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 (at 30K!). 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.
When I zipped through the photos on my laptop it was like an animated film, frames from the past 10 years. You could correlate moments in the gaps that went undocumented, the drains of your memory. Some memories were reference points before or after something else that happened. The photo of me and the family on the beach by the tree stump in that pink/gold, late August light: that was before the shit hit the fan at work. I remember because I got sick, one of those seasonal bookend illnesses that happen in the spring or fall. I got sick in a way I couldn’t think right, went to the doctor a few times but they couldn’t diagnose it. Bad timing: new boss, new projects, me, useless.
The new project was called ISOP. That stood for something, an acronym. Acronyms are important because often spelling it out is too cumbersome or hard to remember and implies a level of complexity no one has time for. A good, strong acronym becomes a kind of brand. Better yet, a project logo adds credibility, and your project can become an entity, a thing—something people get behind.
But ISOP was problematic because it sounded a bit silly, like IHOP (the pancake place) or Aesop, the fable writer. And that opened doors nobody wanted to open. It was an important project, more a program, a group of projects co-located under one PM to pool resources, keep decision-making under a common sponsor. I studied all that and it made sense in abstract, as things often do.
My boss inherited me from the guy who hired me onto the group. In the past, whenever I’d gotten moved to a different boss I always felt safe: this time I learned you shouldn’t always feel that way. The meeting, and decision about me seemed to happen very quickly. ISOP, I’d learn, was 19 projects embedded into one across three time zones (LatAM, EMEA, Asia), with systems/IT issues, business process issues, and combinations thereof. It was brilliantly hatched and scoped. It all made sense, this simplified view on a slide that laid out the issues, the urgency to act. It became top priority. Of the roughly 50 projects our department managed this was now tied for #1 and the other one I was also on, SIMS.
My boss had been a peer and recently promoted. She could do the project management work but technically, was operating as business owner. She quickly realized I could do neither. So she had to do the PM work and find a role for me to play (since I was the PM). I took notes, scheduled meetings, set up bridge lines. The note-taking was a cluster fuck because I didn’t understand what they were talking about. I took notes stream-of-consciousness style, by rote: and then I’d have to edit my notes to make sense of it all, and it was like Tom Wolfe from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test but not as interesting, not at all. Whatever illness I had got worse. I made a mistake replying to an email where I confused something one morning and she wrote back on her phone, kind of snapped, and it was like a small tissue tear, the kind that never real heals.
The project, the program, got whittled down to one we hired a consultant for. There were a lot of copies that had to be made one night (late) but I didn’t offer to make them. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. I got another project. I got a couple more, transitioned off ISOP. My boss went on to get promoted, I had success with a project we did in Las Vegas, did alright with some others. They were really big projects, though. One time I counted the number of vendors we were overseeing and it was about 20, some with conflicting interests, different Procurement people with different motivations, different orgs. My new business owner had an end-to-end, holistic, engineer’s way of thinking about things. I was getting tired, fantasized about Europe. There was a real escape appeal to that, to remake myself.
It was time for Dawn and I to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary at the same place we got married, going back to that mountain lodge. Mom and Eberhard came: Eberhard was turning 60, had just retired from the police force in Ludwigsburg. It was mid-May, good weather. The day they got in, I took Eberhard to the lake and we brought beer in ceramic travel mugs and Eberhard broke one but I said don’t worry about it. We stood by the lake smoking, with bald eagles Eberhard tried to catch with his camera.
And then for the next three days it was a game of watching Eberhard experience the States, his first time, and there was no shortage of good shots: he was like a dog with his head out the window: Les Schwab! Brown Bear! Safeway! These were iconic brands, America. He was a young boy on Christmas morning, aglow. I could not stop thinking about work, though. I can honestly say the anxiety I felt prevented me from really being there for that anniversary celebration. I sat by the keg watching Eberhard with the hatchet make kindling, balancing the cigarette in his lips as he chopped. I drank and tried to let go, to lose myself in the mountain clouds. Still, there was work. It sat on the edge of my bed when I woke in the middle of the night, was not good company, and nor was I.
I took the Monday off after the anniversary and drove Eberhard and my mom around Seattle. We went to the beach near Ballard called Golden Gardens, an exquisite, May day. There were young moms on the sand with their kids, reading. They were so far away from me, my mind. I knew it was all mounting, back at work: this feeling like a conspiracy, this movement to undo me, to build a case it was time for me to go.
We went to Germany that July and the Germans won the World Cup. I had a lot to drink one night and pitched the idea to Dawn after everyone went to bed: we could relocate here, we could see if my mom would let us move in…we could leave our jobs, start over when we’re done.
I didn’t understand it then, still may not, but there is some navigational analogy to all this I should have learned with the Mountaineers club, one of the vital rules about backwoods orienteering: if you’re lost, go back to where you know your location, and don’t keep going. For as much as I like the idea of coarse navigation (the idea a number of mis-steps throughout life can cancel each other out), you can also vector off by a degree and find yourself totally somewhere you never imagined because you kept going the wrong way. Maybe they all saw that and I was so lost I didn’t, but about six months later the only way was the elevator down, and out—
And at my friend Miriam’s apartment in London the following January she said, look where you are now, a year later: better? Sometimes different isn’t better, just different. You can travel far for a long time and that can change you, but you need to go back to really understand what went wrong to begin with.