ASK A STRAY DAD 5:

ON GRIEF.

*Note: This was originally written on September 17.

Q: We had to put down our 14-year-old chocolate lab, Gus, a week ago.

A: Is there a question in there somewhere?

Q: No. I just felt like I needed to say it.

A: Oh. Sorry. Why?

Q: Because I miss him. But probably not as much as the rest of the family misses him. And because I wasn’t there for him at the end—a thing I feel terribly guilty about—but our older daughter certainly was, and she needs to be applauded for that. She carried him from the house down the steps and into the car; and then, later, from the car into the veterinary hospital. Later on that night, at a time when she normally would’ve been fast asleep, E had to hold her dog’s head while a vet administered a lethal dose of opiates to send him after one last tennis ball. He died in E’s arms. She held him and cried long afterward, long after his bladder had released onto the floor, even after the warmth of his body had started to leave him. She did more for that dog that night than I ever would’ve dreamed of doing. And I have never been more proud of her.

Gus had been with that family longer than I had, through leaner times than I was, and was as faithful a companion as dogs can get. So faithful he would get pissed off whenever we left without him, and would throw temper tantrums around the house. He would eat anything within reach whether it was truly edible or not; poop on the hardest to clean areas of the entire house; and tear any paper he could find into saliva-moist confetti. Upon our return he’d slink to the back door, knowing he’d done wrong, knowing he’d do it again the next time. It used to make me beyond furious. I look back on his psychotic separation anxiety now with the kind of deranged romanticism only a pet owner could summon.

I will miss his water-bowl-dampened, almost-always-infected ears. I will miss the way he’d rub eye boogers against my pant leg right before I left for work. I will miss him standing in the way any time I was carrying something heavy. I will miss the walks where it seemed like we peed on every upright piece of vegetation along the mile-long route. I will miss encouraging him to keep going or get back up when aching hips and dementia turned that mile into two blocks, and a risky two at that.

There’s a lot more. Of course. But when I remember him, it will most likely be one of three ways:

First, most recently, when in the midst of cooking I looked over to find him standing behind me in the kitchen, side-by-side with our youngest daughter’s life-sized stuffed unicorn, as though he’d found a new best friend and they were going to go out back and play.

Secondly, bounding into the surf again and again to fetch some other dog’s tennis ball in San Diego on the morning I was to propose to Heidi. I had decided to delay my plans until he ran out of energy. 90 minutes later I had to drag him out of the water and wrench the ball out of his mouth, whereupon he yacked up his breakfast on a pile of kelp. We moved to a different beach, where he kept me company while I wrote my proposal to her in the sand.

And finally, back at the very beginning, when I was staying with my brand-new girlfriend (and future wife) at her house down in Arizona. I woke up from a nap on the couch to find him curled up and asleep, the nape of his neck underneath my hand. We’d known each other all of 18 hours, and he’d accepted me like that unicorn, like we’d been life-long friends.

All dogs are good dogs. But Gus—that magnificent pain in the ass—was the best.

ASK A STRAY DAD 4:

ON SURVIVING.

Q: How’s New York?

A: Not the worst!

Q: Good to hear! I myself have been considering a move from a town I’ve grown very comfortable in, to a much bigger city. Any tips on how to survive — or even thrive — in that transition?

A: You’ve gotta be more specific than that. There are lots of big cities out there, and let me tell you, each one is — oh, no, you’re right, they’re all exactly the same.

Maybe these instructions will be a little bit bunk if you’re trading Walla Walla for Mexico City instead of, I presume, Des Moines for Prague. But if we agree to keep this as general as possible, maybe you’ll get something out of it. Not the keys to the city and a tony townhouse, but something a step above shivering in the corner of a subway station in a pool of (your own, hopefully?) urine.

Onward!

Step 1: Accept the fact that you will be living in some form of cramped, decrepit squalor.

With millions all occupying the same severely limited space, square footage is at a premium — so whatever you’ve been paying for rent or mortgage back home, be prepared to at least double it just to get a semi-reliable roof over your head and a splash or two of running water. Everything else will cost you mucho dinero. Also know that the shower drain will back up within two days of the beginning of your lease, the culprit being a dead mouse that has floated to the surface and gotten stuck there. Oh, and only one of your burners on your stove is gonna work, and by work we mean it’s going to either be at full blast or just leaking natural gas into your “kitchen,” which is really just the only part of your living room where a minifridge would fit without looking ridiculous. Your bedroom window — if you have one — is going to look out on a scene that years later you will describe as something a person just can’t unsee. Point is, every city apartment you’ve ever seen in a movie (unless it was Taxi Driver) was a total sham, fabricated on a sound stage in Los Angeles by an interior designer who wouldn’t know a walk-up from a hole in their ass. Now, go take everything you own, put it in your bedroom closet — then try to find a place to sleep. This is your future. Adjust accordingly.

Step 2: Order. Everything. Online.

I know, I know. Amazon is the devil, and all that. But I schlepped across this great city from one borough to the next for three straight days looking for a single rug and two nightstands. Seventeen trains in all, and a total of about 22 hours searching, with nothing but sweaty pits and a thick film of city gunk on my skin to show for it. Ikea had it in stock — only they didn’t. The one at the flea market looked right — until I tested it for stability and the leg nearly fell off. It didn’t feel like I was asking for much. The city felt otherwise, and felt free to prove it to me.

In the end a four-minute Google search finished furnishing my entire bedroom. And I didn’t even have to use Amazon! I’m not saying stay inside while the rest of the city goes out and lives their lives. I’m saying save your time for farmers markets and bazaars when you already have everything you need and the only thing you want is a knickknack to rest on top of the mini-fridge.

Step 3: Get some plants. They’re more than just a reminder that nature exists.

The first thing I missed was the back yard. We had even picked a Brooklyn neighborhood with “Greene” in the name, one whose avenues are lined with trees, but not being able to step out a back door and into a garden full of flowers and fruits and veggies was disorienting on my best day and downright depressing the other six a week. Ten days in, I raided a nursery like a drunk with a key to the 7–11. I read up on their care, gently laid them down in spots where they were likely to thrive, and left notes on what to do for them, and when. They all got names. They have become de facto family members, ones whose lives I am terrified of ending due to my own horticultural ignorance. The Tillandsia, Dorothy, is my favorite. She sits in the bathroom window, her long fronds stretching for the ceiling until the weight takes them down. Tillandsias absorb water through their leaves, not their roots, and one day I accidentally set a full coffee mug too close, in the fronds went, and now Dorothy wakes me up in the middle of the night telling me she can’t sleep and could she please get a rematch in Scrabble, the board’s already set up in the living room and everything.

Step 4: Embrace public transportation as though it were your closest friend. Even knowing it will betray you.

It takes me 75 minutes and costs me about half a Benjamin to go from my office to the airport via taxi or Uber. It costs a total of $5 to make the same trip by subway, and takes 10 minutes less. Such is the case almost everywhere in the city — plus the people-watching is phenomenal. Who knew you could wear a bathrobe with Crocs for your trip to the zoo?

Truth is, I love the subway. Not only is it the best option for the environment shy of walking, it’s far more entertaining and convenient than any other way to get around. Right up until it isn’t. Right up until you show up at a train platform expecting a Brooklyn-bound C to show up any minute, only to have that minute turn into 25. Until you skip the completely packed train car for the mostly empty one right behind it, then have the doors close behind you and you’re hit hard with both searing heat and a nosehair-searing stench, along with the realization as to why it’s just you and the cock-eyed, wild-haired dude with the maniacal laugh staring you down from the other end. The subway is your friend. It’s always around, and most of the time it’s a good friend. But it’s also a friend that’s always a single step away from surprising you on the street, slipping something into your drink, dragging you out on some wild goose chase, and then abandoning you in the middle of nowhere, having taken all everything the photo of your G-Ma out of your wallet. Don’t delete your Lyft app just yet, is all I’m saying.

Step 5: Keep a “recon” dossier of your new town’s tendencies and idiosyncrasies.

Firstly, because it’ll make you feel like a spy — and spies never get lost or homesick! More importantly, it’ll help you figure out the place, and discern your way within it. You’ll find things you enjoy that you never expected, and have an eye out for the particulars that people — even locals — miss. Finally, it’ll be fun, years from now, to look back at how odd you found at things that have subsequently become commonplace to your new, citified self. I know that six months from now I won’t give a French Bulldog another thought, but the fact that every other pooch in Brooklyn is a flat-faced furry-Jon-Favreau-looking motherfucker who huffs like Darth Vader and couldn’t clear a tree root if its cardiac-event-shortened life depended on it is just astonishing to me. And don’t even talk to me about the fact I’ve seen exactly two Subarus in the three weeks I’ve been here. What I’m saying is: Write. It. Down.

Step 6: Safety first.

This list could continue until I drop dead, but I realize no one has the patience or time for that — and besides, I plan on kicking around for a while. Instead, I’m going to call upon the wisdom of those who’ve come before me. In this case, that’s PBS, who wrote a truly enlightening article about surviving an encounter with a bear. I’ve maintained their article to the letter, the only modification being I’ve changed the words “grizzly bear” to “city” whenever relevant to this discussion. Enjoy. And keep your hand firmly wrapped on that pepper spray…

“Here’s what the experts say:

If you encounter a city, do not run.

Avoid direct eye contact.

Walk away slowly, if the city is not approaching.

If the city charges, stand your ground (you cannot outrun it).

Don’t scream or yell. Speak in a soft monotone voice and wave your arms to let the city know you are human.

If you have pepper spray, prepare to use it.

If the city charges to within 25 feet of where you’re standing, use the spray.

If the city makes contact, curl up into a ball on your side, or lie flat on your stomach.

Try not to panic; remain as quiet as possible until the attack ends.

While in city country, be aware that you may encounter a city at any time.

Be sure the city has left the area before getting up to seek help.”

Words to live by. Good luck with your move, whoever you are.

Got a question you’d like a Stray Dad to answer? Ask it in the comments. Next time: We’ll finally answer how much booze is too much!

ASK A STRAY DAD 3:

ON CRYING.

*Note: This was originally written and posted on August 14. Thank you for your patience as I migrate everything over from another—ahem—Medium.

Q: Why am I crying all the time? I’m a grown-ass man. What is wrong with me? Can you help me fix this, so I don’t look like a freak in public?

A: Whew! So much unpacking to do. And that’s before we get to the luggage sitting in the corner of your depressingly empty apartment.

Let’s clear some air, though: “Grown-ass man?” Come on. That Twinkie of a sentiment that men need to suck their tears back inside their sockets for all but the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and even then only for a select few — their, mother, children, or their boyhood heroes (much respect, Walter Payton) — is long past its expiration date. Showing that you care enough about someone or something to mourn its loss or tearfully celebrate its arrival shouldn’t be the sole privilege of women and children. It’s what makes you a human being, and the sooner we shed terms about “manliness” and what it “means”, the sooner we’re going to be better human beings. Having feelings and being able to express them is a far greater sign of strength than staring at a coffin without so much as a lip quiver could ever be.

As for you in particular: You are crying all the time (untrue, but fine — whatever) because you are turning your entire life inside-out, ya ding-dong. It’s extraordinarily painful. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. And in case you needed proof, let’s check the footage and see exactly when you’ve cried, shall we?

Monday, August 5, 10:53 AM. Your 7-year-old daughter is rolled into surgery to remove her tonsils and adenoids. This is the first surgery for anyone in the family that involves them going under general anesthesia. She is your baby, the only one of the kids you’ve been around since birth, and though you know this is a minor operation that’s been around for millennia oh gosh is she quiet and looking super-small all of a sudden. And as she shrinks into the bed at the sight of the doctor you get a double-kick to the gut when you remember that the recovery time on this is about two weeks, which means you’re only going to be around for less than half of your daughter hurting and healing. You are about to leave your baby girl in pain and become completely unable to do anything to soothe her, at a time when it feels like she might need you the most. So yes, of course you’re going to cry there.

And when she emerges from the 20-minute procedure weary but okay, sitting up and moving well even though she’s drugged to the gills and finding it hard to swallow? You’re going to cry there, too, from sheer relief (and raw guilt).

Friday, August 9, 9:45 AM. A bunch of your coworkers gather to see you off. One keeps bursting into tears and telling you the myriad ways you’ve helped her over the years, and how much you’ll be missed. This all comes as a bit of a shock to you, as you only worked together occasionally, and never all that closely. She will not be the last person to tell you something similar. You get choked up with each hug, as this is the first time you’ve been made aware of any sort of impact there in — well, forever.

Still Friday morning. The two people who worked for you have just presented you with the Michael Scott “World’s Best Boss” mug, plus a letter that openly wonders how the place is ever going to operate without you around. Dammit, this one’s hard.

Friday night, at dinner. This is essentially the Last Supper for the family, and you mostly hold your pieces together until your 7-year-old daughter — still only speaking about 1/50th of the amount she normally would and still no eating anything more solid than really over-cooked noodles — grabs your hand and squeezes it for no real reason.

The next morning, Saturday. Saying goodbye, naturally. Waving to your wife and youngest daughter from the wrong side of security while the three of you cry at a distance from each other feels like the worst. But it prods you again on the plane, when the turbulence hits, and you think of your wife squeezing your hand out of fear during flights, and you wish you had hers in yours at that very moment and perhaps for the next 192 straight hours.

Saturday night. You have just arrived at the apartment you and your eldest stepson are going to share for the next year. An apartment you have only seen in FaceTime videos and a real estate app. Upon entering, you are hit with a) the smell of mildew, b) a facefull of about a dozen reusable shopping bags, all loaded with cheap straw boater hats and being carried by a man with a once-lit-now-mostly-extinguished cigar in his mouth, and c) the notion that the gulf between your kid’s version of “really nice” and yours might be too wide to cross. Then follows a tidal wave of loneliness.

Saturday night. Still. You go to open the window in the kitchen just to get some air, because oh good lord we are going to suffocate if we don’t get some fresh air in here, and the entire windowpane falls out and hits you on the temple. Kind of a one-off, but it certainly counts.

Sunday morning. You look around for a mug to put coffee in, and see that the only option is a chipped mug that says “Fuck You! I’m a Prophet!” on the side. Further digging concludes that you will be eating all of your meals and drinking all of your beverages out of this Fucking Prophet mug, as you have no dishes. No other glasses. Also: No table. No chairs. No wastebasket. Your life feels like you are starting completely over. Who wouldn’t cry at that?

Late Sunday night. Going to put groceries away, you notice the salt grinder is stuck to the inside of the cabinet. A wipe of the finger reveals a 1/2-inch layer of cooking grease. You spend the next four hours — from 9:30 to 1:30 AM, on the night before your first day at the new job that brought you all the way across the country — cleaning years’ worth of grease off of every surface in the main living area, then steam-mopping the past three tenants’ dirt off your floors. You will deal with the clog in the shower some other time, because it’s just all too much to bear.

Very early Monday morning. Finally turning out the light to sleep. Four hours until you need to get up. The light is centered on your current nightstand — a 48-roll-count box of toilet paper.

And finally: Monday morning, on your first day at work. Not only is your wife not there to kiss you good luck, but she won’t be awake for another three hours after you leave the clean-but-only-slightly-less-depressing apartment.

Let’s face it. This is a lot. You are an emotional person who feels things on a deep, sometimes debilitating level, and this week has been the hardest, most earth-shattering one you’ve ever had. Your daughter’s surgery feels like it was a lifetime ago. It was just over a week.

All of this has built up inside you, while you’ve spent every waking hour (and those waking hours have been in greater quantity than usual) trying to do everything necessary to survive this. It’s natural to be sad, and stressed, and lonely, and feel like this is a terrible idea and wish you could close your eyes and go back and make it all disappear.

But going backward is the opposite of what you were wanting to do, correct? This is what growth feels like. You remember adolescence, right? That pain that overwhelmed your knees until you could barely stand upright? Well this is exactly like that, except in your brain. And you don’t want to go back to where you came from any more than you want to go back to being 5’4” and 112 pounds.

So cry. For shit’s sake, let it out. Feel sorry for yourself, miss your family, want a better situation. Then when the tears stop you can take a few deep breaths, wipe your eyes, and — with the first clear view you’ve had in weeks — take the inaugural and incredibly tiny step forward towards whatever is going to make this a little bit better.

Because if you really think about it, that’s all tears are—the body’s window wiper fluid, blinking away all the emotional gunk to finally let you see where you need to go.

You know what I also think? That I’ve probably just had too much gin tonight. I’m gonna go lie down for a bit. Here’s a box of tissues. Go talk to someone sober who cares.

Next time: How much booze is too much booze?

ASK A STRAY DAD 2:

ON QUITTING.

The world’s most useless advice column tackles asses, doors, and whether the two should meet upon one’s departure.

(*Note: This was originally written on August 4. Forgive me, as I’m migrating all this stuff over from another site…)

QJ: I’m considering resigning from my long-term place of employment. Any tips on how to do it?

Before we get started: Let me be the first of doubtless hundreds of folks to say OH MY GOSH — CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR ESCAPE. And if you work for some Fortune 500 behemoth, feel free to round up on that estimate. More corporate drones fantasize of quitting their job and opening a hygged-to-death, solar-powered combination B&B/ lavender farm than will ever, ever let on.

Also: Of course! Now that I have about a week’s worth of very fresh experience at this, sure to translate to any and all scenarios, I’ve been basically begging for someone to ask me to share. Thank goodness you came along. Consider these your 10 Commandments for Quitting:

Find yourself a hype person. Being nervous is natural. And if you’re anything like me, so is that accompanying bowel-clench and the pitting out of your button-down. But no combination of those will equal the impression you want to impart on your way out the door. In this moment you need someone to remind you that you’re awesome, and that there’s a very good reason why you’re doing this. In my case it was my wife, Heidi, who called me as I paced the back stairwell of the building: “You’ve wanted this for so long, and it’s about time you got it.” If she’d been talking to me between rounds of a championship bout I would’ve gotten back inside that ring and — well, gotten the shit kicked out of me. My jaw is made of pure glass and the only punch I’ve ever thrown was a juice box, at Brian Giddings during my 9th birthday party. But I’m telling you: After that pep-talk, I would’ve looked into the murderous-yet-childlike eyes of Mike Tyson without hesitation or concern. You have a hype person like this somewhere in your life. And there is no better time than now to let them know they need to step the fuck up.

If fate offers you a hand, shake it until it falls off. I went into Outlook to book the come-to-Jesus meeting with my boss, unsure of what to call it (working title: “Very Extended Out of Office”) only to find that he’d already scheduled a half-hour “Catch-Up.” Telling him I was quitting seemed to fall under that theme, so PROBLEM SOLVED. When the meeting began he laid several org charts in front of me, then started his spiel about the team’s five-year plan — and where I fit within it. “These look great,” I said. “I have just one suggestion…”

Be sure to make multiple references to the fact that you’re leaving. Be sure to clarify you don’t mean for lunch. Five minutes after I was almost positive I’d said, “I’ve decided to leave the company,” we’d moved on to talking about the shortcomings of a long-suffering fellow coworker, which somehow transitioned into what makes a good mai tai, then whether Kevin Durant would be able to recover in time for next year’s playoffs. And as I listened to his philosophies on mixed beverages and the super-healing powers of elite athletes, I began to panic that maybe either a) he hadn’t understood what I’d just said, or b) that I hadn’t said the words at all. Maybe I’d chickened out and mumbled something ridiculous like “I’ve decided to leave my hairdresser,” and he was just shrugging it off as the ravings of a sleep-deprived lunatic and moved on. “Just to be clear,” I said, “My last day working here — as an employee — is August 9.” (The as an employee part didn’t sound nearly as dumb in my head as it did aloud. It looks even worse here.) He smiled, nodded and said, “Oh, yeah. I got it. Let me just fix this,” before putting a “NOT” in front of my name on the new org chart.

Try to avoid the word quit if you can. Nobody likes a quitter. Here are some synonyms: Resign. Leave. Depart. Move on. Withdraw. Bow out. Hang it up. Take a walk. Surrender. Any one of which sounds less like you’re throwing a temper tantrum than “I quit” does. I almost said it to our HR rep, watched her left eyebrow arch like it was half of a McDonald’s logo, and pulled myself out of that tailspin. The words “I quit” are just going to result in someone 30,000 feet above your pay grade asking you a lot of questions you really don’t want to answer. At least not yet. Speaking of which:

Now is not the time to mention all the ways your exit could’ve been prevented. I know, I know. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. But simmer down and think about it, because I certainly have. Thanks to the modern misery that is open-floorplan workspaces, my boss and I are forced to sit facing each other, our desks touching, for 8-plus hours a day. At any point during my two weeks’ notice, even with his limited wingspan and brittle lower back, he could easily reach across and strangle me if he wanted. So while I certainly abide by the “what are you going to do at this point, fire me?” philosophy for one’s last 80 business hours in hell, I’m saving myself for the exit interview — and there’s a reason those torchings tend to be scheduled when one of your feet has already crossed the threshold of the fire exit. Which is why when he said, “Well I’m sad for us, but happy for you. It felt like, for the last couple of years, this place had been killing you,” and my tongue nearly leapt out of my mouth to respond, “Then maybe why didn’t you, as my manager, do something to STOP MY PLACE OF WORK FROM KILLING ME,” I instead bit down hard, and nodded, and smiled. Remember: Victory is getting out.

As much as you think they’d be ready for this, you’re going to take HR by surprise. Unless you work for Pizza Hut, your company is unfamiliar with people wanting to leave. This is not the reason they got into HR, and they rarely have to do it. Think about it: One person leaving your department per week would feel like a mass exodus. So maybe HR does one a month. How good is anyone at anything they do once a month? Well, ask yourself—how good am I at hot yoga? In other words, it pays to do your homework. Because HR’s probably not going to do it for you — and even if they did, it might only be C-level work.

You’re gonna wanna talk to the IT Department. This was the biggest tip I got from the HR rep. “Get to the IT bar as soon as you can,” she said. “They need, like, all two weeks of this just to get your phone switched over.” I have as much trust in my company’s IT department as I do in bitcoin and the camera at the top of my laptop screen, but I hustled out of there and down to the line of non-nerds bowing before the uber-nerds as quick as possible. In 2019, the thought of trying to use the bathroom without a functional phone in front of me is one I simply cannot bear.

Keep word of your future plans vague. That way, both your biggest fans AND most insecure haters get the fun of imagining what you’ll be doing a month from now. It’s free entertainment for everyone!

Don’t bite too hard on all the “that’s brave” and “I’m so happy for you” confections. Yes, people are happy for you, and should be. Also yes: They are likely over-romanticizing your next life into something that isn’t just completely unattainable, but dangerously so. A dream job? It’s still a job. And you didn’t beat cancer or stare down a tank armed only with two grocery bags — you just walked away from a bad situation, which is a thing that every person should absolutely do — so brave isn’t really the correct nomenclature here. For your sake, let’s keep your own expectations and perspective in the right place. Unless you followed “I’m leaving the company,” with “To fight poachers away from threatened rhinos in the Serengeti.” In which case, YOU SOAK UP ALL OF THAT PRAISE LIKE YOU’RE THE COMPANION BAGUETTE TO A FIVE-STAR BOUILLABAISSE. I AM SO PROUD OF YOU.

If they want to throw you a going-away party, by all means let ’em. You may be done with the place. But no matter how surly you were before the end, there are people who are going to miss you, and who you are going to miss — whether you’re ready to admit it or not. Accept their invitation with genuine warmth and enthusiasm. You wanted this kind of fuss over you and your work the entire time you were there. You deserve to receive at least a fraction of it, even if it does feel a little late.

Alright: Now stand up, breathe deep, kick your desk chair out into the hall, barge into your boss’s office without knocking, and don’t walk out of there until you’re unemployed.

You’ve totally fucking got this.

Next time: How to say goodbye to literally everyone in your life!

ASK A STRAY DAD 1:

On Existential Crises…

*Note: This was originally written on July 27, 2019.

Question 1: This doubles as an introduction. Why are we here?

That’s easy. As a doting husband to Heidi and father(-ish) of four (I’ll explain later) about to embark on a super-dicey and potentially disastrous life change, I needed a place to ask myself hyper-specific questions and wrestle over the advice. And I figured having an audience, no matter how small — hi, Sweetheart — would hold me accountable.

I didn’t mean it that way, and you know it.

Fine, and you’re right. Ignoring the more existential nature of that four-word question did feel a little like cheating. But seeing as I’m still figuring it out myself, maybe it’ll help to break this many-headed beast down into its basic components:

Who are “we?”

Call me Jason. And because asking a question only to answer it yourself might be viewed by some as C-R-A-Z-Y, this “Jason” of which we speak shall henceforth be subdivided into two parts: Question Jason (QJ) and Answer Jason (AJ, duh). Bingo: we have a plurality! Oh, and let’s not forget about you. (We would never forget about you.) You are a marvelous and priceless work of art, and we are grateful for your time and attention. Thanks for dropping by. Help yourselves to anything in the cupboard — except the bottle of single-malt with the packet of peanuts duct-taped to it.

QJ: Where is “here?”

AJ: Here is the coffee aisle of a Portland, Oregon-area Whole Foods, and here is where I am having the latest in a two-month-long dotted line of panic attacks. A little bit ago I was tapping my toe, humming along to “Milkshake” by Kelis and contemplating whether fair-trade, single-sourced Guatemalan beans would shroud the smell of a carne asada burrito fart from my fellow shoppers the same way they hide cocaine from police dogs. The next instant I found myself perilously short of breath, sweating profusely, heart swim-kicking my ribcage as I clung to a passing child while I waited for the floor to stop shaking.

Because here also happens to be the place in my life where I got so frustrated with my career that I took a very professional leap off of a very imposing cliff.

I have spent 17 years at the same company, doing roughly the same thing, slamming my same thick skull against the same flimsy-yet-remarkably-resilient cubicle walls, until Facilities took those walls down and the only thing left for me to bang heads with were fellow coworkers. Neither had yielded much in the way of results — certainly not enough for my own fidgety and fragile ego. After 32,000-some hours spent struggling and failing to make any sort of name or place for myself at the job, I felt like an object in a side mirror: larger than I ever would’ve appeared to the rare few who might ever bother to look. Also: two-dimensional, and completely backwards. I had watched the company quadruple in size in real time, had strained under the added workload weight that growth had dumped on our tiny team. In turn I became the person who groaned about how much everything had changed; about how much better being there used to be. And I grew to feel like a stagnant, stupid, and shelled-out version of the person I’d been upon entering.

I viewed my 15-year anniversary as an occasion to recommit to doing everything I could to change either the place itself or my mind about it. Two years of false starts and flameouts later, the only option that felt like it made any difference or sense anymore was leaving.

I suck at breakups; always the last one to figure it out, pack up and move on. After so many ups and downs over the years this certainly had felt like a marriage—one of the Trumpian variety, where I got paid for my participation, and where everything the two of us did seemed to bug the shit out of each other. I knew every idiosyncrasy, from whose ego was going to shoot down the latest novel idea to whose hands weren’t going to be washed when they exited the bathroom. What I didn’t know was how to get out, or whether anything would await me should I manage to pull it off.

Compounding my struggles with self-confidence was a slow-grown ignorance about the outside world. It may have been time to find somewhere else to hang my hat and shingle (as if that were still a thing), but I had no idea 1) what to look for, or 2) where, and 3) whether — or even how — anyone would see a single shred of usefulness in me. How did this matchmaking process even work anymore? All the technology and methodology had changed since the last time I’d had to market myself like this. Extinct were the thick-stocked, bone-colored resumes and spiral-spined clip files I once lugged around in leather-bound sacks. People younger and wiser than me told me I needed apps — lots of ’em, even though most were showing the same jobs for which I was either utterly uninterested in or completely unqualified. I populated forms on job boards, exposed my bare-naked, mostly featureless resume to recruiters, and fired applications into an amorphous, directionless void. Then I would wait, unable to avoid the suffocating sense of disappointment as days passed by. The rejections, if they came at all, did so without any interaction with a living human being — unless that human’s name happened to be Automated Response.

Soon another thing became clear: my mind had been monster-truck-tire over-inflating the size of Portland’s job market. The only companies offering jobs were direct competitors I wanted no part of, or quirky startups expecting the moon in exchange for a peanut-based salary and a ping pong table in the common area. It was my wife who actually suggested broadening the search, so one night while slow-walking our ancient chocolate labrador we scribbled a list of West-Coast cities to which we were willing to relocate on the back of a receipt that I kept in my wallet. As the weeks passed we added towns—up into Canada, then east to the Rockies. On rare occasions I would find something, and apply. Nothing ever reached back. We kept expanding the list and its boundaries, trying to think of the now nearly limitless search more as a possible adventure than an act of desperation.

It took weaponizing the New York option on the job-finder apps before my shovel hit anything of substance. A job that seemed a little too good to be true popped up. I applied, and within a day their HR director had contacted me. Two weeks and eight separate phone interviews later, I was thrilled when they asked to meet in person.

Still: New York.

Although the interview went smoother than someone as unfamiliar with these gauntlets could have hoped for, my concentration was elsewhere. I spent both cramped legs of the journey and every waking minute in-between chewing over just how insane the idea of packing up our family and moving to Manhattan sounded. Our older daughter only has her senior year of high school left. Our younger one is just getting settled into a rhythm at her school, after a few false starts at others. We couldn’t pull them out now. Which meant that if the job came through I would be striking out on my own for about a year, leaving my wife and half of my kids behind. (No, I’m not taking the other two with me; one’s in college in Victoria, BC and the other would be my likely roommate in New York.) This was the opposite result of the gentler job with the shorter commute my job search had intended. Pull this off, and I would go from 75 minutes on public transportation to 5 hours and 25 minutes, in a middle seat on JetBlue. I hadn’t been away from my wife and kids for any more than a couple of days since my youngest daughter was born. The thought of watching her grow up via FaceTime was the last thing I remember pondering before my first panic attack, which struck at cruising altitude somewhere over Minnesota. The man in the seat next to me leaned hard into the aisle.

For the entire two-month-long courting process that followed Heidi and I agonized over a decision we weren’t sure would ever come. The possibility and its pitfalls ate up every square inch of brain matter. I gave up trying to dress myself in the morning and defaulted to a wardrobe of jeans, whatever flannel shirt was hanging in the rightmost slot in my closet, and the same pair of white-yet-gradually-graying slip-on sneakers. Choosing pizza toppings became a crippling process. I would get lost sometimes on my way to work and have to backtrack down streets I feared I would one day grow unfamiliar with.

Finally, they made an offer. An unrefusable one, though attempts were certainly made. We threw every detail out on the table, looking for the one that might possibly be able to axe the idea to pieces. Cried when we found none, when that made us realize just how incredible this opportunity was — and just exactly what that meant. We berated ourselves for not thinking all of this through sooner, back when it was a pure hypothetical, back before it threatened to separate our family. I’ve been miserable so long that it’s all I can remember…why couldn’t I have stuck it out one more year?

We negotiated amongst ourselves, consulted with family and friends who had completed their own version of this odyssey before. Everything short of visiting a tarot reader and paying extra for the good cards.

On the Sunday night before I was supposed to get back to my potential new employer with a decision we had yet to definitively make, my wife said, “What if we just think of it as you have to travel for work?”

It seemed ridiculous. At first. But it was one of two factors that finally tipped the scales.

Here’s the other:

I would doggie paddle in shark-infested waters with raw tuna stapled to my armpits for a life where my wife and kids are free and emboldened to pursue their dreams. Part of that is building a safe and sound enough home that they’re able to see, try out and then become who and what they want. The other is leading by example. It began to feel like showing everyone what was possible for them came down to doing the same for myself.

(If that sounds like the sort of delusional rationalizing that could only come from a self-centered scoundrel, just know that I’ve thought about that a great deal, and fear you’re probably right. Although I hope with all my might you’re not.)

My dream had never been to settle for going to work angry and coming home frustrated and exhausted. Granted, nor was it ever living in isolation on the opposite side of the country from my family, though at least that’s temporary — and besides, there’s a reason Boeing’s still in business. A year from now — more or less and one way or the other — we’ll be living together again. Meanwhile, I have that span to make something of myself, even as I memorize the flight schedule of every major airline coming in and out of Greater New York.

QJ: How do you feel, particularly when you talk to your kids and wife about it?

AJ: You ask too many damn questions. But for the record, it feels like my heart is being ripped from my chest and thrown down the disposal while I watch, helpless. I question this decision every second I’m awake, and it haunts my dreams as I sleep.

I hate myself for doing this.

I would hate myself if I didn’t do this.

I give my notice tomorrow. Hence this latest and strongest round of stomach cramps, neck pain, dizziness, sweatiness, shortness of breath, and now the unshakable feeling that I’m going to have a heart attack and die in a cloud of methane on the floor of an upscale grocery store in front of all of my neighbors.

Seventeen. Fucking. Years. Gone in the wave of a hand. With nothing yet resting in the other. We will make it work. We are going to have to find a way to make it work.

QJ: But…

AJ: Why?

Yeah, I got nothing. Let’s just skip this one for now. We’ll come back to it when we have an answer we can live with.

Tune in next time, when I provide ill-timed advice on how to quit your job!

Hi. I’m lost.

My name is Jason Effmann. I’m a writer, originally from Portland, OR, who has done a very questionable thing and taken a job that has required me to move to New York City.

Well that doesn’t sound TOO bad. How’s the family adjusting?

Um…

This blog is an attempt to answer the questions my brain keeps having about a decision to move to the opposite side of the country, leaving my family behind—if only temporarily.

It’s also an opportunity to update the friends and family I love with my musings on New York, and a precarious work/life balance. And a way to keep regular notes on the experience, for when I surely forget later on.

Thanks for following, friends. I hope I don’t mess up beyond repair!

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