Career, Family

Occasional Quote of the Day: “Historia Calamitatum”

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The title of this post may look like rather esoteric, bluestocking, or even erotic clickbait, but there’s nothing to that theory. It’s not a feminist take on the story of poor Peter Abelard, and no guy ends up minus an essential piece of equipment at the end of it. No. It’s just a rumination on one of the dumbest things I ever did in my life (that I’m willing to cop to, at least), and how I got past it, beyond it, and how it all turned out for the best. (It’s also, perhaps, an object lesson in heeding the warning signs, something else I’m not always very good at.)

It’s the story of the time I decided to live out my career dream by moving, with Mr. She, from Pittsburgh, PA to Boulder, CO, and how my grand gesture lasted for at most 72 hours, after which I high-tailed it home with my tail between my legs (not sure how both of those things are possible at the same time, but I managed it). It’s a story of running away, a story of forgiveness, of sticking with your loved one, and of putting the pieces back together after my imaginary world crumbled and (h/t Elizabeth Taylor, and today’s runner-up Quote of the Day): “I fell off my pink cloud with a thud.”

My story begins in 1977, just after I’d completed two years of “indentured servitude” (as the governor of the great state of Virginia might describe it), or worse, in the English Department’s graduate program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. I was absolutely sure I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a job and starting to pay my own way in the household. We were penurious, and didn’t even have the proverbial nickel to stick in each other’s eyes, and we lived in a run-down little hovel (is there any other kind?) right on top of the exhaust vents of the Liberty Tunnels, among the drug dealers, the dog fighters, the knife-throwers, and the motorcycle gangs. (I liked the motorcycle guys. They were, by and large, a pretty decent bunch.) Also among the denizens of the dead-end street were a few hardy working-class souls who’d lived there all their lives and refused to move. They were lovely people. But the neighborhood was, in a word, insalubrious, and one might even say, deplorable, in the non-political sense. (As of 2019, most of it’s been razed or condemned, together with what was left of its inhabitants, I’m sure.)

I thought I’d easily be able to get a job as a technical writer. At the time, Pittsburgh was still in the top tier of cities with corporate headquarters and there were dozens of places just dying to hire me (I believed, lol). I loved writing, even then, and have always had some facility turning technical specifications into readable and comprehensible prose. I was pretty sure I would be seen as God’s gift to Koppers, or Rockwell, or US Steel, or Bayer, or one-or-another local corporate HQ. Such was not to be; once a prospective employer discovered that my background and degree was in English Literature and that the letters “BS” (of any sort) didn’t feature in my resume anywhere, that was that. “Get some business or technical experience,” they’d say, “and come back in a couple of years.”

So, I signed up with a temporary agency, and temped for a year, before finding my feet as the receptionist and assistant bookkeeper at a small law firm in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh (for the princely salary of $500/month). Answering the phone. Making coffee. Checking the court calendar in the Pittsburgh Legal Journal every day to make sure our attorneys were where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. And after I’d been there about a year, the firm purchased a piece of word processing equipment. It was the start of 1979.

I fell in love. It could count! It could sort! It could cut and paste! It could outline! It could do proportional spacing! It could spell check! It could do footnotes! It made revising long legal documents easy! (All of these things, and more, were unheard of at the secretary level at the time). I was on the cutting edge of office automation, and I simply thrived. Another year went by, at the end of which I was hired by the word processing company as a support representative and trainer. There was no such thing as “end-user support” at the time, and the company was looking for (women) employees with presence, a teaching background, and that ability I mentioned, to take technical capabilities and concepts and make them useful in the working lives of 1979’s secretaries and administrative assistants). That’s what I was hired to do.

I loved my job, and when, in the Spring of 1983, the company offered me a promotion, to work with their internal training program at the headquarters in Boulder CO, I jumped at the chance. Things were in a bit of a jumble at home, I felt as if I really couldn’t go any further in the local office, the money was attractive, and yes, there was an element of running away from chaotic personal issues, tragedy, and some difficult family situations. Between all that and the optimism of youth (I was 28 at the time), I was sure that if I just closed my eyes and made the leap 1500 or so miles West, things would get better, my troubles would disappear, and we would all live happily ever after.

Mr. She was enthusiastic about the move; a hiker, rock climber, ice climber and mountaineer (he summited Mt. Rainier in 1974), he loves the West, and the mountains, and was thrilled at the prospect of moving. The university was very accommodating, and suggested he apply for a semester’s sabbatical (the first in his 20+ years of teaching) to do some writing. He did, and was therefore not tied down by a teaching schedule in the Fall of 1983.

Our plan was coming together! We would drive out to CO early in April, over the school’s Easter break, taking minimal necessities for me, and I would stay at the hotel suggested by the company, till I found an apartment, at which point, I would start looking for a house. I’d keep the car, Mr. She would fly back to Pittsburgh, where he’d finish out the semester, and then we’d coordinate the full move over the summer. Easy peasy!

We got everything ready, and early in the morning of Thursday, March 31, we started on our Great Trek West.

And this is where I should have started to pay attention to the omens.

What a frightful journey. Terrible weather. Terrible accidents on the Interstates. Storms and tornadoes. The Mississippi River burst its banks. A bridge was out, causing a lengthy detour. More accidents. More storms. Roads closed due to dangerous conditions. Fortunately for once, our own vehicle behaved itself and held up pretty well (the episode where the crankshaft fell out in the middle of the road didn’t happen till about a year later).

And, finally, we made it to Denver on April 3. To discover that a railroad tank car had ruptured, spewing a huge, thick yellow cloud of nitric acid over downtown and the surrounding environs. Thousands of people had to be evacuated, roads were closed, traffic was rerouted, and the only reason the consequences were not far worse was–the 50mph winds and a gigantic snowstorm that bore down from the Rockies shortly after it happened. By the time we arrived in Boulder, several hours later (normally, it’s a 30-minute drive), there were about two feet of snow on the ground.

I’ve never been so glad to see the insides of a rather ordinary hotel room, take a shower, and fall into bed, in my life.

The next morning, we woke up, had breakfast, staggered out to the car, cleaned off the snow, got out the directions telling us how to drive to the company, and my new job, and very carefully made our way there.

At this point, things really started to go haywire.

No one was there. All there was, was a sign on the gate saying that the company was closed due to the weather. We drove back to the hotel (no cell phones). I called the company switchboard. No answer. I called my new boss’s phone, no answer. I called the office in Pittsburgh. Answer! But not much help, or much they could do. So we spent the day reading and twiddling our thumbs, watching TV at the hotel, and going out to eat at any place that was close enough that we could walk to.

That evening, I did something I’ve never done in my life before or since: Mr. She and I watched a college basketball game. And thus it is that I can tell you the winner of the 1983 NCAA Tournament, NC State, the coach of the winning team, Jim Valvano, and the MVP of the game, Akeem Olajuwon. Those are the only three facts of any kind I know about college basketball, and my fever dream is that I’ll be on Jeopardy one day and have the chance to put my knowledge to good use and win tons of money. (Not likely, I know. Sigh.)

The next morning, the day before Mr. She was due to fly back to Pittsburgh, we repeated the previous morning’s performance to the same effect. No one at work. No one answering the phone. Nothing to be done. (Note that the people in what was then called “Personnel” knew I was coming, my new boss and several others knew I was coming, and they all knew where I was staying, because they’d recommended the hotel). But, crickets, on my end.

Now, I was starting to go seriously wobbly, a state of mind which culminated in my “falling off my pink cloud with a thud” and in an epic crying jag at about 2AM.

“What on earth is the matter,” asked Mr. She, as I’d woken him up (not something that’s easily done when he’s sleeping the sleep of the just, trust me).  “I hate it here!! I just want to go home!!” I bawled.

Truth be told, my darling husband’s first reaction was not all that supportive, nor can it be revealed here. But I think he recognized genuine distress when he saw it, so we started to talk. And we agreed that, perhaps this move wasn’t really such a good idea, and that perhaps we should go home and face, work on, and work out, our family issues there. And that even though I wouldn’t have a job at first (my position at the company had been filled before I left), we’d be OK and we’d make ends meet somehow.

So, the morning of April 6, we packed everything up and drove to Stapleton International Airport. Mr. She made his flight, and I made one more attempt (from a pay phone) to call the company, to tell them this time that I was resigning. No answer.

No matter. I got in my car, and drove East, hell-for-leather, not stopping on that first day until I reached Greenfield, KS. The following morning, from my hotel room, I finally got an answering machine on my boss’s line at the company. I left a message. And that’s how I resigned from one of the nicest jobs I never had, at what had been one of the nicest companies I ever worked for.

Two days later, I made it home to my family; 1571 miles in three days. Crying and sniffling most of the way.

Thank God for the university’s prescient sabbatical offer to Mr. She. He still had a job, and we still had a house (a crummy one, but a house, nevertheless). So we started to sort things out. I quickly came to realize that I’d been wrong in thinking that I could run away from my problems, that somehow transporting myself across the continent would make them go away, or would make them better, and Mr. She and I, and the kids, and the family, simply plowed through them to the other side.

I was lucky on the job front. My former boss recommended me for a similar position to my old one, at another office automation company. It was on the ropes, and folded after a year, but it was a port in a storm, and a fork in the road, so I took it. From there, I went into sales (PCs were the hot new thing, and was my introduction to them), and then in 1986, one of my customers, a VP at a local hospital, recruited me to manage PC support at his organization. And three years after that, a position at much lower pay, but much closer to home, opened up at my local community hospital.

I was there for twenty years, in a job I loved, with co-workers and employees I loved, and a boss I loved. Everything just clicked, from the first interview forward. (At the second interview, one of the department managers (I’d soon become his peer), jocularly remarked, as people often did at the time, that the mainframe was where all the important stuff got done, and that my PCs would always be “just toys.” I, just as jocularly, responded that, in time, his mainframe would make a nice little node on my huge network. By the time we both retired (on the same day in 2010), you know whose prediction had come to pass, don’t you? We’re still friends, though.

It seems I’m a much better predictor of technology direction than I am of human nature. Oh well.

So that’s the story of the time that Mr. She and I lived in Boulder for 72 hours. I’ve mentioned it a few times, and a few of you have asked me to tell it, so here it is. It was a humbling experience. A learning experience. And, in the end, a family experience. As tough as it was while I was changing jobs (it sometimes seemed) every ten minutes, we hung in together. I don’t think Mr. She ever mentioned my terrible faux pas again, once I got home, and he concealed what I’m sure was some disappointment at not having the opportunity to move to a part of the country that he loves far more than that in which he finds himself today.

Yet, today, thirty-six years later, here we still are.

Please don’t tell me that none of you have ever done anything this daft. Something that seemed like such a good idea at the time, with good intentions, and then it’s gone pear-shaped or sideways right quick. Surely I’m not the only one? If not, perhaps you could share, so I don’t feel quite so alone?

PS: By the time I pulled into my driveway, after my madcap dash back across the country, the company stock had lost about 30% of its value. They never recovered, and the sudden and unexpected ascendancy of the IBM PC put my little company, and many, many others, out of business in very short order. As it turned out, I made, at the end, exactly the right business decision, as well as the personal one.

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