Friday, October 6, 2017

Wonder Stuff – "Escape from Rubbish Island" (2004)

Yeah, we're out of here
That is painfully clear
We'll make our escape

In the last 2 or 3 lines, I shared the “farewell” message I had e-mailed to everyone at my law firm on my last day before retiring:

Today is my last day at Venable.

I started work here in March 1995, when my youngest child was only five months old.  I had been commuting from my home in the Washington suburbs to a job in Philadelphia every Monday morning and driving back home every Friday evening for a couple of years, and coming to work at Venable enabled me to see my family every day instead of just on the weekends.

It’s pretty simple to explain what Venable has meant to me and my family.  Venable paid for my four children to go to college and graduate school.  Venable paid for the house I’ve lived in since 1997.  Because of Venable, I have enough in my 401(k) to be able to retire at age 65.

I wish all of you continued success and happiness.  I’ll think of you often.

An old law school friend had this to say after reading that e-mail:

I have to say that your retirement e-mail was pretty cold.  It was all about the easier commute and the money you made.  

Imagine your peers at the firm reading it.  How would they take it?  Imagine a young lawyer there reading it.  I could imagine him or her asking, “Is that all it’s about?”

The message my friend took from that e-mail is certainly not the message I intended to send.  

But when I sat down and tried to put into words exactly what I did mean, it turned out to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.  

*     *     *     *     *

Literally speaking, it’s accurate to say that my e-mail “was all about the easier commute and the money you made.”  But many statements that are literally truthful are still misleading.

The point of getting a job closer to where I lived wasn’t to have an “easier commute.”  It was that I didn’t have to spend four nights a week away from my family – including my five-month-old son.  

And the money I made at my law firm was important not as an end, but as a means.   

I was almost 43 when I started working at Venable.  I had spent the previous three years as an in-house lawyer for a young direct-marketing company.  There was a chance that company would take off and I would make a lot of money from the stock options I had been granted.  But that was a very, very long shot.  

I had four kids at the time – the oldest was eleven years old, the youngest was five months.  I wasn’t interested in going all in and hoping I drew to an inside straight.  I needed a job I could count on to still be there five, ten, and fifteen years later.  

Venable provided such a job.  The firm grew slowly but steadily in my 22-plus years there.  I might have done better somewhere else, but I could have done a lot worse.  

My saying that what Venable means to me is a paid-off mortgage and the wherewithal to pay for college and grad school tuition may strike some as being a little meh.   But it was intended to express my gratitude for a job that enabled me to take care of my family.  

My ideas about what it means to be a man and a father – like a lot of my ideas – will seem wrongheaded or at least outdated to a lot of people.  Excuse me all to pieces for feeling this way, but I’ve always believed that a father’s highest priority should be to provide food and shelter and all the other necessities of life for my children.

Good fathers do a lot more, of course.  But paying the bills is job one.   

*     *     *     *     *

My kids are done with college, and they are all employed.  I’m glad that I’m in a position to continue to help them and their kids, but they don’t really need that help – they are self-sufficient adults at this point.  So now I can focus on enjoying my retirement.

My parents grew up during the Depression, and they were very aware that hard times could return.  So they spent as little money as they could and salted away the rest – mostly in certificates of deposit and savings bonds.  

I’m not as frugal as they were, but I’m pretty frugal.  Looking back, I wish I had indulged in a few more luxuries when I was younger and let the future take care of itself.  But that just wasn’t me.  I’m a deferred gratification kind of guy.

I made the maximum contribution to my 401(k) every year I worked at Venable, which left me with enough of a retirement nest egg that I felt comfortable walking away from my job at age 65.  If I live long enough, my decision to be more of a saver than a spender will have paid off.  Of course, that’s a big “if.”  

*     *     *     *     *

My friend’s e-mail asked whether a young lawyer who read my farewell message would wonder, “Is that all it’s about?” – the “that” meaning money.

The question of what my e-mail communicates to young lawyers is one I take seriously because my older son is a young lawyer at another large Washington law firm.

If the message he takes from my e-mail is that he should feel good about his job if it enables him to provide for his family and enjoy his golden years (does anyone still use that term?), I’m good with that.

Of course I hope that his work is intellectually and emotionally satisfying, that he enjoys the company of his co-workers, and that he believes that what he is doing at his job makes the world a better place.  But that’s the icing on the cake – not the cake itself.

*     *     *     *     *

Maybe I settled for too little from my career.  Maybe I should have been a writer or a musician or small-business owner or something else that I would have found more personally fulfilling instead of going to law school.  

Of course, it’s too late to do anything about that now.  I made my bed and I’ll continue to sleep in it.  (I usually sleep pretty well, although not always.)

It would be nice to have written a novel, or recorded an album, or built a successful business with my name on it.  I envy people who have accomplished such things.

But remember what Ecclesiastes says: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”  Isn’t the desire to leave that kind of legacy simply vanity?

For better or worse, my most significant legacy will be my children and grandchildren.  Anything else that I leave behind pales in importance compared to them.

*     *     *     *     *

With the possible exception of 2 or 3 lines, of course.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, Sir Joseph – he who is “the monarch of the sea/the ruler of the Queen’s Navy/whose praise Great Britain loudly chants” – proclaims that “his bosom swells with pride” when he boards his flagship.

When it comes to my wildly successful little blog, I’ll match my swollen bosom with Sir Joseph’s any day of the week.

But not every 2 or 3 lines post is a gem – as today’s effort proves.

This post has been a struggle.  Instead of continuing to wrestle with it, I’ve decided to throw in the towel.  The more time I spend on this post, the worse it gets.  And I do three of these a week – I can’t continue flailing around indefinitely in the hope that I will eventually be touched by the muse.

As the saying goes, when you find your self in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

I’m not giving up entirely.  My friend’s e-mail raised some very important issues, and I’m going to continue to ponder them.  If I come up with anything worthwhile to say about them, you’ll be the first to know.  But for now, it’s time to move on.

*     *     *     *     *

Wonder Stuff is one of the bands that I only know about only because I interviewed Yum Yum Tree’s Andy Gish a couple of years ago.  (Andy wrote and sang all the songs on that group’s excellent 2007 album, Paint by Numbers.)

Today’s featured song – which is from the group’s 2004 album of the same name – is my favorite Wonder Stuff track.

Here’s “Escape from Rubbish Island”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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