Every time I receive an interoffice envelope, I am convinced that it must be a pink slip. This is not an idle notion; I have been more or less fired from every job I’ve ever held. However, in fact my assumption comes from something deeper inside me: A conviction that I am out of step, unworthy, and in constant peril of being found out.
I suspect that I’m not alone in having these feelings. For example, when my freshfaced colleagues and I were shown to our first offices in what I now call my “starter law firm,” several remarked that they felt like seventh-graders playing dress-up, who would be unmasked at any moment.
It seems to me, however, that this syndrome has affected me more than most; at least it has been so vivid to me that I’ve noticed it, questioned it, and teased out some unexpected life lessons from it.
But, to understand these lessons (and the other lessons in this five-part blog post) requires some autobiography. Mine, I’d say, is somewhere between the sympathy-for-the-devil tell-all of Keith Richards on the one hand, and the no doubt insipid rehash that’s about to be ghost-written for Monica Lewinsky, on the other. (Chapter One: Where I Bought The Blue Dress).
The unusual aspect of my school years is that I grew up essentially without parents. My father, a charismatic but self-centered school administrator and dance-band leader, left the family when I was about six. After a very brief period of visiting us for a weekly outing to a nearby diner, he moved to Oklahoma and broke off all contact with us. My mother, a drably coquettish combination of Scarlett O’Hara and the Elizabeth Taylor character in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” then turned full-time to the search for a new male companion (though, as a song later put it, she seemed to look exclusively in all the wrong places). She mostly disappeared from my and my brother’s lives, spending evenings and nights elsewhere, and flitting in and out of child-rearing seemingly as an afterthought. As a result, we largely raised ourselves, and relied on our grandmother, who lived in another apartment in our Newark apartment building, for meals and a daily fresh set of clothes for school.
My brother and I differ about the benefits of a parentless childhood. He, the younger and more carefree of us, remembers a Peter Pan life without overseers or rules. (And, I do remember some of this, including frequent evening gatherings where we and our preteen friends would trash the apartment, without consequence). But, I was the older child. Not to be too Freudian, but I remember very distinctly feeling that I was the head of this Lord of The Flies household, responsible to hold it together and, most poignantly, to win my mother back to us and away from her parade of (other) men. Of course, I failed at this, and that failure left me feeling toxic, impotent, and unloveable.
At the risk of inspiring the strains of violin music, the story actually gets worse. In a development that would make Tommy Smothers (“Mom always liked you best!”) blanch, my brother eventually found my mother’s affections and was treated like a prince during our adolescent years, while I was shunned. It was dramatic, and inexplicable. While I slogged through the barbed-wire, strike-shortened Newark public schools (skipped through the grades repeatedly by administrators who had no idea what to make of me), winding up as a freshman at the Newark campus of Rutgers at the premature age 15, my brother inexplicably was sent to a first-class private high school and then on to Hampshire College, at that time one of America’s most expensive private colleges.
Much later, I learned that in fact we are the sons of different fathers. I, dark-haired and fat, am the child of the man who left us when I was six. My brother, blonde and lithe, is the child of one of my mother’s lost loves. Apparently, this fellow financed my brother’s tuitions, promised (idly) that he would leave his entire estate to my mother, and was curiously invited to my brother’s wedding at my mother’s request. All I knew as a child and young adult, of course, was that some shameful quality of mine (it was easiest to blame the fat, and to keep the fat on my bones as an easy scapegoat) made me unloveable and disfavored.
Suffice to say that I led the next couple of decades as an emotional cripple – socially awkward, unkempt, abrasive, and clueless. I had the sense that everyone else had grown up learning a set of social rules that I had never learned; and more, that everyone could sense immediately that I was out of step with them. What frightens me to this day is that I had no idea that I was any of those things. This is frightening because, to invoke the philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, I can’t help but believe that there are still things about myself even today that make me unloveable, but are unknown unknowns and therefore irremediable.
So, to the pink slip.
The interoffice envelope is not the only sort of pink slip that I assume is coming. I expect that at cocktail parties I’ll wind up in the corner. I expect that when friends don’t call, I’ve lost their affections (and even that, when Barbara stops getting invitations from her friends, it’s because I’ve become part of the marital package). I expect that at the office I am considered the odd man out, not welcome when everyone else pals around.
So, to the lesson.
Although I still expect all of these pink slips, I’ve learned over time that my expectation (though I’ve never overcome it) is nonsense.
First, I’m now convinced that every one of us to some extent expects these pink slips. Few of us feel loveable; no one feels he knows the social rules; all of us twist and contort to shield ourselves from our own feelings of coming short. In fact, however, we don’t live in a world in which we’re constantly judged and found wanting. We live in a world in which we’re mostly considered with indifference. Friends don’t call because their own lives overwhelm them. Invitations don’t come because people (certainly in their 50’s, as we are) don’t get out much.
Second, this pink-slip spectre can be blown away with one strong puff of breath. Each of us, in our overprogrammed, isolated, insecure cocoons, welcomes the attentions of others. If I feel isolated in my office, I sit down on a colleague’s comfy desk chair and ask about his kids. If I want my friends around me, I throw a party.
Third, because this pink-slip expectation is nonsense, the cosmos tend to contradict it regularly. For example, a couple of years back I was suddenly rotated off of a panel of judges for a music industry showcase competition. I assumed that I’d gotten this pink slip because I’d been too outspoken with the other judges, hadn’t been schmoozing enough at the conference, didn’t have the sunny can-do disposition of the lead judge. Then, last week, I was called by the same organization to come back as a judge, explaining that they wanted me back because they were always so happy with my work. Similarly, over the past couple of years I’ve stopped getting assignments from a music magazine to write CD reviews. I assumed that my writing was not to snuff. Then, in the last few days, I was told that I am considered one of their best writers, and the issue is purely internal housekeeping. And finally, at work I was asked yet again last week whether I wanted to be made a partner (I don’t…give that honor to one of the young kids whose careers depend on it).
Jonathan Livingston Seagull of course said, “Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way. It is the Law of the Great Gull, the Law that Is.” I haven’t a freaking clue what that means. So, here is the First Lesson that has changed my life: We’ve all had rough childhoods; we all doubt ourselves; and that doubt is bull hockey.