Friday, April 07, 2006

I'll See You All This Coming Fall...

I was listening to my "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack again and was struck by the lyrics of the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain."

One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fires were burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking,
And he said, "Boys, I'm not turning
I'm headed for a land that's far away
Besides the crystal fountains
So come with me, we'll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There's a land that's fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
And the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers' trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I'm bound to go
Where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall
The winds don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
The jails are made of tin.
And you can walk right out again,
As soon as you are in.
There ain't no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I'm bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
I'll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

We've all heard or read the stories of the shiftless bums and hobos. If nothing else, we've read "Cannery Row." But it made me think about what it would be like to be a man like that. To be shiftless and lazy, picking up cigarette butts, riding the rails, running from the bulls and staying out of sight of the brakemen, in and out of jail.

What life was that? What did you think about and dream about? Where did you find significance. What did the future mean? The past? And what would death bring you when you hadn't even lived a day in your life?

Now I suppose I'm lucky. I have a great job that pays me enough to live well. I'm not rich and I won't be buying Man U from the Glasers any time soon, but I have a house, lots of creature comforts, I support my wife and kids comfortably, and I have money to buy a few things.

But it wasn't always that way. When I was young and a little ways out of high school, I had decided that I didn't want to labor away at college and the like. I wanted a good job now. I didn't want to work my way up and through like everyone else. I wanted people to recognize my innate brilliance and hand me a great paying job right now.

You can imagine where that attitude got me. Sure, I fooled a few people for awhile, but eventually my lack of experience, work ethic, and self-discipline caught up with me. I remember being in my living room, lying on the floor, a pen in hand and pad of paper before me. I was working on the budget. There was my wife on the couch, playing with our five-year-old daughter. My wife was moving slowly because our second child was taking up most of the room inside of her and had pushed well out into the normally empty space right in front of her belly button. She was oblivious to whatever I was doing at the time.

We were out of money. I had no prospects. I had no degree. I was working a job making less money than I had in years, and even those years had been thin. I didn't know what to do.

I looked up at my cute little daugther, and my lovely wife, so great with child, and it hit me.

There is nobody in the world who is going to take care of those three people except me. Their lives are, in a sense, in my hands.

When I say it hit me, I mean it hit me. It was a definite, physical sensation that nearly knocked the wind out of me.

It seems it would have been obvious, but I had spent the first 30 years of my life so self-involved that this realization was a true revelation to me. Holy crap! I'm not the center of the universe. I'm not even the center of MY universe.

I looked back down at all the minus signs and asked myself again, "What am I going to do?" Now I had a new answer. "Whatever I have to."

At that moment I dropped most of my reservations and decided that even if I had to work sixteen hours a day at two jobs, those three people were going to be cared for. (And yes, my wife was working at the time, too, but we need both of us to be pulling down a decent living wage, and I wasn't even close. Plus my wife was about to go on leave for a few months.)

That change in perspective also afforded a change in criteria. It was time to swallow my horribly misplaced pride.

I looked back and thought about all the jobs I had had up to that point. I had basically screwed the pooch on every single one, mostly through a lack of discipline and a lack of a sense of responsibility. I got my first job when I was 10 years old, delivering the Reno Evening Gazette. Over the year I went from a decent paperboy to a terrible, irresponsible one, finally getting fired right around my first anniversary. Mrs. Kerr was nice about it, but she meant business. That pattern never really stopped.

Now, I had a day job that didn't pay very well, so I went looking for a night job. My sister-in-law had a night job, and they had openings.

Delivering the newspaper.

I almost didn't do it, but I saw the faces of my wife and daughter, and what I imagined was the face of my as yet unborn son, and I went for it.

Now, there was a lot of other stuff going on in my life, much of which was just me trying to figure out how to finally grow up and be damn adult. I was initially ashamed to be a paperboy all over again. But in my spirit I felt something different. There was something inside that was almost excited, that said, Okay, time to start over again. What do you want to different?

What do I want to do different? All right. If I'm going to get my ass out of bed every morning, 365 days a year, at 1:30 or 2am, then I'm not going to waste the time. I will be the best delivery person they have.

What your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. That's biblical.

So I did. I worked harder and smarter. I folded my papers neater. I was always on time. I rarely missed a house. I earned several jackets as the "Carrier of the Month." It sounds so droll, in a way, yet I was proud of myself, not because I earned those things, but because I didn't let my pride get in the way of doing a good job at the only thing I had going.

I didn't let myself do much kvetching, either. I tried my best not to complain. Yeah, when you're getting up with Santa Claus to go throw papers on Christmas morning, it can be hard not to grumble, but I did my best.

Best of all, I was making just enough to make ends meet. Yeah, we really had to stretch and pull the ends together to get them tied, but it made all the difference.

Through a strange and providential string of circumstances, I stand here nearly nine years later, working one great job, almost a dream job, making ten times what that paper route paid me. Now I wholly take care of those three people, plus one more. I still believe, and will always believe, that I have this job because I got the chance to start over and do it right. Because I did my very best at a really crappy job, because I didn't allow myself to be ashamed of my "low station" and just did what needed to be done.

During this time, my brother paid me one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He said, "Bro, you're are one of the hardest workers I've ever known." As a guy who had lived most of his life chronically lazy, and still struggles with that, that lifted me up to incredible heights. He wasn't ashamed of what I was doing. He was impressed that I was knocking myself out to do what was right.

Now, I feel like I'm sitting here patting myself on the back. Sorry if it comes off that way. That's not my intent. My intent, indeed my point, is to reflect back on the song at the top of this post. What if I had decided that pride and comfort were just too important to give up? What if I was just too lazy to get off my ass? Could I have lived with myself? Could anyone? I know work is sometimes a pain, but isn't the act of productive labor itself an elixir of sorts? How could anyone just drift through life looking for handouts and hideaways?

I don't understand it, and listening to that song makes me very sad, because it's the song of someone who has lost not only his way, but his very soul. He is beaten and his spirit is dead who cannot find a reason to put his hand to the plow one more day.


It's about me, dummy!!!


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