“Do you have homes like this this in America?” Menguez asked. Our guide was showing us his town, including the base of the cinder block home he was building for his family. Inside, it would be smaller than my room at the hotel, but it would fulfill a life dream for Menguez. Unlike most people in his village, he would soon be a homeowner.
Of course, I said yes, we have many homes like this in America, although I didn’t mention that the American homes usually have electricity and running water that his home might lack at first. He wasn’t looking for examples of the chasm between my life and his, though. He lived in that gap every day as a guide for traveling Westerners. Rather, he wanted someone to share his pride as he moved up in his world.
I’ve been thinking about Menguez lately as I work on a family genealogy project, retracing my grandparents’ first foothold in this country and the momentum they created for their children and, ultimately, me. They were tougher than I am, survivors, willing and able to live on nothing until they could put a few bucks together to rent an apartment within a mile of the immigrants’ market on Maxwell Street in Chicago. According to the ship manifest, each of them presented the legendary $5 at immigration when they got off the boat and they found a way to get from Ellis Island to the West Side of Chicago.
Our family history in the United States is nothing special, really. Morris and Anna had children who grew up and got married and had their own children who grew up and continued the line. We’ve all accomplished a few things, failed at others, and we’ve woven our stories into the national fabric. Being “nothing special” is very special in this country, though. In the day-to-day, it’s easy to forget how far ahead we begin this race.
Easy to forget, but then you spot a photo of Menguez and his future home, and it all comes back. Our lives are graded on a curve, but the curves are not the same in every country, in every time. Each of us tries to ride up our own curve unless, like my grandparents, they get desperate enough to make the leap to a new world and a new curve. Yes, they were looking for better opportunities beyond the golden door, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t giving up something in the bargain.
How desperate do you have to be to release your grip on everything you know, almost every person you know, for a new start? How rough does life need to be before the dice are worth rolling? For my grandparents, it seems, the tradeoff made sense. For Menguez, maybe not. He was on an upward arc at home, building for his future. His ambition might lead him to come here—maybe he has already made that leap—but his hard work was paying well for him without crossing an ocean.
That wasn’t the case for my grandparents, although their exit from Tsarist Russia might have been driven more by politics than economics. Whatever the reason, they were desperate enough to jettison the only lives they knew and set the foundation for all of us who followed.
Sometimes, it turns out, desperation is a good thing.
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Shortsighted business strategies, really confusing political calculations, and the decisions we’ve already made are high on my list of unfavorite things this week.
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Someone broke into my car the other day and I’m feeling a lot more insulted than violated.
Saturday night, we went to Chinatown and I dropped Jill off to wait for a table while I looked for a parking space. I’m a city boy, so the hunt for a free space on a side street is one of my constant adventures. Also, being a city boy, I always lock the car when I leave; except for this time, apparently.
After dinner, I went to retrieve the car and discovered a ton of stuff on the shotgun seat. The center console was open, as was the sunglass holder, and the car was a mess. Clearly, someone had been looking for valuables to steal.
And here is where I got really, really offended. My invader didn’t find anything worth taking. Apparently, my shades weren’t hip enough and Jill’s spare glasses were the wrong magnification and even our taste in granola bars wasn’t up to the foodie standards of this ne’er do well.
So I started thinking that I’ve gotta up my game here. Yeah, I need to lock the car door next time, but I also need to buy cooler stuff and have the kind of car that thieves really want to break into and the kind of treasure they’ll really want to steal and…
Wait a minute.
Am I so insecure that I care what this guy thinks about me? Am I so needy that I crave the approval of a petty thief? Apparently, the answer is ‘yes.’
Even worse, it was the second time this happened. Several winters ago, some guy stole our car so he could drive to his halfway house—really—where he dumped it. Again, nothing in our car was good enough for him to steal, other than the car, of course. C’mon, man, I had cassettes from Neil Diamond and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and a top-quality plastic windshield scraper. No interest? Dang.
We all react like that at some point or another, giving someone else the power to judge us and convincing ourselves that we deserve their scorn. We succumb to our need for acceptance from someone who isn’t important to us, someone we don’t respect, possibly someone we’ve never met. And yet, for some reason, we fall into the trap of needing their approval, their support, their acceptance.
For all of us, there is a “they” with more influence than they deserve in our lives. It could be a person who owned us in high school, an ex, a co-worker, or a Tik Tok star. It could be a group of people who are hipper or smarter or richer or prettier than we are, at least on the surface. Whatever defines “they” for us, we tend to give them a ton of deference.
For me, this time, it was a petty thief. When you think about it, though, it’s always a thief of some sort. It’s always a person who finds a way inside our heads, messes up our minds, and leaves us to deal with the damage. And they always steal something from us, often at our silent invitation.
Going forward, I’ve got to be more vigilant about keeping the wrong people out of my car. More important, I’ll be working to keep the wrong people from claiming a place in my head.
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My annual performance review continues, and it’s a grueling, 10-day process. Even more challenging, I won’t know how I did until this time next year.
I’ve never been the most observant member of my faith, but one aspect I take very, very seriously is the Ten Days of Awe, when every Jew is called upon to account for himself as the High Holidays begin on Rosh Hashanah and close at the end of the Yom Kippur fast.
Our goal, of course, is to conclude the Days of Awe with a promise that we’ll still be here next Rosh Hashanah. It’s either incredibly poetic, or impossibly devious, that we won’t know if we’ve made the cut until we’re back in the next performance review, asking for one more shot at getting it right. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?
As I cycle through the Days of Awe each year, I recognize the absolutely unassailable value of an annual performance review; not a review of my activities or my possessions, but of my value as a human being. I'm not being measured by any standard standards; instead, I'm rated on a table of Cosmic Benchmarks.
Most of the year, I forgive myself for all sorts of trespasses, but I’m more demanding about my Cosmic Benchmarks, both because the issue is life or death and I am not the One delivering Judgment. Yes, I realize there might not be a God and there might not be a Book of Life and this whole process might not have any relationship to the year ahead. Still, there’s something to be gained from considering all of it to be literally, brutally, eternally True.
Every year…so far…I’ve gained new perspectives, new insights, as a result of my performance review. Even if I’m really talking to myself, I emerge from the Days of Awe with a renewed sense of mission, a revived spirit, and a bit of added momentum. I’m more appreciative of the time I’ve been given and more aware of the time to come. I don’t know what is coming next, but I am more intent on being worthy of each new day, each new breath.
We all tell people there’s more to life than money or possessions or careers, but we tend to focus on those transitory artifacts much more than we emphasize the overarching purpose of Life. I’m grateful for the yearly reminder of what’s important, why I’m here and the work I still must do…assuming my annual review goes as hoped.
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A guy I know is doing very well in his career, but he is out of sorts lately because he has to give up the activities that helped him build his business in the first place. He started out as a salesman, but now he’s a manager, which is not nearly as much fun and not nearly as good a fit for his personality.
I’ve written before about the changes we all go through as we move through life, and the lessons of resilience are a constant, but there’s no denying that he has lost a part of himself in the transition. His identity as the guy who could outsell everyone else is being displaced by coach and cheerleader for other reps. He once basked in the glory of a million attaboys, but now he’s the guy who gives attaboys to all the other boys and girls on the team.
The more we talked about it, the more I realized he was in mourning. A part of him, a part of his identity and career had died and he was feeling the loss. Shortly afterwards, I had some conversations with friends who were going through other life changes---divorce, moving, job change—and the patterns were the same. Nobody had actually died, but everyone was mourning a significant loss. It didn’t matter if the changes were their choice or not, or if they recognized the transitions as a move for the better. They were shedding a skin, and their new skins didn’t quite fit.
Maybe that’s a good way for us to look at all the changes in our lives, large or small. We don’t need to get dramatic about it, since it’s not really a death, but recognizing the patterns can help us better with our adjustment.
I had always thought it was George Carlin’s idea, but it turns out it was Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who came up with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As I talk with my friends about their own transitions, each of these stages seems to be present at one point or another. The order of phases isn’t always the same, but that’s probably normal. Just as there is no right or wrong way to mourn the death of a loved one, there probably isn’t a correct way to grieve over the loss of a job or a hometown. Whatever the pacing, the key is to reach acceptance and peace.
That also shifts the burden of friends and family to keep our mouths shut about how to deal with the death of a life phase. It’s pretty much never appropriate, or welcome, to begin a sentence with, “What you should do is…” and that’s particularly true in the big transitions of life. Truth be told, we really don’t know what someone else should do and we don’t have to live with the consequences of our advice.
I’m eating my own cooking on this one, resisting the urge to share my infallible wisdom about all issues of human endeavor. More than once, I suspect, keeping my opinions to myself has saved me from mourning the loss of yet another friendship.
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I showed up at the final exam about half way into the class, dropped my books and started digging into the essay. After the instructor called time, I told one of my classmates I was late because I had run out of gas on the way to the test.
“Well, you won’t make that mistake again,” he said, and it made me cringe, because it was the second time I’d done it.
It wasn’t the first time, and certainly it wasn’t the last instance of me repeating a stupid mistake. Over the years, I’ve found a way to do the same dumb thing over and over, always vowing and always failing to know better the next time.
Somehow, I am not as bright as a lab rat.
We all like to think we learn from our mistakes, but most of us find a way to resist the wisdom life throws at us. I laugh at the guy who keeps falling for the latest investment craze, but I still think I’m going to get home faster if I get off the expressway and take the side streets. I shake my head as a friend tells me about a new relationship that sounds identical to the last hundred blow-ups, but every so often I’ll think it’s a great idea to split tens at the blackjack table.
I’m intrigued by my uncanny ability to absorb some lessons instantly and emulate a box of rocks about others. What is it that makes us both brilliant and chumps at the same time? Whatever the deep meaning behind our foolish consistency, it’s just another way for God to keep us humble.
We like to think of ourselves as wolves, always learning and always surviving the threats around us. More commonly, we’re dogs, repeatedly running into the patio door. Unfortunately, we never seem to be quite as happy as the family dog appears to be.
My own journey is a triumph of hope over experience. This time will be different. This time I’ll avoid the trap. This time I’ll make it work. Now that I’ve figured it all out, I’ll break the pattern. Ultimately, it turns out, my most infallible skill is my ability to fool myself.
There’s some comfort to be found in knowing that I’m not alone on the journey. As good as I’ve become at recognizing my own destructive tendencies, I’m even better at spotting those patterns among other people. Of course, it goes without saying that their repeated missteps are excessively irritating and impossibly obvious. Meanwhile, I’ve found, my own consistency of errors is charming, possibly even endearing.
Why are my flaws more cuddly than theirs? Hard to say, really, but it’s absolutely true. Regardless, I’ll try to find a way to tolerate all of their failures while making an effort to, um, refine my own charming idiosyncrasies.
I’ll give it more thought later, but meanwhile I have to polish off this pizza and finish a few more beers before I head back to the casino. I know that worked out badly for me in the past, but this time will be different.
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Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.