What should I be when I grow up?
My 8-year-old daughter has begun thinking about that question in a serious way. Her younger brother would like to be a fire truck, but she realizes that’s absurd. She wants answers. I have none.
For starters, she is a prodigy at nothing, which is so disappointing to me. I wish she could do my taxes in her head or play concertos by ear. No such luck. Sad! Another reason I have no answers for her is that I have no answers for myself. I worked in radio for 14 years. Now I do this. Neither of those jobs should be anybody’s ambition.
Even if my own career weren’t so disappointing and useless, my opinions about her future would be. The entire conversation is horseshit. I am nothing but a future stick-in-the-mud, back-in-my-day piece of human detritus. In the same way that my dad didn’t advise me to learn how to make iPhone apps, I won’t be able to tell my daughter that she should think about monitoring the biometrics of the inhabitants of the Martian colony.
Don’t misunderstand me. Just because I don’t have answers for my daughter doesn’t stop me from sharing the useless ideas and opinions I have about her hypothetical career. My dad, who failed to predict the iPhone, did the same for me. His ideas were useless, too. Here are a few of them.
Every Saturday morning, we listened to Car Talk. Dad participated in that show the way other people play along with Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy! Judy from Jackson Hole would describe the trouble with her Pontiac, and before Tom and Ray could bahge in with their heavy Boston accents to offer a suggestion, Dad was there: Her timing belt’s about to go! The plugs are fouled! Check the alternator!
Back then, life itself was one long episode of Car Talk. The vehicles Dad owned were in a constant state of near-collapse, and the mechanics who ministered to them were the closest thing we had to priests. We called them by their first names. Talked to them more often then some family members. When trouble arose, we’d wheel the patient in, and Dad would consult the greasy gentleman with the meaty forearms. There was the surface conversation about cylinder heads and gaskets and fuel injectors, but there was a deeper conversation too: Is all of this pointless? Will futility overtake me? How much longer can this burden weigh me down? Frank the messianic mechanic would ponder and grunt and jiggle a few hoses and render a judgment: “Take me a couple weeks.”
Sometimes we practiced this religion at home, without the guidance of a spiritual advisor. Dad’s 1977 Volkswagen camper van had a tendency to partially disassemble without warning, like a half-baked Transformer. I learned how to swear while watching him reattach the sliding door every other week. Once, we spent a couple of days replacing the rear brakes. I was around 10, but I knew enough to be morbidly fascinated with the flimsiness of the machinery that was supposed to save us from careening through busy intersections.
When I was older, Dad bought an MG roadster. The engine was seized, and the body was eaten through with rust. We were going to restore it and zip around the country highways of northern Ohio, mooing at the cows. Instead, the MG sat in the garage for years, as indifferent and resolute as a boulder dropped by a retreating glacier.
Now I own a modern car with airbags and a working radio. When it’s time for maintenance, I drive it to the dealership and fuck around on Twitter while some nameless dude in the back changes the air filter. The older brother from Car Talk is dead, and somewhere the carcass of that MG waits without worry for the brisk wind of a country drive. Chin up, little guy.
If car mechanics were my father’s high priests, then meteorologists were his televangelists. He was as obsessive as an ancient mariner. Was there a low-pressure system on the way? Lake-effect snow? Could we expect thunderstorms tomorrow afternoon? Back then, the most up-to-date information could only be found on the late newscast. Sometimes, I’d stay up with him, waiting for that smooth-talking soothsayer to appear in front of a map, murmuring about wind chill and dew point and the jet stream. His predictions could preserve—or destroy—our plans for the following day. Sitting there next to Dad, staring at the little black and white television, I was on pins and needles.
Now that I can see the exact wind speed and barometric pressure of the weather station nearest my house any time I want—now that the radar is in the palm of my hand, and I could spend the day watching the progress of green splotches across the map—I have no interest at all in meteorology.
My father remains vigilant, but we live so far apart that his net is a little too wide. He’ll text when he sees that a line of thunderstorms has passed anywhere over the southern third of the Mississippi River. (I live in Memphis.) “U guys OK?” Usually, this confuses me. It’s likely that I’m playing with the kids in the backyard, debating whether it’s sunny enough to make them reapply the SPF 50. “Yep. Why?” I ask. “Storms.”
In my dumb-kid brain, there was no job cooler than this. A locksmith was a magician, spy, and craftsman all rolled into one. A locksmith could use his powers for good to rescue damsels in distress, or he could laugh in the face of society, exposing all of its most hidden secrets. Your locks mean nothing to me!
I’m positive this opinion was heavily influenced by a series of pulp sci-fi books my dad owned that featured a futuristic bad-boy who possessed, among other skills, the ability to pick any lock, anywhere, in no time at all. No door was closed to him; no cage could hold him.
Dad added fuel to the fire with his insistence that if I became an apprentice locksmith, by the time I went away to college, I would have enough skills to go into business letting grateful students back into their apartments and cars. I imagined damsels in distress, but it turned out that he severely overestimated the frequency of lockouts. The only ones I remember happened in a dorm, and that was the RA’s problem.
My opinion of locksmithery has come down, though I remain a little smitten. There’s a locksmith about a mile away from me who works out of a small metal shack next to the train tracks. It sounds terrible, but I bet that guy owns a speedboat and a lake house, and here I am, buying the Kroger brand of tuna to save 30 cents, grinning while I watch him carve out a spare set of keys for the catsitter.
This one is a complete mystery to me. Until I was 13 or 14, we only lived in rental properties. There was never any land we were in charge of ’scaping. I was not especially proficient at identifying trees by their leaves. I did not yearn to reposition flowering bushes with their fullest sides facing the street. I did not revel in the undulating illusion of a lush, gently rolling lawn.
And yet, Dad urged me again and again to consider the fascinating field of landscape architecture. My best guess is that he was encouraging me to think big. After all, a landscape architect decides which azalea goes where, but it’s some other poor bastard who does the digging.
When I didn’t reach for the brass ring, I was assigned the poor bastard’s job. Once he and my stepmom got married and he bid farewell to the concept of landlords, Dad became the landscape architect. I was ordered to clear this brush, dig that hole, split that wood, trim those weeds, and mow that grass. The blueprints were in his head, changeable and imprecise. The projects were often left half-finished, once their scope became apparent.
Now I have my own yard to landscape, and it’s a complete mess. Any plant that enters this quarter of an acre without an inherent tolerance for drought and neglect will suffer a slow, wilting fate. Last spring, I dug up some bushes from the backyard and moved them to the front. They are still alive. It is my greatest horticultural achievement.
I can only attribute this suggestion to blind love. At least, that’s what I want to think. The other alternative is that he was playing a long, cruel joke. During my middle-school years, Dad told me over and over again how successful I would be in front of the camera if I would only agree to let him contact an agent.
No one has ever been more wrong about anything in the history of the human race. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the Johnny Manziel draft pick, and Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture are all tiny little whoopsies compared to this monumentally incorrect opinion of my father’s.
Any neutral observer would have been willing to book me for shoots with publications like Husky Nerd or The Timid Mullet. But that’s it. Maybe Oversized Eyewear and Sweatpants Quarterly would have called, too.
The thing was, I knew my dad was badly, dangerously wrong about this. I thank God that I had the good sense to assess my own awkward ugliness accurately, so that I never had to be laughed out of a casting room. Perhaps he was subtly trying to teach me that adults aren’t infallible, and sometimes they’re unbearably stupid. Good news: it worked!
If any agents want to contact me now, I’m available to book for Blotchy Dad Bod and Sasquatch Swimwear. You really ought to see my kids, though. They’re absolutely gorgeous and would definitely help L.L. Bean sell more rain boots.
Oh, shit. I have become my father.
This was almost the one. I almost did it. But, like all the others, it turned out to be completely wrong for me.
You know how your racist uncle spent your childhood ranting about the Communists and the minorities? My dad did the same, but from the opposite side of the political spectrum. He makes Bernie look like Ted Cruz.
He witnessed what Woodward and Bernstein did to Nixon, and he became convinced the only people who could save us from the sellouts, crooks, sociopaths, and milquetoasts in our government was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking band of cynical journalists.
When Oliver Stone’s movie Salvador came out on VHS, he popped it in the player and took me to school. In the movie, James Woods and Jim Belushi do their level, drunken best to expose the atrocities of a right-wing military dictatorship in Central America. They cheat death and have liaisons with the fairer sex and generally behave like devil-may-care badasses. I was all in. Fight the power!
Later, in my high school newspaper class, we paused our teenaged muckraking to watch The Paper, which features Michael Keaton in his most heroic role: a journalist in pursuit of The Truth. There’s a scene in that movie where Keaton literally fights to stop the presses so that he can exonerate a pair of falsely accused kids. I have never cheered for a character in a movie so hard.
I went away to journalism school, ready to train for an award-winning career full of last-minute flights to impoverished, unstable countries. I was going to keep my Go Bag packed, shame military strongmen, befriend guerrillas, and expose corrupt politicians in Washington.
Then I took a course with Terry Anderson. He was a reporter who was held hostage by Hezbollah for seven years in Iran. Seven years! Here was an actual journalist who risked his life. Immediately, I realized I was a fugazi. Anderson was super smart, with a deep knowledge of political science. He was also a veteran who did two tours in Vietnam. I was a mullet survivor and a pudgy idiot with a moviegoer’s understanding of geopolitics. All my grand daydreams of wine, women, and bullets evaporated. I dropped the course.
The Fellowship of Real Journalists has not suffered for my absence. And every time one of them is killed or jailed or beaten, I think about how close I didn’t come to counting myself in their number. And I walk over to the pantry to grab a bag of chips. Then I sit on the couch and scroll through the rentals on Amazon Instant Video as I wonder what my daughter will be when she grows up.
I hope it makes her enough money to be able to afford an internet connection, so that she can watch Salvador safely from the comfort of her own home.
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.