Monthly Archives: April 2010

Why Is This Man Laughing?

My friend Walter had an interview with a recruiter the other day about a very good job with a big company that’s looking to expand overseas. Walter has been in senior management with a couple of U.S. corporations, and he’s got a nice house in the suburbs and a lot of toys to show for it.

But he lost his job a year ago, and when the headhunter asked Walter what he’d been doing lately, he said “Working at Starbucks.”

The recruiter blanched. When they tell you in the HR business that it’s easier to find a job if you already have one, they don’t mean making push-button lattes and wiping down sticky tables.

But that’s the economic reality for a lot of people in the wake of what TIME magazine called “the decade from hell.” There are a lot of people like Walter whose chances of landing a job commensurate with the one they had is compromised not only by economic conditions, but also by their age. Walter is 57, an age at which there seems to be hidden code written into the application process that causes your resume to wind up in the circular file.

In other words, this is the kind of situation that causes folks to wake up in the middle of the night trembling with fear, and I’d be surprised if Walter wasn’t one of them.

The party’s over

But the cool thing about Walter, is that after he told the recruiter he was working at Starbucks, he laughed. Not because it wasn’t true, but because…well, what the hell. When you’ve been through what Walter’s been through, why not? Consider:

• He had to borrow money from his father to pay the mortgage and other bills.

• The financial stress has contributed to tension and complications at home.

• He installed hardwood floors and re-tiled two bathrooms, not for the heck of it, but so his house would show better. The house is for sale, and the irony is that the improvements have deepened his attachment to the place.

• The pool table, outboard motor, cartop carrier and other toys are gone, sold on Craigslist. The new floor in the game room is especially noticable because the room is empty.

A new man

So the party at Walter’s place is over, and yet after having a beer with him the other night I thought about how much he has changed, and how much I admire him. Coming to terms with his reality — being more honest with himself and more open with others — have done wonders. That pale, haggard look of the past has been replaced by a ruddy glow.

“Working at Starbucks” is code to the professional class for the ultimate comedown; it’s the materialist version of hitting bottom. And yet when Walter talks about life as a barista, he grins like a kid.

He is the oldest employee by 25 years or more, but he likes his co-workers and they like him. They kid with him, confide in him and respect him for taking on the jobs, like cleaning and sweeping up, that they dislike.

And when a drop-dead gorgeous woman stepped to the counter the other day and Walter’s jaw fell open, they teased him about it unmercifully.

“Hey,” he told them, “I may be old, but I’m not dead!”

A rich vein

What I love about Walter’s story is that in humility he found grace. That in doing something menial and seemingly beneath him, he has opened himself up to authenticity and the dignity of truth.

There is a rich vein in spiritual traditions concerning humility and service. Jesus of Nazareth washed the feet of his disciples. Socrates, the wise man in Dan Millman’s “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” was a gas station attendant. Siddhartha in Herman Hesse’s novel, “Siddhartha,” forsakes his wealthy upbringing to become a wandering monk and eventually a ferryman.

Walter isn’t ready for canonization, but he is a wonderful example for anyone whose life has been turned upside down. We can feel sorry for ourselves and play the victim, or we can dust ourselves off and get on with it. From the look on Walter’s face, it might even be fun.

Tiger on Training Wheels

Sometime last year, when summer had laid siege to Georgia and golf became an indoor activity, I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon watching a PGA tournament. Tiger Woods was in the field and, as always happens when he is playing, the cameras doted on him almost to the exclusion of everyone else.

There is a reason for this. Woods’ astonishing success and multiracial background has brought millions of new fans to the sport. His presence on the tour has been the financial tide that lifts all boats.

But as he strode up the fairway, I found myself wondering why it was that I couldn’t bring myself to like him. I’m no Will Rogers (“I never yet met a man I didn’t like”), but I tend to like people until given a reason not to. So what was it about Tiger that put me off?

When he reached the green, the camera zoomed in for a long, lingering closeup of a face that showed no signs of warmth or kindness. Granted, he was playing a golf tournament, not handing out chocolate eggs to children, but what I saw was arrogance and a sense of entitlement that verged on contempt.

A boy in man’s clothing

It hit me then that this was a guy who had never had to overcome a setback of his own making. Yes, his father had died, but that’s a fact of life over which he had no control. In every regard, his life had followed a carefully plotted trajectory. He had never dealt with self-generated challenges and poor decisions, the missteps that present the opportunity for growth and maturity.

And without that kind of experience, without the humbling and the self-awareness they bring, there is no depth and texture and you are left with a boy in man’s clothing. Believe me, I know; I’ve been there.

How curious then that a few months later Tiger’s image exploded with reports about his extramarital sexual escapades. And how interesting that in his staged and bizarre 13-minute confession a few months ago, he admitted that he’d been acting as if he were above the rules.

By the time he arrived in Augusta for the Masters, Woods was the butt of innumerable jokes and the object of intense speculation. How, people wondered, would the long layoff affect his golf game? And, second, how would he respond to being publicly humiliated?

Arrested development

The answer to the first question was not too badly. He tied for fourth, an exceptional result for anyone else, but about what you would expect of Tiger Woods.

The answer to the second question was not as encouraging. Despite early attempts at acknowledging the galleries and even signing a few autographs, Tiger’s new attitude faded under pressure. It was epitomized on the third day of the tournament when, after sending a wild drive into the trees, he shouted, “Tiger Woods, you suck, God dammit!”

And in a rather surly exit interview Sunday evening, Woods seemed less interested in redemption than in how his game had let him down.

If the Masters represented a kind of armistice for Woods — the media was restrained, even deferential — the truce ended a day later when Jim Nantz, CBS’s mild-mannered lead announcer, criticized Woods for cursing on-camera. And Sports Illustrated published a column by Selena Roberts that labeled Woods a case of “arrested development.”

An imperfect arc

It took Woods nearly two weeks to post an apology on his website for cursing at the Masters, and as with his previous apologies it was hard to believe. If it takes a guy that long to say he’s sorry, maybe he’s not all that sorry. And if true, then perhaps this Tiger is not going to change his stripes.

But what makes this fascinating is that no one can be sure. The human growth curve seldom carves a perfect arc, and behavior with years of reinforcement behind it is not going to change in a few months. Or even a few years. My own experience after coming to my senses is that there will be relapses and further failures.

It takes effort and determination to overcome the habits of a lifetime. It took Tiger a long time to become what many believe is the greatest golfer ever. But as a human being, he’s still on training wheels. It’s going to be interesting to see if he has the determination become a good person, too.

Finally, I make these comments not as a putdown, but rather as observations from my own experience. Only in the past few years have I come to terms with my own immaturity, and  sometimes is seems like eliminating it altogther will never happen. The good news is that while perfection seems unattainable, progress is not and the payoff is life-changing.