Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rise Up Washington Bureaucrat!

There are bureaucrat lulls and bureaucrat lows, and months and months of muddling through: hours up and down the hall to find a functioning color printer, changing the voicemail system or the departmental distribution list. There is the semi-androgynous office enthusiast who, clocking in with pear-shaped chinos and frappuccino, shares a measured dose of cheer each day with the surrounding hall and cubicles. This is the safe haven, the little island of snow globes and dried roses, ceramic penguins and framed departmental recognitions. This is the warm place where even the saltiest institutional hack can refesh himself, pick up a piece of gossip, or be reminded of the next unit meeting.
In between such oases are stretches of gray paneling, closed doors, frosted class, and behind it, tight-lipped functionaries scrolling through email.
In short, I’m back in Washington.
How have I come full-circle? How did I, the self-styled adventure-mom, bumping bus-bound across Mondulkiri to teach my kids worldliness, end up back in my minivan, shuttling suburban achievers and blackberrying budget projections to—oh no!—the old distribution list. The short answer is, I had a temporary assignment, and it ended just as neatly and abruptly as it began.
The long answer is even too self-pitiful to regale our team assistant, who lends a patient ear to almost any story. What am I really made of? What kinds of skills do I actually have? How does my vision of motherhood fit with that, and can I have all these things and live with my husband, too? Are work assignments totally arbitrary, or is there a rhyme and reason to one guy landing in Hanoi and the other in Tegucigalpa? When managers are holding their licked fingers to the wind, how can I make sure my face is flashing before their eyes? Well, you get the picture. And I don’t want to become the Disgruntled Colleague, whose afternoon rounds to your door signal a half-hour of aimless bull-shitting.
No, I’ve got some spiritual ground to recover, and I’m not all that spirited to begin with. If alcoholics can hit a bottom, then at least bureaucrats can hit a plush carpet. That’s where I was on Tuesday. Coming back from a seminar on results-based, unmonitorable lending, to a pin-drop office with a day-old, carved-up sheetcake in the hall, I did what I shouldn’t. Nose-dove into a corner slice. Then in the afternoon stillness of a quiet office, I found myself hitting refresh on emails to keep the screensaver off. I had an urge to sleep and no reason not to. So I turned off the light in my office, kicked off my shoes, and crawled into the roomy space under my desk for a nap. Was it wrong that it felt so good? That the chatter of the returning assistants was a sweet lullaby beyond the wall?
But how did I get back here? What is it about this city, this job?
I’m now the waking office-body brushing back her plastered hair and smoothing away the rug-marks on my cheek. It’s going to be a really, really honest process here, and boy have I got some changes to make!