“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?”
I was a robot for two months.
When I worked in factories, a mechanized packing line of household commodities consisted of a crazy, spider-like machine which built an open carton. The carton moved along a conveyor where it intersected with another conveyor bearing the product. The product was grouped in sixes or twelves and dropped into the carton, which continued along its conveyor until another machine glued its top closed. The cartons were then stacked on pallets and taken away by forklift.
One summer, the Ivory Liquid packing line had a problem. Between the time 12 bottles of Ivory Liquid dropped into the carton and the time the carton’s flaps were glued and sealed, a nozzle was supposed to deliver a tiny puff of air toward the back flap of the moving carton. Without this air puff, the flap remained at a 30º angle, when it needed to be at a 120º angle to be properly glued shut. The air nozzle was broken, resulting in unglued cartons, log jams and crushed bottles of Ivory Liquid squirting their contents on the factory floor.
They brought in the expert, me, to solve this crisis. I sat in a chair beside the broken air nozzle for two months. Each time a box rolled by on the conveyor, I gently eased the offending flap into the correct pre-gluing position with one finger. My pinkie. Taxing. I could have mimicked the faulty nozzle and blown on the flaps instead, but I thought my factory buddies would make fun of me.
What stupid job have you had?
My most off-the-wall professional moment occurred when I was a student working in a law firm, not yet a lawyer. A senior partner in the firm asked me to represent a client at a hearing before the disciplinary committee of the Canadian Kennel Club. The client was a 76-year-old woman. She was a dog show judge who got into an argument with a dog owner who didn’t like the score earned by his poodle at a big competition. The disagreement escalated, then quickly ended when my client (the 76-year-old woman), grabbed a folding chair and whacked the dog owner on the head, like in a fake wrestling match. At the hearing I successfully argued that my client had been provoked and should be reinstated as a dog show judge. My triumph was bittersweet because thereafter the running joke in the law firm was that I was the expert “canine counsel.”
What weird job have you had?
During my college years, I had a job one summer as a general labourer with a shady one-man contractor operation. The contractor carried his whole construction business in a rented station wagon, the kind with fake wood on the sides, stuffed to the roof with tools and discarded coffee cups and McDonald’s wrappers. He would accept any construction job, whether he had the skill or not. He convinced one homeowner that we were roofers.
We arrived at the job to find the bundled shingles sitting on a palette on the driveway. The paper packages were damp from the previous night’s rain. With the contractor on the roof, my job was to carry each four-foot-long package up a fully-extended ladder, so long that it bowed in the middle under my weight and that of the shingles. And I don’t like ladders. The only way to carry the shingles was over one shoulder, which meant that I had only one hand free to hold the ladder…..except when I moved to another rung, at which point no hands were holding the ladder. The weight of the shingles caused the package to drape over my shoulder in an inverted “U.” As the packaging was wet, it split as I went up the ladder each time, making the shingles more unwieldy. The ripped packaging also exposed the sandpaper coating of the shingles, which rubbed my shoulder raw. By the end of the first day my right shoulder was an open, bloody sore.
At the end of the second day, the contractor asked me to take down one of the ladders leaning against the highest part of the house. I was having difficulty with the rope-pulley system used to collapse extension ladders, and asked for help.
“I’m busy,” he said from the roof. “I’m sure you can do it yourself.”
“Really, I don’t think I can do it,” I said, feeling like a wuss. “It’s fully-extended, and kinda heavy.”
“I’m on the roof, Bill. Just do it yourself.”
Predictably, I pulled on the rope and lost control of the ladder. As it fell, it scraped along the side of the house, describing a perfect arc, etched into the metal siding. To put an exclamation on the damage, at the end of its plummet, the ladder cleanly sheared off the outdoor lamp above the side door of the house.
I didn’t go back the third day.
What stupid job have you had? Tell me in the comment section below.