Emigrating to Oblivia

08 Aug 2015
August 8, 2015

I’m emigrating to Oblivia. I’m leaving this place and its work culture. I have spent too long trying to live with the tenets of our national work zeitgeist. It’s time to visualize my exit. No, I’m not retiring just yet (I’ve got two children to get through college). But I am thinking about it. Eighty years ago, on August 14, 1935, the same day the Social Security Administration was founded, Obliva became a bona fide and well-sought-out destination. Suddenly, retirement was closer to reality for millions. And, today, Americans count on a return on their withholdings to help fund their move. I’m excited about sliding into oblivion, I mean, emigrating to Oblivia.

It’s a state where your work accomplishments have been banished. For those who think work is their life, the move feels like exile: a place where no one cares whether you have a corner office or stock options. I never had either. But I always had another life as an artist and a writer. I’ve put these skills to good use in my day job and I’m taking them (and a few pens) with me when I go.

Recently, my daughter came home from her first paying job as a camp counselor. She was ecstatic, proclaiming her love for her work. I was blown away by her enthusiasm. “Oh, sweetie,” I said, “you’ve just begun your working days. You’re in the first stage of your working life, the idealist stage. In the idealist stage everything seems possible. It’s different from school and, as a bonus you’re paid. What could be better?” It was wonderful to witness my daughter’s exuberance. I never went through the idealist stage.

My first job was at McDonalds and my only duty was taking out the garbage. Not once did I come home waxing poetic about trash, only smelling of it. My first “real” job was working at the post office. And on my first day I was told to come in a 4:30 a.m. to sort mail. Five hours later, my new supervisor then handed me a full delivery route. My first 8-hour day turned into a 14-hour day. As I delivered the last of the mail, I was so tired and disgusted I started throwing letters on people’s front porches. Ah, the petulance of my youth, to say nothing of that federal offense. When I got back to the post office someone had called to complain and my supervisor reamed me out. I came home and told my father I was never going back. I will never forget his response: “You will go back and you will apologize. Then you will do what’s expected of you.” That day forged my work ethic. I never had a chance to experience the idealist stage. On my first day of work I went directly to the second level: the realist stage.

The Three Stages of Work

In this phase you realize there are people who think very differently than you. To succeed you will have to develop major interpersonal skills. You will discover hierarchy, the organizational chart that shows you’re at the bottom. To move up you will need to learn how to listen and do what you’re told. No eye rolling. It’s during these decades you discover coworkers who not only think differently than you, but believe your ideas are “dangerous” and actively work against you. And, they have no qualms about calling you out in a meeting or an all-staff email. If you’re like me, you will take classes on your own dime to learn how to deal with these difficult types. College doesn’t teach you this. To move up, you must learn how to strategically make waves, gathering allies as you do. Together, change may be possible.

When you get to be about 60, you will realize you’ve entered the final stage of your working life, the cynical stage. Let me say from the outset that turning into a cynic has its positive attributes. You come to accept that organizations, by their very nature, are conservative. Change does not come easily. And when it does, it’s often tumultuous. Resistance is often rampant. You wake up one day and ask yourself, “Why am I fighting so hard? What difference does all the sturm und drang I dredge up make?” And you ease up. You become thankful for small victories. And, most importantly, you start to let go. The other day I woke up and decided not to shave. No one noticed. Slowly and imperceptibly, I am slipping into Oblivia.

I have come to accept my cynicism. In fact, I’ve embraced the freedom that comes with it. I saw this metamorphosis happen to others, but never understood it until now. It’s liberating. It’s made my workdays so much better. It’s not that I no longer care. I work hard and I still come up with new ideas. But I have no illusions. I’ve learned to accept the realities of working without all the disappointments. The self-doubt of my early years has vanished. I love being old (except for my closer proximity to, well, “the end”). I know who I am. I know my strengths and what I suck at. And I have no problem accepting both. It helped to remember where I started. “Youth,” my father used to say, “is wasted on the young.” Not so, dear dad. Youth is only the first step. It is a time to be idealistic: to think you can change the world. Reality will set in later. Your early idealism will be buried, but not forever.

In Oblivia I will have all the knowledge I’ve accumulated in my work life while finally getting to experience the idealism that’s been in the closet all these years. I will love whatever I do and be rewarded because I will be my boss, my only employee, and my client. I will be writing my own performance review. Well, I think I’ll do away with performance reviews. They’re quite meaningless. And, in my new home they are against the law.

Long live Social Security and God Bless the blissful State of Oblivia!

Observant on Day One

17 Jul 2015
July 17, 2015
My parents and me

Observant at a very young age, I was particularly interested in my toes.

I am nothing if not observant. I had to be, growing up in an irrational house, where, at any moment, the sublime could morph into the profane —and where a loved one could literally change overnight. (Sadly, I don’t mean figuratively.) It’s no mistake I became a photographer, always looking for the inconsistencies in human behavior, ready for any turn of events, no matter how unlikely they may be. Irony and synchronicity are not lost on me. And, when I think about it, my attraction to these details was preordained.

My mother had one ovary. And her gynecologist told her she would never have children. This was before fertility clinics, surrogates, and in vitro fertilization. This was also as ill-informed as the mid 20th century could get. My parents tried for three years before my mother became pregnant. And, after nine months, I was born this day many years ago.

But, as my mother got in the elevator to go up to deliver me who should be there but the very doctor who told her she would never have children. I was there, but I didn’t see his reaction. Yet, somehow, it stayed with me.

A New Flag For Our Lawn

03 Jul 2015
July 3, 2015

I suggested some alternatives to the realtor who plants American flags on our lawns every 4th of July.

When it comes to our little plot of suburban heaven, we are outliers. We couldn’t care less about having a perfect lawn. No monthly weed treatments and I do all the mowing. Some years, to make its upkeep a little less mundane, I do creative mowing. The best thing you can say about our grass is it’s green. And, if you squint, it looks lush and, well, even greener.

Every year we get a new and different lawn. And, by that I mean a new and different species of weed takes over. We are beholden to the wind and rain for our greens. Sometimes it’s long and bushy, but this year we were lucky. It’s thick and low —great ground cover that only requires mowing every month or so. The grass doesn’t get taller; it gets denser. So, this morning, as a prequel to the July 4th holiday I got up early and started to mow. We live at an entrance to a 500 acre park and many will be parking their cars next to our house to hike in. I didn’t want to be the embarrassment of the neighborhood.

Halfway through this chore I saw a woman walking down the street planting small plastic American flags by each house’s driveway. I’ve known this woman for over ten years. She is one of our local realtors and, even though she has denied it, this is a well-known marketing scheme in real estate. Our first conversation about it was over the phone in 2003:

I introduced myself and asked if she had been the one to place the flag in our front yard. “Yes,” she admitted proudly. “That was me.” I began by asking her if she had considered asking homeowners if she could place the flag on our lawns. The notion of land ownership is also deeply imbedded in the American psyche. We fought a civil war over rules of ownership. I didn’t appreciate her assumption I would be pleased with the gift she left in front of my house. She told me it would have been difficult to ask each homeowner as she had placed over 700 flags throughout the area. I suggested this might be a reason to rethink her act of generosity.

She didn’t quite understand my initial dismay but, over the years we’ve come to respect each other. She emigrated many years ago from Greece and I can appreciate her perspective. Now, she never places a flag on our lawn without asking and I don’t force her to listen to my didactic lecture on the selling of American patriotism.

So, when I saw her this morning I stopped my mowing to chat. At first, I didn’t recognize her and thought another agent had taken over the flag placements for her. Just a new hairdo and change of color. I was glad to see her. Our yearly get-together has become a 4th of July tradition. And we caught up on the last year.

Suddenly, I had an idea. “You know what would have been great?” I said to her. “If you had placed rainbow flags up and down the street instead of American flags.” She didn’t understand so I made the connection. “It’s so timely and would make such a wonderful statement.” She said that they have to order the flags months in advance so she couldn’t have known to order different flags back then. I told her I was just kidding, well in a “can’t we dream” sort of way. “Oh, wait,” trying to think of a twist she could relate to. “You’re from Greece. What if you had put Greek flags up and down the street to make a statement about the country’s debt crisis?” “Well, Greek Independence Day is celebrated in March,” she replied. Why do people always take me so literally? But I had one last thought: “The finals of the Women’s World Soccer Cup are Sunday. What if you put American and Japanese flags on lawns to celebrate that?” “Would you let me put them on your lawn?” she asked. “Um, maybe.”

When it comes to our little plot of suburban America, we are outliers. Way outliers.

And the Morning Isn’t Even Over Yet

22 Jun 2015
June 22, 2015

Chapter One: An Interaction With a Teenager

Earlier this morning I dropped my younger daughter off at school to take the ACT test. As we got into the car she immediately turned the radio to her favorite station. Mumford & Sons’ Believe was playing. Now, trying to connect with my 17 year old is always an iffy thing. Will I get merely grunts and groans to anything I say or a brisk reaction meant to shut down any conversation? I never know. The terrain is a minefield. Yet, I choose to traverse it every day in hopes I will have some meaningful interactions with her (honestly, I’d be very happy with just a little idle chitchat).

But I’m a risk taker so I asked, “Do you like this song?” “Yeah,” she said, “I have it on my phone.” I saw an opening so I continued. “Well, their latest album is very different than their old stuff. They’ve dropped the banjo.” “Yeah, I know,” she replied. Moving forward, “Well, aren’t you surprised I know about them?” Her retort: “Aren’t they on old band?” Emphasis on OLD. “Um, no not really.” “Oh, um, okay. I hope we make to to school on time,” signaling our music interlude was over.

The thing is, I’ve never heard any Mumford & Sons music. Ever. But a couple weeks ago I was walking home from work and they were being interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered. That’s how I knew their music had changed from their earlier “propulsive, rootsy, acoustic music” to a more “plugged in” variety. “Goodbye banjo, goodbye accordion and double bass.” Melissa Block’s words. I grabbed what I had, took a chance, and went with it. While I was in the zone I reminded her to take in the garbage cans when she got home. The things fathers do to connect with their daughters. Boy, was I good. And, thank you NPR for guiding me through today’s minefield.

Chapter Two: An Interaction with a Twenty-Something

Whenever I ride the subway I like to sit in the seats that face the center aisle. They’re close to the door and I don’t seem to get car sick when I’m tweeting. But most of these seats are reserved for “Seniors or those with disabilities.” And, over the years, I’ve kept a lookout for those who truly need these seats. I’ve been more than happy to let them sit down.

I was extra happy to actually turn into a bonafide senior citizen last year. Finally, I would feel no shame at sitting there, but I still offered my seat to those who needed it more than me. In part, I feel good when I’m giving. But, as a former father of two toddlers I took to daycare every day on the Metro, I truly was grateful for the kindness of strangers who gave up their seats so my girls could sit down.

Lately, I’ve had back problems so now I am both a senior and someone who genuinely could use a seat. Today, I was sitting there next to a young woman who was texting. A mother and her five year old entered the crowded train and, without thinking, I stood up and offered the child my seat. That was no mean feat in a moving train with a bad back. The law of paying it forward required it and I gladly did so.

But as I stood there looking down at that young woman, who hadn’t looked up once since sitting there, I wondered if I should say something. “Don’t do it!” my inner sense told me. “Don’t wreck the morning.” But I continued to think about it. I don’t look my age and have been waiting for someone to challenge me about sitting in senior seats. I was all ready with my response: “I’m 65 and I appreciate that my outsides look deceptively young. But, I assure you,” I would say, showing them my Senior SmartTrip Card, “that my insides are right on track.”

I wanted to say something. But I didn’t want to come across as an angry old man (okay, an angry old man who looks like an angry younger man). As we got closer to my stop I kept wondering: should I do it? And, suddenly I found my voice. I leaned down and quietly said to her, “Miss, I don’t want to embarass you but these seats are reserved for people who need them. I’m 65 and have a bad back but I got up to let this child sit down. I hope you will think about it, the next time you sit here.” She simply nodded that she understood. No rolling of eyes and no smart-aleck retort. I was proud of myself for coming up with the right words and the right delivery and I was proud of her for listening. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

Chapter Three: An Interaction with Three Thirty-Somethings

Feeling the inner glow of not one but two successes so early in the day, I got out of the train at the next stop and made my way to the exit. As I was leaving I noticed the station manager hugging two other women. The feeling was infectious. And I found myself suddenly blurting, “Are you giving away hugs?” All three of them wrapped their arms around me for a group hug.

As I walked the block to my office I pondered the last two hours, feeling a bit overwhelmed. Interesting interactions are the souvenirs of my life. And I had just been handed three special ones. What a great way to start the day. And the morning isn’t even over yet!

My Father’s Day Gift

21 Jun 2015
June 21, 2015

A gift is not a thing. It’s a thought. And sometimes I wear these thoughts around my neck as a talisman, bringing me good fortune and as a reflection of my hard work.

Midsummer and the Hitchhiking Ain’t Easy

21 Jun 2015
June 21, 2015
Hitchhiking with an American Flag

Not me (I never pretended to be a superhero when I hitchhiked). But close enough. In reality, I was alone and my flag was about a foot wide: big enough to see but small enough to avoid causing an international incident.

Today is Midsummer. Here in the States we think of it as just the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer. But people who live much nearer the Arctic Circle celebrate this day with gusto. After all, on the opposite side of the calendar they have to endure a dark day.

Forty-one years ago I was hitchhiking from West Berlin to Malmö, Sweden. There I would meet my friend and we would travel north to celebrate Midsummer with her friends. On June 17, 1974 I stood at the border of the city and the DDR (East Germany) with my sign. I had to get a ride all the way through East Germany; hitchhiking in the DDR was illegal. A Mercedes stopped to pick me up on Highway 5 at the border between West Berlin and the East German state of Brandenburg. The driver was a psychiatrist. But he spoke no English (I found that odd) so our conversation steered clear of Freud. Although, I could have held my own with Nietzsche since he was required reading in my college German class —in Deutsch!.

He was going to Hamburg and nicely let me off at a place where I would most likely get a ride north. I got to Lübeck but got stuck just outside the city. June 17th was a national holiday in West Germany, commemorating the 1953 workers’ uprising in the East. Holidays were bad days for hitchhiking: cars full of families.

This was the third time I’d ever stuck out my thumb for a ride. The first had come just weeks before when my Dutch friend dropped me off at the German border. I was a little nervous. By the early 1970s hitchhiking in the States seemed too dangerous and, well, I didn’t need to. But this was my odyssey and a budget one at that. My thumb was out and cars were passing me by. Then, one driver pointed his index finger down. I thought it was the European version of the bird and I was only too happy to return the favor. Only later, a more experienced and wiser freeloader, I discovered that was the handsignal that meant, “I’m not driving very far.” I’d just finished Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. And, indeed I was.

So, I was stranded on a forest road just outside Lübeck. Suddenly, I saw a VW bus coming my way and, yes, I could see it: U.S. military plates! I got out the small American flag I’d packed just for this reason. I was new at hitchhiking and didn’t want to overdo it so I stood there holding it just below my face. Waving it around seemed like overkill and who knew what terrorists lurked in those forests (yes, for those with short memories, America wasn’t very loved, even in the ’70s). The van stopped. Two American servicemen were on their way to the Arctic Circle to celebrate Midsummer.

I hitchhiked from West Berlin to Sweden in one day!

They were only going to Copenhagen that night. But they agreed to drop me off at the dock so I could catch a ferry to Malmö. (They’ve now built at bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö and the last ferry sailed in 2000.) We arrived just in time for me to catch the last crossing in a hydrofoil. I arrived in Sweden at 12:30 a.m., the sun just above the horizon.

A few days later I was hitchhiking north again, this time with my friend. It was 2 a.m. The sun was up and we had no problem catching a ride.

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