08 October 2014

So I'm a Straddler, Eh?

Every so often I read a book or hear a song or watch a show that makes me stop and think. In the case of Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, it made me freak out a bit.

Never in my years as an avid reader have I come across a book that spoke to me so much. I'm afraid that in my effort to emphasis this point, I'll repeat myself, a lot. But I'm not kidding, this book spoke to me.

I read the book because it was a book club selection. Only the second non-fiction book we've ever read. Nothing I would've picked up on my own. I didn't even read the back before starting it. All I knew was the title, which I didn't think anything about.

I was exactly 24 words into the book when I had my first "what the?!" moment.

I am two people. I now live a middle-class life, working at a white-collar newspaperman's job, but I was born blue collar.


A couple pages into the book and I was literally shaking my head.

Many Straddlers surprised themselves with their own tears when I interviewed them. They never thought about their lives in terms of class before, and our conversations helped explain a lot - their inability to fit in at work among middle-class colleagues and bosses, for example, as well as the difficulty they've had talking with their parents about topics other than how Uncle Bob is doing since the operation.

Seriously? Had author Alfred Lubrano been stalking me?

Technically, my story begins in April 1977, but I'm going to start in March 2003. After 4 years of being a newspaper reporter, I got a job at a marketing communications firm on the 15th floor of a building in the downtown city we avoided growing up. I knew right away that something wasn't right. I didn't wear the right clothes. Or watch the right shows. Or listen to the right music. I didn't have the right hobbies. I didn't eat the right cheese. I didn't fit in. At all.

I believe I was, and still am, good at my job. I had the same education and similar work history as every one else. But on a personal level, I didn't belong.

For years, I didn't know what the problem was. I assumed it was because I was from the country. Or because I didn't go to a private high school. Or because I wasn't related to anyone important. I was partially right.

After reading Limbo, I completely believe it's because I'm a Straddler, someone who jumped a class (which has nothing to do with income or race).

Backing up a bit, I never felt like I fit in growing up either. I think I faked it OK, but I always felt like an outsider. It might have been because I wasn't related to anyone. Or because I didn't know everyone. Or because I liked to read (an interest shared by almost every Straddler interviewed for Limbo). Maybe it was all in my head. Whatever the reason, I knew I had to get away, at least for a bit. Maybe find somewhere where I did fit in.

So I went away to college. But I didn't live on campus. I went home most weekends. I didn't make a lot of new friends. I didn't find a lot of new interests. I never stopped listening to country music. I didn't try very hard. I guess I didn't see the point, since after a few years I'd be moving back home.

This, I should point out, happened to several people in the book. They didn't cut ties with home because they were either still there, commuting to college, or planning to go back. As a result, they, and I, didn't fully experience college, which in some ways made the transition to a white-collar job even harder.

Over time, I realized that my new life wasn't going to take me back home. So I had to adjust. I had to try hummus (which I actually like). I had to dress it up a bit (although I sometimes can get away with wearing my cowboy boots with a cute dress at work). I had to learn that people don't always say what they mean or mean what they say (something that would drive my dad batty). I had to learn that when people ask your opinion, they usually are doing so because it's polite, not because they actually want your opinion. I'm still learning. And trying to fit in. Only now I don't care so much if I don't know all the rules or fit in all the way.

I still call the place I grew up home. I still call the meal you eat in the evening supper. I still hate goat cheese. I still get ridiculously nostalgic when certain songs come on the radio or I spend a day back home. But I also don't think I completely fit in there either.

I wanted the people Lubrano interviewed for his book to have some sort of magic words of wisdom for Straddlers like myself. Some way to fit in in both worlds - back home where they don't understand my job and in my new home where they have no idea what an ATV poker run is. Unfortunately, there's no miracle cure for this situation. Some people still express discomfort with their situation. Others adjusted to the white-collar world smoothly. Others found a way to live in both worlds. I'm slowly joining this last group. Mostly because I'm caring less about impressing my coworkers and bosses. Mostly because despite my job, I see no reason to change who I am at the core.

I could comment on just about every point Lubrano made in his book. I have stories matching many of those the people he interviewed shared in his book. But this post is already getting pretty long. And you don't want to read about my adventures navigating a parking garage (something we didn't have back home) or trying to explain public relations to my dad. (Unless you're a Straddler, in which case you probably have similar stories.)

If you are from a blue-collar background and are working in a white-collar field, I strongly recommend you read this book. I promise you'll learn a lot about yourself in the process.

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