The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Monday, May 6, 2013
Personal Reflections ...

Most days of my life involve ‘just muddling through’. I suspect that it’s like that for almost everyone. But every now and then, especially in one’s young adult years, there comes a day when a decision has to be made that really has a lot of impact on one’s future. New areas of opportunity (or misfortune) are opened, and other areas perhaps are foreclosed. I was pondering this recently when I was going through some old letters I had saved in a dusty file, involving past job searches. They were mostly rejection letters from firms that I had sent resumes to. I’ve gone through three or four major job searches in my life, and they were never easy or pleasant.

Luckily for me, something always fell into place sooner or later in most instances (usually more later than sooner). Not the perfect job, not what I may have expected, but somehow things eventually worked out. However, in the summer following my first year of law school in 1979, I was searching for a summer legal internship as to build some credentials for the future. But my search went for naught. I wound up taking a law class and some undergrad economics classes that arguably helped me later on, when I followed my law degree with a masters degree in economics.

But as to gaining work credentials (and paychecks as to help my savings account credentials), it just wasn’t gonna happen that summer. In the end, perhaps that was just as well, as my post-law school career arc was not destined for the world of courts and torts. I wound up doing a lot of interesting things, and in many cases I made good use of what I had learned in law school. But I was not fated (condemned?) to make a living as an “attorney at law”.

But there was one letter from that summer job search that represented a “fork in the road” for me. It forced me to make a “big decision”. The letter was from the “FDIC”, the federal banking deposit insurance agency in Washington, DC. In response to a resume that I had sent them based on a listing that I came across in the law school placement office, an FDIC attorney named John Betar sent me an invitation for an interview. Although the letter did not promise that I would get an internship, it certainly had a much more positive tone than most replies that I received (and many firms or agencies did not even send me a reply).

And why not? I had a quantitative background with my industrial engineering undergrad degree, and had worked in DC from 1976 to 1978 in the US Treasury’s money printing plant (as an industrial engineer, in fact). I was a fellow bureaucrat from an agency that the FDIC was certainly very familiar with. I understood numbers, I understood Washington and the federal government, and now I was trying to understand the law. (As to me and the District of Columbia, last year I posed a note on how I might have worked for Salvucci Engineers in Pittsburgh and never have gotten to know Washington. Now I’m pondering another lost opportunity, where the nation’s Capitol lost out).

Mr. Betar seemed willing to give me serious consideration for a summer involvement with the FDIC, were I willing to follow up on his letter. The “vibes” from his letter seemed positive (but I’ve attached a copy, so that you can decide on your own whether I was imagining this or not). This one looked real.

And that gave me pause. A door was found to not be locked. But where could it lead? Obviously, it would have led back to the federal government and Washington DC. A situation where I had experienced some career and social success over the past 3 years. If I did well, perhaps I would be invited for a second summer assignment the year after. And maybe that would have led to a full-time job with the FDIC legal office in DC after graduation. I might well have been embarking on a career path that I could have done well with. I would never have worked my way to the top, I wasn’t going to give Sheila Bair (who is about my age) any competition when President Bush appointed her FDIC Chairperson in 2006. But I may well have worked my way up to a respectable middle-management role at either the FDIC, or perhaps back with my old employer, the US Treasury. I could imagine myself then fitting into a stable marriage situation with 2 kids and a mortgage on a split-level in suburban Virginia or Maryland. Quite a different scenario than where my life has actually led me.

But I decided not to answer that letter. This wasn’t a well-thought out decision, but it wasn’t a casual decision either. I recall that it did bother me. In many ways, I wanted to go back to the Washington area, I had built up some good friendships and involvements over my 2 ½ years living and working there; I liked metro DC with all its diversity and educated people and cultural offerings. I still knew my way around DC back in 1979, having just left the year before to move “back home” to where I grew up in northern New Jersey, living with my mother and my brother. And yet . . . I just didn’t feel right about “coming home” just to get a law degree and then leaving my mother and brother in the dust once I got the degree.

Sure, DC isn’t that far from New Jersey, I could have visited quite frequently (I spent about one weekend a month there during the time that I was working for the Treasury printing bureau). And yet, my mother was still getting over my father’s passing five years before, and my brother was fully committed to taking care of her. He was dating a lot of women and doing some traveling, but he was not about to pack up and start over in a different place, even if within reasonable visiting distance. He stayed with her and took care of her throughout her long decline, right until the day of her death in 2009, some 30 years after my letter from the FDIC.

I wasn’t willing to do from my mother what my brother did. I didn’t want to stay under the same roof with her once I re-started my career after law school. But on the other hand, I didn’t feel right about putting a large distance between us. I decided to stay in the NJ area, to play out my future in more-or-less the same towns and counties from my youth. I wasn’t there when my mother died, but I got to the house to help my brother about 10 minutes after she was declared dead by the EMS crew. That would not have been possible had I gone the FDIC route.

Still, sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I answered that letter. Things got really intense at both FDIC and the Treasury in 2007 and 2008, when the big banks and finance companies and insurance firms were on the brink of collapse. Treasury and FDIC management were staying up very late to help save the US economy from collapsing in the wake of Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers and AIG. Would I have been in the midst of that effort? Would I have been in on the emergency meetings and world-wide conference calls involving Ben Bernacke, Hank Paulson (and later Timothy Geithner), Jamie Dimon, Loyd Blankfein, and yes, Sheila Bair? In other words, would I have been more important, in the sense of big government and big world-wide affairs, versus the more-or-less “under the radar”, quotidian life that I actually lived both before and after law school?

Well . . . I know that the life I actually lived was not “unimportant”. I don’t feel that my life was wasted. I know that sometimes the things that turn out to be really important don’t make the front pages of the NY Times or Washington Post or Wall Street Journal. And perhaps never will. I’ve become something of a Zen student, and that little passtime in itself supports the notion that what’s really important isn’t always all that important. Hmm, this sounds a bit like a Yogi Berra quote!

(And perhaps that’s a good thing. Oh, and speaking of guys with 5-letter last names starting with a “B” — Mr. Betar retired in 1994 as legislative counsel to the Bankers Roundtable, a banking industry support group, after a long and productive career. He had been a JAG lawyer in the Army and had been assigned to the White House in the JFK and LBJ days. Then he worked as a trial attorney in the US Dept. of Justice under Ramsey Clark. He also worked for a Congressman from Louisiana before going to the FDIC in 1969. Too bad I never got to meet him!)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:14 pm      

  1. Jim, Interesting tho’t . . .how a change in what one does at a particular time in one’s life might have changed it. It would seem to me that you did well choosing the way you did, trusting whatever in you that told you not to follow through with the D.C. “thing”.

    I tend to look at people, not for their being important or famous, or even notorious, but for what they have done quietly in their lives. I think that it’s really the people who are “quiet”, i.e., not well known, not famous, who are often more on the “good” track as to what kind of person he/she may be, who often do well by others than those who are well known.

    So, I’d say to you, be glad for the decision you made. Your life may not be one that is well known by a lot of people, but you are one of those who have done well by others, and even yourself, in your life. MCS

    Comment by MCS — May 7, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

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