Street Smart Chicago

Chronicles of Continuing Education: The Fable of the Lunchroom Lyceum

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By Kenneth Preski

I had been seduced, and not with the care of a lover. Contemporary concerns, the practical circumstances of life, healthcare, bills, rent, everyday expenditures compelled me forward, salivating toward a paycheck dangled in front of me by a genericorporation. I shelved my education, my ideas for the future, my expectations, my goals, my preferences for my own existence. I stopped living so I could better my quality of life. At least I wasn’t alone.

Gathered at five plastic-coated tables, sitting atop scattered plastic chairs, were my compatriots in the corporate life. From the walls hung authentic art, prints with prices higher than our salaries, bland enough to match the dull decorative theme that encompassed the kitchen. An unspoken agreement was being acknowledged everyday of the week during the lunch hour: we were renting our time out to the highest bidder, though not toward any agreeable end. The business model was determined before our time, was beyond our control, and therefore not our concern. Ours was the inundated life, a wave of unreflective happenings to ride without end or care, so long as the bank account was padded, and we were paid to eat.

Table populations were split among lines of specialization. Here was a conversation about television. There was an argument about fantasy football. A table full of new moms, a table full of fashionistas, a table full of foodies. During my first two months I can’t recall where I sat. I don’t remember much at all. What I can remember is the lingering smell of portable pre-prepared food mixing with the air of complacency that enveloped every conversation.

The conversational trend would continue with customers at our call center, reaffirming and refining our disconnect from the facts of existence. We did the job we were paid to do, nothing more, nothing less, until so prompted by middling middle management. Hence my shrug when I was greeted by a new colleague placed at the cubicle to my left. “You two both studied philosophy,” it was announced. “A perfect fit!”

That another employee with a liberal arts background was hired to work for the betterment of a business with no relation whatsoever to their studies was not out of the ordinary at the corporation. Given my appreciation for his particular struggle, I had to offer him my condolences. I had to have sympathy for another sucker.

We shook hands, both of us wearing our requisite headphone pieces, looking like air traffic control in training, formal attire offering the semblance of seriousness that earned us our tenure. He, Alex, had been encouraged enough to bring reading material, some hardcover old enough to be undateable, covered in his penciled notes and reflections. I asked where he had studied, “The Lyceum!” he proclaimed, which earned a laugh from my end.

“I suppose that’s as good preparation as any for here,” I retorted. “Whatever parts of that school weren’t filled with Aristotle’s followers were full of cults and gymnasts. Our Lyceum is the lunchroom.”

He nodded, as though anticipating a lively debate come noon, and after a week of engaging with spirits of similar distillation as myself, a workforce of the living undead swapping desire for dough, Alex seemed a bit drained. So began our dialectic.

“My diagnosis? These people need a better metaphysician,” Alex mused. His remedy was prescriptive. Alex was ancient-minded, and so rejected ideas of agency based upon the Cartesian methodology. This requires some translation.

Alex noted our collective displacement. Our workplace was full of diverse interests, a myriad of backgrounds, water-cooler talk of every stripe, though none attuned to our employer’s business preoccupations. We were here by happenstance. So few of us worked within the field of our training as to render university concentration a sad suggestion. Yet our lot had been settled, and most had embraced the cool comfort offered by a life of distractions: television, fantasy football, fashion. We surrendered to the habitual, seduced by a misunderstanding of life. Our metaphysics was self-abstaining as self-preservation. We were who we were by being nobody.

His summation ended our friendship. I wasn’t prepared for that type of admission. As it turns out, Alex was a temp. When he exited the company, he left behind the big old book he had been bringing to work each day. I cracked it open and dust flung out of its pages. Most of it had been handwritten. It was a symphony toward self-realization, every sentence dedicated to reconnecting with the world. Every object had its proper positioning, everything had its place. There was no use of “I” to be found, he had subsumed the subject into a greater whole, using thought to unite being under a universal umbrella. He saw the world for what it was: a playground for consciousness writ large, a hive mind with each being buzzing toward a greater end, every worker capable of meaningful contribution, a shared sense of self.

I quit the company not long after. I couldn’t bear to waste another day. Before I left I inquired about Alex’s background, but bureaucracy has a way of blocking knowledge. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Alex was more than what he seemed. His mention of the Lyceum stuck with me, and I knew Aristotle had Alexander the Great as a pupil. I made sure to leave his book behind on my way out, there to remind my colleagues of their place in the world, and that they should never stop searching for it.

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