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In which the author, much to his surprise, finds himself holding down a job, a real job that could possibly lead to a career, which causes him considerable distress as he envisions his world reduced to swirling acronyms, whereupon his beguiling wife offers him another way, an escape, an alternate road, and together they decide to move to the distant islands of the South Pacific.
I have been called many things in my life, but if there has been but one constant, one barb, one arrow flung my way time after time, it is the accusation that I am, in essence, nothing more than an escapist. Apparently this is bad, suspect, possibly even un-American. Mention to someone that, all things being equal, you’d really rather be on an island in the South Pacific, and they’ll look at you quizzically, ponder the madness of the notion for a moment, and say: “But that’s just escapism. Now would you kindly finish stocking the paper clips so we have time to rearrange the Hi-Liter markers? We need to make sure they’re color-coordinated.”
I’m not sure where this tendency came from. Escapism, we are led to believe, is evidence of a deficiency in character, a certain failure of temperament, and like so many -isms, it is to be strenuously avoided. How do you expect to get ahead? people ask. But the question altogether misses the point. The escapist doesn’t want to get ahead. He simply wants to get away. I understand this, for I am an unapologetic escapist. Once before, I had abandoned the life I knew in Washington, D.C., escaping the urgent din of the continental world for a distant atoll in the equatorial Pacific. I lived there for two years, never once looking at a clock, marveling at what a strange turn my life had taken. I may have heat rash, I thought back then, and I might be hosting eight different kinds of parasites, but at least I’m not some office drone. I had escaped, I thought mirthfully as I tended to my septic infections. And then, suddenly, my life took another dramatic U-turn, and I once again found myself back in Washington, where every morning I was confronted by a debilitating decision: What tie to wear?
The dissonance was overwhelming. One day, I found myself pressed inside the Washington Metro, soaked through from a November rain, palpitating slightly as I realized I had an 8 a.m. meeting and it was presently 8:17 a.m., and just like that it occurred to me that six months earlier I could be found paddling an outrigger canoe across the sun-dappled waters of a lagoon in the South Pacific. This had been happening for some time, this juxtaposition of my former life upon my present one, and the contrast never failed to leave me twitching in bafflement. How had this happened? Huddled on the subway, I lingered on the image for a moment, far away, envisioning the canopy of palm trees swaying in the near distance, the urgent leap of a flying fish, the fishermen in sailing canoes returning with their catch, the brilliant, shimmering colors offered by a setting sun, until my reverie came to an abrupt end as the subway doors opened and I was swept into the tumult of the rush-hour commute. It was a disconcerting sensation. Blue, blue water, I thought in vain as I was shepherded onto an escalator crowded with pasty-faced suits like myself, dejected already. I tried imagining swaying palm trees as I scurried through the rain toward my office at the World Bank, flashing the color-coded ID card I kept tethered to my belt. Inside, I tried conjuring stress-free tropical living once I found on my chair a dreaded note from my boss: PLEASE SEE ME. 7:45 a.m. But the image was gone. Poof.
How had this happened? I wondered again. For two years I had lived in Kiribati, a widely dispersed scattering of atolls at the end of the world, where I had led a rather lively and adventurous existence with my girlfriend Sylvia. And now I was right back where I started, in the real world, as some prefer to call it, wondering how I might leave it again.
As I settled into my office, I noticed another note on top of my keyboard, scrawled by the office assistant: IFC MEETING IN WBIGF CONFERENCE ROOM. WHERE ARE YOU??? 8:21 a.m. The message light on my phone blinked ominously. Sighing, I loped toward the conference room, pausing briefly to catch sight of my reflection in the window, and I noted with some interest that I looked like sodden vermin. It was not going to be a good day, I knew. The conference room itself was transparent, because the World Bank values transparency, and as I approached I wondered, Is that a Bank vice president sitting there? Why, yes, it was. Is that another one? Indeed so. And look, there’s our division chief. Does he ever look pissed off. I entered, and as I mumbled my apologies, my boss cut me off. “Finally,” he said. “Now we can begin. Do you have the PowerPoint slides?”
“Er... the PowerPoint slides... was that me?...I thought... Wasn’t Sergio...?”
Sergio looked upon me with serene blankness. I dampened a little further as the perspiration commingled with the rain, and as I studied the multitude of agitated faces, I thought to myself, Six months ago . . .
Inexplicably, six months turned into a year, and then two. Yet, that strange sense of dislocation never left me. Where am I? I’d ask myself with alarming frequency. How did I get here? What events in time and space have brought me to this moment? Glancing out my office window, I’d see limousines depositing presidents and prime ministers, Nobel laureates and eminent thinkers, even Bono himself, and I’d remember that not so long ago I had lived in a place that could not possibly be further removed from the global stage. In Kiribati, I would gladly have given up a finger or two for a newspaper, and now here I was, surrounded by newsworthy personalities. Even my friends thought my change in circumstances odd.
“The World Bank? You? You’re a hoity-toity consultant to the World Bank?” asked one.
“You were unemployed for two years, and now you’ve got this glam job at the World Bank?”
“I wasn’t unemployed,” I countered, pleased to hear someone describe my job as glamorous.
“I see. And what was it you did for two years?”
“I was writing.”
“Writing.” Long pause here. “And how much, if you don’t mind my asking, did your writing–and I’m sure it was sublime–how much money, would you say, did your writing earn you?”
“Three hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Three hundred and fifty dollars.” This was savored for a moment. “Two years. Three hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Three hundred and fifty American dollars.”
“Three hundred and fifty American dollars, then. And now you advise countries, entire countries, on what they should do with their money.”
“Actually, my boss does that.”
“And so what do you do?”
“I help him.”
“You help him. And for this help, you are no doubt handsomely remunerated.”
“I can’t complain.”
I couldn’t, really. For the first time in my life I had more money than I knew what to do with. This, like so much else, was a startling change in circumstances. For years I had lived the easy poverty of the vagabond. And just as everyone else was boarding the Internet money train, I disappeared to the far side of the world, where I lived as a financial parasite while hacking away at a novel that meandered into failure. Money–the possession thereof–should have made me giddy with joy. And it did. For a day. The day I saw my bank account surge into the four figures, which seemed a stratospheric sum. But then, what to do with it? I mean, after the restaurant splurges. And your need for Paris has been sated. Where do you put it? In stocks? Bonds? That’s what I did. And here’s the funny thing. Then you begin to worry about money. To my everlasting disappointment, I discovered that it’s true what they say. Money doesn’t buy you happiness.
It was all so very baffling to me. I had money. I had a respectable job. If I tried just a little bit harder and played my cards right, I could turn my consultancy into a permanent staff position and then I would be set for life. I could move on from WBILG to WBOPA, maybe even to WBPCL. And from there all sorts of possibilities opened up: UNDP, EBRD, IMF, ADB, maybe even a job with the bad boys over at IFC. Well, perhaps not the IFC. That meeting had not gone very well. Not at all. I had made my boss look bad, a big no-no at the World Bank. But still, if I simply applied myself, I could count on lifetime employment as a well-compensated international bureaucrat with all the perks the job entailed. There would be busi-ness-class travel and six weeks of annual vacation. There would be health insurance and an extremely generous pension. And best of all, I could never, ever be fired. Once encased within the United Nations system, a staffer is guaranteed lifetime employment, perhaps not as a rule, but most certainly in practice. The office next to mine, for instance, was occupied by a Korean gentleman who, as far as anyone could tell, had not produced even a suggestion of work in well over three years. Some days he showed up, some days not, and yet every year his salary percolated ever upward. It wasn’t quite what I aspired to, but I did recognize that there are much, much worse ways to make a living.
Yet, I didn’t apply myself any harder. Instead, as I stared forlornly at my computer screen, trying halfheartedly to decipher a complex economic equation (“No math,” I had told them. “I’m one hundred percent right brain”), I found that very soon, once again, my thoughts drifted toward the Pacific. Two years ago, I remembered, I was on an outer island in Kiribati, resting in a thatch-roofed meeting house and chatting amiably with an elderly man about the dozens of shark fins drying in the rafters. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just a normal day in Kiribati. But now, as I perused my wall, the stacks of heavy binders with titles like Privatization and the Energy Sector and Infrastructure Finance: A Global Challenge, binders piled so high that they nearly covered the ubiquitous Monet print–how I hated those lilies–I found that I nearly ached at the recollection. Once, my world had been filled with wonder and mystery. I lived surrounded by water so blue that I sometimes gasped at the beauty of it. I knew magicians and sorcerers. I slept under multitudes of stars and finally understood what is meant by the spiritual world. I . . .
“You’re forgetting the human feces on the beach,” said my wife, Sylvia, a little later, just as my exposition was beginning to roll. Sylvia was the girlfriend I had followed to Kiribati. We had faked marriage there, and after two years of practice we felt we had earned the rings. “You’re also forgetting ringworm, dengue fever, and ‘La Macarena.’ And do you remember when the beer was sent to the wrong island? You weren’t waxing poetic then. And the food– months of nothing but rice and rotten fish. Do you remember that Christmas package your dad sent, the one with all the cookies and chocolate?”
Indeed I did. It was a Christmas tradition begun by my grandmother in Holland. Every year, she sent us packages containing the buttery sweets and milky chocolates that the Dutch excel in producing. My father had taken up the tradition after my grandmother passed away. The package he sent had taken seven months to reach us in Kiribati, and by the time it arrived more than half its contents had been consumed by rats, with the remainder scarred by claws and fangs. It never occurred to us not to eat it. We devoured the remaining half in one long gluttonous afternoon, feeling nothing but blissful rapture.
“But wasn’t that the best chocolate you ever had?” I asked.
“Yes,” she sighed. “But that’s the point. I never want to feel that desperate again.”
She did have a point. Escapism is not without its costs. Life had been desperate in Kiribati. Whatever hopes we’d had of finding the South Seas idyll of our imagination were cruelly dashed by the realities of island living. True, it had been beautiful. But it had also been hard. Living in a state of perpetual denial, as we did in Kiribati, had a way of heightening one’s appreciation of the small things, like chocolate. But strangely, I didn’t appreciate chocolate anymore. Indeed, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even had chocolate, and for some reason, this had begun to bother me, for what is life, a good life, but the accumulation of small pleasures? In Washington, we lived in a place where everything was available, for a price, and yet I couldn’t recall the last time I had really savored something–a book, a sunset, a fine meal. It was as if the sensory overload that is American life had somehow led to sensory deprivation, a gilded weariness, where everything is permitted and nothing appreciated. I’d find myself inside a Whole Foods, and remember that not long ago I would have engaged in all sorts of criminality for a chance to skip down these heaving aisles, yet now I found myself feeling a mite peeved that the cheese selection wasn’t quite as expansive as I would have wished. In Kiribati I yearned for all that we had in Washington–high-end grocery stores, reliable electricity, endless consumer choice–and now that I was in the midst of all this bounty, I pined for what we had in Kiribati, the intangibles at least, for there are no tangibles to be found on a remote atoll.