No doubt many lives have their “lost years,” when the time just seems to go away without achieving much. For some, those years may come in youth or old age; for others, they may be due to depression or alcoholism. Still others may look back and feel that they wasted a lot of years at a particularly regrettable job, or in some other unfortunate setting.
I am not certain that the 1990s would really count as lost years for me. I achieved a few things, but not terribly much. From another perspective, though, a person might say that these were actually the years when I was living a rewarding if humble life, and finding or rediscovering myself and my career direction, after the wasteland of life as a corporate attorney.
For me, the 1990s ran from May 26, 1989 until sometime in 2003. That May date was when I left New York for Colorado, and 2003 marked my return to graduate school and a determined start in a new career. During the first third of that period, I lived alone; the last two-thirds were spent dating, being married to, and recovering from my second wife. These were financially rocky years, during which I filed bankruptcy and lived on a combination of savings, income from various jobs, unemployment, support from my wife, inheritance, a timely and substantial investment in gold coins, sales of blood plasma, and other means.
These were also years of frequent relocation: first, when my job with the RTC was transferred from Denver to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and then in multiple moves to accommodate my wife’s budding career: from Valley Forge to Portland, Maine to Erie, PA, to northern Maine (her parents’ home), and then to coastal Maine, then southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island and Boston, then St. Louis and Jefferson City and finally, by myself, to Columbia, Missouri. Needless to say, this sort of upheaval significantly impaired my options for social and professional development. Rodney Dangerfield (or some comedian) reported that his ex-wife’s prospects improved considerably when she shed 200 pounds of unsightly fat. In this case, my prospects improved too.
My most important occupation, during the 1990s, was writing. It was not important in financial terms: the only written work that paid anything was my first book, Take the Bar and Beat Me, and it produced only a few thousand dollars. It would have paid more if I had found a publisher capable of promoting it effectively. After all, the book had drawn enthusiastic reviews and, in the opinion of one or two publicists and a pile of enthusiastic letters from readers, it had potential to do well. But then, in a sense, that’s the point: by the time you have finished writing a book, finding a publisher, and promoting and pursuing it through its entire life cycle, there are many factors that will tend to push it toward financial unprofitability. Even some famous authors (e.g., Anne Frank, J. K. Rowling) were rejected by a dozen or more publishers. At present, the odds of getting a book published (by a genuine commercial publisher, as distinct from a vanity press where the author pays for the privilege) have been variously calculated at one in 100, or 500, or even 1,000.
Take the Bar, and the unpublished books that followed it, proved to be important to me, not for fortune or fame, but as steps in the process of becoming a writer with a realistic sense of what is feasible. I learned that I was committed to writing as a tool for working through problems. (I have also used other tools, notably spreadsheets and videos, to similar ends.) In that regard, the 1990s were an important starting point for much of what I do feel I have accomplished since leaving law firms and my first career. Among other things, my 1990s led to a realistic turn toward writing articles and blog posts rather than books.
As a work on law, Take the Bar was a holdover from the 1980s, an opportunity to reflect upon and summarize what I had experienced and concluded about legal practice. Much of my research and writing in the 1990s represented a continuation of that line of thought and work. In my dissertation-length law review article, for example, I became more intimately familiar with the law’s capacity for stupidity and cruelty. That research, and the accompanying litigation experience, were incredibly time-consuming throughout the 1992-1998 period. The frustrations of that effort stimulated inquiries into how a supposedly enlightened society could achieve such pathetic outcomes. Resulting works included a careful analysis of Plato’s Republic, as one among several foundational documents underlying western concepts of governance; a parody of the thought processes set forth by a famous American judge; and a humorous commentary on work within an American governmental agency. This propensity to critique the abhorrent state of American justice would continue to inform occasional works in later years – regarding, for instance, student grievance processes on the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses of Indiana University.
My 1990s were not all work and no play. In giving up a Wall Street corporate career, I did gain a lot of freedom to do other things. These are perhaps best illustrated in my videos. At present, my selection of homemade videos from that era includes an Outward Bound sailing experience; skydiving; a role as Edward Swizzlehands in a cardboard derby; a three-day bike ride across Missouri; participation in the Boulder Kinetics; the official 100,000-mile washing of my Toyota pickup truck; my video application for the “Survivor” TV show; hiking down into, and camping in, the Grand Canyon; a three-week camping trip through Colorado and Wyoming; and wilderness camping on Perdido Key in Florida and in the Louisiana bayou. Few of these were earth-shaking experiences. But it did appear that there were some advantages from my attempt to live my life in the present, focusing on things that seemed relatively important and worthwhile. Such experiences led directly to my PhD studies in leisure behavior at Indiana University.