I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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I went to a conservative Baptist college in Tennessee mostly because it was cheap. There I was taught it was wrong for any Christian to drink. My parents weren’t against drinking; Dad often had a beer with supper on hot summer evenings. Though I’d never tasted alcohol, I wondered why my instructors felt it should be banned. Could something God had created be essentially evil? Hadn’t Jesus’s first miracle been changing water into wine?
So I decided to write an essay for English on whether or not good Christians should drink. I would wait until after I’d done my research before making up my mind as to alcohol’s morality or immorality.
Our professor said we would need to present a thesis statement before we began. When it was my turn to read my thesis before the class, I said I would “study the stance Christians should take toward alcohol.” The professor assumed this meant I would write an essay on why Christians should not drink.
I didn’t correct him.
Although I found more scriptural evidence supporting the consumption of alcohol than opposing it, I focused on the verses that could, if interpreted a certain way, make drinking alcohol seem a sin.
I got an A.
I sit in administrative segregation — also called “the hole” — in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison and think about what led to my incarceration. I was raised in a not-so-loving home in a gang-and-drug-infested neighborhood. I joined a gang at the age of twelve, because I thought it would give me the love I didn’t receive at home. I was a dedicated gang member and felt no guilt or remorse for my violent actions. I placed my homeboys above everything else. When they needed me, I was there for them. But when I needed them, they were gone. I committed a homicide and was given a life sentence.
In early 2003 I arrived here at Pelican Bay, where the gang’s “elders” are and where gang unity is at its height — or so I’d been told. In reality I witnessed nothing but favoritism and abuse of authority: homeboys having other homeboys knifed just because they didn’t like them.
After eighteen years in the game I’m tired of the gang politics and back stabbing. This year, for the first time in my life, I decided to distance myself from my gang ties. In the gang’s eyes I sold out. Those same homies I fought alongside now want to kill me. But that just tells me they were never my true friends. I’m finally free. I don’t have to follow their rules anymore or do anything I disagree with. Guess what? Selling out feels good.
Crescent City, California
I stood in the store aisle and waited for another customer to choose his groceries and move on. I wanted no witnesses to what I was planning to do. As soon as the man left the aisle, I quickly grabbed a box of instant mashed potatoes — a store brand, the cheapest kind — and threw it into my cart.
No big deal, right? Lots of people use instant mashed potatoes. But not me. Never in my life.
I have sold out bit by bit over the years. As a new young mom, I made homemade baby food with a grinder. I always made spaghetti sauce from scratch and never opened a jar of Ragu. I made my own yogurt and even squeezed fresh limes for margaritas.
I stopped making yogurt more than a decade ago. And even though I add meat and veggies, my spaghetti sauce now comes from a jar. I drink my margaritas at Mexican restaurants, which, I am sure, use a mix.
But I love real mashed potatoes. Crossing the instant-potato line is a major milestone in my selling-out process. What’s next? Minute Rice?
Early in my first year of teaching junior high school, the principal summoned me to her office. She was strict but kind, and I respected her. She said the parents of one of my students — I’ll call them the “Joneses” — wanted to meet with me that afternoon to discuss their son’s ineligibility for the big game that Sunday. I’d given him two “checks” (a type of demerit), and they wanted me to remove one so he could play.
“I support you,” the principal said. “I expect you to be firm with them and not give in to their demands.”
I assured her that I had no intention of backing down. The checks — one for low academic effort and one for misconduct — were deserved. The young man simply would not be able to play football.
The Joneses, a couple in their early fifties, didn’t look intimidating, and our conference began well enough. Then Mrs. Jones said that her son felt I “had it in for him.” I deflected her accusation as best I could, expressing my regret that their son could not play.
“You say you’re sorry,” Mr. Jones said, “but I don’t believe you are.”
The discussion became heated, but I stood my ground. During a lull Mr. Jones leaned back in his chair and in a calm voice said, “Well, then, we’ll have to take this up with the school board.”
The blood must have drained from my face. Before becoming a teacher I had dropped out of grad school and been fired from a job as a chemist; I viewed a career in education as my last, best chance to utilize my academic talents. To be dragged before the school board in my first semester could have been the kiss of death. I panicked and made an about-face so sudden that the Joneses did not immediately realize I was saying yes, their son could play: I’d remove one check.
After the Joneses had gone, I had to phone the principal and inform her of the outcome of the conference. She was surprised that I’d abandoned my stance. Rather than admit my fears, I said that the Joneses had made some good points. The principal cut my sniveling short and told me to go home and try to forget about it.
I did not forget about it. At the first sign of adversity, I had sold out. It appeared I didn’t have the strength of character to teach. I believed there was about a fifty-fifty chance the principal would dismiss me after winter break.
I returned to school on Monday, and little was said about the incident — or the game, for that matter. When the semester ended, the hatchet did not fall. My confidence grew.
After that, at conferences with parents, I made sure to bring documentation: grades, copies of conduct slips, progress reports. I became quick to inform parents of problems while they were still small. I let it be known that I was available after school to work with students who were struggling. If parents persisted in challenging me, I would draw their attention to the many attempts I’d made to inform them of their child’s difficulties and my offers of ways to address them. On the rare occasion when I was threatened with a meeting with my principal or the board, I’d look the parents in the eye and reply, “I think that would be an excellent idea.”
Grand Rapids, Michigan
I grew up in the sixties and seventies, the child of back-to-the-land parents in the rural Northeast. We were a family of four living in a hand-built house with two crowded rooms: one downstairs, with a stove and a dining table and a sofa; and one upstairs, where our three beds were arranged like puzzle pieces. We had no car or telephone, no electricity or running water. If we needed to get anywhere, no matter what the weather, we walked, rode our bicycles, or else depended — sometimes rather heavily — on others to give us rides in their cars. I remember with shame what a pest I was as a teen, asking to use the neighbors’ phone to call my friends.
I attended public school and would get ready in the mornings by kerosene light, struggling to fix my hair in a small mirror with the rest of the family close by. There was no privacy. Our toilet was an outhouse or, at night, a chamber pot. We took baths on Saturday evenings with water poured into a metal tub behind a curtain hung from one of the rafters.
My parents didn’t attend church, but they were deeply religious and conducted daily family “meetings” at which my father would preach. On Sundays the meeting was much longer, ending with the four of us kneeling on the wooden floor while my father ad-libbed a long prayer.
It was a stressful, hardscrabble childhood, but by no means all bad. I loved my parents and valued my friendship with them after I became an adult. But I do remember, as a child, feeling anger and resentment: Why were we the only ones who did everything the hardest possible way? Why did other people seem happier, less careworn and tense? Where did it say in the Bible that technology was bad? My parents’ choices never made sense to me.
After I had left home for college, my parents added two more bedrooms and a spacious downstairs kitchen to the house. “My” new bedroom was beautiful beyond any dreams I’d had as a child, with antique-looking wallpaper and windows on every side. I loved sleeping there whenever I came home.
When, in my twenties, I finally got a car, my parents soon asked if they could have it. I lived in the city, they argued, and could walk wherever I needed to go. So I gave them my car, and they began to drive seven miles to church every Sunday. A cellphone was next for them. Although they never got indoor plumbing, an electrician was preparing to install wiring in their home when my widowed mother passed away unexpectedly a few years ago.
As heroic as my parents’ austere life may have seemed (and I know it did to some), I have nothing but sympathy for their eventual acceptance of modern conveniences. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded if they had sold out many years earlier.
When I was nine years old, my dad died, leaving my mom with five kids and no income. She had never worked outside the house, and we owned nothing but a beat-up car and a bit of furniture. She took a janitorial job at my grammar school, then became a cook in the cafeteria. She was still working there during my senior year in high school.
I dreamed of becoming a park ranger and enrolled in a state college without much thought as to how I would afford it. One day the principal at my high school called me into his office and asked how I was going to pay for college. When I told him I didn’t know, he said he knew of a scholarship that would help, but I would have to major in industrial engineering. I applied for the aid, partly just to please him; I didn’t have much experience refusing advice from people in positions of authority.
I won the scholarship, went off to college, and fared poorly in my major. I wasn’t really interested in factory production and industry. The scholarship was good only for tuition: no money for books, room and board, or other expenses. And I had to spend every other semester working in the factory of the company that sponsored the scholarship. But I stayed in the program.
After graduation I went to work for that company for seven years, longing the whole time for a different life. Finally I quit and moved across the country. Since then I’ve left five more jobs and moved back and forth repeatedly between the Northwest and my native North Carolina. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if I had stuck to my original dream and become a park ranger.
Asheville, North Carolina
Dana, Ulrich, and I ducked into a dive bar not far from the San Francisco Federal Building, feeling pretty heady. We ordered drinks and made our way to a booth against the wall. The TV above the bar showed cars burning on the Bay Bridge — one of them a police car. We’d had our own successes that January day in 1991. I personally had started a fire that would destroy an armed-forces recruiting office.
My friends and I were part of the Bay Area protests against the impending invasion of Iraq. The streets had come alive that day. I imagined a future of activism and resistance for all of us.
Dana was the first to drift away — off to grad school and then an Ivy League teaching job. Ulrich found work in the Berlin film industry. I believed I was staying true to the cause as I dropped out of grad school and moved around the West, refusing to succumb to the culture’s demands. But I was falling prey to a more subtle enemy. Drinks at bars became drinks at home. Drugs with friends became drugs alone.
In March 2003, when another President Bush invaded Iraq, I didn’t make it down to the Federal Building. Instead I finished the last of a six-pack and headed off to my job waiting tables. I needed money for dope.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, it was the beginning of my political coming-of-age. I was fourteen and anxious to throw off the values of my parents’ generation. Young men were dying in Southeast Asia. César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr. were speaking out for the rights of minorities at home. There were so many wrongs to be righted.
I grew my hair long and wore a wooden cross on a leather strap around my neck. I was a so-called Jesus freak, a member of a counterculture within a counterculture, a hippie who did not smoke pot or practice free love. After college I was ordained as a minister, taught in an inner-city school, and later became principal of the school.
When I first heard about personal computers in the late seventies, the idea fascinated me. I had to have one. By the early eighties I had taught myself to program and found a job that paid double what I’d made as a principal. The money wasn’t important to me, though. Computers just captured my imagination.
For the next twenty-five years I worked in the computer industry and ended up as a senior-level manager with a six-figure income. Sometimes I would chide myself for selling out, but most everyone else my age had done the same. And I was still a Democrat and still opposed to our nation’s sending young people to die in a foreign land. Had I really sold out?
Next month I will turn sixty. I’m experiencing a new coming-of-age. This time my hope is not political, or religious, or economic; it is personal. I have returned to school to get a degree in marriage-and-family therapy. I will also reclaim my roots in the ministry by training as a healthcare chaplain. I want to be present for those who need help. In my sixties I am buying back in.
Long Beach, California
I used to write a free online newsletter for a small publishing company. When I started, we had twenty thousand readers. Then we had forty thousand, then eighty thousand. I remember being asked to explain to a roomful of suits why, if I had quadrupled the number of readers, I hadn’t brought in more book orders.
I remember the first time I was told to use more photos in the newsletter because “that’s what sells,” and the first time I was told to use fewer photos because “that’s what sells.” The first time I was told to write shorter, or longer, or on a different topic. With more links, fewer links, or with buy now buttons in red, blue, or green, because everyone knows “that’s what really sells.”
I remember the first time I was asked to lie about one of our products and the first time I said no. The first time a marketing manager rewrote the text in my newsletter and sent it out without telling me. The first time a co-worker said, “I’m glad I don’t have your job.” The first time a stranger asked, “So, what do you do?” and I mumbled something unintelligible.
I remember the first time I left for work with an upset stomach. The first time my stomachache lasted for a week. The first time I cried in the car on the way home from work, and the first time I cried on the way there. The first time I thought about quitting. The first time I worried what people would think if I did, and the first time I worried what people would think if I didn’t. The first time I told my boss I couldn’t do this anymore. The first time in two years that I finally had a good night’s sleep.
After Mom died, I went to live with my aunt. I was nine.
When Dad came to visit, he taught me to drive his 1937 Chevy in my aunt’s circular driveway, and I got pretty good at it. Dad had remarried, but his new wife couldn’t stand me. (I didn’t find this out until decades later.) Every year I wanted to spend the whole summer with them in Virginia, but I always had to leave after one or two weeks.
One summer Dad suggested that the three of us go to a family gathering at a friend’s mountain cabin, but my stepmother refused. So Dad and I drove alone in the old Chevy. There were lots of kids there, and I had a blast. So did my dad, who got very drunk. Several people told him he shouldn’t drive home, but he said it was no problem: his daughter was a good driver.
I was only ten and had never driven on the highway, but I negotiated the curvy road down the mountain and made it through the city streets all the way back to Dad’s apartment. Before we got out of the car, Dad gave me a dollar not to tell my stepmother that he had been drinking.
“OK,” I said, and I took his dollar.
When we got upstairs, Dad fell on the floor, and my stepmother accused him of being drunk. “No, I’m not,” he said. “Ask Jean.” I affirmed his story.
Then my stepmother offered me a dollar to tell the truth.
“OK,” I said, and I took her dollar.
Johnson City, Tennessee
Though my old college friend and I had stayed in touch, our lives had diverged. He was moving up in the world; I’d moved back to the land. He lived an accelerated city life in the East, where people stayed connected through cellphones, BlackBerrys, and other high-tech devices; I lived a rural life in the West, off the grid, in a mud house with a garden and a composting toilet. For years we sent each other handwritten letters across the continent, but eventually my friend persuaded me, with promises of daily contact, to buy a computer and get e-mail.
In the end I found our e-mails lacked substance: a sentence here, a sentence there, all written when we were too busy to share anything of meaning. I felt cheated. So I began writing letters again, and he followed my lead.
Recently my friend wrote that he is worried about the future of our relationship because I don’t have high-speed Internet access, only dial-up, which makes it difficult for me to look at his Facebook or Flickr pages or know what he is doing each moment through Twitter. But even if I could easily access his pictures and read his whimsical quips about life and find out where he was last weekend, it would not be the him I want to know. I could be just as connected to Brad Pitt.
So I tell him that a high-speed connection is not going to bring us closer. In fact it will probably drive us back to electronic communication and take away the one thing I cherish most: his letters. Even when they don’t give me as much of him as I long for, at least I know that at those moments he is writing only to me, and I am getting all his attention. When do we ever get all of someone’s attention anymore? A handwritten letter is a small but priceless gift: the envelope is sealed, the stamp applied, the letter dropped into the dark box. When it arrives, I curl up under my blanket with my tea to read it. It is this ritual that keeps us friends.
I started seventh grade in a new school where I knew no one. I definitely wasn’t cool: I didn’t swear and would happily correct those who did. I spoke of God to anyone who’d listen, and I wasn’t interested in gossip. My clothes were old-fashioned, and I didn’t wear makeup. Consequently I wasn’t very popular and usually ate lunch alone. I was miserable.
I started eighth grade in another school, determined to be cool at all costs. I decided I disliked my name, “Sheryl,” so I changed it to “Sherry.” I updated my wardrobe. I stopped talking, or even thinking, about God and started swearing, smoking, and drinking.
It worked. In my freshman year of high school I was elected class president. When my victory was announced at a school assembly, I thought, If they knew the real me, they wouldn’t have voted for me.
I continued to be “Sherry” as an adult. I became a wife, a mother, and a police officer, and also an alcoholic. Outwardly I appeared successful, but inwardly I was a mess. In 1983 I entered a treatment center to stop drinking.
During my second year in recovery I told my sponsor how I had changed my name when I was twelve. She suggested I start calling myself “Sheryl” again and introduce myself that way at meetings. I immediately worried what people would think. Then I realized that the fear of what other people thought of me was controlling my life.
At the next meeting I said my name was “Sheryl,” and I began crying and couldn’t stop. I knew it wasn’t my name I had disliked; it was me.
Yucca Valley, California
As a psychotherapist I’m always nervous when I meet a new client. Today for some reason my anxiety is peaking. A woman has arrived for her first session on a bicycle, which is unusual in this small Midwestern city. She’s about twenty-five and runs her hands through her short dark hair, creating new spikes in it as she talks. Her underarms and legs are unshaven. She wears no bra, drinks water from a peanut-butter jar, and wipes her tears with a piece of an old T-shirt.
This young woman is committed to living in accordance with her progressive beliefs, but that’s become difficult, she says, since she moved back to the city. She cannot find friends who are as passionate as she is about change. She cries as she tells me of her struggle to live among people who produce so much waste and are so disconnected from the earth. She says she feels crazy for caring that we flush clean water down our toilets when so many in the world don’t have clean water to drink.
As she talks, I become increasingly aware of my well-coordinated office furnishings, my conservative outfit, and the hairstyle I’m constantly trying to keep in place. I struggle to pay attention to her amid my growing discomfort. At the end of the session, under the pretense of helping her feel less alone, I tell her of my days living at a holistic retreat center and eating a vegan diet of locally grown, organic produce. I make a terrible joke about having just shaved my legs for the first time in six months. It’s all I can do to keep from screaming, Don’t be fooled by my appearance! I don’t shop at Wal-Mart! Most of my food is local and organic! My car gets great gas mileage! I promise to stop flushing my toilet so often!
This young woman sitting across from me has become a projection of my younger, more idealistic self, who sits in judgment of me. Though I feel like I’m still the same earth-loving rebel on the inside, I’m sitting waist deep in excuses for having abandoned her.
© Anna Kaufman Moon
When a tsunami struck the Indian Ocean in 2004, killing nearly a quarter of a million people, I was working as a scuba dive master on Phi Phi Island, Thailand. I was diving when the wave surged past, and I got sucked under the frothing water. It took me twenty-four hours to find my boyfriend on land.
Because we were Americans, we were flown to Bangkok for free. People fed us at the immigration office, at the airport, and at the swanky hotel where the U.S. Embassy put us up for two nights. Many Thai people had lost their families, their homes, and everything familiar. I got first pick of clothing donated from the U.S., which was all sized for cornfed folks like me anyway.
I’d always thought that I had pulled myself up by my bootstraps, but my experience in Thailand helped me realize that I’d been granted many advantages by virtue of being an American. Upon returning home, I began refusing invitations to go on backcountry ski trips and other leisure excursions, explaining to friends that if I could afford to go skiing for fun, I should give away the money to someone who needed it.
In the past few years, however, I’ve recovered some of my pre-tsunami carefree spirit. It’s easier to have friends and relationships when I’m not boycotting dinner, movies, and pleasure. For my next vacation I’m considering going on a three-week mountain-climbing expedition in Argentina. It would cost five thousand dollars. To climb a mountain. How many children in the Third World could be put through school for five thousand dollars?
For years I refused to lead my sixth-graders in the Pledge of Allegiance as it was piped into my classroom each morning. I’d grown up in the sixties and marched on the Pentagon to protest U.S. involvement in Central America. I wanted my students to be freethinkers, not automatons ready to do whatever the government told them.
I saw my refusal as an act of civil disobedience, but my students didn’t see the importance of it. They were used to the routine of the pledge, having recited it since kindergarten. Without it they goofed around, which set the wrong tone for the day. I longed for a calm, orderly transition to the start of class. I tried various techniques to settle them down, but nothing worked. They wouldn’t take me seriously.
Finally one morning I instructed the boys and girls to stand up straight, look at the flag, place their right hands on their hearts, and speak together as one. I couldn’t believe what I was saying, but the kids seemed relieved. Life was back to normal.
I remind myself that I recited the pledge as a kid and still learned to question my government. I tell myself my students are too young to grasp the dangers of nationalism and blind allegiance. I hunt for excuses to justify those few moments of peace the pledge gives me each morning.
I was seven years old when I plucked a small shard of bone from my steaming serving of spaghetti and felt my stomach churn: I’d become aware that other living beings ended up on my dinner plate.
In the twenty years since, I have been a moderate vegetarian. I struggle to find a balance between treading lightly on the earth and getting along with other people here in east Tennessee, where to reject barbecue and fried chicken is an affront to Christian family values. I dread the accusatory tone that often accompanies the question “Are you a vegetarian?” I have stormed out of family gatherings, fumed silently at the snide comments of employers, and been attacked for nothing more than politely declining certain dishes. (I have noticed that no one gets mad at the rude guest who curls his or her lip at lentil stew.)
I’ve learned that people who disagree with my stance on eating meat aren’t looking for a spirited debate; they want to cut me down with poor logic accompanied by a fine spray of venom. So I deflect their hostility with humor. “I’m a recovering vegetarian,” I might say, pointing out that I very much enjoyed the bite of organic, free-range beef I tasted last year. For good measure I might express skepticism toward vegans, which usually satisfies the threatened party.
I’ve become an apologist for an insatiable culture ready to defend its “right” to devour everything, everything; a culture that will strip the skeletal trees from the land and suck the marrow from the earth. I have sold out with my silence.
Megan Jewell Kerns
Johnson City, Tennessee
January 17, 2001, was gloomy, gray, and wet. George W. Bush was polishing his boots and practicing his two-step for the inauguration while I was working in the bowels of a Washington hotel that would host one of the many balls later that night. Angered by the Supreme Court’s decision not to allow a recount in Florida, I didn’t feel like celebrating. I poured my frustration into my work and carried on a nasty internal monologue. I should have been out protesting on the streets, not arranging tulips inside a Hilton. I felt complicit.
After my shift, to get to the Metro, I had to walk through a group of protesters who were beating on buckets and chanting, “Hail to the thief!” I tucked my inaugural security-clearance badge under my jacket and joined the chant for a few minutes. I even bought an anti-Bush sticker to reestablish my status as an outsider.
Seven years later, now employed in the media, I was back at the same hotel in a sexy cocktail dress, feeling like some Beltway Cinderella. I’d lucked upon a ticket for the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner, a get-together for members of the Washington press. As usual, the president would be there to make fun of himself. While my colleagues were making small talk with policy wonks and low-level Treasury officials, I gawked at celebrities, took pictures, and tried to keep at bay that creeping feeling that I was selling out. I was a member of the media, I told myself, an objective witness to all this. And we were here to poke fun at seven years of failed policies, right?
President Bush took the podium and made his first joke. I started to laugh, but then memories of that day of hauling buckets of flowers came rushing back. I felt as if, by laughing at this horrible blunder of a presidency, I was abetting it. I took a swig of cheap wine and left for the ladies’ room, sobering up by the second.
Later I walked in the rain to the Metro, holding my high heels in my hand and hoping it was the last time I’d make this particular walk of shame.
Falls Church, Virginia
In elementary school I was a fat, slow-witted kid with no friends. The other boys constantly teased me about my stutter, and sometimes they would run past and knock the books from my hands. I counted as a victory any day I was not forced to drop them.
I was not the only one who got picked on. There was also George, who was even fatter than I was and behaved as though his mind were in another world; if the teacher called on him to answer a question, he would ramble on about something he’d seen that day instead. And there was Lester, who was so thin he was one step away from being a skeleton. He stank so bad even I dreaded standing next to him. Lester, George, and I were the outcasts, isolated even from each other.
One day the class was lined up in the hallway before recess when the teacher went back into the classroom for a minute. Though we were supposed to leave our books on our desks, Lester was holding his in his thin arms. One slipped and hit the floor, and he bent down in front of me to pick it up. I could smell him from where I stood. Paul, a boy who often whacked me on the head, leaned over and whispered to me, “Kick him, Dave. He’s giving you a target.”
I don’t know why, but I swung my leg hard and kicked Lester in the rear. He sprawled on the floor, his books sliding away from him. “Owwwww,” he moaned in a cartoonish way, and everyone — me included — laughed.
The teacher came out and, seeing Lester getting up, said, “Lester, put your books back in class! I’m tired of you breaking the rules!” She led the rest of us out as Lester picked up his books.
Paul slapped me on the shoulder — not his usual abusive hit, but something friendlier. “Good going, Dave!” he said. Then he rushed off to play basketball with his friends. I felt a part of the world for a moment.
The next day I was back to being picked on. But the abuse I took was nothing compared to the memory of what I had done to Lester the day before.
St. Petersburg, Florida
For years I taught a catechism class at a mission church in one of the oldest and poorest sections of Albuquerque, New Mexico: A neighborhood where grandmothers were routinely raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren because households were experiencing three and four generations of drug addiction. A neighborhood where kids came to class with the news that their father would be released from jail for a few hours to attend their birthday party. A neighborhood where gang affiliation began at a very young age. (One Saturday, as a funeral procession crept past the church playground, a third-grader told me, “Teacher, them’s my homies.”)
A police officer from the gang unit appeared as guest speaker at one of our Tuesday-night sessions for high-school kids. A former gang member himself, the officer spoke to the youths about the dangers of gangs, quoting statistics about drive-by shootings, prison sentences, and deaths from drug overdoses. He could see that he was losing his audience, so he went to a chalkboard and asked the kids to name the local gangs.
The room came alive, and the kids started yelling out names: Los Pa, San Jo, Brew Town, Sawmill, Duranes. The officer had to write fast to keep up. Each gang name elicited cheers and jeers from different parts of the audience.
The officer then proceeded to relate his firsthand experiences with friends and family members who were either dead or spending the rest of their lives in prison because of their gang involvement. He exhorted the teens to stay in school and get involved with the community programs offered by the city.
When his presentation was over, we went back to our classrooms for more discussion. I asked the kids what they’d thought of the speaker. After a minute or so of nervous shuffling and blank stares, I heard a voice from the back: “He sold out!”
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Two decades ago I was going to college and working as an engineer in a small factory that made seat cushions for cars. The auto manufacturers were requiring all their suppliers to implement a new quality-control program. I forget the name of it, but like all whiz-bang new business paradigms, it was referred to in worshipful tones by its acronym. Our management spent a lot of time and money training us and getting us excited about the new program.
Alas the quality-control process only showed us more clearly the woeful state of our product. Rather than make our product better, my managers told me to make the data better, to invent numbers. I knew what they were asking me to do was wrong, but the company was my college-cooperative sponsor. If I refused, I would lose my job and be kicked out of college. So I did it.
I received accolades for my “implementation of the new paradigm,” but it was worthless praise. I left the job the moment I was assured of my degree. Those months I willingly lied to our customers still haunt me more than twenty years later.
David J. Huber
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
I graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in journalism, having borrowed $85,000 to pay my tuition. Several months after graduation, I still hadn’t found work, and, living in Manhattan, I was quickly burning through the remainder of my student-loan funds. The only position I’d landed was an internship where my compensation was the occasional free lunch. Finishing off a complimentary hummus wrap, I felt cheated.
I eventually found a job at a health newsletter, earning almost half a livable salary. Because of my “economic hardship,” Sallie Mae let me postpone payments for a few years — giving the loans a chance to build up real interest. But, soon enough, “payment due” notices began arriving, one after the other, with grave persistence. Three years after graduation I owed nearly six figures; my bank balance rarely registered more than two.
As editor of the health newsletter, I was perfectly positioned to cross over to the dark side, where the money was good, and integrity, honesty, and creativity were neither required nor desired. Feeling crushed by my debts, I entered the netherworld of the big pharmaceutical companies.
I was hired by a “medical communications agency” that marketed drugs to doctors under the guise of education. (MDs are granted continuing-education credits for attending events or reading materials produced by pharmaceutical companies.) At the newsletter, medical studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry had been off-limits, but at the agency our slide presentations and speeches were based entirely on trials funded by drug manufacturers. The research almost always concluded that the drug was remarkably effective and posed few serious side effects.
While my co-workers rarely expressed any qualms about the work, I found it painfully unpleasant. For the first time there was real money in my bank account, but it was tainted. The generous salary I earned had been subsidized by the sick and ailing who’d bought medications of questionable value.
Five years after leaving the newsletter, I sent in my last payment on my loans. A few months later I was laid off. Some co-workers called to offer their condolences, but I instead offered them mine.
Montclair, New Jersey