Don't be a professional Meanderthal
Time passing is not progress made
My beloved children,
This hand me down contains a simple recommendation: don’t waste time being a Meanderthal wandering happily but aimlessly through life thinking you’re impervious to extinction. Always have a meaningful destination– acquiring a skill, pursuing a career, or being a good parent–and work diligently to get there. You can always make pit stops and take the occasional detour. You can change your destination, if you have one.
What do you want to be?*
Focus. And speed. Don’t let anything distract you. That’s what I’m telling myself.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Dad interrupts my thinking.
It's 1977. I’m in a family meeting–well, a special sub-committee–focused on my future. Dad’s presiding, seated at the head of our faux marble dinner table. He’s trying to keep things steady using both hands. In his left, a Kent cigarette billows a cloud that fills the dinner nook. A mostly empty Budweiser can is cooling in his right. Mom, skillfully poised between us on the side, is ready to defend. My scrawny 11-year old body squirms at the opposite end. I’m struggling to focus even though the room is narrow and I’m the center of attention.
Parenting aids for American fathers in the 1970s
“Focus!” I tell myself. I know by not answering, I’m pushing a button. My dad is a hot head and blow-ups are inevitable. You could start a timer when he spoke to us kids. He’ll start yelling in 2 minutes or less.
T-minus 02:00 and counting.
“So, do you want to be a carpenter like your old man?” He’s lobbing a soft pitch, hoping I’ll hit a homerun. He takes a swig and waits for the right answer. Only an idiot could whiff this.
“I dunno,” I shrug. A swing and a miss. About that blow up timer, if you said the wrong thing like I just did, it speeds up or jumps to zero. He’s only on his second beer so it’s a slow burn.
I want to answer but I’m busy. If dad knew how well I was paying attention right now–astronaut level focus on the mission–he’d be proud. Unfortunately, I’m focused on the radio behind him. More specifically, I’m listening to WBOW, the voice of the Wabash Valley in Terre Haute, Indiana. The DJ is about to announce another dial-in contest. If I'm the 14th caller I can win the new Fleetwood Mac album, Rumours. I don’t even know who he is but I love winning contests.
“You could even go to college.” Mom throws me a lifeline.
Dad’s smile evaporates. Mom’s dream is that at least one of her 4 kids goes to college. She fell in love with my dad in middle school. Minutes after she graduated high school, she got married and then knocked up. Her parents hoped she’d go to college like her younger brother, Mr. Bank Vice President.
It’s my fault we’re having this meeting. I just got my first job. Starting Monday, I’ll be a paperboy delivering newspapers from my banana seated bike. The paperboy manager just left our house after discussing how I want to get paid and how much fat loot I want to put into a savings account each week. So my future is very much the centerpiece on our wobbly formica table.
My dad is waiting patiently but I can’t answer. He’s asking what I want to BE a hundred years from now. My parents haven’t realized I live in a 1-minute bubble. The Past is the 50 seconds that just happened. The Present is the 10 seconds that continually reveals itself. The Future is a mirage– a fiction created by parents and teachers.
“You like to draw. We're always buying you those art sets,” Dad continues. It’s true. have a real talent for requesting art sets for birthdays.
“You could be a writer!” my mom suggests. “You like to write books…” When I was 5 I said I wanted to be a writer. I tried to copy a Doctor Seuss book but got stuck on a fancy letter ‘a’. I kept writing that ‘a’ with a pencil on vanilla paper. I didn’t get past the first paragraph on the first page.
“You could be a painter,” Dad offers. “They make good money.” And then he leans in and gets to the point, “Son, you’re gonna wanna provide for your family someday.”
And this is the real question–how will you be a man and take care of your family when we, your parents, are gone? But I don’t hear it. Not for another 20 years.
“You could even study art in college…” my mother points out. She clearly doesn’t see the picture dad’s drawing. Or maybe she does.
Dad stops looking at me. He stares at his wife until she turns to meet his glare. I can’t decipher what his eyes say but Mom understands. She stops smiling too. 00:05.
Dad clenches the beer can harder. He finishes his beer in a hungry gulp and belches loudly like he’s sharing good news. He takes a deep drag on the Kent. He’s generously offering me more time. I don’t think he can wait the 2 decades it’s going to take.
I want to say something. Anything. But before I can open my mouth, I hear it. The DJ announces, “We’re looking for the 14th caller…”
I can’t help myself. I push away from the teetering slab and bolt to the phone and start pushing buttons.
I don’t even look as dad wails loudly, “Gawddammit!” He shoots up, upsetting the table and rages out of the room. Mom spreads her arms and steadies everything. I don’t look back. Not for years. I stab the buttons again and again hoping to win.
My trophies. I also won a chance to win a car. I was too young to actually win it so my brother Louie stood in line and tried the key I won. But he was unlucky.
Epiphanies and Platform Pizzas**
It’s 1995, almost 20 years later. I’m teaching English at a 2-year technical college in Tokyo. Ostensibly, I’m trying to figure out if I want to be a teacher after I return to the states. My first few years, I study Japanese and try to be an unforgettable teacher a la Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.
After teaching all day, you meet friends from around the world and enjoy delicious food and drinks in a Japanese tradition called nomikai (drink meeting). Australian, Iranian, French, Brit, Israeli, Nepalese, Chinese. In a neutral zone where you share new labels–visitor, foreigner, alien–you quickly bond as members of the exclusive Club Gaijin, an elite group designed by ancient Japanese to keep non-Japanese non-Japanese.
Free from your native baggage you can experience new things and explore new customs, like honoring Geisha culture by cross dressing on Halloween. And if you’re an expat in your 20s who lives in a city designed for entertaining, years disappear like a tall glass of beer, without you noticing.
After 6 years, and many nomikais later, I know it’s time to make a decision about my future. But there’s always something I have to do. Like right now. I’m saying goodnight to friends outside the Shinjuku train station in Tokyo.
We just spent hours at an izakaya, a magical Japanese restaurant that serves hundreds of delicious finger foods like fried chicken, grilled fish, buttered corn to name a popular few. After that we stumbled to a karaoke bar and had more drinks and more food and screamed for another 2 hours.
Exhausted, we’re saying goodnight, “Oyasuminasi!” Most of us are going home to families–a spouse and children. Between me and my empty apartment, is a 30-minute journey. Tokyo is extremely safe for a 6’ white American guy like me but there are other dangers.
It’s not uncommon to discover platform pizzas–beer, sake and all the chewed bits of fish, chicken, and batter–sprayed around train station floors and city sidewalks. A vomitous Jackson Pollock.
I’m lost in my own head. I know this station well so I’m letting muscle memory guide me to the platform, which I quickly learn is a mistake. I begin to slide.
“Aaaaaaaaah” I scream. I’m waving my arms and trying not to fall. I don’t have to look down to know.
After I come to a stop, I sigh and finally inspect the mess. My black dress shoes are now multi-colored and textured but mostly a shiny gold. “Is that octopus?” I ask myself. I fail to suppress my gag reflex. Twice.
I cover my mouth and hop to the nearest wall to kick away the largest bits. Japanese aren’t conspicuous gawkers. They don’t want to embarrass you by noticing when you’re struggling, even if you crash your motorcycle in your own neighborhood. As you lie in the painted, slippery crosswalk in the rain, they will step around and over you. So I’m not worried about drawing attention now. I just need to get to a toilet stall. Quick.
I stumble into the nearest bathroom when I see another gaijin (foreigner). He’s leaning on a sink, gripping it. I can tell he’s an English teacher--he’s wearing the uniform–khakis, short sleeve dress shirt, no tie. He could easily be my doppelganger.
I’m not sure if this guy is going to hurl, or pass out. He plants his feet wider as he tries to suppress something. I feel my own stomach churning. Do I run to a stall, or help this guy? I stop to ask him, “Hey, are you OK?”
He turns away from the sink, looks at me and doubles over. I try to jump back. Too late. His convulsing body spews beer, fish, chicken, and rice. Lots of rice. And noodles maybe.
He straightens up but he’s not looking at me. His eyes are glassy. He doesn’t see me at all. He’s taking deep frantic breaths. I ask him again even louder, “Hey, are you OK?”
As if he woke up from a nightmare, he snaps out of his trance and looks at me with visible relief. He shakes his head and smiles. “Oh man, I just had an epiphany!”
“Is that what you call it?” I look down and think that’s the wrong word, but I’m feeling almost sober. My own nausea is replaced with anger. “What’s the hell. Are you OK?”
“No. I’m not OK. Not at all!” he says and laughs loudly. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and then looks me for the first time our eyes connect. “I’m wasting my life.”
His words punch my gut.
As he turns to wash his hands he continues talking but not to me. “What now? I have to quit my job and tell everyone I’m coming home? What did I even accomplish?”
He shakes his head, sighs, and walks around me and the mess he made. He no longer weaves as he exits. He’s grounded. He moves on but I’m left behind teetering. I grab a sink to steady myself.
At 11, I was incapable of discussing an imaginary future. By my 16th birthday, my parents had learned they didn’t have much to offer on the topic. Divorced when I turned 13, they struggled separately with a Present that was overwhelming. The Future became tomorrow’s problem, a matter of faith.
While my parents couldn’t advise me on how best to plan for the future, they gave me two hand me downs that have proven very valuable: 1. A strong work ethic, and 2. An appreciation for education. Both my parents were incredibly hard workers so they got by. But when they told me, “You must go to college” I heard, “Don’t do what we did.” I took that advice and ran.
I did it. My parents and I at my college graduation. 1989 BSU.
Along the way, I made friends with people for whom the future was very tangible. (Like your mother.) They made life goals and plans to achieve them. People who ambitiously pursued careers and destinations of their choosing. I learned that people who don’t have a destination in mind, don’t go far.
An observation: A river is a common metaphor for life because there is a sense of flow, which is mistaken for progress. I think an hourglass is a better analogy. Time is sand; it falls and disappears.
The queasy stranger in the Shinjuku platform creating platform pizzas? It was me. I had an epiphany so profound I was immobilized and breathless. I not only thought but felt, “I’m wasting my life.” A year later, I came back to the states and found my way to Silicon Valley.
Being an expat in Japan for almost 7 years was not a waste, but it was inefficient. So you don’t think I completely wasted my time, here’s a draft of some accomplishments I cherish:
I was enriched
I understood the shape of the box I was born into (and am constantly trying to climb out of it)
I became friends with folks from all over the world, some of which I’m still in touch with
I became bicultural
I passed the level 2 Japanese Proficiency test (conversational fluency, 1000 Chinese characters—next test was for college admissions)
I began to understand the minority/majority mindset
I read a lot of Japanese literature and history (Korean, WW2, US relations, Comfort women…)
I fell in love with technology
I learned how to develop an app and a website, and how to leverage the Internet
I created a class about computers and the internet that became part of my school’s curriculum
I acquired skills and knowledge to help me in my career
I learned about exceptional customer experience
I learned the technical skills that helped me get my first jobs in tech back in the US
But the most important lesson could be this: it’s easy to waste time doing something that is exciting but not productive. Keep a meaningful destination on the horizon and you won’t be disappointed.
An Apology To Neanderthals
I’m not suggesting Neanderthals were ape-like and dumb because they are no longer here to defend themselves. Neanderthals had massive brains and language. They communicated and coordinated with each other to successfully hunt big animals like wooly rhinos and bison. They decorated their walls with art and had rituals for burying their dead. For over 400,000 years or more, at least 100,000 years longer than Homo Sapiens, they were the dominant biped. Until they weren’t.
No one knows for sure what happened to them. Did they just die out 40,000 years ago? Did they just assimilate with other species? Some of us from Europe can have up to 4% Neanderthal DNA. Did they fail to identify an impending danger, or fail to acquire a critical skill? Did they collectively think, “We always have tomorrow.” This is true until it is not.
All my love,