Categories
Housing

A Basic Necessity – Part II

Housing is not a right…

The other day I went to the local hardware store to buy a 1’ x 6’ board to make some shelving. At the register I was shocked to find this single plank of wood cost US$65. I took it back to the lumber section and asked them to cut it in half. Three feet would do. Back at the register, I remarked to the cashier, “Holy crap, wood is expensive! Good thing I’m not building a house.”

“You can thank the president for that, honey,” she replied.

At first I thought she meant the president of the hardware store company, but then realized she meant the President of the United States. For a moment I couldn’t even remember who the president was. Did it matter? I had lived overseas for a decade and had never given it a second thought.

I disregarded the cashier’s comment as typical American political polarity, but decided to research it when I got home.

As it turned out, the cashier lady was not incorrect. According to an article on NPR, the previous president had jacked up tariffs on Canadian lumber, America’s number one source of foreign wood, to about 9%; but the current president had double-downed on this move, raising the tax on Canadian wood to almost 20%. This gave the American lumber industry a virtual monopoly, so they could sell it at any price. And if an industry could sell something at any price, well, then things got expensive, and the hardware store could charge sixty-five freaking dollars for a single board of wood.

The NPR article related these facts in an apologetic kind of way, because, presumably, even to a news outlet that could be expected to support a Democratic administration this seemed insane.

We were in the middle of a full-blown housing affordability crisis in America. Housing prices in many American cities (including the one to which we had decided to move) had tripled in the past decade (TRIPLED!), mainly due to low supply, and supply would not increase if building costs were high.

The current level of housing inflation was unprecedented in all of American history. Was this really the best time to jack up tariffs on foreign lumber? The U.S. lumber industry must’ve had some damned good lobbyists, was all I could conclude.

The apologetic NPR article attempted to end on a positive note, stating that at least the current administration was pushing the multi-trillion-dollar “Build Back Better Plan,” whatever that was. How were they were going to build anything back better with lumber prices through the roof?

For me, this topic hit much deeper than the price of a single board of wood. I was on a twenty-seven-year employment streak. Every weekday for the past quarter century I had done the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. For ten years straight I had dragged my physical meat mass through a two-hour round-trip commute aboard the trains of Tokyo metro to serve my daily sentence as a wage slave. Every day for a decade I had grit my teeth, gazed down at the tracks as the train approached, understanding why some chose to end it all. Every fiber of my soul had resisted, but I pushed forward. Two prevailing thoughts had pulled me through these 500+ consecutive weeks: one, my extra “hardship” pay allowed my family to live in one of the best communities in all of Japan; and two, I was saving enough to buy a house in America when we finally moved to the States. For years had I boosted my spirits with the idea of living the American Dream, with a house in the burbs that was spacious enough, where we could finally stop renting and settle down.

Housing was a basic necessity, but it was not a right. However, I had earned my way into above-average housing at a fair price. I had persevered in an unwanted career for twenty-seven years, saved; maintaining zero debt. I had sacrificed more than most Americans could have possibly imagined, working directly with forward-deployed military overseas. My net worth far surpassed almost all the home-owners around us, but it might as well have been zero. I found myself equity poor, in the biggest housing spike that America had ever seen.

Oh well. Sometimes you were the windshield, and sometimes you were the bug. It was time to give up The Dream.

In these days, emotion was driving a lot of people into insolvency and the slavery of debt. It was the emotion that told every American this was the country their parents grew up in, that they deserved to “own” a home instead of paying rent.

After all, why pay someone else’s mortgage? Paying rent was throwing money away, right?

Wrong. I did the math.

Categories
Etc

2021 Year-End Reprieve

I spent my time off working on personal projects, or, to use the pejorative phrase, exploring hobbies, pursuing endeavors of the creative sort.

Vacations with the family were good, too, but if I never travelled anywhere again then I’d be fine with that.

A few weeks ago it was brought to my attention that I had some time off that had to be burned by year-end, so I scheduled five-day weekends for the last few weeks of the year.

My family and I decorated the house for the holidays, and for a few weeks we enjoyed more than the usual number of family nights, ate good food, and generally had good times.

My first week of free time coincided with the last week of school before Christmas break, so for a few sweet days I was at home alone during school hours without the wife and kids, basking in beautiful silence, free to engage in whatever work I wanted to do.

I loved spending time with the family, but for me, alone time was a mandatory mental health requirement that almost always went unfulfilled.

What did I do on my holiday break?

As noted in a previous post, I reset and refreshed my PC. I also modified some code I had written to help back up and organize our data.

Outside, I shoveled thousands of pounds of snow, and in the process created a sledding hill for the boys. It snowed over a foot one night in early December, and the snow continued throughout the month.

Most days were sunny and bright, in typical Utah fashion.

Despite the snow I took the usual walks in the foothills, and around parks.

We skied.

One day, I drove up the canyon and skied alone. There were a few moments of awe in nature, among frosty mountaintop pines.

I reorganized the garage and cleared the work bench.

I bought an axe, chopped wood, lit camp fires in the back yard fireplace. This brought deep comfort on a level I couldn’t quite explain.

I began teaching myself the art of pyrography, burning engravings into wood (see featured image, my new year totem for 2022).

I prepared several masterful breakfasts for the family. The kids were fond of pancakes, but I prefered omlettes and such.

I wrote, which still felt like an activity someone else used to do.

Bottom line: in these precious moments alone the true “me” emerged, and I was drawn toward creative work. In the future, there would be no lazy retirement for me. I didn’t need anyone to keep me busy. I was naturally motivated to get stuff done.

Unfortunately, like most people, the kind of work I was drawn to do happened to not pay well, and I had a family to support for the next decade and a half. So I stuck with the day job that left little time, energy, or mental space to do what I was intended to do with my one shot at life. And as a result, my muse burned with fury, every moment of my life.

A few months ago I wrote something cheesy about the magic of writing, about how everything I wrote – everything that became the object of my focus – eventually came to pass.

What would be my focus for the next year? What would I write? How could I frame my perspective in a way that would result in a better quality of life for my family?

At times it was impossible to see beyond this all-encompassing employment thing I was obligated to continue. The final week of 2021 would be the 1,391st consecutive workweek I had punched the clock and collected a paycheck. It had all started in June of 1995, over a quarter century ago. People in my life have suggested this was a positive thing, something from which pride must emerge. Was it? Still, after twenty-five years, no clue.

At times I was too deep in the well of total work to shake the money slave impression of my existence, but these little holiday breaks of freedom helped. I remembered who I was, and I had the mental space to imagine who I might become.

Life was more than a series of workweeks ending in death. Or was it? Going forward, I’d need a set of goals to advance me through the next year, to remind me there was more to my existence than the obligatory routine. But what were these goals? How did I fit into the world, aside from money slave? What would I write?

Categories
Applied Magic

Slacker Reset

I was psyched to get my first PC in the autumn of 1992. It was what they used to call an “IBM clone,” as IBM was the only Intel-based PC back then and there was no Dell or big name home computer resellers. There was no real internet yet either, but to me this offline PC was 33MHz of pure joy. It was my senior year at Colorado State and I logged more hours playing games on the computer than writing papers for school. Thus the PC earned the name “Slacker,” and this name would be passed down to future incarnations of my primary gamer rig in the decades to come.

Now, almost thirty years later, the current incarnation of Slacker ran a quad-core 3,300 MHz Intel CPU with a decent graphics card. It was a modest rig by contemporary gamer standards, but still enough to run the games I played.

Last weekend I got the idea that wanted to wipe and reload Slacker. There were no glaring technical issues, no malware or spyware known to me (the PC had never seen a single bit of downloaded data from nefarious web sites and I was ultra-paranoid about PC and browser security). It was just that I had been using the same build of Windows for a really long time.

During the move from Japan, I had disassembled Slacker and stored the parts in static-free bags, wrapped in tape and neatly packed into a suitcase. Upon arriving in the States I assembled all the parts in a new case, and by some miracle everything booted up and worked fine. (See featured image for Slacker resurrection in November of 2019).

Slacker remained functional, but I was still using the same OS and some stuff was a bit quirky, like the fact that it took at least ten minutes to load one of my favorite games, Total War Shogun 2. This was an older game that should’ve loaded in seconds. There was also a persistent problem with a mouse driver that aroused my fury when it spun out of control and randomly scrolled through my choice of weapons during a critical moment in a first person shooter game.

Plus, I just wanted a clean slate, the feeling of having the disks wiped and the underlying OS fresh and trim, which was perhaps the same emotion as loving that smell of new car interior.

Bottom line: Slacker needed a fresh start.

Windows included an option to “reset this PC,” with a choice of keeping data and reloading the OS, or nuking everything from orbit. My choice was the latter, of course, because what idiot would keep personal data on the system drive? I maintained a few elaborate scripts that kept my data secure and squared away, but there were a couple things to consider before blowing away the system, mainly regarding licensing. Licensing wasn’t the most exciting topic in the world. Most people threw money at it to make the problem go away (i.e., the software subscription route).

Me, I was still holding on to the more economical option of using the same Windows license I had been using for more than a decade (that had started with a FREE copy of Windows 7 snagged off Technet before Microsoft shut the doors on that program, and had been carried over through subsequent upgrades). Would my ancient licensing legitimacy get dropped in the reset? Microsoft wasn’t very forthcoming about what went on under the hood in this reset (as usual). So, to be safe I backed up the system disk to a USB drive using a great tool called Windows 7 Backup, still included in Windows 10.

There was also the issue of Microsoft Office. I was still using the last purely desktop-based version of Office (2013) because I didn’t care for the idea of paying Microsoft a minimum of $100 per year for the rest of my life, just for the privilege of occasionally opening a spreadsheet or using Word. Plus, Office hadn’t improved in a decade or so. It didn’t need improvements. It was done a long time ago. Microsoft Office used to be desktop software that seemed a bit pricey even twenty years ago, like $300 or more. Now, with a subscription to Office 365, it was at least $3,000 over time, considering I’d be paying for at least another 30 years. So, I double-checked my ISO library to confirm I had Office 2013 and the license key handy. (I had also grabbed this off Technet … for free!)

And because I’m a super-paranoid neat freak when it comes to everything, especially computers, I also decided to take this opportunity to zero-out and triple-wipe (by DoD standards, of course) EVERY DISK in use, including (3) half-terabyte SSD disks in the PC, and (3) two-terabyte external USB drives. Two of these external USB drives were a mirrored, secondary copy of all my digital keepsakes, making the operation a tricky juggling act. (The primary copy was in the cloud, a private and secure solution offered by a Swiss company that matched my level of paranoia.) But despite its trickiness this kind of activity was nothing for any decent IT person, and I had been in the game for a while.

It went like this:

  1. Backed up the system disk to USB drive 0, and noted the size was around 90 GB used space. (This backup would not be needed, thankfully.)
  2. Uninstalled all games from Steam that were no longer played by me or my boys.
  3. Backed up local saved game files for games we still cared about. (This turned out to be not needed, of course, as Steam saved games to the cloud; but I wanted to be 100% sure not to lose anything.)
  4. Uninstalled Steam.
  5. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 1 (games).
  6. Uninstalled cloud storage service agent.
  7. Confirmed backups to Swiss cloud and USB.
  8. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  9. Ran the Windows reset with nuke-from-orbit option. It did wipe the OS partition on SSD disk 0, but did not wipe the two tiny reserved partitions. This was probably how it retained Slacker’s core consciousness … and the license key, too?
  10. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 1 again.
  11. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 2 again.
  12. Set up new Windows environment, which didn’t seem as much of a hassle as in years past. Really it was just installing Windows updates, Firefox, the video card driver, Steam, and the Swiss cloud storage agent. Later I’d install Office 2013.
  13. Created Steam library on internal SSD disk 1 (games).
  14. Started synch of cloud data to designated vaults on internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  15. Made backup of USB drive 1 to temporary location on internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  16. Triple-wiped USB drive 1.
  17. Mirrored the designated data vaults on internal SSD disk 2 to USB drive 1.
  18. Triple-wiped USB drive 2.
  19. Mirrored USB drive 1 to USB drive 2.
  20. Triple-wiped USB drive 0 when it was confirmed the new Windows install was functional and was confirmed that I did not need a new Windows license key!

All this took a couple hours, but as mentioned, it wasn’t too bad. I was loving that fresh, new PC smell.

As an added bonus, Total War Shogun 2 now loaded in ten seconds instead of ten minutes, and that infuriating mouse problem went away.

Categories
Housing

A Basic Necessity – Part 1

Eighty years ago, on December 7th, 1941, the median house price in America was ~US$7K, or around US$130K in 2021 dollars. Median, annual household income in 1941 was about US$2,500. That’s a ratio of 3.5:1, house price to household income.

In the 50’s the ratio evened out at around 2:1 in favor of buyers, and stayed that way for a couple decades, until it started ramping up in the 70’s, culminating at 4:1 in 2020 nationwide. However, in many American cities the ratio is more like 8:1 or above, even in the so-called fly-over states.

My family and I live in a fly-over state, and our house-to-income ratio is around 6:1, at least for houses we’re willing to consider a home. And even those houses aren’t that great, compared to the house I bought in Dallas in 2003 (which happened to be in line 1941 median house prices, around US$130K, as compared to the median price of $400K today).

Bottom line: housing is expensive as hell.

Welcome to the new normal. It’s probably not going down. My instinct tells me the whole market is rigged, but it’s hard to get solid facts on what’s happening because there’s high-dollar incentive to obscure the facts.

One thing’s for sure: we’re entering uncharted territory for the price of one of three basic necessities, a house.

Equity-poor, first-time house-buyers are screwed. (Including me, as I haven’t bought a house in the U.S. in over three years).

Note that I will never use real estate lingo like “home”. A cardboard box can be a home, as George Carlin once pointed out.

Residential real estate is property and a structure that supports living. If you pack emotion into what will most likely be the most expensive thing you ever buy, then you are a fool.

Like most people, I don’t want to be a fool. I want to understand the trends and new realities, because we are entering a new reality, for sure.

Is owning still a thing? In real estate lingo, “owning” means paying another landlord, the bank, with many more expenses tacked on (insurance, tax, maintenance, time). So how do these expenses compare to rent?

This is the first of a series of residential real estate explorations. At this point, I don’t even know where to start. But I’ll find out.

Oh, and December 7th, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy, as one of our greatest presidents phrased it. Having dedicated a decade of my life working with forward-deployed Navy in the Pacific (in Japan, no less), the day resonates with me.

In those days people had resilience. I will, too.

Categories
Career

What now?

These three interrelated thoughts could’ve been separate posts but they make more sense when read in sequential, ascending order.

The Magic of Writing

Everything I have ever written has come to pass, more or less, although not necessarily how I expected. In general, the process of converting thoughts, dreams, and ideas into written words forges my reality, for better or worse.

This may sound like suspicious nonsense, akin to “The Secret,” the so-called “law of attraction,” or some other form of wistful woo; but no doubt visualization makes real things happen, and for me the first step to visualizing something is crafting thoughts into written words.

A long time ago I had a writing teacher who claimed that she had shaped all of her success in life through writing. At the time I thought she meant that she had written some amazing stuff. Maybe she had, but now I understand this was not what she meant. Putting thoughts on paper, so to speak, has a very powerful effect.

This magic works both ways. Like most people, I spend too much time retelling inaccurate, obsolete stories about myself, and visualizing the wrong things. Writing keeps me in check.

If there’s one thing that separates my approach from wistful woo it’s this: I do the work. But the questions remain: what work shall I do, and why?

Work Week #1,354

It is the morning of the day before the work week begins and already I’m feeling blue. If my calculations are correct, this is work week number 1,354.

Two weeks ago marked the 26th anniversary of the start of my so-called career. That’s 1,354 weeks in a row of dreading Monday, but I also had that many weekends off, too.

I’ve been working some kind of job almost continuously since the 1980’s, when I began laboring away at my dad’s paint and body shop in Dallas, Texas, at the age of twelve; but I got my first post-college, office job in August of ’95, and that change 1,354 weeks ago was the start of what became a career.

The boring office job led to working in Information Technology, and as of now, twenty-six years of uninterrupted employment. Don’t let anyone tell you it goes by quickly. (It didn’t, at least for me.) I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who think working for a corporation is the best thing there is. For me, it was (and remains) the easiest way to keep the money rolling in, and to keep everyone off my back.

In high school I saw what was coming. I used to refer to myself as the “future slave to commerce,” or “money slave” for short. Did I fulfill my own prophesy? Or (dare I wonder) was I the luckiest guy in the world?

In ’95 I wrote a lot about how I wanted to get into working on computers. I visualized working in a shop like a craftsman (or like Mr. Robot, for anyone who has seen the TV series). This would have minimized my exposure to groups of people. Socially, I was fine one-on-one. This was what I wanted to do.

Then lightning struck. A random, miraculous opportunity appeared. On a personal level, the past twenty-six years of working Monday through Friday may have at times crept along like a prison sentence, but in macroeconomic terms it was like surfing one big wave.

How I Surfed Through Two and a Half Decades of a Career

The Great Information Technology Wave came to a peak in ’95 for everyone, though I wouldn’t catch the wave until the end of ’96. It was a colossal wave, the kind an economy sees once every hundred years. It brought with it all kinds of opportunity. My weird, masochistic hobby of breaking and fixing my old IBM 33MHz computer was now a viable economic skill!

(1996-1998) WAVE STAGE 1: Lightning struck, and by come stunning coincidence I scored my first IT job at the CompUSA call center in Dallas, Texas, and pursued it with vigor, navigating the wave with a series of beginner moves: bottom turns and awkward cuts that allowed me to carve out enough experience and credentials to advance to the next stage of the wave. I joined CompUSA at its peak and left during its decline. Within a few more years the company would cease to exist.

(1999-2009) WAVE STAGE 2: My time at Nortel Networks was one big tube ride as the crest of the Great IT Wave began to curl, although there was plenty of subtle navigation necessary to stay topside during the tumultuous 2000’s. First there was 911, then the great tech bubble burst of 2001, and (for me) the outsourcing to Computer Science Corporation (CSC), numerous rounds of layoffs, reorgs, an in-source from CSC back to Nortel, Nortel’s declaration of bankruptcy, and the final outsourcing to CSC India during the economic collapse of 2009.

I endured a few miserable months at CSC India, and wrote a lot about what I’d rather be doing, and my future direction in life. Then, another random, miraculous opportunity appeared, taking me across the Pacific to work in Japan. This unexpected and dramatic professional opportunity opened the door to life-changing personal events. Meanwhile, Nortel would be divested and non-existent within a year of when I left.

(2010-2020) WAVE STAGE 3: I transferred to the CSC Federal division and ended up working ten years with the U.S. Navy in Japan. This change required what surfers would call a severe “cutback,” taking me from the shoulder of the wave back into the energy of the pocket. This ended up being another lucky tube ride through tumultuous waters, during which time I kept my feet firmly planted on the board. In ten years I switched from CSC to CSGOV to CSRA to GDIT, all without ever changing jobs. The first three organizations would all cease to exist during my decade overseas, and the GDIT contract terminated within a year of my return to the States.

(2021-????) WAVE STAGE 4: My current employment situation is an awesome professional opportunity. In the greater macroeconomic view I am the luckiest guy in the world. Throughout the years I imagined what I wanted (the easiest way to beat back the financial requirements to exist in the world), I wrote it out, and watched it come to pass. But still, it’s a means to an end. If money had not been a factor, then what would I have done instead? More to the point, what should I do now?

Categories
Etc

The Great Return

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The plane lifted off the runway at Narita with me onboard. There was no going back. I was soaring against a strong emotional headwind: ten years of memories, dozens of tearful good-byes. My wife and kids would stay in Kamakura for a couple more months to conclude the school year, liquidate our household belongings, and move out of the house. On the other side of the Pacific I would start a new job, get settled, and prepare a suitable stage for the next act of our lives.

The plane banked east and leveled off, giving me a clear view of a crimson full moon over Mount Fuji on Halloween night. I had arrived in Japan just before a mega disaster (the great quake of 2011 with the tsunami that killed twenty thousand and the panic over the nuclear plant), and I was leaving during a disaster (the 2020 worldwide pandemic). In between those two disasters had been the best years of my life. So now it felt like I was leaving home and not going toward it.

I had imagined having some emotional reaction to leaving Japan, but instead I was numb. There was just too much to process, a lot of doubt and uncertainty, and too many various emotions weighing me down. For sure there would be many months of hardship ahead. But that was later. For now, I stared out the window at Mount Fuji until dark clouds obscured the view.

NOTE: ten months passed before I could bring myself to write anything about the transition. Part of the delay was due to being busy. (Imagine juggling chainsaws while getting sprayed by a fire hose on a relentless roller coaster ride that lasted for months.) But the bigger reason was that I lacked the emotional energy to re-live the experience in writing. The transition had taken everything out of me. There would be no definite “end” to the effort; but after ten months in America most of the various stressors had tapered off and my creative side began to reemerge. As part of my creative reemergence I wondered how I could get back on track with beneficial tech. What had I overcome? What had I learned? Where would I go from here?

Saturday, August 22, 2021

On paper the goal was straightforward enough: repatriate to the United States after ten years away, and settle my foreign-born family in a home where they could be happy and thrive.

In reality, it wasn’t so simple.

The only way out is through, or at least that was how I saw it. This would be my personal mantra for the better part of a year as I persevered through the most prolonged and intense gauntlet of challenges I had ever endured.

I had already conquered one great challenge, overcoming incredible odds by scoring a job that would allow me to work remotely and leap from working on legacy systems right to the bleeding edge of computing technology, and I had done this from the other side of the world, during a global pandemic. This had required hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and paperwork. Now the next set of challenges would begin.

In my first few days in America I experienced an unexpected euphoria, something similar to vacation, mixed with an unsettling undercurrent of doubt and sorrow.

I stayed with my brother and his family, in the foothills of the majestic Wasatch Mountains of Utah, of all places. I took lots of hikes and explored the mountain trails.

My brother and his wife helped me find a suitable rental house down the street, and I snatched it up, not wanting to spend any more time looking for a place to live.

I started my new job on the second week, working remotely. The first couple of days I was sitting on the floor hunched over my work-issued laptop in an otherwise empty house.

There were the initial trips to big box stores, Costco and what-not, where I bought all the millions of things we’d need to supply a household. We were shipping only clothing and personal items from Japan, but there would be another shipment of furniture coming from Colorado, along with all my other stuff that had been gathering kitty litter dust in my mom’s basement for ten years.

By the second week there was a realization of the tsunami of tasks that would crash down on me in the next few months, and the details were starting to become clear.

Our seemingly straightforward goal had its obvious, ordinary challenges: the coordination of hundreds of details involved in moving from the other side of the world, furnishing a household, unpacking a garage full of boxes, assembling twenty-three pieces of furniture (I kept track), physically squaring things away, and solving all the residual problems that appeared.

The tsunami of ordinary tasks would have been manageable enough by itself, but there were other factors at play.

For most of America the biggest stressors during this time were the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest surrounding the U.S. presidential election. I didn’t care much about politics, and a double dose of COVID seemed downright delightful compared to the pack of extraordinary demons on my back.

At first, the worst of these demons was reverse culture shock. It was so severe that I read a book about it, just to understand what was going on. The shock of returning home after a long stay overseas was always more severe than going away in the first place. How could this be?

Homesickness was something else that came along with reverse culture shock, because after ten years overseas the place from which I was returning felt much more like home.

Separation anxiety was another source of stress, especially in the first couple of months when I was away from my wife and kids. As a family unit we had never been apart.

But they weren’t the only ones I missed. In 2010 there had been a single tearful farewell when I left the U.S. for Japan (my mom). In the month before I returned to the U.S. there were dozens of emotional goodbyes, from our large circle of close friends (maybe a sixty people total, including kids), and from many others who I had come to know over the years.

This “farewell month” reminded me that we had been part of something essential to human life, something I had never experienced before living in Japan: a supportive community of associates, family, and friends. Now, in America, where everyone lived in their own isolated enclave, I wondered if I’d ever experience anything like this again.

Financial shock was another persistent demon gnawing at me from week to week. The actual moving costs weren’t too bad, but we spent the equivalent of the U.S. median household income on setting up a home for a family of four.

For many months it seemed the red tape would never end. I paid over US$25K in back taxes due to leaving Japan too early (twenty days before I would have satisfied the physical presence requirement for foreign-earned tax exclusion), and I made the mistake of hiring a bumbling tax account who cost us thousands more than we should have paid.

We were lucky to have the resources to pay all this out-of-pocket, but it still hurt. To mitigate the financial stress I came to think of the transition as the single biggest investment of my life, but what would it yield?

Two of the other demons following me around every day were professional burnout and so-called midlife malaise. On the one hand, it was a miracle I had been able to score a job that allowed me to work remotely, keep my tenure (most notably that sweet time off), and also revive my career. But on the other hand, the past decade of working directly with forward-deployed military overseas had worn me out. In my current frame of mind I did not want a job. Really, nobody did, ever.

Earlier in life I was driven to establish a career, but for the past decade or so it had felt like I was being pushed too much by outside forces, obliged to burn my precious time on this earth fulfilling the requirements and needs of everyone (society, employer, family, whoever) suppressing indefinitely the more creative and optionally less lucrative person I was meant to be. This notion became most intense at midlife. The clock was ticking. There was only so much time left.

On good days “malaise” was an accurate description of my attitude toward what I was required to do for income; but on bad days it was more like existential agony, the stresses of the day narrowing my vision into an endless series of workweeks and meetings that stretched into the horizon to my grave.

The muse defined the person I was meant to be. I was never sure what pronoun to use for my muse, but perhaps feminine was most accurate. The muse should have been an angel, but in a world dominated by time thieves and total work she was just another demon: an annoying, nagging bitch.

To appease her, I continued to write. I had written over a million words in the past decade, a small fraction of which had made it into published works. Throughout the transition I wrote almost daily, filling up a small stack of yellow legal pads with journal self-talk. Now, attempting to write something that other people might actually read was like waking up from a coma and trying to walk.

On top of everything else there was the actual stress of starting a new job, at a time in my life when I least wanted one. This was the hell where all my demons came to play, but somehow it was still preferable to the stress I’d receive over not having a job.

Furthermore this was no ordinary job change. It required major adjustment on multiple levels:

  1. From having worked with legacy technology, to working with the bleeding edge of technology (requiring intense learning and retooling of skills).
  2. From having worked a decade as a defense contractor with forward-deployed military overseas, to working in a soft, OSHA-protected corporate culture.
  3. From having worked at a soul-sucking, windowless data center on a Navy base to working remotely. (The move would have been impossible without this perk.)
  4. From not having worked not too much to working a lot (for much less pay).

Along with the professional transition came imposter syndrome. All my skills were outdated. It took a half a year or more to prove to myself I was worthy of the job.

Social anxiety was another demon. My natural inclination was to be quiet, imagine and observe. I loved spending time with my family, but didn’t need much more social interaction beyond that. The physical environment of the old job may have been horrible, but its demands on my social musculature had been minimal, allowing me to languish in my comfort zone for years. By contrast my new job required me to speak and present on a weekly basis. It was a major struggle every week.

Family was both the source of great joy and great stress. Kids didn’t stop being kids just because we were in challenging times. There was the continuation of thousands of days and nights of chaos, attending to everyone’s endless needs, and never quite fixing all the stuff they broke. Somehow the kids always reached peak insanity right before bed in the moments when I most needed peace, silence, and rest.

In the first few months, I shouldered all the family organization and errand-running, all while struggling to start a new job and build up a household from scratch. It was months before my wife got a license to drive.

During the first part of the year it also became apparent that my parents (who had been divorced and living in separate states since the 80’s) were probably in their last decade, and this created its own kind of stress. My dad was incontinent, half blind and mentally fuzzy. My mom had a seizure during this time related to a brain tumor that had been removed five years prior. Neither of them needed care-giving help yet, but it wasn’t looking good.

No surprise, I struggled with physical exhaustion. My knuckles required frequent cracking from the moment I had received the job offer in October. This oddity was accompanied by a mild case of arthritis in my arms and wrists and a bad case of tendonitis in my right elbow (after lugging hundreds of heavy objects around in the move, falling down the stairs and smacking my arm on the banister twice).

I hadn’t slept well since the 90’s, which by coincidence coincided with the start of my corporate career. During the transition my insomnia had become extreme, at times medically untenable.

Oh, and then there was the unexpected return of a condition I hadn’t experienced in a decade: mini-blackouts, sudden heart palpitations and loss of breath.

So, to recap, there was the maelstrom of ordinary details involved in moving a family across the Pacific to a land where they had never lived; plus, for me, separation anxiety, homesickness, reverse culture shock, financial shock, midlife malaise, a nagging muse, family issues, the background noise of American politics, a global pandemic, professional burnout, a difficult job transition, imposter syndrome, social anxiety, physical exhaustion, and, finally, what appeared to be panic attacks.

The blackouts and heart palpitations were an obvious sign that something was wrong. I sought help from a speech therapist, as these attacks always seemed to happen while I was speaking to groups of people in conference calls on the new job. The speech therapist recognized a few of my coping mechanisms and suggested I see another specialist. I took some behavioral tests, sat through a couple of interviews with a doctor, and received a medical diagnosis of “high-functioning” autistic.

This label seemed overly optimistic, as I didn’t feel very high-functioning at all, but it did make sense. I had always been overly sensitive to sensory input, obsessed with symmetry, freaking out when the tiniest detail was out of whack.

Now, in this transition, EVERYTHING was out of whack, and there were just too many concurrent challenges, changes, tasks, problems, people, opinions, anxieties, emotions, obligations, details, details, and more details, requiring me to operate far outside my mental capabilities for far too long.

According to the doctor I was experiencing something called autistic burnout (or relapse), that occasionally put me in a very low-functioning state.

The diagnosis created the meta-dilemma of awareness versus the danger of playing the victim card. On the one hand, there was this peculiar assumption that all of us believed to some extent, that any adult should be able to handle anything that came along, and if you didn’t handle it then shame on you. My default stance was to make goals and tackle challenges head on, but it was now clear I was taking on too much.

What I needed was an extended break, similar to what James Bond received in the film Casino Royale (in which he spends months rehabilitating in a lakeside chateau in the Swiss Alps after getting his balls pounded in a gruesome torture scene).

But there would be no luxurious break for me.

The only way out was through.

This paraphrase was taken from the Robert Frost poem, A Servant to Servants. The actual phrase is “the best way out is always through,” and this was still pretty good advice most of the time. I had overcome many challenges, but what had I learned? How did I know when I was “through”?

It was more of a feeling than a definite milestone. For many months I was fighting to get through each day with no clear idea of where I was headed or why. It was like punching a brick wall every day and having no effect. Then one day the wall cracked. Encouraged, I kept punching, until weeks later the wall crumbled to the ground.

No joke, meditation (and the failure to do so) helped. There was no such thing as “enlightenment,” but meditation was a constant reminder that all experience was transitory. It was always possible to begin again.

Daily physical exercise was another key component of getting through. I hiked the local mountain trails and parks in every kind of weather, from blizzard to scorching heat, never missing a single day. One month I walked over one-hundred-fifty miles, much it in inclement weather, on challenging terrains.

Nature was a huge factor to my normalization. Spending time in nature allowed me to reset and temporarily shed those demons off my back. As a family we skied in the winter and hiked in the warmer months. We camped in southern Utah, and for five days in Wyoming, at Grand Teton National Park.

Family support was another a key component to getting through. At the nine month mark we had conquered most of the projects and major tasks on our list. We were starting to meet new friends. The balance of good times with family greatly outweighed any challenges we had.

Most of all, though, it was perspective. Conquering any challenge required knowing why the struggle was necessary in the first place. In my case, I returned to my journal entries of two years past, to the part where my wife and I met for a date night at a beer garden in the bowels of Yokohama Station to discuss our future plans. There in a journal entry dated August of 2019 were the reasons we were enduring this transition in the first place: the dreams we had for our kids’ futures, and the employment situation I was trying to escape.

Japan would always have a special place in my heart. I loved Kamakura and the Shonan Coast. We could have stayed there forever, but my soul would have continued dying a slow death at the place I was required to exist in exchange for money.

My journal contained the breadcrumbs that were key to my eventual survival, all thanks to the muse. She was no nagging demon, but an angel after all.

Categories
Career

2020 Job Search Journey

This week marks the one-year anniversary since the launch of my job search. What’s the status now? Well, so far no offers, but I’ve got a couple possibilities in the works.

To be clear, it hasn’t been one year of intense, continuous effort. Unlike other long-term projects in the past, I have not given this thing everything I’ve got. There were several extended periods when I did nothing at all on the job front, for as long as six weeks at a time.

I may have been more motivated had the situation been dire, but fortunately the financial pressure on me was close to none. Nothing’s going to happen if I don’t have a job. Nobody’s going to stave. Our bills will still be paid. If my career matched my true calling in life then I’d be more invested in this thing, but I’ll save that riskier and less lucrative career change for a couple years down the road.

Normally I’m not negatively motivated, like someone who says they need a personal trainer to get them in shape. But negative pressure seems almost required in a job search, as it’s an activity that almost no one would voluntarily pursue.

I suppose there was some negative pressure on me, in the form of wanting to have more flexibility with my time and greater well-being.

My only real goals have been to do something new and interesting in a job that allows remote work. I want more flexible working conditions and I want to move my family to the States. The job search is unpleasant and time-consuming, but just like in Shawshank Redemption, I’m crawling through this shitty sewer pipe to reach the next stage in life.

With that said, here are the stats, the most important first.

Job Offers: Zero

Looking back, there are a multitude of reasons I haven’t crossed the finish line yet, but I’ll examine these at the end.

80 Applications

I take my time with job applications, customizing my resume and cover letter for each. The process usually takes about ninety minutes per application, though some of them required personality assessments that took a couple of hours or more. At ninety minutes each, this comes to 120 hours total.

Oh the Research

Over the course of one year I dumped at least 200 hours into researching companies, browsing job postings, and training to update my skills.

25 Interviews

The combined 320 hours of effort scored me 25 interviews with 16 different organizations. This resulted in 18 initial interviews (some were screenings with the same organization, different roles). A couple of times the initial interview turned out to be a full-on technical ambush, but usually it was a screening talk with a recruiter. A few times I chose not to pursue the process after the initial interview, due to bad vibes over the people and-or organization, but more often I’d receive a rejection email within a week of our first talk.

I made it past the screening stage 7 times, for 2nd or 3rd interviews with 5 different organizations.

As of this writing I’ve got one job pending decision after a third interview last week, and this one’s good. I’m hoping for the best.

32 Rejections

This number includes 21 rejections with no interview (which in most cases probably meant my application made it past the scanning algorithms, only to be rejected by an actual human being); 10 rejections after the initial interview; and 3 rejections after a second or third interview. The other 46 applications got no response.

Believe it or not these are decent numbers. According to one career site:

“Anywhere from 10% to 20% (positive response) is considered average and 20% to 30% is a good application to interview ratio.”

zipjobs.com

(18 initial interviews from 80 applications is 21%.)

True Interest?

Of all 80 job applications, how many of these were for jobs that I’d do if I had all the money in the world? How many were based on pure, honest interest alone? Maybe one or two.

And therein lies my greatest challenge. If I ask why I didn’t seal the deal on any of these interviews then I’d have to conclude my biggest challenge was that I didn’t care enough.

Challenges

Aside from my mental handicap of apathy, there were a few other challenges that came into play.

This job search comes with certain built-in disadvantages, like being on the other side of the world from where I’m trying to get a job. Sometimes I have to speak with people during business hours in the U.S. Eastern time zone, which is almost exactly my normal sleeping hours. I’ve crawled out of bed at wee hours of the morning for interviews, or stayed up late at night. Pacific or Mountain Time zones aren’t much better. Seven AM my time is the end of the business day in Salt Lake.

Some organizations still insist on contacting job candidates by phone, and they’re not going to call a number overseas. I have a U.S. phone, just so I can put the number on resumes, but it’s in the States. I can work around the annoying phone issue by getting a number and calling interviewers on VOIP, but the coordination and time zone difference are still a pain.

Luck played a part too, some good, but mostly bad. There were technical problems that prevented the use of video in a third and possibly final interview, for example, which probably cost me that job. Hell, even natural disasters conspired against me. There was an earthquake in Salt Lake on the morning when I was scheduled to “meet the team” for a technical interview. They cancelled, apparently spooked by the event (which happened to be just as COVID in America was heating up). They never replied to me again.

Two other companies discontinued the hiring process in the height of the pandemic.

COVID was also the source of miraculous luck, as suddenly every organization in the world was working remote, and willing to hire based on video call alone.

What Else?

What other challenges were there? Rejection notices are never specific, so sometimes it’s difficult to know what lessons to learn. I could’ve been turned down for a number of reasons in any of these interviews. It’s anyone’s guess.

Sometimes I applied to jobs for which I was overqualified. I didn’t mind taking a salary cut if it meant having flexibility and learning something new. I’m not sure I always did a good job of explaining why I had no interest in climbing up the technical ladder of success. For this reason I’d rather be under-qualified than overqualified for most jobs.

There may have been some ageism involved, but honestly I never detected this to be the case. If anything, some interviewers may have been spooked over potential costs, suspecting they’d have to pay too much for senior experience in a less-than-senior role.

Speaking of costs, I learned early on that organizations can be turned off by job candidates who are not local, because they don’t want to pay moving expenses. An international expatriation can cost fifty grand or more, but in my family’s case the expense will be a small fraction of that, as we aren’t taking any big stuff like furniture or appliances. So I got in the habit of letting interviewers know up front that I don’t expect any extra compensation for the move.

I may have zero offers to show for all my efforts, but there’s change in the air. I can feel it. Or maybe it’s the sudden cool weather signalling the end of summer, and the approaching typhoon?

One thing’s for sure: looking back years from now, scoring a job in tumultuous 2020 with all my unique challenges will look like a heroic feat.

UPDATE: five minutes later…

Just checked email after publishing this post. After one year of half-ass effort, this journey might finally be over. I have a pending offer. Well, how about that?

UPDATE: five days later…

It was a rather tense five days of working out the details of compensation and benefits, but I’m very satisfied with the final result. I’ll receive the official offer letter early next week. My current location might present some challenges with the logistics and timing of starting the job, but we’ll get everything worked out.

Categories
Career

Career Metamorphosis – Part 3

This is the third (and final?) installment of the Career Metamorphosis series. See also: Career Metamorphosis Part 1 & Part 2.

How is it possible to score a job without having the required experience? It’s the problem faced by recent college graduates, and it’s a problem I face in my current job search, twenty-five years into my career. As a recent college grad with no experience, I attempted to lie, but succeeded with luck. Now, my approach is more complex.

Experience Dilemma (1996)

Twenty-five years ago I lied in an attempt to get my first tech job as a support technician at the CompUSA call center. I had some experience fixing computers. Okay, a single computer, my own, and I frequently failed at this effort. But the job qualifications were way beyond anything I had to offer.

Still, I knew with total certainty that I could kick ass at the job if given the chance. I wouldn’t recommend lying to anyone, but this was how I justified it back then.

CompUSA ignored me for weeks after I applied for the job, but I had a friend on the inside who elevated my resume to the top of the stack. I got an interview. Twenty-five years ago I still didn’t feel totally comfortable having adult conversations, let alone communicating in a serious business context. It’s funny to think about now, but back then it was awkward as hell. Some people are effective communicators upon graduating university. I was not. By this time I had spent a year doing customer service at Boring Office Job One (BOJO), but before that I had spent the maximum amount of time avoiding adulthood and the so-called real world.

My initial interview with CompUSA was uncomfortable for both the interviewer and me, but it wasn’t as bad as some of the humiliating train wrecks I had endured in the previous two years. This was where the lying happened. I exaggerated my experience fixing PC’s.

Then came the technical interview. I’m not sure what I was thinking. This was information technology. Lying did not work in situations where solutions were either right or wrong. My answers were so half-ass the interviewer cut it short.

To complete this painful ritual I was then asked to take an assessment test (a practice test for the industry-standard A+ certification for PC hardware repair, as it would turn out). Most of the questions were multiple choice with four choices. I guessed on most of them, somehow scoring under twenty-five percent. On average, a chimp would have done better on this test. The technician who escorted me through the process shrugged and said something like, “don’t call us, we’ll (probably never) call you”.

Just then my friend happened to be walking by. He took the printed assessment test results, disposed of the incriminating evidence, and escorted me out. Later he got me hired and brought me into his group. It was my first tech job. I was part of the team!

I may have started as the most incompetent employee CompUSA call center had ever hired, but I was determined to disprove the imposter syndrome that hung over my head. I devoured new problems and collaborated with other technicians, discussing various tricks of the trade. Within a year I became one of the most awesome technicians that place had ever seen. I received a Technician of the Year award at a ceremony to commemorate the opening of a new call center, attended by over a hundred call center staff.

Of course, social capital is very important, especially when you’re first starting out. For me, having social capital in the right place at the right time was a stroke of luck so improbable that it seemed miraculous.

I learned that it’s never a good idea to lie in an interview, even if you’re a master of deception. Lying might boost experience by +1, but it comes with a penalty of (at least) -1 to both personality and luck (bad karma). People will sense when you’re not telling the truth.

Experience Dilemma (2020)

Looking for a job with twenty-five years’ experience under my belt is way easier than starting with no skills at all, but surprisingly it’s no guarantee of success.

“Twenty-five years’ experience” doesn’t mean much in an industry fueled by rapid change. Employers need someone who can solve problems with the technology they’re using now. There’s never going to be a time when I can say I have twenty-five experience doing exactly what they need me to do. The technology changes too quickly for that to be possible. In fact it’s rare that a candidate will have even five years’ experience doing all the things a job posting wants. This is partly because individual technologies evolve quickly, but also because it’s there are just so many more technologies today than there were a couple decades ago.

“Twenty-five years” can also scare employers, suggesting that I’m set in my ways or over the hill. All the job search advice I’ve seen says to omit any mention of experience that’s more than ten years old. Fair enough. Most of the technology I worked with ten years ago is obsolete. At best, twenty-five years’ experience translates into good technical wherewithal, a broad understanding that allows me to see the most likely troubleshooting paths, and to learn on the fly.

Employers want to see a job change every two to three years, indicating ambition and a desire to stay challenged with new tech. This is weird because a long tenure at a company used to be a good thing, indicating loyalty and dedication to the job. This year I got a compliment from an interviewer on my long tenure at the only two places I had worked between CompUSA and now, and I got the feeling he was old school.

Job recruiters always want to know how many years’ experience you have with a certain technology. I understand what they’re getting at, but in many ways these types of questions don’t match the real world. The real test comes when you speak with someone who knows the tech.

For example, I started working with SQL Server in the year 2000. Does that equal twenty years of experience? It depends on how you break it down. The technology has changed so much since then that only certain core knowledge (e.g., T-SQL) and general understanding (ACID, RDBMS concepts, e.g.) are still relevant. In some ways ten years’ experience might even be better than twenty, if the candidate has shown resistance to adapt.

Then there’s the problem of how to calculate years. Using the example of SQL, some years I worked intensely with the product, but other years just a few days per week, or not at all. What is the quality of experience? For example, I’ve used some type of server software almost every week in the past twenty years, but some features I might only have to mess with once per year, or never.

Introducing Metamorph

My answer to all these weird problems? It’s a fifty-page document (yes, another journal) that I call Metamorph.

Metamorph isn’t lying. It’s to help me remember what I’ve done.

 Metamorph is a journal of every technology I’ve worked with, with an elevator speech for each. Interviewers want details. They want to know you can solve problems now.

It should be good enough to say “I can’t remember how to do that, but if you let me do some research…” It’s very weird this response is unacceptable in an interview, it’s exactly what you’d end up doing if given the task on the job. There are some things I did with a high degree of proficiency just a couple months ago, but I can’t remember the exact details of the top of my head. Metamorph is to help me remember, to keep things fresh in my mind.

So, we’ll see if my Metamorph strategy works. This morning I had a technical interview for a job that calls for experience working with technology I’ve never worked with in a production setting. I’ve played around with it quite a bit in my own sandbox, but as for real-world experience? Zilch. I was honest about this in the interview. All I could do was express my enthusiasm for the technology, and focus on my strengths. With any luck I’ll get an offer based on deep technical wherewithal and an ability to quickly learn.

Categories
Career

Lightning Strikes

This is an autobiographical account of a miraculous incident that got me my first job in the field of Information Technology, set in Dallas, 1996. It’s part of a journal I call the Brief History of Economic Me.

The modem dials each number in quick succession, opening a phone dialog of high-pitched squeals and the alternating tones of a sad slot machine, which I have come to believe is what computers sound like when they talk to each other. This mysterious custom of the digital world should conclude with a blast of comforting static, which I like to imagine as a torrent of twenty-eight thousand bytes (yes, bytes) of data surging through the phone line, except this time there’s no static. The screech-dee-dong handshake continues.

I wait a minute, hit cancel and retry. Same result.

The next obvious move is a reboot. My desktop beast trudges through its slothful routine of beeps, floppy disk drive honk, and internal whirling while cryptic command-line hieroglyphics scroll down the screen.

Another try. Still no connection. I thrust myself out of the chair and pace the flattened carpet of my bedroom, cursing, fists clenched.

Scruffy the arthritic mutt wakes from his nap under the desk, gives me one worried look, and waddles out the door. He can’t comprehend the depths of my frustration. This is no mere computer problem; it’s a mockery of my life.

My dad stops at the door holding a folded Auto Trader mag and a mega-cup of Diet Coke, half-awake after a Saturday afternoon nap. “Everything alright?”

“Computer stuff,” I grumble above the continuing screech-dee-dong, in the manner of a teenager shooing a parent away from his room, except I’m twenty-six.

Two years have passed since my encounter with The Man in the Gray Suit and his words still haunt me: get a job, any job. Make money. But merely making money isn’t good enough. Work needs to be interesting, too. Otherwise what was the point? My temp job at the credit card company is the exact opposite of interesting, but it pays the bills. It’s a life puzzle as perplexing as the guts of the computer here in my room.

I imagine computer repair as the antithesis of office temp jobs: something new, interesting and lucrative. Something that keeps me separate from soulless suits. I also imagine myself as someone who knows about computers, just like I imagine how a modem works and what it sounds like when computers talk. Only problem is there’s a light-year of space between what I imagine and reality, which is made all the more clear by computer meltdowns like this.

Gray Suit promised lightning would strike. All it takes is focus, he said. On any given day my focus is blown on computer games and other distractions to drown out the drudgery of time at the office, but I’m ready to focus now. I want to fix my life, which means fixing this computer. There is no walking away. If I get my foot in the door somewhere I can fake it to make it. My bolt from the blue is long overdue.

My first idea is to find the config.sys boot file. I open it and stare at the code like a dog who has stumbled upon an open algebra text and make some changes. But then I’m spooked by memories of my last self-inflicted disaster and close the file unsaved.

Next I shut down the computer, remove the cover from the PC case and take a look under the hood, as if it’s the ‘64 Olds I drove in high school, broken down on the side of the road. I wouldn’t recognize the modem if the phone cord wasn’t plugged into the back panel. There is dust, which I do my best to clean up, knowing it won’t help.

I remind myself there’s no shame in calling for help. Learning something new would be a small victory, but knowledge is hard to come by these days. On the odd chance someone is willing to help me, they’re looking to get me off the phone fast, not to teach a man to fish. I unplug the modem phone cord from the wall-jack and plug the phone back in, considering my options.

Keith and Dave are the computer arch-mages among my group of friends; but if I ask too many questions they’ll know I’m trying to learn. This exceeds my humility threshold right now. I’m the broke college grad who studied philosophy, and they’re making big money with no college degree.

Instead I call the local computer shop with the intent of hustling some free advice from a random geek, just a hint to point me in the right direction. But it’s soon apparent the once-humble shop has undergone a corporate metamorphosis, meaning they now charge for advice. The technician transfers me to call center support.

The inane cheerfulness of the phone tree voice amplifies the stress in my nerves. No, I do not have a receipt and no I cannot remember where I purchased the modem or when. My only option is paid support over the phone. This feels like total defeat and I’m thinking the awkwardness of calling Keith or Dave might be a better choice.

My finger is on the button to hang up when an actual woman comes on the line to take my credit card information. She has a thick Spanish accent, telling me the call has gone straight to Guatemala, and from this alone I sense the whole thing – the computer problem, my life, everything – is moving in the exact opposite direction I want it to go.

I give Maria my payment info anyway, with the same resignation I’d have if she was border patrol asking for my passport, and I wait on hold with the feel-good music again, which succeeds in having the reverse effect on my mood. I realize the phone I’m using is plugged into the wall-jack the modem used, making it impossible to troubleshoot the problem at hand.

At that moment an eloquent technician comes on the line and explains the pricing and terms with a faux-British accent, sounding like a worker at a Renaissance festival explaining the rules of an axe-throwing game of skill. Some hope returns. This is no third-world call center. Even better, I know this guy. “Victor?”

“Dex?” He uses my old call sign, not heard since my days of fantasy gaming and laser tag.

I go with it, and explain my problem with haste.

Victor cuts in, tells me to meet him after his shift ends at eleven, in the Chili’s parking lot across the street from the call center, so I don’t have to pay. Bring the computer he says. He’ll have a look.

Several hours later Victor concludes: “Could be the modem was zapped during last night’s electrical storm.”

Lightning. I should have thought of that.

Then he asks: “You got a resume? We’re hiring.” It’s a random opportunity, a bolt from the blue.

Categories
Career

1994 Job Search Blues

In 1994 I had zero contacts, zero experience, zero personality, and very little luck. I also had zero interest in working in an office. So how did I end up with a corporate career?

In the featured image I’m holding up the classified section of the Dallas Morning News. Smart phones wouldn’t be around for another twelve years, but if this selfie had been taken with multi-megapixel clarity, then we might have enough detail to pick out the date. Suffice to say it was June 1994, the pre-internet age, when people searched “want” ads in newspapers to find jobs. The tech back then may have been different, but the journey I took in the mid-90’s is pertinent to first-time job-seeking today.

The Big Something

When this photo was taken I was twenty-five, a year out of college with no real job. I had studied mostly philosophy, ending up with a degree in political science, and was discovering that the knowledge I had gained from these fascinating subjects was hard to monetize. My dad was nice enough to let me crash at his place until I could conjure some monetary magic, and I’d end up staying there for years.

I worked a part-time gig driving vehicles from one car dealership to another, from Dallas to other towns in Texas and surrounding states. All this driving gave me way too much time to think. There was this overwhelming pressure to do “something” with my life, but what?

At some point I started using a tape recorder to preserve my ramblings on these long drives. My training in philosophy may have been useless when it came to finding a job, but it had taught me how to organize my thoughts. I transcribed many of these recordings in a philosophical journal called “Income,” much of which I posted online.

Come to think of it, I was blogging before blogging existed. I crafted my own website using a simple text editor, just for fun.

One question I kicked around a lot was whether a job was unavoidable. Yes, I needed money to survive. Freedom was also a big theme for me. I possessed a strong desire to be free of debt. (In an elaborate effort to delay the decision of what to do with my life I had spent half a year studying Italian at a language school in Tuscany, from which I still had a “whopping” $1,800 credit card debt.) But did I really need a job to meet my financial goals? More importantly, did I want a job? Instinct told me NO. Hell, common sense told me NO. Was I going to spend the rest of my life doing something I didn’t want to do?

Bewilderment shows up loud and clear in my transcripts. I act as if I’m on track to do something big with my life, but my professional goals are hilariously vague:

“My goal is to find a self-sustaining, entry-level, administrative position at an organization with international interests.”

My Income Journal, 1994

Self-sustaining? I suppose that meant a job that would allow me to break even, pay bills. A quarter century later I take this for granted, but back then it was a big deal. At the time, only a couple of my peers had managed to reach such a lofty level of professional success.

“Administrative” was a word that I used to mean professional, anything that wasn’t manual labor. The “content and product” of the business I worked for mattered, too, but this was another vague guideline. Basically, I didn’t want to work for any business that was uncool.

International interests? That included pretty much every corporation in the world.

So with these goals I might as well have been searching for anything. I was caught in a catch-22 of not knowing where I wanted to go because I was following a map that was blank.

“Part of the problem is lack of information. I really don’t know enough about what’s out there to make the best decision.”

My Income Journal, 1995

The pressure to do “something” was coming from society, but also from my mom, who of course was part of society, but who was also a vice president at a corporation based in Denver. She wanted me to move to Colorado and look for a job up there. My mom very much had the attitude of “suck it up and be a businessperson”. I know she wanted the best for me, but her vision of success did not suit me at all. She was one of those people who thought working for a corporation was the best thing ever, though things weren’t all that great in her own professional life. I noted in the income journal that she seemed to hate her job, and “despite the group therapy arranged by (her company), she and others at the office are hating life.”

At one point I considered joining the military, just to avoid the burden of making a decision about what this big “something” was going to be. The pressure from my mom must’ve reached a point of unbearable irritation, because moving to Denver became my absolute last choice, even lower priority than enlisting in the military at twenty-five.

In January of 1995 I took a part-time office job at an import-export business owned by an Italian family. They had first emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to New York City, and then to Dallas-Fort Worth. This work paid even less than my car dealership gig, but at least it resembled professional work, and I could put it on my resume. It also allowed me to speak Italian during the day. In general the job itself sucked, but it was more or less an internship, bumping up my experience from zero to zero point one.

Meanwhile I kept looking for a real job.

By June of 1995, a year after my official job search had begun, I had made an estimated “seven hundred phone calls” and had “mailed over two hundred resumes,” resulting in a handful of embarrassing interviews and zero jobs. (I guess these were the days when you could call a company directly to check on the status of a job application.)

After a year of effort I was left with this brilliant spark of wisdom:

“It’s strange, but I find myself working very diligently to locate a job that I’m not sure I even want.”

My Income Journal, 1995

Twenty-five years later I can still relate.

The Big Trap

After a year of job search failure and frustration I flew to California and embarked on what would be a life-changing backpacking trip in the High Sierras, with my brother, and another dude who went by the name of Hound Dog. It was July of 1995.

This ended up being much more than a vacation. It was a spiritual sojourn in nature, during which I stopped thinking so much about what society expected and started applying more introspection into what I wanted to do.

On the flight back from Reno I recorded this comment:

“I came remarkably close to joining the Navy, which, at this point, kind of scares the hell out of me.”

My Income Journal, 1995

If only I knew that fifteen years later I’d start working overseas with the Navy, and this would evolve into a very big chunk of my career!

I returned to Dallas and wiped all my previous goals. Instead, I’d focus on three things that came naturally to me: “creativity (writing), freedom (nature), and adventure (international)”.

This was the beginning of a period in my life that some of my less-accomplished slacker friends would refer to as my “rise to success”. (Insert the 1980’s “Eye of the Tiger” Rocky theme song.) I went for peak physical condition, running daily and lifting weights. I maintained fierce focus and ruthless discipline, with an eye on getting my life on track. From the outside it may have seemed like I was training for what most people considered “success,” but in reality my motivation was unique. As I’d write years later in another journal, Brief History of Economic Me:

“Money motivated me, as I lacked it in a big way, but the hottest fire in me burned to get society off my back. I wanted to build a space between me and the world.”

Brief History of Economic Me, 2016

Who was this “society” anyway? To me this was the source of all greater expectations and obligations, the most traveled path in life. Society enforced all the bullshit you were supposed to do.

I began looking at my future in terms of income opportunities, not as a mere search for a job.

“My conclusion is to listen to my heart, and to make decisions with spiritual eyes (not so logical). It is something I have never truly done, but I need to start now. Otherwise I will find it increasingly harder to break free of the trap that such a vast majority of our society find themselves in.

My Income Journal, 1995

My horizons broadened with this new world view. I entertained the idea of beginning a carpentry apprenticeship, as I valued independence and I liked building things. I imagined running a business that restored old houses. (An endeavor that still appeals to me today.)

“By last Wednesday, the 16th of August, I had grown confident of my plan to move to California, pay off my debts then put myself in a position to start my own small business enterprise. I talked to my mom about how I had become disenchanted with the idea of working in the typical corporate environment because of the sheer lack of spiritual content. It seemed that I had talked her into it, and she even sent me literature on outdoor organizations to help me pursue employment.”

My Income Journal, 1995

The next morning, Thursday, August 17th, 1995, I got a call from someone named Missy at Resource Staffing in Carrollton, Texas, to discuss a job at SeaLand, a global import-export company (this fit roughly into the category of “international” in my triad of new goals).

I had already failed to impress SeaLand in three previous interviews. The fourth interview was a failure, too. I didn’t get the job, but the next week Missy called back about a low-level clerical job at (I’ll just call it Boring Office Job One, or BOJO for short), which I accepted. It was the kind of thing where you just showed up to work, no interview involved. My department was a bunch of middle-aged women who took frequent smoke breaks, along with an older gay guy who was crazy about cats.

“All of this intense discipline fortified my anti-social, loser self with just enough courage to set foot in an office and work the lowliest temp job in the world.”

Brief History of Economic Me, 2016

Eventually BOJO offered me a permanent position, at a cool $20,100 per year (around $34,000 in 2020 dollars). Again I accepted, by now hooked on the steady trickle of cash.

I paid off my credit card balance a few months later, and would remain debt-free for life.

With that financial milestone out of the way I began feeling the “sheer lack of spiritual content” involved in processing paperwork and calling other bored office workers on the phone. I was making some money, but failing on all of my goals.

The Big Break

By the spring of ’96 I had been at BOJO for the better part of a year, and already the endless cascade of Monday-through-Friday weeks was killing my soul.

In the evenings after work I fought off the inevitable soul-death by writing about nature. Over the course of several months I wrote and revised a 25,000-word account of my recent adventures in the High Sierras. The theme was (ironically) “the courage to pursue freedom”. My corporate job didn’t afford me the freedom to spend much time in actual nature, but I could at least experience it vicariously through my own written words.

Even today the “Tahoe Journal” is a pretty good read. It was the longest piece I had written at the time. This too went on my prehistoric blog.

But with “Tahoe” complete, I wasn’t inspired to write anything else.

In the summer of ’96 I began a new off-hours routine that would end up changing the course of my life. Every night I came home from the soul-sucking office, went for a run, and retreated to my room. (Yeah, I still lived with my dad.) There I engaged in a secret hobby. (No, it wasn’t porn.) I spent nights dismantling my computer, swapping out hardware, and – when luck was with me – getting the thing to run again.

One tech-heavy sentence for the initiated: these were the days of Windows 3.1 and DOS, setting hardware jumpers for system resource use, and configuring arcane boot files like the config.sys and autoexec.bat.

There was no internet to guide me in these endeavors, only advice from friends. I was way out of my league. At least I had the foresight to save my journals to floppy disk. More than once I accidentally wiped my hard drive clean.

I’m not sure why I did all this. It wasn’t future job training – that much was for sure. Something about it satisfied my curiosity and meticulous nature. Maybe it was the occasional victory. Troubleshooting PC hardware issues involved mostly angst and frustration, but the elation of fixing something was sweet indeed.

The important thing to note is that I didn’t engage in this geeky pastime because I thought it would get me a job. In fact I did it because it felt like flipping the middle finger to the very concept of a job.

Sure, I knew it could lead to a career. A couple of friends of mine – the ones who had managed to attain the “self-sustaining” lofty level of success – were making good money in the blossoming field of computers, double what I made, and without college degrees.

But for me this was just a weird, masochistic hobby. It appealed to me naturally, and it was something I liked to do. Like the primitive blog I had created with a simple text editor, I did it for fun.

So playing dangerously with computer hardware changed the course of my life, eventually getting me “the big something,” which happened to be a career in IT. Did it lead to everlasting job satisfaction and good times? No, it did not. But overall it led to a decent compromise with the Man.

Two and a half years after that blurry selfie, I was safely above zero in every category needed to start a career. I had acquired a few contacts, and my experience working in a professional setting was at level one. My business personality was starting to come around, too, thanks to all the mind-numbing customer service I had done at BOJO. I had contacts, experience, and personality, but what about luck?

Within a couple months I would get smacked in the face by the most miraculous luck imaginable. But this luck would have gone unnoticed had I not learned that valuable lesson in the High Sierras. Some might say that luck happens when the stars are aligned, but sometimes luck happens when we get ourselves aligned with the stars. In other words, we start applying more introspection into what comes naturally to us, and ignore what society expects. After that it’s just a matter of paying attention, and seizing what the universe throws our way.