The day-to-day joy of writing full-time for a living was not lost on me. I truly loved writing columns and found it fascinating to edit national columnists’ work from all sorts of political perspectives. As editorial writers, our job was to take the bulk column writing from the nationally syndicated writers and pare it down slightly to fit the column-inch space our newspaper provided on the daily opinion page. Our newspaper published perspectives from Cal Thomas, Ann Coulter, George Will, Molly Ivins and several other political or social scions trying to get their point across about the American scene. We didn’t have to edit much, but taking out even 100 words from a column is tortuous work because it is important not to diminish the meaning or leave out some critical thought during the process.
It was easier to edit a rational conservative such as George Will than it was to condense the extreme screeds of Ann Coulter. Will often used baseball or other analogies to explain his positions, while Coulter just bellowed at whatever she did not like, and that was everything. Cal Thomas was as predictable as could be. He always took the stance that things were better in the old days and America was going to hell because of godless liberals. Then there was Molly Ivins, the liberal columnist from Texas whose jibes were lively and typically filled with colorful imagery.
I’d spend time reading each column through and tried to genuinely respect the intention of the writer. That’s hard when you disagree with nearly every word written down. Then it was sent over to a copy editor for grammatical checks and into the newspaper it went. As a kid, I always hated when my mother served us fried liver and lima beans. That’s what those conservative columns tasted like in my mind. The Bush II debacle was just beginning in America, and despite that rather obvious theft of power in the state of Florida, there was considerable tribal crowing going on from the Right about the mandate they’d received in the Bush election. That triumphal call to arms empowered conservative columnists to blame every wrong on “the libs,” and swallowing that brand of content while trying to do a fair and equitable job was not always fun. Plus, back then I did not fully realize that I have ADHD. But sometimes it caught up with me.
The real hard lesson came the day that I dashed off an editorial written in the voice of the newspaper that I had not thought out all that well. Later that day, I received a call from my boss, one of the greatest managers I’ve ever known, a guy named Dave Beery. He was one of the most rational, considerate, and intelligent men I’d met thus far in my career. I took his advice seriously.
“Hey,” he told me in a calm yet serious tone. “You’re getting an inter-office envelope today. I want you to look it through, and if you have any questions, let me know. I think it’s best if I don’t coddle this for you. Just read through what the Publisher had to say about that column you wrote and take it to heart.”
I opened the envelope to find a column I’d written (and published) marked up in red. Hardly a word in the 200-word column was left untouched. For a moment, I was crestfallen. It’s hard to see your work chopped up like that. Dave was right, however. A real journalistic pro needs to take every word seriously, and I had not done that. It went out as the voice of the newspaper, and I had to be accountable for that.
Hard lessons learned
I learned a hard lesson that day.
It reminded me of those running races where I wasn’t quite mentally prepared for competition. All it takes is a slip in concentration or even a second’s loss of will and boom! You’re out of the mix. So I slowed things down a bit and took into account that it was easy to slack off if you’re all hopped up on writing and start thinking you can do no wrong. That was the farthest thing from the truth.
I’m pretty sure some of the other full-time journalists wondered what I was about and why I’d been installed in the position, not having come up through the ranks as most editorial writers did. Our weekly meetings in which the other editorial writers convened by phone to discuss assignments taught me even more lessons about respecting points of view. My naturally competitive personality was not always appreciated, I’m sure. I also felt that the reporters on staff in our local office took a much drier view of what newspaper columns should be rather than some of my lighter attempts at entertainment. Such is the life of every writer. One has to learn their limits.
It was all going to change quite quickly anyway. Just six months after starting the job, the President of the company called me up one day with a proposition. “Listen,” he told me. “We’ve known each other a number of years, and you did some great marketing work for us back when you were a contractor. We need some new ideas in marketing. We want you to come to the Arlington Office as the community relations manager.”
“Does it come with a raise?” I was immediately bold enough to ask.
“We’ll see where it falls on the grading scale. But probably yes.”
That was that. After my short stint as an editorial writer in the eventful period when history passed the year 2000 mark (remember Y2K?), I was heading back to the marketing side of the business. Indeed, I received a $10,000 raise and my wife was ecstatic about that. For once after many years of flailing around in the corporate landscape, I’d played my cards somewhat right and was being welcomed into a business world where perhaps my talents were needed and appreciated.
10 That Do It Right
That was a heady time. The Daily Herald had just been awarded a prestigious recognition as One of Ten That Do It Right by Editor&Publisher Magazine. The publication reached 90 communities with a paid circulation of nearly 140,000. At the time, it was the third-largest newspaper in Illinois behind the juggernaut Chicago Tribune and its weird little tabloid-size blue-collar newspaper the Sun-Times. Everything in the business was about competition for revenue and circulation. Little did anyone know that the entire media business––and all other realms––were on the verge of being transformed by a new information channel that would take over the world. The Internet.
The surprise and shock of dealing with online competition reminded me of the time that our Luther College track team was faced with the spectacle of a runner that the previous year had been nothing special but arrived during our senior year in a form so quick that no one knew what to make of him. A guy that the previous season wasn’t breaking 4:10 in the 1500 meters turned into a sub-3:55 runner who was also capable all the way up to 5000 meters and down to 800 meters. Talk about changing the nature of competition! That’s how it felt to newspapers all over the nation when the Internet came to town. What is this fast animal we’re encountering?
The question was the same for everyone in the news game: How do we compete with that?
When I landed the job as an editorial writer for the Daily Herald, nothing excited me more than producing weekly columns for publication in the newspaper. I’d first done a column back in 1980 when I was just out of college. It was titled Field Day, a weekly set of 500 words published in the Chronicle Newspapers along with my illustrations. I always wished I could have done that for a living somehow.
Having a weekly byline was therefore a dream come true. So I decided to double the fun and write two.
It wasn’t hard for me to come up with topics. Some journalists and columnists seem to lament the “burden” of having to come up with ideas for columns. I viewed the process differently. It was fun to write, and subject matter was everywhere. All I had to do was read the Daily Herald and there were controversies, political actions and news features all waiting to be written about.
I learned quickly that clarity is critical to being fully understood. When a restaurant owner sought approval to build a hotel on the empty lot next to his business, local residents burst into action with protests. But looking at the law and rights of ownership, I learned that the owner had the right to build what he wanted on the property because it was zoned for commercial.
Knowing that the neighbors were not in favor of the development didn’t sway my perspective. Yet I tried to write a column taking their concerns into consideration while still stating that the property owner had a right to use the space for a hotel as long as the city approved it. Well, both sides of the issue saw my column as favoring their position. My attempt at providing a “balanced” view only confused people.
Home school zealots
From that point forward, I stated my case in much clearer terms on the issues I wrote about. Some local homeschoolers were pushing the idea that they should get to play high school sports because the families paid taxes, and I pointed out that being home-schooled was a significant advantage in sports. It allowed students to practice at will without the constrictions of regular class schedules, and also provided unfair opportunities to rest or even sleep off early morning workouts. My argument was simple: “If you don’t attend public schools, you shouldn’t get to participate in public school sports.”
My column hit a giant homeschooler nerve. It spread across homeschool networks and the letters came from everywhere. “Who are you to decide what my kids can and cannot do?” was the basic refrain. I pointed out that my position was based on real-life experience as a competitive athlete. As a distance runner from middle school through college sports, I knew the demands of endurance sports first hand. But that didn’t assuage the homeschool rants. People and their money don’t like to listen to rational arguments about actual sports training and competitive advantages. Those folks only cared about their kids having it both ways.
I still think my position is correct to this day. It turns out the Illinois High School Athletic Association feels pretty much the same way. As stated on a homeschool website, here’s how it works:
The public school in question may be amenable to homeschooler participation, but they are held by IHSA rules which specify that all members of the teams that represent it, actually attend that school. The reasons for this are easy to understand. A school should not be able to use “ringers” or superior athletes who do not even attend their school to attain an unfair advantage over other schools in their league.
So if a public school wishes to offer this opportunity to a homeschooler in the area, how can it be done? IHSA 2003-2004 rules state that a homeschooled student may participate if the student is “enrolled at the member high school, …taking a minimum of 20 credit hours of work at the member school or in a program approved by the member school, and the student must be granted credit for the work taken either at the member school or in a program it approved.” (quoted from “Illustrations for Section 30.10 of the By-Laws”; also see “Illustrations for Section 4.010 of the By-laws”)
Despite the clarity of the law, the letters from homeschoolers poured in protesting the supposed injustice of my position on the matter, and those letters were pursuantly published in the newspaper. That seems like a bad thing from the perspective of getting bashed, but it was actually my job as an editorial to generate interaction with the paper. It is sometimes said of celebrities that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” For editorial writers it is a bit different. It never pays to be dead wrong or to slander someone, as a columnist for another newspaper did. They got sued for $7M by the Illinois Supreme Court Justice and former Bears kicker Bob Thomas.
I did have one scare as an editorial writer. Every week we received letters from a guy that wrote basically the same gun rights letter week after week. He’d move some words around but it was basically the identical rant week after week about total gun freedom. We printed one of his letters a month, but he got mad when our paper wouldn’t publish his reiterations. Finally, he demanded that we talk it out. He showed up at our office in a green Army coat with his hands stuffed in the pockets. That made me nervous so I met with him in the outside lobby rather than bring him into the office space.
Fortunately, he wasn’t there to kill me. Instead, I calmly explained that our policies apply to all people and that our letter policies are clearly defined in our editorial page masthead where they were regularly published. He’d never seen them, and after that his pressure relented. I gave him some helpful hints about how to make his points in different ways, and he thanked me upon leaving.
So I never lacked ideas but did think up many of the columns I wrote while out running. That’s always been my Idea Generator. That’s still true to this day. Some of my ideas for articles, columns, poems, or even whole books arrive as if thrown from outer space. I’ll be running along thinking about one thing and my mind races through a series of thoughts and suddenly something comes to me. I love that about running. It’s true with walking sometimes, and I now record TikTok content (@genesisfix) about my book Honest-To-Goodness: Why Christianity Needs A Reality Check and How to Make It Happen while out walking my dogs.
The other benefit of running is that it’s always been a form of moving meditation for me. The deep breathing involved in running enervates yet also calms my body and mind––together. I’ve done yoga and like it, especially once the racing thoughts have fallen out of my head and that space comes along in which I’m released from anxiety or the influence of ADHD. Vinyasa too.
But that sense of clarity and calm has always happened with running. It’s a cleansing act. Even worries dissipate or disappear during runs. I’m also better able to focus on executive functions after running or cycling or swimming. That’s why some schools are giving kids exercise as an antidote to ADHD. It wicks off excess energy and oxygenates the brain.
Slow to go
Sadly, it takes a bit longer to get warmed up and going well these days. One of the drawbacks of aging is the longer warmup time required to be fully efficient. Slogging through the first ten minutes of a run or a swim takes patience that sometimes lack. Now I try to be more forgiving with myself about slower average times overall, knowing that the first 2-3 miles are going to be in the 10:00-11:00 mile range. I still close under 9:00 and even under 8:00 per mile. My runs often result in negative splits. That’s okay. I’m still running.
I’ve always needed moving meditation to help my brain be creative and deal with the vicissitudes of life. In many ways, it has been the pen that writes my stories for me, wherever they appear.
Following years of coaching my son’s youth soccer teams, I started coaching the girl’s teams with my daughter Emily. She liked the concept of playing soccer, but not so much the running and such. So it was a constant issue to get her to play the open field even though she tended to be among the fastest girls on the pitch.
In fact, my favorite memory of her during soccer is a reel that plays in my mind to this day. During her last year of soccer at the age of twelve, she was signed up for a team that I did not coach. But the guys leading the team made a smart decision to bring a trainer in to get the girls in shape. He had them doing all sorts of strength-based workouts, and the girls were rather surprised how it made them feel. They’d also gather on the outskirts of practice to compare ab muscles. Even Emily kind of enjoyed the sensation of strength and speed.
During that season she played defender quite a bit. At this, she excelled. But one time as our team’s defenders were all pushed up to the half-line, an opponent launched a kick that sent one of their faster forwards chasing after it. Emily turned and sprinted after her, closing down the distance with long strides. It struck me that at full speed she ran with the same form as her father. I was looking at a female version of myself. She crossed the path of the forward while stealing the ball, gave it a touch to clear it sideways, and delivered a pass to her teammate. If nothing else ever happened in her soccer days, that was enough to demonstrate her athleticism.
Rec league rhythms
We spent many days on the pitch when I did coach her. That all began when she was about eight years old. Before that, I was still coaching my son and she played for rec teams. We attended all her games, and all of that was classic soccer stuff. Warm fall days fell into cold, wet mornings on the giant sets of fields at various park districts. We went through shirts of many colors, all of which served as a backdrop for her bright blonde hair. Like most soccer players, she shed cleats each season as her feet grew, but in her case, it was her feet that would cause some challenges.
She was born with a slightly curved foot structure on both sides. That meant wearing orthopedic shoes that straightened the bones but left her with really low arches. Not the ideal situation for running or sports. But even world-class athletes like Sebastian Coe have flat feet. So we did our best to find supportive shoes as she grew into the sport.
Coaching a daughter
Once I began coaching her girls’ teams, we engaged in fairly constant dialogue about the ups and downs and the social aspects of each group. I’d done that with my son, but those conversations were more about the capabilities of the respective players, and how to engage them strategically.
With Emily, the conservations were more about the personalities of the girls and how to work with them. Emily had little tolerance for the sometimes calculating ways of her peers or the cliques that formed within teams. I respected her ability to see how other girls interacted. Together we figured out how to help the girls all work as a unit.
But it was hard at times. During her fifth-grade season, one of the girls was actively provocative in her discussion with other girls. She was always sharing sexual tidbits about what she’d learned from somewhere. At one point I felt it best to let her father know what was going on.
I’d seen that kind of behavior before when I taught grade school phys-ed as a summer job during college. One of the girls in the fifth or sixth-grade class was ahead of her time in terms of interest in boys. She was just starting to develop physically and even snuck one of them off behind a hedge one morning to see what she could make happen. I turned that issue over to the supervisors right on the spot.
During high school, one of my best friends volunteered us to coach a girl’s basketball team. He later went on to manage a YMCA as a career. Even as a high school senior he understood and shared a great approach to coaching that was equitable for all. I never forgot that example and always tried to substitute players in the fairest fashion possible.
So I did my best to manage all that and help the girls have fun. We’d typically have one or two girls that were far superior in athletic talent each year, and in youth soccer, that means they’d do all the scoring. I remember a girl named Casey whose competitive spirit was quiet but fierce. She was never demonstrative in her play or actions, but she never messed around. Her focus was admirable. She’d come off the field with a sheen of sweat on her forehead, take a few sips from a water bottle, and stand ready to go back in whenever she was called.
Emily liked and admired that kind of player. Not all talented players were so egalitarian. One of our forwards was extremely fast, but she was also fond of the adoration she got from other girls on the team. It got to a point of exclusion within the ranks if someone didn’t cow to her demands. I pulled her aside to have a Ted Lasso talk, but I’m not sure it ever really helped. For some athletes, it takes years to learn how they fit into a leadership role, especially when their talent races ahead of their maturity.
Moments of joy and laughter
There were many moments of joy in coaching girls because their personalities at a young age are often irrepressible. One of the players on Emily’s U-9 team was a redhead named Garney. Walking off the field on a hot May morning, her face dripped with sweat at the temples and she flung a pile of thick red hair over her shoulder and stood resolute on the sidelines. “How you doing, Garney?” I asked.
She thrust one little hip to the side, turned to me with a flushed face, and said, “Fine. I just wish it wasn’t so frickin’ hot.” I laughed hard at that one. I knew her dad, a down-to-earth guy that probably used phrases like that quite often. Moments like that were what made coaching special to me. Unadorned reality.
There were some weirdly fantastical moments too. We joined her coach and his daughter to attend a USWNT game in Chicago. The event was sponsored in part by the American Girl company, and there was a doll giveaway at halftime. I was working at the Daily Herald at the time, and perhaps I had a promotional conversation with that group, I don’t remember. But out of 20,000+ mostly girl fans at the game, Emily won the doll, a Black soccer girl. Was it chance, or did the sponsors make an inside decision? We’ll never know.
We had fun, and plenty of laughs along the way. While driving Emily and some friends around one day, I had a new Modest Mouse CD playing on the deck. I’d heard their music in a record store and bought the album on the spot. As we drove around with the music playing one of Emily’s friends leaned forward and said, “Mr. Cudworth. Did you know there’s swears on this record?”
Emily burst out laughing. “That’s why he likes it!”
During her teenage years, I drove her to rock concerts all over the Chicago area. She’d become an excellent rock photographer and followed bands that used her photos on their album covers and merchandise. But when one of those rockers tried to lure her into their bus like a groupie, she told him to get lost. “That’s not what I’m here for.”
Her credibility grew and she was selected to be one of two rock photographers at a Maroon 5 show at a giant concert venue near Chicago. Her friends were a bit jealous about her close proximity to the lead singer Adam Levine. But she always focused on the work, not the FanGirl aspects.
I didn’t “coach” her at these endeavors so much as I tried to provide support when there were late nights and somewhat sketchy venue locations involved. One of the interesting payoffs from her work during those years was a deal she worked out with a top-ranked group called Goldhouse. She’d done their album cover work but wasn’t paid for the images. So she pushed them to perform at her high school graduation party. The group was a headliner for Warped Tour, a national concert series, and when they started to play in our 40-foot basement that June afternoon, people were blown away.
To this day, she’s a talented woman that approaches life on her own terms. And like her father, she’s faced her share of idiocracy in the workplace and beyond. The fact that we lost her mother to cancer ten years ago in March 2013 has not made life easier for her in many ways. Even a father can’t be a substitute for some things in life. I haven’t been perfect in that regard, for sure.
But I think back to the day when we traveled together to meet up with a falconry group so that she could do a college term paper using her photography. That day, she wore a black jacket with a fur collar on it, and the falconers told her, “Oh no, that won’t do.” Instead, they outfitted her head to toe in Carhartt clothing, including a jacket too large for her 5’6 frame and a set of canvas chaps so that she would wade through the undergrowth as we followed the falconers carrying a red-tailed hawk and a European goshawk.
It was a chilly winter day, but sunny. Her hair was dyed red during her college years, and it shone in the low January sun. One after the other, the hawks dispatched rabbits. Some let loose death squeals, and a falconer turned to her and said, “Does that bother you?”
She replied. “They gotta eat.” And we traveled on.
During the morning the goshawk got a bit fussy and nipped the owner with its sharp bill when he tried to substitute a chunk of meat for the rabbit. We stood there looking at the blood pouring from his bare hand, and knew that he’d need to wash it quickly. The rabbits all had some sort of parasite in them, and letting their blood mix with his might be bad news.
At the day’s end, we stood around talking when the goshawk owner came over to Emily and said, “Here, you can hold it.”
She blanched as the glove went on her hand and the hawk leapt onto her arm. “Oh my god,” she blurted.
The hawk sat there as she held it at arm’s length and a famous wildlife photographer stood back to take an image of her. I think that image (above) symbolizes her nature. I could not be more proud of my daughter in every way.
As a young kid, I was obsessed with everything about sports. My brothers and I played every sport imaginable, all the time. Our side yard in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was the site of pickup football, soccer and baseball games of many kinds. I lived to impress others through sports.
While I excelled at an early age and even helped win a city baseball championship by pitching our team to a win in the second game of the Lancaster New Era baseball tournament, and was a starting guard in basketball all the way through my sophomore year in high school, by the time was a Junior Year it was time to specialize. My father had guided me into running that first year at little Kaneland High School, and I was the top runner before transferring to St. Charles where I also led the team. So it finally made sense to concentrate solely on running.
I didn’t necessarily want my choices to define those of my children. My son was born in 1986 and by the age of six or seven, he was signed up for soccer which proved to be a fun, healthy activity for him. Had our family not moved to Illinois when I was twelve years old, I’d have likely played soccer in high school, not become a runner. So I coached his teams with varied “success” because at those early ages, there is no predicting who you’ll get on a team and frankly, it doesn’t really matter. In fact, I coached one team that was 0-9. We almost had a chance to tie a game on a cold November day with rain pouring down on the field. The kids were soaked, and the parents were miserably huddled under umbrellas in the raw wind, yet we held out hope to have a shred of success with just one tie in the last contest. Then the ball squirted free at midfield and some kid dribbled toward our goalie and kicked it right at him. The shot hit his hands, went between his legs and dribbled into the goal.
A parent chuckled darkly under their umbrella and said, “Well, that’s our season in a nutshell.”
The Travel Team
By the time my son was nine years old a different type of fortune fell into a place and I unwittingly inherited a pile of talent on a single team that won the rec league. Traveling soccer was just being formed in the Tri-Cities league so I asked the parents if they’d like to carry the rec league success over to a traveling team. “We’ll keep it affordable,” I promised. Top-tier local teams were charging $1000 and more for kids to join. “Just $250 per season and we’ll play two tournaments and ten games.”
The parents loved that idea. So we formed the Tri-City Sky, a name I willfully chose because the typical names like Raptors and Killers and Eviscerators (I made that up) all sounded stupidly aggressive to me.
That team was built over time to include other players as a few kids came and went. The soccer hierarchy was Platinum, Gold, Silver, Blue, etc. We typically played in the Blue or Silver categories. My son Evan was a solid player among a group of athletic kids. We subbed as equitably as possible so that all kids got to play. Most years we had winning seasons, which was gratifying.
But one year we showed up for the annual seeding tournament that determines where you wind up in the league. As happens often with preteens, a couple kids were out with the flu. During the first game, two more players grew sick and dropped out of the tournament. We lost that game. When the next game began, two more kids were throwing up or looking peaked. We were down to ten players able to play and during that game, my son came over to me at halftime and said, “Dad, I don’t feel good. But I can still play.” He was always much tougher than me about things like that. I once watched him barf a cheeseburger into the garbage can during an indoor soccer game and go back out and play. “I guess I ate a little too close to the match,” he told me.
Even with that level of tough attitude from all of our players, we lost all three seeding tournaments games. The last one was by 6-0 or something on that order. That result dumped us all the way down to the Orange or Yellow or Green bracket, I can’t remember, for season play. I called the league to beg deference given our consistent winning record in Blue and Silver during previous seasons, but no go. We went 10-0 that year against weak teams and most of the scores were that high too. It was a tragic experience and the kids didn’t take that season all that seriously.
I was a loud and boisterous coach that didn’t always know what he was doing. I cared a bit too much about the outcomes. As in, winning. I admittedly yelled at referees, not always justifiably. At one game I grew so frustrated with our team’s efforts that I literally tore my hat in two. The kids roared at that one. No, I wasn’t always a good role model.
By contrast, my assistant coaches were a grace in many ways. A faithful guy named Mark helped coach the team for many seasons. His son Nick, while a bit overweight, was a great goalie in many respects. The other assistant for a season or two was a humorous guy named Todd, whose son Peter filled in at goal when Nick took a break to play hockey or some other sport. Peter was a tempestuous kid, prone to loud outbursts when frustrated. During our first practice together with him, he yelled “Fuck!” when a goal shot zipped past him. I had to pull him aside and explain that we can’t use that kid of language. Ever. It didn’t stop it completely, but it helped.
His father Todd was a great motivator to the kids, a sideline coach with a big voice who could get the kids’ attention when needed. During one fast-paced match, one of our midfielders took a point blank shot to the face and fell over. As he got back up, looking a bit wobbly and disoriented out, Coach Todd called out, “Joey, answer the phone!” We all laughed hard because Joey was one of those hard-nosed kids that ran through just about everything. I think he wound up playing football in high school.
We had a giant player named TJ Quinn whose sense of humor was a foundation of joy at every practice and game. He walked like Sasquatch and played with an assertive finesse that belied his height. During one massively losing effort in the championship match of a tournament where we were outclassed by a team from St. Louis, the score was 8-0 when TJ snatched the ball as a defender, did two dribble crossovers, and launched a giant kick placing the ball upfield for the first time in the second half. Even the other team found it a hilarious display of frustrated prowess. TJ just smiled. At first, I was going to yell at him for the antics, then realized his take on the game was spot on. From that point, the other team took it easier on us anyway.
We ultimately did win one tournament and posed for a photo in the fading sun of a June afternoon. The kids played well and it was almost a relief to win after seasons of coming so close. Thinking back, I now realize how little I actually understood about the game. It wasn’t until I played a few seasons of adult league soccer on my own that I began to think, “Oh yeah, I get it now.”
Memories, or not
Years later I told my son a story about the best memory I have from his Youth Soccer playing days. “Do you recall the time you took the ball down the sidelines and crossed it for Patrick with a perfect header?”
“Dad,” he replied. “I don’t remember any of the games. But I remember the practices, and we had fun.”
Thus in part, I did my job. Nine out of our sixteen players from the last season went on to play high school soccer. At times during those eight or nine spring and fall seasons, the Campton Soccer Club that took over the traveling program from Tri-Cities tried raiding our team for their Elite clubs. When they held tryouts I didn’t deny my kids a chance to test their skills. But when Campton chose the least talented player on our team, a kid that couldn’t even dribble the ball well, to join their club, my son told me, “Dad, this is bogus. Let’s just keep our team together.”
So we did. All but one player stuck with us because we still charged just $250 for a season. Late in the last spring with the club, when the kids were twelve or thirteen years old, we gathered for a practice and the Girl’s U-12 team challenged us to a game. We’d played them on and off for several seasons, but now our boys were getting big and fast. I could certainly no longer outrace my players in a sprint even though I could still run a 5:00 mile when fit. I’d forgotten how fast kids can be.
We lined up and I agreed to ref the game while the girls’ coach had to leave for some appointment. He assistant stayed behind. The game quickly devolved into the boys dominating the field. AT that point, the girls convened after one of several goals scored against them and began rolling up their shorts and uniform tops to show off their thighs and bellies. One of them yelled, “Felipe, Beckie loves you!!!” And my boys began ribbing him badly.
The boys were wrecked from that moment forward. The girls club quickly scored a goal and one of their players walked past me and said, “Coach, your boys are so easy…”
That’s when I blew the whistle, called the game a tie, and sent the girls off with their assistant coach. My boys were mad. “Coach, we were beating them!” one of them told me.
“Well, you lost in the game that counts,” I laughed.
We did have a ton of laughs over time. During one drill with the Campton coach that was assigned to help the kids with skill drills, he had them doing some sort of crouched walking exercise that looked so ridiculous when Nick and TJ started to trundle along the entire club fell down laughing. I couldn’t blame them. They looked like something from the Addam’s Family.
We had another trainer that hailed from Morocco. He was used to coaching super serious players back in his country and could not understand the jovial nature of our group of soccer misfits, many of whom played different sports ranging from basketball to football to baseball during our regular season. They’d show up half-tired some nights, so I often built practices around what we could get from the kids given their respective energy levels. Sometimes that was frustrating to our trainer, but after that Addam’s Family scene he kind of understood that we’d learn what we could. The other detraction was that players sometimes bailed on the team for an important game in some sport. But flexibility was part of the program, so we did our best.
A few of our players came to us from interesting circumstances. One Latino player was my son’s friend, but his mother was suspicious of club soccer and didn’t want her son placed in situations where he was not respected or treated well. Eventually, he joined the team and largely thrived, becoming one of our most dynamic players. On some weekends, he’d play with his father’s team instead. That was part of the deal. Twenty years later, I sometimes see his mother around town. She still calls me Coach.
Not so positive
Not every experience coaching youth soccer was positive. We competed in a league across the Chicago area and some clubs had a culture about them that was aggressive, if not downright dangerous. One suburban team had six coaches along the sideline, which is against the rules. All of them were stalking up and down and yelling, even crossing onto our side of the field, another infringement. The referee said nothing. Toward the end of the half, one of our players broke free with the ball just outside the box. As he made his way toward goal, the team’s goalie grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him to the ground. No call. Later we learned that the referee was the goalie’s older brother.
Their best player was exceptional, that is for sure. We had to put one of our players on him one-on-one in the second half to keep him from scoring all the time. That drove the opposing crowd nuts. They started shouting obscenities. Then the opposing coach confronted me at midfield, muttering invectives and threats. It got uglier as the game got out of control. Sensing that my parents were looking to me for guidance in the situation, I kept my temper and myself under control. The game ended with a loss for us, but I was glad it was over.
Walking to our car with my wife, daughter, and son, I sensed that someone was following us. Ushering my family into our car, I turned around to find one of their assistant coaches pushing a finger in my face while lecturing me about the game. I stood still, staring straight into his eyes, making no aggressive moves. Then I calmly stated: “You do know how wrong your behavior is right now, don’t you?”
At that moment, something within him seemed to collapse. He stepped back, dropped his shoulders, and said, “I’m sorry. You’re right. I got carried away.”
“All good,” I told him. “But I am calling the league about your team and your coach. This entire thing was inexcusable.” Good to my word, I called the league, who called the coach, who later called me complaining that I’d told on him. I didn’t care. The crew of fans and players and coaches on their side was out of control. It was like being caught up in an insurrection of sorts. People going out of their minds and dishonestly obsessed with an outcome they didn’t like.
High school soccer
When my son went on to play in high school he earned his way into the starting lineup. I was happy for him, and the coach of the team rightly didn’t invite parent input on any team matters. But one week I showed up to find my son sitting on the bench at the start of the game. I was fuming, wondering what decision drove that situation. After the half, he got into the game and scored the team’s only goal to win. Back at the car, I sat down expecting to grill him about why he didn’t play in the first half and he plopped down in the passenger seat and said, “Dad, I didn’t feel good when we got to the game today. I told coach to keep me out. But I felt better by the half, so he put me in. And hey, I got a goal!”
Lessons like that are important for parents to learn. Things are not always what they seem.
My son gave up soccer after his sophomore year because the varsity coach never talked to him or invited him to try out the next year. Some of his soph teammates got called up and Evan never did. I think he saw that the makeup of the team and the guys playing weren’t people he liked that much anyway.
He also ran track and by his sophomore year had run a sub-2:00 half-mile, faster than I ever did in high school. But he came home from a meet one day and said “Dad, when I’m doing track I’m like 25% happy. But when I’m doing Drama I’m 100% happy.”
“Well then,” replied. “That’s an easy decision to make then.” He went on to act and direct in many plays through high school and college.
I never wanted him to feel like he had to become a Mini-Me. Yet these days we’re finding that we’re alike in many more ways than we ever thought. In my next column, I’ll share what it was like to become a coach on my daughter’s side as well. Coaching girl’s teams was an entirely different experience.
Starting the new job at the Daily Herald newspaper felt a bit like coming home again. But that wasn’t the only way that life felt like it was getting back to normal. The year that I joined Aspen Marketing we made a family decision to move from the White Bread America town of Geneva to a bit more ethnically diverse Batavia. I’d driven the move for the most part. We recognized that our boy and girl needed their own rooms now that they were in 1st and fourth grade. Having spent years working in Batavia and volunteering with guys whose kids attended the schools, I knew the community well enough to call around and figure out a way to find a home there.
We hooked up with a Realtor to help us find a new place. My wife had specific instructions. “No Split Levels,” she told him. He nodded and said, “Gotcha.”
When it came time to tour houses, the first house we visited was a split level on the southern edge of Geneva. My wife glanced at me, looking disturbed. But the realtor was the father of a close friend, so we said nothing. Stepping inside the house, I was shocked to see the walls next to the stairway covered floor-to-ceiling in mirrors. Next to the door,, there was a giant, bowling-ball-sized hole in the wall. The Realtor almost choked on his words as he invited us to tour the house. We walked upstairs to find a giant iguana sitting inside a massive dirty aquarium. It glared at us as my wife turned to both of us and said, “I think we’ve seen enough here.”
We toured several other houses on our trip that day, but none in Batavia. I asked why, and the Realtor told me there weren’t many homes on the market there. The next day, I decided to drive the streets and see the situation for myself.
With an interest in older, more established neighborhoods rather than the cookie-cutter houses being thrown together on the edge of town, I drove down Route 31 to the west side of town. Pulling onto Maple Lane, I drove past low-slung ranches and other modest homes. “This looks good,” I told myself. Then I turned on Republic Road, a street that runs several blocks bordering the large park surrounding Memorial Field on the east side.
There, on the front lawn of a white ranch home, was a sign that read For Sale by Owner. I parked the car, walked up to the house, and noticed that the stones forming the front were limestone and sandstone. Two tall white pines towered over the driveway. I’ve always loved white pines. They remind me of the north woods and wild places.
Walking around the back of the house, I spied a glass-enclosed porch with the window shades rolled down. However, I could peek between the blinds and saw a composed of red-stained knotty pine. “Oh My God,” I said out loud. “I love this place.”
It only took one phone call to reach the man selling the home. His name was Bart, and the home had been his father’s place for many years. “The family was thinking of keeping it,” he told me. “But our stepmother wants the money. So we’re going to sell it. The going price was $170,000, a fair deal for a ranch home. “We want to buy it,” I told him.
“Great,” he replied. “The family wants it to go to a couple that appreciates the house.”
We called the bank and got the loan moving. I drove down the next day before work at Aspen to snoop around some more, I could see that the floor plan was largely open with a large front window. A part of me was nervous about acting so quickly to buy a home. I’d only been working at Aspen a few months. Upon mentioning my plans to a co-worker, he looked at me and said, “Pretty bold buying a new house when you’re only been here a month or two.”
The way I saw it, we had no choice. The home we owned on Anderson Boulevard in Geneva was only 750 feet of living space, and half of that was comprised of a basement with profound leakage problems. Whenever a hard rain came, the water poured in streams from the floor and wall seam to a series of drainage holes in the floor. After the rain subsided and the water stopped running, a spate of “water bugs,” better known as cockroaches, would invade the homes. Sometimes we resorted to setting off a “bug bomb” pesticide to kill them off. Then I’d scrape them up with paper towels and conduct a funeral pyre outside with a bit of lighter fluid and paper towels. “Die, you fuckers,” I’d mutter.
The kicker for me was the night that I came into my son’s room and turned on the light to see a roach crawling across his forehead. After that, I didn’t care what it took to get out of that place. We were moving.
Leaving it behind
The negotiations with Bart about the Batavia place continued. “I have an absolute deadline. We have to get this thing done by April 1st. Can I count on you to make that happen?”
“Yes,” I told him. Then I called the mortgage broker we used and she said, “Well, I hope we can hit that deadline.” And she did.
Closing on the house went quickly, but before all that took place, I asked Bart if we could get into the house to tear up the green carpet covering the living room floor and hallways. During one of the house tours, I’d pulled at the edge of the shag to find a layer of fine oak floors beneath. “Well, I shouldn’t do this, but I trust you,” Bart told me. So we hired a floor contractor called Bill and Sid’s Most Excellent Floor Refinishing. They tore up all the carpet and refinished the floors with a water-based varnish. The place looked awesome. Bart was a good man to let us do all that before moving in.
Then we closed on the loan and Bart got his check to satisfy the stepmom. We shook hands and he said “Thanks for making this happen.” I smiled and said, “Same. You’re a good man.”
My kids loved the new place, especially having their own bedrooms. They also liked the old Princess telephones that had neither a # or a * button. The prior owner had worked for Illinois Bell and the old equipment, including an in-house intercom system, still worked. He’d also left behind a line of tamarack trees transplanted south from their Wisconsin vacations.
So we moved our stuff out of the Geneva place with the help of friends and settled into life in Batavia. We even hauled along a set of smooth river rocks gathered from a spot where a stream emptied into Lake Superior neared Porcupine Mountain.
Heading into first grade, my daughter Emily had not yet learned to ride her two-wheel bike before we moved. The big driveway in front of the new house served as an encouragement to her riding skills. She dumped the training wheels soon and spent her time circling round and round under the shade of the giant white pines.
My wife Linda invited her mom out to help her tear up large chunks of lawn and convert it to garden. We painted the walls pale green but left the wallpaper that while old in design still had major integrity. It had been originally hung in 1956 when the house was built. However, we tore up the green linoleum floor in the kitchen with its swooping sides and pock marks from all those years when the former woman of the house made meals while wearing high heels.
Then we ordered the most comfortable sofa in the world from Wickes Furniture. It lasted us twenty years before the piping frayed. That sofa served as “home” for us in so many ways that it’s hard to describe how important it was to all our lives. I’d come home from work or a run or a ride and could flop on that smooth fabric and not itch. Plus the couch and chair was wide enough to truly stretch out. At times, I loved that goddamned sofa as much as life itself. But it finally did wear out. I cried while putting it out to the curb.
One of the other great parts of living where we did was the access to running routes of all kinds. The Fox River Trail was just a mile away, offering unlimited protected running in both directions. I’d raced and won races on that trail, so the associations were forever positive. I could head south to North Aurora for a ten-miler or north to Geneva for an eight-miler. While I was no longer running tons of miles, it felt great to go out in any direction and have a fun time.
Linda also liked the house location. She walked a route the first day that we moved in and used the same route from that point forward during all twenty-plus years that we lived there. She never varied her course. Nothing provides a sense of security like repetition, and she never had problems with anyone bothering her on that route, so she trusted it. I had my share of favorite running routes too, including the quick three-miler down to the west side trail and back. Familiarity is encouraging in some ways. You know how much time it will take, and the seasons take care of enough changes to make things interesting. New situations and new locations are great, but so is the feeling that you have a few things under control. That’s a rare thing in this world.
Sadly, we quickly learned that the Batavia home also had its share of water problems. Even with a waterproofing system built into the home, the west side of the house faced a key groundwater source. During heavy rains, the window wells would fill up and water would come streaming in. The chimney was also cracked, and water would fly into the furnace room as it followed the vent. I called the waterproofing company multiple times for new and more power sump pumps, and we gladly paid the $50 annual renewal fee to keep the contract in place. Sometimes life is about the most basic things, and not letting problems get ahead of you. That was a lesson I was finally learning after hitting the age of forty years old.
Back when I lived in Paoli, Pennsylvania (182-83) during a short stint with the marketing department at Van Kampen Merritt in Philadelphia, I joined a great group of runners through the Runner’s Edge running store. Most of those guys, the Crooke brothers Rich, Peter and John, and Dick Hayden, to name a few, were faster runners than me. They also knew how to train smarter, and I benefitted from running and racing with that team in many ways. Plus I’d never worn a green uniform of any kind, and the Nike nylon warmups and racing kit were a keen departure from the orange, black and white I’d worn at both Kaneland and St. Charles high schools, and the Luther College Norseman blue I’d worn during four years of racing in Division III cross country and track.
During some of the long runs with the Runner’s Edge guys, I hung near the back of the group so that I wouldn’t make the wrong impression of trying to push the pace. That’s because I’d made a fool of myself the first day I ran with them by taking off at 6:00 pace like we used to do at Luther. After building a “big lead” I glanced back in surprise to see that no one followed me. Circling back, I met up with the group again while asking, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” one of them replied. “What’s wrong with you? We’re running 7:30-8:00 pace for fifteen. Then at 18 miles we’ll pick it up, okay?”
What a lesson in training and life that was. Sometimes our presumptions about how to do things right are all wrong. Running with that group was great, and yet I still overtrained too often, running too many fast workouts back to back, and humming along at 6:00 pace during midweek runs. I’d get sick or hurt, and have to circle back to a more sane approach. Old habits die hard. Still, during that period I dropped my five-mile time to 25:30, my ten-mile time to 53:30, and my 10K to 31:59, the first time I broke 32:00.
That improvement all came down to that moment I circled back and accepted with humility the guidance of the group to get me on the proper training track.
Following that principle years later after the harsh debacle of trying to race ahead in my creative endeavors at Aspen Marketing, I probably got a bit ahead of myself, or worse, too inside my own head to see things clearly, or as they really were at the time. Those are symptoms of both anxiety and ADHD. But I didn’t really understand either of those mental health issues at the time.
When the year 1999 rolled around and I was laid off in a downsizing at Aspen Marketing, I was adrift and out of work with a family to feed, After taking stock on the situation, I circled back (at 42 years old) to my prior career in the newspaper industry. Things were still going strong in the print business up to that point. The Internet was stumbling along still making up its mind which way it wanted to go.
On the political front, the Clinton-Gore term in office was winding down and the Y2K phenomenon was starting to wind up. Some people were panicky. The Doomsday Preppers at the conservative church we attended started warning people to stock up for the coming apocalypse. There was a strong belief among some Christians that the Year 2000 was ripe for the Second Coming. As for that idea, I was cynical about the whole thing. As a guy that once jacked off five times in one day during my horny early 20s, I considered teasing the Second Comers… “What’s the big deal? Only the Second Coming? Even I could beat that!”
I thought better of that, but as it turned out, they were the whack jobs, not me. Y2K came and went without Jesus making a peep. Even the computer glitches predicted by the Code Busters working madly to add slashes and Os to save the world had to admit that things came off pretty smoothly.
A political cataclysm did come about as a result of the 2000 Presidential election. That’s when the politically dyspeptic George W. Bush (“I was a pilot!) and the terminally heartbroken Dick Cheney (the cardiac kid) conspired with Jeb Bush, the Bush Brother that worked to suppress minority voting in the state.* Then the Florida Supreme Court handed the election to two future war criminals whom far-right militaristic Christians welcomed as a sign that Armageddon could now be initiated in the Middle East.
Bush and Cheney also attacked environmental regulations, and I recalled too well how the likes of that bigoted despot Ronald Reagan behaved by handing James Watt the Secretary of the Interior job. Watt famously stated, “When the last tree falls, Jesus will come.” And I thought, “These fuckers never quit.”
So I decided to attack the misappropriated authority of the Christian religion at its source by penning an essay, “How the Earth Was Forgotten After Creation.” That work addressed the many ways that conservative Christianity gets the Bible wrong about the meaning of “dominion over the earth.” The essay was a hit when I read parts of it in public forums, so I took that foundational document and began writing an entire book that would come to be titled, “The Genesis Fix: How Biblical Literalism Affects Politics, Culture, and the Environment.”
That book would take seven years to complete because work and life and all its vagaries would enter the picture. But the love of writing was as strong as my love of running, so I also focused my work search in that area.
Back in 1994, I’d done a marketing project for the Daily Herald, the third-largest newspaper in Illinois behind the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, the two urban powerhouses. The DH was branded the Death Star by other suburban local newspapers because it had expanded to reach more than ninety communities across the Chicago suburbs. So I started tracking the paper to look for job opportunities, and decided to open the gates myself by volunteering to write a complimentary column for the Tri-Cities edition.
During the summer of 2000, while I was producing columns, the staff needed an extra volunteer to help paddle their entry in the Dragon Boat races during the Pride of the Fox River Fest, a big community festival in St. Charles. I wound up sitting next to one of the HR directors and struck up a conversation. She made note of my interest in joining the company and within a couple weeks received an invitation to apply for the position of Editorial Writer, and I interviewed a week or so later.
I wasn’t a traditional choice for the role because I didn’t come up through the ranks of journalists as most editorial and opinion writers do. Yet I’d published hundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines beginning in the early 1980s, so I got the job. Part of that was due to the advocacy of the Advertising Department leader Bob Strasser, who knew me from my days in ad sales and promotions for the Chronicle, a Daily Herald competitor.
So I was back in the newspaper game again and loved it. Circling back was a smart thing to do in many ways.
Karma: The sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future
As my relative successes at Aspen Marketing piled up in 1997 and ’98, I allowed a bit of self-confidence to creep into the mix. Big mistake. Too often it is hubris that blinds a person to events taking place behind the scenes that add up to ill outcomes. Often our perceptions of what is required in life are often mistaken. In fact, you can do a really good job under absolutely shitty conditions and people will still tell you that it was you that did a shitty job.
That’s because people hate sticking their necks out for others if it means putting their own security, whatever way they perceive it, at some kind of risk. They’ll even compliment you to give you a sense of security if it helps them keep you under their control.
Compliments versus complements
Let’s talk about the meaning of compliments, or shall we say complements. I used the latter term “complements” in a bit of marketing copy that led to a prophetic incident. The man we called Mr. Big brought his wife Mary to work at the firm in some sort of quality control role. The real intention was never clear, it could have been in response to costly mistakes that were taking place because, as those of us in the creative department put it, “Always time to do it fast, never time to do it right.”
From what I can see from thirty years in the business, that’s how it always works. False urgency leads to crap results. All because agencies typically don’t respect their clients, even mocking them behind their backs yet still too scared to stand up for themselves for fear of losing the business.
So Mary the schoolteacher entered the fray. Her training and manner did not sit well with some people, because no one really likes a scold. Quite often it was the wrong people being blamed for the firm’s mistakes, which were derived from bad or partial information delivered by the client or the account rep. One day I spent time writing a clean set of copy only to receive it back with rewriting stating, “The word complements is incorrect. Only compliments is a word.”
My vocabulary is pretty decent, and I knew that the word complements was real. It means “a thing that completes or brings to perfection.” That’s how I’d used it in the content. I brought the copy back to her and explained the meaning. She was adamant and made me change it. It was clear she did not like being second-guessed.
Living under a bad sign
I seethed, yet quietly. Even I understood that it made no sense to make a scene with the boss’s wife, no matter what role she played. So I kept my mouth shut, and kept my head down with her. Yet something told me that from then on, my mild resistance meant living under a bad sign.
Plus bigger plans were afoot of which I was unaware. The company was being positioned for sale to a larger firm and numbers were being run to make the firm look good for sale. That meant cutting total costs by reducing payroll to show a better number against revenue. The old Cost Vs. Return Analysis.
Perhaps it was just the numbers that did me in as a middle manager type, seemingly a dispensable associate creative director at a firm that already held its creative staff in low regard. Never mind that I’d been the lead creative on an Ameritech account that grew by around 30% in a year. The thinking on middle managers typically goes, “There’s another one where he came from once we need them again.”
And thus, after two tumultuous years of loving the work but dreading the sometimes conflicted culture of the firm, I sensed my time might be up. I’d seen movies where the mob boss sends a warning signal to a “middle man” that was no longer needed or favored. One small mistake can cost a life. Then one day after a project meeting, Mary the Quality Keeper reached up and gave me a condescending pat on the face, as if to say goodbye after the conversation. I sat down that day in my office and shivered with dread. I tried talking with my two bosses, the VP of Business Development and the VP of Creative. The conversations were clipped and cold.
A week later, I came into my office and noticed that all the Zip disks on which I stored files for internal transfer were missing from my desk. I walked out of my office and looked at Andy, the production department head, and he looked away. Minutes later I received a call from Mr. Big summoning me to his office. I walked through the perimeter of the office sensing what was to come, stepped into his office heard the door unlatch from a remote click as it shut behind me. He had a button under his desk that allowed him to remotely open and close the door. A Power Move. That was his style, just like he once told me “I can beat you at any sport that involves a ball.” Who says shit like that?
But that day, he put both hands on his desk and said, “I suppose you know why you’re here.”
Where the Wild Things Are
I understood that I was being dismissed, but the reason why was never made clear. There were undoubtedly some challenges with projects that I’d been assigned. That’s how it is in the marketing business. I was the lead project manager on a collaboration with the Ameritech people, a big fundraiser to be held by the President of the company, Dick Notebaert, whose wife Peggy was big into the nature scene. A few years later she’d have a museum named after her in Chicago. My role was leading negotiations with the agency representing the work of Maurice Sendak, the famous children’s book illustrator and author of the book Where the Wild Things Are. His drawings were going to be used as the theme and backdrop for the fundraiser. It was my job to make sure things were done right.
I entered into discussions with the agency to work out details on how the images could be used. It took several weeks to determine proper usage and approve the rights. I checked those details with the Ameritech people and at one point was told, “You don’t need to let them know everything. Just get it done.”
That’s the problem with negotiations of that sort. The Sendak people were enormously focused on protecting his work and not allowing it to be compromised or used in inappropriate ways. Meanwhile, the Ameritech people had this big-picture thing going and didn’t want to slow down for anything.
I was stuck in between. As it worked out, the event came off wonderfully, but I’d made a negative impression on the Ameritech contact, and she was in charge of a ton of business for CMI…soon to be Aspen. I’m fairly sure there were discussions about my management ability even though, from the perspective of the third-party “client,” the Sendak people, I’d done a thoroughly great job.
But a few negative words from the top ranking Ameritech contact were all it took to unseat me from the lead creative work with that client.
After that, my star fell a bit. If you’ve ever worked at an ad or marketing agency of any kind, you likely know the feeling. Suddenly I was not working so much on Ameritech projects. My immediate boss who had been out of the office for several months with some physical illness, and right about the time that the Sendak project ended, he returned to work. At that point, most of the copywriting work on the account was redirected to him. He ignored the fact that I had done the heavy lifting for months on copywriting. Perhaps he was insecure about his job, and simply saw it as a competitive thing.
Once again, I was learning that it’s not just performance that counts in the working world. Unlike distance running, where results are largely empirical and the fastest runner is clear to see, the corporate world is a contest over power and control. As a person with native anxiety, my awareness of these situations was never the best. I either imagined the worst and lived in fear or lived in ignorance blindly hoping for the best.
The Frightful Thing
Worst of all, I trusted people to be true to that word. That’s probably the biggest mistake one can make in this world. The frightful thing about trusting people is that there are almost no rules to the game.
Adding to this confusing mix was the fact that the principal Vice President in charge of business development was a guy whose tactics for building relationships weren’t entirely ethical. He frequently bribed clients with gifts to build our business. As it happened, I was the guy assigned to lining up and purchasing those gifts, including a $4000 road bike for a client lead at Ameritech. I still recall his name but I won’t mention it here. Again, the frightful thing about telling the truth is that you can often be penalized or sued for sharing the facts, and people will often gaslight the hell out of anyone daring to question their integrity even if they have none.
But it wasn’t long after I left the firm that I heard Ameritech (now SBC, then AT&T) had done an internal review of some sort and banned the receipt of gifts from vendors of many kinds. There were other strange adventures with Ameritech personnel, including the account manager that insisted we deliver advertising proofs to her personal residence one afternoon. I traveled with an account executive named Erin to bring the material to the house, and we walked in to find the entire floor covered with the afterbirth of a German shepherd that had just delivered puppies. No padding or anything on the wood floors. Just liquid and blood clots. Erin hiked up the legs of her pantsuit and we walked across the slick floor. As we left, she turned to me and said, “We’re never doing this again.”
Over the years, I tried a couple times to get back into Aspen Marketing, which was purchased by Epsilon and later Publicis. Just recently I did a copywriting assignment for the MSL Group, also a Publicis company. But to this day I don’t know if I was dismissed for strictly financial reasons, which is harsh in its own respects, or for some aspect of performance about which I was never informed.
Karma is a bitch
I do know this, however. Eventually, Mr. Big got hungry for even more money, and hired a CMO with AT&T experience who basically took over running the company. They also fell into a romantic relationship, and that meant bye-bye to Former Mr. Big. The woman that insisted that “complements” was not a word got shown the door back home. I always wondered if he patted her on the face as the divorce took place, or if she patted him on the face for taking all the money she could out of his pockets in payments and alimony.
I recall a high-toned company Christmas Party out at Eagle Ridge Resort. Before the night was over, almost a dozen couples had devolved into fights, with some breaking up on the spot and others physical confronting each other in the stairwells and hallways. Surely there was alcohol involved in those conflagrations, but it was also probable that the conflicted nature of the company as a whole had an impact. I considered all that a trickle-down effect from the mixed-up personalities at the top. From what I’ve seen, if you dig even a little deeper at most companies, the truth behind how they are run is genuinely fucked up.
Those breakups and remarriages and selfish acts that turn sour are all evidence that condescension often leads to the type of karma one doesn’t really want to experience. Like the runner showboating by waving to the crowd on the homestretch of the track only to get passed by on the inside by another athlete, karma does have a way of delivering payback.
As noted in an earlier story in this series, one of the vendors at Aspen once stood toe-to-toe with Mr. Big and said “Fuck You!” to his face. I guess this is my long-delayed “Fuck you!” to the same guy. For all the corruption and sexual harassment, illegal dealings, and broken promises experienced at that firm, some people might tell me that I was lucky to leave. But the fact remains, I loved doing the work and appreciated many of the people working there. That project where we used company staff as models was evidence of how well some of us worked together. I made it work under budget and on time, which was far better than many projects at the company.
I regretted losing the job for those reasons. It hurt and the severance felt like just another slap in the face, along with the Letter of Recommendation Pat O’Rahilly wrote for me. The whole damned thing was absurd. I was bitter, for sure. Yet I eventually headed in a direction that proved beneficial in the long run. That’s all I knew how to do.
Despite the atmosphere of sexual harassment and general crudity, I genuinely liked my time at what was to become Aspen Marketing, Inc. because I liked the work. There were daily opportunities to take on new creative assignments. Some of them were large in scope while others were the kinds of smaller projects agencies take on while they’re still in a growth phase.
One of these flopped on my desk one afternoon with a note from the President, Pat O’Rahilly. “There’s a new hockey team coming to Geneva and they need a logo.” Pat loved hockey, and the Junior A league team was to be called the Chicago Freeze. I was not an expert in the hockey world, but I read up on who their likely fan base was going to be, and it consisted of families and up-and-coming players. So I designed a logo that was essentially a play on the word FREEZE by drawing a Blue Sun with skates and a hockey stick.
The logo was accepted and soon built into all kinds of materials, including a 50-foot painted version under Center Ice. Of all the things I’ve designed, that logo probably got more impressions than any other. It was on everything.
So I was in generally good favor at the time when I was asked to join the President on a presentation on the work I’d done on an Ameritech project. Those were arriving thick and fast at the time, and we’d drive up to Schaumburg from West Chicago in the limousine driven by Pat’s favorite chauffeur. I was waiting in the back seat when Pat plopped down, turned to me and said, “What’s the best running shoe?”
Frankly, he didn’t much like making conversation with underlings, and that’s where I sat on his totem pole. Yet he’d also grown to understand that I was a decent athlete, especially a runner, so I began explaining the attributes of various kinds of running shoes, when he interrupted me and said, “No, I mean, what’s the most expensive?”
I sat there for a moment, then realized his actual question had nothing to do with what shoes might work best for running. That offended me to some degree, because he didn’t really care about my relative expertise. Instead, he viewed so much in life as a hunt for trophies, and I represented a shortcut to the knowledge he wanted about expensive running shoes. His pursuit of status symbols included his ultimate desire to have a company jet, which I believe he ultimately achieved as his company and wealth grew enormously with each successive sale or consolidation with larger firms. No one knew how to rake in the dough like Pat O’Rahilly. I admired that about him even though his values and perspectives were entirely different than mine.
He could be a hard driver in many ways, and people that crossed him either got dressed down or weren’t around any longer to vex him. I was always careful how I phrased things, and made it a habit of sorts to compliment him on work projects or perspectives. But I don’t think he ever took my insights all that seriously. I wasn’t one of the Rainmakers yet, a guy that really drove the Big Bucks.
In fact, I was more often the guy that the firm turned to drive or mop up peripheral projects. That was the case with a low-budget project for a fashion and sportswear company called Grand Illusion. They only had a working budget of $5K or so to conduct a photo shoot, so I recruited members of the Aspen staff and some friends from outside the firm to serve as models. Then I hired a local photographer I knew from newspapers days, and we set out to do location shoots with samples of the clothing. It was interesting work piecing together the plan for the right people to wear the clothing. That was one of my few real immersions in what basically became a fashion shoot.
Both the guys and the gals from Aspen turned out to be great models. There were good-looking people throughout the firm, and I drew from that base to create the shots we needed. But when the first round of photos came back, the client had a complaint. “The boobs on too many these women are too big! Can’t you find some models that aren’t stacked?”
That was a bit of a problem, especially because our point of contact with the firm was an attractive woman with her own set of prodigious breasts that seemed to stand straight out from her chest. And wouldn’t you know it, she wanted to be in at least one of the photos. So we did our best to diversify the breast sizes of our models and in the end, I designed the brochure in Quark XPress software and it turned out great. I was eager to see what the higher-ups at Aspen thought of the work we’d done while keeping the budget in line, but the response was bland at best. “That deal isn’t making us much money,” was the main reaction.
There was not much to do but move on at that point. No amount of bragging about how good the brochure looked was going to change the impression of the project as a near-losing proposition.
On the other hand, I was tagged to be the prime developer of a massive project for Ameritech that would involve creating sales materials for thousands of call center employees across the Midwest. There were dozens of products, mostly landline phone options at that time, as cellular was just starting to take off for the company, and the call center employees needed to have educational material near-at-hand. So I designed a format for all the pages, pulled in all the technical information and created a “library” of products that would be ringed onto plastic mounts above their desks.
The job to create the plastic mounts was jobbed out to a local provider, a fabrication whose owner Don was an interesting character. He always looked a bit disheveled, and his assembly plant was located in a small warehouse off a state highway between cities. On the morning that we were supposed to stop by the plant to pick up thousands of the plastic mounts, it was still dark at 4:30 a.m. when we arrived. Our scheduled called for us to drive north from Chicago to Appleton, install as many of the mounts as we could throughout the call center to show how it’s done, and likely return that night.
But when we arrived at the plant, I could immediately see by the look in Don’s eyes that something was amiss. Plus, there were only a dozen or so boxes of plastic mounts sitting on the floor. It was clear that they’d fallen behind schedule somehow. Pat O’Rahilly walked up to the owner and said, “You told us there would be three thousand ready for pickup. How many do you have?”
“A thousand…” Don replied. “These take a long time to make. You didn’t give us enough time!”
He was likely right about that. Our company was always doing things last-minute. The phrase around the firm was “Always the time to do things fast. Never the time to do things right.”
Yet here we were ready to drive to Wisconsin with only a third of the mounts we were scheduled to pick up. Pat was furious. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” he demanded.
At which point Don leaned in and put his nose right in front of Pat’s face and hollered, “Fuccccckkkk…Youuuuuuu….”
I was shocked, for sure. I’d never really seen anyone respond to someone like that in business. But after we walked out of the room, Pat turned to me and said, “You know, you kind of have to respect someone that sucks Fuck You to your face.”
And so it was that we grabbed what we could to drive to Wisconsin and get the job going. While there, one of the key account executives and managers for Ameritech walked up to me and said, “What’s the creative guy doing up here installing plastic mounts? Don’t you have people to do this for you?”
I was quick to reply. “Quality control. We want to make sure it’s done right.”
That’s right, I toed the company line for sure. In fact, I’ve always been something of a loyalist even if I’m not the happiest with the circumstances faced at work. I’d learned the hard way at the Chronicle job that a single bad word can cost you big time if it gets back to management. That’s true even if you’re not the one that originally said anything at all. Most managers (and I said that generally, yet honestly) do not like to be questioned or hear anything negative about the company even if they’re the ones that habitually complain or badmouth the place their own way.
So I sucked it up and the installations went went across multiple Call Centers across the Midwest. The fabricator got caught up in his work and my design work was greeted with appreciation by the client.
The Claustrophic Mascot
Then another Ameritech project for the Call Centers came my way. “We need to design a mascot for one of their CPE division,” our VP Vince Marinelli told me. So I got to work using Adobe Illustrator do designed the life-sized costume and sent it off to a production facility. The day it came back from the manufacturer, Vince pulled me out of my office and said, “Here, you can be the first to try it one.”
There wasn’t an instruction sheet, so we laid the costume down on the floor and I crawled inside. I was expecting a breathing portal somewhere near the face, but as I rolled over on the floor all that hit my cheeks was a layer of plastic. I started panicking. Claustrophobia hit me hard. I started gesturing to get out because I couldn’t breath. At first people thought I was joking. Then two of our women account executives shrieked, “He can’t breathe!”
Someone grabbed the suit near the knees and lifted it up so I could crawl out. My mind was racing and I tunneled my way back down through the suit and emerged flushed and a bit angry. Vince couldn’t help laughing at that point, and helping me to my feet he said, “I bet if you’d had a knife, you’d have cut your way out huh? Then we’d be out $5,000…”
Indeed, that was a great expense. But the laughter I heard during my sojourn inside was a great expense to me. Because as it turned out, there was a fan attachment for the back of the suit that someone had left on the dock. Once that was attached, the suit filled up with air and the next person into the suit walked around the office like a hero. I admittedly sulked and felt stupid for not being more careful. At that moment, the lyrics from the song Hotel California by the Eagles came to mind, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…”
A week later, still stinging from my panicked reaction inside the suit, I wanted to prove that I was still game enough to take chances. Vince asked if I still wanted to participate in the CPE product launch at the Ameritech office. This time, he told me, I didn’t have to wear the CPE suit. “But I do need you to wear a woman’s dress…and act a part” he told me. I tried it on in the restroom. But fortunately, my shoulders were too damned wide to fit into the thing.
By then, I’d had enough exasperation and embarrassment to last me forever. I was trying to prove myself a valuable part of the team, but when stuff like that happens, it undermines the self-confidence. It’s hard not to feel a fool in the workplace sometimes. That’s one of the tarsnakes of life, I guess.
Coming off a year of running my own business and a debacle job in which Paladin Interim Staffing hired me to open a suburban Chicago office but never followed through on their promises, I floated into the spring season looking for work and a more stable situation. One of the things I’ve always done when processing loss in life is going for long runs and trying to think it all through.
That is the salve that keeps me going during tough times. It was hard to reconcile my feelings of defeat as if I’d done nothing wrong, yet here I was out of work at 39 years old with a family to support. So I ran some miles, then focused my daily efforts on applying for jobs. That is always exhausting work, no matter how old you are.
The year was 1996. My son was in fourth grade and my daughter was in first. They shared a small bedroom in our 750-square-foot brick bungalow in Geneva. It was starting to get awkward for the two of them, and cramped in terms of space. So the pressure to move our family forward was getting greater as well.
It is depressing to send out resumes, write cover letters, go through interviews, and not land a job. Yet the discipline I’d learned from running helped me keep my head together. One day I called my former track and cross country coach Trent Richards to network and he told me, “Well, they’re hiring an associate creative director here at CMI. Do you want me to tell them about you?”
I almost jumped through the phone to tell him “Yes!” The next day I interviewed and was offered the job at $50,000 a year. I took it willingly. It was an exciting way to start the new year.
But the day that I started, the company President Pat O’Rahilly informed me that I’d be earning less than they’d originally promised. For what reason, I never had the courage to ask. I needed work, and they likely knew it. Why not cheap the guy down? Perhaps it was just some sort of power play. But by then, I’d already moved into the office in which I’d be working, met the creative staff and one of my bosses, Ken Konecnik. I was so damned excited to be working I figured it was best to suck it up and keep on moving.
I also met a guy that I’d call a friend for many years. Monte Wehrkamp was a creative director whose office was crammed with Car Guy stuff because he was a wizard of automotive direct mail copywriting, cranking out direct response mailers week after week for Cadillac, Chevy, Ford, Volvo, Chrysler and whoever else the sales team brought to the door. He seemed possessed of the right kind of snark to survive well in the agency world. I vowed to learn from him.
The sales team with whom we worked closely was composed mostly of former car salesmen that Pat brought with him when he sold off a number of the car dealerships he owned and started a marketing agency to leverage his car-selling expertise. It was a successful formula from the get-go. O’Rahilly barely earned an Associate Degree from the College of DuPage, yet he possessed a genius for the hard sell that drove the entire company. In his own inimitable fashion, he was a self-made man.
The car guys that served him were just what you might expect from expatriated used and new car salesman. They loved crude jokes and told rude (but true) stories. That included throwing customers’ car keys on the dealership roof to put pressure on themselves to sell them a new car. Sometimes they’d play a betting game to see which sales guy could get a customer to climb into the back end of a car “to show them the trunk space.” And so on.
Some of those guys were strikingly handsome and possessed a brand of self-confidence many people wish they had. One dated a gorgeous woman who worked at the firm in the administration department. She worked nights as a Luvabull dancer for the Chicago Bulls and wasn’t afraid to flaunt her legs in short skirts worn around the office. I happened to follow the two of them up the stairs one afternoon and nearly fell backward at the sight of her thong and ass cheeks peeking out from beneath her dress. The image seared into my brain so quickly I could see it even after I looked away. Was I any better than the rest of the hogs in that place? I didn’t really know in that moment.
Sexual harassment and more
There were beautiful women working in every corner of the office, but while their looks were favored, and it clearly helped them get a job with the firm, it wasn’t an easy situation for any of them. Sexual harassment was rampant due to a general atmosphere of office misogyny. There were rumors of legal settlements on behalf of several women working at the firm.
One day while sitting in the front seat with a work group on the way back from lunch, I listened to a young woman we’ll call Monica describing how her boss was treating her. She was a young, impressionably sweet Polish girl that had grown up on the west side of Chicago. She wasn’t entirely naive to the world, but she was certainly not accustomed to what her boss was saying to her on a daily basis. “He asks me what I’m wearing under my clothes,” she related. “And what I’m doing with my boyfriend in bed.”
We were almost back to the office, so I asked the driver to pull the car over to the side of the road. Turning around to face the back seat, I told her, “Monica, you don’t have to put up with that. It’s sexual harassment.”
She sat there looking scared, so I continued. “I have a close friend that specializes in labor law. Let me give him a call and we’ll see if you have a case here.” That evening, I reached my friend who referred me to a female attorney that specialized in harassment cases. I never learned the exact details of the settlement she received, but it was rumored to be in the range of $50,000. She left the firm soon after that exchange.
Then the company hired a new “secretary” for the man that had been harassing Monica. The new woman was tall, strong, and had a domineering personality. There was no more harassment after that.
Wealth and warped ideals
That same guy, who was quite married by the way, once told me that he was afraid to have children because, in his own words, “I don’t make enough money.” I knew from internal sources that he in fact earned a base salary and commissions totaling $250,000 per year. And there I was earning under $50K as a father of two children. His words might have made me reconsider my life choices if the guy wasn’t such an obvious asshole to begin with.
There were other problems within the organization as well. One of the top salesmen was a devoted racist and gun nut who once loudly proclaimed to the Creative Department that he was well-prepared with an arsenal of weapons in his home if ever “the n******s come to get me.”
He was the same guy that erupted in anger when one of our creative staff placed an image of a Black player on a March automotive mailer with a basketball theme. “Everyone of my customers knows that I’d never put a n***** on one of my mailers,” he announced.
We were all disgusted by such behavior, but there wasn’t much any of us could do about it. Even the President, who branded himself Mr. Big, was known to call the creative department the Design Fairies. Layers of false bravado, ugly machismo, and toxic masculinity were everywhere. A woman could not wear an outfit that showed traces of whatever she wore underneath without drawing some under-the-breath comments about her appearance. I worked directly with two classy female account managers that certainly heard that type of commentary, yet knew how to dispense with those making the comments in a most emphatic way.
And childish behavior
The behavior around the agency sank to an ultimate low when guys started faking crotch grabs on each other while walking the halls. That 7th-grade-level behavior was considered “funny” at the time. Forms of immaturity existed at every level of the organization. The President himself once challenged me by saying, “I can beat you at any sport that involves a ball.” That type of comment was not uncommon at all, especially because we were half-required to participate in agency-client basketball games on the President’s backyard court. I was a good player that could nearly dunk even into my late 30s. By contrast, the ball-hog style of O’Rahilly was mostly pass-and-grunt stuff that made him feel like more than a big deal than he ever was.
Despite all the distractions, I concentrated hard on the work at hand and got involved in top-tier projects with Ameritech, one of our biggest non-automotive clients that would become SBC before evolving back into AT&T.
One of those “big” projects was a muffed assignment by the Agency of Record, Ammirati/Purus/Linus. Our little direct response firm was given a crack at doing a national campaign for a new Ameritech product involving a complimentary CallerID offer. With only a couple days to craft the campaign, I came up with Two Big To Resist and the client loved it. When it went back to APL for production, they dumbed down the slogan to Too Big To Resist, which made no sense, but they did use the art idea I created with a tag to promote the offer. By then we’d been paid for our work, so Mr. Big was happy with the outcome. I’d made it happen on short order despite the inane over-processed interference of another Chris that had joined the organization and wanted to spend two whole days putting Post-It Notes on the wall to come up with the campaign. I hated the Post-It Notes technique because it wastes a shitload of time and seldom generates good work. So I retreated to my office, came up with the campaign, and brought it to Mr. Big. That’s what we used.
During that first year, I’d earned a reputation as a thinker within the organization. But it was a serendipitous encounter that earned me a new nickname. One day a salesman walked into the Creative Department and asked aloud, “How do you spell pterodactyl?” I immediately spelled it out for him as he wrote it down. Then he glanced up at me with an odd look on his face and asked, “What are you? Some kind of Professor?” That nickname stuck. From then on, I was The Professor.
So I was feeling confident overall and decided to press Mr. Big for a raise, telling him, “I’ve stepped up. I want a $10K raise.” He said, “You’re right,” and my salary was increased. Of course, that only raised my earnings to what was originally offered when I took the job. But I considered it a win anyway.
Meanwhile, one of my immediate bosses was the VP of Sales, Vince Marinelli. He was celebrating my contributions, giving me key assignments, and even told me, “You’re like #3 behind Mr. Big and Me.” My sorry admission is that I’d actually started to believe him. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. The second year of my employment at CMI would prove to be filled with both success and harsh realizations.
In 1995 I was thirty-eight years old with a wife and two kids, and suddenly, out of work. The ENVIRONS business I’d cobbled together with a spate of contracts fizzled out with the failure of the development company to land a hospital partner and build the healthcare facility that was to become the main focus of my efforts and income. Then the Chronicle hired an internal resource to take over the business I was managing for the company, and $60,000 in income flew away in a matter of weeks.
I made ovations to the Daily Herald as their marketing collateral project turned out well, but they weren’t quite ready to hire me. That would come along five years down the road, but I had no idea it would take that long to latch on with a growing newspaper like that.
Instead, I was left looking for a job, and pronto. The Internet and email job hunting were starting to fire up in earnest, but it would also be a few more years before job postings migrated from print to digital. So I pored through the Chicago Tribune and local papers to find jobs suitable to my marketing, promotions, and creative services background and started applying.
Building a resume is not the most fun thing in the world to do. But I got some response even though I’d been working for myself for a year. That was met with some suspicion, but I tried to present it as a sign of initiative, rather than a break in actual employment.
Late in the year, I landed interviews with two companies. The first interview was with Wilton Industries, a kitchenware company based in the southwest suburbs. They needed a creative director. The salary was excellent, nearly $80,000, more than I’d ever made in a single year. The only drawback was the daily commute of thirty-five miles from our home in Geneva. In most morning traffic conditions that would mean an hour’s drive in the car. I’d rented a new Dodge Neon during my year in self-employment, an act that drew derision from one of the partners in the real estate company. “You just started a company and you’re renting a new car?” he cynically inquired.
I had no choice, actually. The Ford Fairlane I’d been given by my wife’s family had died from a broken seal in the engine block. The thing leaked oil so fast that it had to be filled every other day. The Neon was a gas-efficient car that would require no maintenance or upkeep. I still think I made the right decision. The payment was just $206 per month. As long as I didn’t exceed 20,000 miles per year, that car was a wise decision.
The other job opportunity was with Paladin, an interim staffing firm based in Chicago. They were seeking a salesperson to oversee expansion into the Chicago suburbs. The plan was to connect their computer system to a remote office from which I could work. The salary base was $60,000 and the commissions were healthy and structured around a collaborative program in which everyone in the firm had a stake in helping the other. If the company hit the sales goals the commission rates were 36%, 18%, and 12% based on revenue numbers.
They told me that I’d need to commute to their office in the Hancock building on Michigan Avenue for two weeks for training. Then I’d be set up to work from the burbs in their new office. The arrangement appealed to my entrepreneurial spirit. It also sounded like I could make equally good money. I liked the idea of helping other creatives (like me) find work. I turned down the Wilton offer and signed up with Paladin.
During 1994 my running volume went up and down due to a new type of injury. My left knee developed a condition called chondromalacia. That means the cartilage under the kneecap wears down, especially along a ridge at the center of the patella. It causes a burning sensation, and at some point, running at all becomes painful and ultimately impossible. Thus I visited a running podiatrist friend named Dr. John Durkin, whose reputation for treating runners included the likes of the British world-record holder Sebastian Coe, American Olympic distance runner Jim Spivey and World Cross Country Champion Craig Virgin. I’d illustrated his book on running biomechanics and learned quite a bit about the value of orthotics, so he fit me for my first set. Within a week, the knee problem went away.
That’s because my left foot in particular was pronating a bit, pulling the angle of my knee inward. The resulting torque on the knee joint and a set of weak quadricep muscles was allowing the patella to be pulled ‘off-line.’ The orthotics stabilized the situation. Some physicians prefer a different approach, such as using physical therapy to build up weaker muscles. In some cases, that works. In my case, I was relieved to be able to run again and have worn some kind of orthotic device in my shoes ever since. About ten years ago, I had a set built by a pedorthist, but those orthotics were extremely bulky and stiff and I grew to hate them. Running fast in them felt like you were fighting the shoes on your feet.
Then I visited a local running shop that had a scanning machine to fit runners for Aetrex inserts, a flexible solution. They worked instantly, and I’ve never gone back to bulky orthotics.
But that first pair proved to be lifesaver. I still loved to run recreationally and jumped in the occasional race if I felt like it. I also wore those orthotics in my dress shoes, and that’s where this aspect of the story about orthotics begins to converge with my work world at the time.
Because Paladin’s promise to allow me to commute to the city of Chicago for just two weeks never came to fruition. The interim staffing company underestimated the difficulty of getting its database to operate remotely. This was 1995, after all. The Internet was still a clunky thing. Thus rather than working from an office in the suburbs, I was forced to commute to the City of Chicago daily in order to do my job.
That broken promise meant getting to the train each morning by 6:30 a.m. in order to get to the Ogilvie Transportation Center by 7:30 a.m. Then there was still a distance of a couple miles to cover in order to get to the Hancock Center at the northern end of the Loop on Michigan Avenue. There was a bus that wound around the city on its way north across the Loop, but sometimes it was too exasperating to sit there with the other commuters waiting to get to work. And as long as I wasn’t getting much running done by leaving at 6:00 in the morning and getting home at 6:30 at night, I decided to walk on many days.
That walk was also a sign of protest on many days. I was angry that I’d been lied to about the remote office. Yet finally, after a couple months, I began going on sales calls out in the suburbs. But any work that I drummed up needed to be entered into the database downtown. That meant another day’s commute to the city. That’s why I was glad to have those orthotics in my shoes.
All told, the sales job presented an odd tension to manage. It was largely new business that I was developing. The sales curve on relationships like that tends to be long. But I pressed on, making phone calls and visits to the best prospects. Still, the pressure to bring in sales grew as time went by.
Meanwhile, another new salesperson was brought on board to work with downtown clients. She was handed to some business to manage. It didn’t take her long to land other business downtown. That made her the “new star” on the staff.
Competitive as I was, glorifying her for a much easier job pissed me off. As a means to motivate me, I was told to go to lunch with a longtime sales guy we’ll just call Roy (name changed), whose sage advice I was supposed to embrace. We sat down to lunch and he began grilling me about my tactics and approach. Yet when I expressed frustration with the promise I’d been given to work in a remote office, he barked, “Well, that’s not going to happen. So you’ll have to find ways to make this work if you want to succeed.”
That reminded me of the time I was riding the train into Philly for my job with Van Kampen when a friend that worked in the Wholesale Investment department turned to me and said, “What are you guys doing in marketing? We’re not getting anything we need! If this keeps up you’ll all be out of a job!”
His prediction came true, and my life was turned inside out. I’d moved all the way to Philadelphia in August of 1982 at the behest of the company when it consolidated the marketing department in that office. By April of 1983, the whole thing imploded thanks to the daft inattention of the VP of Marketing, whose theoretical approach to the job wound up costing most of us our positions. None of that was my fault, but it somehow still felt like it.
So my alarm bells went off when Roy uttered his words of warning. Then he took a phone call during lunch. It turned out his teenaged kid was caught up in some sort of bad behavior. Drugs and such. Then Roy told me they were largely estranged. After listening to him brag about his long record in business and great relationships with the companies he served, it made me question whether his dedication to work had somehow eclipsed his parenting obligations. That’s a common story in this world, and it made me think about my own son back home. Was I doing the right thing trying to make this job work? Was all the hustle and commuting even worth it?
The self-doubt crept in gradually, but I kept up my sales calls and actually made some great headway with a company out in the suburbs. Excited to have landed a big bed of business after the sales call, I called the potential job into the company. Connecting with the office Director, I told her, “This client wants to place seven full-time employees. That should build a solid relationship with them!”
Rather than compliment me on the breakthrough, she drolly announced. “You know that’s not really what we do. We want to place people in temporary jobs. That’s our bread and butter.”
I stammered for a second, and said, “But, there’s more than 4,000 people in our database. We can spare seven, can’t we?”
“Well,” she replied. “We’ll talk about it internally first.”
The next day, I came into the city hoping to enter those jobs, each of which would have generated about $10,000 in placement fees for the company, in the company database. Finally, I had something solid to build upon, and justify my base salary. But the potential commission on the sale at a rate of 36% was what I was really banking on. Instead, they told me the sale was a No Go. “Try to get them to use temporary employees,” I was instructed. “We can’t afford to sell off our good talent.”
I was incensed. I knew for a fact that there were thousands of people languishing in their database eager for work that gladly would have taken a full-time gig. I’d been one of them at some point. I’d originally interviewed with the company to do contract work through them. They were the ones that asked me to apply for the new business development job.
But they lied to me. They were never prepared to fulfill their promises.
In the Loop
That walk from the train to the Hancock got harder every time I did it. At the office, I sat right next to the woman they were glorifying for closing the business they basically handed her. About the only thing that felt like a reward on those city days was walking past the Victoria’s Secret store where giant images of women showing their tits and ass greeted me in passing. Along with that dip into sexual distraction, the company receptionist was a stunner herself. She became known for wearing revealing outfits to the office. She had the chest and figure for it, for sure. Yet women in the firm started to complain that she was dressing too risqué. The company director issued her a warning to dress more “appropriately,” but she adamantly refused. I respected her stalwart desire to dress as she pleased. It sure pleased me, and I used to chuckle a bit on hearing her say, “Welcome to Paladin. How can I help you?” So I was sad when they dismissed her, which I also found ironic, as one of the company’s directors was a gay woman. Is it misogynistic to say that I thought she’d enjoy the view? I get that there were professional standards and decorum to uphold. But she was a fitness model on the side, as I recall. To her, there was no big deal. It was more like, “This is how I look. Deal with it.” More power to her.
Her dismissal stank, but not as bad as the increasing stench from the orthotics I wore in my dress shoes. One day I was sitting in our line of desks when the waft of foot sweat drifted up from my feet. I saw the Glory Girl saleswoman next to me blanch at the smell. I instantly realized it came from my running orthotics. They weren’t washable, so the cumulative odor was strong. I moved away from the table and went to the washroom to extract those stinko inserts and returned to the desk. But in a way, I was happy to stink up the place. “Fuck them,” I thought to myself. “This whole place is starting to stink.”
It became obvious I was not going to last in the job much longer. One afternoon I stepped out to have lunch and walked to the little park by Oak Street Beach. It was a glorious early spring day. I could hear warblers flitting around the trees above me. But I was sad and bent over crying in the park. That’s the day I knew that either I’d have to leave that job or they’d fire me. Which was the better option?
High and mighty thoughts
Perhaps I was never meant to work in a corporate environment at all. I probably should have become a teacher, but when I was young and dumb, that felt like giving up on my dreams of being an artist or writer. I know. How horribly cliché it all sounds.
But I recall sitting in a team meeting on the 36th floor of the Hancock building, and I was facing the window that overlooked tall towers across the way. Into that scene floated a wild peregrine falcon. I saw it drift cleanly on an updraft, hovering before the window in its amazing evolutionary glory. I couldn’t help myself in that moment. I pointed out the window and said “Look, it’s a peregrine falcon.”
Everyone in the meeting looked at me, then looked out the window where I was pointing. A few muttered “Huh,” and then they all glanced at me with a frustrated look at having interrupted the meeting. Perhaps I was the country boy in the city. But at that point, all I could think about was how stupid and dull they all looked for not having a sense of wonder.
The same thing had happened the day I looked out the window and saw a rainspout rising up from Lake Michigan. It was an astounding sight, but no one seemed to care too much at that amazing natural phenomenon. I kept thinking, “How can people be so dull?”
Then the rains came
Toward the end of my tenure, in late spring of 1996, I finished the workday when a massive rainstorm crashed into downtown Chicago. Sheets of rain came pouring down. When I stepped outside the Hancock to hail a cab, it was obvious they were already taken. I stood there a moment in my black suit wondering what to do. Then I said, “Fuck it, I’ll run to the train.”
So I took off full bore down Michigan Avenue as the rain pounded me. I carried the computer case with me, which slowed me down with its bulkiness. But I didn’t care what happened in that moment. I ran laughing and cross Huron and Ontario and Superior and the lot of the “lake” streets on my way to Upper Wacker. I took that long curving street around to the train station and arrived in time for the 5:20 or whatever it was I was trying to make.
My black suit was 100% wool, and I smelled like a wet sheep after running through the rain to reach the train. The pleats and line down the front of the suit were all erased. My head was soaking wet and I stood in the space between the cars with water dripping down my back and legs. “I think that’s it,” I told myself that day.
Sure enough, the company and I parted ways a few days later. I was relieved because the lies were now over. The lie the company told me about opening a new office in the suburbs. Done. The lie that it was not possible to provide me a big payday by placing permanent rather than temporary employees. Also over. The lie I’d been telling myself that I could somehow make it work out? Over and over. I’d taken that job with the best intentions and the height of optimism. Yet day after day, that attitude was kicked to the curb by the selfishness of management and their own failed plans. I was frustrated that essentially, I’d let that happen to me again. By the age of 38, I’d been in a series of jobs that were undermined by either false promises, dishonest conduct, or egotistical actions. I’d tried so hard to overcome my own lack of self-esteem, and made it happen in many ways. But the lessons of life were still hard to learn.
A week after that job ended, I was driving my car to a job interview when the vision in my eyes started to close down like a dark blanket from top to bottom. I pulled the car over and squeezed my eyes shut, wondering what was happening. Was I going blind? Actually, I was having an ocular migraine. I called my doctor about it and he sent me to have a brain scan in an open MRI machine.
“Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about. Migraines like this can come from a number of things. Are you feeling any stress lately?”
I chuckled, and kind of forgave myself in the moment. With so many situations in life, that’s all one can really do. Then I set about the business of finding a new job. It was about to happen quickly.