Smile Politely

Second Thoughts

The only complete Shakespeare play we read at my minuscule high school was the Voldemort of the canon, the one they never name aloud, you know, Macbeth. The Scottish play. The jinxed play. 19th century theater riots and so forth.

We learned that Macbeth’s fatal flaw was ambition. (It is remarkable how similar the story is to the other Mc story in the headlines today, someone also ambitious for power and willing to flip on any issue or abandon any car-wrecked spouse to claw his way up.) I was the true believer. I learned the lesson. Ambition, bad. Got it. I took it literally.

When I found myself wearing a tie and applying for a job with an ad agency at a relatively advanced age (39), the hiring executive asked about my long-term plans. I told him I wasn’t ambitious. I just wanted to write the most perfect, functional ad copy imaginable. I had freelanced at other ad agencies for the previous couple of years and it had been fun. This was my first job-job. It meant I’d commute one hour and sit in my own office (8 to 5).

The exec frowned. “Sometimes you have to be ambitious,” he warned, “or you don’t get anywhere at all.”

I didn’t understand. Wouldn’t the ambitious ones be washing blood off their hands and swearing at spots?

I lack the capitalist gene. I enjoyed selling purely for the sport of it. I didn’t accumulate properly. Something was wrong with me. I was a lily of the field, a lily-bearing Oscar Wilde, a dilettante consumed and destroyed by English literature.

So I didn’t believe him. Shrugged my shoulders. And it didn’t last long (1 year).

And it was all downhill from there, like water running to the lowest plain, as Lao-tse explained. There were a few jobs along the way. Quite a few. I mean, a lot. Longest gig was at Parkland College (7 years). Then a lesbian feminist takeover riffed all the men out of the publications department. Unemployment, here I come!

I adopted something I learned from a French movie I had reviewed, Cousin Cousine. Work and have fun, then – before gangrene sets in – move on to something new (every 3 years).

I am starting to have second thoughts. I should have learned how to keep a job. I should not have always spoken my mind.

After 9/11, I taught Spanish in a rural high school (2 years). I objected to the threat of war. I put a NO WAR IN IRAQ sign on my van. “You’re brave,” the shop teacher told me. I got called into the office three times on this issue alone. “Don’t talk about the war,” the principal said. “We’re very conservative around here.”

I was persona non grata at the faculty parties, where I brought South Beach Diet mashed cauliflower and everybody wrinkled their noses.

But the kids wanted to talk about the war. They mostly supported it. I told them they’d better be happy supporting it, because they would be paying taxes for it for the rest of their lives. That stopped them short.

One wore a T-shirt of Saddam Hussein about to get a rectal exam by Uncle Sam. I told the principal I thought it was inappropriate attire for high school. She yawned and swiveled her chair to look out the window.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been fired, let go, downsized, laid off. I love unemployment insurance. I have been hired as an employee of the News-Gazette and then fired, and then re-hired, and then re-fired repeatedly (3 times). For disliking dinner theater. For saying that children in theatrical productions were there to ensure ticket sales. I forget the third reason. Maybe I was just fired out of habit. But they keep letting me come back. Maybe they forget easily. I know at my age I do.

I know I should have had a career. Here I am, ready to retire, and there is nothing to retire from. No fond memories of ‘the office,’ no water cooler stories to pass on to my future grandchildren.

Maybe I shouldn’t have had children, since I’m still studying the stage directions for the part of “The Father.” Too late now anyway. They’ve grown. And they are not ambitious. One works on the ski lifts in Telluride. Another does magic tricks in Los Angeles.

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to Europe quite so many times, or hitchhiked so deep into South America. Maybe I shouldn’t have smuggled that boa constrictor from Ecuador back to the States. You should have seen the customs inspector jump. Obviously this was back when people still smoked on planes. They let the snake in.

Maybe I shouldn’t have taken so long to finish my Master’s degree (20 years). Maybe I shouldn’t have written local play reviews and alienated everyone. I still want to apologize to the young playwright at Parkland whose play (now rightly forgotten) was peppered with inappropriate ain’ts and a Southern colloquialism that revealed someone who hadn’t likely stepped three feet into Kentucky in her life. I hurt her feelings in my review. I’m sorry. Your play was terrible, but I’m sorry for saying so in print.

Nobody loves a critic. Well, nobody used to love a critic, until everyone became a critic on the Internet and all the newspaper critics got fired. Newsweek, the Village Voice, all the critics are being let go. Just a few weeks ago, the Cleveland Plain Dealer bumped its classical music critic because he disliked the local orchestra. Plus, everybody writes for free now.

Maybe I shouldn’t have started this column.

The best thing to do in times like these is to reread Ecclesiastes. “All is vanity.” You’d better believe it. It’s the best book in the Bible, hands down. This financial crisis? Vanity. This political season? All vanity and dumb ambition.

The second best thing is to drive through the East Central Illinois countryside this month. There’s a monster tractor rally going on in the corn and bean fields. Even George Lucas couldn’t dream up some of these stalking, roaring vehicles on the country roads and in the fields. Get out there now. Get lost. The place is glowing. Heron and deer and raccoons and skunks and foxes and coyotes and rabbits and pheasants all come out to play with you at dawn. Drive slowly.

Now that is priceless.

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