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It has come to my attention at the age of 73 that I am unemployed; that I live somewhere beyond the workforce.
At the age of 7, my inclination was to become a bagpiper. If I had pursued that career path, I might not be unemployed today. At 7, however, there was one strong-willed person standing between me and my dream of piping: my mother.
Perhaps fearing that a beginning bagpiper could wreak even more havoc in a family than a beginning violinist (my older brother), she put her foot down. She appealed to reason. Where could we find a bagpipe teacher in Washington, the city of my birth, a non-cosmopolitan, sleepy southern city on the Potomac, far from the Highlands?
I brooded over my lost dream for about a year and came back with a new suggestion: harp lessons.
Again my mother had her objections. Ignoring the evidence of Harpo Marx, she appealed to the stereotype that harps were played by women with long blond hair. This was certainly the case in our local symphony orchestra. I was, undeniably, an eight-year-old boy with short brown hair.
My final proposal was the piano. At the age of 9, I met with success. I didn’t know at the time that classical pianists were paid for their efforts. What I did know was that they wore elegant penguin suits and immaculate white shirts with shiny studs. This was the life for me.
I practised dutifully and dreamt of myself playing the most difficult pieces to audiences hushed in amazement. It would have been a worthy career.
There was only one problem; real audiences terrified me. In one recital, I left out a lengthy section. Afterward, my teacher consoled me by saying that Beethoven had let me down. She and I both knew that it was the other way around.
I never wanted to play in public again. Maybe Beethoven had done me a favour, for to tell the truth I cannot count. Or rather, I cannot count evenly. This inability has, over the years, ruled out other professions, from ballroom dancer to cross-dressing drum majorette. The fact that my father may have seen the march king, John Philip Sousa, in the flesh was no help whatsoever.
Speaking of my father, I should point out that he was an old-fashioned lawyer.
Four names appeared on his office door. Three of them referred to sleeping partners, literally. My father single-handedly argued and unanimously won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
That would have been a hard act to follow, especially since, though I shared his passion for justice, I did not share his fundamental respect for the law.
How could I respect the law when segregation was a fact of life in my childhood, when the first television show I saw starred Senator Joseph McCarthy playing himself, and when elected officials routinely lied?
I did not have to go to Vietnam. Washington was full of unemployed black youngsters who filled the armed forces. This situation filled me with guilt.
Once, I crossed the United States by train. At a station in Kansas, or Nebraska, I was standing between cars, the warm air gently ruffling my hair. The train stopped at some deserted station and a coffin draped with an American flag was removed.
No one saluted, no one stood at attention out of respect. A young man had unceremoniously come home.
An anger grew in me. The law and I, never the best of friends, collided in Boston in 1965 and Chicago in 1968. I was never arrested, but I admired those who were.
The law, which to me simplistically meant upholding the status quo, would not be my career.
I slipped happily into teaching. Every autumn for 30 years, at least four or five students who cared about important issues would mysteriously appear. They made my career worthwhile.
When I was 40, it seemed as if I would talk myself out by the time I was 65. But when I got to that older age, I felt I was just finding my stride.
The university, ever mindful of birthdays, celebrated my 65th with the equivalent of a pink slip.
I removed my books from my office slowly, in groups of sixes and eights. Soon the tools for my trade were gone.
How could I rejoin the job market? I thought of becoming a crossing guard. I would have contact with students. I could act as their guardian angel on the way to school.
Then I realized that I would have a triply split shift, and soured on the idea.
Justice still mattered. Maybe I could become a hockey referee. I would stop blows to the head. Maybe I would even make enforcers a thing of the past.
But then I realized that, while counting wasn’t necessary, skating was – to say nothing of skating backward.
I have considered becoming a tennis referee. You don't have to run, except when an infuriated player decides that he (usually it is a he) is going to charge you like a bull. A late friend did this kind of work, in both French and English. He was chewed out by the most temperamental prima donnas in the sport.
Maybe tennis was not a career for the thin-skinned. Anyway, I would have had to learn the rules.
So I am back to where I started. The bagpipes look better and better. Recently, a virtuoso player moved to town. I hear he is taking seven-year-old children for lessons, but he speaks only Gaelic and anyway has an unlisted telephone number to escape telemarketers.
Alan Mendelson lives in Hamilton.