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February 7, 2005

'Thinking Inside the Box, but Living Outside the Office' - by Jennifer Mathieu


Her above-headlined essay appeared in today's Washington Post Style section, buried back on page 10.

It should have been on the front page — above the fold.

I read it not knowing where it was going, but when I finished it I realized that the author has a huge heart and a great way with words.

I'm certain this won't be the last we hear from from Jennifer Mathieu (above).

Here's her piece.

    Thinking Inside the Box, but Living Outside the Office

    About five year ago, I found myself not at all where I wanted to be.

    I lived in a hip part of Chicago with two cats and two roommates, and had a job as an editorial assistant at a medical journal.

    On paper I was everything a nearly fresh-out-of-college journalism major should have been, complete with credit card debt and Ikea furniture.

    But I was shocked at the feeling I got when I thought about waking up, getting dressed and taking the train downtown each morning.

    On those days when the alarm buzzed and I almost cried, I realized I had never actually accepted the concept of working for a living.

    As in paycheck every two weeks, party in the break room, "Whose turn is it to bring the doughnuts?" kind of work.

    In my windowless office I spent afternoons inventing illnesses so I could leave early and contemplating the words "face time" and "per your request" — terms used at the association where I was employed.

    I couldn't comprehend why people didn't say, "Time you can talk to me," and "Here's that thing you wanted."

    I found myself staring at the yellow interdepartmental envelopes, passed from cubicle to cubicle like so many office supply floozies, feeling the very essence of my soul leaving me.

    All through college I'd had a vague sense that this adult world was inevitable, but like so many students I'd avoided thinking about it.

    Now I spent time wondering how I could transition to a life where I'd write short stories and be married to a world-renowned sculptor and have a bathtub with claw feet.

    I debated exit strategies like moving to New York, which seemed too cliche, and applying to graduate school, which seemed too escapist.

    The answer — a small part of it anyway — made itself known to me at a neighborhood street sale. I bought a lunchbox.

    It was a large metal lunchbox like the kind construction workers carry, with a curved lid and metal snaps that shut so definitively.

    It was a bright, notice-me orange, with white daisy stickers about the size of my palm on each side and a white plastic handle.

    I discovered right away that there were many pleasant things about carrying a large, bright-orange lunchbox through the streets of downtown Chicago.

    It was practical; I could carry my lunch without worrying about the accidental squishing of a sandwich on a packed train.

    And there was something solid about it, the way it helped my feet get into a rhythm as I swung it back and forth when I walked.

    But the really pleasant things were found in the reactions of people in the trains, elevators and on the street.

    The ones I called the Pod People — until I became one.

    The first day I carried the lunchbox a very large delivery man with a Chicago accent started a conversation with me in the elevator of my office building (a virtually unheard of event).

    "Dat a lunchbox?" he said.

    "Yes," I answered.

    "Da bullies useta hit me over da head with one of dem things," he told me.

    "But den I grew."

    "Obviously," I said, and grinned.

    Other people smiled at me, or stared at the lunchbox, then smiled.

    One man walking by on a busy sidewalk looked at me and laughed out loud.

    A silver-haired man in a sharp suit, without once taking his eyes off the elevator doors, simply said, "Nice lunchbox."

    And then he was gone.

    The lunchbox was my life preserver and my connection to other people on the days when negotiating a crowded street or train made me feel lonelier than ever.

    On especially bad days I clung to it with all 10 fingers on my ride home, leaning my head against the grimy door of the train.

    But more than anything, it was a reminder that despite the pantyhose and the interdepartmental envelopes and the weird office-speak I was still the same quirky kid and teenager I'd loved being.

    The kind of kid who believed the vapidity of adulthood could be stopped with a lunchbox.

    One cloudy day as I was walking to the office I found myself in the middle of a protest in front of the Chicago Board of Trade.

    There were the expected aging hippies and anarchists and so on with their signs and neon green leaflets.

    They were up against the WTO and the World Bank and the IMF. Suddenly my lunchbox seemed small.

    Silly, almost.

    I had to walk right through all of it to get to my building.

    When I passed one protester, a boy just a bit younger than I, I heard him pleading, "It doesn't have to be this way! You don't have to be a slave anymore!"

    I thought of that brief, lovely time in college when I'd bought copies of the socialist newspaper at the student union and had known all the answers to every problem in the world.

    I walked past him and held up my lunchbox with both hands as if to prove to him that I was not a slave at all, but a girl.

    A girl with credit card debt and a job and a soul held together with a belief in artifacts from childhood.

    A sweet girl, a sort of lost girl.

    A girl who found comfort in her lunchbox.

    And I wanted to tell that boy and the world that yes, I knew carrying a bright-orange lunchbox was nothing like chucking it all to join the circus or save the planet.

    I knew it was just a small gesture.

    Just a tiny statement.

    But it was something.

    Certainly it was something.

    It was a start.

February 7, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink


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Thanks Joe - Outstanding piece. I have a farting bear which my sister gave me for christmas in my office. It's next to the purple moose with a lei draped on it. When folks come in and are all stressed out, I pick up the remote, and let off some steam with a fart. My staff put up with me and my shenanigans. Good thing too! I am me!

Posted by: Mattp9 | Feb 7, 2005 8:11:09 PM

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