The Call of the Wild

This past weekend my two brothers and I took one of our infrequent brothers’ trips, a weekend getaway just for the boys for old time’s sake. We grew up together in rural north Georgia during the 1980s, which is as boring as you’d expect by today’s standards. Our parents rarely went anywhere or did anything, so the three of us were left to our own devices in terms of entertainment. That’s why I openly laugh at my kids today when they proclaim that they’re bored. How can you possibly be bored with infinite on-demand choices in terms of TV shows, movies, or games? But I digress.

Anyway, we spent most of our childhood in a tiny four-room rental house, which meant that we were always on top of each other and always trying to get our own space. Luckily, that dumpy rental house sat in the middle of a vast wooded area with seemingly endless avenues for exploration. Looking back, it wasn’t that big in reality, but to a kid, it seemed endless. We spent countless hours traipsing through the woods exploring and teetering on the edge of trouble, but we also camped out a good bit, if only to escape the confines of that tiny house.

We had a pup tent that practically had permanent placement in our backyard, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to sleep out there under the stars during the long summer. We’d play games in the moonlight, try to scare each other with ridiculous horror stories, or just listen to the latest music on our dad’s bulky portable radio, which had a slot in the side for an 8-track tape  (Google it, yes, downloads are a recent thing). Those nights spent outside away from the ever-watchful eye of our fretful mother were some of the best of our childhood, at least that’s my perspective.

Consequently, I’ve always had a soft spot for camping. As I’ve gotten older, I have admittedly romanticized it a bit. It’s my way of holding on to the parts of me that were young once, but most importantly, camping, to me, has always been a means of escape, even if only for a little while, because of what it meant to me as a kid.

Now that we’re older, we have the means to camp out beyond our own backyards. For this trip, we decided to camp in Zion National Park in southwest Utah. Zion is one of the premier national parks in the United States known for its colorful canyons and stunning sandstone cut deep by the seemingly innocuous Virgin River. It’s a popular destination for campers and hikers the world over.

We flew into Las Vegas, which was the site of our last brothers’ trip eight years ago, and drove the three hours to Zion. Once we left the carnival atmosphere of the Vegas strip outside the airport, the drive was nothing more than a vast expanse of desert interrupted by the occasional small town wedged against Interstate 15. The temperature outside the SUV we rented hovered around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe August wasn’t a good time to camp at Zion.

After grabbing dinner in the town of Springdale just outside the park, we arrived at Zion in the early evening excited about all of the things we planned to do during our visit – hike to the precarious Angels landing, explore the depths of the Narrows, and drive out to spy the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. The canyon walls exploded in bright colors in the evening sun as we set up our camp.

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The view from our campsite on the evening of our arrival

Once we had everything set up, we started a campfire in the fire pit only because of the ambiance it provided. The desert does cool off at night, but in August, it doesn’t cool off enough to require a campfire. Nevertheless, we sat around the fire chatting and joking with each other. The beauty of brotherhood is that you always have someone who knows you almost from the beginning and you can pick up wherever you left off even if you haven’t seen each other for a while. There’s always an inside joke to exploit even if it’s been overdone for the last three decades. I’m sure my youngest brother is more than tired of us laughing at his idiosyncrasies from his childhood, but what kind of brothers would we be if we just let that slide? There’s no dead horse that can’t be beaten yet again.

The next morning we awoke bright and early. The stars were still in the sky when we fired up the camp stove and cooked breakfast. We never had a camp stove when we camped as kids. Oftentimes, we just had a single small pan and a weak campfire, if that, but adulthood does have its advantages in that you can buy your own equipment. After a hearty breakfast, we took the Zion shuttle to The Grotto stop in the heart of the park and began the four-hour hike to Angels Landing.

On the surface, Angels Landing may not seem like a tough hike. In total it takes about four hours round trip and the elevation gain is only 1,400 feet, but just looking at the stats is misleading because the second half of the hike is a harrowing climb across the spine of a fin-shaped mountain with heart-stopping drops on either side. Luckily, some brave souls have installed a chain along the route so that you can hold on for dear life as you make your way to the top. Just googling “Angels Landing” will bring up stories of hikers falling to their deaths while attempting to reach the top (watch the first-person videos if you want to see how daunting it can be).

To make the hike more precarious, it’s a very popular hike. When we made it to the point where the chain became necessary, a stream of people flowed up and down the trail, some maneuvering around each other while keeping at least one hand on the sweat-drenched chain at all times. To let go would have risked plummeting to a certain death. The number of people made me very nervous, especially those who were nonchalant or careless. I feared being pulled over the edge by some clueless hiker who slipped and grabbed the nearest person to join them in their gruesome death. My wife would kill me if I died on the mountain and left her alone with two kids (don’t ask how she would kill me after I died; she’d find a way).

My brothers plowed ahead as a surge of people pushed us along. I stepped back and sat at the top of this long slide of sandstone and let the crowd pass. I watched as some hapless teenager just galloped across the ledge and slipped foolishly as he made his way between the gap in the chains. He was exactly the type of hiker I was afraid of – clueless and fearless. After a long wait, the crowd thinned considerably, and I began the rest of the hike. I tip-toed along one ledge and wrangled my way around hikers returning from the top. I don’t think I’ve ever loved how a chain felt in my hand as I did during this hike.

I’m not necessarily afraid of heights, but I have a love-hate relationship with dizzying heights. You’ll never see a video of me scaling a building and jumping between two incredibly high points without ropes or other safety support. My idea of a good thrill is within the confines of the over-engineered rides at theme parks. I’d rather not end up as a stain on the ground somewhere.

I made my way steadily across the mountain stopping occasionally to take pictures of the beautiful expanse of canyon beneath my feet. Below I could see the tidy black ribbon of the scenic road that wound its way through the valley, and intermittently, I’d spot one of the shuttle buses inching its way along the road. People were all around me, some above me trekking toward the top while others labored along the path beneath me. I didn’t see my brothers again until a crowd of people descended from the plateau at the top. I made the final climb as they waited for me.

The precarious hike was certainly worth it. Standing atop Angels Landing on a beautiful, clear day, I had an unobstructed view across the canyon. The vista isn’t the highest point in Zion, but it does afford a nice view of the valley cut by the Virgin River. Personally, I felt relieved to have made it without being pulled off the cliff by some hapless hiker. On the way down, I came across a woman and her teenage children making the final climb to the top. She fretted over her careless children for getting too close to the edge and not holding onto the chain, and I smiled as she and her brood passed because I didn’t have my kids with me. That’d be way too stressful for me.

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The view from the top of Angels Landing

I reunited with my brothers on a small ledge beneath the top and we made our way down the mountain. The trek down was easier even if it stressed our quadriceps more. By the time we made it back to The Grotto shuttle stop, we were spent. Originally, I had thought we’d do a couple of big hikes on our first day, but the intense heat combined with the exertion of Angels Landing pretty much ensured we’d take it easy the rest of the day. In fact, I took a nap when we returned to camp. We did do a couple of short hikes later that evening, but nothing more.

The next morning, we got up early again and drove two hours to Bryce Canyon. While Zion itself was enough to keep us busy for days, I didn’t want to travel all the way out to southwest Utah and not see Bryce Canyon. Bryce had been on my “must see” list for a long time, and I simply wasn’t going to pass it up when I was so close to it. It did not disappoint.

Driving out of Zion on the eastern side of the park is interesting as Highway 89 takes you through more stunning views of the canyon. There’s a long tunnel leading out of the park that takes you through the sandstone cliffs. At one point in the tunnel there’s a cut-out where you can look out over the canyon, but unfortunately, you can’t stop and take it all in. Once you get through the tunnel and into Mt. Carmel on the other side, the drive turns rather dull until you get to Red Canyon just outside Bryce. After driving through the drab scrub brush along Highway 89 for so long, Red Canyon is a beautiful surprise with brilliant rock formations that simply materialize in the desert out of nowhere, or so it seems.

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One of the first rock formations we encountered in Red Canyon

In terms of sheer beauty, I think Bryce Canyon beats Zion. Zion is larger and more interesting in terms of exploration opportunities, but I absolutely loved the hoodoos in Bryce. We hiked around the rim and I must have taken a hundred photos of the canyon and its famous spires.

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The hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

My brothers dragged my camera and me away from the edge of Bryce and we drove back to Zion to hike the Narrows. The Narrows is a section tucked away in the upper reaches of the park where the Virgin River flows between a, you guessed it, very narrow and deep section of the canyon walls. The only way to hike the Narrows is to hike in the river. Luckily, the river is fairly tame this time of the year, but the current was surprisingly strong during our hike. Each of us had trekking poles, so we were able to maintain our balance as we maneuvered across the slippery river rocks in the chilly water.

Like Angels Landing, there were lots of people around us, but unlike that precarious hike, the risk of immediate death wasn’t present. Given that the air temperature was in the low 100s, the Narrows provided some much-needed relief from the heat and the angry sun that bore down overhead. For most of the hike, the sun didn’t even reach the canyon floor as the rock wall towered over us. Under less favorable weather conditions, the Narrows is actually quite dangerous, especially if there’s a risk of flash flooding because there is nowhere to go if the water starts to surge. You’re dead, plain and simple.

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Hiking the Virgin River in the Narrows

Hiking in ankle to knee-deep water is rather strenuous, but it was worth the effort when we reached a popular point in the river valley that offers splendid views of the beautiful canyon. It’s possible to hike eight miles or more up the river, but we turned around near the two-mile point and headed back to camp to relax and get ready to pack up. The Narrows was a great way to end our trip.

But that wasn’t all of the excitement in store for us. On the way down the canyon in the shuttle bus, we noticed a fog-like cloud rushing through the valley. At first, I thought it was a forest fire given the lack of rain and intense heat, but the fog didn’t behave like smoke. The bus rattled to a stop on the side of the mountain and other buses soon joined us. They finally told us that a rock slide had occurred down the road and that all buses were stopped until further notice. We waited a while, but after we realized that the shuttle buses weren’t moving anytime soon, we decided to walk down the canyon and catch a bus on the other side of the rock slide.

As we walked past the slide area, we could tell where a whole section of a mountain had collapsed, but the damage seemed mostly superficial. No one was seriously hurt from what we know, but it did provide for some excitement for an hour or so as we waited to hear what had happened. After a long walk on tired legs, we caught another bus and headed back to camp to put a cap on this brothers’ trip.

Aside from the beautiful scenery, this trip gave us a chance to reconnect as brothers, to relive a part of our collective childhood under different circumstances. Who knows how many more chances we’ll have to do that, which reminds me of the lyrics to the Baz Luhrmann song from the late 1990s, “Everybody’s Free”:

Be nice to your siblings
they are the best link to your past
and the people most likely to stick with you in the future
Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on
Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle
because the older you get
the more you need the people you knew when you were young

Catch the Wind

One of my favorite memories of my dad occurred in the late 1970s. He was young then, only in his mid-thirties. It’s how I like to remember him, slim, sinewy, arms amply filling the sleeves of the t-shirts he favored. Back then, he still had that air of carelessness that had pockmarked his youth. He had yet to be worn down by life.

He had taken me with him into town for a reason I cannot remember. We ended up at the Western Auto in downtown Canton, and on a whim he bought me a kite. Dad was impulsive like that. The kite was almost bigger than me with a giant eagle imprinted on the cheap plastic. Dad bought extra string and a fancy u-shaped handle that allowed the string to be unwound with just a flick of the wrist.

As we drove home, the kite rattled in the wind from the back seat. Outside, a beautiful March day had unfolded with the deepest blue sky I had ever remembered seeing and a stern breeze that served as a precursor for the inevitable storms that would come as the South transitioned from spring to summer. Growing up, I loved days like this before the dreaded heat and humidity stamped out the will to live until the first chill of October.

When we returned home, we slipped out the door and walked to a wide-open field near our house where Dad explained how to launch and fly a kite. At first, he pantomimed it, but then, he started at the bottom of the hill and ran with the kite above his head until it slowly glided skyward. He flicked his wrist to release more string, and the strong breeze buffeted the kite until it ascended further and further into the sky. I watched in amazement as the ball of string shrunk. I imagined that the kite was as high as an airplane, at least a small airplane flying very low.

Eventually, he reeled in the kite and gave it to me to fly. I tried to mimic his movements, but the kite only flew up a few yards before it nose-dived into the ground. Each crack of the plastic frame into the ground made me wince. I thought I had broken the kite. Finally, I was able to catch a strong current, and the kite lifted into the air and sailed higher as I haphazardly unwound the string. The pull of the kite almost lifted me off my feet as it reached the end of the line. I held on tightly with both hands hoping that I didn’t lose my kite or get swept away by the wind.

We stood there, side by side, watching the kite jerk and flutter in the stiff breeze against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. Dad didn’t say much other than comment about how great a day it was to fly a kite. I could have stood there for a long time soaking in the warm sun as the wind lapped my face, enjoying time with my dad.

I didn’t understand it then, what it meant to be with him in those most mundane of moments. It would be decades before I could appreciate where he was in life, what was about to happen. Some lessons in life can’t be taught. They have to be experienced, hard-earned. Looking back, it’s easy to pick the moments that really mattered, to belabor them with the benefit of experience that didn’t exist then. Perspectives shift as we get older and alter the memories we have in subtle ways. Perhaps these memories become something they really weren’t. Perhaps we need them more than ever when those we loved are no longer with us.

Episode 15 – Standard Ink

NOTE: This is the final episode in this series. Thank you for reading.

“Hey Potter, you want to grab some coffee?” Alex asked. He had walked up behind me without me noticing it. His scratchy voice startled me. I wheeled around at my workstation and looked at him. He was dressed in a nice suit with crisp cuffs and platinum cuff links. His wavy hair was slicked back. He looked like a mafioso. His shoes were impossibly shiny, so much so that the overhead lights gleamed in them. His smile belied an undercurrent of neediness.

“Sure.”

“Okay, let’s walk down the street. I don’t any of that crap they’re serving downstairs.”

I locked my computer and followed him to the elevators. The tenth floor was quiet. I glanced at Julie’s dark office and wondered if I’d see her before she left for good. Chad’s office sat completely empty. He had wasted no time moving upstairs. I imagined him and his bare desk sitting in the middle of a giant office surrounded by fawning executives and an eager assistant.

Alex and I stood on opposite ends of the empty elevator. I didn’t really feel comfortable standing too close to him. He didn’t say a word. He just stared straight ahead like we were at the urinals in the men’s room. The elevator came to a stop at the fifth floor.

An older gentleman stepped onto the elevator with a familiar box suspended between his arms. I recognized him because he had been featured in the company newsletter not long after I had started at the company. His name was Ronnie Gilmore. He was the longest serving Standard employee. He had been with the company for his entire career, more than 40 years.

Ronnie looked defeated and worried. The bags under his eyes were pronounced, and his jowls sagged as if he had weights hanging from them, but he was dressed nicely in a classic suit that fit him well, and he stood up straight like a Marine. He wore the same close-cropped gray hair that he had sported in the newsletter photo. He gave us a wan smile as he stepped into the elevator. Alex looked askew at him as if he were disgusted. I wanted to say something, ask him how he was doing, but I didn’t know him other than what I had learned in the newsletter. It didn’t feel right to pry, but it was clear what was happening.

Alex and I followed him out the door, and I watched him put his box in the backseat of a old, compact car parked in front of the building. We continued down the street into the bright sunlight.

“Do you know who that was?” I asked. I pointed my thumb behind us.

“Who? The old man?”

I nodded. “That was Ronnie Gilmore.”

“Who’s that?”

“You didn’t see him in the company newsletter a while back?”

Alex shook his head no. I knew the moment I asked that he’d be unlikely to take any interest in anyone other than himself.

“He is or was Standard’s longest serving employee.”

“Guess that’s no longer the case.” Alex smiled as if he made a joke.

“You think he got fired?”

“Probably. Good riddance. We need to get rid of all of the dead weight at Standard. It’s a new company now. How do you think these tech companies are so successful?” He paused a moment as if he wanted an answer, but then he continued. “They don’t hire old people and when their employees get old, they give them the boot. Just walk down the street to the MainTech building. I guarantee you won’t find a person over 40 there except for maybe the security guards. Standard needs youth. That’s why you and I are here.”

Alex smirked at me as he opened the door to The Cup and I coffee shop. It felt wrong, cutting someone like Ronnie loose just because he was old. He’d spent his entire career at Standard and had remained loyal to the end. Where did that get him? Maybe he had a nice pension check coming, but his career ended in a whimper. He didn’t deserve that. Surely, we could have used his experience even if the company was headed into the future. We’d never know because Ronnie was now part of its sordid history.

Alex ordered an incredibly complicated and customized cup of coffee. He talked to the cashier as if she were an idiot. By the time he was finished tallying his demands, I think she wanted to spit in his cup. He paid with his app and walked away without saying thank you. I was extra nice to the young woman as I ordered. I thanked her profusely, attempting to compensate for Alex’s asinine behavior. She smiled as if she were relieved.

When I walked up to Alex at the end of the coffee bar, he said, “I hope these idiots get my order right. They can’t seem to follow simple instructions.” A look of disdain befell his face. I wondered if Alex had any friends or a girlfriend. No one at work liked him as far as I knew. He was always complaining and criticizing. I wondered why I had agreed to have coffee with him.

We stood silently, waiting for our coffees. After the barista put our drinks on the bar, we left the coffee shop and headed back to Standard Tower.

“Just look at Chad’s Exec team. Not a single one of our leaders is over 40 now,” he said, continuing our conversation as if there hadn’t been a large gaping silence since he last spoke. “I think Sabrina is the oldest executive, and she’s 38.”

I looked at him as I took a sip. I had thought that conversation was over.

“Look at you. A young guy in his twenties who’s already a manager of a big group.”

“That’s not official yet.”

“It will be. You won’t pass up the opportunity.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“The money is too good. You’re trapped.”

“I’m not trapped.”

“Once you start making good money, you can’t say no. You become stuck. You can’t walk away from it. Do you think I really like working at Standard?” He paused again.

“You’ve been here four years, right?”

He gave me a pained expression. “I have but it’s not because I like it. It’s because the money’s too good. I’d go work for MainTech if I had my druthers.”

“Don’t they pay well?”

“They do, but not as much as I make as a director at Standard. They don’t value my Standard experience as much as Standard does. They’re arrogant. They want people with tech experience, like it’s all that different from any other business.”

I found it ironic that Alex would call someone else arrogant.

“Before you know it, you’ll be here 40 years and they’ll be showing you the door.” I chuckled at my comment, but Alex just smirked.

“Doubtful. I’m not spending 40 years anywhere. Besides, by then, I will be retired to a beach somewhere.”

We were back at Standard Tower. The elevator dinged, and we stepped on without another word between us. I thought about the offer to manage the online team. I hadn’t signed any of the paperwork yet, but Alex was right. The pay was good. I would get almost a 50 percent raise. The bonus was potentially 20 percent of my salary, and the stock awards were icing on the cake. Standard’s stock had soared since the reorganization was announced. I hadn’t heard back from the tech company yet despite the fact that the recruiter had promised a quick response. I was torn. Did I want to stay at Standard? Without Julie? I longed to talk to her. I had sent her an email, but she just replied that we’d talk soon. That was a week ago.

When the elevator opened onto the tenth floor, Alex walked away without even acknowledging that I’d joined him for coffee. He was awkward like that.

The morning passed in a blur with all of the issues I had to address. It seemed we let too many people go as there weren’t enough to get the work done. The vendors on my team struggled to keep up. A text message interrupted my exasperation.

I have the offer in hand. Can we talk?

I looked around the tenth floor like everyone could see the text from the recruiter. A few people sat at their workstations, but no one looked at me. I replied.

I’ll call you in a few. 

I found one of the tiny private rooms with the glass doors and stepped inside. The door clicked shut giving the illusion of total privacy. I dialed the recruiter.

“Travis. I have great news!” she said after I said hello. I had never met the recruiter because she lived in another city, but I imagined a tiny, excitable woman hopped up on coffee or energy drinks. She was a lot to take in a phone conversation because she talked so fast. I wondered if she breathed during conversations.

The company wanted to hire me. The recruiter went through the details. The salary was less than what I’d make if I took the manager role at Standard, but the benefits were better including the stock options, which offered the promise of immense growth if the company continued to do well. I wanted to say yes right there, but I hesitated. I told the recruiter I wanted to think about it. She seemed disappointed. She went into full sales mode telling me all of the great benefits and opportunities I’d have, but I still resisted the urge to say yes immediately. She told me that they’d only wait a couple of days at most, and I promised to give her an answer before then.

I could barely squeeze my ego out of the door of the tiny room. I felt unusually good about myself, better than I had felt when I beat that snotty teenager in that online game a few weeks back. That had felt good. This felt better in an adult sort of way. I thought my dad would be proud. Maybe.

I floated through the rest of the day. I had a hard time focusing on my work. I kept running through the scenarios in my head. I tried to predict my future with each of the options I had before me. I kept coming back to the money. The only reason I’d stay at Standard was because of the salary. Everything else pointed to the tech company. I couldn’t decide if the salary was worth it.

As the office emptied, I sat at my workstation, pretending to work, but I really was just moving things around on a spreadsheet while I thought about my next step.

“I hear congratulations are in order.”

I wheeled around toward her voice and smiled before I could see her face. Julie stood a few feet behind me. She was dressed in her usual impeccable business suit. She exuded confidence and authority despite the fact that her time at Standard was coming to an end.

“Julie, how are you?” I know I sounded fan-boyish, but I didn’t care. I was just so glad to see her.

“I’m fantastic. How’s the new online manager?”

“I haven’t officially taken the role yet, but I’m fine. I haven’t seen you in a while.”

She stepped closer and took a seat in the chair at the workstation next to mine. “It’s been crazy since the announcement. Mr. Rich and I have been working to put all of the pieces in place before we leave.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“That you don’t have a job here.”

“Don’t be. It was my decision. Mr. Rich is joining a VC firm downtown, and he asked me if I wanted to stay here or join him, and I opted to join him.”

“Why?”

“I like the excitement of building or changing a company. I’m not cut out for running one long-term. This VC thing is something I’ve always wanted to do, and Mr. Rich and I have worked together for a while. I like working with him. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

She smiled at me and I wanted to lean in and kiss her.

“Look at you, though. You have a great opportunity here. I can’t think of a better person to lead this group.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You don’t like it?”

“I do. I just thought…”

“What?”

“I thought I’d get the chance to work with you.”

She smiled again. “We’ve had a good run here. You’ve learned a lot, and that’s all that matters.”

That wasn’t all that mattered. I looked away, trying to hide my disappointment.

She stood up from the chair and stretched. “I have to get going. I’m meeting Mr. Rich and some of the VC partners for a dinner tonight. I need to grab a few remaining things from my office.”

When I stood up to say goodbye, she stepped toward me and hugged me. I inhaled her, the familiar perfume settling on me like a warm blanket. I wanted to pull back and look into her eyes and kiss her like some scene from a movie, but I knew that wouldn’t be appropriate. We separated like two good friends instead.

“Tomorrow is my last day here. I’m taking a week off before I join the new firm. Maybe we could meet for dinner again this weekend. Nothing fancy like last time.” She smiled at me.

“I’d like that.”

“Good. I’ll text you once I know my plans.”

I nodded and she gave me another quick hug before she walked away to her office. I didn’t say anything as she walked out toward the elevators a short time later, but I watched her until she disappeared behind the door to the lobby. My heart sank in the quiet, solitude of the empty office.

I sat there for a moment before I pulled up my email and clicked on the official offer letter for the manager role. I read it a couple of times. The “click here to accept” link glared at the bottom of the email. I clicked it and followed the steps to officially accept the role. Alex was right. I was trapped.

I texted the recruiter. I’m going to stay put for now. Please tell them thank you for the offer. I waited a few minutes for a reply, but nothing came.

On my way out to the elevators, I could still smell Julie’s perfume as if she had left a trail for me to follow. The scent thrilled me, left me wanting more. I didn’t think about my future at Standard or the one I passed up on the way down to the lobby. I just thought of her. I didn’t know where we’d end up, but I had to find out. I hoped I had made the right decision. I hoped for a lot of things.

Episode 14 – Standard Ink

NOTE: Only one more episode left after this one. I hope you have enjoyed reading the series.

When I came back to my workstation after lunch, I had an invite to meet with Chad sitting in my inbox. I clicked accept. Meeting with Chad had become a regular occurrence after I successfully guided the software vendor for the order management system across the finish line. Chad had been so pleased that he made a rare acknowledgment during the weekly team meeting calling me out for helping the project meet a major milestone. I could see why Chad rarely did such things. He wasn’t good at it.

The truth of it all was that I had done very little to help the software vendor. He had hated working for Alex so much that when I took over he was just happy that he didn’t have to deal with Alex anymore. He promptly did more work and did it more quickly than he had ever done it for Alex. Of course, Alex was too self-absorbed to see this. He just assumed that I had had more time to dedicate to the vendor, which helped the project along. Alex really was an ass.

Many of the workstations on the tenth floor sat empty. After the layoffs ended and the company began to settle into its new routines, members of the project team began to move on. Some moved onto other roles at Standard, while others simply left the company. The Path Forward project had been anointed as a roaring success by Mr. Rich. He had proclaimed as much in a video released within the company a few weeks ago. The video had even made it to YouTube where it spawned several parody versions, likely the product of disgruntled former employees.

My phone beeped. A text from a recruiter appeared on my screen: They want you in for a final interview.

I felt a surge of adrenaline course through my veins. I had interviewed for another job at a large tech company across town, and I had made it to the final round. I was so close to landing that job that I could taste it, and I was thrilled at the prospect of walking into Chad’s office and telling him that I was leaving, that I was finished with Standard and its fruitless attempts to join the future. Only the thought of leaving Julie behind dampened my enthusiasm.

I texted back: Thank you! When?

I had connected with the recruiter purely by coincidence. She had accidentally dialed my workstation phone and I had answered. Once she realized I wasn’t who she wanted to talk to, she tried to hang up, but I kept talking, intrigued by her clandestine tone. She asked a few questions, and then, she offered to help me find another job. I didn’t imagine it would turn into anything, but it did, and I had an interview within a few weeks at a forward-thinking company that knew how to treat its employees well. The company had a sterling reputation and its employees were highly sought after by other companies in the city. If I got the job, it would certainly launch my career in the right direction, whatever that was.

Her text pinged on my phone. Can you make it Thursday at 9 AM? Two hours.

I looked at my schedule. I could tell Chad that I had to come in late because of a doctor’s appointment. He’d think nothing of it. I hated lying, but I didn’t know what else to say. I felt awkward, but I confirmed my availability to the recruiter.

I stared at Julie’s empty office. She had made a brief appearance earlier in the morning, but she had left almost as soon as she arrived. Her office sat dark and lonely like it did most of the time. I wondered what she’d say if I got the job at the tech company. Would she try to persuade me to stay? Would I stay for her? I couldn’t answer that question with any confidence.

With all of the things going through my head, the meeting with Chad crept up on me quickly. The notification interrupted my train of thought as I worked on the new procedures for the order management system. I dismissed it three times before I saved my work and trudged to Chad’s office.

He sat ramrod straight at his desk typing on his laptop, which was the only item on his minimalist desk. He glanced up at me. “Travis, have a seat.” His eyes darted to the chairs in front of his desk. He kept typing after I sat down. “Let me finish this thought.” I waited.

“How’s it going?” he asked after he finished typing.

“Good.” I wasn’t in the mood for a conversation. My thoughts wandered back to my work and to the interview coming up in two days. He seemed disappointed in my answer as if he wanted me to say more. He stood up and shut the door to his office. I could feel his eyes on me as he returned to his chair.

“I’ll cut right to the chase. Mr. Rich will be making some announcements today. There will be a big reorganization – lots of changes coming. The project team is being disbanded and absorbed back into the company.”

“What? But we’re not finished.” I felt like the floor to the office had been pulled away from me. Somehow, I hadn’t seen this coming. I knew the project team was only temporary, but I had thought it’d stay in place a while longer.

“We’re mostly there. He wants the new organization to take ownership of the pertinent areas and drive them to completion. He thinks it’s important for the company to congeal around the future rather than have one central team driving it.”

As usual, Chad’s gobbledygook speak made little sense. I brushed his explanation away. “What am I going to do now?”

“That’s the good news.”

“Really? How?”

“I want you to lead our new online group.”

I tried to understand what he was saying, but for some reason my mind drew a blank. I must have given him a confused look because he let out a little laugh and explained it further.

“I need someone who can manage the website and the order management system. You’ve done a great job in both of those areas, and Benji and I agree that you’d be the best person to take on this role.”

I absorbed what he said still trying to overcome my surprise. I wondered why he said he needed someone. He and Benji were consultants. I wondered how much longer they would be around now that the project was being disbanded.

“What exactly does this mean?”

“Well, it means you’d work with the product leads across the company to help them with online sales and inventory management. It’d be a big promotion for you. You’d get a chance to manage people. They’d be vendors, but still it’s management. It’d look good on your resume.”

“Like the software vendor?”

He nodded. “What do you think?”

I thought about the interview I had coming up. “It’s interesting.” I tried to sound upbeat, but my words came out flat.

“You’re a young guy, but you are a digital native, and I think Standard needs someone like you to lead this. It would be a substantial pay increase plus you’d be eligible for a bonus.”

“How much?”

“We can discuss the details after the announcement this afternoon. Is this something you want to do?”

I thought for a moment, wondering if I should wait to agree to this after my interview, but I didn’t want to raise any suspicions. “Sure.”

Chad slumped back in his chair. His enthusiasm escaped him like a balloon losing air. “I was hoping for a little more excitement.” He smiled wanly.

“Sorry, I just have a lot on my mind.”

“I understand. It’s been crazy around here. We’ll talk more tomorrow.” That was his way of dismissing me. I sat in the comfy chair for a bit longer.

“I have a doctor’s appointment on Thursday morning, so I will be coming in a bit late.”

“No problem. Thanks for letting me know.” His eyes lingered on me for a moment just enough to make me begin to perspire. He returned his focus to the laptop on his desk and began typing. I stood up and left his office, relieved that I had put my excuse in place for Thursday.

Almost an hour later, an email from Mr. Rich popped into my inbox with a little exclamation point next to it declaring its importance as if Mr. Rich needed to highlight the importance of his emails. He rarely sent company-wide emails. The subject read, “The Path Forward Continues”. I rolled my eyes as I clicked it open.

I had expected more trite rah-rah encouragement from Mr. Rich before he got to the meat of the message that Chad mentioned in our meeting, but Mr. Rich uncharacteristically opened with a bang announcing that he was leaving the company because he had accomplished what he had come to do. He said that the Path Forward team had been a huge success and he thanked all of us for leading the company forward.

I stopped reading for a moment to absorb what he said. The company suddenly felt rudderless with Mr. Rich leaving. I had no personal connection with him; I’d only met him once, and I certainly didn’t feel any sadness about his impending absence, but it felt like the floor beneath me had suddenly become very shaky. Who would fill the void left by Mr. Rich and hold this organization together? Julie?

I continued reading. I tried to skim ahead to get the answer, but the jumble of words made no sense, so I paused to gather myself and start again, reading slowly to absorb the message. I think I audibly gasped as I read it. Chad would become the new CEO of Standard, the Executive team would be reorganized around products, and many of the existing executives were leaving the company, including Julie.

I sat back in my chair, stunned. I glanced at Julie’s dark office. I wanted to talk to her, understand why this was happening. She’d given me no warning this was coming. I couldn’t separate her from Standard, yet she was leaving the company, leaving me.

I finished the email where Mr. Rich mostly thanked a bunch of people I didn’t know. He didn’t say where he was going, and most importantly, he didn’t give any clues about what Julie was going to do now that she was leaving Standard. I deleted the email.

I had some more work to do for the software vendor, but I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. I looked at the last email I received from Julie. Her signature line included her cell phone number. I considered calling her cell phone. I even picked up the phone at my workstation and dialed the first three numbers of her line, but I changed my mind and hung up the phone. She didn’t owe me anything, not even an explanation. I desperately wanted one, but she didn’t owe it to me.

I thought about Chad’s offer to lead the online group. I wondered how much the pay increase would be, but I also wondered if it’d be worth it to work here without Julie. She was the only reason I came here and the only reason I stayed. The interview on Thursday represented a fork in the road for me. That would help me decide. Part of me wanted to leave now and put all of it behind me, but I thought of that night at Stratosphere, and I couldn’t let it go. I logged out of my computer and gathered my things to leave. I had to get out of the office. Maybe a few hours of Xbox would clear my mind.

Episode 13 – Standard Ink

Something wasn’t quite right when I entered the lobby of Standard Tower. The usual murmur of voices and clicks of shoes on the gilded marble floor had been replaced with relative silence, or at least a hushed version of the usual morning rush. Fewer people waited at the elevator banks, and conversations on the elevator were punctuated with expressions of surprise that another person had been let go that seemed too valuable for Standard to lose.

Even the tenth floor, which had seemed like another planet compared to the rest of the company, felt subdued despite the urgency of our work, which had reached a frenetic pace after the launch of the new website. Our punch list grew out of control until the site almost crashed, but we managed to keep it running until we could move it to Amazon’s cloud. Our own server infrastructure was too outdated to keep up with the surprising traffic we saw. Apparently, most of our customers wanted to help themselves online.

I looked around the office. Only a few people sat at their desks. Chad’s office sat dark except for the meager light provided by a partially-opened blinds at one end of his bank of windows. I didn’t understand why he kept his blinds shut. His office faced west giving him a great view of the sunset, but he rarely saw it thanks to the tightly-closed blinds. It fit his character, I guess.

Julie’s office sat empty as well. She hadn’t been there in the weeks since Mr. Rich’s announcement. I had heard she’d been traveling with Mr. Rich as he consoled workers affected by the layoffs across Standard’s sprawling operations, but there was something else going on. Rumors had surfaced that she was in line to get a top job at another company and that only after Mr. Rich’s promise of greater opportunities was she convinced to stay. Of course, I heard none of this directly from her because I hadn’t seen her. I felt like our night at the Stratosphere had been a dream or some sort of mirage.

I jumped right into my work, and by the time I looked at the clock on my computer again, it was lunchtime. The office had barely filled up. There were more empty desks than occupied ones, and I had yet to see Benji or Sabrina. I felt like I was at the funeral of someone I didn’t know too well rather than at work. I decided I needed to leave the building for lunch even if I just walked down to the food truck alley a couple of streets over and grabbed some street tacos. I had to get out of Standard Tower and escape the lingering doom and gloom.

The elevator took longer than usual to reach the tenth floor. I paced a little in the lobby as I waited alone. The lobby receptionists had all been some of the first employees laid off, replaced by a small display that allowed visitors to find and summon the person they were visiting. Finally, one of the elevator doors dinged and slid open.

I stepped into the elevator amidst a crowd of people. I felt some relief at seeing so many people once again. I kept my eyes forward as the elevator descended. A few hushed comments filled the space behind me, but the demeanor of the crowd remained subdued. When the doors opened, I stepped out, but as I turned toward the exit in the lobby, something caught my eye. I came to a stop.

“Richard?” My old boss had been behind me in the elevator apparently hidden in the back of the crowd.

“Travis, it’s good to see you again,” he said, nodding solemnly. He held a box in his arms with awards and picture frames piled into it. He noticed my eyes on the box. “Today’s my last day.”

“Really? I’m sorry.”

He nodded. I could tell he was uncomfortable. “No need to feel sorry. I knew it would happen. I’ve been in Inside Sales for 15 years. It was only a matter of time. Most companies had either outsourced their telephone sales group or eliminated them altogether years ago. I’m surprised it took so long for Standard.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I’ve spent my entire career here. All 37 years.”

“Wow, 37 years?”

“Yep. I can’t believe it’s over.”

“I’m sure you’ll find something.”

“I don’t know. There’s not much demand for an old guy like me.” He shook his head in disbelief. The shock still hung on him. The confidence that he had shown as my boss had given away to a visible uncertainty and stress that completely changed how I looked at him. The moment grew awkward.

“I better get going. My wife is waiting for me out front.” He put the box down on the floor and reached out to shake my hand. He smiled at me as he did this, and then he picked up the box. “Good luck, Travis. I wish you the best. You have your whole career in front of you. Don’t take it for granted.” He nodded before he walked away into the thinning crowd of the lobby. I watched him for a bit before I headed to one of the side exits in the direction of the food truck alley.

When I returned from lunch, full but not really satisfied, I didn’t go directly to the tenth floor. Instead, I took the elevator up to the 15th floor. I hadn’t been up to my old office since I had left Inside Sales, determined to leave that part of my career behind me. I hadn’t even talked to anyone from my old group until I had seen Richard before lunch. I wondered who was left up there, and I even wondered what had become of George. If he was still there, Richard’s dismissal had certainly lit a fire under his conspiracy theories. I suddenly felt eager to talk to George to get his perspective on what was going on at the company even if it was for pure entertainment value.

The elevator cracked open on the 15th floor. I expected the missing receptionist replaced with a small display, but the display on 15 was dark. I punched the screen with my index finger, but it retained its gray expression. When I buzzed into the door leading to the office, I was greeted with complete silence.

The lights were still on in the office, but many of the ceiling tiles had been removed. Wires dangled from the ceiling, and some of the floor compartments were open with more wires snaking from the floor. None of the cubes appeared to be occupied, and the offices along the wall sat dark.

I walked down the aisle toward my old cube. The vacant cubes had been stripped of all of their equipment. The old monitors and computers were gone. Only scraps of paper littered the desks and floors of the office. One cube had been converted to some type of workstation. Large floor plans covered the desk and a couple of hard hats sat in one corner. My old cube didn’t even have a desk anymore.

The dramatic change completely mesmerized me. I felt like I was walking through some sort of post-apocalyptic world. George’s cube had been completely disassembled as if his entire existence had been eradicated from the world. Nothing remained in Swanson’s office. The door stood ajar leading into an empty room with only outlines in the carpet to indicate where furniture had once stood. I could still hear the din of conversation that had once permeated this floor in spite of the dismal scene that unfolded before me.

A wave of nostalgia hit me as I walked the floor. Despite how I had felt about my first job here, I missed it now. I missed the buzz of activity among the sellers, and I even missed George’s inane comments and theories. The certainty of that brief part of my career felt more concrete than the cloudy future that lay ahead. An emptiness weighed on me as I walked back out to the lobby. The ding of the elevator seemed unnecessarily loud.

A sense of loneliness still clung to me when I stepped off the elevator on the tenth floor, so I was happy to see Benji and Sabrina sitting at their desks when I returned to mine.

“Where have you two been?”

A subtle look passed between them. “We had a late night last night,” Sabrina replied. Her eyes didn’t leave her monitor. Benji nodded in agreement. Neither of them elaborated and I let it drop.

“Travis!” Chad said behind me.

“Yes?” I turned toward him. He leaned out his door looking at me expectantly.

“Can you come to my office?”

I hadn’t noticed that Chad was here because I was so fixated on Benji and Sabrina. As I walked toward his office, I watched him return to his desk through the glass wall that looked out onto the open floor. He seemed agitated and serious, not abnormal for Chad.

“Have a seat,” he said pointing to one of the plush chairs in front of the big glass and metal table that served as his desk.

“Is there a problem?”

“Actually, there is…” He tapped the keyboard and stared at the monitor that hung above his desk. “…sorry, Mr. Rich just sent me an email…Anyway, the order management system is a mess, and I think we could use your help. Since the website is up and working relatively well, I’d like you to join Alex on that project until further notice.”

“What about the punch list?”

“Benji and Sabrina can handle that. I need you on the OMS.”

“Okay.”

“Talk to Alex. He’ll get you up to speed.”

I sat there for a moment. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask, but I knew Chad only divulged what was necessary.

“Do you have a question?” Chad asked. He kept his eyes mostly on his monitor.

I paused a moment longer. “No, I’m fine. I’ll go talk to Alex.” I stood up and left his office taking a hard left toward Alex’s desk, which sat in another pod on the far end of the floor. I could see him sitting at his desk, his face partially obscured by his monitor. He eventually noticed me headed his way and turned his attention to me before I reached his desk.

“Chad wants me to help you with the OMS.”

“You’re the extra boots on the ground?” Alex seemed annoyed.

“I guess so.”

He sighed loudly as if he could communicate his displeasure all the way across the floor to Chad. He turned completely toward his computer and began typing furiously.

“I’m sending you some emails from our software vendor. There are a bunch of items that need to be addressed. If you could reach out to him and find answers to his questions. Just make the connections to the people who know what they’re doing. That’s all you have to do. This needs to be done by the end of the day tomorrow, or the project will be delayed, and you know Chad doesn’t like delays.”

He stopped typing and looked around the edge of his monitor at me. “Any questions?”

I shook my head.

“Thanks for your help.” His tone sounded doubtful, which aggravated me. Alex wasn’t one of the popular members of the Path Forward team. He had a reputation for being a hard ass. I’d heard that he made one of the vendors who was working on the project cry one time, but I hadn’t witnessed it myself. As I walked back to my desk on the other side of the floor, I thought those rumors were most likely true. He did seem like a hard ass.

I sat down at my desk and looked at my monitor. Alex had sent me five emails. I waited a moment before I clicked any of them. Benji and Sabrina had disappeared again. Chad’s office had gone dark as he had stepped out again. I wondered what Julie was doing at that very moment as my eyes landed on her vacant office. I leaned back into my chair and stretched. I thought about Richard, George, and all of my former coworkers on the Inside. Yes, I called it that in my head because I was feeling nostalgic again. Sometimes the past is better than the future because it’s so certain.

Episode 12 – Standard Ink

Stratosphere sat atop one of the tallest buildings in the city and offered some of the best views of the area. The mountains were visible on a clear day, and the southern side of the dining room offered a clean line of site of the airport, which was far south of the city but seemed closer from 40 stories up. I had been to the restaurant for lunch once with my dad many years ago when he met one of his college buddies to celebrate his friend’s upcoming second marriage. That marriage had since ended in divorce, and dad’s friend remained single as far as I know.

I hadn’t been to the restaurant at night, so when the elevator spat me out on the 40th floor at five minutes until eight, I stood in the lobby for a moment looking out over the streets below. The lights twinkled along the streets, and the surrounding office buildings looked liked gap-tooth jack-o-lanterns with some windows dark and some lit. I watched traffic snake around the bend on the freeway heading north, a trail of red taillights pointed the way.

“Hi Travis.”

I turned toward her voice and almost fell backward. I had gone home and freshened up, but I still wore the same suit that I had worn to work sans the tie. Julie had changed altogether. She wore a slim-fitting dress that looked like it had been airbrushed on. She always dressed nicely in her business suits, but this dress was a different level of nice. My voice hitched in my throat.

“Julie…you…you look great.”

“Thank you.” Her smile glowed in the dim lobby. She stepped up next to me and looked out the window at the world below. “It’s so beautiful from up here isn’t it?”

“Yes.” It was all I could say as I inhaled her perfume again. I struggled not to stare directly at her, so I watched her reflection in the window before us.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I made a reservation.”

“That’s good.”  I watched her in window as she turned to me.

“Are you hungry?”

“I can always eat.” She laughed as if had told a joke. She turned back toward the window and we stood there a moment longer watching the ant-sized world crawl around below us. The excitement of being next to her almost overwhelmed me.

“Let’s go to our table,” she said turning away from the window. I followed her to the maitre d’s podium. The maitre d snapped to attention as she approached and smiled when she gave her name. He summoned a hostess who stood behind him, and she led us to a table at the far end of the restaurant next to a window overlooking the east side of the city. I could see Standard Tower in the distance, the red letters of our company’s name glowing in the darkening night. I wished that she had put us somewhere that didn’t have a view of Standard Tower.

“Have you been here before?” Julie asked as we sat down. I placed the starched, cloth napkins in my lap.

“Not at night. It’s beautiful.”

“I love this place at night. The views are stunning. I love watching the city as it parties the night away.”

I’d never thought of it that way. Most nights I was holed up in my apartment or in one of my friend’s apartments playing Xbox. We ordered food for delivery or popped something in the microwave. None of my friends were really interested in going out. I became acutely aware of how odd we were, a group of man-children slavishly devoted to silly games when we, or I, could be hanging out with interesting women like Julie doing adult things. I felt like I was on the threshold of some sort of awareness, or it could have just been nerves. I struggled to find something to keep the conversation going.

“Do you come here often?” I almost wanted to face palm because that was what came out of my mouth, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Julie smiled again as if she could read my thoughts. “We have a lot of business meetings here. Mr. Rich loves this place.”

I nodded as I cracked open the menu. When I had been here before, my dad had paid for my lunch. I didn’t remember much about the food, but the menu looked strange with its cutesy names and lengthy descriptions. The prices were a little eye-popping, and I quickly calculated whether or not I had enough on my credit card to cover our meal. I thought I did.

“Everything okay?”

I looked up at Julie’s concerned expression. “Yes, of course.”

“You just had this worried look on your face.”

“I can’t decide what I want.”

“The filet mignon is the best.”

I hummed to myself. “I may try that.” I quickly looked down the rest of the menu for a cheaper option and settled on a broiled chicken entree for half the price of the filet.

The waiter high-stepped over to our table and introduced himself in a pretentious English accent. As I listened to him talk about the menu, I wondered if his accent was real or just an act to fit the surroundings. I’d read on the internet that some actors who worked as waiters practiced by becoming a character when they worked. He sniffed after we ordered our drinks and pranced away toward the bar.

“He’s a little over the top,” I said after the waiter moved out of ear shot.

Julie giggled. “He is a little much.” She glanced toward the bar, but then, she turned her eyes on me. I almost melted in my chair. As I held her gaze for a brief moment, I felt like something passed between us, an unspoken message. I grew more nervous and returned my focus to the menu.

“Do you know what you want?” she asked.

I couldn’t lie, but I didn’t want to put the menu down. “Yes.”

“Good. Me too.” She signaled our waiter who seemed peeved that he had been summoned before he could bring the drinks, but he waltzed over to our table and made a big show of removing his pen and pad from his apron. Julie picked the filet, medium rare, and I had the broiled chicken. The waiter asked a bunch of questions, and we responded as if we were in some sort of speed round on a game show. Finally, he turned and rushed away with our menus tucked under his arm. My nervousness blared in the dim light without the menu to cover me. I looked out the window as the blinking lights of a distant airplane sailed across the horizon.

The waiter returned with our drinks and scampered away after a few witty comments. Julie sipped her wine, and I could feel her eyes on me as I glanced around the restaurant.

“Do you have any plans this weekend?” she asked.

I turned toward her as she took another sip of her wine. “Not really. Just hanging out with friends.”

“What do you do with your friends?”

I was too embarrassed to tell the truth, that we mostly played Xbox all day, did fast food runs, and avoided anything that interfered with our games including showers. “We play video games, go to movies, hang out at my apartment…”

She nodded as if it made sense to her.

“What about your plans?”

“I’m mostly working this weekend. There’s still a lot to do, especially after Mr. Rich’s announcement.”

“That sucks.”

“The announcement?”

“No, that you have to work.”

“Part of the job.”

I could barely stand working during the week. I couldn’t imagine if I had to work the weekend too. In that moment, I felt sorry for Julie, but she didn’t seem the least bit sad about it, nor did she seemed resigned to her fate. She looked as she always looked – determined and ambitious, and I wondered how anyone could get too excited about Standard.

“What did you think about Mr. Rich’s announcement?”

“It was ambiguous. He said something was going to happen, but he didn’t say exactly what.”

“It’d take longer to go through all the details. He just wanted to set the stage for what’s to come.”

“Do you know what’s coming?”

“I do.” I must have given her an expectant look because she continued, “I can’t tell you anything beyond that.”

“I guess I’ll have to wait and see.”

She nodded. “Mr. Rich wants to pull the Band Aid off quickly, so it will happen sooner rather than later.”

“What’s the rush?”

“Mr. Rich is ready to move on. He was brought in to transform the company. He’s close to doing that, and once he’s set the wheels in motion, he’s going to move on.”

“He’s leaving the company?”

“Yes.”

“Who’s taking over?”

“That’s still to be determined. I guess it depends on how the next few months go.”

“Wow. What are you going to do?”

“That’s still to be determined too.”

I sat back in my seat fingering the silverware still resting on the table beside my empty plate. I didn’t want to work at Standard if Julie wasn’t there. I had joined the company because of her, and I had stayed because of her. If she were gone, I’d have no reason to stay. I felt no loyalty or affinity for the company itself.

The waiter brought our appetizer and placed it on the table between us. The aroma of fried food and aioli sauce filled the air around our table. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until my mouth started watering. I waited for Julie to fork a few rings of calamari onto her plate before I did the same. I immediately shoveled a couple of rings into my mouth savoring the tender meat bathed in the spicy sauce.

In between bites our conversation shifted from work to life outside of work, mostly Julie’s life outside work. Despite the fact that she worked a lot, she still managed to do other things. She was an avid cyclist, but she hadn’t spent much time on the road lately. Instead, she had one of those Peloton bikes, and she woke up at 4 AM every morning to ride the bike for an hour. I’d seen the commercials for the bike on TV, and I imagined that Julie’s bike was set up in some airy apartment high above the city with splendid views of the mountains off in the distance. If anyone could live the aspirational lifestyle of those commercials, it was Julie.

I learned a lot about her in those two hours at Stratosphere. Her parents lived on the east coast, and she had a younger sister who was a doctor that lived in Oregon. She revealed this without much prompting, and thankfully, without expecting too much in return from me. I felt small compared to her, incomplete and uninteresting. She was definitely out of my league. I had graduated college, but I hadn’t fully graduated into adulthood. My biggest moments of late involved finishing a newly-released Xbox game on the weekend after it’s release. On the other hand, Julie had spent a week in Vienna a few months ago and had attended an opera there. I could barely say opera without laughing.

The time flew by too fast. I wanted to learn more about her, but after we waved off the prospect of dessert, the waiter dropped the check onto the table in a little leather portfolio. I reached for it.

“I got this,” Julie said. She reached for the check and her hand glanced mine. “I invited you here.”

“I can get it.”

“I know you can, but let this be my treat.” I acquiesced, and honestly, I felt relieved because I could imagine that the bill was pretty big.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed your company.”

“I’ve enjoyed yours as well.”

She put her credit card into the portfolio and held it up for the waiter who swooped by to retrieve it.

After she paid, we stood up, almost in unison and made our way to the exit. We waited for the elevator quietly and remained quiet for the ride down to the lobby. We stepped out onto the marble floor in the lobby. Her heels clicked and echoed in the vast atrium as we walked toward the exit and stopped just outside the rotating doors.

“I’m parked in the deck,” she said nodding behind her.

“Oh, okay. I’m taking a Uber.”

“I’ve had a great time.”

“Me too. Thank you again for dinner.”

“You’re very welcome.”

We stood there staring at each other for a moment. I felt awkward and unsure of what to do. I didn’t know if this was a business dinner or a date. I didn’t know if I should shake her hand or simply wave goodbye to her.

She leaned in and I froze as she kissed me on the cheek. “Have a good weekend, Travis. I’ll see you Monday morning.” She smiled and lingered for just a few seconds before she turned and walked toward the parking deck.

“Have a good weekend,” I said to her back as she walked away. I watched her confidently stride to the parking deck as if she knew I was watching her. My heart pounded in my chest, and my knees felt weak. I could still smell her perfume in her wake. I had wanted to spend my Friday night playing a new Xbox game, but now, I didn’t care about that game. I watched her disappear into the elevator to the parking deck. I wanted to yell out for her to wait before the doors closed, but I just stood there staring at the space she had occupied in front of me until it became too awkward and I had no choice but to call an Uber and go home.

 

The Ups and Downs

Since I’m a runner, it probably comes as no surprise that I see running as analogous to life itself. I’ve been a runner for over 27 years, which is practically all of my adult life. I’ve seen some really good highs and disappointing lows in that time, much like I have in my life in general. The funny thing is that running has a symbiotic relationship to my broader life, an enhancer when things are going well and an antidote when they’re not.

When someone asks why I run, I tell them it’s like a habit similar to brushing your teeth. Once you get into the habit, it feels odd when you don’t do it. There have been a few extended periods in my running life when I couldn’t run as a result of injury, and not only did it feel weird to me, but I also felt like an animal in a cage, which made me irritable and semi-depressed. When I saw someone running during these interludes, I felt a strong surge of envy. Essentially, running is an addiction, a natural drug you’re not sure you should be on, and if you see someone else doing it, you want to do it too.

Needless to say, those moments when I couldn’t run were definite downers, but there have been other moments where I felt like I was headed for a trough. Getting older hasn’t helped. I’ve had to retrain myself to be thankful that I’m still running and hope to be able to run until the final curtain call rather than focus on beating my last personal best. I likely won’t beat my best mile time ever again, and many of my other personal bests seem to be slipping further from possibility.

In the past few weeks, I’ve experienced something of a running roller coaster. I ran a decent 5K time on one weekend and promptly ran my worst marathon time in nine years the following weekend. A few days later I managed to run my second best time ever in the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, a race I’ve run 16 times. Talk about ups and downs.

No matter how my running life proceeds it has often inoculated me from the other ups in downs in my life, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I’m not sure how I would weather those storms otherwise. As a case in point, my career has been on a sideways trajectory for several years now, which has been an irritating and major disappointment for me. I’m just not where I want to be at this stage in my life. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up. Every runner knows there’s always the next race, and as a marathoner, I know you can’t let the middle distract you from the finish. I’m glad I have running to keep me grounded.