Sam I am

Another piece from the "Way Back Machine," first published in November of 2003


“Don’t worry; we have in and out privileges. You can come back as many times today as you want.”

You probably had to be there. It was a very funny thing to hear. Not if you were in a public parking lot, of course. Then it wouldn’t be funny; it would be like a small gift from heaven. But we weren’t in a parking lot. My wife and I were in a Williams & Sonoma store in Walnut Creek California buying some pumpkin bread mix. (I know, I know.) Of course we could come back. That was the point, and of course, that was what made the remark so amusing.

The quip came from a perfectly jolly looking older fellow named Frank who wore his life experience and obvious love of food and cooking with pride and panache.

“You know,” he confided, patting his rounded midriff as he did, “There was a fella in here the other day that looked like a professional football player. Big, strong. He was looking at that same mix trying to decide if he wanted to buy it. I told him, ‘you have to really work at it to have a figure like mine.’”

I felt like I was talking with Santa Claus or at least a very large leprechaun.

“So did he buy it?” I asked.

“Of course he did.”

And we all laughed. And we bought the mix. How could we not?

It was a startling experience. I say that because three weeks later, I’m still thinking about Frank. Normally I wouldn’t think that working in a upscale retain chain store on a Saturday morning would be especially ennobling, but there was Frank, certainly projecting a feeling that he was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing. That seems pretty noble to me—if not for the store, then certainly for Frank.

Even if I am completely imaging Frank’s motivation, or Frank for that matter, the great pumpkin bread buying adventure (and it was good) set in motion a round of ruminations that began like this: “What would happen if everyone was like Frank? If everyone loved what they were doing? If they did what they wanted? What they really wanted. Just stopped doing this, and starting doing that, not because it paid the bills, or was what someone else wanted them to do, or was what they trained to do, but just because it was something they really wanted to do?”

Or more particularly, what would happen if just I did that? If only I roused myself out of whatever stupid torpor I might find myself laboring in and said, “Enough. It’s time for me to follow my heart’s desire, my soul’s deepest longing, my inner muse, my innate purpose, my long-forgotten reason for being.” Would the world be a better place? Would my world be?

Its’ a staggering thought really. It seems innocent, but it’s not. It’s the kind of thought that’s usually beaten back by the thousand and one reasons why such an impulse won’t work. Can’t work. Shouldn’t work.

It’s impractical. It’s impossible. Things—some specific and some only dimly felt—would go badly or perhaps even come to a stop if you just up and did what you wanted to do. People would be mad. They’d be disappointed. Some gravely so.

And so the native longing to find your place, to float in the deep waters of your own purpose, to feel the gravitational pull of doing “good work” flickers and wafts away like the smoke of a dying flame. You tell yourself that you really are doing what you want to do after all.

But soon the inner voices start up again; the flame jumps back to life. Maybe not as loud or as bright as before, but they’re still in there fighting for air. Once again the cycle of longing and denial begins and ends and pretty soon the inner yammering recedes and your sense of certainty about what you are doing or might be doing does as well. And maybe someday, the inner noise stops all together.

But what would happen if? What if? What? If? What would happen if we didn’t strangle the inner muse? Even giving voice to thoughts like these sets off the responsibility alarm in most adults. It shakes our confidence in all that we’ve done until now. It clouds whatever fleeting sense of certainty and purpose we may have felt about our present course. It rattles the people who are convinced they depend on us.

Ancient Journey

This call to find your calling, this urge to journey is not a new one. I’m not the only one to think about these things. Either are you. In fact if you’re over 35 and you haven’t started asking these questions, maybe you should pull over to the side of the road and ask yourself why not?

Every civilization that has left even the faintest trace has recorded and passed down its own version of the heroic journey to self discovery and tribal renewal. The myths and legends vary widely in detail, but all find common ground in the taproot of human longing to journey, explore, experiment, and ultimately learn some immortal lesson and gain some etheric power.

That so few of us see our inner longings and purposeful stirrings as heroic is in many ways a tragedy. Why shouldn’t they be? What could be grander than you or me grasping the golden fleece of our own true calling? What could be more heroic than feeling the mighty power of wholehearted purpose, even in the midst of the blistering trials and afflicting circumstances which seem destined to accompany a journey into the unknown parts of our souls?

The trick in all of this is finding your calling. Here, the language and imagery doesn’t necessarily serve us well. “Find your calling.” It suggests that you might open a door or a drawer someday and there it will be, all done up just so. “Look dear, I found my calling. It was here under my socks all along!”

Or maybe you’ll come around the corner and it will be tacked up on a tree, or written in the clouds or perhaps in a puddle. “Attention Bill, you need to give up public accounting and move to the country and farm herbs.” Kind of like God telling Noah to build a boat and round up all available species for a trip to nowhere. 

We instinctively want our cosmic signals drawn in bold strokes to save us from the need of feeling, sensing, and intuiting; of directly experiencing our own souls. We want as badly to be delivered from the uncertainty of plumbing our own depths as we want to be relieved of whatever boredom we’re presently enduring, or trial we can’t seem to find our way clear of. It would be so much better if some authority figure would just tell us what we’re supposed to be doing! Or would it be?

In truth, the clues to our calling are resident in all of us. It’s just that they’ve often grown subtle and wary of our ennui and cynicism. Calling? Pshaw!

But that sense of innate purpose is still there, burned into our circuit boards since before we can remember. With a bit of practice we can learn to reach back and recall activities that we seemed especially drawn to; things we liked doing, and probably even did, before the weight of going to school, doing homework, and growing up pushed those instinctive magnetic centers deep into the shadows.

Later, those hidden urges set up a dull inner keening punctuated by the occasional inarticulate howl. I know that’s been true for me. I can think of distinct times in my life when I found myself hearing the lonesome wail, knowing suddenly and quite certainly that what I was doing, or what I was involved in, was not what I wanted. I’ll bet you can too.

Hearing the inner whispers, wails, and howls is actually a superb start, but only a start. Knowing that what you’re doing fits about as well as two-size-too-small shoes is a fair distance from a much more liberating knowing that this or that is exactly what you do want to be or do. Those insights seem to come at us much more obliquely, sometimes in connection with the don’t wants—which after all are the mirror image of what we do want if we’re smart enough to see it that way—but more often in fleeting memories or glancing half-thoughts that seem to flit by when we’re looking elsewhere.

In my case, I wish I could say that those moments of “don’t want” have reliably acted as the propellant that they’re meant to be, but often that hasn’t been the case. Instead, I would feel a gloomy fog settle over me. Maybe in the next life. Or maybe in the next business. Maybe in some other time or place. Like maybe some divine being would reach down—or some unmet friend would call up some day—and paint the way to a rosy future while I sat idly by sipping my tea until it was ready for me.

And so, howled at but usually unpropelled, I would stew, and snap, and grouse about how rotten it was to find myself in such a disagreeable situation. If you could have watched it from the outside, it would have looked like a man throwing logs on a fire built in a hearth with no vent. The room would get smokier and smokier, hotter and hotter, with me getting more and more pissed at how rotten it all was.

“Yeah, maybe in the next life. I don’t like how things are going but I have responsibilities. Commitments. It would mess everything up to change this.”

You’d be wondering why I didn’t open the flue, or better yet, open the door and let some air in, or maybe me out, and you’d have been right. But in the grips of my grousing, I certainly didn’t see things that way. None of us do when we’ve reduced our sense of ourselves to these logs, that fire, in this house. At least I don’t.

Work, work, work

Mostly my inner howlings had to do with work. Work I didn’t like doing. Clients I didn’t like working for. Partners I didn’t like working with. Occasionally bosses I didn’t like working for or around. Things that seem trivial in the abstract but which pinched and scraped terribly at the time.

Finally, when I couldn’t stand it any more I’d do something. Not necessarily something soulful like figuring out what I really wanted to be doing, but at least something therapeutic like resigning or running so the pain would abate. 

“Work” is a word that carries with it a powerful cosmic charge. For men at least—and many women I suppose—it is a defining thought. It’s not just what we do, it’s what we are.

It’s potentially a wonderful notion, work is. Making things. Accomplishing something. Achieving. Crafting. Molding. Forming. Wonderful images that evoke romantic notions of what it must have been like when everything didn’t go by so quickly.

More often I think “work” is code for toil; grinding, numbing toil. Few of us would use those words to describe what we do on a daily basis, but most of us can sense the presence of toil lurking just out of sight.

Sadly, the romantic generative notions of work as a noble activity too often dull over time into the sepia tones of a poor farmer or itinerant worker bent old before his time, grubbing in a field, plucking, picking, and poking day after backbreaking day. A blackened miner descending into the bowels of hell before dawn’s light, returning past sunset to wait in a state of permanent exhaustion until it begins all over again. A seamstress sewing yet another pair of sneakers. A man at a machine stamping out parts. Dickens’ Bob Cratchit grinding away at a book of accounts long into the night. You doing whatever it is you do when you really hate doing it.

For some of us—my guess is you’re one of them if you’re reading this—the kind of work that is the grim underside of modernity is an abstraction, something that describes someone else’s life. We know about that sort of thing because we see it on television or we read about it in magazines. But it’s not us and therefore it’s easy to feel both a guilty gratitude that it isn’t, as well as a nagging sense that it’s somehow inappropriate, living in a luxury unknown to royalty and landed gentry even 100 years ago, to think about destiny and callings.

But the grimy reality of work as toil has a deeply felt poignancy for all of us—even those who are generations removed from physical labor—due to the fact that every one of us come from those very roots. We’re all standing on the shoulders of toilers. It’s in our blood. It’s in our bones. We’re not that far separated from the hunt, the land, the sweatshop, the mine, the assembly line. It might even have been us some years ago. Or our parents. Or their parents. Or the generation before.

But somewhere in your personal history, in your DNA, are people who scraped and sweated and worked, day after day, trying to find a bit of happiness here, a dose of meaning there, and in some cases, a chance to change the broad outlines of how their descendents would live and work forever.

The Immigrant’s Tale

Like virtually all Americans, I am the son of distant lands. In my case, my father’s father and his mother’s mother, and my mother’s father, and her mother’s mother. So not precisely the son of immigrants, but not so far removed from people who looked up one day with a question just like “What would happen if?” burning a hole in their hearts.

Each of my immigrant ancestors has a different tale, but the outlines seem roughly the same: At some point, somebody got on a boat and came to America because the fear of leaving was less than the pain of staying. That’s how journeys begin: both the inner and the outer kind.

The poster child for the immigrant’s journey was my father’s father, Sam. From my father, I know that Sam was born on November 22, 1901 and raised in a village with an unpronounceable name in the Ukraine near Kiev. Sugar beets were grown and processed in the area of this village, and that at times, the water that ran through the streets was red from the beets. His defining moment came when his father’s brother was taken away one day by the Czar’s police. He was found hanging from a tree in the front yard of the family house the next day.

Not long after that, Sam’s father Morris came to America, found a home in Hartford and then sent for his family. There was Sophie, George, Sam, Jacob and baby Abe who was nursing on the boat. Like so many others, they rode in steerage in conditions that we jetsetters simply can’t imagine. Sam always said that his mother’s milk dried up and that he had to go and beg for food and milk for the baby in the dining rooms in the decks way above.

Hartford was not easy.  Sam would recall going to the railroad yards to pick up pieces of coal to bring home to the family. He sold papers on the street corner of Hartford and said that he had to fight for his street corner. Fight every day with his fists for a place to sell his papers and then to hang onto whatever it was that he earned.

Sam’s parents were not educated. Still, somehow Sam got away from Hartford, went to New York, and enrolled at New York University to study accounting. He became a member of a fraternity (Alpha Mu Sigma) and he graduated in the class of 1923 or 1924. 

Apparently he immediately found a desk at the Grand Central Palace and set up shop to be an accountant. This was before the depression, so things may have worked out well. He later became associated with two men named Carl Strauss and Abe Oberfest. Years later I can remember meeting Mr. Oberfest in their offices in midtown.

Sam was always very busy, though by the time I met him his work day had shortened somewhat. If he ever retired, I’m not sure I was aware of that fact. When he was younger, when my father was growing up, his work day was made long by his walk to the Malverne station on the Long Island Railroad, his ride into “the City” and his getting to his office—all of which was repeated in reverse at the end of the day. By the time he got home (and he seldom did come home for dinner during what “tax time”), he was an absolute bear. He was cross, tired, impatient and easily annoyed. 

Sam’s big name client was Glen Miller. That Glen Miller. If Sam was a toiler, he was also an achiever. When World War II broke out, Miller decided to enlist, and Sam liked to tell the story of Miller calling him and saying “Hoffy, I have to go to Saks Fifth Avenue to pick up my uniforms that I had made. Why don’t you meet me there?” That was the last he saw him as he left for Europe the next day. Miller was killed near the end of the War. He had always sent roses to Sam at Christmas time, something that his wife continued to do for many years after Miller died.

Sam died in 1985. He left behind a very substantial estate and a reputation with the people that knew him as an honorable man who was generous with his money with family, temple and with strangers. He was a hard man to like and a harder man to know, though in his later years, he mellowed and sweetened considerably.

The Sam I Am

Sam came from toilers and was a toiler himself. People he grew up with were toilers. Many of them died having never known anything else.

Sam was different from many of his contemporaries in that he died a wealthy and successful man. He was driven by powerful forces to distance himself from a life that had the markings of a short and unhappy sojourn. He came a long way from watching beet-red rainwater washing down unpaved streets to owing an apartment across from the Met on Fifth Ave in New York City and all that went with it.

I have no idea if he followed his inner muse or his heartfelt purpose or whether he would even approve of such notions. I didn’t know him that well and I certainly wasn’t thinking about such things while he was around. But there’s no question that he journeyed: He left something he didn’t like and went towards something he instinctively knew would open the way to a better life.

Sam was a practical man who could add a long column of complex figures in his head. He loved art and the arts but wasn’t artistic and probably didn’t understand people who were. He loved to travel but it didn’t seem that it was fueled by the journeyer’s fire. There were always stories to tell, but many more things to complain about. I doubt that he loved what he was doing as much as Frank the cookware salesman does.

But in a larger context, Sam represents something important: The journey we all get to take and the distances we’re meant to cross if we choose to. Whatever it is that Sam came here to accomplish, my sense is that he did it. Maybe he didn’t realize it until the end, or maybe not until after, but you simply can’t look at his life without remarking on the journey.

There’s a powerful metaphor in the uncle swinging by his neck from a tree, an unmistakable signal that something was badly out of whack in the current state of things. My guess is that Sam’s wasn’t the only uncle hung in that village. But not everyone left that place, and in the end, the story of Jews in that time and place was a grim one. No songs. No Fiddler on the Roof. Just misery, death, and dislocation. Some endured every bitter step until the streets didn’t just run red with beets, but red with blood and tears. Some got on a boat and left.

If it all seems overly dramatic, that’s how symbols are meant to be. We each have woken one day to find a favorite uncle hanging just outside our window, some treasured notion about our lives or work suddenly laid waste in front of us. Do we stay? Do we go? Do we pull the blankets over our eyes and hope it will all go away?

The push to leave, the pull to grow is only the first step in grappling with our inner longings. Maybe we have a lot of uncles, so seeing one strung up in the front lawn might be troubling, but not necessarily motivating. Getting on that boat is a frightening proposition, and there’s always the part about the kids, and what about baby Abe who’s nursing?

And go where? A dead uncle or a deadened sense of self is one thing, and having to face it isn’t fun, but what does that mean we’re supposed to do? Where are we supposed to go? And what will it be like when we get there?

Following the call isn’t a guarantee that suddenly things will be better. Again, the metaphor of the poor family trying to survive steerage is compelling. There’s a level of commitment that far exceeds what we might imagine the people up in first class were feeling. Following our calling often exposes us to a kind of nakedness and vulnerability that seems far more terrifying than what we’re leaving, even if it’s the village where the streets run red. Following our calling takes commitment.

Callings need to be nourished, especially in the early going. The Sam in us is called on early to beg for food and milk so that the child might live, that the struggling young sense of a new possibility might survive the voyage. Sam and Abe linked together, the fight to survive seen in the scrapping and fighting of the one, and the crying to be fed by the other.

It’s interesting to contemplate the fate of the brothers George, Sam, and Abe (I don’t recall what became of Jacob). Sam was the strong one. He was the pillar of his temple. He was the one who knew Glen Miller among many notable clients. He was the most financially successful. Abe moved to California and lived comfortably. George struggled to find a place in life and was supported for many years by Sam’s generosity. He was swept along on the journey but never really made it his own.

Making it to America, making it to the new country, marks a final unlinking from the old and that’s not an inconsiderable accomplishment. One thing was certain, having made it through Ellis Island, none of them were going to die in that town in Ukraine. But it’s still left to us to write the chapters of the book of our new life. It’s one thing to stop toiling. It’s another to get on the boat. It’s still another to embrace the fullness of where our longing delivers us. We can be Sam, Abe, or George . . . whatever we imagine those trajectories to be.

There is a quote that is attributed to Goethe that goes like this:

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

I believe that. Getting on the boat opens a world of providential possibilities. A hungry baby? No problem, there are dinning rooms upstairs; you just have to go find them. No heat in the house? Coal falls off passing trains, you just have to go look. Someone want to take your street corner from you? Then fight. We’re meant to journey but we must be bold if we intend to make it more than a miserable trip in steerage.

So what would happen if just I did what I really wanted to do? Well I can tell you it feels scary but good. My own break for distant shores lacks the outward drama of Sam’s journey from the Ukraine to Fifth Avenue, but it has begun. I’ve seen more than one dead uncle and finally have had enough of waiting to see if there will be another. I got on the boat.

The sounds I hear inside are much more like singing and much less like howling. The direction I’m heading is filled with work I want to be doing and the people I want to be doing it with. I think there’s much more to this journey because I can still feel the mud of the Ukraine on my boots. But I’ve made it to Hartford and maybe even to New York.

I’m Sam I am.

Kevin Hoffberg