Is 56 the new 26? It seems that way for me as my current professional, financial and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago. These posts are a series of musings trying parse the difference between now and then.
I was quick tempered as a child. It’s not that I didn’t lead a rather comfortable life, but anger seemed empowering. The Black Panthers were angry, and it seemed like they had LOTS of power, so any impetus to boil my blood was welcomed.
As I got older, I saw anger differently but no less welcoming. It was a power motivational tool. For instance, my high school guidance counselor rejected my request to take dance as an elective and directed me to a pre calculus class as “that’s where your real talents lie.” I wanted to be physically active and this is before the era that all kids were slotted into some activity or five. You had to be a skilled player to be on the court and I wasn’t. I thought that if I was taking a class for credit, I would have an opportunity for my body to figure it out. Ah well, my body figured it out in my early adult years at gyms and fitness studios across NYC, and I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity. It felt like my body was no longer imprisoned by the notion that I was “brainy” or “smart.” It seemed like many of my fellow gym rats were escapees from similar penitentiaries.
A key professional motivating anger came during a job interview a few months after I got out of college. I interviewed for a copy runner gig at the NY Times. It was 1982 or 1983; the Reagan recession was still in full force, and I was really interviewing to get on the short list of people to be called when the economy began to look up. I thought the interview had gone well. My credentials were solid; ivy League grad and award winning feature writer in high school. Yet at the end of the interview the HR rep told me very plainly that she didn’t think I was cut out for journalism.
“Why?” I asked trying to hide my dismay; journalism had been my only career ambition from the time I was 12. “It’s a difficult job,” she said. “I just don’t think you’re cut out for it.” Needless to say, those words echoed in my head and fueled me then like cold brewed iced coffee does today. In 1991, when I got my first piece in the NY Times, I thought about sending it to her, but I realized I’d gotten over the anger.
Anger today is trickier. There are slights that continue to provide motivation, but it’s different now. I have to be careful. In the last fifteen years or so, anger has had a way of turning inward and inhibiting my life rather than motivating it. The inward anger isn’t rational, but it’s not entirely irrational either. The thumbnail history of my career is that I simultaneously developed careers in journalism via freelancing to leading newspapers, magazines and websites and in specialty cheese via jobs in many gourmet emporia and boutiques in New York City. This did not conform to the standard go to work/get a paycheck/enjoy evenings and weekends routine, but it was a remarkably elegant and versatile financial ecosystem that mostly kept me afloat for several decades. Usually when journalism was hard to come by, I could dial up the cheese work. When journalism rebounded, I could dial down the cheese.
Yet there were vagaries to this routine as well. For one, I always just barely kept my head above water and sometimes not even. At 30, I was told I was too old for a staff job and similar situations at newspapers (i.e. the position has been budgeted at a pay scale lower than your command). Yet, I always felt I was one steady freelance gig away from that evenings and weekends comfortable existence and when dotcoms came into the picture, 1996-2001, I did enjoy that lifestyle. But then it ended abruptly. I scrambled, expanding my music journalism career to include sports and recently expanding my cheesemonger career to include craft beer specialties. Both were savvy moves, but it’s been back to the future as I often just barely keep my head above water again, if that.
Many of my journalist peers chide me for hanging on in the profession (ironically, some of them also chided me for not being a real journalist in the ‘80s and ‘90s since I had a part time food gig). “Why don’t you just go full time in cheese,” said one food journalist, evidently unaware that she was advocating abandoning a career that routinely generated 50K for a job that only rarely paid better than $14/hour. When I sought to use my dismay as motivating anger, however, it often turned inward. I was furious with myself for not pursuing new career options during the millennial era halcyon days. Now, it’s hard to pivot toward other opportunities since I feel like I’m in the middle of the sea with only fleeting glimpses of land. Most of my energy is involved in staying afloat.
Also during the new millennium, I let my body go. Twice during first dates in recent years, women said to me “do you even know the gyms are?” Yep, I’m overweight but I’d like to think that my shoulders and pecs speak to a non-sedentary history. Also, my thighs still exhibit hundreds of hours in spinning and step classes and thousands of miles on a bicycle. In other words, it’s the midsection that needs work. Yet rather than turn those words into a current day guidance counselor, I’m often prone to despair about how my panic over declining career fortunes led me to ignore my health and worse, ignore that physical achievements usually spurred me toward professional ones.
Instead of keeping the slights in view, I’ve had to dismiss them in favor of just keeping focused on what a better future might look like. Perhaps it will involve publishing a book or two, or perhaps a real job at a college (adjunct? been there/done that). Maybe it will involve my own beer and cheese place. The game is to get all of that on the table while I work toward reducing the middle and invigorating the rest of the body.
Some of my 26 year old peers don’t grasp what I mean when I tell them I don’t have time to fool around in my career quests. But when it comes to naysayers I have found that I have to adopt the “haters gonna hate” attitude. I ain’t got time for that. I have places to go and people to see and I need every ounce of present energy to get there. Anger no longer seems empowering; instead it seems irrelevant.