I wrote the following words a long time ago. They’re from a chapter called “A Magic Cigarette.’ They’re part of a book called A First Trip to Europe that my incompetence as a writer doesn’t know what to do with. Nonetheless, I’m feeling the strong impulse to share some of it here for a reason I’ll make clear at the end.
On a cold January night in the year of our Lord 2000, it felt like death was approaching. Something about that trading floor seemed ominous. The next day, my first, Crude and Refined Products had a meeting to discuss the high turnover rate. Gripes and problems abounded. The negativity was thick. “What have I gotten myself into?” I wondered.
Several weeks later the feeling had intensified. I was working for Williams Energy Marketing and Trading in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Man I hated that job! It was my first “real” one since graduating from Rice University at Houston, Texas with a BA in economics and managerial studies in May of 1999. I hated the spreadsheets, data entry, marking to market, and countless other tasks that evoked loathing.
Oh, there was some fun. Count Chocula and red wine at day’s end was nice. Pesto pizza soaked in ranch dressing for lunch, and apple fritters for breakfast, eased the pain. Drunken Fridays helped too.
Being a fat-ass was my only joy. Everything else sucked. Sitting in front of that computer, and trying to figure out what numbers to put in what box, so some dude could do some thing that I had not the slightest idea, sucked. Spending hours at night to do this, not knowing when I’d go home, also sucked.
Was this to be my life the next year? The next five? Ten? This was discouraging.
It seemed no amount of money could take away the pain for my complete lack of passion and purpose. I was miserable, and felt betrayed by my “education” that had implanted the idea that Corporate America was the only way. Mike Judge’s Office Space was screaming in my ears.
However, a change was coming. On a cold night in February, after about a month of this garbage, I took a walk east on Tulsa’s 71st street. Icy winds howled, but I was oblivious. My mind wrestled with the question of how many mornings would I wake up feeling loathing, knowing it would be with me most of that day, and return the next.
“I mean,” I told myself, “there are people in this world who are happy doing what they’re doing. Right? Why can’t I? Shouldn’t a man’s happiness come into the equation somewhere? EXPLETIVE!”
The wind numbed my ears. Cars drove to and fro. Along the way I saw a black man smoking a cigarette under the light of a convenience store parking lot. I approached him to bum one. Why not? He gave me a menthol, and I lit it up. As the warm and sweet smoke singed my lungs, one thing became very clear.
“I’m afraid my collegiate classmates are going to make more money than me. I’m putting myself through all this crap – the data entry, the excessive wine, the excessive Count Chocula, the Sunday night dreading – for this stupid and petty fear?”
Yes I was.
See, if there was one thing I gleaned from Rice it was that “winners” become investment bankers, or consultants, or other well-paid corporate types. Losers don’t. They find excuses not to endure the hardship of TPS reports and endless spreadsheets for the glory of money. And I was to be a winner!
One of my teammates, whom I will not name, symbolized who I was to prove to be better than. We played football together. We had several economics classes together. We even partnered up on a paper or two.
“Why shouldn’t I beat him in the race?” I wondered.
“Will the team remember his name as a better football player than me? NO! He didn’t have my accolades. He wasn’t a three-year All-WAC selection. He wasn’t an All-American. I was!
“Plus,” I continued in my mind, “when doing research papers together, didn’t I have to explain to him a thing or two about this and that? Was I not smarter than him? Why should he earn more money? More glory?”
Well, the only thing I was earning those days was misery. This magic moment forced me to realize how foolish my thinking was. Praise God. A large weight lifted off my chest. Happiness filled my body. Deep down I knew I was now free to consider a thousand different possibilities for living life. Aafter that puff of smoke, things truly began to change. The unlearning began.
It wasn’t long thereafter I quit my job and went down a different path. That path wasn’t expected. It was different from everything I’d imagined before. My steps haven’t been perfect. However, I can’t say I regret them.
Regardless, I think way too many who go to college fall in love with money because they don’t know what else to love. Their education brainwashes them into the rat race like my “education” did too. They put themselves in massive debt to chase after the phony American Dream. Thus, they live for outward appearances. They live in a manner they think is socially acceptable.
They live lives of quiet desperation.
I’m not saying you can’t be happy getting yourself in massive debt and working for Corporate America to fund a life with a family. I’m not. Nonetheless, I think Thoreau’s concept of quiet desperation is still 100% accurate today as Americans walk after the love of money as much as any people throughout time all the while consuming more drugs than anyone else on the planet.
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