You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the saying goes. I say that you can, actually teach us old folk new tricks… it just takes longer to break through the shell of bad habits layered with overly-busy schedules layered with simple stubbornness. Here’s my ongoing tale of re-education
It was half a lifetime ago, way back in 1993, when I started my first “Real Job”. It was a few weeks after I graduated from college and the ink was barely dry on that slip of paper which represented the net-sum of nearly every waking hour of my life—and a majority of my sleeping hours—for the prior four years (and in a way the 13 years prior to those as well). I was young, enthusiastic and quite sure of my ability to write software as I walked through the giant, glass doors of the office building my new employer occupied.
This, it turns out, is not why they hired me. No, they hired me because I was young, trainable and not yet set-in-my-ways.
The next six weeks were spent in the company’s special training classes. The first three weeks were in my home office in Florham Park, NJ; the second three weeks were in a remote town in Illinois at a former college now owned and operated by the company. They flew us in from all around the world, always arriving at night, always transported from the airport on a bus with darkened windows, always ensuring we rode around the spiral of roadways at O’Hare just long enough to ensure we didn’t quite know exactly which direction we were headed.
The stated purpose of these six weeks of training was simple: everyone needed to learn the COBOL programming language. And yes, I suppose we learned it. But in reality this was a small, tangential purpose to the training. The real goals of this six week orientation were:
- You must unlearn everything you thought you knew – it wasn’t that everything we knew was wrong… it was that everything we knew was not quite right. I’ve always been one who dislikes theory. I dropped my math major because it was all theoretical. Give me real-world all the time. In computer science there are tons of things you are taught that are theoretically correct, but once you apply that theory to real-world computers, real-world problems and real-world Operating Systems, they simply don’t work quite right. So, the six week class was meant to have us tackle real-world problems under a good bit of stressful, competitive scrutiny.
- Assimilation will occur, resistance is futile – it was important to this company that all of us were the same. We had to dress the same (dark suits for the men, dark skirts or pants with a nice blouse (which was supposed to be white but could be a soft color) for the women). We had to use the same terminology. And when it came to writing code, it was expected that we would be interchangeable—that if any two of us were presented the same problem and the same tools, we would write essentially identical code to solve it, write essentially identical proposals to sell it and write essentially identical recaps of our many, many meetings.
- Family, friends and personal life don’t matter – it is actually this one which I believe to be the most important reason for the way they trained us. The first three weeks were made up of long, drawn-out days, but we got to go home each night; once they shuttled us off to St. Charles, though, it was different. Days started at 6am (7am on the weekend). We got an hour off for lunch and 2 hours at dinner. Work and classes ran until 10pm (which is when the bar opened and the forced-socialization occurred). There were no cell phones back then and payphones were sparse. We were, essentially cut off from everything and everyone. Those of us who didn’t drink or had the audacity to want to spend at least a little time sleeping (or reading or writing) really didn’t get much chance. This was all designed to prepare us for the realities of what the job would entail – long days away from home, forced social hours with clients and colleagues and a complete and total loss of self to the much more important job.
The point of all of the above is to explain what I see when I look back through the mists of time at my writing. Right at the end of college, I had started working on my first novel. It was a story about the origins of humanity on Earth, an idea which had been kicking around my skull since high school but I’d never penned a single line of it. I finally started it during my train rides to and from my job at the college in those last few weeks before I was assimilated. I got into the fourth chapter of this novel by the time I started my job. These were written longhand on the train and then typed into my Intel XT desktop computer running DOS and WordPerfect 5.1 at night. The chapters were good, readable – even mildly enjoyable. But ultimately they couldn’t compete with the drive to make money, earn a living and start being a grown-up. This novel was a massive shift for my writing from the overly-emotional poetry and the silly short stories I’d focused on up to that point. I still have the 4 chapters of this novel here on my laptop, though I have only opened those files once since 1993 – to update and convert them to Microsoft Word format (which I did when I learned the newer versions of MS Word would stop being able to open the old WordPerfect file format).
More important than file formats and the shift in what I was writing at that time is what happened next: I stopped writing. Completely. It wasn’t immediate, it was a year or two later, but it happened nonetheless. I learned to allow allowed the day job to consume me and found that the training we had was, in fact, a real indication of what the day job would be – long hours, high stress and a complete lack of time for self. From mid-1995 to mid-2004, I wrote a total of two short poems. That’s it. I have been writing more since then, but it has been in fits and starts—sometimes months go by without a single line being written in a story and sometimes I’ll write every day for a few weeks.
Recently, my writing has focused on first-person narratives.This is not to say they are autobiographical, I’ve simply been writing from the first person perspective. Of course, to some degree, there is always an autobiographical component to my writing. There always has been and probably always will be as I don’t know how else to write. Thematically I largely am writing the same types of somewhat quirky, somewhat humorous, somewhat interesting sci-fi/fantasy/comedy pieces I always have, but with increasing frequency I’m finding myself writing other, more-general fiction pieces that have nothing to do with alien landscapes or superpowers (but still have something to do with coffee).
Part of the problem I’ve struggled with in terms of getting my writing back on track is a problem of priorities. Right now it seems that it’s more important for me to keep my kids happy, keep my job happy and keep the billing offices at many fine establishments happy. “I can write when the kids go off to college or when I retire,” I’ve often said. But I don’t like that statement anymore. It feels wrong. When I look forward another half-lifetime, to when I am approaching retirement, I’m not positive I’ll have time to write then, either. Heck, I’m not even positive I’ll make it to be 63 years old or older. The lesson I’m now trying to teach myself, and the lesson this old dog is struggling to learn, is that I should not wait until the kids are at college or I am retired to start or continue doing things I enjoy. You can never know what’s ahead. So why wait? If I can succeed at re-prioritizing things, not only will I be writing more somewhat quirky/humorous/interesting pieces now, perhaps when I am ready to retire from the daily abuse inflicted upon me by these infernal machines I’ll be well on my way to having a well-established, enjoyable hobby – or even a second career – doing something I’ve loved to do since I was a child.
Yes, it is important to make money and help your kids. But it is also important to take time to keep yourself healthy and happy. In the end, that’s a lesson I think we all can learn.