The Professional Network

By his own admission, my father had a great career.

He spent three decades, through the 70s, 80s and 90s, as president of a major commercial printing operation in San Francisco. Customers included many of the city’s important businesses as well as several of the new Silicon Valley companies such as Hewlett Packard and Apple.

He successfully steered the company in the face of rapid change throughout the industry brought on by computer typesetting and graphics.

My dad’s business card.

He retired at just the right time, before commercial printing in San Francisco became essentially a thing of the past.

Now in his 90s, he has maintained relationships with people he met throughout his career, and he remains almost universally well-liked.

I had hoped my own career would come close to emulating his. Unfortunately, I have fallen very short of the mark.

There are a number of reasons for that, which I have discussed before. One that I will discuss here is the cultivation and maintenance of business relationships.

My dad was from an era when those relationships were everything. There was no social media or internet. Relationships were maintained through time spent in person or on the phone.

We didn’t go on vacation with the families of his colleagues. But we did have dinner at their houses, and they came to dinner at ours. He had lunch almost every work day with a colleague. (In contrast, I usually eat alone.)

My dad also had connections with many people not in the printing business. He kept in touch with former classmates, with other business leaders, and was active in the local chapter of the Rotary Club. All of it was important to him.

He once told me that, if one of his friends or colleagues said to him “My son needs a job” he would find that person’s son a job at his company. And he expected the same consideration in return.

Whether that was common for the time or just something my dad did, I don’t know, but that sure as hell isn’t what’s happening today. I admit that I have not cultivated relationships the way my father did, but I know people and I have former classmates. And this has been my experience:

Over a decade ago I began to think about a career move. I had some ideas and I started talking to people. I went to lunch with a experienced lawyer and asked for help with a career change. The most he did was look over my resume and say “Washington is an information town. I’m sure you will find something.”

I sent my resume to a member of my church, asking for help with getting a job in her organization. All she did was suggest that my resume should be formatted properly.

I sent an email to the then-managing editor of the Atlantic, James Bennet, asking for help landing a position with the magazine. This was at my dad’s suggestion, since he somehow knew Bennet through his network of connections. Bennet emailed back to say that he forwarded my resume to his HR department. I heard nothing further after that. (At least he responded. Some don’t have the courtesy to do even that.)

When I got laid off in 2009, my search for a career change took on a new urgency.

A friend put me in touch with a friend of theirs at the EPA. I scheduled an appointment to meet and ask for help landing a job there. He looked at my resume, but all he would offer was to say “We are always looking for smart people here. ” I never heard from him again.

I tried contacting someone locally who went to the same law school as I did. I didn’t know him personally, but I recalled my dad’s words about all it should take is to say that I went to the same school to open doors. I sent this guy emails and regular mail. I never heard back, not even to acknowledge receipt of my mail. Literally no response.

The sister of an acquaintance worked at a firm that placed temps in law firms. I met her for an interview. I never heard from her again.

And so it has gone, time after time.

I’m not entirely sure where I veered off course. Maybe I should not have asked for help, been more bold, told people what I can do for them, all the things that career coaches say to do.

But help was what I needed, and I wasn’t too proud to ask.

Which raises questions about the culture of work in America today. Much has been said (too much in fact) about how “no one wants to work.” And yet when someone is literally begging for assistance getting a job, backs are turned.

Maybe I was seen as a bad risk. I will never know for sure. No one is talking to me.


Epilogue: Once I told a friend that I felt as if I had been blacklisted. He said “How can you be sure that you’re not?”



The Enigma of Departure

Most of the time, when you part company with someone, you fully expect to see them again the next time.

It’s just part of how human interaction works. The expectation of continuity allows so many of our institutions, from family to employment to government, to function.

And yet sometimes, there is a high probability that you could be saying your last goodbye. Managing that is not easy.

My mother is 88 years old this year. She had a stroke over four years ago that has left her disabled and dependent. She lives in a retirement home of her own choosing in California. Each time I visit, saying goodbye requires that I both believe I will see her again and know that I may not.

My father turned 90 years old in January. Obviously, he is in his twilight years. I haven’t seen him in person in four years, for a variety of reasons including, of course, the global pandemic. But we talk frequently on the phone. Each time I say goodbye, I hope we will speak again in a few days but also wonder if I have said all that I feel I need to say to him.

My sons are both adults and mostly independent. They come and go as it suits them. All it would take is some careless driving or an undiagnosed health condition to make that casual wave as they go out the door be the last time we see each other.

My wife was in a hospital in Baltimore, struggling to recover from a serious health emergency during the first half of this year. I was visiting her almost every day. But each time I left for the day, I carried with me the possibility that she might not make it until the next day. If I knew for sure that she was dying, I would not go home. But the doctors and nurses assured me that she’d be there when I returned. I had to trust them. And I know myself enough to know that if I try to get by with my reserve of energy at zero, I won’t survive either. That helps nobody.

So the goodbyes are loaded with silent meaning and unspoken hopes and fears. There is no other way it can be. I cast all my bets on there being a tomorrow with my wife, my children, my father, my mother. And then spin the wheel.

Giorgio de Chirico painting artwork

Eating Dinner in La Mesa

It had been a couple years since my mother was confined to a nursing home due to a stroke.

I was visiting her, as I had been off and on. With her in San Diego and me in Maryland, the visits had to be planned and scheduled based on when I could get time off and when I could get decent air fare.

University Blvd. in La Mesa, California, just down the street from my adequate hotel.

After a long day of being with Mom, I was ready for some time to myself. I decided to have dinner at the relatively new farm-to-table restaurant in La Mesa. Mom had taken me there just before her stroke, so I knew she would have approved.

It was an easy walk from my two-star hotel up La Mesa Boulevard to the restaurant. The place was busy, so I opted to eat at the bar. The bar there has both  indoor and  outdoor seating, and the outdoor stools were less crowded. This being the San Diego area, the dry air was brisk but not unpleasantly cold. I didn’t mind.

It was just me for dinner. I had been working all day to keep Mom engaged and to understand her way of communicating post-stroke, which isn’t easy. I was ready for just letting myself enjoy the moment.

I ordered a margarita for starters, something I usually order in California but hadn’t yet this trip. The bartender was competent but, to be frank, inattentive. She seemed preoccupied by something — perhaps just focusing on her job. But her customers seemed to be an afterthought.

The inattentive barkeep eventually took my dinner order — the vegetable risotto that I’d had when I ate there with Mom. It’s very good and one of the least expensive options on the menu.

I also ordered a glass of red wine to go with it. The margarita was doing it’s thing, but I really thought the wine would be a nice addition to the meal.

When the meal arrived, I enjoyed it while listening to the local news program on the bar TV and observing the bartender and the two women chatting across from me. The risotto steamed in the cool evening air. It was just what I needed.

Except that I could have used a bit more. I could have used some companionable conversation from the bartender, or a fellow diner. It is unsettling to be a paying patron at a restaurant, eating alone, without anyone really taking notice.

I mean really noticing. I can understand a fellow patron not being all that interested in engaging. But the bartender’s job is to tend the bar, yes? Tend to the customers who have arrived at the end of God knows what kind of day for a drink and a meal. Some consideration would be appreciated. Maybe I just didn’t look like the type. Who knows?

Everyone is dealing with something. Bartenders are no different, it seems.

I finished my meal more drunk than I had intended. But the twilight walk back to the motel was pleasant and uneventful. Past the local social services office, past the mini-mall with the Mexican joint and the nail salon. Back to the barely adequate hotel that nonetheless feels safe and peaceful at night.

I got a good night’s sleep.

For Better or For Worse

Traditionally, wedding vows are along the lines of “I take you to be…blah…blah…for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Having been through the “or worse” and “in sickness” bits more than once, I can tell you that most people, when they get married, don’t want to deal with that part and don’t expect to deal with that part.

In the hospital.

By that I mean, neither partner envisions themselves to be the “or worse” and deep down does not really want their spouse to go through the pain of having to suffer though the worst part of themselves.

I bring this up now because my wife is in the hospital, and has been for over a month, due to brain hemorrhage related to her chronic health condition. It is an exercise in patience and endurance for both of us. The relief provided by medication and proper health care (her) and an understanding employer (me) is appreciated, but it does little to alter the fundamental terribleness of our situation. 

Of course, people claim to want a spouse who will stick with them through thick and thin. But it’s like insurance. We are in favor of the idea of having it, as long as we never actually need to use it.

In reality, people don’t want that. They don’t want to face the ugliness of it, or the grim reality of it.

Because the spouse who is “in sickness” is not sexy. And the grieving spouse who is trying desperately to hold it together is not sexy. The sights, the smells, the broken body, the seemingly endless bedside vigils.

Absolutely none of it is sexy, believe me (unless you’re into that kind of thing).

Of course, popular culture would have us believe otherwise. We have movies such as Dying Young and Now is Good and While You Were Sleeping, none of which I have seen, but I’m pretty sure they gloss over the reality of what they think they are depicting.

A more realistic take on such things is a book titled Alice & Oliver, by Charles Bock. Read it – I highly recommend it.

So if ever you are tempted to think that a dying lover is somehow more attractive, or the long-suffering spouse or family member is somehow attractive, stop right there. They aren’t, and never can be.

Trust me.

Today My Sister Would Have Been 60

Cecilie and me in November 2008. I think this is a pretty good picture.

Today would have been my sister’s 60th birthday.

Twelve years ago, Cecilie died from cancer, so she didn’t make it to 60. Not even to 50.

She was, you might say, difficult to know. She had undiagnosed behavioral issues. My brother and other sister think it was probably something on the autism spectrum, but my parents never sought to have an official assessment. I don’t know why.

Cecilie lived in Fremont, California, when she finally was functional enough to live on her own. She liked to travel and went to many places, including visiting me on occasion.

One time, I was waiting to pick her up at the Baltimore airport and decided to buy a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner. I didn’t read it right away.

In fact, I am only just now reading it. A significant portion of the story takes place within the Afghan community in Fremont. I had no idea.

On what may have been the last time I visited her–about two months before she died–Cecilie suggested we go to the pool at her apartment building. She didn’t swim, but she liked pools. She sat by the pool while I swam a few laps. It was one of those sunny, dry days you get in Fremont, California, with the water cool but the sun warm.

It’s a good memory.