Wednesday, July 17, 2013

From a Precipice Overlooking the River Styx

I don't recall who the first person was to have asked me what I wanted to be, but I remember having no idea. At some point, people asking me this question would try to supply the answer, since I clearly didn't have one. A fireman. A policeman. A doctor. Some noun or other. Try as I could to imagine myself being one of those, I always failed. Moreover, nothing else came to mind.

Once, at seven or eight, my mother took me grocery shopping and had me go to the meat department to present our order. Ed, the butcher, decided I was going to be a butcher and he said they'd make one out of me. Becoming a butcher was unappealing but I didn't say anything because I thought it would hurt his feelings.

Besides, when there are no answers, any one thing becomes as possible as anything else.

Later, as a sophomore in high school, some collective or other headed by my father decided I should be a lawyer. They all came to this conclusion because I was pretty good at Latin and lawyers had a lot of Latin in their vernacular. I even worked in a law office for a while. I liked the lawyers but couldn't imagine being one. As I recall, I did poorly on the LSAT, which was probably a good thing.

At the end of my fourth year of Latin, I was pretty good at translating Latin to English. That was because I didn't transcribe the text word-for-word or line-for-line. Instead, I'd read groups of sentences, even paragraphs, or, if they were poems, up to entire stanzas, and then translate what I thought the writer was saying. It was fun and I wondered if one could be a Latin-to-English translator. 

It was probably the closest I ever came to finding a noun I wanted to be. A professional noun. When I got to the University of Nevada, I found out I'd already had as much Latin as the only lecturer on staff. Besides, his pronunciation was wrong because he'd been taught by Jesuits and Catholics didn't use classical pronunciation. They pronounced V's as V's and not as W's, which would have mortified my high school teacher even more than it did me. "Iuventutem" has to be "you-wen-tu-tem," not "you-ven-tu-tem." Horrors!

So, the quest for personal nounhood continued unabated. I met with my university counselor, who looked totally bored as shit when I came into his office. He asked what I wanted to major in and I told him I didn't have a clue. I thought that's what he was there for. A linguistics professor in a tweed sportcoat with leather patches on the elbows, he looked at his watch, and then at the ceiling, then at me. He asked what I wanted to do.

"To do?" Not "to be?" Well. I cottoned on to the notion they were probably the same thing, although I didn't realize I was transitioning to adulthood, when, from that point forward, people would say, "What do you do?" instead of "What do you want to be?" (An aside, Dear Reader. There's an omitted predicate of "when you grow up" attendant to the latter question. I automatically added it to the former, and still do, even though I'm sixty-five and arguably "grown up.").

Silence. Cold sweat. Translating Latin to English was off the table. "Writer," I said, coming up with the first noun I could think of.

He said, "Write what?"

Oh, god. Nonplussed hell. I majored in "Undecided," and do you know what? I still am.

What's it all about, Alfie?Is it only for the moment we live? 
What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? 
Are we meant to take more than we give? 
Or are we meant to be kind?

I ended up pretty much just going with the flow, kind of hoping, I guess, some interesting noun or other would show up and become my mantle. The family business was, briefly, retail merchandising, then real estate investment and development. I fell into both, not so much by choice as serendipity, as though I'd chanced on the only place serving lunch for miles around and it was a cafeteria of unexciting choices. My first really big real estate transaction occurred when I was twenty-nine, and I remember standing outside the bank with a low six-figure check, made out to me, in my pocket. 

That one person could have so much money was unimaginable. I really didn't know how it had gotten there and thought the error would be discovered and I'd be rounded up any second. I'd pretty much shown up when I was supposed to have and had reacted to challenges along the way, but it wasn't as though there had been some grand plan. Some earth-shaking noun creation. It was a surreal moment, and when I put myself back in that time, it's still a little scary.

When you do whatever you fall into for your life's work, whatever it is, whether you like it or not, it becomes as familiar, if not as comfortable, as an old shoe. But at some point, you will--not "may," but "will--" espy an opportunity for a change and suspect you may have finally found your noun. 

But you also realize if you carpe that particular diem, you'll have to abandon your sanctuary of familiar comfort, navigate an unknown road whose signs you do not know. That's not so much hard as it is discombobulating. Your pressnt, if discomfiting, world may consist of  people who don't really know you, but at least they're your strangers, i.e., you all have rules of engagement you can fall back on and share a script everyone seems to have memorized.

The precipitate raison d' etre for this post is a friend wondering what the point was. Well, go figure, I guess. I remember, years ago, hearing of a Procter and Gamble laundry soap factory line in Sacramento. The company gave away free towels with the purchase of a box of soap, and the company soon discovered it had to hire mentally retarded people to stand in line and drop the towel into the box for eight hours a day. I was envious that nounhood could be so facile for some.

And in my life, I've encountered person after person who has been able to somehow incorporate what he or she wants with what he or she does for a living. Are they happy? They seem to be, and usually make sure you think so. But the question is absurd, really. If you want to know what it's like to be a fisherman, you have to walk in his shoes, said someone more clever than I.

At the same time, I'm ingrained to believe the greatest threat to the world is that someone else will save it (not my line--I cribbed it from Robert Swan. I don't know who he is, though). The same can be said for your country, your state, your city, your block. 

Your life.

When you plug away at something that ranges between "I totally hate this" and "I'll do this until something better happens," you have to assure yourself, falsely or not, that it's all for a greater good that will one day reveal itself. As you retreat into your sanctuary, you either think you're making the world a better place, or you're buying time, i.e., escrowing your life, for the possibility of something better falling from the sky. Why else would you do it?

As for the real estate thingy: My father said that nine out of ten deals go bad, but the tenth one bails you out. I wish my tenth one had occurred later in my life, but that's a story for another time. The point, if there is one, is that it's possible to approach the end of your journey and still have no idea where the road is going. Except that you do know. Everyone's road ends up in the same place.

When we lived in San Francisco, I briefly joined a networking group of liberal arts people looking for something else. About two-thirds of the members were women who had become lawyers and absolutely hated it. That's comforting, in a way, because while I've come to regret the many roads I haven't taken, I don't think I'm all that alone. I don't know, though. The possibility that I might be wrong is my iron shadow.

I guess whatever it was I wanted to be, I'm now it. But I'm still not sure what "it" is.

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