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The “X” in Gen X Stands for Overe”x”ert

My ECG During My Chest Pain Episode

For some time now, I have become increasingly aware that certain parts of my life do not bring me happiness. As a realist, and someone who considers himself fairly self-aware, I have spent more than a few mental cycles squaring off against this issue, looking at it from all angles, weighing my feelings and thoughts about it, and moody as hell because I couldn’t figure out how to fix it, and I couldn’t shake it.

We Gen-Xers grew up in a strange time in America. We were born on the tail-end of a fairly depressed period of economic tumult. Many of us weren’t exactly poor, but we certainly weren’t rich either. The requirements for college degrees in the job market were still fairly lax, so a man could make a “damn good life” (to quote Ned Beatty’s character “Daniel Ruettiger” in “Rudy”) without a college degree. You weren’t going to have a vacation home, but you could take care of your family.

Right before most of Gen-Xers were born, the women’s movement had awoken a desire in many women for something more than what they had been sold was their lot in life. So, when California passed “No Fault Divorces,” which allowed either spouse to initiate divorce for any reason, other states soon followed and by the 90s, more than one million children each year were part of a family broken by divorce.

Gen-X children discovered a few things growing up:

  • Nothing is forever. At any second, everything you think is good and normal can get ripped away and there is nothing you can do about it.
  • Don’t count on other people to provide for you. If you want something, don’t expect a handout or a freebie. You have to get out there and make it happen.
  • Love comes with caveats.

And people wonder why so many Gen-Xers became Preppers. Now, I don’t want to make too many generalizations here, but as a keen observer of others, I believe these three “lessons” Gen-Xers were taught have contributed to–at least for me–the following:

  • I’m a planner and a saver. I don’t do anything without first researching the heck out of it. I know months in advance what my annual expenses are and rather than having to pull money out of savings, or put it on my credit card, I stash away for it each month like our parents’ old “Christmas Account” where they saved up money every paycheck to use for gifts during the holidays.
  • I am generally distrustful of people’s motives until I get to know them. I won’t say I’m unfriendly, but I am rarely the first person to open up. However, once I do trust someone, I’ll tell them my life’s story if they want to hear it.
  • A job is a means to an end, not something you have the latitude to pick because you love doing it.

As of today, I can say that the thing that brings me the most dissatisfaction and dare I say, trepidation, is my job. True, I don’t have any truly close friendships. I have a great many acquaintances, but between work and family and responsibilities around the house, there just isn’t much time for anything else. I realize this isn’t healthy, but I also realize that this idea of “self-love” and doing things for yourself is a relatively new phenomenon and one that our society has only recently been able to afford to indulge. I certainly never heard my father talk about needing a massage, or my mother complaining that she hadn’t gotten her nails done.

But, I’m OK with being a bit of a loner. Interestingly, the one other person I feel I could really connect with, is pretty much just like me, except he either doesn’t care to spend more time with me, or just doesn’t feel the need to.

So, back to the “job.” For nearly 30 years I have striven (strove? strived?) to climb the corporate ladder, with various levels of success. I have known something about myself for a long time now; something that I know is in conflict with my career growth goals. That something being the fact that I don’t like playing “the game.” I no longer have a desire to be an executive. I don’t feel the need to have a seat at the boardroom during the day and then sit through multi-hour dinners chatting it up with clients or other business leaders in the evening.

You can see how this might be a problem for a “leader.”

I am at a place in my career where I don’t necessarily “need” to make more money. It’s always nice and I would love to be able to afford better vacations, a new truck, and a vacation home. But at what cost? Lately, the cost has become crystal clear: time. Time taken away from my family; time taken away from “me” time doing things I enjoy; and time taken away from just taking care of myself, exercising and whatnot. I’m almost 50 and having worked and played pretty darn hard for nearly half a century, my body isn’t exactly a luxury yacht that will smoothly cruise its way through retirement.

And I suppose, coupled with having reached a financial place in my life where I’m not terribly concerned about tomorrow’s paycheck, I don’t know that I want to continue doing what I do now. The very thought of sitting at my computer, locked away in my office for 8 hours a day, while my family and those around me go on short vacations or even take off for lunch, feels like a not-great way to spend the 1/3 of my remaining good years, of which 1/3 of those years, I will still have to work; particularly in light of recent events (more on that in a sec).

Very recently, I took a new job. It’s an amazing opportunity and the pay is very good. But now working on my 7th week, I’m more confident than ever that I do not enjoy what I do. Well, that’s not entirely true. I enjoy parts of my job, just not the parts that involve relying on other people to give me what I need to do MY job, traveling, or trying to figure out how to solve a myriad of problems about which I have to question numerous people to try and understand the how, why, who, and what.

Mo’ Money. Mo’ Problems.

My third week on the job, I met with my new manager and while he was laying out a list of upcoming expectations, I started having chest pains. As someone who exercises a lot, I’m used to getting strange twinges and aches, but this was something else. It hurt and it wasn’t stopping.

Using my watches’ ECG function, I took my ECG reading, which normally looks very smooth and says, “No arrhythmia detected.” This time, there were massive peaks and the result basically said, “We’re not diagnosing anything you see, but IF you don’t feel well, you should probably see a doctor.”

Recognizing the pain was probably just stress-related, I blew it off. I did tell my wife and I also told her to just keep an eye on me that evening. Then I went and relaxed in my favorite chair and within a couple of hours, I felt mostly back to normal.

Yesterday at my annual physical, I mentioned this to my doctor. She decided to run an in-office ECG, since I’m on blood pressure meds anyway. So, they hook me up and run the test, which only takes about 30 seconds. Then the techs unstrap me and file out. My doctor comes back in and says, “You have a very interesting ECG. It says you’re having an active heart attack right now. Do you feel OK?”

I felt fine and told her so. So anyway, now I have an appointment with a cardiologist in a couple of weeks to see what’s going on. And all of this has helped crystallize a point that I have slowly come to realize, which is that I need to do something else, professionally. The money be damned. Well, not completely damned, cuz, I got three kids to put through college. But still, I need to stop trying to do “more” and do something that I can–maybe not enjoy–but that at least won’t kill me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Side Hustles and Morality in the 80s

Back in the 80s, it was a little lean around my house. I didn’t realize it then, but I’m pretty sure my father was out of work a good bit of the decade. He’d never gotten a degree, but he was very smart and had a knack for working with machines and electrical things so he’d been fairly successful just based on prior experience. My new stepmom had not yet started working, so we were solely reliant on my father’s salary–and maybe a little “state support” if you know what I mean.

I’m not certain where all of our money came from that decade, but I vividly remember my stepmother collecting green stamps and pasting them in a booklet and using them for groceries. I assumed they were a local store promotion, but in retrospect, maybe that’s what food-stamps looked like in Alabama during Carter’s presidency.

To make ends meet, my parents tried a lot of different things, some more successful than others. For instance, my father installed a hot-water-heater timer that automatically turned the water heater off during non-peak hours. This little doo-dad was mechanical and I remember that, as a seven-year-old, it was extremely difficult to “flip the switch” on it when you needed to turn it on out-of-hours. I can remember coming home late of a night from being out of town and needing hot water. I’d have to go through the garage, climb up on a table and trip the switch. And every time I did it, for some reason I expected to get shocked. I don’t know why…

My father tried to get into dog-breeding once, as well. We had a beautiful Doberman female. After successfully breeding her, she had a litter of 9 pups and promptly developed mastitis, which quickly put an end to any future breeding endeavors.

But perhaps my folks’ most enduring moneymaker was a plastic sign-making business. Plastic was a fairly novel thing then. And being able to make signs out of plastic, versus metal or some other material, was much less expensive.

Our “business” consisted of a giant vacuum molding machine and a hundred thin sheets of different colored plastic, each approximately 4′ x 4′. With this, you could create just about any kind of sign as long as you had the mold or template and whoever we purchased the equipment from also provide a large catalog of rubber molds you could purchase for use.

The actual sign-making process was fascinating to me, even then. Once you selected your rubber sign mold, you put it on the bottom of the machine. Above that, you placed your sheet of plastic–usually white. Once you closed the lid and flipped a switch, the plastic would begin heating up. And this is where it got tricky..and hot! Everything was manual then; there were no electronic dials or automation, so you’d have to squat down and watch the plastic slowly heat, breathing in hot plastic fumes all the while. When it got to the point where the plastic was so hot that it was started to droop down in the middle due to gravity, you had to very quickly do the following: shut off the heater, flip on the vacuum, and then push the handle that lowered the plastic onto the rubber mold. The drama was palpable and the noise from the vacuum was like a Harley Davidson thundering through the garage and every time we did it, my heart would thump in my chest and I felt like I was having a mini panic attack! But if you did everything correctly, almost as soon as you lowered the shelf onto the plastic, the vacuum sucked the hot plastic over the mold, and voila! You had your sign. You then reversed all your switches and louvers and you were done.

Slightly less exciting, we could also make engraved wooden signs. Most of the engraving sign business involved office name tags for doors and desks and all you did was put letter templates in a row and then trace the letters with a “pen” attached to a long arm, which was attached on the other end to a router that similarly traced the letter pattern onto a piece of plastic that looked like wood. Not nearly as fun, but probably more profitable.

My brother was old enough to help make the engraved signs for doors and desks, but I was too young to do much of anything. Still, I used to love to watch my parents make the signs. Once you had the mold you needed for you signs you could then turn around and create as many of that type of sign as you wanted. Most of the templates were for things you might attach to your vehicle using magnetic tape, such as “For Sale” signs, or other common things like “Plumber” or “Electrician.” My brother and I used to love to play with the rubber molds. There was something really cool about a floppy, soft, rubbery thing that you could bend and twist. For us, it was something new and interesting, and therefore, something our parents didn’t want us messing with.

Not long after my parents took possession of all of the equipment, my brother and I snuck into the garage to look through the catalog. I remember thumbing through it and coming on a section of, what was then, very racy sign mold templates. I don’t know why, but one, in particular, struck me and it has stuck with me all these years. It was a nut and bolt, each with human characteristics–a face, arms, and legs–and the bolt was behind the nut, presumably about to screw itself into the nut and the caption on it read, “Not without a washer!”

I think my brother had to explain it to me at first, but once I understood what the sign inferred, I was dumbfounded that my parents would be involved in a business where they might make such a sign. I mean, we weren’t terribly religious then, but there was certainly never any sexual innuendo bantered around the house. Looking back, I still can’t imagine what business scenario might require such a sign. Maybe at a strip-club, or as a joke in a mechanic’s shop?

I searched for this design and found several versions of it in random places, like this one on Etsy:

The one we could order wasn’t quite like this, but the gist is the same. Scandalous, no?

Considering what all happened in the 70s, this was probably pretty tame for most adults; but for a kid, pure magic!

I don’t think I ever looked at my parents the same after that. Not that they ever made a sign like this, to my knowledge, but the idea that they were involved in something where this was even a consideration, changed how I viewed them.

As I got older, my parents became more involved in church and got more “religious.” Our involvement in the church waxed and waned for various reasons, but it struck me that despite whatever we choose to practice in our personal lives, just existing in this world sometimes requires a certain “moral flexibility” to steal a phrase from “Grosse Point Blank.” I guess the alternative is to draw a line in the sand and say, “This is not something I’m willing to bend on,” but then, we’ve seen how well that has worked out for many, especially of late.

A Dust Pan for Dad – A Fish Out of Water Story

The other day I was picking up a few items at the grocery store, walking through the produce aisle, selecting some bell peppers here, a few (overly) expensive mangos there. Coming towards me was a middle-aged man and what appeared to be his two children–a boy and a girl. Nothing unusual in that. If anything, it’s always good to see the continued debunking of the media myth that men don’t contribute in the home.

As I selected a few lemons, I couldn’t help but notice the father. Slumped over his cart as he was, it was clear he wasn’t entirely comfortable in whatever “this” role was, probably a new one for him. Seeing that, I started paying a bit closer attention to the situation surrounding him and his children.

I caught one of the kids talking about the apples and I heard the man say something like, “But do we really need them?”

I didn’t catch the rest; probably because I was immediately swept away into a memory from my childhood. One that included another middle-aged man–my father–also with his child–me–and also clearly not entirely in his element.

I was probably 13. After 11 years of what seemed to be a stable, if perhaps uneventful, marriage, my stepmom announced she wanted to separate from my father for a while. As usual, my father seemed caught completely unaware, a trend that he appeared to have ignored much of his life. But, it being the 80s and divorce trends on a steep trajectory upwards, while I wasn’t unfamiliar with divorce, I didn’t know what a “separation” meant and I found myself at a complete loss as to how we were going to make it without her at home.

Even at that young age, I recognized that it was very selfish of me to immediately jump to concerns of self when my parents were clearly having problems. But the last time my father had to care for me (and my brother at the time) by himself, he was not good at it and it only last about a year because he quickly met someone who stepped in and took over everyday home-making.

At 13, I needed little supervision. I got myself up in the mornings; made my own breakfast and got myself out the door with no intervention from my parents. Dad was gone to work long before I even got up and my step-mother stayed in her room getting ready for work until after I left.

My father was not a “household chore” kind of guy. He was a builder. Tell him something needed fixing and he was on it. Tell him he needed to cook dinner, however, and he was at a total loss unless it meant cutting up and boiling some vegetables.

I very clearly remember our first trip to the grocery store. It had probably been two weeks since my stepmother had packed up her things and moved out. She had rented, and furnished, a nice apartment about 30 minutes away. Any hopes I had that her moving out was just a temporary thing were dashed the first weekend I spent at her place. I remember looking around thinking, “She has every piece of furniture someone who is single would have.” It didn’t occur to me then that she had clearly been planning this, if not actively setting it in motion without anyone knowing it, for quite some time and was planning on it lasting more than a few days. I also saw a pack of cigarettes sticking out of her purse. So far as I knew, both she and my father had quit smoking years ago, so this was (also) a new development.

But, “visiting” your parent is awkward. There I was, a pre-teen and a middle-aged step-parent stuck inside a nondescript apartment for two days. No money. Nothing to do really. And frankly, if we were at home, we wouldn’t have much day-to-day interaction anyway, so suddenly being forced to interact just because it’s “your weekend” made for some awkward moments. I couldn’t wait for the weekend to end.

Back at home; after a couple of weeks of my having to come up with meal ideas for my father and me, not to mention that I’d not had anything to pack for my school lunch in days, a grocery-run was unavoidable and so I broached the subject with my father one Saturday morning. He was not enthused.

Now, I had no idea of my parents’ financial situation; not really. We had a comfortable house, but there were little things that led me to believe we weren’t doing all that well. So, I was very cognizant of money. Much like the children of the Great Depression, still today I’m a saver “just in case” and I’m confident much of my tendencies stem from the lean times of my youth when I spent my school lunch period pretending to study in the library so I didn’t have to explain to my friends that I wasn’t eating because my parents always “forgot” to give me any lunch money. And other small financial crises.

We drove to the store together. I’d shopped with my stepmother enough to know the drill. I grabbed a cart and headed right. In truth, I don’t remember much about the actual grocery store, but one particular selection impressed itself in my memories, again further cementing the fact that money was tight and this whole “on our own” thing was not going to be easy.

With “mom” gone, I had picked up the bulk of the housekeeping duties. I lightly cooked and cleaned up the kitchen. I dry-mopped the downstairs floors and vacuumed the carpets in all but my parents’ room. I did our laundry. In short, I did most of the housework.

I remember that the dustpan we had, had seen better days. The edge was chipped and dulled and it was difficult to get fine dirt and debris into it and so as we passed the aisle with household cleaning supplies, I told my father we needed a new dustpan. Of all the things we needed, why a dustpan? It’s one of those things. One of those battles upon whose hill you know you will die on while defending. But it needed to be done.

The dustpan selection ran the gamut from a super-cheap aluminum pan, similar to the crap-tastic plastic one we currently had, to a more expensive glossy white plastic unit with a small brush attachment. I picked up the latter and my father immediately said, “Why do we need that one? This other one (the cheaper alternative) is just fine.”

l remember making the argument that the cheap one is just going to get brittle and break like the one we already had, so we should buy the more expensive, but durable, one. I remember the look on my father’s face before he put the dustpan in our cart. For a brief moment, a pained expression passed over his eyes. I remember seeing him about to argue and then immediately change his mind. And I remember the resignation that fixed itself on his expression as he placed the shiny, white dustpan with the attachable broom into the cart.

That day, upon that hill, I’d won and he’d given up. Maybe that was why my step-mom left. Maybe at some point, he got tired of fighting and just stopped trying, or caring. And I guess she did too.

Like the dad in my recent shopping experience, my father was just as uncomfortable playing the homemaker. Back in the present, while watching the dad at the grocery, I experienced a momentary pang of empathy for what he was having to deal with. Whatever situation led to him being there, he was doing what he needed to do despite his inexperience and discomfort. For that, I gave him credit. Maybe, like my father from long ago, he too was going through something in his relationship. Or maybe his wife just had other plans that day and asked him to do this thing he didn’t normally do. I hope for his kids’ sake that’s what it was.

I don’t know what all happened between my father and stepmother back then. She did eventually come home, but it was six months or more later. When I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, less than a year later my step-mother divorced my father, and once again, he claimed complete ignorance of any issues and was completely taken by surprise by the whole thing.

She will tell you she divorced because he ignored her despite her trying everything to get him to pay attention to her. If the never-opened bottle of Jack Daniels that sat in the back of their closet my entire teen years, or the nearly-pristine, lone Playboy I found in the back of my father’s dresser drawer, which surely my step-mother knew about, are any indication of the lengths she went to, none of it worked.

My dad was many things. And he was NOT many things. But of this about him I will admit, he was loyal. Perhaps too loyal. Once he committed to something, it was a done deal, for better or for worse. At 40, he adopted two young boys–one with documented mental issues–and when he and his young wife, who was 11 years his junior, divorced a few years later, he took us with him and did the best he knew how.

But my father’s Achilles’ was women. So far as I can tell, he never told a woman in need, “No.” The bigger the hard-luck story, the harder he pursued them. Lord knows I wish he hadn’t. I’ll never stop regretting the last time he couldn’t stop himself from getting involved, and never walking away, even as the relationship cost him quite literally everything. But he was loyal.

Not too long after his death, we found out something that turned everything we thought we knew about my father on its ear. And the more I think about it, perhaps that is the reason he turned out to be so loyal later in life.

Maybe that’s all any of us can or should ever try to be. Even when life goes sideways and things aren’t ideal, maybe the best you can be remembered for is having always being there for the people who needed you most. Even if it ends up costing you your own happiness.

Finding Your Calling (Hint: It’s probably not behind a desk)

Growing up, my dad never sat still. Or if he did, it was only because he needed to be sitting down so he could finish sketching out the dimensions of his latest obsession. When we were building our house in Semmes, even before the house foundation was started, he’d built a shed for his tools. Later, that shed would become more of a storage unit than a shop, but I believe he would have spent more hours there than in the house if he knew he wouldn’t catch hell for ignoring the family.

When my dad got sick back in 2018, we all put on a brave face and told ourselves that he could get better. He had a great bunch of doctors and nurses and for a man in his early 80s, he was amazingly spry and active. But, deep down, I think we all knew the odds were against him.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more like him. Despite my being adopted, his “always stay busy” attitude, coupled with an innate need to create, are alive and well in me. If nothing else, of that I think he’d be proud. And I too have my own shop-slash-storage unit, but unlike his, mine is in the basement of my house and habitable throughout the year, impervious as it is to the heat of summer and the frigidity of the winter months. There are also a lot fewer cockroaches, which is nice.

Forty years later, I can tell you almost exactly how many steps it was from the door of my dad’s shed to his toolbox; I made the trip enough times. I can also tell you which drawer of my dad’s old toolbox he kept the screwdrivers in. It was the first drawer. Beneath that, his pliers. Beneath that, his electrical tools, such as his meters and soldering iron. I know because I organized my own toolbox the same way. If it works, and you remember what’s where because you had to “go fetch” tools from it a thousand times while working with your dad, why change it? Most of the memories I have of my dad involve some kind of work–either us working together, or me doing something he’d tasked me with. So, to say that I have a more than passing interest in preserving those memories, is a fair statement.

As dad got sicker–and my relationship with his girlfriend followed suit–I realized that unless I took preemptive action, when he passed, I wasn’t going to get any of these things. I even told him once that I would be surprised if she even let me in the house after he was gone, to which he agreed. Most of his “things” I couldn’t have cared less about; but, his tools were something else entirely. I grew up using those tools. I watched my father build our house and two dog houses with them. I can still remember trying to anticipate where he needed the flashlight or which screwdriver or pair of plyers he’d need next. I can still remember how dark it got on us the night he helped me rig up my car stereo amp (that was the days before they had prebuilt harnesses). And I can still feel the smooth surety of the hickory handle of that old ax I swung a million times while clearing out the back-five acres behind the house (btw – If you haven’t read that story, here you go). I have a million memories of those times working with him and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing it all to his girlfriend’s early-onset dementia and her paranoid belief that I was trying to take my father away from her.

And to be fair, my father had told me that he wanted me to come up and take some things back home. I think he too realized the truth about his partner, but was just too sick to care to do anything about it. So one Saturday morning, I drove up to his home in Mills River, NC and we went through some of his old tools. I didn’t take much really, just some odds and ends hand tools and some fishing poles. In truth, I left 10x as much as I took home with me. He’d become a bit of a packrat in his old age; finally able to afford the tools he’d longed for in his youth. And so, of a weekend, he would visit garage sales and pick up random tools, even if he had two or three of the same thing at home already.

I think we both understood the finality of my coming up to go through his tools. Up to that point, I would never have even broached the idea of him sharing some of his handyman largess with me. It would have been like asking to drive another man’s motorcycle–you just don’t do it. But as he so bluntly put it that warm Saturday morning, “I can’t keep up this place like I used to. I don’t have any need for most of this stuff now. I want you to have it.”

I made the trip in one day. I refused to stay in the house with his partner and, while her northern upbringing wouldn’t allow her to say it out loud, it was clear I wasn’t welcome anyway. He would pass about two and a half months later. It was a messy death–misunderstood and incomprehensible–like much of his life was to those around him.

His tools now reside in my own matching red and black Craftsman toolbox. His old claw hammer with the dark brown wooden handle, made nigh impermeable from decades of sweat and heat, now hangs from a nail inside my shop over the door. It watches over me with a critical eye, a reminder of a legacy of an insatiable desire to tear down and build anew, and a need to create from nothing. Every time I see it I’m reminded of how short my own accomplishments have fallen compared to his.

At 48, I still have a lot of good years ahead of me; though maybe not as many as I like to think. My manual labor Saturdays end earlier and my joints ache more every year. All of these tools and memories I have will one day be someone else’s to make decisions about. And as it stands now, none of my own kids seem headed in my “handy” direction, so it will probably be the Estate Sale for most of my stuff; a headache for my wife and children. They will disperse it to someone else, never understanding how much I loved the ache and bone-tiredness resulting from many a Saturday and weeknight’s work.

All of this busy-ness is fleeting. Those projects I skipped soccer matches to finish, which seemed so important then, will be nothing more than part of an aggregate dollar amount on a real-estate sales contract when I’m gone–if I’m lucky I’ll be gone.

But the work made my dad happy, and when I’m busily working on a project, particularly one that will improve our house or the yard, I’m at my happiest. Maybe that’s all any of us can really ask for once we’ve had children of our own and our reason for existence changes from satisfying self, to providing for others. In many ways, my little projects offer a bit of both.

Towards the end, my dad expressed regrets. Regrets about the way he raised me, the things he said and did, or didn’t. He never talked specifics, but I always figured he knew how hard on me he was. There was only ever one way to do something–his way. There was no “down time” and had it not been for my step-mom, there would have never been anything but school and work, which was how he was raised, as was his father before him.

I’ve probably gone the opposite direction with my own kids and I wonder if it’s too late now to course-correct. Only time will tell, I suppose. But, if any of them find their inner handy-person calling late in life, I hope my tools–and memories–are still here for them.