When I was younger, I promised myself I’d never turn out like my parents and their always-frustrated, always-busy, sad circle of friends, and yet..
When my grandfather was coming to town, he would mail a copy of a heavily detailed itinerary to everyone in Texas. He grew up in Texas, had his family in Virginia, and retired in Colorado. One of his children lived in Colorado nearby, and the other three ended up back in Texas. All of grandmother’s kin stayed in Texas all along, so one could argue the OCDish over-the-top itinerary was necessity – they had a lot of folks to visit when they made their annual road trip.
My grandfather’s name was Joe.
When Joe came to town, he always had one item on the itinerary of special interest to my brothers and I. Joe promised us that he would take us to the toy store and give us $10. This happened every time he visited or we visited him. He made this promise *long* before allowances became a ‘thing’ in the 90s. Long before parents started going on about teaching kids the importance of saving, and well before my parents realized the leverage an allowance would give them in the war against unruly children who hated chores.
My brothers and I would look forward to that $10, and the pure joy of going to the toy store to buy something frivolous. We’d look forward to this for weeks in advance, and Joe, always a man of his word, came through, every time.
A few months ago my brother proposed to his girlfriend. Elaborately. She knew for certain what was going on on the second stop in the morning – he was replaying their dating history, in fast forward, in the span of a day. They had been on 38 or so dates. Thirty six locations and ten hours later that day he popped the question.
That’s Jon. My youngest brother. An over-achiever and planner to the core. Always with the spreadsheets, with plans that stretch years ahead, to the week.
(You don’t get a non-fake proposal shot like that without a spreadsheet.)
We all laugh at his fiance’s retelling of the proposal story because we all know in advance about this immaculate spreadsheet my brother had planning this insane 38-stop itinerary. As she tells the story it has this great twist. She tells it just like I have here, she knew for *certain* by the second stop what was up, but the trick to the story is that she knew with about 99% certainty what was happening about two weeks prior – when my brother, with all the plans in life, asked her to plan to do nothing the day he would propose.
It was, in a way, his one spot in his itinerary of life that replicated Joe’s toy shop promise. A brief moment of amazing planned amidst a sea of otherwise.
I had the opportunity / plan to quit a big corporate job a few years back. I was so pissed off at office politics, futility, and I had a fundamental anger and hatred toward something I used to love – I hated code. I essentially set a little plan out to figure out what would do me better. I tried this and that, and at some point said fuck it. I decide the answer was somewhere else, and I planned to go find it.
I broke the news to my wife, sheepishly, expecting backlash or worry. Instead she smiled and hugged me, and said something along the lines of “I’m so proud of you.” In reality, she probably said something way better like “fucking finally!”.
Her hug and belief in me was refreshing, it was like my grandfathers silly $10 toy shop promise. In the midst of a boatload of anger, frustration, and personal doubt – in a sea of otherwise, her hug was just a little moment of amazing.
Over the following four years I went here and there, contract, salary, corporate, startup, enterprise, mobile, whatever. Every step of the way I had a mental spreadsheet, and outline of continuums in my head – this elaborate rating system of all of the things about career. I was figuring out where I fit, what was right for me.
I’m a stubborn asshole, most would say. That’s the straight-forward way of saying I have to learn things first-hand, even when I’ve heard the truth beforehand. I fell for the sex appeal of downtown jobs, startup, mobile, the new hotness. I didn’t care for culture or all of the little nuances I would absolutely insist on now, but I learned all about them.
It took a bit of courage to step out of the comfort zone and try all those years of wilderness job searching. Lots of missteps and stubbed toes. Countless restless moments and what feels in retrospect like sheer stupidity and naivety far too often. Them’s the brakes when you’re a stubborn asshole who can’t be told and has to just do it to learn.
In the fall of last year I hit what felt like a supremely low breaking point. Four years since my split with safe corporate life, I was just ready to find a job and ‘sell out’ forever – stop looking for happiness and just give up. At this point last fall, I felt I’d tried all I was willing to try – I’d seen so many ends of so many spectrums that I didn’t really give a fuck anymore honestly. Delete the mental spreadsheet of pros and cons and career plans. Fuck everything.
For the second time, I hated code.
My grandfather, Joe, played solitaire. Everywhere he went, he played solitaire, and he smoked. He lived a modest life, but he was a bit of a pack rat and always had a plan. As a grand child, I loved his plans! His plans involved the following items, often:
* Toy store visits.
* Eating out with the whole family once per visit.
* Making the best smoked brisket I’ve ever had, often – as only a man bent on a life of plans can (as making the brisket involved waking up every few hours to apply a fresh coat of whatever to keep it perfectly moist).
* Commissary grocery trips, in which spoiled grandkids often got candy, and frazzled mothers of three got groceries at a discount.
But, his plans also included a lot of things that didn’t seem so fun. Namely, the parts where he went and visited other relatives in other parts of Texas and couldn’t hang out with us longer.
I suppose I should mention that my grandfather was military.
Joe was air force. He was in a war, though to my embarrassment, I’m not sure if it was WW2 or Korea or both. I do know this, he was shot, in the back no less, while sitting down in the food tent eating a meal. He had a purple heart. One of my uncles or my father has it now.
On his way back from whichever war, he picked up these beautiful japanese china dolls dressed in kimonos – 20″ tall works of art I haven’t seen elsewhere in my life.
Anyway he was a military guy. So, it’s not much surprise that he and his children (our parents, aunts, uncles) are all also pack rats with an inability live an unplanned day. It’s in the blood, perhaps.
Shortly after the 38-step proposal last fall, christmas came around. It was then that my youngest brother, Jon, sent everyone an overly-tedious itinerary over email. It planned his and her christmas vacation down to the hour for several weeks.
I had not seen an itenerary like that in years, in fact, since the last time Joe was healthy enough to send one and take a road trip. I immediately replied with laughter that his email brought back fond memories of our grandfather.
Joe was a stubborn son of a bitch. I suppose it runs in the blood. I’ll never forget the last time he took us to get some toys.
Joe was a smoker, and wouldn’t stop. Ever. Smoking gave him glaucoma, which gave him cataracts. Ever seen an old dog or a seal at sea world with cataracts? Watched them bump into something because they have 1/4 of their vision at best? Right, so the last toys trip was similar.
Joe’s cataracts were getting worse and we should have known better when he and my grandmother burst through the front door arguing about never taking a road trip again if he didnt get his eyes fixed. “OH CAROL YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN IT, HE WAS ALL OVER THE PLACE ALL THE WAY DOWN HERE -” .. two seconds later .. “BYE MOM, WE’RE GOING TO GET SOME TOYS!”
We went and got our toys, me in the front seat, my two brothers in the back in his grandpa mobile – a comfy oldsmobile twenty years out of date. Half way to the toy store grandpa jumped the median for no apparent reason, attempting to get into the turn lane about 30 yards before it existed. Everyone was okay.
We were fine the second time too, when he did it again on the way home.
I feel extremely fortunate to say there are only perhaps a dozen events in my life where I’ve seen a hero fall, caught a brief glimpse of the truths of time. Joe had eclipsed 80 years and smoking was finally catching up to him.
Only a few times have I seen my preferred delusion of infinity and a better world show a crack of the finite. And sadly, that day was one of those moments. Joe didn’t come down on too many more road trips after that.
My wife and I were on vacation a few weeks ago. It was an on-our-feet kinda thing, which made me briefly depressed because those usually wear me out. Amanda, the intelligent one in our relationship, mused that we always have a tough and busy time the first time we visit a city, then if we come back another time we relax way better the second time around. She noted that we make all these immaculate plans of all these things we ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO DO, then we get there, some bits are awesome, some aren’t, and almost always the best parts are the parts we didn’t plan.
I thought on what she said a while, and firmly decided while on vacation that when we got back to real life, I would try and fit all of my “sea of otherwise” bullshit plans into two days a week and live the rest of life unplanned.
But, 2014 has been a motherfucker.
2014 started, for me, with a big sigh. A sigh of relief to again be employed and for once telling myself not to expect anything, or take any shit for prolonged periods of time – FOR REAL this time. For REALLY REAL.
I suppose that was one net benefit of the ‘wandering years’ – I learned that I’m pretty good in pressure cookers – I can get along just fine with all types of people and in many types of situations – certainly many more situations that I would have thought 4 years ago. The trick is, I can only stick in a situation I’m not comfortable for so long. Usually that “so long” time table is the time table that satisfies this bizarrely foolish “do the right thing, don’t screw anyone over” sense of duty and pride I occasionally harbor.
But, yeah, at the beginning of 2014, I was so happy to just be employed – heads down, coding, and bonus!: not hating it.
I told myself I’d take a break for a couple months from projects, and I’d delay other plans too – other than the absolutely necessary. I didn’t plan it (ha!), but I was trying a different approach to happiness. I decided for 2014 to actually work out regularly, and do some pretty boring “sea of otherwise” adult things like fix up the house a little, help siblings with wedding plans, and so on.
A few months turned into 6 months without projects (such as blogging here). No epiphanies, no “wow this is worth writing about”, frankly – just the grind.
In my 6 months of “no projects” I’ve found that projects aren’t the problem I was having with life satisfaction…
As I’ve mentioned before. Joe was a photographer. I am too, somewhat.
The weird thing is, like his war story, I don’t remember a single photo that Joe shot. What I do remember is that he always had his camera. I remember that if you stuck your tongue out in a photo or made a funny face, he would tell you once to stop, and promise you, with fair warning, that if you made the face in the photo he would make an 8×10 print of the photo. Then, he’d take the shot.
Only one of our cousins ever had the guts to cross Joe. One family reunion she stuck her tongue out, and, like clockwork, at the next family reunion my grandfather gifted her a framed 8×10.
Joe was a man of his word, with a somewhat bizarre and perhaps foolish sense of duty and pride in his promises. No matter what, a toy store trip was going to happen, even when he was not 100% when we visited in Colorado – when I was what? 22 years old?!
And, of course, 8x10s of funny faces happened too – at least once.
It’s odd though, that I don’t remember even how that photo of the one rebellious cousin photo looked.
Also odd, that I don’t really remember or care for much of his career story. My grandfather the war veteran – not once did I care to hear his war stories or figure it all out, because Joe was an otherwise interesting and friendly person. To us, his grandchildren, he was bigger than career – he was this quirky happy guy who knew how to take it easy, responsibly, with plans.
Joe knew to plan some time for himself with solitaire, and some time for the boys to go get toys, and of course hair appointments for grandmother’s immaculate hair – but otherwise he just was – he was just there, without a care in the world.
My father has told me, numerous times, that the Joe we knew, is not the Joe he knew. My father knew a different man entirely.
When Joe was 16, with two younger sisters, his father left. My grandfather became an adult at 16 – working jobs in the depression era to help his mom keep the family afloat. I don’t really give a shit to know much about my asshole great grandfather, but the little I know is that basically he went off with another woman and clearly had a differing opinion than Joe about what being an adult or responsible meant.
The Joe my father knew was an accomplished man, working a military job, with 4 kids. Too busy, often, for kids.
I bet my dad knows a whole lot about my grandfathers career exploits.
EVERYTHING about quitting my corporate job a few years back was about career exploits.
My wife and I are on the DINK (dual income, no kids) / cool-aunt-cool-uncle track – our siblings want kids, desperately, and we’ll be happy to spoil nieces and nephews on the weekend, looking forward to it even – but – we like sleep, and sugar cereal, among other things, so kids just aren’t in the plans.
You might argue that you contribute to society by having some brats and screwing them up less than everyone else, or you contribute with career. Naturally, at 28 years old, on my way out to the ‘wilderness’ of whatever job may come, I was sure that my contribution to the world would be career.
So I contributed. Then I had more than enough personal success for a life time, achieving goals beyond my modest dreams very rapidly. Funny thing, personal success often does not equal lots of money, so, slowly, painfully, the reality set in that income pays the bills and dreams do not.
And, not so funny a thing, strangely, cool-party-story personal success feels rather hollow actually. A million lessons learned on that path and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone with the stomach to believe in themselves for a while. But what do you do when you come back down to earth and realize you’re still most likely going to be 9 to 5 for a long long while?
You get really fed up with predatory fuck-you ego-filled startup cultures, that’s what happens when you realize you might have to work with those assholes a while longer.
Another thing happened in a round about way at the end of the four year wilderness trip, the cool-party-story stopped making any money worth mentioning, and so it was only cool in a cool-party-story set-for-life-resume-line-item kinda way. Being an introvert who’s decidedly not cool, the cool-party-story aspect wore out fast and I came around to a realization that theres more to life than whatever.
There’s more to life than career, there’s more to life than kids, there’s more to life than xyz.
Every time Joe would visit, he’d have a package of 4x6s for everyone in the family. We and our uncles and aunts have drawers filled with them. Our parents would print a couple rolls of film a year and Joe would come with four rolls worth printed for every trip – there I was, with my nintendo, six months previous, wearing bright neon mc hammer pants, what was I thinking.
Recently I caught myself printing photos and giving them to relatives. I’ve become the guy in the group who can fiddle enough to make shitty photos look serviceable.
I give these photos to my wife’s family and they look at me funny at times – printed photos in 2014? To which I respond usually, fuck yes photos in 2014. Because, why not?!
I’ve been doing this handing photos thing out absent mindedly – it’s just a natural instinctive thing to do, I thought nothing of it.
Then my brother bought a house.
The thing about my brother buying a house is this: He was also working a full time job, as was his fiance. And, hes in a two or three year night-school MBA program, and he’s getting married in July with a huge multi-hundred person wedding. In the middle of that six month death march he and his fiance decided to go looking for a house and bought one, for the hell of it.
Overachiever of the year, 2014, Jon Baker.
It all came together when I walked into his house. Jon was immediately too busy to take a minute to give me a tour (plans!), he had ten thousand chores to attend to, and his much more easy going wife-to-be was happy to show me around. She showed me this room and that, then I see the front room of the house – a couch, a table, and two 20″ tall china dolls in kimonos, from korea, or japan. Joe’s.
I’m not as clever as I’d like to write – I’d love to say it all came crashing down in a big OH MY GOD moment right there and then, but it didn’t. It came together much slower than that, at 4am, a couple hours ago, now some three or so weeks later.
For the next hour or so I went through the obvious slideshow you’d expect. Jon’s fiance and I pet their adorable dog and talked about fun things, while Jonny did chores non-stop. At the time I thought he looked just like Dad. Now, a few weeks later, I realize he also looks just like Joe.
(one of these is my brother..)
(and, just to be fair, here’s me and my stash of stupid things..)
There’s good and bad in Jonny looking like Joe. On the one hand he plans epic toy-store for ten-year olds (or 22 year olds, lets be honest..) type proposals, and he’s extremely responsible and attentive – on the other hand, eventually he’ll be 32 like me, and worn the fuck out from being “on” all the time. Eventually he’ll realize, hopefully sooner than I did that working out and eating right isn’t just about vanity – like it or not, sugar cereal for dinner equals supremely grumpy Jason the next day – it’s just science.
We started the year off just holding our breath – my wife’s brother was getting married, Jon’s getting married, we needed to buy a car – enough plans for 2014, done and done. SOO many family visits and such and such for weeks before and after weddings, and as introverts we (my wife and I) honestly plan, and crave, often, to have “don’t talk to me, don’t talk to anyone” days together.
So far we’ve had very very limited success – perhaps 3 full weekends of just her and I doing absolutely nothing – out of, what, 26 or so thus far? So much for being a good planner.
I’ve found that, even without hobbies, I always find something to fill my time with plans. It’s in the blood.
Like my brothers, and my father, and my aunts, and my uncles, and my cousins, I’m a complete failure at taking it easy and not making plans. It’s a sad story really. My asshole great grandfather essentially decided he would rather eat sugar cereal for dinner for life rather than be a responsible adult for his children. Because of that one moment, my great grandfathers poor decision, some 20 or 30 people down the family tree have a somewhat crippling fascination with plans.
Our plans give us this delusional self-satisfying security blanket that we feel we’re in control and know what’s going to happen. No asshole like our great grandfather is ever gonna get the best of us, we have spreadsheets motherfucker!
The flipside to spreadsheets and plans is that we’re terrible at having fun – we find it impossible to cut loose. It’s in the blood. White guy can’t dance, news at 11.
This is why, in a roundabout way, when I’m having sugar cereal for dinner, it’s a little bit of a fuck you to my great grandfather. Fuck that guy. I’m gonna eat sugar cereal AND watch my brothers’ kids when they need a break, all while feeling a bizarrely foolish feeling of pride in keeping my promise. Just like Joe.
Four years ago I wanted nothing more than to find happiness, and I put a good fighting effort into planning it. I was working contract and making semi-successful mobile apps on the side with friends, then I was working startup, then I was working mobile startup. All of these things added new facets to my career and experience, some that looked great on resume, and others that served as lessons in what and who I am not and cannot be. Like on our vacation, the gems in the pile of otherwise were unplanned.
When I accepted my current job – I did not plan to be there for 6 months, we had a 6 week trial agreement. Having been severely burned this way or that two years in a row previously I was not in a mood to have any hopes at all – and you know how it is, when you let yourself just be, you see the brighter side of things. Here I am, six months into a 6 week trial that I’m hoping will last 3, 5, or more years – though I’m trying to just make it through one year first, plans are for suckers 🙂
My buddy emailed me a few weeks back “hey, where the hell have you been? you must have some sexy app you’re working on, or some other such awesome thing going on.” No. Not nearly so sexy, but entirely better – I’ve been missing less moments doing nothing with my wife, my dog, our families. I’ve been paying fucking attention (in as much as a self-centered stubborn asshole with a million plans ever can.), and finding myself so grateful for my current working situation, our awesome family, our friends, and my awesome wife.
I had my career story, I’m satisfied – I understand what a bubble is now, and how it works. You’re probably a stubborn asshole like me, so this is pointless, but here goes: the party story’s fun for a few minutes, but not worth the long hours of effort in the long-run. Not enough to convince you? Alternative idea: watch cosmos, get over yourself and learn how precious and miraculous it is that you’re alive and can love and be loved.
I realized recently that I want to be like my grandfather, known for his zany promises and brisket, rather than like my father’s father, known for his career and hard-work.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Man quits job to ‘discover himself’, with full-on anxiety, fear, and immaculate plans. Wife hugs him and lets him be. Man stubbornly frustrates himself for four years in the name of science. Later, exhausted, man gives up, and quickly discovers life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Wife muses to herself, “fucking finally.”
Music: Acoustic tracks from Matthew Good’s In A Coma (Deluxe Edition, of course!)
None of the funny photos are my own. I found them on tumblr and shared them on my tumblr blog.