As much as we brought out the best in each other, it was apparent early on in the marriage that we brought out the worst in equal measure. My life didn’t give me a docile enough nature to be the proper foil for whatever demons were trying to get out of my lovely wife. Given a choice between Fight or Flight, I had been trained to fight. Always fight. To the very last breath if need be.
Megan had been trained to do the opposite, lobbing precise ordinance to cover her standard retreat. It didn’t take long before we discovered the triggers that would bring the mutually assured destruction needed to burn the fight out, so we could stumble weary and wounded into opposite corners. Rinse and repeat.
One morning about midway through my gig at Smithsonian, some inane comment or criticism got the ball rolling again as we prepared to go to work. The volume rose precipitously as I can be quite loud when I am trying to be reasonable and am being accused of “yelling” instead. Sensing the failure of my words to find a path to the logic and reason Megan held so dear, I stormed upstairs to escape the growing pressure. I finished getting ready, mumbling to myself about why she couldn’t see my point of view about whatever the fight was over.
At one point, I grew angry again and kicked the doorframe leading to the spare bedroom at the back of the house. The two-by-four was a hundred years old and shrugged off the assault like it never happened. My right foot wasn’t so lucky, encased in a thin leather dress shoe. I suspect it was fractured to some extent right then and there, but I have always had a very high tolerance for pain and limped downstairs as if it were simply another bruised metatarsal. The one benefit of hurting myself as the crescendo in our one act plays is Megan immediately goes into nurse mode and the tension drains from the situation as if punctured by a pin.
She made me sit down and got some ice from the fridge. For next twenty minutes, she got the dogs fed and made lunches (usually my job) and prepared to go to work herself while I iced my foot and calmed down. Rather than walking her to the Metro with the pups, Megan gave them a quick piss and poop break around the block and then said goodbye. We meant it when we said I love you and still do, but it did little close the wounds created by these regular skirmishes. Our love was volatile and transformative, but it was far from certain what we were meant to be to each other in the fullness of time.
A question that wouldn’t be answered for five more years and on the other side of the country.
Driving to Herndon was particularly painful that morning as I sang songs to soothe the pain and focused on the massive amount of work I needed to get done that day. I would be limping around for most of the next six months after explaining that I had missed the top step of our porch and come down on the concrete sidewalk wrong.
Caleb and I had made huge strides in straightening out the project and defining a reachable destination sooner rather than later. The entire team was still shaky at best, but we were comfortable with dragging the dead bodies across the finish line as needed. Our direct boss, Stacy, and her boss who had pushed to hire the firm we worked for had both started the breathe easier with the two us on the case day after day and usually through every weekend and late into the night. We crammed three years of business analysis, information architecture and requirements documentation into the first three months of being on scene and for the last three months we had begun to deliver some initial pieces of the final solution. Technical tap-dancing of the highest order.
One consequence of being good at your job as a contractor is you work yourself out of a job eventually. Once we had the baseline system configured and the user interface designed and developed, the rest of the organization-wide rollout became an internally-managed effort. Neither of us were surprised when we learned about the impending end and dove into the transfer of knowledge with every bit as much gusto as we had at the beginning of the effort. To be honest, we were both relived to get our metaphorical pink slips. It had been a Herculean task to deliver the Prism beta and not all that lucrative on a pure time versus pay basis. I never do that math to avoid being extremely depressed by the hourly wage that results.
We decided that making money for other people was a continuing waste of time given our talents and skills and goals for our respective futures and families. My boy Caleb immediately found a non-profit that was in dire need of our assistance and gave them a really good deal on the up-front consulting fees with the understanding that we would earn a percentage-based bonus for increasing their membership, which had been exponentially in decline for a decade. It was a win-win on paper that turned out to be a barely getting by in reality.
We were nothing if not optimistic for the future, though, so the two of us dug into the problem and split the monthly retainer to keep our wives happy. Not as happy as when we got paid by someone else, though, because it was maybe three-quarters as much and building a pipeline takes months we didn’t really have, though both our better halves worked at the time which gave us the short runway we started out on. It was just enough to get through the rest of 2010 and much of 2011 before the new business ended as most those who knew us both well suspected it would with enough pressure applied by external sources and our internal monologues.
Halfway through a year and a half that nearly killed our friendship, I received a call from my Uncle Roy that my dad was back in the hospital. It wasn’t looking good. The next call I got was from my sister who was arranging a flight to head for Oregon the next day. Money was always a topic for discussion in our household, though we were flush enough at that particular moment in time and could afford for me to buy a last minute ticket to join Abby and pick up the rental car as well.
Megan would stay behind since we couldn’t afford a second ticket as well as boarding fees for the puppies. She dropped me off in front of Washington National the next morning with a kiss and a promise to hold down the fort, though she probably didn’t use those exact terms. That was something my dad always said and my brain was busy supplying the endless variety of pithy and memorable sayings for every situation.
“Six in one, half dozen in the other. Can’t complain, nobody listens. Buenos no choice, kid.”
We drove straight to Sacred Heart Hospital from Portland where we landed two hours earlier. Megan and I flew out for his surprise 60th birthday party less than a year before. All seven of the Miller siblings converged in a sweet cabin owned by a friend of my Uncle Roy. We spent the weekend playing games and cooking and laughing while a fierce storm dumped twelve inches of snow around us. The enormous soapstone fireplace in the center of a great room with soaring ceilings kicked off enough heat to heat the entire house, keeping us cozy and warm. I was glad to have that memory as I walked into dad’s room and found him hooked to a simple set of monitors with an IV delivering what I assumed was pain medication and nourishment enough to keep him from crashing.
The tears started leaking from the corners of my eyes, reluctantly rolling down to drip from my chin.
Though I had known this day was heading in our direction for a number of years and my dad would be in so much less pain once he shuffled off his mortal coil, it was immensely sad to see him in such a sorry state. My old man was life of the party for most of his journey on this world. Tall and handsome and loquacious. He made friends easily and kept in touch with them for decades, carrying along a beat-up address organizer and calendar held together with multicolored rubber bands. Gordon never met a stranger he couldn’t make feel like they’d known him for years after just a few minutes of seemingly idle chatter where my dad somehow learned what was important to them. Kind of a con man’s skillset now that I think about it, but it does come in handy as one of my inherited traits.
As smart and personable as he was on first meeting, though, my dad had a shelf life that could be measured in hours if you ever got in a position to help him out with whatever problem was prevalent in his life at the time. Gordon could be a black hole of need that left you drained and unable to give without sacrificing the last bit of yourself in the process. We had played life tag throughout the years with varying degrees of success, but I had never been able to budge my old man one iota.
“I’m the dad, and you’re the kid,” he would invariably say in response to whatever bit of advice I was offering.
Yes, he was, and so he remained as his eyes slowly opened and focused on me and Abby for the first time. A weary smile creased his bearded face and we hugged fiercely. I was startled to see just how much more weight he had lost in the year since I had seen him last. The tears exploded forth in a flood this time as I stepped aside for my baby sister to say hello. I stepped outside to speak with the rest of the family who had made it to the hospital in time. Roy was there with his wife Amanda along with Travis and his wife Abigail. They looked as shell shocked on the outside as I felt on the inside.
The doctor came by to tell us the prognosis was not great since all dad’s major systems were shutting down one by one, starting with the last 10% of his remaining kidney. We should probably think about discussing the hospice option for dad to make him as comfortable as possible. His main ICU nurse was a little more sympathetic and shared how much they loved how my dad made them laugh even as they tried to comfort and care for him. She said the hospital’s counselor would be here to talk with us soon and went to continue her duties.
We went back into the room to join my sister. Abby turned away from comforting the old man who was tiredly joking with the nurse doing something or other at the computer station. We tried to maintain a positive atmosphere, but dad kept fading in and out to the point that we decided to let him rest while we waited for the grief counselor to arrive. I’ll be damned if I remember what we talked about, but it wasn’t too much longer before a roly-poly little dude in a poorly-fitting dark gray suit showed up to guide us through our options. From the first mumbled platitude, his nervous demeanor struck the lot of us all at the same time and we shared a “WTF?” look as he fumbled with his binder containing hospice options.
At one point, my uncle Travis just couldn’t take it and he left the room in a hurry, expression unreadable but pain more than obvious. Only a few years my senior, he been the big brother I never had as the oldest of three siblings. Always the tortured artist type, Travis had been loving and caring for a wife with a particularly fierce form of Type 1 diabetes for over a decade, and the long emotional strain was evident in his ten-thousand yard stare. Watching his big brother die a slow and lingering death had become too much for his fragile psyche to bear without snapping completely.
His Abby followed him while my sister Abby gave me a hug and tried to refocus on the counselor who was currently being comforted by Roy’s wife. My dad woke up at one point and asked us if it was time to go yet. He was ready for whatever came next. The counselor said he didn’t understand, though we hardly needed the qualification as his confusion was palpable as the old man fell silent.
“I’m ready to go now,” dad added and fell back asleep.
What little composure the poor dude had fled at this statement and he followed it out of the room, promising to return and discuss hospice options. We burst into laughter after giving the man enough time to get out of ear shot. It was actually the perfect way to shake a group of Millers out of whatever dark and dreary place they were in. We shared huge belly laughs that sometimes lead to tears. Regaining our composure, we talked quietly about my dad and his many idiosyncrasies while waiting for the doctor to arrive. The man didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, so we agreed to discuss home hospice care options after we went out to get lunch to let my dad rest for a bit.
“See you later, pops?” I asked before leaving and bent down to kiss his forehead.
“You got it, kid,” he said and closed his dark brown eyes for what would be the last time.
We left quietly as the nurse came back into the room and told her we’d be back shortly. Abby and I went back out to the rental car and drove to a nearby fast food place. I don’t remember where we ate or what we had, but I remember walking slowly back into the hospital after eating sharing a cigarette with my Irish twin and silently comforting each other with the able assistance of nicotine. We stubbed them out on the way in and took the elevator back to the ICU. We came around the corner to find everyone wiping away tears and the door to my dad’s room closed with a small cross icon in a slot on the door. We knew immediately what had happened while we were out and went to hug it out with the family and each other. Then we said goodbye to our father.
Gordon looked almost youthful again in this peace, the soul clearly bound for more welcoming climes. He was with his beloved mother again, no longer missing her so bad he hurt himself in the process. His own dad cured of the violent alcoholism that estranged him from all seven children to die alone in a small house in Oregon. His ex-wife cured of the many addictions that took her to an early grave. My dad’s pain was finally over and he had gone to a better place.
Abby disappeared into the room as I joined my Uncle Roy in the hallway. Travis was nowhere to be found and his Abby was still out looking. The nervous little grief counselor had already been by and dropped off options for “handling” of my father’s remains. Roy had already taken care of everything as he always does, so we waited for Abby to finish saying goodbye before leaving the hospital to go back to his house near downtown Eugene. My sister and I were staying with him and his lovely wife and their foster daughter in his extensively remodeled 1930s, two bedroom bungalow.
The next item on the agenda was the wake. My cousin Steve drove down from Portland to join us in toasting a goodbye to the old man. Roy’s two sons also showed up for the festivities. We got wicked drunk and smoked a lot of cigarettes and a lot of weed and sent my dad off to Valhalla in the classic Miller style of politically incorrect humor and brutal honesty that is nonetheless tender and heartfelt in its directness. Anyone can lie to you. It takes family to tell the truth. Or at least as close of an approximation of the truth as they are able to given the data you supply.
As I started to write this chapter in November of 2014, I shared the picture of my sister and I from that night on Facebook as my favorite image of us as adults. A snapshot in time where our older selves were as close as we were as toddlers with the same innocence and nonjudgmental spirit we are all destined to lose touch with as adults.
* * *
When Megan and I decided to plan our second trip to rural Virginia that summer, it couldn’t have come a moment too soon for my continued sanity after working with my best friend for last nine months at breakneck speed for mediocre pay. The first time we had packed our two large dogs into the Prius and driven south, we stayed in a caboose converted to a small suite set atop a steep hill overlooking the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains. We spent a long weekend visiting vineyards and North Carolina and communing with nature. We were completely disconnected from technology except by whatever we could manage on our smart phones when we had the bars.
This time, we looked for something closer to avoid the six-hour drive to the border and settled on the Shenandoah Valley area instead. We found a vacation home that was probably owned by some cute retired couple called Shug Pops Cabin. It was dog friendly and close to all the attractions, so we booked it for five days of bliss, only this time with internet access and a kitchen and a spa tub, though the caboose also had the killer tub that was a requirement for Megan since the tub in our house was in need of serious upgrading.
One hour and forty-five minutes after leaving Washington DC, we pulled into the gravel driveway of our temporary home in Virginia cow country. The small house and tiny yard was surrounded on two sides by expansive pastures with the third side boasting a long stretch of grass leading to the neighbor’s yard maybe fifty feet away. Bovines of all ages and sizes and colors wandered aimlessly beyond a wire fence maybe six feet high, mostly indifferent to our sudden appearance.
The dogs immediately started scouting the perimeter while we unloaded the car and settled into Shug Pops charming little cottage in Virginia’s tranquil farm country. The home consisted of a small eat-in kitchen with doors to the single bathroom as well as the living room which was separated from the bedroom by open French doors. The place had everything we would need for a relaxing five days away from the insane Type-A energy of the national capital.
Like most of our staycations over the years, we didn’t have much of a plan beyond wanting to motor along Skyline Drive through the center of Shenandoah National Park and visit the subterranean attractions at Luray Caverns. In contrast to our city trips where we spent all our time walking the various neighborhoods within our reach, covering ten plus miles a day in addition to whatever mass transit was available. No sidewalks in the country, though, and mass transit wasn’t even a dream let alone a reality. So our Prius became the method by which we explored the highways and byways of the Virginia countryside less than two hours from home.
The dogs stayed at Shug Pops for most of our adventures, but the Skyline Drive day was designed to be a family outing and they lost their minds when we opened the back of the car rather than putting them inside the house after breakfast. We spent the entire day getting lost and then finding our way and then getting lost again. Skyline Drive and that national park it wound its way through was as beautiful as we suspected it would be from the pictures we had seen over the years.
We made it to a scenic outlook around lunch time and pulled off to take it in. We had been passing bicyclists all the way up the mountain and two joined us in the bulge in the roadway to take in the view. We asked one of them to take a family photo and the gladly obliged the request. Another one of my favorite pictures since the tension and worry that accompanied life in our daily lives never followed us on vacation. It was as close as we ever got to those first heady days of falling in love at first sight.
We found the entrance to the Shenandoah National Park facilities and parked to find some lunch. The puppies were happy to stretch their legs and we were happy to empty our bladders. A picnic table under a tree provided shade from a day that was already getting uncomfortably hot and sticky. The sandwiches we bought weren’t half bad and the Smart Water provided welcome hydration though nothing that was cognitively enhancing beyond that essential component of life. Back on the road, we enjoyed the rest of the lazy trip along Skyline Drive, passing the friendly bikers along the way to the southern exit from the park over a hundred miles to the south.
By the time we got back to Shug Pops Cabin, we were tired and hungry and ready to cook the filet mignon that was waiting in the refrigerator. While I got dinner started, Megan went into the bedroom to get her evening bath started in the awesomely massive tub. The one glaring negative to the place wasn’t obvious to us until the first evening I tried to the use the grill outside. The fascia where the roof line emerged from overhead provided a ceiling for the small concrete pad beyond the backdoor. Tucked into the corner near the porch light was a small hornets’ nest with active and fairly aggressive insects who didn’t take kindly to our presence.
Needless to say, I informed Shug Pops owner of the issue and we spent most of our time on the front porch in a pair of Adirondack chairs that looked out on some truly spectacular summer sunsets. It was 4th of July weekend, too, so residents throughout the area would light off mini-celebrations at random times once the sun went down. We enjoyed our last dinner of the trip on the front porch and talked about all the cool stuff we had seen this time and lamenting a return to the real world where Megan was just starting life as a registered nurse.
The next morning, we cleaned the place from top to bottom and loaded our stuff into the car before adding the puppies and repeating the trip out in reverse. Back in DC, The Bakery was getting ready to meet an immediate and ignoble end when our main client decided we had given them enough runway to fly on their own now. The company limped along for a few painful months once Caleb exited stage right, but without the sales skillset to make it successful, it came as little surprise that what I really wanted was a fulltime job so I could work on my various creative pursuits. My friend went back to the agency grindhouse to forge the “Caleb Wilson” brand would build on all the hard work and sacrifice he had already seen in pursuit of his dreams these last ten years. What he has accomplished in four short years since is nothing short of remarkable to me, though you’ll need to read his excellent and forthcoming book to hear that tale of temerity and triumph.
Curtis Stone was busy turning Transformation Media into a global manufacturing and distribution concern that I never fully understood. He hit me up around the same time Caleb and I called it quits to build a website for the adult education non-profit where we first met. They had a budget to build a new website via a grant from Oprah’s Angel Network and liked what I had done on the video for free and were willing to pay for what I had been doing for a living these last ten years.
Just before Christmas 2011, I secured a part-time gig as a webmaster for Montgomery County Schools while looking for a more permanent, fulltime position. My opportunity came by way of a Craigslist ad, a source I would use to find a lot of work in the coming years as a freelancer. I had responded to an eCommerce company that supplied custom marketing materials to democratic and non-profit campaigns and needed a webmaster. They had done a ridiculous amount of business in 2008 and anticipated an equal amount of business in 2012 where the primary race was just getting started in February across the enormous state of Texas.
It sounded perfect on paper, like every one of a dozen gigs since leaving the Navy in 2001, but proved much less so in reality.
* * *
I took the salaried position, sans benefits, making thirty thousand a year less than I had at Smithsonian while being expected to do twice as much work. Since I had been sold on the idea that most of the total compensation would come by way of increased sales, I dove in with both feet. As if I had an actual contract with a percentage of ownership rather than a vague promise of riches yet to come. I also found out once I started that I would only be getting paid once a month, at the end of the month, and would need to budget accordingly. Megan wasn’t pleased by this latest development frying pan to fire transition, but she was so busy as a new registered nurse at Washington Hospital Center that she didn’t have the time to mention it. Much.
My new boss was a micromanager of the highest order yet wouldn’t follow any of the advice I had to make more money, having done a SWOT analysis of the situation my first few weeks onboard and delivered a Jerry Maguire document of how to transform the business into a powerhouse of progressive political communications both at the party level and the grassroots. It promptly went into the in-box on his desk and sat there, untouched, every time I went in to take marching orders in the opposite direction. The strain of my temperamental boss and the unrealistic expectations from efforts forever being sabotaged became too much to bear and the money I was making was easily replaced in any number of jobs I was overly qualified for.
I informed Megan a few days before the event that I was quitting my shitty new job, despite her insistence I find a another shitty job to replace it first when we had discussed my stress previously to no real conclusion. To add insult to her injury, I needed a ride to the office in our Prius to pick-up my Aeron chair and other personal items. Since I wasn’t sure how my soon-to-be former boss would react, I picked up my only full check and quit at the same time by way of a previously written resignation letter. I did so without the traditional two week notice, something I had never done before, but he was happy to throw me out and try to execute my ideas absent my meager share of the profit in return. It went about as well as one might imagine when an arrogant and angry man tries to do something so far outside his experience and expertise.
The biggest takeaway from the gig came from being subject to (and unable to resist or fight) constant and unreasonable anger in the real world that was such a close analog to my own inner demons that would flare to life with the right provocation or sometimes no provocation at all. It has taken me all of the last two years to diffuse my temper since getting such a visible and potent example of its ferocity. I am perhaps 90-percent most days, though Megan has that special something in her voice that can bring the anger back full force when we get into over something or other that is usually meaningless over the long curve of one’s life. I have gotten much better, though it took the occasional bruised knuckle from unflinching walls to keep it caged.
My optimism was rewarded the following week when a call out of the blue from a technical recruiter popped up on my iPhone, one of the pair I surprised Megan with after starting my last gig when optimism was still trading at record levels. I answered the unfamiliar number to the voice of a pleasant woman looking to fill a webmaster position at the American Humane Association, a medium sized non-profit near Dupont Circle. I applied the previous October when Caleb and I went our separate ways, but the budget available at the time wasn’t enough to get someone with my skills and experience. They didn’t find a match for their needs and raised the salary range. They wanted to see me for an interview the following week if I was available. I was so very available and set a date before thanking her and hanging up.
To say Megan was both surprised and elated would be putting it mildly. The stress leaving her brow was immediate and very nice to see because I knew she had a killer time of it on one of the busiest medical-surgical floors in the city and the last thing she need was to worry about my end. She also decided to seek out a midwife master’s degree and was busy planning a move to the post-partum unit with the hopes of landing in labor and delivery eventually. Her career path was shaping up nicely and the steady benefits offset my less than stable professional life thus far in the marriage. The idea that I could once again be gainfully employed at a decent salary for an organization like AHA was more than either of us hoped for a few days earlier as the latest nasty squall lit up the house. The house we almost lost when my last leap of faith went south and my income dried up overnight.
I had ready answers to questions about social media management and responsive design and email marketing since I had so recently come from a company where I was trying to institute the latest trends in all those areas despite being rebuffed at every turn. The woman I would be working for had been doing the work done previously by a staff of six in Colorado before AHA went through a severe restructuring and moved to Washington DC to be closer to mechanisms of government. It was a savvy strategy, but the logistics involved in downshifting from $30 million per year to $11 million per year and moving the entire organization from Colorado was prodigious to say the least.
The interview must have gone as well as I thought, because I was invited back the very next day to meet with the President and CEO of the organization while she was in town. That cinched the deal for me and before I got home via the Metro, I was offered the job at a salary almost as high as the one I earned during my time at Smithsonian. I was officially on my way back up the corporate ladder.
While I had fallen off a few years earlier and had been reluctant to climb back onboard, my wife was seriously stressed by the idea of me trying to build a business for any length of time without everything being perfectly aligned first. Not entirely happy with the notion but understanding of the necessity, I figured the 9-5 gig could be an opportunity to pursue my creative endeavors in my off-duty time. My first experiment being an Internet radio program called The Public Square. Later rebranded as Artisan Politics.
* * *
The new job at American Humane Association started kicking my ass almost immediately, much to my surprise as it had seemed like such a docile place at first glance. Since I didn’t have time to get good enough to make the show fun, The Public Square was mothballed for another day. I leaned into my work instead and was quickly immersed in it for sixty or seventy hours, seven days a week. That’s what happens when three people are expected to do the work of six while constantly being asked to do shit in ways counter to their experience and intuition. I interacted with the CEO way more than any webmaster should, always a good indication that something was seriously bad.
A month or two into the gig, my immediate supervisor decided the pressure-cooker was too much and fled for greener pastures less than a year after she started. Though I had been promised the opportunity for advancement, I wasn’t promoted to her job as Director of Internet Marketing. Instead, I was given all of her duties and responsibilities in addition to my own, while her salary was earmarked for a new senior public relations person who was totally superfluous. To say I took it personally would be putting it mildly, but I needed the job and I had yet to face swallow enough bullshit to send me looking for new work.
Until that fast approaching day arrived, I did my best to help my boss, the Chief Communications Officer, to accomplish the goals being set and reset by our mercurial CEO despite being exploited beyond belief. While there is nothing more frustrating than constantly having the goal line moved, we came to enjoy the shared comradery from time spent in the trenches trying to complete an impossible mission. We slowly chipped away at mountain of work and mostly maintained our sanity in the process.
My final project came just before I started searching for a new opportunity. Each year, AHA celebrates the accomplishments of canines across the country with their Hero Dog Awards. For the last four months, fans have been voting for their favorite pooch in various categories like Military Dogs or Guide & Hearing Dogs or Therapy Dogs. It was the organization’s major event outside of responding to national disasters with the Red Star Rescue teams. The finalists for each category had been selected by the end of summer and were gathering in New York City for a gala at Gotham Hall hosted by Carson Kressley from the TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Apparently he had been a little over the top the previous year, which made him an odd choice as this year’s host, but I had long given up applying logic or reason to anything we did. I had gone back to military-minded Jason where it was “Roger that!” as a response to any query no matter how inane or counterproductive or contradictory to the stated goals of the mission.
I figured Megan would love a chance to spend the weekend in New York even though I would be working for part of it. We arrived around noon after having dropped the puppies at a resort of their own for the long weekend the night before to free up room for me to deliver the frames, stands and signs for each of the eight finalists. We delivered the stuff to Gotham Hall where the event would take place the next day, an enormous converted bank near midtown.
The CEO had a membership at the National Arts Club and was reserving us a room for the weekend. The association was ironic given the typical member profile. NAC occupied the Samuel Tilden Museum at 14 and 15 Gramercy Park South, built in the 1840s. Tilden, the 25th Governor of New York, acquired 15 Gramercy Park South in 1863 and purchased the house next door a few years later. The building was gorgeous though it seemed to have stopped aging sometime in the 1960s with the exception of the single computer on the desk behind the check-in counter at a window cut into wall next to a closed open door. The clerk handed us two actual metal keys to our room and described the roundabout route we would need to take to get to the elevator that would take us to the floor where we would be staying. We would also be sharing a restroom with whatever guests were also staying at that end of the floor since we didn’t have a room with a private bath. Despite that missing must have, we settled into the room with relief.
We even took a little nap before heading out to explore the city near Union Square on the way to meeting my cousin at his new bar gig in Tribeca.
It was a much different vibe than the place where we spent our first New Year’s Eve together sipping free drinks and riding the subway back to midtown at 3am to the echoing wails of packs of wild drunk chicks dressed in too little fabric for the harsh winter chill. That bar was attached to a busy restaurant with a bevy of beautiful people being wonderful for each other. Eric’s new digs were contained within a single room that had an old bar against one wall, a handful of tables, a dartboard and restrooms at the back. It was a perfect fit for my cousin’s eclectic personality with a cast of unique characters who made regular appearances and a steady trickle of strangers off the street to add variety and spice.
The three of us hung out for a couple of hours, Eric taking care of our drinks and serving the half dozen customers there on a random Tuesday night that happened to be September 11. Megan and I said goodbye well before midnight because I would be busy the next day helping my coworkers set up for the “star-studded” event boasting solid B-list talent. Mostly it was an excuse for our wealthy benefactors to get dressed to the nines, be seen with a bunch of adorable dogs with heartwarming stories and make tax-deductible donations to AHA in whatever amount made the most sense for their particular financial planning needs.
The next day found us taking off early to help get the event space set up with the rest of the AHA team and the various vendors we had contracted. My main deliverable beyond driving the signs and hardware from Washington DC was a video loop of the eight finalists that would play on two screens near the front doors. I had been given the charge and the specifications on Monday, so I had worked late the night before we left to get it done. It was a tricky edit because I had to rotate all the graphics and text to be read normally when the video was rotated 90 degrees clockwise from the standard horizontal to the decidedly non-standard vertical orientation.
When we showed up after breakfast to test out the DVDs I made, I learned the instructions I had been given were reversed and when the DVD player rotated the video loop everything was now upside down. We immediately peeled off of the setup efforts to head back to the National Arts Club where my laptop should have all the programs I needed to fix things, stopping for some blank DVDs on the way back to the room. My first roadblock was not having the right software for “ripping” the video off the DVD, though I could probably find one online easily enough.
Since the only place in the entire enormous mansion where I could pick up a wireless signal was near the front-desk, I set up shop in a small alcove overlooking the entrance near the second floor landing of the grand staircase. I responded to a couple of emails and posted to Facebook while the program downloaded and then headed back to the room to get the video finished and start getting ready for the event. Megan looked up briefly from her book as I bounced back into the room and worked my technical magic. It wasn’t long before I had the video loop rotated and burned back to DVD. This was slipped into the inside pocket of my suit jacket and we started getting ready. I was wearing the navy blue pinstripe Brooks Brothers, one of two I purchased using the wedding of Megan’s sister in California the previous month as an excuse.
We both looked marvelous as we set out for the venue, a little over a mile from Gramercy Park near Broadway. I was carrying the sleek backpack that held my high-definition camera gear in one hand and the tripod where it would spend most of the night in the other. We started hoofing it uptown while searching desperately for a taxi before the sticky New York City afternoon caused us to soak our fancy duds with sweat. We didn’t know that we were in search of a White Whale at that time of day since shift change sent the hacks heading for garages downtown. We managed to snag a guy who was heading uptown for some reason and pulled over to get our fare. We were happy for the air conditioned respite and thanked him for the lift with a nice tip when we exited a couple blocks shy of our destination so the guy could head south for the end of this day.
We made it to Gotham Hall still fresh and ready for an evening of choreographed fun with the full cast of Marvel superheroes dressed in costumes that kids might find appealing but I thought was odd for this sort of thing. I have to admit I was wrong about that one. Everyone loved it and lined up for cheesy photos with Captain America or The Hulk. Throughout the night, they could barely pause long enough to get a bite to eat when the food came out or take a leak I assume. Megan and I even got a shot with a couple of the guys before it was over when Captain America joined us for dinner along with one of the finalists, a yellow lab named Gabe who would go on to win the competition in October at a truly star-studded finale in Los Angeles hosted by Betty White.
I spent the night shooting the event from various locations around the humongous hall and popping by regularly to keep my lovely wife company. She wasn’t much for these sorts of things, so she spent most of her time at our table near the outer ring of tables in front of the stage. It gave me a good vantage to leave my camera on the tripod throughout the portions of the evening that took mostly at the front of the room, so I was able to spend much of the evening making sure Megan didn’t get too lonely amongst the crowd.
The most memorable part of the evening was actually something that didn’t happen when our illustrious leader took the stage to kick-off the festivities. She spent a few long minutes thanking everyone under the sun except for her tireless and dedicated staff. Megan even mentioned it once the self-serving introduction was complete. It was a glaring omission that wouldn’t be corrected until later in the program by way of an obvious last-minute edit to the script. I shrugged it off, not terribly surprised given the last seven months on the job, though the later correction at the podium was unexpected though certainly appreciated and sincere.
The charity gala started rolling up the red carpet promptly following the final awards to a few of our largest benefactors just before 11pm. We staged the items I was driving back to Washington DC in the morning near the service entrance to Gotham Hall on 6th Avenue. Megan and I gathered up my camera gear and left to find a cab back to the National Arts Club. It was much easier at midnight on Broadway than at 4pm in midtown. We were in bed and fast asleep before midnight.
Before checking out the next morning, we went to a French bistro called L’Express on Park Avenue South for a great meal before hitting the road. It was as good as the first time we had eaten there at random before heading to help with the event setup the previous morning. Back at the Arts Club, we grabbed our things from the room and reversed the strange and winding course back to the 1920s elevator that would take us to the lobby area. We checked out without having to pay a dime, another appreciated benefit of coming up for the gig, and walked the three blocks to the garage where our Prius was parked. It was more of a pain in the ass getting back to Gotham Hall during rush hour to pick up my load of gala paraphernalia and then getting out of Manhattan via a Holland Tunnel than it was to drive the four hours south to get home. We had done the trip a couple of times before, most recently to hang out on the 4th of July with my cousin and his new fiancé, and had it down to a science by then.
After dropping off the stuff filling the back of the car at AHA headquarters, we drove south to Old Towne Pet Resort to retrieve the other two members of our family. They were excited and freshly washed and as happy as dogs can get, which always made us feel good about leaving them there for our infrequent trips where they couldn’t be included in the festivities.
Back at the house it was business as usual which is to say our standard Vacation Ceasefire was over.
* * *
It was also business as usual at work which meant I was looking for more graceful exit than my last failed attempt at corporate conformity. I searched Craigslist and LinkedIn religiously for the next week to see what sort of opportunities were out there for me to pursue. I almost immediately found an ad on the former for a creative director position at a small web firm near the Capitol called The Art of Drupal or TAD. I sent off my standard email introduction and resume to whomever was on the other end of the anonymous email link and hoped for the best as I headed off to work.
By the time I got to the office, a reply waited to set up an interview with the company’s owner. He hoped I could come by after close of business that same day for a chat. It was easy enough to Metro to Capitol South rather than Union Station, so I agreed to the meeting though I wasn’t really wearing interview attire as it was casual Friday. He replied that they were always casual and that wouldn’t be a problem, though it would be Happy Hour and hopefully it wasn’t a problem for me if we had a couple beers during the interview. It certainly wasn’t a problem for me and added a tick in the Awesome box under Company Culture.
I met with Brad Little over a couple of Leinenkugel beers in his basement offices after declining my preferred libation of Maker’s Mark Whiskey, an instinct I probably should have followed my second day on the job when our boss invited all the partiers on his small staff for a team-building bender in his backyard garden. Matching your boss drink for smoky drink, even if he asks for it, isn’t the best strategy to remain happily employed. I thought it secured my credentials as one of the high-tech Mad Men types who could do some extreme schmoozing and still maintain a high degree of situational awareness. It didn’t.
We chatted for a bit about the creative director position I had responded to. Brad was looking to move out of the position himself to free up time to act as the CEO and grow the company instead. It sounded like a solid plan and one that had been followed by many entrepreneurs looking to take their homemade ventures to the next level. He quickly admitted that he didn’t see me as the right fit for creative director, but he really needed help with project management and operations, a role I was perfectly suited for. I could help buy agree with the later while immediately hiding my disappointment about not being considered for the latter which was a much better fit for me personally and professionally. I finished my second beer and thanked him for the opportunity to help him create processes and procedures for the delivery of his growing list of client projects. He said his current project manager would be in touch to arrange a second interview, but he expected we would be finalizing an offer in short order.
My soon-to-be old boss didn’t seem surprised when I walked into his office the following week and closed the door to break the news of my two-week notice. He was apologetic that things hadn’t worked out and agreed with my plan to go back to a small web firm that should prove to be a bit more process oriented and a little less drive by chaos. That wouldn’t prove to be the case, but I shared his optimism sight unseen. What I didn’t understand is why he hadn’t already left for greener pastures or waged a coup d’état to save the organization from its most ardent supporter. I left AHA a mere eight months after arriving with as little fanfare as when I had arrived.
It was considerably less intense than the last job I had to quit, but no less saturated with the sour taste of lost opportunity. A shot at new horizons made the transition easier, but I still felt guilty for leaving my companions behind in an untenable situation. My new job was also a salaried position with high expectations. I was one of two project managers splitting a dozen on-going Drupal development engagements and perhaps twice as many maintenance clients on a variety of platforms. The day I arrived I learned that it was also the other project manager’s last day, a fact that was well known before I took the job. Red flag number one went by with a nod and a wink as I assumed this simply gave me a better chance to shine by picking up the slack.
Within a few months, I turned around a number of projects that had stalled and calmed the fears of clients who were very real danger of losing their jobs by hiring an underperforming TAD in the first place. It was shocking to me how many of my clients shared those sentiments with me as I prepared project plans and requirements documents for their approval. The developers appreciated a more standard project approach and gladly surrendered management duties they never should have had in the first place. It became obvious early on that this “opportunity” was going to end like so many before it.
I was met with unrelenting resistance from Brad and the sales dude Dan Cooper when it came to implementing client management, project delivery and web development processes I was hired to create in the first place. I admit to dialing my passion and intensity up to around seven, which is a lot to take for some people, but every bit of it was needed to get the job done at the level expected of me. Delivering successful web projects requires difficult conversations with clients that seem hostile from the outside but are absolutely necessary to achieve the main goal of on-time and under budget that keeps everyone involved looking like a rock star.
The first client to complain insisted I was making unreasonable demands of them with regards to timing and breadth of feedback. Of course, I was trying maintain a ridiculous schedule we never should have agree to in the first place but was still within reach due to my relentless stewardship. Timing was being driven by a conference they were attending in February and absolutely had to have a printed brochure in hand before the end of the year despite the fact we would be working with a third party design firm because Brad allowed our designer to quit without actually replacing her with someone new. I never did figure out how that one was supposed to work, but I smiled and tap-danced my way around awkward client questions until both the brochure was done on time as well as the website that accompanied it and the document of dense research that provided the data we used for the entire effort both on- and off-line.
I delivered three of the four deliverables on time and on budget by the time Brad pulled me off the project and took over himself. We had been fired by the vendor we hired to do the creative on the brochure, so he snagged the stick just as the plane was going down in a tailspin. We started trying to find a new vendor for the interactive portion of the project which was also the most ambitious from a creative standpoint. The brochure and the website publishing the data from the study was a homogenous whole that was creatively consistent. The client had initially resisted the design style, but they were getting such rave reviews from the stuff I shepherded through the creative process that they had huge expectations for the animated and interactive website Brad was trying to deliver.
We were fired by the second vendor for being unrealistic in our requirements for the agreed upon budget, a sentiment I had echoed before we started looking, so Brad took over the creation of the production art for the developer tasked with delivering a coherent story in a style he had never attempted. I appreciated his optimism since he had done such a great job on the data-driven portions of the site that are still live and being used today, but there was no way that site was being delivered in that fashion. It didn’t take too long before the entire project was Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition, or FUBAR in military speak, and the 40-percent margin I left him with turned into a deficit that was growing larger by the week. No good deed goes unpunished.