A disclaimer: This story is a bit of a downer in parts. I'm going to be talking about personal problems. I am NOT telling this story to try and generate pity or shake donations out of people. Remember that the stuff I'm talking about here happened years ago. I'm offering this account because other people might find it useful, instructive, or entertaining. We're doing fine these days. Don't worry. It’s cool.
Having said that, let’s jump back in time…
|The offices where I worked in 2000. Swiped from Google Earth.|
It's midway through the year 2000. I'm 28 years old. Heather and I have been married three years. Rachel turns two this year. Our daughter Esther was just born. I'm about to make a large mistake. It will be eight years before I'll grasp just how serious an error it is and it will take a good twelve years in total for the whole thing to play out. There are a lot of causes of the mistake. Even the causes have causes, which themselves have little tributaries of error and dysfunction. It’s complex enough that I’ll never be able to point to a single moment and say, “Here, this is where it all went wrong.”
Dad is dying of cancer. He's still talking about living to be 100, but the odds are so ridiculously long that I hope he's just keeping up a brave face and a positive attitude and not in open denial. Or maybe he’s just kidding. It’s always hard to tell what's really going on in that maddening, muddled head of his.
He's never been very fond of going to the doctor, and by the time he got around to having himself checked it was years too late. They're apparently calling it “intestinal cancer”, but the mass itself is a sprawling and ambitious thing that's glommed onto his liver and a few other organs during its long and greedy lifespan. My brother explains all of this to me on the phone. I’m 600 miles away in Boston.
|We never took a picture of the outside of our condo. This one was swiped from Google Earth.|
Living in Boston is not working for us. I'm feeling restless and missing my parents and siblings. We don't have a lot of friends here. Since we only have one car, Heather is usually trapped in our little condo with the kids all day. I got a raise when we moved here, but it wasn’t nearly enough to cover the massive spike in cost of living between Pittsburgh and Boston. The dot-com bubble is in full surge, and Boston is a ridiculously expensive place to live. Like a lot of young couples, we're making the mistake of throwing unexpected expenses onto a credit card until we have the money to deal with them. While the numbers zigzag up and down, on balance these expenses build just a bit faster than we pay them off.
Navigating the greater Boston roadways feels like trying to run a bewildering maze packed with aggressive and hostile people, because that's what it is. I’ve been here over a year and I still get baffled the moment I leave the well-worn corridor between home and work. It doesn’t help that I need glasses, but don’t know it yet. Far objects have very gradually gotten blurrier, thus I have to get closer to signs before I can read them, which leads to a lot of situations where I have to make last-minute lane changes.
My health is bad. Something around here is inflaming my asthma. I’m pretty much always experiencing a low-level blockage of my airways. My breathing is heavy. The doctor puts me on steroids, which diminishes the asthma problem at the expense of making me perpetually hungry. I’ve been gradually putting on pounds for the last decade, but now I’m getting huge. At this point it’s entirely possible that some of my oxygen shortage is weight-related.
Also, the drugs are putting me into a constant state of agitation. My default mood is sort of “mildly pissed off”. That’s how I feel. All the time. Every day. When things actually go wrong, my temper is explosive. I growl and cuss and lose the ability to think straight. This makes technical work kind of challenging. I manage to keep my temper bottled up at work by grinding my teeth and muttering at the computer, but I’m always on the verge of slamming my keyboard into the monitor. It’s not that my job is stressful. I mean, it’s technical work and sometimes technology breaks, but this rage isn’t really instigated by my job. It’s bad medicine, bad health, and bad lifestyle. The job is just the catalyst. If I was unemployed, I’d spend all day at the home being mad at the furniture or the stuff in the fridge.
I can tell this anger is irrational, but that doesn’t make me stop feeling it.
I get to be on television. It’s a strange experience. Internet stories are all the rage these days, and some local station in California wants to do a segment on our company. Since I’m doing the graphical work, I’m chosen for the interview. I feel sort of sorry for the crew. They’re tasked with grabbing interesting footage, and when they show up they get a pasty fat guy and a bare cubicle to work with. I’ve never decorated this space because it’s never really felt like mine.
They hang some photographs and add some monitors to try and make the place look more interesting. This feels sort of dishonest, but what are they supposed to do? The real thing would make for lousy television. Heck, the fake thing makes for lousy television. I spend about two hours in front of the camera and the final product uses about eight seconds of this footage.
Aside from brief moments of excitement like this one, I really hate working in an office. My bosses are fine and my coworkers are fine, but it's just so dang uncomfortable. The constant screen glare. The distracting chatter. The ringing phones. The dress clothes. How can anyone be creative and productive in a place like this?
I spend all day talking, so by the time I get home I have no more words left for my wife. We're turning into the classic couple where the wife has a pent-up need for conversation and the husband has nothing but nodding and grunts. She's burning to get out of the house, and I don't want to do anything but sit still and be quiet. We compromise by going out occasionally, but it's not enough. I'm still going out more than I'd like and she's not going out nearly as much as she needs.
After months of unhappiness a few key ideas begin to crystallize. Didn’t I TAKE this job because it was fun and interesting? How did this go so wrong? I’m not getting any joy out of it because just about every other aspect of my life is dysfunctional. I’m taking drugs that are bad for me so I can work in an office I hate where I don’t make enough to pay the bills at the condo that’s too small for the family I don’t have time for. Meanwhile, my Dad is running out of days and I’m not spending any of them with him.
Why am I still here?
I need to get out of here. I need to move back to Pittsburgh. I plan to tell my bosses that I want to work from home again. I know this is a good job, but I'm willing to give it up if that's what it takes to get out of this madhouse.
We have a meeting. I tell them I’m moving back, and leave it up to them if they want to continue to employ me. They're not happy at the prospect, but they agree to keep me. So there it is.
One silver lining to this whole business is that I’ve inadvertently made a fortune in real estate, and it's going to be trivially easy to sell our condo. I bought the place for $90k, and eighteen months later it's worth $125k. That's ridiculous. While none of us have heard the phrases “dot-com bubble” or “housing bubble” yet, we're in the middle of both. I can sell the condo at will. We don't even need to show the place off. We have offers coming in for the place, sight unseen.
We begin packing our stuff. Now all I need to do is find a place in Pittsburgh.
We’re a week away from the big move when I get the call. Dad is gone. He was about a month short of his 60th birthday.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
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