The corporate bathroom is the one place in the whole office where you understand completely what is expected of you.
~ Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine
Certain of my coworkers from overseas believe that what’s expected of them is to strip naked (dropping their clothes on the filthy floor) and climb atop the toilet seat to crouch and unburden themselves at an altitude. Others imagine that hand washing is optional. I’m tempted sometimes to follow these to the break room and make a public denunciation. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I might say, “be advised that THIS MAN” (pointing the accusatory finger) “is even now rudely befouling the roasted and salted pistachio bin!”
I often daydream about losing my job. I arrive at the office one morning to find that my keycard no longer works. Or else I’m met by an HR representative and given ten minutes to clean out my desk. “What a relief,” I say and smile as I exit the building. In the good old days I was laid off every two or three years. My last period of unemployment (from September 2003 to March 2004) was a golden era. We were poor as dirt but had time for things. I walked alone in the hills. I read and wrote. I was thirty, a new father. My son had a bad case of roseola but a good attitude. There he is in a photograph, rashy and smiling, in a sunny courtyard of an old Spanish mission that we visited one day.
I turned forty last month. If any part of me was still waiting for real adulthood to arrive, I suppose this is it. Paul Giamatti once said in an interview that he never felt right until he turned forty. Some people have young souls and others have old ones, he said, “but I have a middle-aged soul.” I don’t know the age of my soul, but I feel all right. The young narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine expects that age forty will mark “the end of the rule of nostalgia, the beginning of my true majority.” Only then, he calculates, will the weight of childhood ideas and associations be fully counter-balanced by ideas and associations acquired in adulthood. Instead I think: being seven, that was something! Being twenty-seven or thirty-seven? Not so much.
I marked my fortieth birthday by running away with the wife and kids to a cabin near Mendocino, about 150 miles north of San Francisco. At the cabin there is no mobile phone signal, no Internet access (it’s a luxury to be inconvenienced these days). There is, however, the sound of the ocean, there are birds, and there are lots and lots of trees. This is the California I like best, a half-wild bucolic territory of slow Victorian-era towns, valley vineyards framed in oaks, redwood canyons, roaring headlands, and salt fog. Let go from work, it’s just the place to run off to, a place to live on wild berries and sea urchins, or to slowly turn Sasquatch. Retirement is only twenty-five years away.