Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Great Unwinding: A Meditation on Near Unemployment and Life Changes

Middle class middle aged
Middle of the road
Mister wonder what they did
To you

All right. Hey. Way to start off a rambling, introspective piece about near unemployment and life changes, quoting your own sophomoric 20 year old song, written when you thought you were middle aged but were clearly still just a kid. My head must be in darker places than I thought. 

Let me try this again.

"I am the last of a dying breed," he intones with the gravitas of John Hillerman. (That's the guy from Magnum PI. The one with the mustache. No, the other one with the mustache. The short one. The one who didn't drive the Ferrari. In fact, it was really quite rude of you to not recognize Mr. Hillerman and interrupt the flow. In fact, fuck you.) 

(Despite your obvious rudeness, Mr. Hillerman has consented to continue.

"I am the passenger pigeon."

No, that’s too easy. 

"I am the dusky seaside sparrow." (Thanks to my friend Oen Kennedy for that reference.) Better. 

Or let's call Captain Obvious. "I am the dinosaur." Yeah, that’s good, as it aptly connotes my atrophied desiccated software engineering skills. Plus, if someone says "run it down for me from the top," I can say "well, first, the Earth cooled. Then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and turned into oil." (Sorry. When in doubt, quote Stephen Stucker from Airplane. And Leon’s getting larger…)

Oh, hell, let's just cut to the meat of it and use the dodo. Because some days, that’s how I feel. Not only extinct, but so slow moving that the extinction was as plainly predictable as a tornado tearing through a trailer park in Tulsa. And with a stupid name. Kind of ugly, too. Yeah, dodo's good.

In 1984, when Maire Anne and I moved back from Austin and got married, I needed a job. Much of the software engineering work at the time was strategic defense related (what was then quaintly called “Star Wars”), and I didn’t want to do that. Back when people advertised for workers in the newspaper, I answered an ad in The Boston Globe for an interesting sounding position having to do with detection of unexploded ordnance (dud bombs) on formerly-used military properties. The Newton-based company was small and privately held. The commute from my mother’s house where Maire Anne and I were living in Brighton was only about 5 ½ miles. I was interviewed at 7pm on a Friday evening by two guys, one of whom is my good friend Jon with whom Maire Anne and I have been in and out of bands ever since. I was the only one wearing a coat and tie. They offered me a beer. I declined. About ten minutes later, I reversed that overly conservative decision.

Nearly 30 years later, it is the job I still have. Over the years, I went from being one of a staff of software engineers, to senior software engineer, to systems engineer, to project manager, to program manager. I’d identify the opportunity, market the customer, write the proposal, manage all technical and financial aspects of the project, write much of the software myself, go into the field with the equipment, acquire the data, process the data, and write the final report. Jack of all trades, master of none.

Then, in 2005, the company, which had grown from start-up to attractive takeover target, was bought by a ginormous $11b/year corporation.  It wasn’t all bad – they took us on with our seniority, so I was still accruing 4 weeks vacation a year, and they largely left me alone as long as I was winning contracts. I don’t want to badmouth a company for whom I still technically work (more on that in a moment), but the transition from a privately-held company where loyalty was highly valued (many people working for privately-held companies say “it’s a dysfunctional family but it’s our family”) to a publicly traded company where everything is sacrificed at the altar of shareholder value has been an education. Actually, let me rephrase that – in a publically traded corporation, everything is sacrificed at the altar of a group of people’s perception of shareholder value. That’s a very different thing. But I digress.

I was, as many professionals are, a workaholic. Dedicated. Driven. All that preparation. All that tweaking. All that travel. All that modifying equipment to do what I and I alone understood needed to be done. All that data processing in the hotel room until my eyeballs bled and my consciousness wavered like a top running out of angular momentum. All that software written out of thin air to make something that didn’t work as advertised bend to my iron will. All that proposal writing while on vacation. And always available. Hyper-responsive to every e-mail and phone call.

And then, about three years ago, it all started to go away. My proposal hit rate dropped as the funding agency’s priorities changed. Plus, you no longer need someone with my expertise to do a geophysical survey for ordnance; it’s closer to plug-and-play with commercially-available hardware and software.

When this first jolt hit, I was positively apoplectic with stress, as two of my kids were still in college. I did what engineers do: I looked at data. I made a spreadsheet of all of our assets – equity in the house, 401k, mutual funds, cash, cars, and guitars – and groked the number. It was a good number. It was a stress-reducing number. My mother and sister still own the house in Brighton where Maire Anne and I lived for nine years. I thought, what’s the absolute worst that could happen? I never work again. We sell the house in Newton, cash out a boatload of equity, and move back into the third floor of my mother’s house. We’d be in a situation many American families would kill for. And “I’ll never work again” is overly melodramatic. It’s more a question of to what degree I can preserve my inflated salary. I have other income from writing. And Maire Anne works. We’ll be okay, I thought. I not only thought -- I believed. I had data. 

So, as my rational mind said as it strong-armed my lizard brain, what the fuck are you afraid of?

And right then and there, just like that, I looked the beast in the face, and let go of the fear. As Oat Willie says, onward, through the fog.

I developed a strategic plan: Stay at the company, take whatever portion of my salary was available for as long as I possibly could, and ride that ship all the way down into the water. Because once I left, I would likely never see this salary again. Plus, if they laid me off, I might get some small severance package. Besides, I assured myself I’d be smart enough to see it coming and plan my exit, paving the way with a networked path of resumes.

Fortunately, although my projects dried up, there was some amount of related work within the company. Although I wasn’t in control – I wasn’t the project manager – I was glad for the chargeable work, and executed it with the same professional zeal as I did for my own projects.  The work was episodic. When I didn’t have enough to cover myself, I’d either charge vacation or Leave of Absence Without Pay (LOWP), with a commensurate decrease in my paycheck.

But the gaps in coverage turned out to be a godsend, because without them, I never would’ve gotten my book Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic written.

Through 2013, I averaged about four chargeable work days a week. But as we came into 2014, available chargeable time dropped precipitously. There was no memo that said “okay, we only have three days a week for you... nope, two... whoops, sorry, one." It was always on the basis of short-term project needs. But counting up the hours on the pay stubs from 2014, I’ve averaged only 12 chargeable hours a week this year.

Now, at a professional engineer’s income, even partial salary ain’t chump change. At three days a week, the family was still financially comfortable, and I was still able to indulge my extended adolescence and buy cars and whatever parts they required. At two days a week, there seemed to be rough financial equilibrium if I wasn’t spending too heavily on a project. But at one day a week, there is a net outflow of money from the family. We began to hit savings. To offset this, I begin to fix other people’s BMW 2002s for money, despite five chapters in my own book titled “Why I Don’t Work On Other People’s Cars (parts 1 through 5).”

And then Aaron went back to college (he said with aplomb similar to the statement “the H-bomb produced a bigger fireball than the A-bomb”).

Even with this massive reduction in hours, I was still regarding the job professionally – carrying the Blackberry and being hyper-responsive to every e-mail and phone call. To be clear, I’m neither a saint nor a hayseed that fell off the back of the turnip truck. Even when I'm only working a day or two a week, the company has continued to provide me my benefit package, including health insurance. We’ve both had a vested interest in having this continue. With the advent of ObamaCare, this isn’t the unique lifeline it used to be, but I’d be an idiot to dismiss the value of paid health care.

And then… my chargeable work dropped from one day a week to zero. I charged my remaining vacation time, but working only a day a week, you don’t accrue much. At some point in mid-September, after nearly 30 years, I stopped earning any money from the company (though they’re still paying my benefits, I assume because they understand my indispensability for one remaining geophysical survey).

Boy, I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing to cure you of your 30 year workaholic tendencies like ceasing to pay you.

And then… the remaining survey was rescheduled. Again. For November. No, January. Wait. No. November. Maybe. No promises.

Zero work. Zero income. For an indeterminate amount of time. The plan may have been to ride the ship all the way down into the water, but the waves are a-lappin' at the gunnels.

So much for being able to see the end coming and fine-tune my departure with the timing of Joseph P. Kennedy getting out of the stock market.

I haven’t been the proverbial frog in the water whose temperature is being slowly turned up and he doesn't know to jump out. I’ve been a fish in a bowl whose water has been slowly removed, and now it’s gone, and I wonder why I can’t breathe.

The funny thing is that, in a few weeks, I'll reach my actual 30th anniversary in this position. I want to call up Alanis Morisette and say "this is ironic. Rain on your wedding day -- that's just bad luck." And if someone I don't know shows up at my house with a 30 year plaque and one of those sheet cakes from Shaws and says "the company wants to thank you for your service," I swear I won't be responsible for my actions.

There’s old-school advice from your father’s era about having six months salary in the bank for your “gentleman, I resign fund.” That way, when you’re at the big meeting, and it’s not going the way you like, you can push your chair back from the table, slowly and dramatically stand up, say “gentleman, I resign,” and walk away from the table, leaving a concerned mumbling mass of men in blue seersucker suits to clean up the wreckage in the aftermath of their bad management that resulted in your highly ethical though slightly smug departure.

As much as I would like to do this, I can’t, because:
1) Everyone I worked with has left,
2) I attend no big meetings (when I work, I work from home), and
3) I don’t have a table.

If this final survey is indeed rescheduled for early November, I can fart around with cars for a few weeks, then do the survey, get the last of my full 40 hours a week salary for a couple of weeks, and then, to use that time-worn aphorism that’s no longer cute for a 56 year old, decide what I want to be when I grow up.

Like that’ll ever happen.

But wait. Into this mix steps someone I know from the automotive world who offers me a job. It’s not close to my full engineering salary, but at 12 hours a week, I haven’t been making close to my full engineering salary; it’s a damned sight better than I’ve been getting. It’s a chance to be a Full Time Car Guy, which clearly deserves case capitalization. 

So it’s all good. I’m fine. Really.

Except that I feel like I’m a watch spring that’s been in a period of slow unwinding. Before it gets wound back up again.

And so, I look back at the past year, where my pay stubs tell me I’ve averaged only 12 hours a week. And it’s gotten me thinking…


Oh. Writing my book. Right.

That would make me feel better. If it was true. Unfortunately, it’s not. The book was published last year, not this year.

My mother tells me that, when my grandfather retired, my grandmother told him “I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.” Maire Anne, however, has assured me she likes having me around (since I’d been working from home, I’ve been around anyway). But there are only so many sleep-late mornings and long showers one can take. There are only so many times I can convince Maire Anne to come back to bed with me. She loves it when I come to Costco with her, but… really, what did I do with all this free time?

I can certainly point to isolated things. I rebuilt the engine in my ’72 2002tii and drove it to a 2002 event in Arkansas and back. I bought a ‘72 Bavaria, got it running, and drove it to an event in Winston-Salem and back. I covered SharkFest for Bimmer Magazine, flying down and writing the article. I did a whole variety of mechanical projects on my other cars. (No, I haven't done anything with the Lotus. Don't talk to me about the Lotus. The Lotus is going to be the death of me.) I've banged out my bi-monthly Road & Track article, my bi-monthly Roundel column, and my weekly Roundel Online piece. And, yes, I worked on other people’s cars for money. So I did stuff. Lots of stuff. Honestly, I'm not sure why I'm defensive about it. But, still, it’s hard to see where all the time went.

My best conclusion is that if I averaged 12 hours a week working, I spent perhaps eight hours a week working on cars, ten hours incessantly searching Craigslist, and the other ten on Facebook. I joke, but that’s not far from the truth. I can easily blow half the day on Searchtempest following fantasies of buying a 2002 on the other side of the country and nursing it home, then posting candidate cars on Facebook and delighting in the fact that people I’ve never met are offering to ride shotgun or put me up and ply me with craft beer if I come through Akron. Seriously, I should put together an article where I do a road trip consisting of nothing but taking up all these lovely people on their offers.

In reaction to the forces buffeting me about, I did the only rational thing a man can do. I bought a trove of new and used vintage BMW parts from a closing restoration shop. Two full Suburbans worth. 12 bumpers, five fenders, two noses, grilles, tail lights, more. A few small high-value pieces sold quickly, allowing me to more than cover my costs, but the rest has been an enormous time sink of dubious value. So why did I do it? In the end, it was obvious that it was a wonderful, glorious, classic, crystal-clear case of displacement behavior -- doing this instead of dealing with larger issues. I felt that I had little control over my employment or my future, but I could decide which parts I put on eBay and how I packed and shipped everything. It was oddly soothing.

There are many days when I try and keep my options open, waiting for possibilities to unfold a certain way. No sense in driving into Boston to pick up parts at Herb Chambers if that guy in Worcester is going to call me about those Recaros, right? Just trying to be efficient with, uh, all this time. While I’m waiting, maybe I’ll check Craigslist in Tampa one more time for that elusive ’63 Rambler. After all, my friend Al lives there; I could crash on his sofa while I sort out the vacuum-actuated windshield wipers. Makes sense, right?

I realize that this is a glaringly obvious microcosm of a larger issue. My ex-colleague Roy tells me that, when we worked together, I had this tendency to want to keep all options open, or as many open for as long as possible. Professionally, I got a lot of mileage out of this. Who wouldn't want options? But Roy got me to see that, in fact, after a certain point, it became a problem. Options have to function correctly for them to be viable. And they have a cost in terms of operation and maintenance. At some point, you may need to close some of them off and concentrate on fewer things to make them actually work. And life imitates engineering.

I haven't committed yet to taking the Full Time Car Guy job. What's holding me back? Well, there are logistical issues, transition of health insurance and so forth, and there's the pay cut (which, as I said, is bigger on paper than in reality), but much of it has to do with my hesitancy to close off options in my "I'm not quite dead" engineering job. I realize this is slow death, but I'm finding it difficult to play my "gentleman, I resign" card. In Machiavelli's The Prince, he says "a prince can escape short-term danger through neutrality, but at the cost of long-term grief. Instead, a prince should boldly declare his support for one side." I may be the king of bumpers, but I guess I'm not a prince.

Similarly, there’s the famous story, alternately attributed to Caesar, Tariq, and Cortes, of the general who, upon landing his army in hostile territory, ordered the ships burned to cut off the possibility of retreat and ensure that the only path was forward.

I don’t want to burn the ships. 

But at the same time, I've sailed a long way without a map, and I’m looking back over the wide expanse of ocean I just crossed, and thinking… you know, I’m really not a boat guy. Those waves made me sick. I mean, we evolved lungs and feet to get away from the heaving sea. I’ve landed. Somewhere. This dry land feels secure. You can't beat Terra firma. Yeah. This is good. Let’s walk over the next rise. Wonder where we are?

Oh fuck. This is Mauritius. Where the dodos were all clubbed to death.

(copyright 2014, Rob Siegel, all rights reserved)