I was a high jumper during my high school career and first year of college. I jumped 6′ 1/2″ in college, my best ever. Not bad for a distance runner with skinny calves and not much in the thigh area either. I jumped to earn points in high school while trying to help our team win. During some dual meets, I’d run the two-mile, go do the triple jump, high jump, and come back to run the mile at the end of the meet. I never won all four events in one meet, but I did win the two-mile, triple jump and mile one meet.
Early in my career, way back in junior high, we jumped over the bar into crusty foam rubber strips wrapped in nets. Foam bits would fly up in your face every time you landed, and the netting was no bargain either, leaving striped welts wherever it scraped the skin.
By the time I was in high school, a new invention called the Cloud Nine came into play for high jump and pole vault pits. Those inflatable pits relied on the force of a big fan at one end. If you landed on the edge somehow, the rebound of the air inside would send you sideways. The risk was far greater for pole vaulters landing on those pits from heights of 12-14 feet, which our Kaneland vaulters often reached.
Occasionally a big gust of wind would catch the Cloud Nine pit with enough force to rip the stakes out of the ground. The pit would flip over and people would run to grab it before it blew completely away. I documented these experiments in high jumping in a previous post, but the main allegory that matters here is that the Cloud Nine invention was not that great at providing safe landings. Rough landings were quite frequent.
I also slid off the edge of all-foam mats later in my career. All it took was a good rainstorm to create a slick surface and off you’d go. By then I was a Fosbury Flop guy and landing on your back and shoulders only to slide off the back of the pit was never a joyride.
Getting off the ground
That brings us to other kinds of rough landings in life. I’m thinking specifically of a period in late 2006 and early 2007 when it became evident that staying in my job as Community Marketing Manager for the Daily Herald was becoming untenable. I’d survived a 360-degree review during a tough period in my wife’s cancer treatment and was trying to settle back into a consistent work routine when the newspaper started panicking out losing readership. Some desperate minds at the company decided to build a youth-oriented newspaper called Beep, and recruited one of my direct reports, a young woman two years into her job, to lead the Street Team in some nighttime antics at bars and events.
She wound up working twenty to forty hours extra every week. Running around handing out Beep newspapers at nightclubs was awkward at best, and also stressful. The guy behind the Beep project was a VP to whom she had a “dotted line” report, and I never knew what that meant other than she was racking up hours on her personal time on top of her regular job.
I raised this issue in an email to the VP and got no response at first. So I raised it again in a meeting with my boss, who told me “Well, you’ll just have to find ways to reduce her hours overall.”
That wasn’t actually possible. Our little department managed more than two hundred community events every year. We prepped booths and tents and got them shipped out to locations like community festivals where the circulation department depended on us to get their salespeople in front of potential subscribers. The pressures to maintain circulation revenue required us to increase those opportunities, not reduce them. My direct report person was stressed beyond belief by all these demands.
So her hours piled up and I told her to document them. We added them up and I put them into an overtime report submitted to my boss, and he blew up. So did the Operations VP in charge of Beep. “How could you let this happen?” they both demanded.
“I didn’t let it happen,” I calmly replied. “You made it happen.”
You can imagine how well that was received. The HR department pulled me down for a talk. “You can’t talk to a VP like that…” she told me. My boss sat there mutely, not eager to defend me or enter the situation in any way. His main goal, I always knew, was to make it another 6-7 years muddling along as an Assistant VP with access to all the pro sports tickets and free admissions to show at the Allstate Arena. Beyond that, he was never really interested in much else in the way of marketing. He came from the sports department, after all. The job was a salvation after twenty-five years of writing fishing columns and the like.
So the atmosphere got heavy, but she got paid for her time after all. Then VP kept on assigning her extra hours and I told my boss, “You need to stand up for her. This is beyond my pay grade, obviously.”
“Don’t let it happen again,” he told me. But I was following employment law. So I turned the hours in again.
At the same time, the paper was convulsing with threats of layoffs. I began to look at opportunities outside my job knowing that marketing is almost always one of the first chopping blocks, and our department was flush with specialized employees. One of them managed the weekly auto reviews in a shrinking Automotive Section. The Special Sections editor was also targeted, and both were soon let go.
I’d built a parachute for myself by freelancing outside the company for several years. A former associate and boss from Aspen Marketing had started his own company. At his request, I’d flown to Richmond, Virginia with his team to do a pitch and land a $1M account. That day was so successful he spent $800 on four of us with a Surf and Turf dinner that night. When the meal was over, he leaned over the table and said, “Watch this.”
As a high-spirited Italian guy with a crude sense of humor and a history to match, our leader at the agency was a master of pranks. Seated at the table after the meal, he called the waiter over and pointed to the five-pound lobster whose flesh we just consumed. Somehow he’d learned to make a Squeaky Toy sound with his lips that he used for humor and pranks on many occasions. He’d squeeze things at random while making the squeaky noise and people would stare, thinking the sound was coming from whatever he squeezed. It worked on escalators, at stores where he’d make a mannequin squeak, and so on.
That night, with the lobster laying there with its body open and its claws splayed on the plate, he started rubbing the lobster’s back with his index finger while making the squeaky nose, he told the waiter, “I think this thing is still alive…”
The waiter was instantly horrified. He called a fellow waiter over and our leader rubbed the lobster making the squeaky noise again. The rest of us were trying hard not to laugh, and finally, when the waiter turned to get a manager, our man said “Nah,” he told them. “I’m just kiddin’ ya…”
Making the leap
A few weeks later I decided to make the leap from the newspaper to join the agency full-time. With all the threats of layoffs and the bad vibes emanating from HR and management, I decided it was time to vacate the premises. I’d had seven great years and loved working with those peers on many fronts. I wrote a note to the Publisher thanking him for the opportunities I’d been given and started with the agency a few days later.
The only challenge was the need to commute even farther from Batavia up to Palatine, an hour each way. But the salary was good, more than $30K more than I’d been making with the newspaper, so my wife and I decided it was a worthwhile risk.
Sadly, the woman that I most trusted at the agency, a highly competent former AT&T manager than had driven the company to profitability announced her departure around the same time I was investigating the change. She was doubly incensed when the owner told people what she’d been making, a faux pas of the highest order, but by then I was too far into the process to back out.
My title as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) because I’d led more than one successful pitch. But internal politics made the title seem insignificant. I was given a desk out in the open with the rest of the staff because there were relatives and friends involved. My first meeting as CMO was not a show of strength either. I took a friendly approach and kept my talk short when people were actually expecting a person like me to fill the void of the woman leaving the company.
Meanwhile, leadership on the account I’d won for the company was taken over by an aggressive account executive. The big paychecks felt good, but I was far from happy.
“Such is life,” I told myself and kept working on copy assignments and pitching new accounts, the work I’d been hired to do. I’d learned from years of running and training that the best way to make progress in any situation is “one step at a time.”
Into a shell
About three weeks into the job, my wife had a checkup with the gynecological oncologist. We’d finished up cancer treatments 18 months earlier and she wasn’t having much trouble overall, but the CA-125 numbers on her blood tests had risen suddenly. I arrived home from work one day to find her anxiously waiting for a phone call from the oncologist. When it came, she sat there stunned for a moment, then hung up the phone. “The cancer’s back,” she screamed and cried together. And she went into a fit of rage.
Who could blame her? The stress of chemotherapy had almost killed her. Surgery hadn’t caught all the cancer either. I watched her tear at the world in that state of mind. When it was done, she’d had an emotional breakdown.
The next day, I called a nurse friend to come by. “She’s had a nervous breakdown,”‘ she told me. “here entire affect is gone. “You’re going to need a psychiatrist’s help, possibly some medication to help her through this.” She’d retreated into a shell of herself.
I still needed to go to work, so her parent took turns coming out to the house to take care of her. I spent hours on the cell phone consulting with medical experts between work sessions and lunch breaks trying to help my wife through a horrible time. After the “gold standard” chemo she’d endured, she felt betrayed in some respects. She was silent most of the time, and physically convulsed, especially when we had to go out in public to doctor’s appointments and such. I protected her.
One day at the office I was feeling beaten down by it all when the owner looked up at me and said, “I like you a lot better when you’re smiling.” He was right. I was having a rough time putting on a good face. After another week of that, he called me into his office and said, “We’re gonna have to let you go. You can turn in your computer this afternoon.”
I said “No, it’s mine. I earned that,” with such force he realized I wasn’t messing around. I drove home that day as angry as I’d ever been. The same guy had failed to protect me when I was laid off during a downsizing at the agency where he’d been my boss before. Now he was cutting me loose during one of the most stressful times of my life.
More bad news followed. COBRA premiums for insurance were going to run $2000 a month. Another really round landing. My “parachute” plan had turned into a lead weight. But I was determined to make good of everything no matter what else happened.