my “off” time doing things that can demonstrate a tangible result. Reading and writing are easy. Finish the book, draft a new chapter, and either way at the end point you have something to show for the effort. It’s measurable. I suspect it’s also why I throughly enjoy mowing the grass, running string trimmer, and cutting back another few feet of encroaching saplings. Adding two hours of physical work after eight hours of repeatedly banging your head against you desk probably isn’t everyone’s idea of good times… but it makes me unreasonably happy, even as it leads to increasing exhaustion.
In that one small way, I’ve carved a bit of order away from chaos. It’s not making the world safe for democracy, or curing polio, but it helps stave off the madness and that contribution shouldn’t be undervalued.
Most people who spend their days dwelling in the bland colored cubicles of a standard office complex wouldn’t compare their daily experience with a trip to Disney World. As has been pointed out on more than one occasion, though, I’m not most people, so it’s the argument that I’m going to submit for your consideration.
Unfortunately for most cube dwellers, the part of Disney that our life most resembles isn’t the convincing enough facades that line Main Street or the shows that seem to come off effortlessly. That’s all the average visitor to any big theme part sees – just enough of the illusion to keep them interested and to keep them from wanting to look behind the closed doors at the parts of the park that can’t be seen from the designated public spaces. No, our part is the tunnels and back rooms that keep the whole edifice sparkling and magical for our “guests.”
Like Disney, we build boxes of glass and steel, decorate them in as inoffensive a manner as possible, and then fill them with adults who mostly are only there because someone told them it’s the thing to do. Even for those on the inside, most people never see how the real inner workings mesh. They never see and don’t even speculate on what massive asshattery lurks in closed door meetings or in the executive suite. I suspect that most people wouldn’t have the stomach for that kind of truth – better to maintain a happy fiction than an uncomfortable reality.
So that leaves the illusion of a happiest place on earth where morale is always high, everyone always does their best work, everyone ask themselves “is this good for the company,” and no one ever gets eaten by an alligator. I can only speculate that it’s just another of the great lies we tell ourselves to stave off the madness until we can slog our way to retirement age or a Powerball win.
In my experience the only way to get through the average weekday is to break it into small manageable segments and give yourself something to look forward to periodically as the time crawls slowly past. It may be simplistic, but hey, I’ll endorse just about any idea in an effort to stave off the madness.
Since they opened up the Canadian Starbucks here in the building my mid-afternoon way-point is a trip out to the lobby for the day’s two o’clock donut. I jokingly refer to it as the “highlight of my day, but you see the thing is most days it’s not a joke. Between meetings, people who can’t seem to complete the simplest tasks in a timely manner, all manner of surprise requirements, and the inevitable daily shitstorm that originate well outside my span and scope of control, the two o’clock donut is (usually) the one reliable sign that the end of another day is mercifully closer than it was a few hours ago.
Some days that doesn’t matter much, but on others it’s the difference between holding it all together or making an irrecoverable spectacle of myself. The restorative nature of donuts, however, is not always foolproof. Even two o’clock donuts don’t make up for meetings that end after you should already be home wearing your fuzzy slippers and making dinner.