If this is what we call progress, maybe I don’t want to be part of it. We originally built corporations to make our lives better, and now we seem to exist to make their bottom lines bigger. Speaking of which, my bottom line is decomposing in this chair, and my sense of purpose is melting like the polar ice caps—all of it attributable to a perverted view of success. My eyes are tired of these screens. My brain longs for novel stimulation. And my soul knows the paycheck isn’t fixing any of it.
When I pursued a desk-job career path, I thought I was saving myself from the hardships of physical labor. Ironically, my body is now suffering from a lack thereof. Normally, I love irony. I can often see the humor in it all, or at least I could in the past. But I don’t laugh much anymore. My body seems to know only pain, and my mind seems to know only numbness. Everything is exhausting. Nothing seems to matter. Why get exhausted over nothing?
It makes zero sense to feel exhausted after a day of nothing, but I do. To anyone challenging the idea, I’d ask you to remember the last time you were in a doctor’s office and, forty-five minutes past your scheduled appointment, you continue to wait, rereading People magazine a third time for no purpose other than to kill the time. Then add another seven hours, every day. Lack of purpose and accomplishment is as exhausting as running a marathon, even if it is in a totally different way. So, in the spirit of mental health, I need a five-minute break. Perusing some fish pictures seems like a good escape right now.
After a few swipes through my collection, I find a shot of myself holding up two twenty-four-inch walleyes I caught last year while fishing at Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. The fish were wonderfully photogenic, but I hold them at an awkward angle and their gills are flared at the camera, cheapening the photo. I should have known better, but I was excited and distracted.
Next is a picture of Dad with a tiny walleye on his line barely bigger than the lure he’s used to catch it. The photo captures him grinning widely as he laughs at his little specimen a moment before becoming agitated when he discovered I wasn’t merely observing but was actually immortalizing the moment.
“Don’t you post that picture on Facebook!”
I don’t know if he was more upset about the size of the fish or the view of his shirtless belly. I didn’t care—the sight was too good to keep to ourselves. I’ve always felt the best picture-worthy fish are the biggest and the smallest, and I’m not all about window dressing. That tiny little cigar-shaped walleye was as much a part of our true experience as the big ones were.
A few swipes later, I stop to admire another one of my favorite pictures. Dad is holding the biggest catch of the trip, a twenty-six-inch, broad-shouldered tank of a walleye speckled in glorious green and yellow hues with pristine marble eyes. Tired from the fight, it hangs vertically from Dad’s index finger like a wet leather jacket drying on a coat hanger. Dad’s veteran instincts orient the full side of the fish toward the camera perfectly. His smile shows that old fire again.
He had caught that fish around 9:30 a.m. the first day of our maiden voyage to Devils Lake. The destination wasn’t even our first choice; it was an audible we called at the last minute when our usual haunts in South Dakota were predicted to experience 100-degree heat waves that would no doubt grind fishing to a halt. The best way to escape the heat is to drive north. And that’s how I found myself fishing in North Dakota for the first time.
“This thing’s pulling so hard, Brett. I’m worried it’s gonna break me off.”
“Here, I’ll slow the boat down a bit.”
When it surfaced, I froze for what seemed an eternity, completely in awe of the specimen, then quickly shook myself awake and swooped it up with the landing net. Still full of six or seven pounds of walleye, I set the net down on the floor of the boat, expecting Dad to grab his fish. He grabbed me in a huge bear hug instead as we both shouted like giddy school kids.
“That just made the trip right there!” he said shortly after releasing me. Then I snapped a picture for which he was more than proud to pose. Then he released the fish as well. You have to let ’em go to let ’em grow.
These fishing vacations once served as a nice break, leaving me reenergized and ready to play investment analyst. Now they remind me of what else I could be doing. It’s not just that I miss the water now as I sit at my desk but that I have a powerful sense I ought to be there instead. I need to be there. I belong there. I miss the feeling of belonging.
We don’t all get what we want, though. Following your passion is the territory of the delusional and the irresponsible, not to mention embarrassingly cliché. It’s okay. I’m responsible. I’ll be fine. I’m fine. I close the photo app and place my phone upside down on my desk.
There must be a hundred people on this floor, and not one of them is speaking, not to each other, not on the phone, not a word. Nobody is moving either. Every half-dead pair of eyes is fixed on a screen of some form or another. Doesn’t anyone have to go to a meeting? Is anybody going to eat a meal? Does anyone have to go to the bathroom? I am growing more and more antsy just watching other people.
The cold, dull overhead lighting glows gray like the aura of a quiet, soulless spirit. Reflecting off sterile white walls, it steadily depletes any vigor I have left and leaves my eyes dry and tired, much like hours of meandering through endless aisles of warehouse stores searching for the best buys on generic mayo and saltine crackers. It’s enough to sustain life but does little to help it thrive. I miss the warm, vibrant sun.
I have about eight things I could be doing right now, but each one of them depends upon somebody else. I suppose I could send another round of follow-up emails, but that starts to get bothersome for both parties after a while. Still, it seems tomorrow’s checklist will bear an uncomfortable resemblance to yesterday’s save for a few letters retraced in pen for clarity, one “followed up again” notation with a current date, and a couple doodles of lake maps and golf hole designs.
No offense to my coworkers. My higher mind understands this is the reality of Corporate America. Right now my lizard brain would rather selfishly throw a Nerf football at the back of a few people’s heads to get their attention and charitably knock their zombie asses back into consciousness. I resent the fact that “playfulness” has been placed under the unspoken unprofessional column. I don’t want to be professional; I want to be real. Real can still be productive. Real can probably be more productive.
I have to figure out a way to make this better. Perhaps I’m not giving it enough effort. Or maybe I haven’t effectively communicated my career desires to those around me. What else am I going to do? I have a dozen years of experience and a reputation now built on top of a double-major undergraduate degree in economics and finance as well as my Certificate in Investment Performance Measurement (CIPM), my world’s equivalent to an accountant’s CPA designation.
I was top of my class in economics and close to it in finance. I started fast in the investment world, earning bonuses, awards, multiple promotions, and a healthy salary. Taking inventory of my last few years, though, I don’t even have enough to fill a sentence worth of any reader’s time.
Feeling defeated, I need an excuse to leave my seat. Maybe I will go to the restroom again despite how it must confuse my mostly empty bladder. After twenty-seven steps and a right turn, I see someone I know in the hallway. His eyes are fixed on the floor, and he avoids eye contact, probably not out of malice but perhaps apathy.
I give him a chance, greeting him with a “Hey! How’s it goin’, man?”
Nothing but silence as he keeps his gaze on the floor and then on his phone as he continues to walk toward wherever it is he needs to be.
After visiting the bathroom and doing a lap around the floor, I return back to my desk. Perhaps I will start one of these projects, and when I do get some feedback, I can update it appropriately. Mentally this feels like a waste of time, but so is not doing anything. I can feel the tension creep into my shoulders, crawling from my fingers through my forearms all the way up to my head. My muscles begin to clench, compressing my joints, which pop audibly as air and fluid are squeezed from between them. It is almost as if I am being cryogenically frozen here in this supposedly ergonomic office chair, an oxymoron, especially for someone of my stature. I already spend forty hours a week sitting here. Why not make it an eternity?
The muscles in my chest and ribs tense further as they become even more exhausted. When I try to move, they seem to spasm against me, holding my gaze straight as if they’ve been overridden by malware, a computer virus that has mutated and learned to jump to humans. The tighter they get, the more effort it takes to breathe, my own muscle fibers turning against me like a pet python gone rogue. I no longer have control.
Ding. I receive an email bringing hope of relief, but as I read, I realize it is not related to any one of the eight things I was hoping for. The words are stunningly harsh; I can’t imagine this person saying anything of the sort face-to-face. The distance of email loosens human inhibitions and allows one’s venom to flow freely from fingers to keyboard, at which point it leaps electronically through my screen and into me.
My heart starts to beat uncontrollably. My face gets flushed with blood one moment, then it all seems to dump straight down to the floor the next. Everything gets cold. My field of vision starts to shrink. I’m not sure if I’m going to stay with it. I need to get up and go somewhere, but my options are limited.
As I walk toward the elevator, I beg my nervous system to keep me online. Thankfully, no one is in the elevator when the door opens. There is a conference room a couple of floors up, little used and equipped with a padded bench. I remember well because I’ve used it before upon noticing the onset of an episode—anxiety attacks, according to my doctor.
As I round the corner out of the elevator bay, I notice another coworker, and this one actually acknowledges my existence. Now it is I who have somewhere to be—somewhere to be in a hurry!—and I make quick, drive-by small talk without breaking stride, loathing my hypocritical self as I walk. I reach the conference room and am extremely relieved the lights are dark. I go in, close the door, and lie down on the bench, staring at the ceiling, trying to remember the breathing exercises.
It takes about twenty minutes for this attack to blow over and my racing heart to relax. I’m relieved no one ever entered the room, the possibility of which had worried me more and more with the sound of each passing person. I feel able to stand and walk back to the elevators again.
As I move past all of the bodies on the way back to my desk, little has changed. I get the sense that I could cartwheel naked all the way back without anyone noticing, if I even knew how to do one, that is. Is this what the matrix looks like? I am pretty sure these are real people, the people I know and work with, but for the first time, watching them all from this perspective, a touch of doubt starts to creep into my mind.
Are they hurting too? Physically or mentally? Emotionally? Do they want to scream as much as I do? Or are they cool with this? Is this just normal? Is this the way we operate, everything either in our heads or delivered electronically through keystrokes? Surely no little kid grew up dreaming of this thirty years ago.
I had originally been flushed with embarrassment over this runaway train that has become my nervous system, self-conscious about my retreat to a dark conference room, but I’m learning none of it is on anyone’s radar. Case in point, about a week ago I had a similar attack. That time, however, I couldn’t make it to the elevator. In that attack I got out of my seat, knelt down on the floor, and rolled over onto my back. I probably lay there for about two full minutes. Eventually, it passed. I stood up, opened my eyes, and looked around. It was as if nothing had even happened. No one stopped working. No one got out of their seat to come see what was happening. No one even shifted their gaze from their computer screen or offered a courtesy “Are you okay?” I just sat down and went back to work.
“What time is it?” I think to myself. The clock tells me 2:17 p.m. I’ve made an executive decision: I’m leaving early today.
It seems unusual to think a person ought to make less money, but seriously, what are they paying me for? I suppose someone else may see this as a perfect, cushy job. I should just shut up and keep cashing the paychecks, but my heart and my gut don’t see it that way. They just see time squandered. Nothing getting done. No reason to be here. I don’t want to be here.
It starts to rain outside. I can hear the drops hit the window near my desk. The sound triggers memories of a rainstorm at my first childhood home over thirty years ago. My parents were out that day, and I was spending it with Helen.
Helen was a wonderfully sweet old lady. She is my memory’s first-known caretaker outside of my family, my first “babysitter,” if you will. I’m not sure how we humans came up with the term “babysitter.” Taken literally, there’s no way most parents would pay for such a service, and the employee would likely end up in jail or escorted out by the Department of Human Services. But Helen never once sat on me.
Raising your first child certainly can’t be easy, but my parents must have done a few things right. Enlisting Helen to take care of me ranks toward the top. She was an authority figure, but always in the kindest way, getting you to do what you ought to without overt aggression or “making you hate her,” to use a bit of my childhood parlance.
She was the opposite of my subsequent babysitter, Ruth, who once yelled at me for throwing up on the carpet and was absolutely not fond of me playing with my stuffed animals all morning when there were apparently more productive things for a four-year-old to be accomplishing. I have no idea what Ruth’s problem was, but she had one. Her best attribute was her ability to make me like Helen more.
After a good rain shower, Helen used to take me “fishing.” The rainwater would run through the sides of the streets into the storm drains, and worms coming out of their holes to explore the newly-saturated world would inevitably wash down these little roadside streams. It seems ironic that worms were actually our target species rather than bait, but the purest of fisher people must start first with learning to catch their bait. Also, I was two, and Helen was just trying to keep me entertained.
I’ve always loved the fishy smell when it rains. I’m not totally sure what makes it smell that way. Clearly there aren’t fish falling in the raindrops. I wondered if it was perhaps the slime of the worms themselves as they came out to play. I’ve also heard it may be the rainwater mixing with the oils of various plants and trees.
She would help me hunt in the backyard for the appropriate sticks to serve as poles, tie on some kite string or knitting yarn, fashion a hook out of a paperclip, and off we’d go. We sat on the curb waiting for worms to wash downstream to us and dropped our lines in an attempt to catch them. I honestly don’t remember if we were ever successful. I wouldn’t be surprised if I eventually just grabbed them with my hands, a tactic I still think about at times when walleyes are being stubborn, though they’d be hard to catch this way too.
I sorely want to be fishing right now. I imagine my dad does too. I know he does. I wish I could just call him up and tell him I’ll be there in four hours, boat in tow, for another epic Bloemendaal fishing adventure.
Bloemendaal isn’t just our family surname; it’s also a place I’ve never visited, a municipality of Holland with Bloemendaal Beach functioning as a gateway to the North Sea. Wooden shoes, windmills, and tulips are relics of a Dutch heritage I never truly lived beyond festivals, parades, old family photos, and occasionally stumbling around in a pair of my grandma’s old, clip-cloppy footwear as a toddler. Our relationship with water, however, flows in the blood and cannot be ignored. Without water, I am but a hunk of inanimate meat.
Most all of our Bloemendaal family tree has some affinity for the beauty of water and the creatures swimming within. My uncle Bevan doesn’t fish but was so drawn to water he eventually realized his dream of owning property on the Atlantic through years of work and strategic planning. Grandpa and Grandma would take me and my younger brother, Brandon, fishing at local bass and bluegill ponds near their home. Dad said he heard that old saying “Wind from the west, fishing’s the best . . . wind from the east, you catch the least” from his grandpa.
I look out my office window at the flag across the street. There is a nice, steady breeze blowing out of the west today, just enough for a good chop, not too much to be obstructive to a fisherman’s efforts.
In my most formative years, my dad was an idol to me. He was bigger than life, indestructible, unstoppable, and formidable. He sported a badass, Jean-Claude Van Damme from Hard Target permed mullet and an earring to go along with his leather jacket during most of my childhood. It was a look he used during his undercover law enforcement days, but he could’ve pulled it off without any excuse. Proudest and most loving father of children I’ve ever known, but if you messed up, he was intimidating as hell.
I remember watching the Ghostbusters movie one afternoon while Dad was at work. I was already a Bill Murray fan at age four (and a Johnny Carson fan, for that matter, much to the chagrin of my desperate mother trying to put her child to bed at a decent time). When Dad came back after his shift, I reenacted the scene after the ’busters catch their first ghost. I looked at my father and shouted, “We came, we saw, we kicked ass!” I had no idea that what I had said was frowned upon coming from a young child’s mouth, but two seconds of death stare had me throwing my blanket back over my head and running into my bedroom.
He’d give you the shirt off his back, drive through a snow storm to pick you up, and lift you up on his shoulders to see over the other adults. He also fished. Really well. He took us to the local ponds and rivers to shore fish, then later to the lakes in his boat. Eventually, when we were ready, he’d take us to his most revered fishery, the Missouri River. You could have offered me a hundred dollars back then to fish in someone else’s boat other than Dad’s, and I would have emphatically told you where you could stick your money. My dad simply was fishing to me.
I look at the clock again. It’s 3:45 p.m. Close enough. I turn off my computer, grab my bag, push in my chair, and walk toward the elevators. No one says anything. Most don’t look up from their screens. One nods his head.
During my elevator ride, I attempt to release all my frustrations and reset for tomorrow by having a bunch of uncomfortable mock conversations in my head. It’s a very ineffective “trick” I’ve taught myself to make it through another day, but even while I’m doing it, I know I’m deceiving myself. I try to reason with myself that it’s going to be different tomorrow, that something might change even though deep down I know it won’t, not if I don’t.
As I leave the building and walk toward the parking garage, the rain has stopped, leaving that fishy after smell. If this one cog didn’t show up tomorrow, would the machine even notice? Regardless, what am I going to do? Just quit and go fish every day? Of course not. I’m not delusional. I’m responsible.