Short Stories

The Color of Sisyphus’ Suitcase by James Joaquin Brewer

The Color of Sisyphus’ Suitcase, by James Joaquin Brewer

Throughout much of the long flight to China, he was focused on re-reading The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays and reconsidering the implications of Albert Camus’ famous opening stipulation: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” To which he had immediately added: “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Reading page by relentless page in that volume, Lee found himself admiring more than ever Camus’ commitment to the intellectual struggle required to solve that “serious philosophical problem.” He realized, of course, that there was more than one “problem” with which Monsieur Camus had been wrestling, making it quite clear by the end of the collection that his “problem” had dimensions deeper than the binary question of whether one should or should not decide not to continue living – dimensions so deep and so “truly serious” that they transcended (at least for Lee) the academic connotations of the word “philosophical.” Lee reckoned that Camus had approached the problem (s) as practical matters.

Leaving the 1942 French edition on the bookshelf at home – that well-thumbed but linguistically challenging version he had contended with at the start of his first University of Michigan graduate-school comparative literature class – Lee had packed instead the1955 English edition – the translation he would be “cheating” with by the end of that class. Shortly after the plane had taken off for Beijing, Lee began feeling emotionally re-charged (humbled?) when he noticed and was reminded that in the 1955 edition Camus had gone so far in his short introduction as to assert that “Although The Myth of Sisyphus poses moral problems, it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.” This invitation was sufficient evidence for Lee to infer that the Nobel Prize author from France by way of Algeria had, indeed, “solved” his problem. A writer who invited a reader “to live and to create” had certainly judged that life was worth living.

But Lee suspected also that a reader of these words was being invited as well to wonder (a) why what Camus called “the most urgent of questions” – that is, the question of “the meaning of life” – was most urgent for him, and (b) how he eventually came to make peace with that question. Was Camus now nudging Lee toward an intellectual position implying he could judge whether or not “life is worth living” only if he could first decode its “meaning”? (He flirted with the thought that for some people – certain scholarly types he had run across in person or in writing – life becomes worth living only when (or because) it affords them time to wonder whether life is worth living . . .)

It occurred to Lee that someone unfamiliar with Camus and his political experiences in WWII-era Algeria and France, someone reading this collection of essays for the first time, might simply ask why such questions were even coming up: “Why are you even considering the possibility that life is not worth living?”

Lee was pondering such ideas from the middle seat of a three-person row whose other two occupants were pondering (to the left) a video game involving pies-in-faces and (to the right) a real-time sequence of geographical screens that tracked the progress of the flight from Boston to Beijing. In addition to Camus and his implied metaphysical pains, Lee was brooding about – despite his rheumatologist’s effective pre-travel neodirpzen pill prescription – the physical pains residing right now in his hips and legs. Reacting to the financial crisis of 2008 and its lingering impacts on corporate profits, Intercontinental Computing Solutions had stopped paying for the abundant leg-room of “business class” for international travel by its non-executive employees. As a cramped ICS “coach” traveler, at the moment all Lee felt capable of doing therapeutically was to sigh (deeply, in . . . out . . .) and to reach his book-free hand down to massage his left hip before resuming his (not always pleasurable) “intellectually focused” cogitations.

So many years after his first reading of Camus’ Sisyphus collection, Lee had selected it now for packing on this present trip in hopes of using Camus’ tough-minded (and undeniably logical) perspective on the “serious problem” as an aid to clarifying an ultimately different but at least temporarily comparable problem Lee presumed he was currently sharing with millions of fellow actual or potential retirees. 

His “problem,” the one Lee had been personally trying to work through in recent days, was now receiving related attention in the national news. Lee did not remember if he had heard about it first on CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox, but the underlying theme was the same: two university researchers were claiming that in the United States the Social Security program terms were to blame for the “disproportionate” percentage of men who died at the age of sixty-two. Their statistical analysis revealed that many men who retired at sixty-two to begin collecting Social Security payments – without the patience or the means to wait to collect at sixty-five or later – did something else at sixty-two as well: withdrew from previously active social lives, became couch potatoes, and died within the year. One of the weirder observations was that many men from the sampled group had taken up smoking – with predictable impacts on their health – after having previously been non-smokers.

Lee was not shocked at the basic premise. After observing two once-vibrant friends and one similarly energetic family member become comparatively “lifeless” – physically or mentally or both – shortly after they retired “early” from long-held fields of employment, he wondered if deciding to retire might also be a “truly serious philosophical problem.” To the extent that it was accompanied by a drastic dwindling of the kind of life-force motivation that energizes the continual pursuit of the kinds of self-satisfying activities often stimulated by career and work-place challenges, Lee was perplexed by the potential for retirement to become a form of unintended suicide.

Could retirement diminish a person’s judgment that life was (still) “worth” living? This had more than theoretical or abstract interest for Lee, since there was a credible chance he might soon be taking “advantage” of that friendly retirement reminder his rock-solid company of employment was hoping he would not overlook – that “invitation” for him to retire after nearly forty years of continuous employment.

But that was not to say he found the specifically theoretical aspects of the topic uninteresting. Even from a somewhat abstract perspective, the subject matter suggested several figurative possibilities for not-necessarily-peaceful contemplation. “Retirement is like . . .”  All of a sudden he was in no mood for filling in the blanks with whimsical meme-like attempts at humor or sarcastic insight. (He was not indulging fantasies of becoming a stand-up – or more appropriately a “lie-down” – comedian whose openings would always be a variation of “Before ya retired, didja ever stop ta think that retirement is like . . .?”)

The previous night, after he had finished packing for Beijing and after he and Liv had gone to bed, at some vague point along Lee’s sleep spectrum he dreamed about a small suitcase – a special suitcase of an unfamiliar purplish color and outsized golden handles (but lacking roller wheels). In the dream, the ancient open valise was somehow “tempting” him to fill it up – not with clothes, but with as many Scrabble tiles as it could hold before no longer remaining capable of being squashed down, closed, and snap-locked. Recalling this scenario over early-morning coffee with Liv before departing for Logan airport, he had claimed that the dream had nothing to do with that day’s business trip to China (a project for which he did not wholly subscribe to the fanciful and friendly words of his boss as being “a rock-star farewell tour”). Instead, perhaps packing tiles with letters on them in an overstuffed suitcase was a micro reference to his obsession with being sure to pack some books for the flight. And yes, perhaps the Scrabble tiles were there to remind Lee that he had a touch of anxiety about his lack of confidence in his Chinese language skills, along with his related anxiety about the much-better-but-still-sometimes-problematic English language skills of many of his Beijing colleagues. Perhaps he was worried about effective communications during the audit? Would they be staring at internal “scrabble” racks whose available letters refused to sort themselves into words adequately responsive to auditors’ questions? But beyond quick interpretations, he told Liv that Dr. Freud would have regarded the suitcase dream as a coded message regarding life after retirement. Would Lee no longer own a change of clothes – no longer be saving enough money to afford a regularly refreshed wardrobe? Would he use only words to hide his nakedness – a “wordrobe”? Would there be a limit to the number of words he was allowed to take with him?

From a rhetorical perspective, he was aware that his concern about retirement possibly leading to unintended suicide might be both hyperbolic and oxymoronic: by logical definition, suicide minus intention would not literally be “suicide.”  (Would it?)  He admitted that the concept of “retiring too soon” (including so-called “voluntary early” retirement) deserved a bit of uniquely differentiating debate vocabulary compared to some of the terms old dudes like Lee might choose to employ for labeling whatever it was they might be contemplating doing after accepting the “invitation” – the chosen labeling relying on words other than “retirement.”  But regardless of intentions and definitions and available vocabulary, throughout this fate-dumped episode of middle-seated-and-knee-cramped confinement on a Beijing-bound Boeing, Lee felt continually optimistic that – with Camus as mentor and model – the act of meditating on the premises underlying any implication of risks arising from retirement could help him find a risk-reducing view of what probably lay ahead. He plunged ahead in the word-jungle of the book before him, keeping up the search for an empowering perspective.

Although Lee assumed retirement for most people – himself included, of course – would be accompanied by serious worries about money, the kind of “risk awareness” he had in mind was not the same as that he should probably be discussing (soon) with a financial planner. As awkward (or pretentious) as it might be sounding inside his own head, Camus was reminding Lee to think about the philosophical concept of “existential” risk – perhaps including even what some might think of as spiritual confusion.

In short, with Camus in mind, Lee heard his inner voice (s) questioning – or “interrogating,” to use the currently fashionable synonym he was seeing so often these days in slick publications – “the meaning of life-after-retirement.” But (he interrogated himself), “Don’t I really just mean ‘the meaning of life’? (Full stop!)  Isn’t the meaning the same – even if I don’t discover what it is – whether or not I retire?”

 Far from believing that accepting that invitation from ICS to retire was accepting also an invitation to some odd and unintended version of suicide, Lee was hoping to inspire confidence in himself that his future would benefit from accepting that other “invitation”: Albert Camus’ “invitation to live and to create” in the midst of the potential “desert” – a desert, however, that could widen and lengthen with retirement.

To contemplate this in good faith, Lee owed himself an explanation of his own assertion that the problem he was trying to solve was “ultimately” different from the one Camus seemed to think he had solved. In blunter words, how was it related at all?

He was worrying about the examples of some no-longer-living friends and acquaintances for whom the word “work” had become a near-synonym for the word “life” – persons for whom positive work activities and experiences (challenging responsibilities, hard-won accomplishments) had represented a very large proportion of those things they valued in their identities. Many (maybe most) of the activities they might have acknowledged as leading to intrinsically satisfying experiences in their lives had distinct roots in what they did “on the job.” They might not have been “workaholics” (a flippant-but-still-useful diagnostic label, Lee thought), but a large share of those things that provided them feelings of emotional reward – a sense of being unambiguously (if sometimes only momentarily) happy to have been born – took place away from home. To use comparisons with sports (which Lee had begun following with enthusiasm at a young age), most of their versions of game-winning heroics – scoring a touchdown, sinking a buzzer-beating basket, booting a soccer ball into a net, bashing a home run – happened “on the road” (that is, at the offices, the factories, whatever their places of work) rather than back at the “home fields” to which they would return and then eventually retire. He wondered if such experiences happened more frequently with co-workers during the day than with family or friends in the evening or on the weekend – and might not have been happening very often with anyone during retirement.

Lee did not habitually think of himself as a member of that hypothetical group. Most of what had made him happy to have been born took place “off-shift,” within the context of relations with family and friends. However, since many of his friendships had been established because of  his “on-shift” work experience, he doubted he would be immune to some unintended but perhaps corresponding consequences of retirement.

He certainly realized that the concept of  “job,” or “work” included a wide variety of occupations: rural grade-school teachers, big-city fire-fighters, emergency-room nurses, automobile mechanics, air-traffic controllers, software developers, heavy equipment operators, retail store display window decorators, corporate number-cruncher types (him!), restaurant chefs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  There were many types of work that offered, in addition to life-sustaining paychecks, some satisfying (and sometimes near-aesthetic) experiences of making problem-solving progress toward some short-term objectives or long-term goals. Such objectives or goals need not be grandiose nor publicly known. A given worker might be the only person who knew how close he or she was to accomplishing many of them – but would know at least if ground was being lost or gained in the face of the interesting problems workplace days and nights often, though not always, presented for potential solution. 

If previously meaningful experiences of this kind – motivating models of challenge and accomplishment that tested a variety of developed (or developing) skills – were no longer anticipated (or became significantly diluted), Lee feared that he and his fellow retirees could be forced to confront a simple question having an uncomfortably complicated answer: “What next?” 

Some might wonder if there was even going to be a “next.” (A next what?)

Yes, he kept asking himself, was retirement also a “truly serious philosophical problem”? For people for whom “work equals life” or “the meaning of life equals the meaning of work” – assuming they had figured out the meaning of work! – what would happen if work were to “die” following retirement? How might one adjust the terms of the equation so that Camus’ invocation of suicide as the one “truly serious philosophical problem” could become nonapplicable to the broader question of retirement? Would it be necessary – or enough – to replace one form of work with another form of “work”? Would it be acceptable to define being on perpetual vacation as a form of work? (Somewhere deep in his brain’s ocean of memories there were thoughts ready to float to the surface proposing the possibility that after his first retirement Lee’s father had been most “happy” when trying for strikes and spares at the Silver Shore Bowl in Florence.)

But what would Sisyphus do if he were no longer asked, ordered, or allowed to push rocks up hills?

                                         *          *          *

In addition to his body’s flexibility, maybe Lee was losing his mind as well. Perhaps some weird form of personified dementia was already anticipating with glee nasty ways to get its arthritic hands on some part of his brain – not just on the arms and shoulders or hips and knees and legs – as Lee reached a fast-approaching seventy . . .

Or maybe he was just evaluating too eagerly and too generously what he thought was a bright idea (western) to try out on his bright Beijing business friends (eastern). Whether or not the perspectives his brain was juggling were of “practical” application or not, he did end up spending part of the early-evening session sharing some existential Camus lore with the soon-to-be-tired team whose members were close to worn out from dealing with Monday afternoon’s inundation of high volumes of complicated “fact-gathering” questions from the ICS internal auditors, with all of the questions carrying twenty-four-hour turnaround response deadlines.

As they sat around the wooden table in their war room, jamming chopsticks into a variety of tasty Chinese order-in delivery dishes (quite unlike the Chinese food Lee was used to eating in the U.S.), Lee launched from his laptop an internet artist’s rendition of Sisyphus performing his assigned work, projecting the image up to that big screen overhead normally reserved for dissecting spreadsheets and contracts and billing records and sales commission payment amounts and e-mails and other materials related to an auditor’s potential concerns. Some of Lee’s teammates laughed quietly, some remained silent with neutral faces, while others looked clearly puzzled. Most continued their own (highly skilled) work with chopsticks.

“So,” Lee began, snugging his chair up closer to the edge of the table in order to allow his legs to stretch out and pull back, stretch out and pull back, stretch out and pull back, with minimal detection by others in the room. “So,” he repeated, without adding any phrases to his ambiguous, introductory, placeholding conjunction.

“So? Okay, Lee,” volunteered Huanxin after a minute or two. “What is the purpose of such picture? Is this maybe one of those times you are somewhat using what you call out-of-box thinking tactics?” Of the core team members, she was the one with whom Lee had enjoyed the longest working relationship. Without having to articulate the concept to one another, they each acknowledged that they were more than business colleagues – over the past few years they had become friends. Her voice was calm and her smile warm, as though nothing “new” he would ever introduce into a physical meeting or a video conference call could surprise her. It was true that his “reputation” had preceded him. Almost everyone he worked with regularly (whether in China, Slovakia, Brazil, Japan, or the U.S.A.) knew that in company business sessions Lee would be one of the very few – often the only one – whose college degree had nothing to do with business or technology. A common question – for which he had a variety of uncommon answers – was along the lines of  “How did someone whose college major was in comparative European literature with a specialty in twentieth-century French prose end up working for Intercontinental Computing Solutions?” (One of Lee’s least satisfying efforts to provide a humorous answer was that both “comparative” and “computing” began with “comp.” Another was “It sure beats working in a sawmill!”)

He presumed that two or three of his teammates around the table had at least a glancing familiarity with the name “Sisyphus,” but after probing for a little feedback he realized that no one was ready to jump in and help Huanxin with her comment about Lee’s motive for sharing the image – none could (or would) provide any details about who this guy was, where he came from, what he was known for, or why anyone in Beijing around this table on this occasion should care. Between less-than-skillful stabs at pieces of Chinese food, Lee told them how fascinated he had always been with Albert Camus’ assessment of the fate of that mythological character sentenced by the Greek gods to an underworld “life” limited to trying to push a large rock to the top of a hill – only to watch it roll down each time he was on the verge of completing the assigned “work” task. (Thinking about Sisyphus crouching with arms extended in front of his boulder seemed to stimulate a sudden surge of pain in Lee’s left shoulder . . .)

“Kind of like believing we are about to answer all of auditors’ questions from yesterday and today on time?” Jing-wei briefly shook her chopsticks at Lee in a way that indicated she was onto his game. “Lee, why we not told what happen if Sisyphus succeed in getting rock to top of hill and having it stay? Do you know about that?” 

“Yes,” he said, “I know about that: because Sisyphus will never succeed in that way.”

Sisyphus can never retire. Lee did not say that aloud in that room, to that audience. But as he watched Jing-wei return her chopsticks to her carton of dumplings and vegetables, he was acknowledging to himself that such punishment, a fated scenario of continual frustration – never-ending effort that might never be rewarded – had become a common metaphor for the routine experience of many paycheck-dependent workers, workers such as those who were in the room with him now, each needing (as he) to deal with food-dependent bodies – food that was not free of charge. 

He put his chopsticks down on a clean napkin. With slow effort, without giving off any hint of the physical discomfort he was feeling from his knees to his ankles, Lee pushed his chair back from the table, pressed his hands down firmly on its edge for leverage, and stood. He gestured with his hand toward the picture overhead of Sisyphus pressing his shoulder to his boulder. “It may surprise you,” he said, looking slowly around the table at his Beijing colleagues, “to hear that the last line of Camus’ portrayal of Sisyphus’ absurd situation says ‘Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.’ And I apologize immediately, teammates, for my not-so expert pronunciation of French; but, oui, Monsieur Camus says, in the most common English translation, ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’  What do you think he means by that?” 

Lee stopped talking. No one else talked either. The subdued chewing of Chinese food was the only notable sound.

In the English rendering, it was that special verb phrase “must imagine” that had clung to Lee’s memory of reading the piece for the first time as a young man. Why “must” one imagine this? Was it necessary to use the imagination? Did Camus not believe Sisyphus was actually happy? Or was Camus instructing everyone to pretend that Sisyphus was happy? Should Lee have always thought of him merely as though he were happy?

At retirement, Lee was wondering, where would his rock be? What would it look like? Would he even have one? (Might he have many?)  Had he struggled with one in the past that he somehow succeeded in getting all the way up the hill? Would he need a replacement rock? Would he need to imagine it? Should he imagine himself happy in the present – including this arthritic moment, here in this room? Could he imagine himself happy in future moments – in retirement? Such thoughts were flying around his brain, buzzing and stinging. But his Chinese comrades did not yet know that he was feeling intensely conflicted by considerations of retirement. They could not hear the bees or wasps or hornets he thought he was hearing in his maybe-still-jet-lag-fatigued head. But they must have been suspecting that something was going on – a few were looking toward him as though his standing there in momentary silence was something to worry about. He noticed that Itsuki had (involuntarily?) raised his eyebrows and furrowed his forehead. Lee cleared his throat and laughed. “Rest assured, team – be confident! We will get all of our answers to the auditors’ questions up the hill – and they will stay there! And we will be happy!”

Piao laughed also and snapped his fingers. “Whatever you say, Lee. You have more experience!”

Everyone around the table more-or-less nodded in vague agreement. Some of them seemed somber. Lee was not sure he was communicating the point he had wanted to share. In fact, he was not sure he knew the point – if there actually was one – he had been hoping to make. He sat again, pushed his chair up close to the edge of the table, and resumed his attempts at discreet therapeutic hip-and-leg stretching while simultaneously trying to prevent chunks of Chinese food from slipping from his chopsticks and sliding back down into the bottom of the cardboard carton.

Born and raised in Oregon, James Joaquin Brewer now shelters in place in West Hartford, Connecticut. The above story (“The Color of Sisyphus’ Suitcase”) is a self-contained chapter from a novel James recently completed (called “Applicable Benefits,” about a man who is “afraid to retire). Excerpts from the book (in slightly different form) were published in the May issue of The Write Launch and in last July’s issue of Litbreak. Here are the links: