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Payback

The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up. — Muhammad Ali.

The other night I had one of those wake-up-and-say-whoa! dreams. It was about Virginia Brown.

I met her in early 1975. I was a fresh college dropout; let’s just say my college life Hindenburged in fall 1974 and leave it at that. I moved back home and got a job in the mailroom at the biggest manufacturing company in town. It employed around 1,500 people, including Virginia Brown.

She was a secretary, and I would see her four times a day as I made my rounds to distribute and pick up mail. She was beautiful and sweet and, unlike many other secretaries, didn’t seem to think she was a higher form of life than a lowly mail clerk.

My job was interesting because it required me to visit every department, both in the offices and on the factory floor, so I was constantly on the move and meeting different people. But even an interesting job couldn’t cure my self-esteem issues or my tendency to address them by blurring my senses every night of the week. Because I was working, I had money in my pocket, but I had no girlfriend, no prospects for a better job, nothing to look forward to.



Oh — I did have a kick-ass stereo system. I had paid for it with the loan money that was going to pay for my spring 1975 semester. I bought the stereo early in the fall 1974 semester. I am still looking for the planet on which this transaction made sense. And dropping out of college didn’t begin to restore sense to my life – not at first, anyway.

As I mentioned, part of my job was to pick up mail, and this often included personal mail. Frequently, Virginia would leave letters in her office’s out-box. They were addressed to a guy in medical school. It made perfect sense: She was a beautiful young woman; she was destined to marry a young doctor. But that didn’t stop me from asking her out to dinner one late afternoon as I stopped at her office. It was one of Bob Dylan’s “when you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” moments.

I don’t know how – it wasn’t anything she said or did – but somehow, the temperature in the room immediately dropped to the point where I could see my breath. Suffice it to say I didn’t pursue the dinner invitation. I immediately realized the “what do I have to lose?” question wasn’t merely rhetorical, because I had lost yet another shred of self-esteem. I had thought people were seeing me as a diamond in the rough. Apparently, all they were seeing was the rough.

This episode didn’t affect our pleasant little conversations, though. But pleasantries between Virginia and me ended after I decided it would be a better idea to go back to college than it would be to replace the lead mail clerk after his imminent retirement. During my last week, I made it a point to say goodbye to all the people who had treated me cordially – including Virginia Brown.

That was 31 years ago.

After I left, the only thing I heard about her was when her photograph was in the newspaper. She was engaged – to a pipe fitter or welder, not to a young doctor. Don’t get me wrong: Pipe fitters and welders possess specialized skills, and some of the smartest people I ever met worked on the factory floor. All work is honorable.

Unless, perhaps, you’re a mail clerk asking a pretty secretary out to dinner.

It’s just as well she declined the date, because my social skills were about as refined as crude oil. And it’s not as if I’ve spent the last 31 years pining for her, because just before I went back to school, some friends (including nodressrehersal) introduced me to the woman I would fall in love with and marry. We’re still married. I’m still in love. I am a lucky man, and I tell her that often.

This contentment is what made my dream about Virginia Brown so unsettling. In the dream, she asked what I had done since leaving the mailroom. So I told her (and this is reality, not dream reality): I had graduated from college, been hired as a newspaper reporter and been promoted to editor. Then I had taken a job as a reporter for another newspaper, where I had worked 20 years, eventually becoming the editor. And now I teach journalism at a university.

She was unimpressed.

Oh, a couple of other things, I said: I’ve been published in a national magazine, and I’ve appeared in a BBC-TV documentary.

She remained unimpressed. Before I could figure out how to impress her, I woke up. I spent a couple of hours trying to decipher the dream and then abandoned the effort. Yet my ruminations caused me to reflect about my life’s work.

Long before my mailroom days, I realized I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what kind of writer, but I wanted to write great work. Enduring work. Of course, when I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be the president of the United States. I wanted to do something that, when I was doing it, would seem like important work – something that would endure.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but long ago, I realized most of my writing already has been forgotten, and after I die, none of it will be of interest to anyone other than my immediate family. And their interest will wane quickly.

This realization didn’t upset me; in fact, it was comforting to finally put my work in perspective. But something I read last night provided a little more perspective. I was reading a back issue of Oxford American magazine. In an essay called “The Dreamer Did Not Exist,” David Gessner writes:

But does anyone really believe that [ … ] any literary mark is even mildly indelible? There is a reason, of course, that few people these days talk smirklessly about “immortality.” Science has extended our perspective so that the time between us and Shakespeare becomes a mere speck in contrast to geological time, a speck that can only seem significant, if not large, in comparison with the planet itself, which is the tiniest wisp of nothingness in the vastness of millions of galaxies. Hard to believe anyone is reading King Lear in the Omega galaxy. Hard to believe the words of Shakespeare would survive a supernova.

So much for the immortality of ink. In that context, a newspaper column or blog post is, as Shakespeare wrote, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.” This is, essentially, what Virginia Brown told me in the dream.

A conversation yesterday afternoon, though, helped me realize not all of my life’s work has been insignificant. I was talking to a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, and she mentioned her nephew. He had majored in journalism and had been one of my academic advisees.

“Oh, yeah,” I replied. “He managed to get it together during his last couple of years.”

My friend answered, “Yeah – and he gave you a lot of credit for it.”

I was baffled. I didn’t recall doing anything out of the ordinary with her nephew. When I sensed he was going off-track, I tried to nudge him back on. If I thought he was screwing up, I told him. When he was doing well, I told him that, too. And during his senior year, we both were able to appreciate how much he’d grown, how he’d started cultivating habits to help him succeed professionally. To my way of thinking, he succeeded because of what he had done. I was flattered to learn he and his aunt thought I had been of some help to him.

That’s the most gratifying aspect of teaching: helping. Last week, I found several reminders. I was reorganizing my scrapbook files: manila folders I keep in an old chest of drawers in the basement. When I was a reporter and someone would write me a nice note, I’d tuck it into a folder. When my siblings graduated from college or got married, I’d tuck a memento away.

As I was going through those folders last week, I found several notes from students thanking me for working with them. I had forgotten about the notes, and in each case, after reading them, I really couldn’t recall anything special I had done. One of the notes, in fact, mentioned what I had told this student when he had tried to thank me before: “No need to thank me. It’s part of my job, and I love my job.”

This – the forgotten help, the encouraging word – is the important work of my life. The students’ notes remind me why I do it: because along the way people helped me and, to my shame, I never thanked them adequately. My work now is payback. Granted, it is not what I hoped for as a younger man. Back then, I hoped for best-selling books, appearances on TV talk shows, literary acclaim or Pulitzer Prizes – all accomplishments to be enjoyed at the moment.

At this moment, though, I am happy with my life and work. I never dated Virginia Brown, never was famous, and never wrote anything that will endure much more than 24 hours. Instead, I married a wonderful woman; accepted the fact that, in Mark Twain’s words, “fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion”; and am content to hope my work will endure, not on the printed page, but in the hearts and minds of the students I work with – and I hope they will pay me back someday by helping somebody else.

That’s not a bad dream to wake up to.

Comments

( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
penshark
Dec. 29th, 2007 09:17 pm (UTC)
I do not have the words to convince you, so I'll simply say it -- you have already written (and, I trust, will write again) things that endure in my mind and memory far longer than 24 hours. And I thank you for that.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 02:04 am (UTC)
Thanks, Carole.
thecriz5
Dec. 29th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)
that entry really hit home.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 02:05 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading and commenting, Chris.
minnesattva
Dec. 29th, 2007 10:31 pm (UTC)
What a lovely thing to read.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 02:07 am (UTC)
Thanks again. This was an odd one in that all of a sudden, the idea presented itself and literally compelled me to write about it. And I've been thinking lately that I want to write longer posts, so this was an opportunity to try to do that too.
minnesattva
Dec. 30th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)
Again this sounds a lot like how I write. :) Just because I have to. I don't or can't do anything else until I do. It's a weird feeling but fun. And I'm glad you're writing longer things.
thenightfly5150
Dec. 29th, 2007 11:24 pm (UTC)
An enjoyable read. Thanks.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 02:08 am (UTC)
More enjoyable than the shellacking our B's are getting tonight, anyway.
vivitalia
Dec. 30th, 2007 01:03 am (UTC)
Well put. I think, more than anyone is usually willing to admit or acknowledge, professors and others in positions of authority or advisement, are instrumental. Too few people actually take the time to point this out. Thanks for nudging us toward the importance of acknowledging the effect so many have on all of our work, development, and lives in general.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 02:16 am (UTC)
I will always be haunted by the ghost of my college adviser and journalism teacher, Dr. Richard Kline. He was the guy who got me to believe that I could be good at something: journalism. Until he told me that, I was just drifting. He was one of the three most influential men in my life.

After I graduated, I kept saying I'd get in touch with Dr. Kline to update him on my progress and to thank him. He died before I did -- and I had more than ample opportunity to do so.

Each year I make a donation to my alma mater in his name; I'm the only one who does so, despite all the lives he touched. Nonetheless, my gesture always feels empty. I'll never forgive myself for not thanking him when I had the chance.
nokomisjeff
Dec. 30th, 2007 01:54 am (UTC)
What you have is all that really matters.

Jeff
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 02:04 am (UTC)
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Jeff. I think about you and your family every day.
tanadariel
Dec. 30th, 2007 05:35 am (UTC)
The work you do, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed. I hope that you continue to recognize that. Personally, your class helped me shape my passions--and that's something that will extend far beyond any career I choose.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 04:20 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Your words are especially gratifying, given the respect I have for you as a student and a person.

I'm hoping this post didn't come off as a lament that what I do isn't appreciated. My intent was to celebrate the fact that although my earlier dreams didn't come true, I was blessed to wind up with personal and professional lives that are deeply satisfying.

The opportunity to work with young writers is truly a gift from God. Granted, I have days at work when I have too much to do and not enough time or brain to do it. But even on those days, as soon as I step into the classroom, all is right with the world. In terms of a career, how could things be any better?
nodressrehersal
Dec. 30th, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful, wonderful piece, just long enough to satisfy my felixwas word craving. I love the journey it took me on from there to here, and I am delighted, as a reader and a friend, with the tone of contentment you end with.

Echoing other's sentiments, I have a folder of yellowed newspaper clips, columns from days gone by. I have an email folder for some saved exchanges of ours, words of wisdom and encouragement I've referred to many times. I have access to your journal entries, some that I reread again and again. 24 hours doesn't begin to cover the staying power your words have.

Bravo.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 07:47 pm (UTC)
As always, many thanks for the compliments, Jamie. The tone at the end results from finally crawling out from under the boulder of a burdensome semester (burdensome because of things not related to my teaching). It also results from giving myself permission to make significant changes in my life -- changes designed to treat myself more kindly.

I truly appreciate your comments. It's hard to believe we've known each other as long as we have, and it's interesting that (in my opinion, anyway) our friendship has acquired more substance through these dancing electrons. That, too, is something for me to be thankful for.
nodressrehersal
Dec. 30th, 2007 10:47 pm (UTC)
...our friendship has acquired more substance through these dancing electrons. I couldn't agree more, and I'm thankful for it daily.

Cmack's comment prompted me that I'd meant to comment on the new avatar as well; I love it. I'm a little more than 1/3 of the way through the book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2001 Pulitzer winner) and I just finished reading a scene with Salvador Dali in it. Which, of course, made me think of you.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 10:58 pm (UTC)
When he was just starting as an artist, Dali was all over the place, stylistically. That's one of my favorites from his formative years, before he became a complete whack job.

I am glad I am able to view his work without thinking of the person behind the work, because he was often a loathsome creep -- as charming as a flea, Orwell once said.

On YouTube there is a clip of Dali appearing on "What's My Line?" It's funny, even though all he says is "yes" and "no."

cwmackowski
Dec. 30th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)
Groovus. I like the new icon, too.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 10:50 pm (UTC)
I was looking for a more mellow icon now that I've finally quit grinding my teeth from the semester just past.
scuba_sham
Dec. 30th, 2007 10:39 pm (UTC)
I've found that the pieces of writing and the people that I remember the most are the ones who aren't "famous" in the way that Presidents are.

Your words are always appreciated. Please keep writing.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 30th, 2007 10:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading and commenting, Sam. Speaking of writing, you've been quiet of late. You're too good to not exercise your fingertips more often.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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