Saturday, January 2, 2010

OESTERHOUDT REVIEWS THE DECADE--AND HIMSELF

A REFLECTION

I've always seen life through the lens of history, including my own existence. I have always been able to remember dates with uncanny accuracy. Over the past week, I took the time to reflect on the decade that just ended. It's worth doing: You don't move into a new decade every day. And memories fade fast.

What a perplexing decade. The first decade of the 21st Century was my first full decade as an adult. On January 1, 2000, I was a wild, mop-haired 22-year-old sapling who knew virtually nothing about life. At the time, of course, I thought I knew everything. On December 31, 2009, I was 32 and had been in a committed relationship for more than nine years. My father had died, I had graduated from law school and no matter how much I learned, I found out how little I really understood about life.

Every year brought a new crisis--and a new crisis in values. I learned to take absolutely nothing for granted. In my first full decade as an adult on this planet, I saw that life is precarious. And I learned you need to savor it. I determined never to let myself forget that.

But today I want to talk about more than myself. I was not the only person (or thing) who changed over the past ten years. No, the world, too, changed immensely between 2000 and 2009. Put simply, these were bleak times. We endured stolen elections, mass murder on American soil, foreign wars, government fear-mongering, out-of-control corporate excess, lending abuses and ultimately the worst economic crisis since 1929. These were the Bush years. These were the years when the world learned to hate the United States more than it ever has in the past.

I am an amateur historian. So today I will try to sum up the decade as briefly as I can. In the process, I will try to encapsulate the spirit of these profoundly difficult times. To that end, I will write a few words about geopolitical developments that occurred during each year in the decade. Then, for perspective's sake, I will write a few words about things that happened in my own life during the same time.

In 2000, America relished dot-com prosperity. Most Americans had good jobs. There was a budget surplus. Still, many Americans did not like the man whose rule made these things possible: President Bill Clinton. They blamed him for fornicating in the Oval Office. That fall, Americans went to the polls. They had a choice: They could pick Al Gore if they wanted to continue the Democratic policies that led to prosperity in the late 1990s; or they could pick George W. Bush, the Texan challenger who offered a chance to chastise Bill Clinton for his sexual escapades. In the end, Al Gore got more votes, but George W. Bush won the election. The Supreme Court decided who would be President by a 5-4 vote. That maddening result set the tone for the decade: Ruthless division in American society marked by mutual accusations of unfair play and unbridled contempt on both sides. The era of George W. Bush had begun.

I finished college in 2000. I had no idea what to do with myself. I knew nothing about commerce; somehow I thought I would use my German language skills to land translation jobs and pay the rent in New York City. I rented a roach-infested one-bedroom apartment with a collapsing ceiling on 146th Street for $600 a month (hey, at least it was near the 'A' train). I rode around the city on a bike during the summer. Somehow--thanks to the heady economic climate at the time--I managed to make money translating German. It was an exciting time for me. I met the love of my life in June; I have been with him ever since. At one point, I even had the most money I have ever had in my bank account: $10,000. I turned 23.

No one will ever forget 2001. In fact, the government doesn't let us forget it, because that's the year 9/11 happened. Islamic resentment against the United States had been brewing for several decades by the time airliners knocked down the World Trade Center. American involvement in the Gulf War--as well as an intrusive American military presence in the Middle East--had long ruffled Muslim feathers. But Bush and all the pundits had us believe that 9/11 was an unprovoked, totally unanticipated attack. Americans suddenly felt vulnerable; no foreign army had ever attacked American soil in modern times. For a brief moment, the pure shock of the crisis united Americans in an unprecedented way; creditors even gave people breaks on debt. That unity swiftly disappeared, however, as Bush polarized the Nation by committing it to a "wartime" stance against "terror." By December, American troops had invaded and occupied Afghanistan. War had come to America. And we're still living with it.

My fortunes changed in 2001, too. My translation jobs dried up as the economy began to crumble in the months before 9/11. I began to worry about money for the first time in my life, and I made the unnerving discovery that my college education had not prepared me at all for commercial existence. I grudgingly began looking for a "real job." My dissatisfaction grew when I found out that my training in German, Russian and comparative literature did not impress corporate recruiters; they were more interesting in my typing speed. Finally, I settled on pursuing a career in law. It seemed the only thing that accommodated my abilities and offered a salary sufficient to pay New York rent. So I started working as a legal assistant, about four blocks from the World Trade Center. On September 8, my partner and I took a trip to Chicago. From there, we saw the Twin Towers fall. We decided that maybe it was time to leave New York for a while. After all, the law firm where I worked was buried in dust. So we moved to Chicago. I went to work at a law firm there making $31,500. The law firm even gave me a Tiffany ball-point pen on my first day. I turned 24.

President Bush maximized his power in 2002. Using Americans' desperate fear after 9/11 to his advantage, he systematically implemented practices that chipped away at everyone's constitutional liberties. Enforcing the "Patriot Act," government agents began wiretapping phones and spying on Americans' reading habits. The military confined so-called "enemy combatants" at secret installations throughout the world, denying them Due Process and access to counsel. Meanwhile, Americans worried that terrorists were planning yet more attacks. The Federal government fanned their fears with a "five-layer color-coded terror warning system." It has never fallen below yellow, nor has it ever risen above orange. And Americans witnessed the Enron scandal in 2002. They got a glimpse into the culture of greed and excess that marked corporate society during the decade. Sadly, they also learned that these were the folks Bush wanted to protect more than anyone else.

My 2002 was relatively unexciting. I got up every morning and rode the Chicago "El" to the law firm, where I shuffled papers and stapled things for about 10 hours a day. Still, I was very much a careerist in 2002. I wanted to prove that I, too, could make a lot of money. To do that, I was determined to get into a top law school and be a better lawyer than the ones for whom I collated copies at the office. I studied for the LSAT. I filled out applications. I chased down reference letters and made phone calls. I researched schools and their statistics. I thought I would waltz right into the Ivy League thanks to my undergraduate grades. But I am not a standardized test ace, and my lackluster LSAT score led all the top schools to reject me. This was a bitter pill for me. It was the first bad news I ever had in an academic pursuit. Yet I blamed the system for the result. I still loved learning; I did not let a bunch of lowly test-writers discourage me. I turned 25.

America invaded Iraq in 2003. Capitalizing on lingering fears about terrorism--and by convincing the American people that Iraq possessed "weapons of mass destruction"--President Bush claimed that Iraq posed a "direct threat" to American sovereignty. So in Bush's mind, it was no invasion at all; it was "self-defense." The military even titled it "Operation Iraqi Freedom," as if America actually cared whether Iraqis had a democratic constitution. The war swiftly toppled Saddam Hussein, leading President Bush to declare in May: "We have prevailed." But this was sheer delusion. A civil war broke out in Iraq. Resentment against American occupation made existing tensions even worse. American casualties rose, as did American commitments. The mission was not "accomplished." In fact, it continues to this day--with 6,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead so far.

I got into law school in 2003. I landed a partial scholarship at New York Law School, so I moved back to New York from Chicago. I was overjoyed to be back in school; it was so much better than slaving away at an office for $31,500 a year. For three years, I had not really challenged myself intellectually. But once I started law school, I rediscovered why I always liked being a student. I poured myself into study for twelve hours every day. I did very well in my classes, even if I stressed out about them too much. I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I enjoyed what I studied, even if I could not know at the time that it would not help me in law practice. In 2003, I still thought that the law would make me rich. I had every confidence that my grades would translate into career success. My old law firm in Chicago even said it would hire me the following summer. I also swam a lot in 2003; I went to the gym to counterbalance my studies, and I loved that, too. I liked the way my body looked. I had some difficulties with my parents, but that was about my only challenge in 2003. I turned 26.

America began to understand the Iraq war in 2004. To most people, it became obvious that Iraq had not been "liberated." In fact, more major battles took place in 2004 than in the previous year. Additionally, many people saw that American forces were not as heroic as some sources made them out to be. Americans saw shocking images from the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib prison. In those images, Americans did not appear as noble warriors, but rather torturers and villains. Furthermore, Americans began to appreciate how many civil liberties they had surrendered to advance the "war on terror." They began to see that America was losing serious credibility abroad. Detainee abuse cases became big news in 2004. John Kerry tried to bring these issues to the forefront by challenging Bush for the Presidency. But Bush harped on terror and gay marriage to handedly win the election. Although many Americans began to see how much dignity America was compromising in its open-ended quest to "defeat terror," they could not muster the courage to stop the government's spiral into lawlessness.

I finished my first year in law school in 2004. Relatively speaking, it had been a harrowing experience. I remember feeling overworked and stressed that spring. But my toils had been worth it: I was number 6 in my class of 400. Armed with my grades, I transferred to Loyola Law School in Chicago after my old law firm assured me that they would offer me a job that summer. Unfortunately, after my partner and I had rented an apartment and moved back to Chicago, the law firm told me "they could no longer afford to hire me." This was a serious disappointment. But I made the most of it and attended to my legal studies with the same zeal as ever. In the fall, I contracted a strange infection that damaged my inner ear. I lost my hearing in one ear for several months, and my equilibrium has never been perfect since. I had some troubles with my partner as he struggled with depression and anxiety. I turned 27.

In 2005, America saw who was really important in society. That year, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the gulf coast. President Bush famously did nothing, allowing the poor black people to drown and starve waiting for aid. He did not even tour the disaster site, choosing instead to fly overhead, remarking: "That looks pretty bad." Congress passed a law in 2005 limiting consumer access to bankruptcy, further supporting the big business and banking interests that formed the Republican base. As in 2002, we learned who was really important in George Bush's America: The big corporations and banks. At the same time, lenders and traders began profiting from Republican policies that deregulated the financial industry. A false prosperity began to develop, propelled by predatory loans and fraudulent credit practices.

My law school career neared its end in 2005. During the summer, I took my first real "legal job" working as a law clerk at a Chicago personal injury firm. I enjoyed the work, winning many accolades from my bosses for my writing, theory and research. I dove headlong into the theoretical aspects of the law, and that served me well as I molded strategies for every case that crossed my desk. At the same time, I took a passionate interest in constitutional law, which made sense because it represents the intersection between law, history, policy, politics, ethics and philosophy. I had never been so excited about the law. By 2005, I had developed a real fluency in legal doctrine; and I put that fluency to work for me. I had no reason to think that I would not be happy in the profession. I briefly separated from my partner during the spring, but we reunited stronger than ever a month later. My partner reconciled with my parents in 2005. Things were looking very promising for me. I turned 28.

President Bush's fortunes began to change in 2006. Public dissatisfaction grew as the war in Iraq ground endlessly on. Although Bush declared that his 2004 election victory gave him a "mandate" to broadly legislate on major issues, he suffered a critical setback in 2006 when Republicans lost their congressional majority. Without congressional support, Bush's sweeping conservative rhetoric became toothless. Although the Nation continued to bask in deregulated prosperity in 2006, more and more Americans saw that economic trouble lurked just around the corner. Unemployment inched upward in 2006. Mortgage defaults accelerated as consumers discovered that banks held "adjustable rate" powers that tacked interest onto principal, resulting in permanent, increasing debt. Although Wall Street remained strong, ominous signs about the Nation's financial future began to appear.

My life changed for the worse in 2006. In January, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He fought hard, but by June he was dead. This cast a pall over my existence. I lost interest in the career path that had entranced me for the previous five years. If, after all, everything could end as quickly as it did for my father, why should I really stress out about petty things like money and jobs? Yet through all this I managed to finish law school and pass the Bar Exam. In hindsight, I don't know how I managed it. My perspective on life fundamentally changed in 2006. I carried that new perspective with me as I began practicing law in Chicago. I absolutely hated it. Practice was nothing like the happy legal theorizing I did in 2005. No, practice was all about money. My bosses ridiculed me for indecision. They mocked me for caring too much about justice when money was at stake. At the firm Holiday party that year, I saw "successful" lawyers falling all over each other drunk. They yelled, cursed, boasted and acted like children. At that moment, I decided that I could not practice law. I saw that law was a business, and it chafed against my very spirit. I did not know what I would do. I had spent three years pouring my heart into legal doctrine, yet I could not practice it. I didn't care. My father's death forced me to deeply question all the things that people are "supposed to do" in life. I turned 29.

America blundered ever closer to financial collapse in 2007. As the decade entered its later years, Bush lost more and more influence. Still, the war in Iraq droned forward, claiming more and more lives. Unemployment grew in 2007, even though Wall Street continued to report gains. Deregulation seemed to be working; people could still buy homes without putting money down. A deeper and deeper rift grew between rich and poor in 2007. The bubble was growing. And men like Bernie Madoff took full advantage of it.

Life did not get any easier for me in 2007. Having questioned my career in the law, I toyed with the idea of becoming a judge, or at least a judicial law clerk. If I could not practice, perhaps I could find a place for my intellectual passion in government. It was not to be; no one was hiring thanks to a "budget freeze." So I made ends meet by working as a legal consultant. This suited me. I did not have a boss; I was not under pressure to woo clients or make money. I just put in my time without stress and went home with a paycheck. True, it was not very stimulating. But it gave me a chance to meet interesting people and live my life in some peace. In August, however, disaster struck. My partner suffered a freak burn accident that left him in the hospital near death. He stayed there 35 days. His heart stopped twice on the operating table. I was at his side the whole time. He came home in September; our life has never been the same. I had to learn to be a nurse as well as a wage-earner. I dressed his wounds every day, I managed his medications and I held his hand when he was scared. It has been a full-time job, and it has not ended. Once again, I came face to face with death. I almost lost him, just one year after my father died. That experience convinced me yet again that I made the right decision to abandon "careers" and simply focus on living life without unrealistic expectations. Life is precious; and it can end more quickly that you can possibly imagine. There's no time to worry about inconsequential things. I turned 30.

In 2008, America experienced what happens when you deregulate financial markets. In 2008, America suffered the consequences of Bush-era economic policies. Wall Street collapsed in September, necessitating massive governmental intervention to rescue financial institutions that were "too big to fail." By divorcing government from business, Bush spurred artificial growth during his term. But in so doing, he gave free rein to greed, which ultimately destroyed the economy. Unemployment rose to dizzying heights. People could no longer pay their mortgages. Record numbers pled for government aid. For the first time in decades, Americans wanted increased government intervention into economic and social affairs. Seizing the moment, a new political force arose: Barack Obama. At this critical juncture in American history, Obama fascinated the public. He offered a new path to address modern challenges, a path that focused on oversight and socialization rather than deregulation. Critics claimed he would destroy the free market. But in 2008, Americans had had enough of the free market. They elected him in a landslide.

I spent 2008 caring for my partner as he recovered from his accident. I continued working low-stress consulting jobs. After years of study and toil, I finally had a chance to reflect on what I had become. I still loved the law; I simply did not like the business of law. I continued to study law and think about it every day. But I no longer exulted it. Rather, I began to assimilate my legal knowledge with all the other things I had learned to that point. I delved once more into philosophy and language in 2008. I re-read books I had not opened in ten years; and now I could actually understand them. I also rekindled my Wanderlust. I traveled to Berlin for the first time in years and went back three more times. I started speaking German again. And I started writing. I felt I had amassed enough learning and experience to finally express myself with some confidence. I began this blog in September; since then it has reinvigorated my life. I live to write now. I analyze everything with a new respect. Despite all the setbacks, I found something I loved--and it inspired me in a way I had never felt before. I turned 31.

America began traveling a new path in 2009. President Obama assumed a daunting task: Salvaging the United States from financial ruin. Despite vicious opposition from Republicans, he spent huge amounts in an attempt to "stimulate" floundering enterprises and spur job growth. He also committed America to reforming its health care system. Like perhaps no other social issue, health care is a moral symbol for progressive government. Under Bush, health care was just another article in commerce. That led to widespread injustice because many Americans could not obtain medical care for financial reasons. Obama recognized that and put America on a path to increased social activism in government. As laudable as that may be, the battle over health care has turned into a battle for America's soul. Can we become a more progressive people? Or are we so determined to "pay our own way" in life that we refuse to change for the better? In 2009, America struggled to adjust its focus. Plus Michael Jackson died and Tiger Woods cheated on his wife.

I continued to care for my partner in 2009. Although his physical condition improved, his mental condition did not. He began to suffer from debilitating depression during the winter, so much so that he could not get out of bed for weeks on end. This required me to stay at home full-time. Thanks to generous friends, I did this all year. But my partner did not get any better. During the summer, his depression swung into mania, turning both our lives upside down. Ultimately, he had to stay in the hospital for almost a month. After he came home, I once again assumed the nurse's role, but in a much more pervasive way. He has never been more dependent on me, now even for basic life necessities. I am happy to help him. Despite all the challenges, I wrote my blog almost every morning in 2009. In February, we moved back to New York in order to be closer to friends who can help us. I am happy to be back in the city I love. I turned 32.

I do not know what the future holds. But I am oddly confident. My writing has saved my life in so many ways. I have a feeling that 2010 will be a great year for me, and that I will apply all the lessons I learned over the past decade in the new one.

Wisdom truly emerges over time. By that standard, I am far richer today than I was in 2000.

2 comments:

stillthinking said...

I am impressed with your honesty in this post. I am facing a fork in the road right now. I have not yet taken my architectural licensing exams. The architectural community in Chicago (yes, I am from Chicago as well) has collapsed and I just passed my one year anniversary of unemployment. So, the decision I am facing is this. Take my exams while I try to find work in another field and hope that architecture recovers enough to return eventually. Or completely forget about it and just follow a different path entirely. *sighs* Who knows how this is going to work out.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

I am glad you enjoyed it. My writing helps me cope with life in many ways; it even helps me organize my thoughts so I can grapple more effectively with life's maddening twists and turns. I probably wouldn't remember anything I used to think if I didn't write it down.

I am sorry that you are facing an employment dilemma. It is just so hard to make the "right" decision about work these days; the very nature of "employment" is changing.

I can't speak for the architectural job market, but the legal one is just ruinous. I have given up on it completely, but only in part because it's well-nigh impossible to land a decent position when companies don't want to spend any money on new hires. As you know from my post, I have philosophical objections to the profession that prevent me from serving it in good faith.

Don't be ashamed of unemployment. It's not your fault. I blame the private market for the job crisis. Workers are little more than "expenses" in our system. When fortunes are good, people hire. When they're not, they don't. Workers are exploitable pawns. If a private firm doesn't hire you, it's not a reflection on your worth as a person. It merely reflects that a company is unwilling to risk capital on you because it does not want to endanger its profit margin. Don't forget that the only reason a company hires people is to boost its own ultimate returns (less employee compensation).

Still, there is no harm in cultivating yourself as a person. Take the exam. Get it under your belt. Enrich yourself, even if it does not lead you immediately to a job. I took and passed the Bar and I'm not a lawyer. I did it and I can say I did it. No one can ever take that from me, no matter whether it leads to a "useful career."

I know that might seem idealistic, but living for your own intellectual enrichment actually pays its own rewards over time. Money comes indirectly. The important thing is to live according to your own conscience and your own personality. No cash sum can replace that.