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.
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!