Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Identity Crisis

So I was walking up Madison Avenue today when I was stopped by a reporter for New York's CBS affiliate and asked to comment on camera about retirement.

I have a couple of thoughts about retirement, the first being, "I have thirty thousand dollars in my 401k, is that enough to last me the next 50 years if I quit working tomorrow?" and the second being, "Is Bush even PRETENDING to try to fix Social Security anymore, or has he given that up for the sham that it always was?" So, presumably, I would have had something to say.

But what I said instead was, "Sorry, I can't comment -- I'm a journalist."

Now, being a "journalist" (more on that later) hasn't precluded me from getting screen time in the past. Back in 98 or so, I was on the Sioux Falls NBC affiliate on Thanksgiving when a reporter trolling the local mall asked me why me and my family were going to the movies on a holiday. I think I said something like, "It's become a family tradition over the years," although if I had been truthful, I might have said, "We were sick of watching TV, starting to fight about politics, and how many times can you play Cranium, especially when Dad always CHEATS? Oh, and we ran out of booze." Then in 1999, I was a guest "expert" brought on to talk about President Clinton during the Juanita Broaddrick scandal on Canada AM, which is our northern neighbor's version of "Good Morning America." I felt kind of bad about it, because I liked Clinton, but they offered me a hundred bucks, and I was broke. Later, of course, I found out this was a hundred CANADIAN dollars, and felt a little hijacked, but whatever....

ANYWAY, the point is, by the time I hit 43rd street, I realized that what I said to this TV reporter was no longer true. While I shouldn't have commented, since I do occasionally write freelance stories about retirement issues, and since I now consult at a think tank that is trying to sort out the retirement-savings debacle, to say I was a journalist was a lie. I am no longer a journalist.

This realization (which, in truth, I've known for some time -- this just put it into harsher relief) brought on a pretty severe identity crisis. Being a journalist, or even a writer, has always been a big part of my identity. It gave me a professional outlet for skepticism, for inquisitiveness, creativity, or even for championing a cause. I still work with words for a living -- moving them around, getting people to use certain ones, checking to make sure they're right, sometimes even stringing them together for publication -- but I realize that I'm never going to be working on an investigative reporting team at the New York Times, and it's kind of sad to know that you have to let that go. It's just not in the cards. Since September 2004, when I left the WSJ, I've been reshaping my career, and while it's been an interesting ride I also realize that I have to make sure that I don't get so far off track that I don't even recognize myself anymore.

What's really annoying is that this crisis was brought on by a *TV JOURNALIST* -- the type of person I would have scorned a few years ago, back when I was a real reporter, out to "change the world" and all of that. As if standing on Madison Avenue asking a bunch of random idiots what they think of retirement is doing anything to further the dialogue regarding the shitstorm we're going to face when Social Security peters out and baby boomers scrape bottom on their thinly padded retirement accounts.

Although I try really hard not to get bogged down in self-defeatist thought, sometimes I fear my career peaked at 21, at least in terms of personal satisfaction.

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