What I Don’t Know About Once in a Lifetime 

Friends of mine were making fun of music appreciation classes the other day. I’ve never taken one, but I did go through a period where I fell in love with classical music. Studying and exploring classical on my own really helped me learn how to listen. To music, especially, but also in general.

Another friend shared a really cool video of Kermit the Frog performing Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” She remembered I’m a Talking Heads fan, and she must also know I’m a good bit silly. I didn’t expect her to know how much I like the Muppets. The video clip is fantastic. Kermit (‘s muppeteer) does a terrific David Byrne impersonation. See for yourself:

I love how the video production nicely imitates the official video while paying tribute to the performance — and the suit — from Stop Making Sense.

Some folks see this and go, “ha,ha, that guy dances funny! Look at those weird, twitchy movements!” Some hear it and like the cool bass line; some go to the lyrical hooks. “Ha, ha! ‘This is not my beautiful wife!‘”

Me, I’ve always been interested in the lyrics and meanings of songs. Part of my character is always looking for deeper meaning in nearly everything. Music is particularly magical to me. The blend of meaning in the mix of rhythm, melody, harmony, AND words presents many layers to be interpreted.

And, yeah, I’m drawn to the weirdness.

Having been involved in collaboratively creating songs in a band, I am ever more in awe of the art in which each band member adds their viewpoint to the developing composition. All art being participatory, there’s the additional element of how the listener hears, feels, and interprets the song. It’s been said that communication depends not only on what is said but also, and more importantly, on what is heard. The listener’s point of view informs their understanding of what the musicians put out, and that informs their appreciation of it.

Considering that, when I hear “Once in a Lifetime” these days, I realize I maybe should have listened better long ago.

Go With the Flow

Not long before I first heard the song, when it came out in 1980, I read Alan Watts’ Tao: The Watercourse Way. It was one of Dad’s interesting books I found the book lying around the house. Being the impressionable kid I was, I adopted a lot of the philosophy in the book as great advice. Be like water, it says; when flowing water meets a rock, it goes around it. Eventually, as water gently washes against the rock, it wears it away. In short, go with the flow and you’ll avoid stress.

The Watercourse Way continues to be one of the most influential books I’ve read. And I did let it dramatically influence how I lived my life for decades. More on that in future posts.

As a  teen, the Taoist philosophy I’d picked up led me to incorrectly hear what Talking Heads were saying in “Once in a Lifetime.” The imagery, all the “water flowing” references; I thought they were also saying, “go with the flow.”

Most folks probably don’t actively choose to use pop music as a guide for living.

I’ve never really been exactly like most folks.

Older and Wiser?

The story of my 20s and 30s is mainly one of going with the flow. Not that my life was completely rudderless, but I did get involved in stuff and head in unexpected directions I — looking back — might have been better off avoiding. Now that I’m near (at? past?) midlife, I believe “Once in a Lifetime” may be a cautionary tale about exactly that.

Listening to it with the experience and earned perspective I have now, the “you may find yourself…” lines and “how did I get here?” hold a lot more relevance than they did when I was young. They’re a little less funny and a bit more whoa.

I hear the song now as being from the perspective of someone at the end of life, looking back. Similar, I guess, to that god awful Sinatra song, but with a much funkier groove and postmodern poetry.

Don’t pay attention, let life carry you around without you navigating your way, and before you know it, everything’s over. And you weren’t ready for it.

Not exactly the message you’d expect from a young(ish) group for a young(er?) audience. I, and perhaps others, didn’t get the importance of the lyrics because it was unexpected. Sort of the same reason we don’t really hear advice from older, wiser people when they tell us we need insurance, or to save for retirement. It just doesn’t align with our beliefs of how life is based on our experiences at that age.

But — WOW — isn’t THAT exactly illustrating the point ? “Same as it ever was.”

ONE Lifetime

Here’s something: even if you live a supremely directed life setting and going after goals, time still goes by. Everything you do, whether by choice or circumstance, occurs, in each moment, surrounded by the unique characteristics of that moment, once in a lifetime. You may drive the same route to work every day, but the weather, the other cars on the road, what you hear on the radio, all that stuff and more changes, so each drive is different. Singular. Unique.

The lesson I hear in “Once in a Lifetime” is a kind of old one, directed at the population who follow a plan, or at least a pattern of behavior, letting the days go by one 40 hour workweek after another. They might get the beautiful house and the beautiful wife, but don’t even know how they did. It isn’t purposefully choosing to go with the flow that makes one actually skip living; it’s staying busy with busy-ness, unconsciously going through the motions of work, societal expectations, and even leisure that keeps one so occupied that you don’t realize life is passing by.

I could totally be mishearing the song again. I’m fairly certain I’m overthinking it. Regardless, I believe it is extremely important to know we each have only the one life to live, and it’s a damn shame to waste it away punching timeclocks and watching sitcoms.

Mindful living, being present and fully aware in each moment, I truly believe, is the key. You can’t live every minute like it’s your last — you’ll never get laundry done if you act like you aren’t going to wear those clothes again — but you can choose to live each one like it’s the first and only one that will be exactly like it. What you decide to do with it can make the difference between looking back someday knowing how you got where you did rather than wondering how.

 

 

“Why stay in college? Why go to night school? Gonna be different this time”

I felt suckered.  Or at least a little misled.  I’ve moved past it now, and realize my problem is mostly one of bad timing.

For a very, very long time I’ve struggled trying to connect with the right occupation.  While I’ve seen other people simply glide into work they seem satisfied with, it has been a major challenge for me most of my adult life.  I’ll allow that my problem might be due to a somewhat romantic belief in the existence of vocations; that there really are good matches of work to a person’s skills, temperaments, and talents.  I have also allowed that I might just be mistaken in my belief, and also that I might be wrong that a person should expect to not hate — and hopefully enjoy — the work they dedicate their time to performing.

I have been fortunate to have drifted into work situations which were both enjoyable, personally fulfilling, and excellent fits for my talents.  The years I spent at Borders were especially good.  Managing a Hot Topic was pretty close too.  Unfortunately, losing the job there was surprisingly traumatic, and shifted me into a new period of searching and evaluation.  Truth is, I still deal with this, but my mindset has changed to where I don’t agonize over it quite as much.  And there was a period recently when I thought I’d found the answer, and stopped worrying about it completely.

After a couple of years of daily evaluation, seriously stressing over the options, asking myself over and over what I wanted to do with my life, it came to me, suddenly.  I remember vividly the phone call to my dad where I excitedly told him about my epiphany:  I was going to be a paralegal!

Paralegal was one of the occupations on a short list I made a few years back (the others?  OTR truck driver and private investigator), so I had considered it a good bit.  I even picked up a book a few years ago, long before ever REALLY giving it a shot.  At this particular point, though, it seemed to make a load of sense.  I saw list after list of growing occupations and best fields to go into which ranked paralegal as one of the top options.  Demand for paralegals and legal assistants was projected to continue growing in the next several years.  I researched and found out what starting and average salaried for paralegals were, including in Charlotte, and they were perfect for my standards.  The paralegal role and duties — writing, researching, evaluating, communicating — were a great match for the skills I had developed and which were recognized by previous employers as my strengths.  And as boring as the job may sound to some people, to me it was exciting work, something I could imagine inspiring me to go to work every day for a long time.  And, conveniently,  there were at least 3 reputable college programs in my city designed for working people like myself to gain the necessary education to get a start in the field.  It seemed that with a small investment in money and a doable amount of effort, I could achieve a real change in profession and be on the way to financial fitness and, more importantly, a purposeful, fulfilling job.

Looking back, I can see where I should have been more critical — and it was uncharacteristic of me not to be — of the promises made by the school promoters.  Okay, they didn’t promise so much as reassure, but there was a very casual confidence expressed regarding what could be expected by completing the program, including entering the legal world as an employee.  I was so sure of my decision, and so focused on my goal that there was a very real momentum carrying me quickly forward, and in a hurry to reach my goal, I overlooked some of the real possibilities that might lay ahead.  Besides, I was incredibly dedicated; I was certain I would achieve my goal.

Part of the reason I was convinced being a paralegal was the right call was due to a recent career exploration and educational experience. In a not-as-brilliant or quite as thoughtfully planned (but with interesting parallels) realization, I had decided getting a real estate license would be a good move.  Again, I had evaluated several options, and it appeared to be a good means to great income with minimal investment.  The real estate course was just over $300 and would last only a few weeks, with classes a few days a week.  when it was over, I figured I would be licensed and could either enter the high-rolling world of real estate sales, or move on to something like property appraisal.  In the end I didn’t pass the licensing exam (I wasn’t able to study properly due to outside issues), and, coincidentally, the market was just starting to turn downward.  I wound up deciding I wasn’t really interested in being a RE agent.  But through the classes I did discover something exciting:  I really liked completing the HUD-1 forms, and enjoyed the challenges of working through different contracts.  So you can probably see here where the connection to the paralegal path was made.

I made sacrifices to attend the paralegal classes.  The hardest was leaving the band I was in.  I also took on several thousand dollars more debt (the opposite of what I wanted, as I was trying to eliminate debt, that being my other main source of stress — but if I finished the program and got a good job…) in order to afford the program and books.  I gave up free time and replaced it with hours spent studying and working on class projects.  And I had to take a job not really paying enough for my expenses because it fit the schedule I needed.  No complaints from me, though, because I could see the end goal, and knew it would all be worth it in short time.

It was the second time in my life when I thoroughly believed I knew EXACTLY what I should be doing with my life.  And it was the second time things didn’t work out.

I earned my bachelor’s degree (and an associates degree!) in preparation for the ministry.  In high school I felt a true calling to the ministry, and spent the next several years moving toward serving in the church, never, EVER giving it a second thought or moment’s doubt.  Until I did wind up working in a church.  The experience was so bad — and, granted, other things were happening to change my life at the time (to be written about in greater detail elsewhere) — I felt little choice but to abandon that position.  Maybe that’s why I’ve had so much difficulty finding a real purpose or satisfying job?  Maybe I’ve been a little like Jonah, running away from my real calling?  I really don’t think so.  Still, since then I have never felt so sure of a direction.  Except maybe pursuing the paralegal role.

Which brings me back:  I did great in the classes, if I have to say so myself (this being my blog, I guess I do have to).  There were a couple of challenges getting work completed on time, trying to work it all around a busy schedule at my job and other commitments, but overall I seemed to be making impressive grades and excelling at the material.  I put tremendous effort into perfecting the written assignments, analyzing cases, and researching legal topics.  I listened and got the message throughout the program that finding a good legal job depended greatly on networking.  No problem.  I can’t really say whether being in the band improved my performance skills, but it certainly improved my networking abilities.  I understood, and was prepared to do whatever it took.  First in my class to join the local and regional paralegal associations.  Unlike some of my classmates, I saw the mock interview exercise as one of the program’s greatest values, and took all the guidance to heart.  I rewrote and revised my resume a number of times, spending days on it, literally, until it appeared to be perfect.

None of that made much of a difference when it came to actually landing a job.  Because the most important thing an employer looks for when hiring a paralegal is the one thing I did not have, and could not easily get:  experience working as a paralegal.  We’re probably all familiar with these Catch-22’s.  For a good while I truly thought I could spin the experience I DO have as transferable skills, and I believed my good classwork and connections I’d made would also speak well of my abilities.  It took me a year to conclude that wasn’t so.

There are things I could have worked on harder, especially with the networking.  But the demands of the job I have already been working weren’t making that easy.  I did consider the internship option, but my financial situation does not make that actually feasible.  I’m not sure how many positions I applied for, but of the dozens I did, I never heard back from anyone.  Not once.  Even the legal temp agencies didn’t respond.

Of course, while I have been trying to find work as a paralegal, the downturn in the economy and the associated layoffs have meant there are a multitude of experienced paralegals and even attorneys out there applying for the same jobs.  I’m not one to easily make excuses, but I’m also a little too old to be irrationally stubborn on a point like this.  After just over two year’s work trying to get to my goal, the smarter and more sensible thing to do might be to revise the goal.  So I happily move on.

With help from friends, family, and some pretty good books, I’m actually feeling a lot better these days about not having it all figured out.  It would certainly be nice to have all the answers, and the means to get to them, but I don’t stress over finding meaning in a job anymore.  And as much as I don’t want to sound cheesey, I have learned, I think, that the answers for me, at my age, aren’t in classes or school, but inside myself.  I definitely see the value in continued learning, and I am learning A LOT these days, but at this point in my life, I think I can do something meaningful with the skills and knowledge I already have, being the person I already am.