Flight of the Penguin

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m a fucking rockstar.

Yep….it’s about that time again, folks: time for some good old fashioned navel-pondering. When last we saw our hero getting philosophical, quacking like a penguin, and crowing about being a golden god (three perfectly good and reasonable pastimes Charlie Sheen has now irrefutably rendered tainted for all eternity), it was the spring of 2010 and I was in the midst of a job-hunting-induced malaise of squandered potential.

That was then, when I’d taken so many McOrders and spotted so many bench presses that I was in danger of forgetting that I could, you know, actually do stuff that required complex decision-making processes (or any active grey matter at all, really). And it had been such a long and interesting period that it really surprised nobody that I was wandering around the backyard in my underwear muttering quietly to myself while listening to Mika’s anthem for the young and disenfranchised, “We Are Golden,” on repeat and raking swirly patterns in the landscaping as if the yard were my own giant Zen garden.

Or at least, y’all politely acted as if such scenes were not run-of-the-mill and not vaguely Sheen-tastic.

And this is now, nearly a year later, as I sit happily ensconced once more within the halls of academia — well, the windowless cubicles of academic support, at least. Enough time and distance have passed from my time in career exile (or what I lovingly refer to as the Year of Motherfucking Hell) that the McNightmares have mostly passed and I can almost handle hearing the words ‘budget cuts’ or ‘recession’ without going internally back into that dark panicky, despair place. And I’ve largely reconciled myself with the (many, many) concessions that came part in parcel with re-joining the workforce in an economy that still deserves a Dante-esque warning sign: the massive, almost criminal plunge in salary level; the loss of those fancy titles, posh catalog-ordered matchy furniture, shiny dual computer monitors, and windows (nevermind an office door); and the bitter little pill that was the realization I was back on square one, starting back in a position startlingly parallel to the one I’d started working my way doggedly up from nearly four years before.

Yes. For the most part, I’ve recovered. But still, there are moments of penguin-dreaming and former-glory musing.

If you hadn’t noticed, I don’t talk about my job much here on the blog. Partly that’s been a calculated move. Seeing as I tend to go off on the occasional wild rant like this one (and I’m not crazy and determined to gnaw the hand that feeds me to a tiger-savaged pulp), that’s probably a good thing. Partly, it’s because at the end of work day, I don’t really want to deconstruct it. And finally, a large part of it has to do with the fact that I mostly love my job and coworkers, and rarely have anything much to report on the subject.

Ahhhhh, but perhaps there’s the rub, and the source of this latest round of penguin pondering: there’s nothing to talk about.

Sure, I could focus on the trivial and the inane…but there’s plenty of that material to plumb from the depths of everyday life. (My cooking, anyone??). My current boss isn’t bat-Sheen crazy. My coworkers are (mostly) charming and laugh appropriately at the occasional dumb things I do. (like that time in LaGuardia when…oh, never mind.)(and really, okay, that one’s getting old, guys). And I don’t have to fist-bump my way through an over-testosteroned weight room of muscley, sweaty guys, crowing bromantically and slapping asses. (Wait…what was wrong with that, again?).

And I love that my coworkers are as much my conspirators-in-arms as they are my colleagues. (climbed any good wrought-iron fences while muddy and mildly inebriated lately, Linda?). In fact, I haven’t had so much fun on the job since the olden, golden days with Scott and Savona at TRIO Training, when Ahkmed the Dead Terrorist dismissed staff meetings and management discussions were hammered out amidst nerf wars. And the fact that I get to go on fun little jaunts to places like Philadelphia and Boston and New York City (as well as not-so-fun trips to places that rhyme with ‘El Stabbo’), staying in posh mid-town hotels and charming old New England inns (hellooooo, Connecticut!)? And traveling with matched luggage? Kinda priceless.

So yeah: there’s a lot that I love. Overall, I’m blissfully content. And yet…occasionally, I’m still that penguin that dreams of a time when penguins flew.

Quack.

See, let me explain.

For the past two weeks, most all of my coworkers were out, either with the death-plague or traveling, and I had the office to myself.

And know what? I loved it.

With everyone else gone, all the miscellaneous projects got dumped on my lap. I got to DO stuff. Coordinate appointments for a school visit by out-of-state counselors guaranteed to knock their friggin’ socks off? Check. Impress the Big Boss in the Corner Office With the Killer View with my efficiency and attention to detail? Check again. For the first time since I’ve settled into this position, I suddenly realized, I got to DO something that required actual thought and effort (and just a smidgeon of ambition). I was checking work on my way to and from the office, firing off memos during dinner or at random moments in the middle of the night, and contemplating schedules and plans during my dreams.

It was glorious: I felt a renewed purpose and motivation in coming to work every morning. It was also a brief chance to relive the glory days of my early career, when I was trading up offices and earning plaques and accolades, and when I was widely expected to be on my way quickly to that Corner Office With the Killer View, and when I WAS the golden boy.

It was also a wake-up call: somehow, in the seven or eight months I’ve been back in the trenches of university student services, a cube-drone carrying out constantly-changing directives from above with little to no actual autonomy, I’ve been so busy being relieved to actually HAVE a job again (and adapting to taking my directions constantly from above and forgetting that I’d once had pretty office furniture and relative autonomy) to realize that I’ve become the penguin that forgot how to fly again. Bottomline, I’m just not challenged on a regular basis (and we all know I need challenges in my life), and I can’t think of the last time I’ve been honestly stimulated (the time I walked in on the entire swim team showering in the rec center locker room notwithstanding).

Huh.

If my recent moment in the sun was the catalyst of this little personal gestalt, a message from an old TRIO comrade-in-arms crystallized it this evening. “Hey,” he asked. “Do you have the great position yet? And do you need an assistant?” And I had to reply that no, I did not have the big office, and that — truth be told — I was barely not the assistant myself.

And, like a penguin dreaming of gliding amongst the clouds startled suddenly awake to find himself standing frozen on a cold, barren ice shelf, there was clarity. Boom.

So: what now?

Well, nothing drastic, really. Obviously, I need my job. As much as being unemployed helped jump-start my writing, it’s a state I don’t intend to return to. And also, I love what I do (mostly), and I love the people (mostly). In fact, the Great Compromise — step down in salary and responsibility and go to work in a great environment, or hold out for the great title and stultifying daily social existence? — was something I considered carefully when I took this position, and really, I still have no true regrets about it.

But…at the same time, maybe it’s time to dust off that patina of dust covering the ‘Outstanding Employee’ award hanging on my cubicle wall. Maybe it’s time to remind myself that I AM special, dammit. Maybe it’s time to take a page from the Charlie Sheen playbook and remind myself that I am a Goddamned Fucking Golden God. (with tiger blood flowing through my veins, natch). Because really, we all need to take a big giant leap over the precipice of self-importance and unbridled ego-tripping now and then, I think. It’s what keeps us motivated and, ironically, sanely grounded. Unless you’re Charlie Sheen.

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