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.

It’s Been a While

I’m back in Seattle this week for the first time in over two years. The kids and I are rediscovering some of our favorite spots in the area and meeting up with some of the good friends we left behind two years ago. It’s been too long to be away from the place I consider home. My kids were born here, and my wife and I have some of our favorite memories here – more than half of our life together has been spent in Seattle.

There are many reasons that Seattle is my favorite place to be. The temperate climate and the unsurpassed natural beauty of the region are a couple of the my most cited reasons. I can’t say I’m missing the dreadful heat and humidity I left behind in Atlanta. I’ve run some of my favorite trails and taken some long evening walks without feeling like I have been dragged through a swamp.

It’s not just the natural beauty that makes me pine for Seattle. It gets a lot grief for the Seattle freeze from outsiders with misplaced opinions, but I find the area to be congenial and welcoming. I feel at home here. I’d much rather have that perceived coolness than fake friendliness and myopic judgment often found in far less appealing places. The zeitgeist here suits me just fine, too. I suffer less from cognitive dissonance in Seattle. I can’t say the same for many other places.

Seattle, it’s been a while. I’m going to enjoy my week here, and I promise not so much time will pass until the next time I come back to see you again.

Episode 11 – Standard Ink

After I moved down to the tenth floor, a world away from George and Inside Sales, I didn’t see Julie as much as I had hoped. I caught a glimpse of her on my first day, but after that, she disappeared for two weeks. She hit the road with Mr. Rich on some clandestine mission that no one knew anything about including Chad who seemed to know about everything that happened at the company.

The tenth floor was definitely different than the fifteenth floor. People lingered at their desks well past five o’clock. There were always people on the floor and in the conference rooms no matter if it was early morning or late evening. People smiled and laughed and the energy of the room felt like a different company than the one I had joined. Even the ever-pretentious Chad, who sat in a glass-walled office on the edge of the sea of desks, seemed warm and engaging as he worked with the project team members. The whole floor exuded a youthful, hopeful vibe. I liked it even though I longed to see Julie.

“The test site is up.”

I peeked around my monitor. Sabrina looked at me expectantly. “When?”

“Just now,” she replied. “I sent you the link in chat.”

I looked at my monitor. The chat app glowed at the bottom of my screen. I clicked on the app and then on the link. The new Standard Ink website appeared before my eyes. The old website was nothing more than a semi-glamorous, half-hearted marketing brochure with a link to contact an anonymous email at the company with any questions. The new website was a fully-functional, modern marketing and ordering system. Our customers could do everything online with us once this site launched. George was right. Inside Sales was doomed.

“This looks great!” I said, peering at Sabrina from the side of my monitor.

“I know. I can’t wait until it launches.”

“Did they say when?”

“Next week.”

“Wow, that’s fast.”

Sabrina shook her head in agreement. “Welcome to the future.”

“Finally.”

“Hmmm.” Benji made the sound as he stared at his monitor. Both Sabrina and I looked at him, his eyebrows arched as if he were surprised.

“Something wrong with the site?” Sabrina asked.

“No. Mr. Rich just sent out an email,” he replied. Both of us returned our attention to our monitors.

I had this thing about having no emails in my inbox. It was a ridiculous obsession that my dad passed onto me, so after I read any email, I either deleted it (most of the time) or filed it away for reference or action. Mr. Rich’s email sat alone in my inbox, taunting me with its presence. I clicked it open and read it.

“This sounds ominous,” Sabrina said from behind her monitor.

“Yep,” Benji replied.

“What do you think he’s going to announce?” Sabrina asked aloud.

Neither Benji nor I replied. I stared at my screen and read the last paragraph again.

“I guess we’ll find out Friday,” Benji said.

The three of us stayed glued to our monitors. The usual cacophony of noise that surrounded us had quieted a little. We all knew what was coming because we were part of it even if we didn’t know exactly what Mr. Rich planned to announce.

I glanced toward Chad’s office hoping for some clues in his reaction, but his office sat empty. Chad was Julie’s primary lieutenant. If anyone knew the plan for the announcement, he did.

I thought of George sitting in his cube on the fifteenth floor reading the exact same email as we had read. I wondered what he thought. I knew the email stoked his paranoia. It didn’t take much to alight his conspiracy theories, but we’d know nothing until we heard directly from Mr. Rich himself, and we had to wait two more days.

***

For me, Friday arrived quickly. I thought the time would slow to a crawl, but we had to work through a lengthy punch list to get the new website ready for launch on Monday morning. I pulled a couple of late nights with Benji and Sabrina, and by Friday morning, we were confident that we’d make the launch deadline despite the anxiety prompted by Mr. Rich’s abrupt email.

At ten minutes before 10 AM, it felt like the whole floor was participating in some synchronized dance. Everyone began to move toward the elevators. Some people even took the stairs down to the lobby conference area. I rode the elevator with Benji and Sabrina and what felt like fifty other employees. None of us said a word despite the discomfort of being jammed up against each other.

We filed into the giant theater-style conference center like soldiers getting into battle formation. I’d never been inside the conference center because Standard hadn’t had an all-hands meeting since I had joined. It had the look and feel of an old theater including the chintzy design I’d expect to find in some offbeat theater in a long-abandoned part of town.

I scanned the crowd looking for George, Richard, or Swanson – anyone from Inside Sales, but I didn’t see anyone. I managed to spot Chad bobbing down the steps toward the stage as we took our seats near the back. The theater filled quickly and as the ceiling lights blinked, the murmurs of conversation died down. The cavernous room darkened leaving a single spotlight on the podium in the center of the stage. At ten A.M. sharp, the room became eerily quiet as everyone watched the stage, their faces dim in the halo of light.

Mr. Rich walked from the left side of the stage. As usual, he wore a crisp, nice suit and an impossibly bright smile. He looked like a man who just returned from a beach vacation with a fresh tan and the aura of relaxation. His cuff links sparkled when he stepped into the spotlight at the podium. He forced his electric smile upon all of us as he scanned the crowd. He nodded to the front row as if he were waiting for a cue to begin.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming here today and being on time,” he began. His booming voice filled the theater. He probably didn’t need the microphone because his voice was so deep and projected so well into the crowd. He made a joke, thanked a few people on the front row including Julie, and cleared his throat. He continued with some platitudes and reviewed the company’s recent performance. It felt like a book report I may have witnessed in the fifth grade, but he stood ramrod straight and flashed a confidence that I envied. At that moment I wanted to be Mr. Rich, the perfect center of attention, until the other shoe dropped.

“When I launched the Path Forward project not long after I joined the company, I told everyone that change is hard. Well, it’s been hard. We’ve made decisions about our future, and I’m proud of everyone here who has embraced this change as we prepare Standard for the next phase of its storied life.”

I wondered how many people actually embraced the change. I thought of George and his rampant paranoia. He didn’t want things to change. Most of the people within Inside Sales didn’t want anything to change. They showed up at 9 A.M. every day and left at 5 P.M. on the dot. They moved to and from the elevator like a herd of cattle and every two weeks they found more feed in their trough. It was a simple exchange – droning boredom for sustenance.

“Sometimes, it’s more painful than not, and today, we’re announcing some major changes that will happen over the next few weeks that will position the company for the future but will impact all of us.”

I doubted very seriously that anything that was to come would impact Mr. Rich much. He’d still get his multi-million dollar payday and he’d still vacation somewhere exquisite several times a year. His cuff links glinted in the spotlight as he moved his hands as he spoke, and I wondered if he had purchased new ones for this occasion.

“As we’ve rethought everything we do, we’ve realized that we don’t have to do some things anymore. We’ve either found more efficient ways to do them, or we’ve decided we’re no longer going to do them. As a result, some jobs are no longer needed.”

He paused to let the last words sink into the rapt audience. I looked around at the worried expressions that surrounded me. The dim light did nothing to quell the anxiety that permeated the room. Even though I was on the project team that would not likely see any immediate impact, I thought of what George said about there being no place to go when the project was finished. It didn’t really bother me. I was ready to let Standard go. In a sense, I felt relief. I had enjoyed my time on the project team, but I didn’t feel any loyalty to the company.

“Over the next few days, HR will be holding internal meetings with the departments and their managers to notify those who will be changing jobs or whose jobs are no longer needed. For those who will be without a job, a severance package will be offered. At Standard, we are like a family and we take care of our family.”

Mr. Rich looked at the crowd with a toothy smile as if he expected some praise from the audience. Instead, he was greeted with a palpable tension that hung over the crowd. He shifted behind the podium as he continued talking about duty and difficulty as if he were reading from some dramatic novel.

“This isn’t just about you. It’s about my Executive team as well. We’re making changes there, too. I’m reducing the size of the Executive team from 30 to 25 to align with our new organization. We’ll announce those changes when everything is finalized, but we’re in this with you. We’re taking our lumps too. It’s a tough transition to make as a company that’s been around for so long, but if we approach these changes in the same way that we’ve tackled the future with the Path Forward, we’ll make this company stronger and better.”

Mr. Rich droned on for another ten minutes or so expressing bland catchphrases meant to build our enthusiasm for what was to come, but the crowd met him with the demeanor of a man being led to his execution. His preternatural charisma couldn’t outflank the dour mood that had settled over the audience. When he had said his last words and waved goodbye as he exited the stage, we all stood up in the brightened lights of the theater and shuffled out into the lobby like an aging boxer who had barely survived a full twelve rounds in the ring.

I scanned the heads of my coworkers as we waited for the elevators, inching forward as another elevator car arrived and filled up. I hung in the back of the crowd hoping that I’d see Julie. Only a few people filed out of the theater as more elevator cars arrived and carried people to their floors. I saw Sabrina and Benji standing close together as they waited to get on an elevator. They didn’t see me. I caught a glimpse of Richard from Inside Sales as he stepped onto another elevator. He had his head down as if he were offering penance for his sins. I searched for George, but I didn’t see him in the thinning herd.

I felt a hand touch my back, and before I could wheel around to see who it was, I heard her voice.

“Hey Travis.”

“Julie, I haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?”

“Busy. Very busy. I just got back into town last night.” She flashed that easy smile that made me forget whatever it was I wanted to say. Two elevator cars arrived and the last of the crowd disappeared from the lobby. Julie and I stood alone except for the security guard who stood anxiously near the entrance to the elevator bank.

Another elevator dinged. “I guess we should go up?” I said.

Julie smiled again and nodded. She put her hand against the door and motioned for me to step in. She put her other hand on my back again as I passed beside her as if she were patting my back for following her lead. I stood on one side of the elevator as the doors closed and she stood next to me, closer than I could handle. I caught a whiff of her perfume, and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before. The elevator jerked into motion.

“We should go out for drinks again,” she said as the elevator puttered past the first floor.

“Sure.” It was all I could think to say. The oxygen had apparently been choked off from my brain. I just inhaled her. I felt weak. I hadn’t seen her in over two weeks, and this was all I could say to her.

“What are you doing tonight?” she asked.

My brain did a cartwheel in my skull. I stuttered. “Not much.”

She laughed as if I had said something funny. “You don’t have any plans for a Friday night?”

I didn’t want to tell her that I had planned to play Xbox with my buddies, so I said what I thought most adults would say. “It’s been a long week.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” she replied. The elevator shuffled to a stop and the doors parted. We stepped off almost in unison into the empty, narrow lobby on the tenth floor. She turned to face me and put her hand on my arm. It felt electric.

“I feel like unwinding somewhere fun. Why don’t we grab some drinks tonight and catch up?” She smiled and her eyes narrowed as if she were trying to be coy.

“Okay. Where do you want to go?” I felt like all of the air had been sucked out of the lobby.

“Do you know where Stratosphere is?”

I nodded.

“Let’s meet there at eight. Does that work?”

“Yes.” The word squeaked out of my throat.

Her smile widened as if she were satisfied. She let go of my arm and walked ahead of me. I watched her for a moment before I followed her through the door into the open expanse of the tenth floor. When she walked away toward her office, I almost had to gulp some air to catch my breath. 

I Think I Understand

Another Father’s Day has come and gone, the fifth one without my dad. The first year without him was really tough, and each successive year has been a stark reminder that I can’t call him and wish him a happy Father’s Day.

We’d have a lot to talk about right now. The Braves are playing great, but both of us know that getting too high on June baseball standings is like celebrating a win in the fourth inning of a game. You just don’t do it. We’d both agree we’d get more excited come September because the inevitable August swoon has killed many playoff hopes, especially for Braves fans. There aren’t many people who want to hear me drone on about the Braves, but Dad did. Our relationship was like that.

As the years have passed, I’ve tried to put my dad into the context of our lives together, to understand him on a level that I wasn’t necessarily capable of when he was alive. Looking back, the ending seemed so abrupt, like walking out in the middle of a conversation, but the truth is that I had the enviable luxury of saying goodbye. Most people don’t get that with their parents. Despite that luxury, it’s not any easier.

Dad was from a generation on the other side of the Baby Boomers. He went to work, came home to a meal that he expected my mom to cook, and often went to bed shortly afterwards. He was never a conversationalist. He didn’t spend much time with his sons outside of weekend errands and family visits. I have faint memories of him throwing the baseball with me and shooting baskets in our driveway on a few occasions, but once my brothers were old enough to do these things, Dad never joined us. He expected us to be quiet during his many naps on the weekend. I swear the man slept for half of my childhood.

I can remember being disappointed when Dad went to take a nap. I felt like he didn’t want to be around us. I didn’t understand it then, and maybe I don’t really understand it now, but I think Dad suffered from depression, and his way of dealing with it was to sleep it away. His life wasn’t exactly easy. He worked a dreary job for over 30 years, a job he hated but kept out of necessity to support his family. Even with the job, he was under constant financial duress, which is enough to drive anyone over the edge. The recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s left him unemployed for four years, and he never recovered from that. He had few choices in his life, nor did he have the drive to make the changes to get himself to a better place. He just curled up in his bed and hoped in vain that things would change or at least that his problems would magically go away.

After logging three decades as an adult myself, I can understand. Life likes to sucker punch you every once in a while. Disappointments outnumber wonderful surprises. It’s rare for things to turn out exactly how you envision them. It’s enough to make anyone want to crawl into bed and ignore the realities raining down on them. I personally prefer to punch back, and it bothers me that Dad never did. I can understand being down for the moment, but spending your entire adult life that way makes no sense unless you suffer from chronic depression.

Dad never discussed such things. He rarely let go of any emotion or opened up about how he felt or why he behaved the way he did. He never offered any explanation. To be fair, I never asked either. Those questions were too painful to speak out loud. There were times when I wanted to scream aloud my frustrations with him, but I bit my tongue. He was my father. I loved him dearly, and some lines you just don’t cross. Instead, I just try to understand and be thankful for what we had. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

 

 

The Time That We Lose

Yesterday, my wife and I dropped our son, our youngest, off at a week-long overnight camp on a local college campus. As we were walking back to our car, we had a flash forward moment. In five very short (and I’m sure very fast) years, we’ll be doing this for real. The realization was unsettling. In adult land, five years is not very long.

Every parent wants his children to grow up into healthy, independent adults. It’s what we work so hard on as parents. Everything we do is geared toward that goal. It’s a bumpy and treacherous road because few things go as planned, and quite frankly, some days you wonder if you’ve failed miserably at the one job you have as a parent, but there are so many wonderful, beautiful moments that wipe away any fear of failure you have. In those moments, time seems to stand still briefly, and you know it’s all worth it because if this isn’t, nothing is.

It’s those moments that we treasure so much. Over the years, I’ve taken pictures of some of those moments, and others just reside in my treasure chest of memories. I remember the first time my infant daughter (my oldest) grabbed my finger and looked at me like she really saw me for the first time. My heart melted in that moment and I knew then that I’d do anything for that little girl. She will always have that hold on me. I remember when I came home from my first long business trip when the kids were toddlers. I had arrived in the middle of the night. The next morning, I woke up before the kids and when my son finally came down the stairs and saw me he jumped from the last few stairs into my arms because he was so happy to see me. You don’t get those moments back, but they fill your heart with such joy that it runs over.

Before you know it, those sweet, little kids that once followed you every step of the way outgrow you. They no longer need (or want) you around. It’s a perverse thing in that you want them to grow up, but you don’t. Sometimes, I wish I could freeze time in those joyous moments with the kids and keep things as they are because I know that the next moment will come too soon. It’s all that time we lose that bothers me. In our hectic daily lives, time just slips away. The moments pass like the slightest murmur in the night.

I like to think I’m ready for the time when my kids pass into adulthood, but the truth is that I probably won’t be. I’ll be happy and sad at the same time, but I will always have those memories.

Episode 10 – Standard Ink

I heard George coming down the aisle before he arrived at the entrance to my cube. I could hear the raised floor squeaking under his weight as he turned the corner near my row. When I looked up, I saw his big head bobbing as he walked toward my office. He wore a concerned look with his thin lips stretched across his face in a pained expression. His double chin bounced as he walked. He cut right to the chase.

“I heard you got reassigned to the job reduction team full time,” he said.

I stared at him for a moment. He looked bad even for him. His eyes drooped as if he hadn’t had much sleep. His short and wispy hair hadn’t been combed. His attire screamed conflict with a yellow, button-up shirt choked by a crooked brown tie. It reminded me of an ensemble my grandfather may have worn to church.

“It’s called the ‘Path Forward’. It’s not the job reduction team, and besides, how did you hear that? I don’t even know if it’s final yet.”

“I heard Swanson telling Richard that you were leaving to join the project full time.”

I imagined George perched outside Swanson’s office eavesdropping like some not-so-svelte spy.

“Richard hasn’t said anything to me yet.” Julie and I had just talked about this last night when we went out for drinks, and I wasn’t sure how serious she was. Apparently, she was dead serious.

George smirked. “The grapevine is faster than official communication on The Inside.”

I cringed at George’s silly moniker for our department.

“Do me a favor, will ya?”

“What’s that?”

“Give me a heads up before I get laid off.”

“You’re not going to get laid off.”

“Just promise me you’ll give me a heads up.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed. He gave me a pleading look. “Okay.”

George seemed relieved, but he still looked sad.

“If you’re so worried, why don’t you start a job search now?” I asked.

He wore an expression like I had just insulted him. “I’ve spent my entire career here. No one else is going to hire me. I have no discernible skills that are marketable. I’ve done the same thing for over 30 years.”

“Sales skills transfer across any company.”

“I’ve called on the same customers for 30 years. Most of them just buy because they know me. These relationships won’t transfer to another company. Once I’m done here. I’m done.”

“Don’t you have any other skills?”

He laughed. “No. I was a Philosophy major in college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I came here. It was easy. I got comfortable, and I just never did anything else.”

“I’m sure you’ll find something if you have to.”

He looked at me like I just told him that the earth was flat. “Thanks,” he said meekly before he turned and walked back to his cube. I listened as his footsteps faded down the aisle.

I made several sales calls and enjoyed some surprising success with some clients that hadn’t been called in a while when I felt the wind shift in my general direction. I looked up and Swanson stood at my cube entrance. His shadow loomed over my cube like he had just floated in front of the sun. I wasn’t sure how he managed to sneak up on me like that.

“Potter, Mr. Rich’s office has requested that you be assigned to the Path Forward project full time. You’ll move down to the 10th floor starting next week. Make sure you finish up your work here. You’ll be transitioning your accounts to Fineman.”

Before I could respond, he nodded and glided off down the aisle with his turkey neck trembling as he walked. I wouldn’t miss his gruff, impersonal manner, but I suddenly felt a little nostalgic for Inside Sales. I had spent my entire career, no matter how short it was, in this group, and it had, surprisingly, begun to feel like home. For a moment, I could understand how George got comfortable there. It was easy to fall into a routine and just become numb to it.

“Mr. Fineman,” I said as I stepped into George’s cube. His face was glued to his monitor. He sat so close that I wondered if he was nearly blind. He spun around in his chair.

“What’s up? Did Smith tell you about the project yet?”

“Not Richard. Mr. Swanson.”

“This must be a big deal if Swanson came out of his office to tell you. I wonder why Smith didn’t tell you.”

“I haven’t seen him since this morning. Maybe he’s in a meeting. Anyway, Swanson said I need to transition my accounts to you. When do you want to do that?”

George eyed me as if he was annoyed. “Can we go to lunch?”

I remembered our last lunch and quickly backpedaled in my mind. “I brought my lunch today.”

“How about we grab some coffee downstairs?”

I looked down the aisle to avoid George’s pleading expression. I couldn’t think of an excuse quick enough to avoid sounding like I didn’t want to go with him. “Sure.”

George locked his computer and grabbed a ridiculous overstuffed key chain from his desk and shoved it into his pocket.

“Are you a high school janitor on the side?” I asked nodding to the hand he had pushed into his pocket.

“What?”

“Why do you have so many keys?”

“These are just house and car keys.”

“How many houses and cars do you own?” George seemed annoyed at my attempt at a humorous conversation, which backfired.

“I don’t own a house at the moment, but I live with my mom, and she’s very nosy, so I have to lock everything up in my room, or she’ll rifle through it while I’m at work. She’s retired. She has nothing else to do.”

I quickly changed the subject as we walked into the elevator bank. “Do you have any plans this weekend?” Before George could respond, a door dinged open and we stepped silently into a crowded elevator.

Once we reached the lobby level, everyone filed out of the elevator. George and I were the last two people to step out. I followed George to Top Bread, which in addition to serving stale sandwiches sold coffee that was just one notch above muddy water. Anything beat the sewage that brewed in the stained coffee carafe on our floor.

George ordered a sad, small cup of simple black coffee, which I felt was certainly befitting of him. I went a little fancier and ordered an espresso. After we both had our cups in hand, we grabbed small table in the corner away from anyone else who milled around the shop. We sat in silence for a moment sipping our coffee.

“We can transition your accounts to me this afternoon,” George said conceding to the inevitable.

“Okay.”

George scanned the seating area in the shop as if he were looking for anyone who might be eavesdropping. “I’ve heard that they are going to start selling our products online.”

“Where did you hear that?” I asked. I was almost amused by his confession.

“I can’t reveal my sources, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that means for Inside Sales. Swanson has to be pissed.”

“Why? It’s good for the company.”

“It may be good for the company, but it’s not good for us. All of those people up on fifteen will be out of a job including Smith and Swanson. Maybe not Swanson. He’s one of the big guys, so I’m sure Rich will protect him.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because you may think you got out, but what’s going to happen to you when the job reduction project–”

“Path Forward.”

“What?”

“It’s the Path Forward project, not job reduction project.”

“Whatever. I call it what it is.”

“I think you are making it sound worse than it is. Every company has to adapt.”

“Adapt to what?”

“I don’t know…the 21st century.”

George clapped his mouth shut as if I’d said something disgusting to him.

“This isn’t about adapting. It’s about making Rich wealthier. If he cuts costs and makes the company more profitable, he looks like a hero.”

“What happens if he does nothing?”

“Let’s not talk about the theoretical. Let’s focus on the issue at hand. When this project is over, what’s going to happen to you?”

“I don’t know. Julie and I haven’t discussed it.”

“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. You’ll be let go. They won’t have anything for you. The Inside will be eliminated, so you can’t go back to your old job. They’ll have no choice but to fire you.”

“Okay.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really. Maybe at that point I’ll be ready to do something else.”

He seemed perplexed. “Like what?”

“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.” I imagined taking a few weeks off to play Xbox, and I’m sure a smile crept across my face.

“You kids today have no plans. You don’t think beyond what’s in front of you.”

“I’ve only been here nine months.”

“That’s the problem. They put people like you on this project, and no offense, but you don’t know what it’s like to work at Standard.”

George put his coffee down on the table and crossed his arms. He pouted as he looked past me to the small crowd of employees who had just entered the shop.

“Look, I don’t mean to be hard on you. It’s not your fault. You’re just doing what you’re told. I’m trying to help you see what’s coming.”

I wanted this conversation to be over. I drank the last few drops of my espresso. The warm liquid settled into my stomach, and I could feel the exhilaration of the caffeine pulsing through my veins. “I appreciate it,” I said as I put my empty cup on the small table between us.

George didn’t seem convinced. He turned up his cup to finish his coffee. “I need to run an errand, so I’ll meet you upstairs after lunch to transition your accounts. It shouldn’t take long anyway.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

George stood up and dropped his empty cup to the garbage bin near the door and walked out into the lobby. I watched him amble through the lobby until he disappeared around a corner.

He was right. I wasn’t thinking about what happens next. I didn’t really care what happened next. All I cared about was the opportunity to work more closely with Julie, and if that meant I wouldn’t have a job in a few months, then so be it. It’d be worth it.