A few days ago I was playing Halo ODST Fire Fight on X-Box Live with some friends from law school and was cussing a whole lot more than usual. F-This! F-That! You know the drill. Well, after a while it started to get on my friends’ nerves and they asked me what was up.
I told them I wasn’t dealing with being unemployed very well.
They said they were surprised, that even during the most trying times of my life, first year of law school, studying for the bar exam, and really long sexless dry spells, I’d always managed to keep a positive attitude. What had changed, they asked.
I heard a story from a friend who was laid off that he said helped change the way he viewed unemployment, and don’tchaknowit, it changed my outlook too.
“What’s the story? Tell us!” they said in unison, and so I did. This is the story I was told, and the one I passed on to them:
Once upon a time there were two mice, named Pem and Paw, and two little people, named Fluff and Furry, and the four lived in a great giant maze.
The two mice, Pem and Paw set out searching for for cheese. They searched the maze for hours, and eventually came across a huge hunk of delicious looking cheese. But as they approached it they found it was guarded by a high rod iron gate, with a gate keeper named Scam-Scam.
“Let us through, please!” Pem and Paw said in unison, “We want some cheese!”
But Scam-Scam said “First, you must obtain the key before you are allowed to pass through the gate.”
“How do we get a key?” the mice asked.
“There are many doors through this gate, and some are better than others and lead to better cheese, so before you may get a key, we must test you to decide which key you get.”
So, Pem and Paw agreed to take the test. Pem scored Super-Awesome and was given a golden key that he was told would open any door he wanted to go through. Paw scored Mediocrerooski, and was given a copper key, but he was told the door he would go through would lead to cheese just as good as the cheese Pem could get.
“Now may we go through?” the mice asked.
“There is one more thing,” Scam-Scam said. “You must pay me a boatload of money. But, it will be worth it. This is an investment, and the cheese you get will quickly make up for the cost of passing through the gate.”
“I only got a copper key,” Paw said. “Do I also have to pay a boatload?”
“Yes,” Scam-Scam said, “Even though your key is of much lower quality, you must still pay a boatload of money to use it. But, it will be a marginally smaller boat.”
Pem and Paw had no money, so they took out loans to pay their entrance fee, and then passed through the gate. Pem went through a magnificent, gold-plated door, while Paw went through a copper-plated door. But, above the copper-plated door was a sign that read “A new study commission by United Copper Retailers says copper is almost as good as gold, and actually better than silver.”
Pem and Paw raced towards the cheese, but when they got there they found the two little men, Fluff and Furry guarding it, and they would not give the mice any cheese.
“You must work to get the cheese,” they said. “We have wheels you must run on, which power our cheese factory, and unless you contribute, there will be no cheese for you.”
“I went through the golden door, how much must I work, and how much cheese will I get?” Pem asked.
“You will work for me,” Fluff said. “You must run on the treadmill for 12 hours a day, and you will be given an ounce of cheese every day.”
“Wow!” Pem exclaimed, “That’s a lot of work, but I guess that’s also a lot of cheese, so it’s fair.”
“And you, Paw,” Furry said, “You will work for me because you went through the copper door. But, you will only get half an ounce of cheese, because your key was not as good.”
“I guess that’s fair,” Paw said. “How long must I work to get half as much cheese as Pem?”
“The same amount of time!” Furry said, “For the wheel you must run on is not as efficient as Pem’s wheel. You must run the same amount of time to produce half as much cheese.”
“Wow, for no good reason I suddenly hate Pem right now,” Paw said, “Even though I’d have gone through the golden door if I could have.”
And so the mice went on to their wheels and ran and ran and ran and were given cheese, most of which they had to sell to get money to pay off the loans they took out to pay the gate fee. And quickly the mice learned that running on the wheel was boring, thankless work, and the cheese they were given didn’t even taste very good.
But something more foul than the mindless wheel running was afoot. Off in a whole other part of the maze, trouble was a’brewing. Then, for some really complicated reasons everyone is still trying to figure out, the maze building industry collapsed, and as a result the mouse wheels only could be run on for two hours a day.
With a heavy heart, Fluff came to Pem and said, “Pem, I’m sorry, but you can’t stay here and eat this cheese. There just isn’t enough running that needs to be done. I can’t afford to keep you. I wish there was another way, but there’s not.”
“Could I keep running for just two hours a day?” Pem asked. “I would gladly take a sixth of an ounce of cheese as payment until the maze industry has recovered.”
“No,” said Fluff, for no good reason other than he didn’t really care whether Pem could eat or not.
“Well, when wheels start needing to be run on full time again, will you ask me to come back?” Pem asked.
“No,” Fluff answered. “I know that makes perfect sense, but right now there are two new mice at the gate, Pat and Pal, and I’ll just hire one of them. Now pack up your stuff and go.”
So Pem left his wheel and went out looking for more cheese, but found none. To pass the time he visited Paw, who was still running on his wheel at Furry’s cheese operation.
“This situation totally sucks,” Pem said.
“Shut up you whiny entitled pussy,” Paw said. “Maybe if you’d run harder they maze industry wouldn’t have collapsed, your wheel would be able to keep spinning, and you’d still be getting cheese.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Pem replied.
“I know,” Paw said. “But I hate you because you had opportunities that I did not.”
“That’s really messed up,” Pem said.
“Whatever,” Paw replied. “I don’t want to take part in your pity-party any more. I have running to do.”
So Pem went on his way, and was forced to move back in with his parents. And, while Pem was back home, looking for any place that would let him run and earn cheese, he heard interesting news about his old boss Fluff. Apparently even when the wheels were spinning slowly, Fluff was still earning two pounds of cheese a day. And now that he’d gotten rid of Pem, he was earning two pounds and one half ounce a day.
Fluff described his fortune as “the best year my cheese wheel operation has ever had,” and Pem was pissed off, but there was nothing he could do about it.
Weeks went by and Pem wandered the maze aimlessly, and eventually he discovered another hunk owned by a little man named Flacid.
“Is there any work I can do here?” Pem asked. “I am in desperate need of cheese.”
“Can you milk a cow?” Flacid asked, but Pem could not.
“Can you pastuerize milk?” Flacid asked, but Pem could not.
“Can you wash a cheese rind?” Flacid asked, but once again, Pem could not.
“Didn’t the gate keeper teach you how to do these things?” Flacid asked.
“No. We were told we would learn how to make cheese on the other side of the gate, but all I learned to do was run on a wheel.”
“So what the hell did you pay the gate keeper all that money for?” Flacid asked.
“I mostly just paid it to go through the gate,” Pem answered. “But I also got this pamphlet titled Critical Rodent Theory of Cheese and Society.”
“Well, that’s pretty useless,” Flacid said.
“Yeah, I didn’t even read it,” Pem replied.
“Sorry, but I can’t help you,” Flacid said. “I need someone with 3-5 years of substantive cheese making experience.”
“I understand,” Pem said.
“But, you have a great gold key on your resume,” Flacid said. “There are lots of other jobs you can probably get. The golden key opens lots of doors.”
“What are those other doors?” Pem asked. “I only really thought about passing through the golden door.”
“Well,” Flacid said, “You can make cheese at a smaller cheese operation…except mine, because you’re completely unqualified. You can make cheese for the government. You can make litigation cheese. You can do trust and estates cheese. Public interest cheese production. In-house cheese. The possibilities are endless.”
“Those are all basically the same thing,” Pem said. “I’d really like to try something else. Is there maybe some place where I can work with crumbs? I’m a mouse, I find crumbs tasty too.”
“Absolutely!” Flacid said. “Crumb producers would love to have someone with a gold key working for them.”
“That’s great!” Pem shouted. “How do I get one of those jobs?”
“You take out a second boatload of loans and go get another key to let you through the gate that has the crumbs behind it,” Flacid answered
“But,” Pem said, feeling suddenly let down, “I thought my gold key would open all sorts of doors.”
“It does,” Flacid said. “It opened all those cheese doors I just mentioned.”
“Except that it didn’t really open them,” Pem replied. “As you just said, I’m not really qualified to do anything but run on a wheel. And besides, those are all pretty much the same door.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Flacid said. “Sucks to be you. …By the way, did you know another mouse named Paw?”
“Yes!” Pem replied. “We were friends back before we went through the gate. Why do you ask?”
“I heard he also lost his job running on the wheel,” Flacid said. “He ate some rat poison a few days ago. Poor little thing.”
“What a great story!” my Covenant-killing buddies exclaimed (remember, I told this whole story while playing Halo online). “Does the story have a pithy title?”
“Yes,” I answered. “It is called I’m Not a Self-Entitled Prick Just for Wanting the Chance to Run on the Damn Wheel and Earn a Little Cheese, or for Thinking That an Investment of a Boatload of Cash and Three Years of My Life in Professional School Should Have Made Me Into Something More Than Just Unskilled Labor.”
“Is there maybe a shorter name?” my friends asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s called Who Shoved This Cheese Wheel Up My Ass?”