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For love or money, part four (of four).

This is part four (FINALLY) of a four-part series on how I finally starting thinking about what I am instead of what I want to be, or something like that. Sorry for the long post!


I remember flying to Germany that first time. I had a roundtrip ticket, but no clear intention of using it. The plane left San Francisco in the late afternoon, and after a few hours of flight, it was over maybe Montana, honestly, I’m not sure, but I looked out the window and saw the darkened sky behind me and the still-light sky ahead and it all seemed to be the perfect metaphor: I was leaving the past behind for a better future.

And to my mind, it was a past worth leaving behind. I had never amounted to much at school, I had struggled to meet girls, my career was nothing really (despite my having worked at Sharper Image). Europe looked like a clean slate for me, and this turned out to be true. Not only were Europeans much less concerned about "success" than Americans, they truly accepted you for who you were, or at least the ones I met did.

For money, I taught English, my most interesting gig being in East Berlin not too long after the Wall had come down. My students were former border guards being retrained to work security in department stores. (Remember that, if you ever contemplate pilfering a stein from the KaDeWe!)

For love, I simply lived. For the first time in my life I felt accepted by those around me, I was not consumed with worry about finding a career, I could watch a sunset and just feel happy.

But like a cancer, my American drive for "success" and "career" ate at me, nibbling at first, then gnawing away pounds of flesh. In time, I became consumed by the notion that I was about to turn 30 and had no career, no money and no prospect of either.

I began to plot how best to do gain these things given my limited skills. (Did I even consider just "going with the flow", giving chance and chance? Hell no. I had to figure out what to DO. ) After taking stock, about the only skill I had that seemed remotely worth anything was my ability to write. I did not want to go back to writing catalog copy, though. What about copywriting, I mused. I thought back on the classes I had taken in San Francisco, and on the brief exposure to adland an impromptu tour of a famed SF agency had given me. I was intrigued, but what sealed the deal for me was a simple equation: you spend more time doing your job than anything else, so you should enjoy it and if you don't like it that much, the money per hour should be as high as possible. (Note: I was fixated on hourly wages, because that's how all of my various gigs in Europe paid me.)

So I began to investigate US ad agencies as best I could from Munich, pre-Internet, mind you! I found some things, set up some informational interviews, which I conducted on visits home. The more I learned about advertising agencies, the more obsessed I became with getting a job in one. I began to live in two places at once, Europe and the States. I became myopically focused on Landing A Job. I was irritable. Munich, which was once a veritable paradise for me became a prison, of sorts. My sense of possibility, which has so expanded overseas, began to shrink. The world became less a place where I could anything and more a place where I had to do one thing. Finally, I decided I had to leave. I had to be back in the States to get The Job.

I was very cold and methodical about my departure. Over several months, I packed up all my stuff (it fit in 20 yellow boxes, each about the size of four shoe boxes) and then I left Munich and everyone I met there and the girl I went there for and I headed home to get a job in advertising.

Did I take money over love? Man, I go back and forth on this. The girl and I were having problems, everyone I knew there was also contemplating leaving (we were all in our early to late 20s), I really didn't have any career prospects there, etc. My whole perspective was so distorted and confused, I honestly wouldn't say I made a choice. More than anything else, I was feeling desperate for change, change from a world where I had so little control over my future, to a world where I had some control. More important, the US offered the future I felt I wanted: a high-paying job in advertising.

Fast forward several years later, though, and I was definitely taking money over love, not so much romantic love, but love of life. I had worked like a bastard in advertising and risen to the top creative slot of the S.F. branch of the agency I worked for. But along the way I had given up most everything else. My guitars were more art objects than instruments. I wrote nothing but headlines and copy. I ate, slept and breathed ads, ads, ads. And ads. And more ads. I grew bitter, deeply unhappy, hopeless, even though I earned a lot of money and had a position of power. I didn't care. Even the fact that I had fallen in love again failed to dent my cynical carapace.  

And then I fell.

In the aftermath, I re-awakened to life's possibilities. I eventually married Catherine. I picked up my guitars again. I started writing stuff besides ads. And now, many years later, I even like advertising once again, but I will never ask it to be everything for me.

And as for love or money? Whereas I once struggled to answer this, I am now resolute: love.