Half-way complete today! This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.
I left camp that Saturday morning out of Mosquito Creek and thought about the nature of faith, its thin, papery wings. Dawn always trusted me from the start, there was never any jealousy or fear I’d cheat on her. She believed I wouldn’t, but didn’t have any evidence, and that’s faith. If I cheated on her, I’d be someone else from who she imagined. No matter how much I asked forgiveness or swore I could be the same person again, I never would, I’d be different.
In the second draft of my memoir I started to develop these themes around truth and identity, the fluid nature of both. There was a kernel at the center, where the two met. More interesting to me was the thought you could make yourself whatever you imagined, and others could do the same…to you. I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story mid-life; my favorite was “Portrait” by James Joyce, his struggle to reconcile a persona he imagined with the church, how he broke off as an artist instead, had to separate the two.
Like any story it needed an arc, a series of problems for the protagonist to resolve that create a journey where the reader identifies with the main character. But the story was rooted in my work-life, the conflict to resolve an identity issue that work brought on for me with its associated baggage (and the fact I worked for Starbucks, had to either fictionalize or satirize things, both of which felt like too much work).
The story had a happy ending, though. I left on my own terms but they were as glad I left as I was (maybe more so), even helped me a little for a few months after I was unemployed with outplacement and benefits. Those were the same months I’d planned to do the prep work for our move to Europe, so that worked out nicely. I had to get beyond the last few months of my time there, though. The best comparison is if you’ve ever debated breaking up with someone, really struggled telling them, but once you do they say “yeah, I was thinking the same.”
I was put on an action plan, and that was tough for me to accept. I’d put people on those before as a manager; it starts a paper trail so the company can legally defend firing you. And you’re not eligible then to transfer to a different position, you’re kind of stuck by the terms of the agreement. And by the time they get to that, they’ve probably already decided they want you gone, so it’s hard to recover from.
But I thought about it, and wanted to do the action plan. (I guess I wanted to succeed at the plan more than actually do the plan.) I really wanted to leave on good terms, knowing I was going to quit in the spring and move my family to Germany that summer—after almost 20 years with the company, I wanted to end on a good note.
In my mid-year review prior, my boss asked what about the job “brings me joy.” That was a popular phrase, a good one. Joy isn’t something you can bluff, which is why it’s called that. There was a vast silence after he asked it. It ballooned out between us and I tried to fill the air with something, but it didn’t fly. He knew it and I knew it, and I wondered sometimes at my honesty, if I gave too much away, was unwise like that.
The HR guy who was administering the action plan became a strange figure to me, like a nurse or doctor: someone who knows something about you that could be fatal, is trying to help you through it still, because it’s their job.
I explained my side of the story and theirs. Probably the hardest thing was accepting my work performance wasn’t what it needed to be: you could argue they’d changed the rules, or point to the fact my review said I was “meeting expectations” only a month or two before, but pointing the finger didn’t make me feel any better. The ego is funny because it doesn’t let you see bad things about yourself, it’s a defense mechanism, blocks out a lot of the truth.
My mom was supposed to visit that Christmas, as things were coming to a head. But she told me the following summer when we were in the Alps she was down to just one lung, and she had pneumonia then, and her German doctor said she shouldn’t fly…but a week before she was planning to come they cleared her, and how badly I needed my mom then.
It was coming up on Christmas my last day, and they invited me to the office holiday party at a bar down the street—then I drove home across the bridge and freeway with the sun roof open so the fresh air could come in and the next day my mom, Dawn, and I went to a Mexican restaurant by my office and drank margaritas, dropped my signed legal documents off at my now old job—and then went to a recreational cannabis shop and tried some stuff when we got home with enough time still to clear our heads out before the elementary school holiday musical, later that night.
There’s an element to finding a mate or giving a good job interview (or your work performance) where you have to make others believe you’re someone you yourself don’t know you are yet. You have to “back into it,” by creating belief around a made-up vision.
I came into that last job with such force and momentum but left like a flat tire clunking. And I learned later, after I rebounded in my next job, a lot of it is also what people think of you—how much trust and faith they’re willing to risk. And I learned the danger in job security (or the perception of it) is complacency—or worse, apathy, it’s no different than getting lazy about locking your car at night, losing your vigilance.
In all my time knowing Dawn she only smoked pot once, that night we went to Travis and Mike’s apartment to get ready for that long hike at Oil City. I don’t remember much of that night but sometimes Dawn refers to it, says when she looked at me, kind of stoned or altered in her perception, she saw me in a different way. There was Travis’s friend Mike, and she said looking at him it’s like he had this mask, implying he was hiding behind some façade, wasn’t altogether real…yet with me, she said, there was no mask, I was just me. I had to live up to that, it was perhaps the nicest thing she ever said. (And maybe she should smoke pot more often.)
And when it was time for me to get back to work it was going on almost two years, a lot of time, maybe too much, to think about what I wanted to do and be. You can be the stay-at-home dad and that’s great, it’s really important, but that work at home with the kids and the cooking and cleaning doesn’t quite cut it, unfortunately. It doesn’t carry the same level of stress and BS as a “real job,” the paying kind. So to an extent, it doesn’t carry the same value. At least not in our little culture here, in the Pacific Northwest…U.S.A.
When it was time for me to get back to work Dawn’s friend had a contract open for a writer and a project manager, she needed both, and I asked her to repeat it, to be sure it was in that order; it was important to me.
You could play all day with the identity theme and it would be different a thousand times over, from what people believed about you—through what you made yourself up to be and what they wanted you to be, by what you showed them. But the only one who’d ever really know for sure was you. And for artists or people in the public view, you were at risk every day to be made into something different by what they said or thought about you. You had to hold on tight, to hang on to yourself.