What Do I Know No. 2
The Second in series of "Unresearched Essays" *
I am at a time of life when I begin to wonder about how well I've done. There is realistically not much more to accomplish. I'm not ruling out any possibilities. I have read about the "second careers," and I know there are stories about older folks that accomplish great things, but if I am to be honest with myself, I know that there are going to be only limited opportunities for me to ...
To what? Strike it rich? Achieve fame? Receive peer recognition as a leader in my profession? I didn't have a profession, by the way. I have a degree, but chose never to pursue work in that field. I was a hired hand, working for paychecks to support my family. I had some white collar jobs, and had some blue collar jobs, and I never worked anywhere long enough to retire from a job. The last place I worked closed down, and although I was still nearly a decade away from "normal" retirement age, and with the full complicity of my wife, I dropped out of the workforce and have played hooky ever since. I could ostensibly look at my life and say, hey, I was just a rolling stone, you know? Going where the weather suits my clothes. My wife might have thought that for a while -- we moved sixteen times in the first eight years of our marriage, and we followed job opportunities from Pennsylvania to Texas to Pennsylvania, a couple more times in within the state, then off to California, back to Pennsylvania and finally back to California. I had nine different employers in that time. My Dad worked for a couple places in his life, but he retired from the same place he worked when I was born, and I was thirty years old when he retired. He got a pension from that company. I don't have a pension, although to be completely fair in the comparison, it should be noted that the company Dad worked for went bankrupt, and his pension was transferred to some government program where he was paid only a percentage of what he had been promised.
I don't have any awards or certificates to measure my life with, not since I left school. In tenth grade, I had the highest score on a city-wide math test. I got a certificate for that, presented to me at a school assembly, but I didn't keep it. Nor did I keep a record of all the professional courses I took while I was employed, so I can't demonstrate to anyone that I have some skills that may be useful to them. I could show them I do, but on the resumé, I don't present well. That kind of record-keeping is a lesson I never learned. I took courses, and the information was either useful to me or it wasn't. As an employer, I found that some of those with the most impressive résumés were disappointing performers, and those with scant credentials were rock stars. That's not a hard and fast rule, but my experience was that there was not a strong correlation between education and performance. Résumé writing is a separate and nearly unrelated skill from job performance. I am similarly prejudiced about a college education. There is no doubt that having a degree will open a few doors, because there are tons of employers who do in fact equate having a piece of paper as a prerequisite to hiring. I know a person that got a job with a fake diploma. Apparently nobody ever checked. (In the hundreds of interviews I've done and the dozens and dozens of hiring decisions I've made, I admit I never once questioned educational claims.) There are some things for which a college education is essential, or at least very helpful, but I don't think it's needed for everyone or for a lot of positions that require one.
I'm not a wealthy man, except by global standards. I'm well aware of the fact that we Americans are among the wealthiest in the world, and that even my modest lifestyle would be considered fairly extravagant in most of the world. I'm nowhere near the "one percent" that are being maligned in the media, but I know that in this country, those of us in the ninety-nine percent are all in the top ten percent of the world's population when considering wealth. Still, I have only one car, and it is fourteen years old. It's running well, and I hope that I will never need to replace it, but if I do, I am sure that I would not be able to afford a new one. I have five pairs of pants, four of which are blue jeans I buy at Wal-Mart because they're good enough and they cost under fifteen dollars. I do have a suit, but I haven't worn it in years, and I'm not sure if the pants even fit anymore. I bought it for my father's funeral, so that's something like fifteen years ago.
I'm bad with dates. And names. I used to dread going to family functions because I could never remember the names of aunts, uncle, or cousins. I stayed close to my mother who was one of those people who remembered everybody's name, not only family, but people she'd only met once or twice. That's a real talent. The last place I worked, one of the blue collar jobs, I had a two week training and orientation session when I started. The facilitator was a team leader, one of the hourly guys who gotten assigned as a trainer. He did a good job. I didn't see him again for almost ten years. When I next ran into him, he had worked his way up through the ranks and into one of the top positions in manufacturing management. Incredibly, when he was making the rounds through the department where I worked, when he came up to me, he greeted me by name. Everybody liked him and liked working for him. However, neither his efforts nor mine prevented the company from closing the doors, and if you go to his Facebook page, he has hundreds and hundreds of friends, and lots of them are from that workplace.
I don't have a lot of friends, and if you would ask the few that I have about that, they would probably say they're not surprised. I have a hard time relaxing around people. That includes family. I am just about totally estranged from family, although estranged might not be the correct word. My family is mostly two thousand miles away. That includes aunts, uncles and cousins, none of whom I've seen in probably thirty years, but also brothers. I've not had any contact with them since my parents died. We weren't close before that, but at least we would see each other every couple years. There's no drama that keeps us apart. Not really. A couple of small things maybe. They could pick up the phone and call me, but they don't. Then again, neither do I.
Part of the problem I have with figuring out how well I've done is that there aren't a lot of reliable benchmarks. When I was a kid, I remember being in church with my father. When we stood, I would have to stand on the kneeler in order to see over the pew in front of us. Dad on the other hand would stand, and with arms relaxed at his sides, and would rest just the tips of his fingers on the same pew. It was a convenient measure of manhood, something I still occasionally think about when I am in church. But life doesn't seem to be like that. There's no dollar amount that's definitively the right amount; you never solve all the problems at work; friendships and family are mercurial.
I wake up some days like Marlon Brandon in On The Waterfront saying "I could'a been a contendah," but most days I wake up wondering why I've been allowed to skate through life so easily. By most of the conventional measures -- money, friends, recognition, possessions -- I haven't done all that well, yet I love my life. So is happiness the measure I'm supposed to use, or is that just one of those rationalizations? A platitude? An opiate for the mediocre masses? Saying that I am happy may just be a justification for shrugging responsibility and for squandering potential. Or maybe, like Popeye, I am what I am and that's all that I am.
There is a truth in this tangle of ideas. It's like when you have the munchies and you're standing in front of the open refrigerator -- you see all this stuff, but you just can't make up your mind what it is you want to eat.
Well, at least it seems to be something like that, but what do I know?
* Short, one topic essays, written using only information from memory, that perhaps provide an opportunity to shed a little light on who I am.