The Company Men

I didn’t see the entire movie, just tuned in at the part of The Company Men where Ben Affleck’s character was calling himself a loser at 37. It was easy enough to piece together the facts after half the movie was over. They couldn’t pay their mortgage, their son gave up his Xbox, the wife worked double shifts and the American dream hadn’t crashed and burned but was close to it.

The movie became one of great interest to me after I filled in the blanks. They could have been telling my story since I bear the scars of two layoffs.

The first time I became an unbearable cost at a progressively impoverished corporation I left them my jar of pennies and a note saying it was a donation to help stall their imminent financial demise.

The second time around I wasn’t quite as cocky. I was older and nervous. At that time plan B hadn’t yet made an appearance. The fog was dense. There was no occupation or income to state on any forms, there was a massive student loan that would once again start burgeoning out of control by feeding on capitalized interest while the payments got deferred. All degrees of freedom were gone, obliterated. I was alone, losing oxygen.

There were those moments of self-loathing that can only come to a firm believer in choices and consequences. Was my past littered with bad choices and bad decisions? Had I willingly drained my career of all its lifeblood, was I incompetent and ill-equipped for life.

And then there were the moments lit by the sickening light of the thing called hope that said none of this was my fault, that there was no longer any stigma attached to the loss of one’s job, that we were all together in this sinking, stinking ship.

Neither realization allowed for the tearing of a check from that meaningless checkbook, tied to a bank account that was in the red and getting redder by the minute because of the fees banks liked to charge accounts that didn’t have sufficient funds on deposit, and to write a check to the mortgage company.

They said money can’t buy happiness. In that state of impoverishment one hoped that the originator of that saying had faced a firing squad in some dictatorial regime for having uttered those inane words.

Happiness. What is happiness if it isn’t being in a state that provides infinite degrees of freedom? And degrees of freedom are always bought or sold to the highest bidder.

The sun still came up when it did, time continued its brazenly audacious task of aging you out of any potential open positions meant for unscarred young things who had just tacked up a framed degree somewhere in their 500 sq ft studio apartment above a Manhattan bodega.

So there was a lot of sitting around, walking, flailing, falling and squinting for direction through the thick fog. But fogs are just that, fogs; wispy, temporary, a veil, not a wall. If one staggers through it, collects a few burrs, stumbles over some logs and steps in some ditches eventually a bramble free path does emerge.

I find myself on just such a strange path now. The game has changed and the rules get made along the way. The lesson one learns is to shake any residual belief in permanence, to distance oneself from historical lessons and from the idea that the past has any bearing on the present.

The brilliant nerds around us get rich and richer by designing and programming gaming scenarios where one battles lurking danger, vanquishes, conquers or surmounts and proceeds to the next level.

No game addict quits after level one and no life addict should either. It is all one massive exam; solve a problem move on, solve another move on and continue doing it until your body gives out and the soul stands poised for flight into nothingness or into something incomprehensible or unimaginable.

I am in my sinecure hammock for the moment, taking occasional dips in a time soup; Dali’s clock, melted to a point where dawn is unrecognizable from dusk.

I reminisce and recollect my days of enslavement to the clock, the neuroses and the panic it induced, running to catch buses, trains or cabs, screaming at the long procession of red tail lights, praying I won’t be sharing an elevator with a boss who would raise his left hand and train his eyes on the wristwatch there to make a silent point about punctuality. I think about the skipped lunches the forecasts, re-forecasts, the reconciliation of actuals to forecasts, the late nights spent at the office and I marvel at the involvement I had shown, the way I had internalized and assimilated every nuance of the business, only to be summoned to an HR office one Friday to be told that costs had to be cut and that my position was being eliminated.

How can one allow oneself to live and breathe a job that gets “eliminated” without a second of thought by the masters one so selflessly served?

These recollections inspire awe and wonder and reinforce the lesson that your interests are of no interest to anyone but you, that you need to solve your singular problem and move on to the next sans emotion and sans attachment, believing that each step you take is a non sequitur; it doesn’t follow a logical, linear progression.

One only need review my dad’s career and life to verify this: Hawaii isn’t predicted for the fatherless son of an Indian freedom fighter, an in depth, doctoral level study of the Pacific Caulerpa does not predict a life in snowy Canada or in an agricultural university on the outskirts of a small town in Bihar. None of this predicts a lifetime in Delhi, some pioneering work in the area of vocational education in India or a life of quiet retirement in Canada where managing every nuance, every measurement and every reading of one’s blood pressure or sugar or creatinine is as much of a full time job as the founding and running of an institute of vocational education in Bhopal. Those years have receded so far back in our memories, they offered no hints, no clues in 1996 about what 2013 would have in store for him.

The dense fog only ever allows immediate action on that which stares us in the face, the rest lies in wait, asleep, awaiting our tread.

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