This story is about escape -- not from barbed wire and German shepherds, nor the kind requiring a new Social Security number or reincarnation in Paraguay, but the fleeting escape (from boredom or tedium) for prisoners of agenda.
Examples: the recurrent daydream, the flight of fantasy, the stolen game of tic-tac-toe, a doodle here, a catnap there. . . any antidote to the daily yawns.
Boredom is an occupational hazard striking peon and president alike; even running for president requires escapes. President Carter's escape from running, however, is more running: sometimes on strange surfaces, like on the deck of a Mississippi paddleboat.
Ronald reagan sleeps a lot, turning in at 10 o'clock most nights. The boredom of politics is a breeding ground for sleepers -- witness Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) at a subcommittee meetings. California Gov. Edmund G. Brown reads philosophy and meditates by impersonating a lotus. As for the Reluctant Runner, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his trick is to hide.
"Yes, hide," says a Kennedy aide. "Every now and then, he just vanishes. We'll all be wondering where he is, and it turns out he's been hiding, siting around in the cloakroom with some of his colleagues. Sometimes he'll, you know, just hide."
Others escape boredom by avoiding it. HEW Secretary Patricia Harris, for example, tries "to avoid meetings likely to bore me."
A spokesman for Harris solemnly corroborates this: "She doesn't involve herself in things that bore her; instead she prefers to pick up a good book, a novel or biography. She's a voracious reader, has two or three books going at a time. She'll be reading Volume II of a Jefferson biography, the new Halberstam book, 'The Crash of '79,' and rereading the 'Illaid' all at the same time."
Moral: You can turn your back on boredom IF you're a Cabinet member. Othewise, you're stuck with it.
As National Public Radio Director Frank Mankiewicz says, "There are certain jobs where it's absolutely necessary to tune out at times."
The method that works best for Mankiewicz is to "try to write down as many past players of the St. Louis Cardinals as I can recall. I went back as far as 1949, got as high as 340 names, at one budget session. Lists are good. If you concentrate on them enough, you can really close out everything. gThe sounds are there, of course, the voices -- but not totally."
The trick is to escape without being detected, to nap without being caught napping.
Mankiewicz also recommends trying to remember obscure bits of poetry ("all the lines, say, of Swinburne's 'Garden of Persepone'") or to make a list of characters from Gilbert and Sullivan. ("But you have to name them, not just count them. If you say, 'Let's see: 3, 4, 12 sailors' . . . it's no fair. You have to be precise: 'Dick Deadeye.' Just see if you can name 50.")
"The point," explains Mankiewicz, "is to escape into something time-consuming but not useful."
Daydreams, of course, are time-consuming but not useful -- the poor man's escape. Studs Terkel's "Working" is filled with stories of the daydreams of workers. A Chicago steelworker fantasizes "about a sexy blond in Miami who has my union dues."
A receptionist who answers telephone calls all day dreams of "the land of no-phone, where there isn't any machine telling me where I have to be every minute." A New York streetwalker used to "lie there with my hand behind my head and do mathematics equations in my head or memorize the keyboard typewriter."
A telephone operator at a large motel answers "Holiday Inn!" (her motel isn't a Holiday Inn) when the routine gets insufferably dull, or fantasizes about grabbing a handful of plugs from the switchboard and just yanking them.
But escapes, unhappily, are punishable by reality, if not by law. A California farm worker recalls how, when he was a small boy picking crops, he would daydream about becoming a philanthropist and earning the admiration of all, only to "get a carrot thrown at me by my parents.
"All of a sudden I'd be rudely awakened by a broken carrot in my back. That would bust your whole dream."
Life is like that: full of carrots in the back, harsh reminders that escape does not usually pay. What, then, to do about it?
Dr. Stanley Greenspan, chief of the Mental Health Study Center at NIMH, says it might be more useful to get to the nature of boredom itself.
"Boredom is often thought of as an absence of interesting things," he says, "but the feeling of boredom can be related to the pressure of too many interesting things, too many choices. When that happens, the global coping style is to feel bored, and mild apathy or withdrawal sets in."
Better to confront the mood, says Greenspan, to ask yourself, "Why am I bored at today's meeting, why can't I figure out what to do with my hands, why am I fidgeting and clearing my throat when yesterday I was instrumental in bringing the meeting to a close? Is it because there is someone -- a woman, perhaps -- I dislike who is present at today's meeting?
"You should take the boredom," he says, "as a signal that something specific might be bothering you."
Recommendations for escape? Dr. Greenspan has none.
"People have their own ways of comforting themselves, habits that serve defensive and adaptive purposes at the same time. My strong recommendation is that no one should take it upon himself to recommend escapes to others."
Or, as the great Adler once said to a patient, "I can tell you how to mount a horse, but I can't tell you how not to mount a horse."