Friday, November 15, 2013

Questions from the past

Going to be looking for work again soon, as the current employer apparently doesn't want to make it a permanent thing. Temping is the closest I've come to the experience of being a pro in my life. I've never partaken of one's services, although I've been approached. But working for a temp agency must be akin to being pimped, since the majority of the money you make goes to someone else and they have no real interest in your success or progression or even whether you do the job poorly. It's like wage slavery, but even further from a worthwhile living.

It got me to thinkin', though. I spent some time a few months back with a friend I hadn't seen in many years. I met him shortly after I graduated from Michigan and he was still a student at the time. Back then, I was still running RPGs (Nerd moment: Role-playing games aka Dungeons and Dragons, but not), most of which I designed myself, because it let me experiment with story and character and gave me an outlet for the acting gland, since I wasn't part of a regular theater group at that point. As the GM ("Gamemaster"), you have to play all the characters that the other players are interacting with, so it takes a bit of creativity and mental agility, both of which I used to have considerable amounts of. Anyway, there were 5 regular players in this group and me. My friend, Todd, was one of them.

Todd graduated from Michigan with a degree in accounting. Like many in the early 90s, he promptly went into programming, which he had been doing a fair amount of on the side, and has been a very successful programmer for many years now. He and his wife, Carolyn (an accountant for a car dealership chain in Canada) have a massive house on a lake out in Onsted and Todd works from home 4 days a week and is otherwise surrounded by house, cars, boat, side business of karting, and a trio of miniature Dobermans

Another member of that group was Adoni, who is currently a tenured professor of classics at Ohio State with multiple published volumes under his belt. He was hired by OSU with the mandate of building their classics department into something of renown and has done an admirable job of it from all the sources I've seen. He lives in Columbus with his wife, Carolina (also tenured at OSU), her son and their daughter.

Third was Greg, a successful architect in Ann Arbor (he was finishing his master's while we were haunting bars for a couple years) who lives in town with his wife, Terri, their two children, and a rambling red brick house.

Gamer #4 was Wendy. Unlike the rest, I knew Wendy while I was actually in school and we had stayed together after I graduated and I'd become pretty close with her sizable family (she has five siblings.) Wendy finished her undergrad, wobbled around for a year, and then returned to school for a master's in library science. She eventually became head librarian at the Texas Wesleyan School of Law and acquired a J. D. in the process.

Last was Kevin, Wendy's brother-in-law, who was married to Wendy's sister, Michelle, and had two kids with her while climbing to an executive position at a New Orleans chemical and plastics firm.

I remember stopping to think about all of that while hanging out with Todd because it kind of surprised me that the respective lifepaths of those 5 and I had gone in such different directions. All of them achieved model success in most or all of the measures that people use to assess modern life: money, career, family, property. Out of the whole group, the only one who hadn't succeeded in those respects was the leader: me.

So, I started to wonder: What was it that separated me from all of them? Ambition? Work ethic? Inherent talent? There's little doubt that all of them were talented in some way, if not multiple ways, and Adoni is easily the most intelligent person I've ever met in my life. I think I shared the ambition and work ethic that they displayed in trying to keep an independent comic studio running for years and then building a political party from the ground up and chairing it for some time; all of that while holding down a full-time job. I like to think that both of those require some degree of talent and, yet, all of them had found success and here I was, two steps removed from a drifter.

Was it bad choices? Clearly, venturing into the creative field and the political field outside of the major players could easily be seen as dead ends from the moment they've begun. And I had been married with a house at one point, but neither of them particularly resonated with me, as it were, and I abandoned them both while also walking away from the secure job that I'd had for years primarily because I had to pay the damn mortgage. Does staying in a dead marriage and a house you can't afford alone count as success?

So, after 43 years, I basically have nothing to show for it in the conventional estimations of society. Granted, my path hasn't been very conventional but that makes me very, very far from unique. Interestingly, shortly thereafter I got back together with another friend, Jeff, whom I'd seen briefly only twice in the past decade and who had been my partner in the comic studio. I spent a day over the weekend of the 4th of July with him and his family and it was easily the best day I'd had in years. Jeff and I finally had a chance to sit down and talk at length and I mentioned this comparison that I had been mulling over and he said a funny thing: "You know, I respect you more than anyone else I know. You've spent your life doing things that you're passionate about, no matter the material cost or sometimes the personal cost. I don't know anyone else like that."

I'm still not sure how to take that. Jeff is one of the few people in the world that I implicitly trust but I look back at the last decade and realize that I haven't done anything with passion for the vast majority of it. Indeed, my sole societal accomplishment, my marriage, failed because of a lack of passion, mostly on my part. I had tons of it for the studio, which failed, and the party, which failed, and I used to be a determined writer, which has yet to produce anything but failure. He reminded me of the time I drove to his home in White Lake from Ann Arbor in an ice storm because "it was Tuesday and that was the day we said we'd work." I suppose I'd still do that today if I thought I'd have someone at the end of that drive to welcome me in and pursue a dream with me.

I finished a book recently, Stay Awhile and Listen, which is about the development of Condor Studios, which developed the game, Diablo, in partnership with Blizzard (Yes, I know. It always comes back to games. Maybe that's why I never get anywhere...) The company had emerged in the early 90s, right around the time we were building the comic studio, and reading this account of it was so emotionally familiar it was almost painful. They talked about not thinking about money or success or pretty much anything else except making the coolest game they could come up with. They were doing it all with ad hoc approaches and technology and code that they were dreaming up on the spot because the video game industry was still in its infancy and no one was telling them that they couldn't. They didn't think of the conventional idea of success, either (except as much as they'd like to be able to pay the bills while still making games.) They had ambition, work ethic, and talent. That was us, 20+ years ago. That was me when things still seemed like they held promise, no matter how long I or we had to search for it.

That all went away as people moved into real life, as it were. Except me. I'm still here on the fringes and wondering how the so-called leader of so many things fell behind everyone else.


  1. Sorry to hear the temp thing isn't going to become permanent. And that you're still searching for answers to these kinds of questions. I do wonder a bit why you seem so wedded to conventional measures of success--on the one hand, you seem willing to question them, but at the same time they're still how you choose to compare yourself to your friends. Similarly, you seem willing to question the basic logic of meritocracy, and yet the core frustration you seem to be expressing is "why talent + effort =/= success?" Well, obviously, talent + effort have never = = success, and if money, marriage, and property were your primary goals in life, probably you would have made different choices. Oh well. Here, have a listicle:

  2. Probably not expressing myself clearly. Like I said, some of those efforts were likely doomed, anyway, No amount of talent and effort will shake a distribution monopoly or make the American public shed their base inertia about political changes. And I suppose I'm not asking the universe so much as questioning myself and whether most of the choices I've made have been "right". Would I be in a different spot if I'd actually tried to make a career out of bookkeeping and would that different spot be better? I don't know. I doubt it and is that doubt my problem in terms of getting to something better? Jeff laughed when I questioned my own work ethic. That's when he made that comment about the drive through the ice storm. But I haven't worked as hard as that on most of the jobs I've been on because I don't really care about them. Should I have? I can tell you the answer to my current situation is "No", but is that where I'm doing myself a disservice overall? But that, of course, comes back to the whole conventional assessment thing which, it's true, I don't really care about, which is why I kept referring to them as societal markers, rather than THE markers. In some ways, I just thought it was funny and decided to point it out. Guess I should give these a little more depth or something.