The Next Big Thing

This morning I had the realization that sometime in the mid-1990s I fell unknowingly into a trap of sorts, a psychological condition wherein I would go on a more-or-less lifelong quest for The Next Big Thing. At the time, I was living in Boston, was fresh out of graduate school with one of those oh-so-useful MFA degrees that was supposed to be your entry ticket into the literati but was somewhat lacking in the groceries-providing department. I had found temp work, then full-time entry-level work at a company that anticipated the dysfunction on display in “Dilbert” and “The Office.” It was a natural response, once I had secured that job, to want to jettison it for something better, as soon as possible. The Next Big Thing.

That did happen a year or so later, for another company with a slightly smaller level of dysfunction (what’s the quote? “Functional companies are all alike; every dysfunctional company is dysfunctional in its own way”) and before too long, I was in the similar situation of looking for the escape hatch. By that time, however, I had already hatched my plan to find The Next Big Thing.

This focus on what was just around the corner, where the grass was presumably greener, wasn’t limited to employment. There was a time when a former girlfriend and I mused about moving to Pittsburgh primarily because it scored high on those best-places-to-live lists that now come out every couple of months, but back then were somewhat of a novelty. (We didn’t and eventually split up, although I’m sure Pittsburgh is still a perfectly fine place to live now that the steel industry is both cleaner and smaller. Another city that also ranked high on those lists was Seattle, which truly was about to become The Next Big Thing thanks to a company called Microsoft and a band called Nirvana. Naturally, I arrived in the Pacific Northwest when most of those glory days were past.) Back in high school I’d fallen in love with computer programming, and was considering a career in that Next Big Thing. In that case, my instincts were right, but my math skills were, sad to say, not equal to my level of enthusiasm for the subject. Nor were my acting skills equal to my love of theater, my filmmaking skills to my love of movies, and so on (although on that latter note, I maintain I could have been a pretty good filmmaker from the standpoint of being able to construct a coherent narrative, provided I could obtain the right kind of technical education I wasn’t getting, and didn’t need to wade into the shark tank that is Hollywood to try and play that particular game).

The plan I was hatching in the 1990s, however, was to get out of the country. I’d gone on a rather formative writers’ retreat in the Netherlands, and more than anything else (I didn’t get much writing done there), it opened my eyes to the fact that the world was much larger and more interesting than I’d known, and that furthermore was pretty easy to get out into and explore. I did my research, deciding where I wanted to go (Eastern Europe was rather vibrant at that time), and how I would do it (teaching English), and what vehicle to use to get me there (the Peace Corps; not having any money or means, it offered the best “benefits package” of all the potential gigs: two-year commitment, paid air fare and health care, three months of intense in-country training. It was ideal, and the relatively high standards of their application process was no deterrent).

It worked in the end. My application took 18 months (covering my employment periods at both dysfunctional companies), having been delayed by a sudden outbreak of plantar warts, but by mid-1995 I was on the plane to Hungary with 51 fellow Americans, mostly young, mostly idealistic, whose own reasons for joining might have been similar to mine. Or not. I don’t know.

I was not teacher material, at least not high school English teacher material. I tried to do a good job, I think in some cases I did, but I didn’t have the patience and finely honed diplomacy skills necessary to deal with the students who weren’t interested in being there. The next plan was journalism. Always a news junkie, while I was living in a small Hungarian village I came to rely on whatever media I could consume from the outside world: month-old issues of Newsweek from the Peace Corps office (useful for the pictures I’d cut out for lesson planning), copies of the International Herald Tribune, The Economist and a little rag called Budapest Week when I could get up to the capital on the weekend, and a late night mix of Hungarian TV news (I could mostly understand the weather report) and tabloid-style German TV.

Post-Peace Corps, the goal was to move to Budapest to become an International Journalist. Which kinda-sorta happened at the aforementioned rag, but never to the extent that I’d envisioned because at the time, with the Bosnian Civil War wrapped up a year prior, the Kosovo War a few years off still, and the wider world’s interest turning to places other than a tiny European country with a fragile democracy, the local market for International Journalists was looking rather thin. There were journalists working for the big wire services in Budapest, and I knew all those guys. They weren’t going anywhere soon. So if I wanted to continue in this vein, I figured I’d have to return home. Which, after a couple years of doing freelance pieces for Budapest Week and teaching something called “business English” at a private language school, and after I married my Hungarian girlfriend and helped secure the necessary immigration paperwork, I did.

Seattle was never the goal, only a means to an end. In 1999, there were three daily papers here, plus two alt-weeklies, a whole nest of community papers (at least one for every neighborhood in a very neighborhood-centric city), and the city seemed to have some traction in this new thing called the Internet. Regardless of the fact that web pages were primitive, that only one of the three dailies had a functional website to speak of (and its “news,” I realized upon arriving in Seattle, was not reflective of day-to-day life in the city, but that’s another story…) I got a job at the smallest of the dailies, and then, for the next seven years, had what was probably the best low-paying job working for morons one could ever have.

Which isn’t to say my immediate supervisors were bad. Most were quite good, smart, funny, dedicated people with drive and ambition to comprehensively chronicle the day-to-day life of our coverage area. The morons were higher up the chain, Peter Principles rendered in real life, whose management skills were evidenced by a steadily decreasing circulation, a buzzword-laden afterthought of an online strategy, and an ignominious end with the paper sold off and shut down. But again, another story.

Being a newspaper reporter is probably the best job someone of my disposition could have. A former editor of mine there once remarked that it’s a job that skews toward people who are poor at planning. As someone who came in from the cold, so to speak, with no direct newsgathering experience but a lot of drive, there was a Next Big Thing waiting for me in the office every day. One day I was greeted by a car chase through a local park, one day a convoluted dispute over soccer fields, one day a couple of planes hitting buildings on the other side of the country, an event which to this day still rattles me when I think about the moment I walked into the newsroom after the drive in (listening to an all-music station, and after I’d broken my usual morning habit of surfing news websites in favor of writing a song about a dream I’d had the night before) and being told by an editor that we were under attack.

Since those years, I’ve never experienced the same feeling as the rush of adrenaline that seems to originate from the thin air of a crowded newsroom when suddenly everything turns and heads in a completely different direction, a pack of hounds hot on the hunt for the fox we’d just caught scent of. My newspaper career ended not because of any one thing that happened, but rather a series of events and decisions that made it abundantly clear that it was, once again, time to find the escape pods. I moved over into magazine writing about four months before that paper folded, but since then I’ve gone on to doing more freelance work, and most recently a contract gig at a large technology enterprise that came to its end a couple weeks ago.

What’s the Next Big Thing? It’s possible that I’ve already been on it. I’ve been working on a novel for about the last seven years (I may have started it after I left the newspaper gig, maybe before, I no longer remember), and I’m not going to say anything more about it here (maybe later), but being suddenly given a lot more free time (plus what most people refer to as unemployment insurance but what I like to think of as the real National Endowment for the Arts), I at least have this project to fall back on until something comes along that will once again make me seem like a productive member of larger society. I’ve tried novel writing twice before, once in grad school and once while living in a small Hungarian village with a lot of time on my hands, and in both cases the projects were abandoned when it became apparent that they suffered from a lack of structure, character development or even an interesting plot. This time I hope it’s different, and as I’ve already completed one draft and have a plan for the next, I’d like to think so.

In the meantime, while I’ve been out chasing the Next Big Thing, my family, friends and colleagues have been doing theirs. But I think most of them would simply refer to it as Life: pursuing careers (or just gainful employment; it seems we’ve become a society that insists your job be worthy of an autobiography, whereas it should be fine to just work for the paycheck), getting married, having children (a Very Big Thing for most people), growing older, dying.

I picked up on this obsession of mine with Next Big Things this morning, I believe, because some news of national import happened yesterday which, on the face of it, doesn’t affect me in any real sense other than to make me depressed about the future of this country, and triggering an old instinctive response: is it time to head for the lifeboats? I think my answer this time is no. It may be that I’ve matured (yeah, right), or simply that I’ve got enough of a Next Big Thing to keep me busy in the form of this current project. When I was in my twenties it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing, when things in the home country weren’t going so well, to pack up and head off to foreign parts in pursuit of whatever utopia or distraction or Next Big Thing lay in waiting. To that extent, the European/Australian practice of a gap year seems to be a good way for the young ones to let off some of that steam, and their societies’ tolerance of such youthful perambulation (the modern-day “Grand Tour” of dive bars, beach parties and raves across Europe) may work out to everyone’s longer term benefit.

But as we like to say, there comes a time to settle down. Or, at least, to approximate the appearance of settling down while quietly pursuing the Next Big Thing.

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