Monday, June 11, 2007

Escalators: Chicago, day 1

The lobby is lovely. It is decorated with muted lighting and deep shades of gold and red and green. There are patterns on the carpet – some stripes, some blocks, some patterns too complex for me to describe. I switch positions in my uncomfortable chair, finding some slouching comfort as I open Fetch and prepare to send the draft of my chapter off to its prospective publishers. Godspeed, little guy.

As I sit and check the progress – it feels painfully slow as the leg I tucked beneath me begins to fall asleep and I realize I remain tired and hungry – I realize how much of my recent days have been spent waiting.

Time passes strangely when I’m busy. When commitments edge into moments I would have otherwise taken to reflect or write or read, I begin to feel – as I noted – pressured and stressed and unsettled. I need quiet and solitude. They are – as voices echo through the spacious lobby with tall ceilings - in short supply. Instead of trotting around after Carrie at a late gathering for meeting attendees, I decided to escape to find wireless internet.

“I need to ftp my book chapter.” I explained as I finished my wine and slipped away. And so I’ve sat since, waiting for each figure to slowly make its way to the publisher’s folders. When it finishes, I’ll head upstairs to the room with the broken lock (it works most of the time, which, I suppose, is OK. Just not ideal.) and flop on the bed with many pillows. There are far worse things.

I sit facing an escalator, watching its constant progress despite a persistent lack of people who wish to ascend from this level. It just pulls (or pushes – I’m not really sure how escalators work) the metal steps toward the ballrooms above me, cycling through so that there is a constant hum as it works diligently.

Were I an escalator, my progress would be more in fits and starts, but I have felt – many times – that nobody is all that interested. That my efforts fade in the background behind the hum of conversation and the bustle of people as they head out to enjoy the twinkling lights and lovely city. As recent days have found me preening more than a little (Italy! Yet still no reply from the email I sent.), I'm realizing at this meeting that I'm well outside my niche. Nobody really cares what I'm doing, which is fine since they're so focused on their work in an area only slightly related to my own.

Why come? I’m fond of Chicago – the atmosphere and energy, shopping and culture. I’m both comfortable and stimulated here – eager to look around and explore, yet confident I can find my way back from wherever I go. It’s a wonderful feeling to have.

I realize – as I send work away and wait for responses – that I don’t have that in research. I might be slowly gaining it, but I still zone out in seminars, put off work that I don’t know how to do, avoid sending Boss the latest copy of the grant, dread someone figuring out that I don’t really know all that much after all.

“Wouldn’t it be awful,” Carrie mused as we looked at stationary in Water Tower Place, “if you got to Italy and they were disappointed? If they realized you didn’t know what they wanted you to provide?”

At my look – a cross between annoyance and fear – she ducked her head. “Not that it would happen.” She said reassuringly. “But I tend to worry about those things.”

“I guess it is a concern.” I offered grudgingly. “But more that the material I sent with my reply wasn’t impressive enough rather than that I’ll get there and be inadequate.”

We walked back – admiring the landscaping on Michigan Avenue as it changed from beds of blue to red to oranges and pinks. Impatiens, mostly. Hardy, cheerful Midwestern flowers. I smiled when looking at them, pointing out the different colors and designs as we pushed forward with crowds of people.

We went to an endless session – awards and welcomes and a preliminary lecture. I was bored. And uncomfortable. And kind of squished. I glanced at Carrie once and mouthed, “This is awful.” There was a reception afterward and I scampered away to ride the tireless escalators when I found my seat in the lobby and started to deal with internet needs.

When I grew tired, I checked on my chapter - sitting safely in a folder that bears my name on the publishers ftp site - I returned to our 12th floor room which Carrie deemed unacceptably smoky when she returned later that evening. I agreed and supported the room switch with enthusiasm – packing bags, tipping the bellman and unpacking again on a higher floor. We’re quite content up here – sleeping well in comfy beds with fluffy pillows and comforters.

So luxurious were the beds that we both slept until after 9. But that’s part of today’s story, so I’ll leave it for now.

Lessons learned? Everyone thinks their life is the hardest. Post-docs tell students – just wait. “Oh, you’ll see.” Offered a young faculty member to me at lunch yesterday when we discussed politics and salaries and things I apparently continue to be protected from.

It’s endless, I thought last night as I watched and listened to the steady escalator. A continued push (or pull – I really should look up how escalators function) toward something higher, even when nobody seems to notice. And it’s not that the escalators that transport people from the basement to the lobby are better or worse than those that carry passengers to the ballroom from the ground floor. Perhaps they carry different populations or face slightly different temperatures, but the job is largely the same.

And on that note, we push into day 2. But I've yet to write that story.

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