Friday, June 28, 2013

A Well-Dressed Man

Several years ago I left an awards dinner and I ran into a guy I knew in college.  We were not close friends in those days, but we knew each other pretty well because of certain encounters we had and projects we worked on together.  I first met him when I was writing an essay about how criminal I thought it was that people were still burning books.  Later on I saw him when I was writing about how a group had built a shanty-town of boxes on the quad in an effort to end apartheid.  We also worked together on political campaigns and on the effort to get the womens' rights act passed.  

When I ran into him he pretty much looked the same as he did when we were in college.  He still had the long hair, the beard, the plaid shirt and the frayed jeans.  He still wore the army jacket that looked like the one I wore in school.  It was the one I bought in Washington, Georgetown specifically, when I did an internship there.  When I was in college I looked a lot like him.  I had long hair and a beard too.  The night I met him on the street I was clean-shaven, wearing a pinstripe suit, wing-tips and a tie.  I was working for a large consulting firm then and very much focused on my career.

We decided to stop into a little bar and have a beer. We played catch up.  He told me about his family. He told me about what he was doing.  He said he was working with at-risk kids, and also doing other social services work.  He told me that it didn’t make him tons of money but that he liked it very much and about what joy he found in it. I also told him about my career, my family, where I lived. 

At one point he asked me, “T.S., do you still write?”  I said, “No, I don’t really anymore. I have too many other things to focus on.  I usually work until eleven or twelve at night.  I also have to make time for the things my family does.”  He then asked me. ”Do you still do activism?”  I replied,”No, I'm busy and I travel a lot so I can’t really get involved in anything.  It’s hard enough to work, make it to my kids’ games, plays and other things. It’s hard enough to make sure things are fixed and the lawn is mowed.”

We talked a bit more but then I could see he was getting uncomfortable. We were not laughing as we talked.  He was actually frowning.  At one point he just stood up, put his canvass bag over his shoulder, and tersely said, “I have to go.”  He fished around in his pockets and asked,” What do I owe on this?”   I told him that I would take care of it.  He shook his head and threw a few dollars on the table.

I said to him, “Did I somehow make you mad?”  He shook his head sadly and said. “No. You just disappointed me.”  I asked “How? How did I disappoint you?”  He sighed and said, “I don’t judge.  I know you have a family and need to do what you need to do. I just thought with your writing and that passion you had when I knew you before that you might be someone who might help change the world.  I didn’t think you would be another well-dressed man who did nothing for the world but turn the wheels of commerce.  I know it’s important that we have people that do that. I just didn’t think it would be you.  That disappoints me.”  Then he left.  

My friend’s comments hurt me, but I initially brushed them aside.  I went on with my life just as it always was. Later on, though, his words preyed on my mind. I couldn’t help but think that maybe he was right.  Shortly thereafter I changed jobs.  I went to work for a not-for-profit organization that didn’t require me to travel so much and that was committed to doing something good for the world. I reconnected with my family, friends, and neighbors. I started doing volunteer work again. 

That has only increased over time. In just the last year I have worked at an amazing food pantry that is designed like a supermarket so as to preserve its customers’ dignity; I led some preschoolers in drama, flapped like bird and for the first time in a long time got to pretend.  My favorite piece of service was being an advocate at a Celebration Clinic, which is held annually at our church, where people who are struggling can come to get clothes, food, a haircut, or even a family portrait.  It feels really good to think that, when I can, I am making a difference again.

I work out of my house now, so I am not the best dressed man unless I am meeting people, or attending an event where it is required.  I cut my hair still, and don’t wear army jackets, but I live now closer to what I was like in college than what I was like when I was absorbed in the corporate world.  What’s best about all this is that I now "get to do things" that I used to view as things "I had to do,"  like go to my kids' activities, or visit with people.  I walk around and I see things that I haven't noticed for a long time, because I was always too busy thinking about work. Mostly what I  like now is that I have an opportunity to write, which is really nice. It is what I love so much.  I am concentrating on that now because I think it is the best talent I have to offer to the world.

After all these years, I got an e-mail from the guy from college the other day.  It was in response to some of my Facebook posts about what I have been doing and my blog posts.  It was a simple message. It just said, “Been doing some reading. Welcome home, T.S.”  I liked that very much.

I guess sometimes, though it may take awhile to take effect, an unexpected kick-in-the-ass at some point in your life is good.  It reminds you of who you really are and what’s important to you. Writing meaningful things and trying somehow do something to make the world a little better is what I strive for.  Many of us are not in a position to save the world, or even to make a difference in at least one person’s life, but I think it is worth trying to do what we can, as best we can, with the talents, resources, and the effort we have to offer.

Watching the rain and using a computer keyboard is what I am working with to try to do that these days. I hope like hell it works.