“Maybe you’re just going through a mid-life crisis.”
It was February 2012. Having just taken a bite of my smoked duck breast and gizzards, I started choking. I sat in my favourite booth at Café le Verdun with my medium-level-friend Dan, visiting from Canada. Dan had skipped a few levels on the relationship scale by inviting himself to stay with me in Aix-en-Provence. He heard for the first time I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore, and his conclusion surprised me. How could I be going through a mid-life crisis? I’m only 53! Uh-oh, wait a minute.
Cough. Swallow. I took a sip of Sauvignon Blanc. “No I don’t think that’s it, Dan,” I said. “I’m just so tired of reading contracts and the rest of that shit that I have to do something different.”
“That’s a mid-life crisis, Billy.” Dan was talking with his mouth full and I could see bits of seafood lasagna in there. “You’re asking yourself what it’s all for, aren’t you? Well, I can tell you what it’s all for. It’s all for money. Forget about all that higher meaning bullshit. We do our jobs for the money. Everyone wants to retire with lots of money and live in a house on the ocean and have a cabin at Whistler. If your job was fun, they wouldn’t pay you so much to do it.”
“But I can’t take it anymore.” I felt whiny. “Besides, last year I had tendonitis in my elbow from clicking my mouse all day.” I drummed the fingers of my right hand on the table, as if proving to Dan their connection to my injured elbow.
“Are you really ready to give up your clients?” Dan asked. “A barista makes ten bucks an hour. How many times does ten divide into your hourly rate?”
I told him the number.
“And you’re complaining? His job is way harder than yours, and he has to clean the toilets too. Are you fucking crazy?” Dan said. The waiter looked up from across the restaurant and scowled.
“I know, I know. My job was easy for me. Easy isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean. I have nothing to complain about, but I was miserable, all the time. I just need to escape. Somehow I thought that during this year in France, something better would miraculously happen to me. I figured I’d find something better to do or I’d meet someone who’d offer me some cool job.” I felt embarrassed saying that out loud, and looked down at my plate so I could avoid Dan’s eyes.
Dan pointed his fork at my chest. “You must have known that wasn’t going to work. What happens when you go back? It took years for you to get that great setup. You won’t just find two perfect clients like that, two huge clients, and start back where you left off. Some lawyers can’t find jobs, you know.”
“But I don’t want to start back where I left off,” I said. “I’m done with it.”
“You can’t do that, can you? How will you live? Don’t you want to retire some day?”
“Well, I can’t retire yet, that’s for sure. I don’t have enough money. But I don’t have to continue making what I was making. I don’t think. I’m not sure. Maybe when I go back, being a lawyer won’t look so bad anymore.” I paused. “What am I saying? It’ll still be bad. I’m an idiot.”
The waiter had appeared at our booth, hearing my last sentence, perhaps understanding. Dan waved him away with a flick of his hand. I could see the waiter roll his eyes and heard a suppressed sigh as he turned.
“Is it SO bad that you can’t do it for another five or 10 years, make a shitload of money and then retire to do whatever you want? Then you can go to France for as long as you want.” It sounded so simple when Dan said it like that, but I instantly recoiled.
“If I thought I had to be a lawyer for 10 more years, and that would be my last job until retirement, I would probably have to kill myself.”
“Really? You’d kill yourself?” said Dan. I saw the woman in the next booth, obviously a tourist, sit up straighter so she could hear the rest of our conversation.
“Of course not. I’m too much of a chicken. And if I killed myself, Carol would really kill me. But I just can’t keep doing what I was doing. I always thought I was smart enough to end up doing something cool or something insanely fun, and I ended up reading contracts. It’s just so boring.”
“What would be your perfect job?” Dan held up his arm to get the waiter’s attention. The waiter looked in our direction, expressionless, then walked toward the kitchen.
“I was asked that once at a party. Without thinking, I joked I’d like a job where I could paint nude portraits of my friends’ wives.”
“That doesn’t sound like it would pay much. Can’t you just do that in your spare time? A real job would be the lawyer for Playboy Enterprises.” Dan giggled. “That would be fun.”
“I doubt they let the lawyers take the pictures. Or hang out in the grotto.”
“You’re probably right. That sucks. I just think that throwing away all those years of school, when you’re at the top of the heap, is crazy. Maybe there’s a different way you can be a lawyer that you’ll like better.” Dan waved at the waiter again, who had returned from the kitchen and was three booths away, intently studying his empty tray.
“Yeah, I thought about that,” I said. “Maybe there is. But I don’t think so. I hate all the lawyer bullshit. And I am tired of having to be perfect. Everyone expects me to be right all the time, everything is so exact. I like broad strokes and ballpark answers, I like artsy stuff, and I’m stuck with the opposite. I’m a total faker.”
“That’s not true. You can’t be a faker for 20 years and still have a bunch of happy clients. You’re good at your job, obviously.” Dan was always a bit in awe of the career I created, and believed me to be much smarter than I actually was.
“Well, it’s not me. I’m not that guy. I don’t wanna be that guy,” I said, without eloquence.
“How can you waste all that education?” Dan asked.
“Who says it’s wasted? Can’t I do something else with my brain?”
“Sure you can,” Dan said. He paused. “Maybe you can do business development for some big company and negotiate their deals.”
“That’s kinda what I was doing already. No, I have to make a clean break. I don’t want any job like the one I had. If I do this half-assed, I’ll end up where I was before. I’ve got to let go completely, turn everything upside down.”
“Wow. I don’t know if I could do that,” said Dan. I was perversely happy that he was afraid to do what I was planning, but I didn’t tell him that.
“I like the idea I’m finally thinking big, but thinking big is scary. I never thought I would have the guts to do this. To leave law. That’s all I know how to do.”
“It’s not the smartest financial decision you’re making.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “Every bit of logic tells me the smart thing to do is go back to law, work hard for 10 years and then retire. But my heart and soul are screaming at me to never do law again. It’s not me. So I have no choice but to do something different.”
“Well then, I guess you do.”
“It could be my mid-life crisis. Maybe. But I think I’m now confident enough to not worry about what other people think I should do………..and not for one minute more do something that I don’t want to do,” I said, raising my voice much more than I intended. I certainly sounded more sure than I was. I could see the waiter coming our way.
“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind,” said Dan.
“I have, I guess. I don’t know. I’m freaking out a bit. Oh, here’s the waiter. Should we order dessert?”