Over a decade ago when I worked for the president of Ziff-Davis Publishing in Boston—the top international tech publishing company at its heyday—my boss subscribed to a stack of periodicals for the IT news. It was my task to sift through the pile and let him know if I found anything about Sun, Microsoft, Apple, etc., and try to get the news to him before anyone else did.
Overtly, it was a competitive, edgy realm. Stressed-out sales and edit staff were predator and prey of this ecosystem, and sometimes newer, larger carnivores cast shadows on the carpeted walls. I tried to make my way through it with occasional stomach-churning and snarling, but I found the stress contagious, no matter how I chose to respond to it.
Once, Bill Gates came to visit and I had his personal assistant in my office without knowing it. I can still see the young man plugging away on his laptop, sitting on the floor because I denied him the use of my desk. I was annoyed at how he walked right through my office and came around to *my* side of the desk. When he tried to hijack my office without telling me his name, I—feeling my territorial, guard-dog hackles aroused—tried to put him in a conference room at the other end of the building, as far away from me as possible. I had things to do, after all, Bill Gates was in the building, somewhere, and I had to make sure there were hot croissants and cold bottles of Italian mineral water in The War Room. But this young scallywag wouldn’t budge. He scowled at me as he unplugged my fax, connected to his network, sat on my floor and banged out emails at a speed that sounded like bursting popcorn. Later my boss told me that it was Bill Gate’s PA and I said, ‘I don’t care who he was, he was a jackass.’ My boss laughed, that was one of the reasons I spent seven years working for him.
Oh the little battles, the stresses, the minute triumphs that seemed so bloody important. When really, I was just a guard-dog and I knew it. But the ‘research pulls,’ as they was called, the rifling through the piles of publications dumped daily on my desk, called this guard-dog to peer through a hole in the fence.
One of the publications was Newsweek and while much of it was what I call glossy-style ‘fun’ news with pretty pictures and tidy captions, even of disasters, I loved the quotations taken from the week’s headlines. Words from both bigwigs and everymen who put some perspective on the world’s events. It was the first thing I read. Sometimes the quotes were funny, like when a boozy politician babbled to the wrong guy, and sometimes they were soul-rending, like a bystander’s perspective on Kosovo.
Only once did a quote strike me as both so cosmic and so deeply hilarious that, between the shudders of excitement it caused, I cut it out and taped it to the wall. Everyday this quote slapped my back or jabbed me in the ribs, no matter who was on the phone or creeping around to my side of the desk. This quote reminded me of how I’d rather be, and still, all these years later, this quote has never left me: ‘I told my family if I die, I die. Bring a bucket and a mop.’
One-hundred years of perspective gave me this. These were the words of a 100 year-old man, after he went bungee jumping and lived. Since most 100 year-old people I’ve met were pretty cranky as well as horrified prisoners of painfully atrophied bodies [I spent a summer feeding, washing, dressing and talking with the inmates of a nursing home when I was 20], I thought this man was incredible. He didn’t hate the world. He wasn’t waiting for death in a corner. He was free. Even from the fear of death. Free beyond anything I have ever even seen.
Of course, I don’t aspire to bungee jump or to be 100, but I do aspire to this man’s perspective: the one that kept him sane and limber in a cascade of ways. And sometimes when that old feeling returns like it did every so often at that job—that everything is oh so fricking important, that I *have* to do this or that or everything will fall apart, that I’m stressed, crowded and talking to a jackass—I try say, ‘If I die, I die… bring a bucket and a mop.’
Overall, the idea of meeting stick-to-your-ribs wisdom when you’re doing something else entirely, is profound. It tells me something about perspective and sight, about how the wisdom is all around me if I choose to see it. If not, I can be stressed out and stupid and gleefully accepting a fleeting sense of meaningless victory like a guard-dog barking at passers by but still chained.
Or I can ponder that freedom for a moment, see that the chain is made of grass or candy and crumbles with a tug. If I want, no matter what or who is making demands on me, I can dance around on my dog-paws on a rim of infinity, on the wing of a crazy-sideways-8 and howl just for the hell of it.
Oh, now that’s good. Bring a bucket and a mop.