Our first major decision as a couple was leaving our apartment when the lease expired at the end of April. We decided buying a place was a much better plan given the market and our long-term goals. We were also going a little stir crazy from being in such tight spaces. We both needed elbowroom for different reasons and in different ways. I have extroverted and introverted tendencies that need to be nurtured and indulged to remain under control. My creative side needed to crawl into a dark hole every day and get lost for hours at a time while I pour out the word trapped inside my head. Megan needed visible signs of progress that we were moving toward the future we were discussing most days. The first step in that journey for her was a house of own to with as we wished.
Meanwhile, Proteus moved to a floor higher in the same building when the offices leased by the company for years were sold as a corporate condo. It finally allowed my friend to create the techie vibe he envisioned when they bought the agency but couldn’t afford to remodel the stodgy law firm décor until it became a part of the build-out quote from the building owners to keep us as residents. It made moving infinitely easier as well, though I did get roped into a weekend painting project to prepare the offices for the furniture movers arriving the following Monday. I was always doing extra shit for free because my best friend owned the company. This included the ridiculous amount of hours I was working to keep the firm’s most challenging and fickle clients happy and profitable.
No good deed goes unpunished and my time at the firm was rapidly running out, though I didn’t know just how soon I would be unemployed. The new spaces allowed for new faces, and we added three new project managers to keep the developers and designers operating at a much higher utilization rate than there were only two of us. Despite the increased responsibility I had taken on since the day I arrived, Caleb never found reason to give me a raise or promote me to a role more in keeping with my true abilities.
I did find out once Proteus went out of business that he didn’t give me a raise due to intense cash-flow pressures that none of us knew about and not because he didn’t think I was worth more money. I wonder if he realized in his heart of hearts what was coming and fired me first to give me a running start at finding a new gig. Or maybe he was tired of having someone around who reminded him of the guy he had been rather than the one he worked so hard to become. We’ve always butted heads fairly hard and having your employee behave in a familiar way was probably hard to keep straight, though he did expect me to function at a level more appropriate to a best friend and business partner rather than a subordinate three rungs down the ladder, so the confusion all around was the main reason I felt great about striking off again on my own.
At least we barely qualified for a subprime mortgage on house we couldn’t afford with our combined incomes before I was let go one sunny day in May. It was a roundabout path that led us to the Victorian row house on 8th H Street NE in Washington’s latest revitalizing neighborhood. We looked in the areas of Capital Hill and U Street NW that had finished the transition, but even in a down market we were priced out of anything but a condo not much bigger than the apartment we were leaving for being too small. We settled on the H Street NE area as being a mixture of affordability within easy walking distance of Union Station and the Metro system as well as the hippest new bars and restaurants in a city filled with both.
Why we became so infatuated with the house we ended up buying is still beyond explanation because it was pretty much a dump when we first saw it. A woman in her sixties whose family had lived there for decades. Her octogenarian mother and aunt were sharing a dining room and living room on the main level combined and converted to a single large bedroom, complete with a powder room where a credenza once stood and a clothes hanger where pocket doors stuck inside the wall used to divide the space into two rooms. The hallway leading back to the dirty kitchen where the homeowner sat at a table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes was as dark and dingy as the lungs of the house no doubt were. The smell was a living thing that stayed on your clothes long after you left.
I would like to say the rest of the house was in better condition, but each room was worse than the last and the basement was even worse than that. Yet, for some bizarre reason, Megan and I envisioned a fully restored Victorian stunner with ten foot ceilings and gorgeous wood floors. The detailed scrolling on the original radiators throughout the airy row house returned to their 1908 luster. By the time we said goodbye to the homeowner still sitting and smoking in the kitchen, we had silently communicated our enthusiasm for the place. I am sure our real estate agent thought we were completely daft, though she encouraged our insanity in pursuit of that fat commission check rather than aiming our sights at the many better deals to be had in the same neighborhood.
Thus enabled by our “trusted advisor” to pursue an exceedingly bad decision, we steamed full speed ahead to purchase our very own money pit in Washington DC’s hippest new neighborhood. Fate provided a couple of exit points as we tried to negotiate the price we were willing to pay. We should have walked away each time but doubled-down instead. We would need every moment of the next eight years in the place before we would earn enough equity to not lose our asses when we decided to sell and move across the country.
The first thing we did after closing on the house in April was to start preparing for my upcoming “graduation” from American University in May and the influx of family planning on coming to the nation’s capital for the event. I put graduation in quotes because I still hadn’t finished my film on Washington DC’s bike messenger community, thus leaving me six credits shy of the required credits for my master’s degree. I would be paying $1,200 per semester starting in the fall to maintain matriculation while finishing the short film.
The cost of my creative procrastination wasn’t something my wife took lightly or silently for the next four years.
We also started looking for a dog to adopt, though I hadn’t owned a dog since I was a kid and Megan since never. I’m not sure what brought us to the Washington Area Rescue League, but we checked out their website for the available dogs and the adoption process involved before heading up North Capital Street to the shelter one beautiful Saturday afternoon. WARL was in a brand new building in a part of town that was cheap enough to get a lot of land for the puppies. “Puppies” being our shorthand for dogs of any age or description. We signed in with the helpful, smiling volunteer at the front desk and filled out the paperwork we were given with the kittens waiting for adoption watching us from Plexiglas windows looking into their cages.
It didn’t take long for a second volunteer, an older lady in her fifties with an infectious smile, to show up and take us around to meet the dogs. As jails went, it was a nice one for the dogs who ended up there. The inmates were from up and down the east coast, destined for “destruction” at whatever shelter they had just left. Now they had a private “room” with access to common spaces to sniff some behinds with the other dogs on their block. A separate room housed all the actual puppies, but we weren’t interested in potty training.
We slowly walked along the open stalls where the dogs looked at us with sad eyes before we moved on to the next one in line. There was a tiny placard attached to the doorframe of each cubicle, describing the particular breed and its temperament with regards to other animals and children. We found Boone hanging out in his room, staring vacantly toward the open door in the hopes that someone would drop by. We looked at his vitals and did a double-take at the “described” dog, staring at us with a goofy grin and panting tongue. They called him a pit bull mix but he was clearly German Shepherd and Lab of some sort. There was also a cautionary note about not being good with other animals or kids, though he ended being the life of the party no matter who was there to say hello. Kind of like his papa.
Boone was ridiculously cute and amped up the Pinch Me factor ten-fold when he noticed our attention at the open top door to his cubicle. He stood up from his cot immediately and came to the opening, tail wagging and tongue lolling out one side of his lopsided grin. We looked at each other, immediately smitten, and said we would love to take Boone out to the fenced Meet and Greet yard behind the facility. Our furry new friend thought that was a fabulous idea as well and turned his tail to eleven when tour guide grabbed the leash hanging from a hook next to the door and stepped inside.
Boone led the way down the hall and around the corner to a brown steel door leading to the outside world.
The fenced area beyond had concrete walkways and brick planters that doubles as seats. An area for the dogs to do their business was at the end opposite the doors. Boone headed that way immediately and took a leak before heading straight back toward us where we were sitting tentatively on a brick bench, a little unsure what came next since we had precious little recent experience with Canine Americans. Our new son took charge of things and came right over to me to put his head in my lap for a chin scratch.
Smitten times ten.
The woman standing nearby still holding his leash didn’t seem surprised when we said we wanted to take Boone home with us and followed her back inside to get the paperwork started. We took the perpetually happy three-year-old puppy back in his room and said goodbye with many hugs and promises to be back soon to take him home with us. Boone seemed aware of the difference in tone and approved wholeheartedly even as we closed the door behind us and walked away for the last time.
Before we could take adopt him, WARL needed to do a home visit and verify our fitness to be puppy parents. We decided his new name would be Benjamin Franklin Miller, shortened to Franklin for ease of use and expand to Frank & Beans or Franken-stuff or whatever moniker seem most appropriate to the situation. We sailed through the approval process over the course of the next week or so and then drove back to the shelter to bring home our newest family member.
The excitement Franklin showed when he saw our faces again was enough to bring tears to our eyes even as wide smiles stretched our faces. He started to moan and whimper and scamper around his soon-to-be former prison. I corralled him and put his new collar on, followed by the leash, and lead him down the hall to take care of the final paperwork. All the workers and volunteers took the chance to say goodbye with cries of “Be good, Boone!” and “You’ll love your new home, Boone!”
The ride home was uneventful with Franklin watching the Washington DC streets flash by outside the windows, face pressed against the glass and tongue leaving wet kisses behind. He was the picture of happiness in the rearview mirror that was echoed on each of our faces in the front seats. Back at our new row home near Capitol Hill, we had a dog crate set up with a bed for our boy to sleep in on the suggestion of the woman who had done our home visit. We felt bad about getting a metal one, so we opted for a soft crate made of a mesh material for when we weren’t home or at night while we were sleeping. We hung out for the rest of the afternoon and took Frank on a walk around the neighborhood before tucking him into the crate when we went upstairs to bed.
The next morning we stumbled down a staircase in desperate need of rehab in search of coffee and petting to find Franklin standing at the doorway to the dining room behind the baby gates we had installed, grinning his goofy grin and tongue sticking out to one side. We laughed and said good morning to our furry, rambunctious son. Turns out Franklin noticed his claws were more than sharp enough to cut through the flimsy mesh of his cage. I suspect he was free before either of us had fallen asleep the night before. He didn’t get into any trouble or take a dump in the kitchen, so we were happy enough to discover that he didn’t need to be tucked inside a crate after all.
The next thing we were happy to discover was the next Monday when we left him behind the closed sliding door to the living room and baby gates keeping him in the dining room. Megan had left the FBI to work for a huge corporate firm in Chinatown in their affordable housing real estate department. My efforts with Curtis at Transformation Media mostly focused on free work for his ecosystem of non-profit executives and the consultants who worked for them, so I had gone to work as digital media manager for a start-up Internet broadcasting company when my time at Proteus had reached its inevitable end.
We met more days than not at Union Station and walked home together talking about whatever went on at work or the latest outrage we had seen online. We walked the mile to the house in about fifteen minutes and walked up to the clear plastic Plexiglas of our front door. The inner door also had glass panes and we could see Franklin’s wagging tail standing beyond were he had no business standing given the constraints we had in place when we left ten hours earlier. We were perplexed as we noted huge hanging door closing off the living room. He had jumped over the totally useless baby gates to enjoy free run of the house and hadn’t abused the privilege.
The baby gates came down since they were a pain in the ass anyway and we counted ourselves immeasurably lucky to have found this awesome dog to adopt.
* * *
The gig at the start-up ended and I found myself professionally adrift for the second time since meeting my wife only a year earlier. My unstable creative endeavors became the first crack in what had otherwise been a fairytale courtship. Megan had no frame of reference for what it took to survive as both an entrepreneur and in an oversaturated tech market. Both parents had spent decades at the same job and counted job security as one of the primary virtues an adult should aspire to achieve. I had spent the last six years trying to bring a future into being that was already a reality in my mind’s eye.
A friend of Caleb’s was also a client of the firm he had landed at following the dramatic implosion of Proteus. He was looking for a multimedia contractor to help build a series of hazmat training courses for first responders as part of American Military University’s Center for Professional and Workforce Development. As with most of the gigs I got via my continuing friendship with Caleb, I was hired basically sight unseen on his recommendation alone. Before I knew it, I was driving through the rolling hills of western Maryland toward Charlestown to meet my new boss in person and do the paperwork drill, though I would be working from my home office in the small concrete room at the back of the basement underneath the back porch when I moved it from the room next to our bedroom. It had the benefit of being the quietest spot in the house, though certainly the coldest since it didn’t have a radiator to keep it warm.
The first thing I did was get a space heater to keep from freezing even in the heat of summer. The second was hang one of my Mexican blankets over the open doorway to keep in the warmth where it would do the most good. The third was run an extension cord from the outlet over the clothes dryer to power my budding basement empire. I was making a decent hourly rate to spend each day turning DVDs into digital files and then transferring them into the learning management system to build online coursework around the content. I became very familiar with first responder procedures for hazardous materials accidents or weapons of mass destruction events.
On the home front, the influx of revenue calmed the marital tensions and we started to discuss plans for our wedding now that my “graduation” event had passed. We went back and forth over the logistics of involving our widely-distributed respective families before coming to the conclusion that our nuptials would be a private affair. Eloping seemed the only way to accommodate the main purpose of tying the knot. That decision made, our next quandary became where to get married. We thought Atlantic City or Niagara Falls, but both states had residency requirements for a marriage license.
North Carolina was the closest location without a residency requirement and Kill Devil Hills in Dare County was such an interesting and unique name that we could not have picked any other destination. The most expensive part of the wedding was buying my plain platinum wedding band from Tiffany’s to continue that storyline from the engagement tale. Megan’s wedding band was the second most expensive item. The rest of the event was modest in both scope and price, yet very intimate and perfect in every way. A friend would stay at our house to watch Franklin while we were in the Outer Banks for the long Memorial Day weekend with a short stop in Virginia Beach to visit with Kent Dupree and his family.
All this scheduling happened months before we planned to wed, so it was with more than a little anxiety that we watched the Weather Channel detail Hurricane Ernesto’s path across the Caribbean and into Florida the last week of August. We weren’t changing our plans now, but it looked as if we might be looking for an indoor spot rather than a dawn ceremony on the beach we had set-up with Pastor James, a man who looked like a former Marine yet was as soft spoken as a librarian. Ernesto was still on a collision course with North Carolina’s Outer Banks and the entire southeast coast was hunkering down for a hurricane-strength scrubbing that was expected to make landfall on September 1.
The day of our wedding.
We loaded Midnight with everything we needed for the long weekend and headed south into foreboding charcoal gray clouds being pushed ahead of the hurricane heading north. It was literally the calm before the storm. We were happy for the respite and hopeful we could pull everything off by the appointed hour in three short days. As frivolous as my sleek luxury SUV has always been (another check my wife had to write each month that stuck in her craw) it was the perfect ride for this particular trip where heated leather seats and bulbous tires provided comfort and stability in an uncertain environment with potentially shitty roads.
We made it to Kill Devil Hills without incident. The small beach community was still dry under low, steely skies as we checked into our beachside hotel. We had taken a room on the parking lot side to save dough, but it was just as nice as those walking right out to the expansive beaches that the area is so famous for but at half the cost. The first night we ate at the hotel restaurant, which didn’t suck as much as we had anticipated, and participated vicariously with two newly married twenty-somethings as they celebrated their own reception.
We woke up to the literal calm before the storm and set out early to find the remaining items for our special day. It was harder than we thought it would be to find a simple bridal bouquet and a boutonniere for my shirt. Our first attempt was at a small flower shop in a short strip mall on the main road that connected Kill Devil Hills to Kitty Hawk. We wandered around looking at complex creations that didn’t fit the simple, elegant image Megan had in mind. We spoke to the florist about buying some Gerber daisies and ribbon to tie them with, but she kept trying to sell us a huge custom job that could “easily be done in time” for the wedding.
No thanks. Next.
Since we didn’t have smart phones or GPS, we continued to search in the old fashioned way. We drove around looking for shops that seemed promising and found nothing. We did find a yummy spot to eat breakfast at instead, noting the small bakery next door as a possibility for our individual wedding cakes. After a great lunch, the waitress returned with our credit card and a receipt for a signature. We asked if she knew of any place nearby that sold flowers. She said there was a small gift shop that sold flowers on the main road heading back toward Kill Devil Hills. We thanked her profusely and left a generous tip, the latter being our normal manner of tipping and had nothing to do with the directions she so helpfully provided.
We hit the bakery next door on our way out and bought two small angel food cakes and half a dozen miniature fruit tarts to serve as our wedding cake. It was all tucked safely into two plain brown cake boxes and away we went to the gift shop a mile up the road in the hope of finding flowers. We met with similar success when the first thing we saw walking in the door was a happy bucket full of gorgeous red Gerber daisies. Megan smiled at me and described to the smiling attendant what we were looking for and the high-pressure sales pitch we had faced at the other store. She laughed and said we were the second couple to come to her store after having been at the other one first, adding she should thank them for the business.
While the woman was busy tying Gerber daisies into a simple bridal bouquet and crafting a red rose into a boutonniere, we wandered around the shop purchasing the last of our matrimonial accoutrements for the sand ceremony suggested by our pastor as a replacement for a more traditional candle lighting that would be impossible at an outdoor wedding with even a hint of a breeze much less a beachside wedding in the remnants of a hurricane. We found a fishbowl-style vase that could work as a receptacle for our comingled sand and the shells we would gather on the beach later this afternoon before dinner. My wife-to-be was nothing if not an intricate and detailed planner. A good contrast to my whirlwind spontaneity most days. We ended up spending way more than we might have for just the flowers alone, another lesson for the earlier florist she would never get to hear.
Fill the need I told you about and I may very well let you fill the need I haven’t yet shared.
We took our booty back to the hotel and settled in for the long wait as Ernesto made his way across Florida and into coastal Georgia. The storm would hit the Carolinas overnight, but the Outer Banks were already seeing an increase in the wind that would only increase in fury as the hours dragged on. We found a kitschy seafood place for lunch just down the street from the hotel with mediocre food and awesome souvenirs for our folks. We hit the beach for a little while after lunch to pick up seashells and enjoy what little decent weather remained in the day.
We found the awesome Flying Fish restaurant where we had dinner that night by way of a recommendation from the proprietor lunch spot and I made a reservation as soon as I could find the number in the yellow pages back at the hotel. Yes, we still had to look things up in the yellow pages as recently as September of 2006. Strange how much the world has changed in such a short period of time. Facebook would open its membership to anyone over 13 years old who had a valid email address later the same month, having been mostly confined to universities since its founding in 2004.
Ten years later and the only thing that remains the same is our inability as humans to solve very solvable problems.
We decided to grab some drinks in the hotel lounge to supplement the wine we had in the room. Another bride-to-be was at a table nearby, bemoaning the fate of her enormous outdoor wedding taking place the next morning like us. She had friends and family who had flown in from around the country and was a couple of drinks shy of a total emotional meltdown. We silently thanked our lucky stars to have planned our nuptials in such a simple and straightforward way.
A few drink later, we tucked ourselves inside for a night of playing Yahtzee and watching Hurricane Ernesto’s march up the southeast coast on The Weather Channel. We went to sleep with the television still on a few hours later, still not knowing which plans, if any, needed to change.
We woke to the sound of rain being drilled against the windows by fierce, gusty winds. The Weather Channel still broadcasted Ernesto updates, though the story had been downgraded overnight to a tropical storm as the eye passed overhead. We had already postponed the sunrise ceremony last night because the storm’s remnants would be still be slamming the Outer Banks until around nine. Pastor James had already secured an alternate location in a gazebo near the beach, so we agreed to chat this morning and finalize the timing.
We fashioned a continental breakfast from the gift basket of fruit the same friend watching Franklin had given us before we left on Wednesday and coffee from the lobby. The pastor called around nine thirty to confirm the storm had passed where we were and how about we have a wedding? Would eleven work?
Indeed it did.
Like the rest of our elopement, we had gone simple and elegant on clothing. Megan wore a spaghetti-strapped sundress in a thin white cotton, a sea foam green pashmina and her bright red Gerber daisy bouquet. I had a textured white dress shirt, light blue tie and red rose boutonniere. The dark pants from one of my two dated suits completed my outfit. We grabbed the sand ceremony fishbowl and wedding license before heading out to the our SUV to head three block down flooded streets to the beachfront gazebo where Pastor James was meeting us.
The rain had disappeared yet the wind still raged like an alcoholic housewife on a three-day bender. Tree limbs and other debris littered the parking lot. It certainly looked like a hurricane recently downgraded to a tropical storm went through in a huff not long before. Water pooled in various locations where the drains stopped working. Midnight’s twenty-inch rims gripped the road as we made our way out of the parking lot and down a flooded road that ran parallel to the beach on one side and the main highway on the other.
There is a stunned beauty to a city scrubbed clean by an powerful storm. A couple of cars shared the road with us, kicking out rooster tails of dirty water as they carefully drove wherever they were going. Small groups of people gathered here and there in hotel parking lots or the decks of beach front homes as Kill Devil Hills slowly came back to life. We parked in a public lot near the gazebo. Sand had crept everywhere, blown across the blacktop and boardwalk leading to the beach, so we elected to go barefoot for the ceremony.
Pastor James was waiting for us at the gazebo dressed in a simple short-sleeved black dress shirt with black pants and shiny, square-toed shoes. A smiling Johnny Cash with a Marine drill sergeant haircut and a peaceful aura about him. He greeted us each with big, burly hug and got right into it. He confirmed we had a marriage license and sand ceremony vessel. We produced both items. They were set to one side and James went to find a witness from the very few people walking along the tattered beach below. He found three women and a little girl who were delighted to participate in our special day. Two of them even agreed to handle our small camera and the pastor’s much nicer rig during the ceremony.
The ceremony itself was almost anticlimactic after the path we took to get there.
I remember how beautiful Megan’s smile, angry seas over her shoulder where the Atlantic Ocean still roiled in the aftermath of Ernesto and carefully-styled hair blowing in a carefree dance of red curls. Her green eyes reflected her smile as well as my own crooked and toothy grin. We pledged to love each other and to stay true to that love by acting in an honest and nonjudgmental manner. We read an applicable passage from the bible though neither of us are religious. A couple of white seashells allowed us to scoop sand from the nearby dune and pour it in unison into the fishbowl-shaped vase we had gotten at the flower and gift shop.
I don’t remember what Pastor James was saying as Megan and I held the glass bowl with delicate decorations painted around the rim, watching my soon-to-be wife and feeling my heart swell beyond what I thought my chest could contain. “By the power vested in me by the state of North Carolina, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.” I was happy to comply with the pastor’s final instruction and laid a tender kiss on my new wife’s full lips.
I was a husband for the first time at the tender age of thirty-six.
Hugs were shared all around and then we signed the marriage license before saying goodbye to the three ladies and a little girl who turned out to be from suburban Maryland, not far from our home in Washington DC. Megan and I followed Pastor James down the boardwalk from the gazebo to the beach to take our official wedding photos. He turned out to be a pretty good photographer with a great eye for the dramatic and a flare for finding the love in our eyes and our smiles. We said goodbye with another round of hugs and left the sandy parking lot for the flooded road. He went one way and we went the other, searching for a likely candidate for our first official meal as a married couple.
It didn’t take long to find a seafood place with a full parking lot called Awful Arthur’s.
We found an empty spot, parked and went inside. Despite the crowd, we were quickly seated at a small table in the back. The waitress promised to be back with water and took off like a shot, responding to her other customers along the way. Megan ordered hushpuppies, and we shared the steamed shrimp since neither of us were oyster fans, the house specialty. We had a celebratory Mimosa as well. We hit the gift shop as we left and got a couple of souvenirs, including a long-sleeved T-shirt for each of us. I wore my chocolate brown shirt just the other day, though Megan’s two-toned bright pink memento has long since succumbed to repeated washing.
We headed back to the room to have our tiny wedding cakes and change clothes for the next outing, mini golf at a pirate-themed course called Mutiny Bay. We joked and laughed and bullshitted our way through 9 unique holes built out of ships and deserted islands. I remember many comments dropped in faux pirate accents, punctuated with exclamations of “Argh, Mutiny Bay!” no matter what was being said. “Nice shot! Argh, Mutiny Bay!”
Megan won the game by a couple of strokes and it was back to the room to hang out before heading to dinner.
Our first dinner as husband and wife was as spontaneous as the previous eight hours had been. We had passed the sport’s bar on our way back from Mutiny Bay, making a mental note of the likely spot to have both dinner and fun. It was the sign declaring “Shuffleboard!” that was the determining factor for me plus we had already had the best meal in Kill Devil Hills the night before our wedding. My dad carted me around to more than one bar over the years and shuffleboard played as prominent a role in those twisted memories as pool or darts did. Megan had never played the game but was always game for a little inherited nostalgia by way of trying something new.
We checked out of our hotel the next morning to drive up the North Carolina coast to Virginia Beach where we would spend Saturday night with Kent and Dakota Dupree, their three smart and adorable daughters, and a rambunctious boxer named Carl. The storm completed its journey through the state overnight, so the day dawned clean and clear. The sky was a pale shade of washed denim with nothing to obstruct a resurgent and resplendent sun that had made its appearance a few hours earlier after being blocked out by Ernesto for a couple of days now.
* * *
The first challenge to face our young marriage occurred the month after we got back from the Outer Banks.
I was still working from home building online continuation education courses for first responders while Megan worked downtown as a real estate paralegal for a large law firm. The puppies and I walked her to the Metro at Union Station each morning and picked her up again at night when I got the text that she had left for home. We had settled into that comfortable security that comes at the beginning of a lifelong journey that is finally underway. There were hints of issues to come and the decision I was about to make on behalf of the two of us would bring them into stark relief.
I received a call one afternoon from my Uncle Roy in Eugene about my father. For a man as steady as a metronome most days, it was a startling change of tone. He was frantic as I have heard him. This was a man who had raised two boys mostly by himself, so the toddler that was Gordon should have been easy but most definitely was not. Maybe it was my dad being the oldest of the seven kids, but none of his siblings had been able to make a dent in my old man’s perpetual downward spiral. Roy hoped I had room and could offer something new since staying in Eugene was almost an almost certain road to the grave for the 57-year-old who had seen enough health problems to kill someone twenty years older.
I told my uncle we could accommodate the move, not really sure how I would break the news to Megan. This wasn’t the sort of thing her family did, so I couldn’t guess what her reaction would be to my chronically-broken father moving in with us so soon after getting married. I shouldn’t have been concerned because my lovely and compassionate wife didn’t even bat an eye as she rogered up for our mission of familial mercy. My uncle Roy was arranging for my dad’s flight to Washington National (we still refuse to call it Reagan National) and would store whatever stuff Gordon couldn’t drag with him. Turned out that meant everything the he owned except for a leather carryon the size of a gym bag and a single large suitcase.
Megan and I had been talking about getting a new mattress recently, so we used the opportunity to hit Ikea for a new bed frame, wardrobe and nightstand for the guest room where my dad would be staying. Our “old” mattress had been purchased the previous year, so that was moved into dad’s room while we replaced it was the Tempur-Pedic we had been talking about splurging on since we got together. With both of us making decent coin at the time, we dropped two grand on what we have agreed each night since was the best purchase we have ever made.
The old man was walking slower than normal as he came out of the secured areas at DCA, but he actually looked great considering his condition. The benefit of a naturally olive skin tone was it hid all kinds of chronic maladies. Dad always looked like he had just spent a week at Miami Beach, even in the dead of winter when all of his time was spent on the sofa watching Law and Order or CSI. Hugs were the first order of business followed immediately by a smoke break while his luggage was shuttled to the carousels we passed at the bottom of the escalators on the way to the sidewalk outside.
I would spend a lot of time joining my dad outside for cigarettes over the year and change he lived with us. Despite getting him signed up for the donor list at Georgetown Hospital and finding a methodology for getting him to take his medications on time, I was never able to convince him of the necessity to quit smoking or drinking soda or eating candy or any number of things he wasn’t supposed to do as a kidney patient getting dialysis. At least he got a little bit of exercise walking to the clinic a few blocks from the house three times a week.
Along the way, he had multiple seizures that left in this hospital or that depending on where he went down. One memorable day not long after he arrived, I was installing a new Art Deco inspired light fixture in the living room where an old crappy light fixture was hanging like a rotten fruit from an original and gorgeous plaster medallion. I was on a ladder trying to get the new fixture to attach to the existing anchor points and not having much luck. I decided to remove the existing 1950s hardware to find out what was underneath. It turned out to be a metal pipe disappearing behind the lathe and plaster was keeping the new fixture from sitting flush against the ceiling.
There was room to cut it back with a reciprocating saw, though, so that is what I did while my dad looked on with amusement from the sofa nearby. I went to basement for the tool and was back on the ladder in short order. The saw came to life with a menacing buzz and reluctantly bit into the galvanized steel after dancing to find purchase. I leaned into the task and expected to do so for a few minutes while I sawed through the inch-thick pipe. What I didn’t know was that it was actually a gas pipe and only an 1/8 inch thick which didn’t take nearly as long to get through. It was also still filled with natural gas that burst forth with a high-pitch squeal.
I immediately stopped cutting and pulled the saw blade from the hissing pipe. I shouted to Megan to get out of the house with Franklin and my dad, that I had cut into a gas line. I ran around the house opening the windows and the back door to get the air flowing and joined my family waiting anxiously in the postage stamp front yard. Dad was looking a little shaky, but he was clearly thinking about next steps. He was a plumber by trade and no stranger to residential natural gas systems. Maybe thirty seconds later, he led me back into the house and into the basement via the stairs at the rear of the rowhome. He grabbed the large pipe wrench we had bought to complete the half-bath on the main floor and went to the front of the basement where the natural gas meter was hanging from pipes near the door leading back out to the front yard.
He adjusted the wrench to fit around a nut near the meter that was unmarked and indistinguishable from the three other nuts of the same shape and size. He yanked sharply to get the shutoff valve moving and turned it a couple of times before setting the heavy wrench down and turning to me with a smile.
“Let’s close the windows before all the heat gets out!”
Back upstairs, the pipe was no longer hissing. The windows and doors were closed in short order, but the damage had been done and our place was a refrigerator. I went outside to grab Megan and Franklin, thinking we were all in the clear, but by the time we got back inside, my old man was having a grand mal seizure on the living room floor. The excitement and his inconsistent consumption of high blood pressure and anti-seizure medications was more than enough to push him over the edge.
I dialed 911 immediately while Megan went to Gordon’s side to provide what little comfort she could while his limbs beat a staccato beat on the hardwood floors shook and his bearded jaw clenched until the ambulance arrived.
We thought we were watching my dad die before our eyes.
The calm, cool and collected paramedics arrived within a few minutes that felt like hours and provided an immediate soothing presence as they went to work stabilizing and preparing my dad for transport to nearby Howard University Hospital, though we didn’t find out the destination until they were pulling away from our house, lights and sirens blazing. By the time we caught up with pops at the hospital, he had been admitted for observation and was just starting to claw his way back from the hazy mist of into the real world of tubes and wires and arcane machines that went beep in the night.
It wouldn’t the first time we arrived in an ICU to find my dad being watched over by sympathetic medical professionals with lots of questions. I would get adept at delivering the long list of answers they required though I never could figure out a way to keep him alive.
* * *
In the spring of 2007 we decided Franklin needed a brother or sister, that being an only dog just wasn’t fair, so we went back to the Washington Area Rescue League with a plan in mind to adopt the dog that had there the longest to come home with us and become Franklin’s new pal. We went through the same process, though much abbreviated since we had already adopted one dog the year previously.
We asked which dog had been there the longest and was told that Daisy the beagle was the inmate in question. Megan and I shared a quick glance that said, “No fricking way do we want to listen to a beagle barking all the time!” so we asked who the next longest puppy was. Violet was a larger dog they were describing as a hound mix. She had been severely abused before landing in a kill shelter in Atlanta. Days before her ticket was to be punched for good, Violet got a reprieve in the form of a transfer to WARL in a still rough section of Washington DC.
Another perfectly pleasant volunteer with gray hair and a ready smile showed us to where Violet was waiting in a kennel identical to Franklin’s, though she was less enthusiastic than he had been when we came to the door and peeked inside. Our guide explained to us that Violet was much better with women than with men. Her biggest fear was of large black men and children of all shapes and sizes and hues in particular, though she was nervous and fearful sort of all the time. The women frowned and added that she would need a calm and patient owner to bring out her best. The story melted our hearts as we noticed the poor puppy had her tail being tucked tightly between her legs as she followed us down the hall.
There was a metal bench at the end of the hall before a pair of double doors that exited to the outside. I sat down as Violet sniffed Megan and kept a wary eye on me while enjoying the gentle scratches from my wife’s nails on her floppy jowls. I offered a smile and my palm. She tentatively approached, sniffed a couple of times and laid her large head on my lap for continued scratching under her chin, like Franklin had done the last time we were here. We were both smitten as the guide confessed she had never seen Violet act that way toward any man the entire time she had been with them.
We looked at each other again and it was clear that Violet would be coming home with us soon. We told our sweet puppy girl as much as we walked back to her room and followed the volunteer back to the office to get the paperwork drill started and to schedule the required home visit to make sure we hadn’t broken the first dog they let us adopt. We also planned to come back with Franklin to make sure they got along before pulling the trigger on adopting Violet. We needn’t have worried because they got along like they were littermates from the moment they played in the fenced in area behind WARL.
A couple weeks later, we completed the home visit with flying colors and took our new puppy home. Two dogs was really no more trouble than one dog, though it took our girl a while to get used to my dad and my business partner Curtis, who also happened to big and black which made matters even worse. I had recently watched the film Iron Jawed Angels on HBO about Alice Paul and the final, horrific days of the woman’s suffragist movement in America. We changed Violet, which was pretty but didn’t really fit, to Alice Paul Miller and shortened it to Allie, which fit like a glove.
Frank and Al, together at last. Perfection.
As I mentioned before, the daily ritual was to walk Megan to the Metro at Union Station where she went off to work as paralegal in the Chinatown section of DC. Allie joined us on these walks, of course, but we lived on the busiest street in a busy area of town with boisterous people at every turn and cars that rarely stopped for stop signs. She was also skittish around most dogs other than Franklin until she got a chance to sniff ass for a minute or two to break the ice. If the other dogs were in slightest bit aggressive, Allie would go crazy and try to take them down. The entire time she would yank on her leash at odd moments and try to make a break for it.
It made for many walks done completely on eggshells.
The Monday a week after we had gotten Allie we were walking back from dropping Heather off, approaching the busy intersection at 7th and H Streets Northeast. Franklin at this time was also a bit wild on the leash and I hadn’t quite figured out the methodology to change his behavior. I was using what was called a “gentle leader” that fit over his nose and attached to a second collar around his neck. It looks sort of like a muzzle which is why the homeless dude at the corner commented on how dangerous Franklin must be.
I turned for half a second to deny the change when at the same exact moment, Allie had enough of the unwanted intrusion and skittered backwards, slipping from her collar and leash like it wasn’t there. She ran straight into busy H Street to be immediately ran over by the front wheels of a cab even though I was screaming and shouting at the guy to slow down as I ran into the street after her. Allie popped back to her feet and went tearing off across three more lanes of business morning traffic without getting hit a second time and disappeared into the neighborhood beyond. I crossed the street carefully with my remaining dog in tow, empty leash and collar in the opposite hand, and ran after her as fast I was able, shouting her name desperately. I ran as long as I could and then walked for an hour or so in the general direction she was headed but never did catch up to the frightened and injured pup looking for a place to hide. Walking up and down the city’s signature alleyways shouting “Allie!” had me giggling in short order and tears started to leak from my eyes. I eventually made my way back to our house hoping she headed in that direction. My dad was watching NBC’s Today show and drinking his morning coffee when I came into the house dragging Franklin behind me and still clutching the empty leash and collar in my other hand.
“I killed my dog,” I said as Gordon looked up from his program and took in my appearance.
The tears that had been held back by a thread burst forth in a flood of guilt and stupidity and helplessness. He immediately stood and gathered me in a hug while I sobbed out the story. Despite his fragile condition, dad dragged me back out onto the streets to keep looking while I called Megan to break the news of my massive lapse in care for our new puppy that led to her being injured and alone and on the mean streets of northeast Washington DC. My wife told to stop blaming myself and that she was coming home right away to help us look.
For the rest of the day until the sun went down, Megan and I wandered up and down every alleyway and street in our neighborhood shouting our puppy’s name. We checked out dozens of entrances to English basements, peeking into shadowed corners for the black and brown fur that would be almost invisible in those spaces. We were defeated at every turn and as the sun started to set we admitted defeat with tears in our eyes. As soon as we got back to the house, I went to my basement office to create a flyer we could hang the next day. I also called the Washington Humane Society to let them know she was missing and had a microchip for identification. I got an email address from them so I could send the flyer when I was done.
Eight days later, long after we had resigned ourselves that she wouldn’t be coming home, I got a call on my cell phone around seven in the morning that an employee of Washington Humane Society had found Allie on their way to work wandering about a mile and a half from our house in an industrial area with warehouses and the city’s hottest nightclub Fur. Megan called into work that she would be late and the reason why before we hurried to the shelter to retrieve our lost dog who had miraculously emerged from the grave and has been a cherished part of our family ever since, even if she does bark every bit as much as the beagle Daisy might have.
My old man lived with us for about a year, but in the end he couldn’t handle my constant reengineering of his habits to suit my selfish desire to see him eke out a few more bad years in an mostly mediocre and disappointing life. Uncle Roy found him an apartment not far from the carpet shop he had behind one of his rental properties in the area of Eugene known as Brewery Row, but back then was a fairly sketchy scene home to mostly drug addicts and hippies. We dropped the old man back at Washington Nation Airport one sunny morning in October not long after he had been discharged from his sixth stay in the hospital for failing to follow his medicinal regimen.
As 2007 turned into 2008, I was still trying to make things happen with Transformation Media while working out of my basement office on video courses. We still weren’t firing on all cylinders as Curtis kept offering “our” services for free in the hopes it would lead to paying work. It started with a free video for a Marie Johns campaign that ultimately lost to Adrian Fenty and had most recently culminated with another video I shot and edited for a non-profit consulting firm that could have afforded to pay our very reasonable fees. This paradigm wasn’t really a problem as long as I had cash coming in from my gig at American Military University, but when they went public as a piece of the newly formed American Public Education, Inc., the first thing to go was any effort not directly related to earning college undergraduate and graduate degrees for military members and first responders. A non-credit, professional development program was the perfect definition of such a program and hit the chopping block following the spring semester.
My sudden unemployment added immediate strain and stress to a marriage very recently relieved by my dad exiting stage right of his own accord the previous fall. We had bitten off far more than we could chew when we bought the house in the first place and our fragile budget was stretched further by the departure of my steady source of income. I managed to cobble together enough freelance work to avoid a complete flameout, but it wasn’t long before the inconsistent nature of the money coming in led Megan to demand I find a “real” job and leave Transformation Media to Curtis Stone and the rearview mirror. It was easy to agree to the demand since I had cooled on the notion that Curtis and I would be able to succeed together. I was also tired of doing ninety percent of the work for some unknown portion of our contracts that barely kept me afloat. I tried to blow the bridge up with a brutally honest and candid email that Curtis never responded to directly. Instead, he was happy to part as friends and even sent work my way from organizations he couldn’t work for to avoid conflicts of interest.
I landed a contract position in short order with a huge staffing firm called COMSYS that supplied technology professionals to government agencies and large companies in the DC metro. My first assignment was as a business analyst and information architect for Adrien Fenty’s new initiative to transform the Washington DC government by way of a renewed focus on constituent services via integrated information technology for all the various agencies.
I joined a team of perhaps a dozen people with similar skills and talents of various ages and sexes and hues. It was the first time I was required to wear a shirt and tie every day, which I hated, but otherwise was an awesome gig with a high-tempo and ambitious mandate. We interviewed more than eighty agencies over a six week period and transformed their inputs into a forward thinking and scalable upgrade to the DC information systems. The ideas were fully supported by both the mayor as well as his new Chief Technology Officer, Vivek Kundra, but as far as I know nothing we suggested ever saw the light of day as Fenty lost his bid for reelection while Kundra went on to serve as the nation’s first Chief Information Officer under a recently elected President Barack Obama.
It took a couple weeks for my next assignment to come through, but I couldn’t have been more excited when it did since I had been wanting to work for Discovery Communications for as long as I had been living in DC. My first interview was bright and early one morning in November. I took the Metro from the New York Avenue/Gallaudet Station up to Silver Springs, a short fifteen or twenty minute ride from our neighborhood. The iconic Discovery building is visible from the train as it pulls into the station, but that wasn’t were I would be working since I wouldn’t be on the creative staff. The company has a secondary building maybe a mile away where they keep the technology teams and video editors.
I checked in at the security desk and waited patiently while they called up for my escort. The attractive blonde who came into the lobby five minutes later from beyond the secured inner doors introduced herself as Christina. She ran the development team I would be interviewing for as their new business analyst and user experience designer. The team’s mission was to create and support the customized tools that the creative teams used to manage the process of producing and airing programming across all of the Discovery networks. It would entail requirements gathering and documentation with some light project management as needed.
The interview was held in a small conference room in the stylized and wide open spaces where the team made their home in a series of cubicles. A couple of analysts like me as well as the lead developers were already waiting and would be grilling me as a group. It went as smoothly as most of my job interviews do because I have developed the ability to give instant and coherent answers to just about any question. I suspect it was because I had spent so much of my professional life asking questions myself. A short time later they thanked me for coming out and Christina escorted my back to the front door. She seemed enthusiastic by the idea of my working for her and I was equally excited to be so close to my dream job.
By the time I got back to our house some forty-five minutes later, my recruiter at COMSYS had called to tell me the good news that I was being hired for an on-going contract with Discovery Communications that could very well lead to a permanent position if I play my cards right. I hoped I would be able to do so this time, but if the past is prelude then it was more likely than not that something unexpected would happen to send me careening down a different path than the one I thought I wanted and had pursued with abandon.
In the meantime, I proceeded as if my ship had finally come in and dove into my new position with all the energy and enthusiasm at my disposal. I sometimes forgot what that means to most people in the civilian world. In the Navy, full speed ahead is the expectation unless you are a shit bird that no one pays attention to anyhow. I have approached every position as a civilian as if I was still Journalist First Class Jason Everett Miller on a mission. It had been met with varying levels of appreciation, which explains why vets are having such a tough time fitting into today’s America.
The beginning of the end at Discovery probably happened a month into the gig when we had an All Hands event in the main building’s biggest auditorium. The new technology and production head was on stage taking questions from the audience of techies and editors, the unsung heroes of entertainment. I had only been on the job for a short time, but I saw a couple of places where improvements could be made and had faced resistance so far when bringing it up to Christina. The microphone was going around, so I raised my hand to ask the question that was burning in my mind each time an innocent inquiry was met with a hostile glare.
It landed in my hand eventually and my friends would not be surprised when I asked, “How do you facilitate innovation from the deck plates? How do you get ideas from the trenches? Is there a Suggestion Box we can use?” Caught off guard, he mumbled something about me reaching out to my direct supervisor and left it at that. I thanked him for his answer and handed the microphone back, but I suspect the damage was done based on the tight grins on the rest of the team around me.
One Monday morning, two months later, I was at my desk working on a specifications document for a time-tracking application. As was my habit when working, I was simultaneously carrying on a dozen or more conversations at my favorite political website Talking Points Memo. Though the feature no longer exists, back during the 2008 presidential campaign and through the 2010 midterms, the site had a Reader Café where citizen bloggers added a grassroots subtext to a site written mostly by Washington insiders. The comment threads at the site would be the crucible that formed my ideas for how Americans must change the way we practice politics.
This extracurricular activity never distracted me from what I was there to do, and I was still constantly looking for new work to keep me busy since I knocked out each assignment I was given quicker than anticipated. That should have been a warning that my days were numbered, but it wasn’t. In the contractor world, it always “Last in, first out” and even though Discovery had steady profits and a sunny outlook, they were laying off someone who took six months to find and another three to train on their highly complex global information systems to meet some unattainable Wall Street metric.
My last day would be the following Friday, February 13. Fitting.
Meanwhile, Caleb Wilson was still kicking ass and taking names following the unexpected demise of Proteus. He had been working for a series of government contractors and had recently been offered a gig with a company out of Atlanta that had a few contracts in Washington DC and was hoping to build the business up with him on the ground. Their marquee project was building the new intranet for the Smithsonian Institution that all of their various and sundry employees would use every day across dozens of facilities and departments. For the last three years, they had been managing the effort remotely and the client was getting concerned that things weren’t progressing as quickly as promised. To save the contract and the burgeoning line of business, the company had hired Caleb to take over as project manager and solution architect and told him to bring in anyone he wanted to help get the job done.
I still consider it an honor that he thought to call me when the time came to suit up and head into battle.
I was offered the gig after a single short phone call with the owner as long as I could convince the organization’s internal project manager, Stacy Germaine, that I would add value to the team. I wrongly assumed I would be working at the gorgeous Smithsonian facilities surrounding the Mall. Instead, I was given an Herndon address in the Virginia suburbs about an hour away without traffic. I arrived fifteen minutes early, though I had given myself an extra hour to make the trip not knowing the traffic situation. Caleb had been there working for an hour already and retrieved me from the security desk when they called back to let him know I had arrived. He gave me the nickel tour and then took me to his desk just outside Stacy’s office to give me a rundown on the project requirements and where everything was to date.
It wasn’t a pretty picture.
The woman who would be my new boss showed up about ten minutes later, just before our scheduled interview, introduced herself quickly and apologized for running late, that she would be with me in about a half hour after she addressed the emails and voicemails that were waiting for her to arrive. Fifteen minutes later she came out of her office and invited me inside for a chat. I must have answered all the questions properly, because Caleb called to let me know that the gig was mine if I wanted it before I even got home.
Of course, I took it immediately. I had been sucking hind-tit as a freelancer since my job at Discovery disappeared from under me six months earlier. My happy home was anything but these days and my lovely wife Megan’s anxiety would lessen considerably if I was gainfully employed. I called her at work with the good news that she had been waiting for since I left for the suburbs. To say that she was beside herself with happiness is putting it mildly. The relief was absolutely palpable across the phone.
Thus began my year at the Smithsonian Institution.
All in all it was a successful adventure on a number of fronts, not the least of which was personal. I had always had a tough time shutting up long enough to listen when I thought I knew what was being said. Stacy loved to talk and be heard, so my inability to shut up long enough to hear her became a huge sticking point in fairly short order. I got a fairly stern talking to that led to an immediate zipping of my lip in the interests of keeping my new job.
Nothing like a little added incentive to change something so fundamental to my nature.
I pulled my shit together and was finally in a job that lasted longer than a few months. Sort of a Good News, Bad News situation as it turned out. Working with Caleb again was as stressful and rewarding as it always is when two Type A friends are working ten, twelve hours a day to bring home a project that was quickly heading for arbitration. I knew why he wanted me with him on the gig now because we had $1.2 million dollars of work to do with only $400,000 left in the budget. Even using Indian developers it was a near impossible feat except that both of us were on salary which allowed for a fixed cost despite the ridiculous amount of work did to keep the off shore teams busy and the project moving forward.
Meanwhile, Megan was getting more and more disillusioned with her job as a paralegal. She had sort of stumbled into the work originally and was never quite comfortable with the fit as good as she was at performing the duties required. She had long dreamed of being an educator or a nurse but had a bad experience as a student teacher that sent her into the law and never felt confident enough to tackle the science needed for medicine. We dug into her professional quandary one evening after I had gotten home from my wicked commute to the burbs. She shared her fears of the potential curriculum and her ability to be successful given her past weakness in math.
I went into cheerleader mode as I always did when Megan was convinced she couldn’t do something despite a long history of doing everything she had ever put her mind to. The worst that could happen is we pay for a couple of college classes to see if those fears were as unfounded as they ultimately proved to be once she started diving headlong into a new direction. The first step was figuring out if she wanted to a nurse rather than a teacher. It was the year my dad lived with us that Megan cited as the ultimate deciding factor. She became fascinated with the hospital and the calm, cool medical professionals we met at two different hospitals, both intensive care and medical-surgical floors, on six separate occasions. Gordon was nothing if not a glutton for punishment. He never lost that smile, though, which also inspired my compassionate wife to find a way to save people like my dad from themselves.
She found a couple nursing programs in the area and looked into the prerequisites for applying. They were all basically the same with slight variations for this school or that. She was excited about one program in particular at Georgetown that offered a chance to earn an 80% scholarship for working at the large inner city hospital near our house called Washington Hospital Center, a place we were familiar with from my dad’s repeated stays.
She started taking classes at various Northern Virginia Community College campuses and her legal career would soon become history.