“The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!” ~ Edward J. Stieglitz
Years in life, life in years. I had a discussion about that sort of thing just a few days ago – with myself. It was a three A.M. meditation forced on me by a bout of early morning wakefulness. At the time it was about as welcome as those occasions when my daughter strong arms me into a lecture about one of my usual domestic improprieties. She hangs on like the proverbial pit bull and if I try to wriggle away she clamps down harder and shakes me around a little for good measure. I’m not sure, but I think Cora occasionally uses our daughter as the household hired gun. I’m not complaining mind you – much. She’s doing it out of love and concern for the old man.
I asked myself, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” That it’s one of the dumbass questions that seems to be a required element of every job interview was bad enough. That it entered my head at three in the morning and persisted just compounded the offense. It was another of those far too early vigils when I wake up and can’t find sleep again.
Sometimes it’s an earworm, one of those annoying songs that squirms through your head, something creepy and vile like oh, Macarena, but that’s not a hard and fast earworm rule. Recently it’s been Gaga’s Bad Romance of all things,
“I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything as long as it’s free
I want your love, love, love, love
I want your love”
As earworms go it’s not all that bad unless it’s crawling through the gray matter before sunrise. But on this one particular morning there was no Gaga, no ugly, no disease and certainly no love, love, love. Just that dead horse flogged by HR flunkies the world over. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
Flat on your back in the predawn it’s as if the malevolent spirit that conjures these sleep repellants is wielding a rubber hose. What can you do at that hour, flat on your back except yield to the inquisition. That “where do you see yourself” question was as unavoidable as it’s ever been when pitched to me while seated at a long shiny conference room table staring with faked earnestness at a prospective employer.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe my annoyance comes from the consistent struggle that I have when faced with the question. Like the batter who can hit a fastball but hacks futilely at a nasty curveball, I struggle with this question every time that it’s served up. It’s the question that I’ve always rehearsed and to this day don’t know if one of my wild hacks ever actually connected.
“Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
“Uh, ten years? From now? Personally? Professionally?”
“Is that a serious question? Really”
“Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
Seems to me that “I don’t really know,” would be the best answer. We certainly can’t know for certain so there’s a smidge of honesty there. Beats “Am I applying to be a buyer or a soothsayer?” or “Are these ridiculous questions in some H.R. procedure manual?” or the rarely attempted but always fatal, “Having an affair with your wife?” I’ve swallowed those kinds of answers so many times that I can still taste them; a savory rising gorge with the slight bitter aftertaste of cowardice for never having given some snappy answer in an interview that I knew was going south anyway. If you know you’re gonna die might as well fire all your bullets.
This question must have hopped into my brain because of the hoopla of the ending of one decade and the commencing of a new one, the 2020’s. Being hopelessly awake and fighting the notion of just giving up and getting up on a cold winter morning I managed to turn the question around, “Just where DID you find yourself over the last ten years?
Ten years ago I wasn’t even blogging yet. My very first post was dated December 31st, 2011 on a blog that’s now defunct. It was a retrospective, looking back on the year just ending.
When the decade of the 2010’s was still a mere baby:
Japan had a tsunami and Haiti had an earthquake.
Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State awaiting the 2016 coronation that wouldn’t be and Benghazi which likely had some role in derailing the coronation was still two years away when the decade began. Benghazi. That hornets’ nest seems to have been around since before email was invented – and we know that can’t be true.
“Cougar” had just been recognized as a word that describes neither a large cat or an old Mercury car model. Or an old rocker for that matter.
For a little touch of not so far back as it seems, Game of Thrones hadn’t even premiered when the decade began.
On a personal note, Borders Books would close its last store. A tragedy that I still mourn and just one more reason to detest Amazon. And just to rub salt in the wound my favorite local outlets would be replaced by a golf store and a church (both an activity and a place that I’ll have no truck with).
Occupy started moving in 2011 and stopped moving shortly after. It’s since occurred to me that we Americans have lost our touch when it comes to protesting. Back in the sixties and seventies we were masters of the art. We forced legislation, helped cause shifts in policies and influenced the removal of two double dealing presidents (Johnson and Nixon). We helped force an endgame to a war with no apparent endgame. It was the voice of the people.
Decades later the people’s voice has become a faint whisper. Now our protesting attention span is like it is with everything else – short. If we can’t put down our cell phones for 15 minutes or we walk out of a baseball game in the fifth inning can it be reasonably expected of us to carry through with a protest movement? And that’s at a time that we have an incompetent occupying the White House for three years who’s being enabled by a Constitution ignoring senate brazenly more interested in party than country, all of them team driving America into a ditch. There’s an old saying that goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Americans have stopped being squeaky; we just allow ourselves to get greased.
Where did I find myself ten years ago? I was a 56 year old purchasing agent out of a job and feeling desperate enough to apply at Starbucks’ and the Safeway deli, willing to be a barely warm body just as long as the gig provided a regular paycheck.
The beginnings of the 2010’s? We were reeling through the aftershocks of the Bush recession – or depression depending on who you talk to, If you’re a diehard Dubya guy I guess you still hold fast to the 43rd president’s quixotic “slowdown.” Yeah it was a “slowdown” alright. It “slowed down” the Toyota plant in nearby Fremont right down to a screeching halt which caused wholesale “slowdowns” in the plant at K.S. Automotive, the injection molder where I worked as a purchasing agent.
We made consoles for Toyota Tundras and when the “slowdown” caused the bottom to drop out of auto sales, particularly truck sales, Toyota turned out the lights in Fremont. It was a scary time and I remember management, in what was at best blatant stupidity, adding a little measure of cruel voyeurism to the “slowdowns.”
In one of the buildings was a conference room where we gathered for morning production meetings and various bitching sessions or ass chewings. The conference room had a large picture window that looked out on the plant. There were those meetings when someone might drone on about nothing and you would let your attention float to the other side of the glass and the bustling plant. For their part the plant workers would hustle past the window and just shoot a quick furtive glance at the meeting.
That changed during the “slowdown.” On a number of occasions employees, mostly plant workers were handed their walking papers in that conference room, with the blinds up for all of their now former coworkers to see. You’d walk by that big window and see the H.R. manager and a supervisor or two and a forlorn employee staring blankly at the table. You no longer shot a quick glance into the room. You stared, albeit as furtively as a stare can be. Like gawking at a car crash looking to find the body.
Some of them I knew, some I didn’t; some I liked, some I didn’t and some I cared nothing about. Cared nothing until I saw them get cashiered. After all aren’t we all fellow travelers just trying to get by? For the most part they were hard workers who cared about their jobs and carried out their duties without complaint. They were men, women, young, and old. Most had families and many were ESL and all of them sat in that office staring at the papers in front of them without really seeing them, hearing words that they couldn’t listen to for the turmoil and fear filling their heads.
I knew the basic termination drill from a previous job. You walk out of the meeting flush with shame, arrive home early and unexpectedly and a spouse already knowing, still asks with a quivering tone and flatlining hope,
“You’re home early. What happened? They didn’t let you go did they?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
The first time I was ever given my walking papers I went home, fell into my wife’s arms and cried.
“It’s okay, we’ll be okay.” Cora told me on that morning in 1993. I guess that’s pretty much the stock answer. What other answer can there be?
Where was I ten years ago? Scared.
As the number of layoffs went up and morale plummeted the company president, a fellow named Ed, put out a notice confirming that heads would still be rolling but that those in danger of being let go would be given the courtesy of advance notice. Small comfort but with a little heads up you might shed the constant ache in your gut, start looking over job postings and adjust the family budget. It seemed like the decent thing for a company to do.
For months the sad parade of despondent former coworkers continued to shuffle out of the building, head down and feeling like the person who didn’t get invited to a party. You passed them by as they left and you looked the other way, awkward, nothing to say. They were already gone, ghosts who’s memories haunted the productions lines.
I still remember the day early at the start of the decade just done. Monday, May 10th, 2010 walking towards another week at the office and suddenly detoured to the general manager’s office. I walked in and was greeted by the GM, a bald guy named Kevin and his pal Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies. Not the real Pinhead of course, he’s a fictional character. That said during the years of my life I’ve run into many a pinhead in a manager’s office. In Kevin’s case Pinhead was a statuette sitting on a shelf behind Kevin’s chair. The little statue was disconcerting the first time you walked into the office but after that he/it just seemed an oddity. The first time I saw it was when I first interviewed there and I couldn’t help but to keep glancing at Hell’s priest.
“Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
“I don’t know but wherever I am I’ll be wondering why Pinhead is looking over your shoulder.” I really didn’t say that of course.
I didn’t last anywhere close to ten years and so on that May morning along with me and Kevin and Pinhead were my immediate supervisor and the H.R. manager with a stack of papers in front of her.
I vaguely recall spending most of my sacking staring blankly at Pinhead, not hearing the H.R. manager’s now rote sentencing but understanding it.
In the end the execution was quick and painless. As I walked out of the building and through the parking lot I felt the stares of my now former coworkers. I could almost feel their relief that it wasn’t them; a sort of guilt ridden comfort. Isn’t it called survivor’s guilt? Ironically the person most relieved was me. I never expected the dreaded termination to be so – refreshing. I didn’t feel the shame of failing in my job or failing myself or failing my family. I was just one of the my fellow Americans lost in the economic numbers game, some of whom were never found again. That perpetual stitch in my gut was gone, the tension lifted and any mysteries about my future in that building solved. I was liberated of anxiety and could, undistracted, concentrate on moving forward.
Before getting in the car I called Cora, “I’m on my way home. They let me go. Don’t worry. I’m okay with this.” And I was okay but for one small detail. I’d never received that courtesy notification from Ed who’ll always remain infamous to me for his lack of testicular fortitude. What did he think I was going to do? Punch him in the nose? Go find another job and leave the one that I was going to be cashiered from? It’s ten years later and I hope his cowardice still haunts him, chicken shit.
I was given 6 months of severance and I filed for unemployment. In August I interviewed at California Glass, a glass container distributor in Oakland, about a ten minute drive from my previous employer.
I honestly can’t recall having been asked the “ten years” question at Cal Glass. Maybe I was distracted by the H.R. manager’s consistent probing into my ability to take abuse. Seemed odd but I assured him that I could withstand whatever slings and arrows my future teammates could fire. I was a purchasing agent for Chrissakes. It’s part of the job description to take abuse.
Two weeks after interviewing they offered me a job at 30 percent more than I’d been making at the injection molder. I guess I came off as a sucker thick skinned enough to take the mysterious backbiting that my future employer was hinting at. Or maybe it was the fact that I was adept at a version of their of their outdated computer system. With a month of severance left and the unemployment I’d been collecting I wound up making more money than if I’d still had my old job. Ten years? Hell if I’d only been able to see where I was in ten weeks, flush with unexpected money and a higher paying job I’d have taken the family to Hawaii. Cora and I celebrated at a bayfront Thai restaurant that lasted a few short years before it closed to reopen as a Mediterranean joint. That’s where I was ten years ago.
Where did I find myself during the last decade? By the numbers? Cora and I started out the decade just the two of us and a dog, ready to downsize from four bedrooms and two stories to a small single level two bedroom house; that is until the influx. We ended the decade in the same house with four adults, two children and two dogs. We’re a full house now and in my mid-sixties I could do without the backyard pool and the flight of stairs that is one day going to be a problem. It’s all good though. I’ve been able to bond with two grandchildren and give some comfort to a couple of people trying to get by in the ridiculous Bay Area economy.
One wedding in the family and one divorce. Three more grandchildren to add to the first. Two retirements. The passing of one dog and the welcoming of another. The death of a lover from long ago and a former supervisor who I didn’t really appreciate or know until she was gone. Three broken bones, two pulmonary emboli (the doctor said I’m lucky to be alive) and not a single partridge or pear tree. Two 100 mile bike rides for charity and 13 miserable miles of an ill conceived half-marathon that I ran in celebration of my 60th birthday. I should’ve just had a glass of bubbly and moved on.
Cora won bouts 3 and 4 with cancer. She took both with the aplomb of someone who has the faith that God has her back. I never asked her if she was scared. I know I was scared but asking her would’ve been superfluous and inappropriate. Feeling the icy cold breath of mortality on her neck how could she not be scared? But she never let on, she just elbowed mortality in the belly and moved on about life. That’s the difference between the two of us. She has the undying faith that I never had much more than a small measure of; faith that I abandoned completely during the last decade. Some time during the last ten years I took a stab at being an Episcopalian and, despite Robin Williams’ comical endorsement it never stuck. I guess it was about a year ago that I sat down with the pastor at the nearby Martinez parish. We talked theology and while it was an interesting talk her answers to my questions didn’t satisfy. So I’m left both amazed and envious of Cora for the way she has carried herself through adversity. However she does it, through faith, courage or tea leaves, she’s been the rock of the family for far more than one decade. She’s been solid for just about four decades.
It was early in the decade past that my best friend tried to take her life. It was only for the fact that I’d just sold her my old car and could pass the plate number to the police that she was found alive but unresponsive. I spent the better, or worse, part of the next day in the depressing bowels of Oakland’s Highland Hospital. The rules say that best friends aren’t allowed to be told the condition of someone who’s just attempted suicide. As if that person is going to leave an advance directive. I begged, sweet talked and cajoled the woman at the front desk who listened patiently, looked me over and recognized the desperation. She asked me to sit tight; she’d talk to the doctor. I was ushered into a small, graffiti stained room not much bigger than a closet where I sat tight for hours before a short audience with the doctor who assured me that my best friend would survive. On the way home I stopped at a liquor store parked in my driveway, sat in the car and got laced.
She’d been staying at our house and one evening she went out to leave for good, leaving us a short note. There was nothing profound or telling or hinting at what she’d planned; just thanks for everything and signed off “love.” I thought that I’d saved that note but when I went through a general house cleaning the note wasn’t to be found. Ten years later I still search for it occasionally. Nothing special in that note except that to me it’s special. A reminder I guess of how fate is balanced precariously on a razor’s edge – and the plate number of a used Pontiac. That and life and best friends are precious and both the years in your life and the life in your years do matter. Ten years later and she’s a corporate vice president. Clearly not where she saw herself in ten years.
Presidents, politics, polarization, hatred and hostility. You could write volumes of posts about ten years of national discord. I’ll leave those to the news pundits. We’ve seen a decline and a fall but that’s been going on for much longer than a mere ten years.
In the sixties we were working towards social justice and to putting people first. That was until business took a look at that and declared, “Oh hell no.” And so business pushed back hard and it took far less than ten years to get into the fast lane to becoming a business and money first nation that threw the interests of people, the environment and justice to the curb. From an of, by, and for the people nation we went to a “citizens united” nation (at the beginning of the last decade if you care to know) that in all of our ignorance and indolence we just never saw coming. Never really bothered to look where our country would be in ten years.
In the last decade I learned that there are far too many of my fellow Americans who are just downright mean and bad. Just mean and bad, we don’t need flowery words to describe them. Many have been emboldened over the past five years by a malevolent, self serving huckster turned president to show their true darkness but it also took the presidency of a black man to put some folks over the top. I recall seeing a parked car in Abingdon, Virginia in 2014 that was plastered with bumper stickers that demeaned Obama in ways that were obscene, racist and vile. In many respects we haven’t moved an iota from where we were 200 years ago and it took a little less than half of the last decade to prove that.
I’m done with it. I started the past decade a historian and avid political junkie. I’ve left that behind me. My best friend and I used to sit together on Saturday mornings at Peet’s in Berkeley and talk about movies and television, vacations and dreams. We also talked long about politics. Politically speaking we were in the same church but not always in the same pew (in 2008 I was for Hillary and she for Obama and in 2012 she was for Hillary and I was for any Democrat but. In 2016 we were mutually disappointed and disgusted). With the rise of the charlatan in 2015 and his ascension to the presidency and all the rancor and ruin he’s wrought I gave up on all of it in just the past year. It took a mere fraction of my six and a half decades on this Earth to lose pride in my country. Maybe I was too pollyannaish for all that time and it took me that long to become jaded and pragmatic.
I was at the gym this past New Years Eve, when I got into a conversation with the young woman who keeps the place clean. She shows up occasionally in the spinning room when I’m cycling by myself listening to a podcast. We’ve become chums; she stops her work and leans on one of the bikes, I slow down my pace and pause the podcast and we talk for a few.
On this particular morning she was cleaning the locker room and I was wrapped in a towel when she stopped to wish me a Happy New Year, I returned the greeting and we talked about New Years. She wasn’t going out to celebrate. “I’m getting too old for that.” She laughed when I responded, “You too old?” You’re not going to get any sympathy from me with that ‘too old’ crap. You’re too young to say, “too old”. You have it all in front of you.”
In the end I offered that it’s just numbers on a calendar. Does it really matter when you decide to start a new year or a new decade or a take a new direction? We agreed that while a resolution is a good thing it shouldn’t be dependent on the first day of a calendar year. The calendar isn’t there to help you. It just hangs there, tacked to your wall or shines back at you when you look at your phone.
She left and in my head I studied the numbers on a calendar notion. It’s not that simple. A decade, ten years, ten calendars. They really aren’t just numbers. All of those little squares tacked to the wall; notations, events, reminders; red letter days and dark days. Holidays, birthdays, surgery days, recovery days and days of mourning. Tax days, first day of school days and summer vacation days. All done and gone and sitting in a landfill or turned into another calendar or book or whatever they recycle the years gone by into.
I’m reasonably certain that ten years ago if you’d asked the young woman at the gym where she thought she would be she wouldn’t have said, “Pushing a mop in a gym.” Who dreams of that? Our talk is always small so I don’t know about her past. Only she knows if being a janitor at a gym is an upgrade or a downgrade from where she was a decade ago. I know that she’s holding down a pretty crappy job and it might not be her only job. She’s a gregarious, friendly woman who talks easily and cheerfully with the clients and coworkers. Even when we just pass and exchange greetings her enthusiasm makes my visit more pleasant. We barely know each other yet she always calls me, “my friend.” “Hello my friend!” By all appearances, she has life in her years and for a few moments she adds some life to my years.
When I was a teen/young adult if someone had asked where I saw myself in ten years I might have answered in a smartass tone, “I’ll be dead in ten years.” It was the foolish, macho male kind of thing that me and my equally foolish buddies used to say. We thought we were rugged individualists, James Dean’s without the leather and the motorcycle. Live hard, play harder, die young and mourned by none. Truth is, the slightest hint of death would’ve had us cushy suburbanite boys reciting Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s, trying to strike a last minute deal with god.
I’m 66 years old and happy that my foolish, feigned bravado never came to pass. I have four grandchildren, two wonderful children and a loving wife who I probably don’t deserve. But I still don’t know the answer to that silly ten years question.
What I do know is that for the first time in my life it’s hit me that I’ve got fewer decades in front of me than behind me. I’m beginning to feel a little bit like I did that day when I was walked out of my job at K.S. I feel like I’m being ushered out of the party that by necessity will continue on without me; guests I’ll never know and party games that I’ll miss. That’s how it goes, right?
The life in my years has been good to me despite my various attempts to screw things up. As the old rocker Joe Walsh once sang, “I can’t complain but sometimes I still do. Life’s been good to me so far” The life in my years hasn’t been as interesting as my semi-retired attorney friend who travels extensively and does exciting things like fly an airplane and skydive (not on the same trip I hope) but certainly better than those who don’t know where they might be in ten minutes much less ten years.
They say I’m crazy but I have a have a good time
I’m just looking for clues at the scene of the crime
Life’s been good to me so far…
Lucky I’m sane after all I’ve been through
(Everybody say I’m cool, he’s cool)
I can’t complain but sometimes I still do
Life’s been good to me so far…
They say I’m lazy but it takes all my time
(Everybody say oh yeah, oh yeah)
I keep on goin’ guess I’ll never know why
Life’s been good to me so far ~ Life’s Been Good written by Joe Walsh.
So how did my early morning reverie end? After mulling over the years I gave up, got up took ten milligrams of melatonin and overslept.