Blank Slate

In a single day, a forty-year-old man finds himself unmarried and unemployed. What to do next?

Ten days after my fortieth birthday, I walked from the county courthouse in downtown Portland to the office of my former employer. At the courthouse, I signed my divorce papers. Several blocks away, I signed my severance package.

At such moments, a person will take inventory. Mine counted no job, no wife, and no children. Responsibilities numbered a cat, a dog, and a reasonable fixed mortgage on a house that I adored. This was in August of 2009. The job market sucked, but my savings, buffeted by a generous exit check, would cover me beyond the end of the year. Longer if I skimped.

I pursued no leads, filed no applications, distributed no résumés, and ignored job-listing services. A startling fact soon dawned on me: this would be my first summer vacation without a job since junior high.

The writer Richard Ford once told me, “Characters, to me, the ones I write, aren't persuasive till I can postulate what they do for a living.” I was interviewing him for a Portland bookstore's website. That's what I did for a living, or part of what I did, the part I liked best.

Ford continued, “I'm sure that comes out of being from a family of working people, being told all my life about what this guy did for a living and that guy did for a living. How he made his money. What he did before. What his aspirations were. That, for me, was the thing that made a person have a kind of anchorage into something other than the fluff of life.”

My family lives three thousand miles away, in New England. A brother, a sister, cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces—pretty much all of my relatives, except me. My parents have had the same phone number since I started nursery school.

Years ago, my brother founded a software company in our hometown. Now my sister works there, too. One cousin is a public defender; recently her husband put away his saxophone and returned to school for a nursing degree. Another cousin sells technology for weapons manufacturers, or something like that. My uncle is an actor when he's not teaching. My father, retired for barely a year, likes to say that he started out an engineer but wound up selling women's underwear. In October, my parents came to visit. We rented a minivan and spent six days driving up the Oregon coast. I brought a tape recorder.

As we set out on the highway, my father, in the passenger seat, listed every job he'd ever worked. We had agreed to start an interview this way, with chronology. Occasionally, my mother would correct him or fill in blanks from the back seat.

The first job my father could recall, his “first chance at remunerative employment,” was “working for a movie theater in Coral Gables, Florida,” he said, “when I was about nine years old, where I held the position of executive director of filling the candy bags they gave to kids at Saturday-morning matinees.” Among the paying gigs that followed: picking avocados off trees planted by the city and selling them door-to-door (“nobody else was using them”); delivering pharmaceuticals for a drugstore to its neighborhood clientele (on his bicycle, age eleven); dishwasher at a soda fountain; Christmas card salesman; ice cream truck driver; camp counselor; waiter; and draftsman in an engineering shop where, he remembers, “Every week when we got paid, we would play poker with the serial numbers on the checks. Everybody would put a dollar in. Somebody would win the lottery—a lot of money! And when you won you not only got the money, but you wouldn't have to work the next week because someone had to run the lottery.” We'd traveled fifty miles before he graduated college.

What I learned about my father is that he never stopped working, not for more than a few weeks. He doesn't like being bossed around and so always sought positions of leadership. He's comfortable making important decisions on the fly (which isn't to say that he doesn't try to forecast the consequences). He's proud of the work he's done, but you get the feeling that he's still somewhat amazed he pulled it all off. Imagine the expression of a long-distance runner, marveling at the finish-line tape across his chest.

On the day before he and my mother flew home, we visited the local chapter of a nonprofit to which he's been donating time and advice. These days my father is also trying to figure out what to do with his time.

What a mindfuck it must be to retire.

***

Twelve years ago, my girlfriend and I moved to Portland; eight years later, we married. The company that I no longer work for was my first and only employer in Oregon.

But on that day last August, I was suddenly staring at a blank slate.

In the service of my own priorities, what would I do?

When had I last reckoned with priorities wholly my own? Without a boss to please, or a place to be—alone? What choices would I make? Had I ever been so unencumbered? Would I ever be again?

My friend Vitz and I met in eighth grade but didn't become close until after high school. In our meandering twenties, we shared apartments in three states. Ten years ago, he followed me to Portland. On a weeknight last summer, we were drinking in my backyard, one of many such nights.

“Exciting plans for tomorrow?” Vitz asked. Already the first stars had come out. Before long, with the change of season, it would be too cloudy to see them at all.
“Hiking at the coast. I've been to the mountains twice in a row.”

Vitz and his wife have a one-year-old daughter. This month, they bought a house less than a mile from mine, which they hope to inhabit at least until their daughter finishes high school. They are taking the long view.

We keep in touch with the friends of our youth who live in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Savannah, Paris. We meet them for occasional long weekends and weddings, and make plans when our paths cross on business. We try to get to know their spouses and remember their kids' names. But the friends we've made in our grown-up years live in Portland.

“Do you think you'll move?” Vitz wanted to know. To New York, he meant, where jobs might be more plentiful. What I wanted—what I want still—is to remove the land between Oregon and Massachusetts, to live in Portland and be only a short drive from my family. But I knew that I wouldn't leave if I could help it, not if the opportunity for sustaining work presented itself here.

***

Obviously, what you do for a living tends to dictate your financial status. Children recognize this long before they fill out a W-2. Arguably of equal importance, however, is the fact that your employment determines where you spend a third of your waking hours (possibly more) and with whom (do not discount the with whom). Less obviously, a job orients your brain toward particular ideas and perspectives. Whether you enjoy the work or not, whether you apprenticed for years to attain your position or stumbled into it ass-backwards, you will find yourself immersed in its subculture, captive to its peculiar stresses and satisfactions. Some jobs make demands on your body; most demand a sizable share of your brain.

More insidiously, your job (or jobs, because let's face it, many don't supply the hours or wages to survive, much less prosper) shapes your not-at-work life. Do you get weekends off? Nights? How much vacation time can you take? What diversions can you afford? Who are your peers? Are you proud of what you do?

“Would you say that you're married to your work?” I asked a friend who'd been dreading her company's holiday party. It was November now. I wanted to know what motivated her. How did she explain the overtime hours to her spouse and to herself? We all construct stories, some more elaborate than others, to justify our decisions.

She threw the question back at me, but rarely can I muster adequate answers to the questions I inflict on others. “I'm married to the promise of enjoying work hours,” I told her after much consideration. “Or at least married to the idea of putting them to good use.”

***

On the first workday after New Year's, I launched a new company. Apparently my father and brother aren't the only ones who like to lead. From the moment I registered the business, it seemed the right thing to do—but it wasn't until weeks later that I knew for sure.

In my previous position, my department had been trying for years—literally, five or six years—to revise our outdated mission statement. Despite a mandate from the executive team, input from consultants, and repeated attempts, we never succeeded. With so many disparate voices and so much change afoot in the industry, we couldn't agree where the nearly four-decade-old business should stake its future.

I wrote my new company's mission statement in fifteen minutes. It came out almost entirely whole. Of course it did. For the first time in memory, I was speaking for myself.

Comments

No comments yet.

Add a Comment

Also in this Issue

Sundays, Too

Second Opinions

Blank Slate

Continual Watching

The Working Class

The Artist as Worker

Public Servant