Give Thanks

24 Nov

Today I celebrate an anniversary: It’s been 671 days since the ink ran out on my sweet magazine writing job. I know, “671 days” is not one of those big, round milestone numbers we usually commemorate, but it’s no more random than the timing of the shut-down announcement that stopped us dead in our tracks a year ago January as we were in the middle of putting together another smart, savvy issue of a magazine loved by so many. What a shameful day it was when 30 uber-creative editors and graphic artists were kicked to the curb by some New York stuffed shirt with the intellect of a Russell terrier.

Yeah, some days my mood is dark.

Other days, though, it’s all love and light around here, and I feel thankful for the gift of freedom. Freedom to take my kids to school in the morning and hang around until the teacher kicks me out, wringing out every last moment of taking in their exhilarating little worlds. Freedom to sit with my wife at lunchtime, just the two of us, no need to shovel food into my face so I can race back to The Next Task. Freedom to write for the sake of writing, to live a day for the sake of living it, to take a deep breath and feel what it feels like.

The emotional climate shifts swiftly and unannounced in my midst. One day recently, a sunny stroll on Main Street turned stormy, at least in my head, when I passed a familiar face. It was a young guy who used to be a waiter at a pizza joint our family frequented. He was memorable to me because, to put it in the kindest of terms, his people skills were a bit lacking. We once had a bizarre argument with him over the manner in which we’d ordered our food. The next time we went for pizza, he was no longer working there.

My wife and I later saw him, to our surprise, at a fancy restaurant where we go every year on our wedding anniversary. He was bussing tables and filling water glasses. Sarah and I quietly debated over appetizers whether this new job was actually a step up for the guy. I said it was because he now had far less direct contact with customers. Still, when we went back a few months later for dinner, our fiery friend was nowhere to be seen.

“Must have poured a pitcher of ice water over the head of some whiny diner,” I quietly joked as I sipped my shiraz.

Sarah almost spit out her wine from giggling, then whispered, “Or dumped a half-eaten plate of food in someone’s lap.”

We laughed and clinked glasses.

I didn’t see the guy again until that day not long ago downtown, and I was shocked by what I saw. He looked scruffy — no, he was beyond scruffy. He looked homeless. I don’t know if he really was, but he looked the part to such an extent that my fragile mind stashed him in a shelter and started wondering where my own life is headed. If this kid could go from working in one of the fanciest eateries in town to meandering along Main Street, how could I feel stable?

I can’t honestly equate this poor guy’s life and mine. Between Sarah making a living with her music, both performing and teaching, and me placing freelance pieces here and there, we have enough to get by. But that’s looking at our situation rationally, and these days it doesn’t take much for all rational thought to flutter away. I tune in a classic rock FM station and hear a pair of nitwit DJs trading insipid banter, for which they’re being paid big bucks, while I’m filing for unemployment every Sunday. I publish a story with an online outlet, then see a flurry of nasty reader comments calling into question my abilities as a writer and my standing as a human being. An editor whom I worked with for years declines to call me back. Any one of those things can sap the life out of me. My resilience ain’t what it used to be.

Which makes me think of the real reason I should be celebrating this day: Seventy-seven years ago today, my mother as born. Carolyn Ann (Smith) Wagenheim was as resilient as they come. She raised me as a single mom, never compromising, never wilting. Sometimes her iron will was a challenge for me to be around — we butted hard heads quite a bit, especially once I was an adult determined to do things my way — but I could never question that this tough lady always, always wanted what she saw as best for me. It’s going on 9 years since Mom died, and for most of that time I’vd pondered what she would think of the grandchildren she never met. Lately, though, my wondering has shifted to what she would think of my work situation. She’d be nervous, because that’s the way she was. But she’d also be pushing me to just keep pushing forward. So I will, Mom, I will.

17 Responses to “Give Thanks”

  1. Rob November 27, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Scruffy.. most definetly; misanthrope…not usually; but you are definetly your mom’s child. Hey, you were a mediocre goalie in high school (prone to the great save, and greater misplay in the same game) but reading this piece reminded me what a great writer you are. Even given the challenges of the times, you are one of the few who are lucky enough to work at something that uses your real gift. Hang in there my man.

    • Jeff Wagenheim November 28, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

      Mediocre? “Great” saves plus “greater” misplays sounds like there was a lot of greatness in my game!

      Other than that faulty assessment, thanks for the support. You’ve always been there for me, my man — well, since first grade, anyway.

  2. lisa horvitz November 27, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    Jeff – you have such talent, emotional depth & storytelling prowess, and when there’s comic relief, you find it. Keep writing. Don’t give up. I’m sure your mom would be so proud of the man you are, including the husband & dad that you’ve become.

    • Jeff Wagenheim November 28, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

      Can I hire you to ghost write my autobiography, Lisa?

  3. Phil Catalfo November 27, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    Great piece, Jeff: incisive, entertaining, and straight from the heart. And as you know, I can relate–at the end of December it’ll be three and a half years since I was laid off from my “dream” job, without even a face-to-face job interview to my credit since. But as you say, there is plenty to be thankful for, starting with my kids, my wife, and our grandkids. And in my case, you.

    • Jeff Wagenheim November 28, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

      Yes, there’s lots to be thankful for, Phil, and your friendship is high on that list. Unlike yours, of course, my thankfulness list does not include grandchildren, and at this point neither of my kids seems the least bit interested, even knowing it would add to my joy. But I’m OK with that.

  4. Sarah Buttenwieser November 25, 2010 at 2:03 pm #

    Observing–really drinking it in–makes one all the more grateful & vulnerable at once; we kind of need the one to live with the other.

    What a mom you had; what a dad she helped you to become.

    • Jeff Wagenheim November 25, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

      Thanks for the kind thoughts, Sarah. An interesting concept, gratitude and vulnerability going hand in hand.

  5. Molly@Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce November 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    Thanks, Jeff, for this insight into a part of you I haven’t seen before. I can definitely relate to your comparison of yourself to others and your question as to whether you are closer to the edge than you realize. But I think that your focus on resilience is a great idea because it keeps you busy working towards something better and away from contemplating falling into the abyss.

    I read a great article on the secrets of resilient people. Check it out.

    • Jeff Wagenheim November 25, 2010 at 2:34 am #

      Thanks for feedback, Molly, and also the article. Those tips are good to keep in mind — all except the lipstick.

  6. Lauren (LJ) November 24, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    We all get to where we are going by the paths we create for ourselves! I too worry about these things, but it is these same worries that push me to go further and to do what I want to do! Maybe it is risky, sure, but at least I will enjoy it 🙂

    • Jeff Wagenheim November 25, 2010 at 2:36 am #

      I like the “enjoy it” part. Give me more of that!

  7. Tracy R November 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    Sometimes all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope that you end up someplace interesting. And I’m pretty sure in your case that does NOT mean as a homeless, scruffy misanthrope.

    • Jeff Wagenheim November 25, 2010 at 2:42 am #

      As you may remember from many years ago, I’m experienced at having the look of a “homeless, scruffy misanthrope.” So that won’t keep me from continuing to walk forward.

  8. susan rees November 24, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

    Lately my patients remind me acutely of how tenuous my own situation is, so I can imagine how the trajectory of the waiter’s path might affect you. Every time I admit a woman who was born in my year whose life has fallen apart, I feel both nervous and appreciative at once

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