Two random thoughts that popped into my head today at almost the same time:
1) I have never had to sleep in a bathtub. In movies and sitcoms this sort of thing seems to happen all the time; you have one more person than you have beds and couches and next thing you know the person whose house or apartment it actually IS is bunking down in the bathtub with a throw pillow and an afghan. I feel like I’m missing out.
2) I have had a presumed child molester or serial killer try to lure me into his car. I was walking down Main Street near the Virginia Tech Mall in Blacksburg, Virginia on a sunny afternoon when I was a sophomore in high school. Guy in a sedan pulled up next to me and asked me for directions to something that was literally a mile or two down the street east of us. I informed him of this. He told me he’d gotten lost twice trying to find the place and would I please get into his car and show him? I said “No, I’ve got places to be.” He kept on wheedling, wouldn’t I please get into his car? I said “No” and walked off. To this day, I look back and think — first, I should have gotten his license plate, second, I sort of wonder what he’d have said if I asked “So, quick question — you got a knife in there or a gun?” and third, what if I’d asked “You try this on a lot of kids?” And of course I wonder what did happen subsequently — did he abduct some other kid that day? Had he abducted others, etc.?
I guess, of the two, I’d rather have slept in a bathtub.
I always feel as though I should start every blog entry with “I know hardly anyone will read this and it’ll probably come across as self-indulgent navel-lint-picking, but I’m posting it ANYWAY.” So, that said, if you’re still reading this, I apologize in advance for what will probably be a real downer of an entry.
My sister Elizabeth passed away on August 16 or 17, 2022. Due to the circumstances of her passing, it’s impossible to say exactly when.
She was my oldest sibling, three and a half years my senior. She and I were not especially close, not by a conscious decision on either of our parts. She lived in Florida and I live in Vermont and we only spoke a few times a year.
See, Elizabeth was on disability, suffering from schizophrenia and related disorders as well as the effects of a lifetime of doctors saying “Let’s take you off THAT drug and try you on THIS one.” She was quiet and calm and never seemed to have anything to say. “Hi, Elizabeth, it’s Jay, how are you?” “Oh, I’m fine.” “You doing anything interesting lately?” “I’m taking some art classes.” “Everything going okay?” “Yes.” Etcetera. There was never any news to report, never any questions from her about how I was doing; her statements were responses to my direct questions, offered without elaboration. Every call was like that, try as I might to draw her out and get her to show something other than just blank, flat affect.
I felt guilty as heck for not calling much more often, but each time I did call, no matter what I said or asked or did, the answers were pretty much the same. I am certain that she was more outgoing in person with people she was taking art classes with, or with my cousins who she had dinner with a couple of times a week, or with people from church. I don’t feel like I really knew her any longer — I only knew what I could deduce or infer or see from my calls and occasional face to face encounters. Perhaps she just didn’t feel like opening up to me. I’ll never know.
Elizabeth was adopted. My parents had been married for several years and had tried without success to have children. They adopted Elizabeth in 1964 and, as so often happens, then things started happening. My sister Julie was born a year after Elizabeth, then I was born two and a half years after that, and then finally my brother Rob was born three years after that. Elizabeth got good grades in school, was a Girl Scout, took piano lessons and dance lessons, had friends — an absolutely typical childhood. Then, at some point in late in her high school years, schizophrenia symptoms set in hard. She became a very different person very quickly, not by choice but because her brain was all of a sudden betraying her. I remember many bad nights when Elizabeth was completely out of control, upset and raging, detached from reality and mired in incredibly dark black depression.
Photo of the first time Elizabeth and I met
It did not help that the state of mental health care and treatment in the early 1980s in the state of Virginia was not at all what one would have liked it to be. I made reference above to doctors changing her medications frequently; that’s not an exaggeration. Each time she was passed on to another psychiatrist for a medication evaluation she would come home with a completely new set of prescriptions having been told “I don’t know why they had you on THAT and THAT”. Six months later, she’d get switched again. Over time, she became quieter and quieter and more just sort of … there.
The medications and care helped somewhat, but all thought of her heading off to college (she did graduate from high school) were pretty much abandoned. She had a few boyfriends who were of the “skeevy, no-count” variety. There were at least two times that Dad and I had to drive up to wherever she was currently living and rescue her from whichever abusive boyfriend she was sharing a mobile home with. One time we got a call from her informing us that she and her current guy were in Melbourne, Florida and she needed our help to come home because he’d wrecked her car. And so forth. It was no kind of life and I would give anything to be able to go back and somehow stop all that from happening, somehow. To bring her previous self back and to set her back on the course to have a happy and full life.
Eventually she wound up just living with my mother and father at the house we all grew up in, then at the house in Florida that they retired to in the mid-1990s. Mom and Dad retired to the town Mom grew up in: Brooksville, Florida, a relatively sleepy little town a couple of counties north of Tampa. Elizabeth qualified for Florida Medicaid and continued to get Social Security disability payments. She did take a lot of art classes — she was very fond of painting plates and bowls. She did watercolors and colored pencil drawings and all manner of other things.
And so things went for sixteen years or so. Then Mom passed in 2011 and it was just her and Dad in the house, with my wonderful cousin Anne living across the street and looking in on them and helping out and doing endless errands and meals. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Dad was a very short-tempered man and had very little patience, empathy, or tact. He endlessly bullied Elizabeth and hectored her every chance he got. “You didn’t go for a walk? Why not?” “When you go for a walk, you need to do more than just walk halfway down the street and back, Elizabeth!” I’ll spare you the whole litany, but essentially, Elizabeth couldn’t do anything right in Dad’s eyes.
When Dad passed in 2016 the house was sold (thanks to an enormous amount of work by Julie and Anne to get the place emptied out and cleaned and into shape where we could actually sell it) and his estate divided among the four kids with a chunk going to Anne. Elizabeth moved to a subsidized apartment and for the first time in decades, was in a position to really make her own decisions. She could drive, she had a car, she had money inherited from Dad (although, to avoid making her ineligible for Medicaid and disability, it was put into a trust and disbursed by a trustee as needed). She continued to take her art classes, had dinner twice a week with Anne and her sisters Cathy and Mary and our aunt Esther, and as far as I knew was doing more or less okay.
I hate that “as far as I knew”. I never once in the six years between Dad’s passing and Elizabeth’s passing went down to Brooksville just to visit her and see how she was doing. I did make at least one trip down after Dad’s death to do a few things relating to the house. That’s something else I feel very guilty about, by the way. I guess at the time I kind of justified leaving a lot of the grunt work of getting the house cleaned and repaired and sold to my sister Julie and my cousin Anne on the grounds that they were willing and available and I had a busy work travel schedule at that time. (I’m an ass.) I should have done much more.
I do know for a fact that I did not show enough gratitude to Julie and Anne for all that, by the way.
At that point in my life I was traveling for work 40+ weeks a year… and had my own major depression to cope with … and kept thinking “I should go down and visit” but years went by and I never did. Those periodic “How are you?” calls were about the extent of things.
Elizabeth and Sarah
Then I got a call from Anne on Wednesday, August 17, out of the blue. She was the bearer of bad news. Elizabeth had passed away.
Elizabeth hadn’t shown up the previous evening for dinner at Anne’s house and, worried, Anne had gone over to check on her. If I understand it correctly, Anne didn’t have a key to get in, and Elizabeth did not answer the door. The police were called to do a health check and the apartment manager had a key so they could get in — and upon entering, they found her on the floor.
There was no sign of foul play. There had been no prior indications that Elizabeth was at risk; everyone knew that Elizabeth had high cholesterol and high blood pressure and rarely exercised and, as we found out subsequently, seemed to live off ice cream and diet soda, but there had been nothing especially unusual in previous weeks that would have made Anne and Mary and Cathy say “Elizabeth, you should see a doctor”. (No autopsy was performed; I believe the coroner’s verdict was a heart attack.)
I flew down to Tampa first thing the following morning and Julie drove down from North Carolina. My brother Rob lives in western Canada and was not in a position to come down. Julie and I met with a funeral director to arrange Elizabeth’s cremation, and then we went to close out Elizabeth’s apartment, clean it up, figure out what could be donated and what would just be tossed out, etcetera. And that’s when I really wanted to cry. Elizabeth’s apartment was an absolute nightmare. Literal mounds of unwashed clothing. Trash everywhere. The apartment was almost impassable. It was, frankly, like one of the episodes of that TV show about hoarders. Elizabeth had been living in absolutely squalid conditions and even now, sitting here two months later in Vermont, I still want to cry just thinking about it. Her dying was bad; her dying without my having seen her in six years because I was always “too busy” was worse, but worst of all was knowing that she’d been living in that state.
I should have been coming down at least once a year to check in on her and see how she was doing and not just rely on her saying “I’m fine” and figuring that if she wasn’t fine someone would tell me. I don’t know how long things had been like that but I hated the thought of her living like that for even a day — and it could have been and probably was years. My cousins are terrific people but they had respected Elizabeth enough to let her make her own choices — I certainly don’t fault them or think that they should have been inspecting Elizabeth’s apartment on a regular basis. I should have been checking in on her. Not just calling, but being there in person like a decent person would have done. I know I couldn’t have been there to clean her apartment for her once a month or something, but I have to think there would have been some way to keep things from getting to that state.
If only I hadn’t been so good at making excuses. Yes, I’m mentally ill. Yes, I’ve got terrible depression that incapacitates me from time to time. Yes, I have a demanding job. Yes, I’ve got my own life to lead. That’s all a bunch of B.S. She was my sister, and I let her down.
The one comforting thing about that trip to Florida to excavate and clean Elizabeth’s apartment (which took days of Julie and me working together and making trip after trip to the nearby dumpster) was that the memorial service we held at Cathy’s house the following Monday was well attended.
Julie and I had tried to reach out to as many people Elizabeth knew as we could; folks from her church, people she’d been in art classes with, people from a few groups she’d belonged to, hoping that word would get around to the people we didn’t know to invite, and that somehow we’d get a respectable showing. On Sunday morning, we’d gone to the First United Methodist Church of Brooksville; she’d been a member for many years and had sung in their choir. People there were very sad to hear of her passing. We asked the new pastor at the church, who’d never had an opportunity to meet Elizabeth, if he could come and lead prayers at the memorial service and he was happy to agree. Next thing we knew, it seemed the whole choir was making plans to attend, with an electronic keyboard and everything.
Cathy’s house was absolutely packed and person after person shared stories about their time knowing Elizabeth and saying how much she’d meant to them and how much they would miss her. Some of her favorite songs were sung. The minister led prayers and said a few words. There was plenty of food there as well — no one left hungry. All in all, the memorial really was everything we’d hoped it would be, and more. We hoped that somewhere, Elizabeth was watching.
But that’s the other thing that really saddened me: I’d never seen the side of Elizabeth that everyone talked about. I had tried on so many occasions, while my parents were still alive, and via phone after they were both gone, to draw her out, to get her to really open up to me, and I’d never succeeded. Perhaps I was too much like my father in her eyes. I can understand her not wanting to share with me if I reminded her of the man who had hounded her all those years.
But in the end I’ll never know. All I know is that there was far more to Elizabeth than I was aware of… and that I let her down in so many ways.
In closing, I’m reminded of a quote from Bret Harte:
If, of all words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are, “It might have been,”
More sad are these we daily see:
“It is, but hadn’t ought to be.”
Farewell and goodbye, sister. I’m sorry you’re gone.
When I was a kid growing up in the mountains of Virginia, there was a large black walnut tree directly behind our house, close enough that on windy days you would hear thump! thump! thump! as green walnuts dropped from the tree and onto the flat roof of our house, especially over the room I slept in. Dozens more walnuts could be found on the grass around the tree.
Well, a decade ago I decided that I missed that experience, so I planted some black walnut trees along the edge of our back yard, close enough to the house that in theory they could land on our sloping metal roof or the steps outside the living room and give me that “thunk!” I was longing for.
I’ve never seen any green black walnuts lying around back there, though, and the trees are so tall that it’s not really easy to see if there are lots up there in the branches. I wondered if for some pollination-related reason we just weren’t getting any.
Well, just now I heard that “thunk!” I knew so well. Right on the wooden steps outside the living room, where I happened to be sitting. I looked out the door and sure enough! A green black walnut, right there at the top of the steps. I ran to get my cell phone to snap a photo to commemorate the happy moment and … when I got back that walnut was GONE.
I think I know why we’re not seeing green black walnuts all over our back yard. Our local squirrels don’t get caught napping.
The post below is not ‘new news’ — it’s something I’ve been meaning to post since early July. It may be ‘new to you’ or it may be something you already know about via Facebook or elsewhere.
Our cat, Marie, passed away on July 6, 2022 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
If you have actually been following me here or on Facebook, you’ll recall multiple posts about poor miss Marie over the last few years. (See here, and here)
Marie started having health issues in mid-2020. She developed a huge bloody tumor on her left side and numerous smaller tumors here and there. We had the biggest tumor surgically removed — twice. Each time it grew back within a few months. It never metastasized internally and she never seemed to really notice it much; she had as much or as little vim and vigor as she’d ever had. However, when you have a tumor that looks like this (see picture) weeping blood, you realize that you’ve got to act.
In late 2021 and early 2022 it became obvious that something more needed to be done, and that’s when she began a program of CCNU oral chemotherapy, given every six weeks or so.
The tumor started to shrink within a week or two of the first dose. Six weeks after the first dose she had her second dose, and the tumor really began to shrink at that point. She also lost a lot of appetite (one presumes due to nausea from the chemo) and we were given mirtazapine in salve form to smear inside her ears to stimulate her appetite. Each time she looked a little droopy, the mirtazapine would have her back to normal pretty quickly.
After five months, the tumor looked like this:
Carole and I were delighted. The oncologist at Peak Veterinary Referral Center in Williston was delighted. There was next to nothing in the veterinary literature about treating feline progressive dendritic histiocytosis, and on at least one celebratory checkup I suggested that perhaps she could get a good paper into some journal or another on the subject.
We agreed to administer one final chemotherapy treatment in mid-June, “just to make sure get all the cancerous cells”.
That’s where we made our big mistake. If we hadn’t done that, she might be alive today.
After two weeks or so, her appetite began to wane again. Unlike the previous occasions, mirtazapine did next to nothing to perk her back up. We told ourselves that it had helped a bit and that she had shown more appetite, but frankly, I suspect we were just seeing what we wanted to see.
After two days of lher ooking like a limp dishrag we hustled her off to Peak again, where we got the news that she had a hematocrit that was lower than anyone (the oncologist or the technicians/nurses) could ever recall seeing in a living cat. It was on the order of eight percent. Her red cells were all but gone. Her white cells were all but gone as well. It was as though she’d just stopped making new blood cells.
I consented/begged for heroic measures because a) I’m an idiot and b) I felt responsible, having cheerfully encouraged that final round of chemotherapy a couple of weeks earlier, that final round that seemed to have blown up on us all catastrophically.
The oncologist warned that going all-out would be … expensive.
I said “I’m opening the checkbook, doc, please save her.”
Carole, for her part, was much less sanguine (see what I did there?) about Marie’s prospects and the value of spending … well, spending as much as we wound up spending. But she knew how soft-hearted I am about cats and other animals and did not want me mad at her later, saying “if you’d agreed to take out a second mortgage to pay for treatment, she’d be alive now!”
They gave Marie meds to stimulate blood cell production and transfused blood into her and she perked up considerably.
For, oh, about 12-14 hours.
Then it all began again. She dwindled. There was another transfusion and more meds. A bit more perking up, but not as much as before.
I visited her on the afternoon of July 5 (Carole had to work) and petted her and told her I loved her and once again, saw hope where there really wasn’t any.
But late that night — around 1:30 am on the 6th — we got a call from Peak, from the oncologist herself. Marie was fading quickly and was, in the words of the oncologist, trying to die. She said they couldn’t keep on endlessly transfusing her because other cats might need the blood as well (and cat blood banks are not as well stocked as human ones; there was only so much to go around) and because it really didn’t seem to be making a difference. I could tell that she didn’t want to be giving us such bad news, but that particular oncologist is a very nice, caring woman and clearly wished she could be saying just about anything else.
I knew what she was looking to hear from me and I said it. “I understand. It’s time to let her go.” Carole was sitting next to me, half asleep (it was 1:30 in the morning) but squeezed my hand. She knew how upset I was and was going to be. The oncologist said they would provide euthanasia so she would not suffer any longer.
Cue the tears.
The next morning I ordered her a headstone from the same company that we’ve gotten headstones for our other four deceased cats, dug a suitably deep hole in the sad patch out by our shed where the others are, and went by the vet to pay and to pick up her body.
We have a strange ritual we do for all our cats when they die. We bury them in their preferred pet bed, with their personal food bowl, with any other items that were especially significant to them, and wrap it all up in a shroud of some kind. In Marie’s case we buried her with a blue bath towel — not an especially large one — but one that had done good service over the years protecting Carole’s lap from Marie’s claws whenever Marie jumped up to get petted. Whenever Marie had seen Carole put that blue towel on her lap, she’d known it was time for petting and would rocket right on up there.
We never would have been able to look at that old blue towel again without thinking of Marie, and we knew that if there was a kitty afterlife, she would probably want it with her.
We are now down to three cats.
One is Jacqueline, the long-haired black cat that I adopted at the same time as Marie, from the same shelter. They had been at the shelter together for months — black cats are not adopted as quickly as other cats — and had actually been together before that at the house that wound up surrendering them to the shelter. As far as I knew, Jacqueline had never known life without Marie around and I didn’t know if she would behave differently or strangely when Marie was no longer there at mealtimes, no longer sharing sunny spots. As far as we can tell, though, she’s taken it in stride. If she’s noticed the loss, it hasn’t changed her behavior.
Our other two cats, Maggie the tortoiseshell kitty and Max the orange tabby, were not as close to Marie as Jacquie had been, although we had certainly seen plenty of times when Max would use Marie as a hassock or pillow, often when they were sharing sunny spots. They don’t seem to be super broken up about Marie’s passing.
But nonetheless, I am. The oncologist said that there were two possible reasons for Marie’s cell count plummeting — one was an immune reaction caused by the chemo, where Marie’s system attacked itself, or, that we had basically nuked Marie’s blood-cell-producing marrow.
I (not a veterinarian) think the second theory is most likely correct. We were probably damaging her marrow with each chemo dose, but it wasn’t until the last one that we finished wiping it out. We will never know if she’d have had many more years of life if we had stopped after the second to last dose, since the tumor was all but invisible at that point; perhaps she could slowly have built back her blood cell production capacity.
I still regret so many things, not least of which is my happy “You could get a great journal article out of this, doc!” comment. You know that old saying, “the operation was a success but the patient died?”
Well. We clobbered that tumor, but at the cost of her life. And all my “we’re opening the checkbook, doc, don’t spare anything that could help, no matter what!” did was prolong her suffering.
I’ll never stop wishing it could have been otherwise.
There is nothing more futile than the maintainer of a personal blog that no one ever read in the first place suddenly deciding that it’s time to post a bunch of catch-up entries.
The last thing I posted here was a furious rant aimed at Google for taking my smartphone for warranty repair (the screen was black and wouldn’t turn on, but the phone was otherwise okay) and flat-out losing it.
After three and a half weeks of my loudly complaining and being told dozens of times over that I just had to be patient and that they would have an update in “2-3 days”, my repaired phone suddenly showed up on Friday, June 10. I checked the IMEI — it was the same phone I’d sent out.
By the time the phone finally did return to me, I had adopted a working theory that my original phone, the one sent in for repair, had been flat out lost … and that Google had sent out a replacement, and then that replacement got lost in shipping, and thus the long delay was due to trying to track down THAT phone before they sent out a third. I guess we’ll never know. But regardless of what was really going on after all that time, they finally DID locate my original phone and get it working and got it sent back to me.
I am still bothered by the casual “be patient, dude, be patient, dude” attitude that the support folks endlessly plied me with. At no point did a supervisor or manager or anyone who actually might know what was going on reply. I am also bothered by the irritated go-fuck-yourself responses I got at the beginning of the whole process; they swore the original phone had been returned and delivered and were closing out the case. It took many, MANY calls and emails to even get them to acknowledge that maybe something had gone wrong.
In this day and age, not having the phone that you receive all your business texts and calls on isn’t just an inconvenience — it’s an absolute disaster. When I did finally get the phone back and popped the SIM card back in and powered it up, I had a lot of texts and missed calls that all things considered, I really wish I hadn’t missed.
Long story short, the phone only showed up when a ) I posted a rather lengthy complaining blog entry and b) a journalist friend of mine contacted Google PR. I don’t know if either or both of those affected things, but either way, two days later I had my phone.
I will go to my grave wondering where it was for all those weeks.
Three and a half weeks ago the screen on my Google Pixel 5a phone conked out — I could call my phone and it would ring and I could even get in my car and make calls using my car’s dash screen and my previously paired phone, but no matter what, the screen stayed black. After lengthy calls with Google product support, they eventually decided that I should send it in for warranty repair. Google sent me an RMA shipping label and form and I promptly sent it off.
It was received three weeks ago. Google’s tracking page showed it being received, inspected, and returned all on the same day, and I was watching the tracking site — it went from “on the way to Google” to “received, inspected, and shipped back” all in under an hour. It doesn’t take rocket science to realize that there must have been some kind of glitch on their end… first, because there’s no way it could have been received at their loading dock, opened and routed to a technician for an inspection, inspected, and returned in that short an amount of time, and second, if they actually had inspected it, they would have noticed the screen wasn’t working at all.
I never did get a tracking number for the allegedly on-its-way-back-to-me package. I wrote Google and asked “what’s going on” and for three weeks now I’ve been getting one email after another saying “we’re investigating, please be patient, we’re closely monitoring this, we’ve escalated it to a dedicated team, we’re closely monitoring this, we understand that this is frustrating, please give us 2-3 more days, please give us 2-3 more days, please give us 2-3 more days” ad nauseam.
If Google product support had determined that my phone was hopelessly bricked they’d have had me send it in and they’d just have sent me a replacement phone. But because the phone is lost in their system and from all evidence they’re never going to find it, I am out one phone and am continuing to pay Verizon for service I can’t use. One would think they’d just close out the case and send me a replacement phone, but apparently they’re happier endlessly stalling me and making excuses and doing absolutely nothing at all.
I had been dutifully buying a new Google Pixel phone every two or three years and had been generally happy… but now I’m seeing the legendary “other side of Google” — the part that ignores the old “don’t be evil” mandate Google used to follow. There’s no way in hell that I’m ever buying another Google product.
Does anyone reading this have any advice about how to light a fire under them? I could try taking them to small claims court but that would drag on for quite a while. Are there websites or publications that investigate stuff like this for hapless consumers like me — the kind that the manufacturer knuckles under to in order to avoid bad publicity?
Let’s say that I happened to wind up in an active shooter/hostage situation of some kind and somehow managed to tackle and disarm the gunman. Unfortunately, in this hypothetical scenario, I do get shot multiple times and wind up clinging to life in the ICU.
I am a white male who attends church on a more-or-less weekly basis. It goes without saying that the conservative/Christian radical right would try to co-opt me as a sign that God is watching His children and keeping them safe and so on — never mind all the times that gunmen killed dozens of people, many of whom also attended church regularly.
If I were prepared to be an absolute cad (and assuming I did survive my wounds), I could probably make a lot of money on the inspirational-speaker circuit, to say nothing of getting invited to be on all the conservative/radical right talk shows and so on. All I’d have to do is say “Jesus saved me, I could feel Jesus by my side while I was tackling that naughty shooter”. Instant $$$.
I grant you that this whole scenario is unlikely to take place, but this morning, I figured out what I should do in the event that it does. The moment I first have a microphone of some kind thrust in my direction — as I leave the hospital, or as I give a press conference from my hospital room, or, you know, whatever — and someone asks me what I credit my heroic measures and my survival to, I’m going to blink, try to look surprised that they even have to ask that question, and then I’m going to say:
Today is the 24th anniversary of my starting my current job at what was then called IDX Systems Corporation — a software firm specializing in healthcare information systems, including radiology, hospital and large practice revenue cycle, scheduling, clinical data management, etcetera, etcetera. The firm was purchased by GE in 2005 and made part of GE Healthcare (mostly because GE wanted our radiology software). Fourteen years later in 2019 we were spun back off to a new entity called “Virence” — all except radiology and imaging solutions, which GE kept — and purchased by a venture capital firm, Veritas. Veritas merged us with another newly purchased company, athenahealth, which specialized with cloud-based revenue cycle solutions for smaller practices, and the new merged entity took on the “athenahealth” name. (We were pretty happy about that, as basically none of us liked the coined-by-marketing name “Virence”.) Hellman & Friedman and Bain Capital purchased athenahealth from Veritas in 2021 and that’s how the situation stands now.
So, depending on how you count things, I’m either on my third employer or my fifth — but I’m still in the exact same position. I almost said “exact same job” but didn’t, because even though I am technically in the same position, the position has changed very very drastically over the years and bears little to no resemblance to what it started out as. I started as a technical trainer and now am a Senior Consulting Services Manager (with no one reporting to me) who does some of everything. Well, everything except legal and accounting — I’ve done development, support, installs, marketing, training… whatever they ask me to do. I guess one factor that contributes to my still being here after all these years is that I’ve tried very hard to never say “no” to anything they ask me to do, even if I have absolutely no idea how to do it at the moment. They wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t think I could pick it up quickly and I’ve never said “yes” and then had to say “sorry, no, I can’t do that after all.”
My job involved an enormous amount of travel some years — sometimes as much as 40 weeks out of the year. For the last two years, however, I’ve done no business travel at all; everything has been virtual. (I have my first scheduled onsite customer visit since March of 2020 in a few weeks… shuffling off to Buffalo, NY, as it happens.) I always liked to say “I get to travel a lot” instead of “I have to travel a lot” because, frankly, I really liked the variety and the new experiences and the whole “heading off on a mission to a strange and faraway location each week” thing. The travel was always to domestic locations and, while they’ve never sent me to Alaska or Hawaii, I’ve been on business trips just about everywhere else in the USA. (I crossed Hawaii off, marking my fiftieth state, while on vacation in February of 2017.)
All in all, I can’t complain about my lot in life and my employment history here. I’m well paid and I’ve been fortunate to almost always have good managers over me, people who know that I am trustworthy and reliable and don’t feel a need to micro-manage. I’m able to do all this while still living in Vermont (the 24th anniversary of Carole and me moving here was two days ago, in fact; we moved up here on Saturday, May 16, 1998) — and I’ve always sort of thought that all those trips to big crowded cities have had a lot to do with making me appreciate coming home to Vermont that much more.
I had a random flashback just now to an unpleasant memory.
From late 1995 to May of 1998, I worked for a franchised computer software training firm in the Triangle region of North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill). We offered the kind of instructor-led classroom instruction that you sent your office staff to in order to learn how to do mail merges in Word or learn Excel fundamentals or what have you.
We also had Microsoft certified training courses for higher-end technical people — Windows NT 3.51 and 4.0 stuff, mainly. Each of these courses had an exam that participants could take and if they passed enough of them and in the right combinations they could earn various certifications, MCSE (“Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer”) and so on. The irksome thing, though, is that some of the Microsoft server products we offered certified training on simply didn’t work. They had either been rushed to market, or insufficiently tested, or both.
I once spent the better part of a weekend working from the office, trying to get a Microsoft Systems Management Server install to actually function properly and push software out to workstations on the network. Try as I might, it just didn’t work. I even wiped the server and workstations, reinstalled NT 4.0 from scratch on the server and Windows 95 on the workstations, installed SMS, went through the configuration steps very very very carefully, and … zilch.
This was before the ubiquity of the Internet. Nowadays if a software company pushed out a piece of crap like that, the Internet would light up with technical articles saying “don’t waste your money on SMS, it doesn’t work.” But back then, we had no such place to look to — and Microsoft, of course, swore up and down that the software worked when they installed it.
So there I was that following Monday trying to teach SMS installation and configuration to five or six IT staff from various local companies, sweating bullets, praying like crazy that when we did the setup exercises in class that it would miraculously work. It didn’t. I looked like a complete fool.
Why didn’t I cancel or reschedule? Why did I wait until the weekend before the training to play around with the software?
My firm was all about the money. Rescheduling was just not done. Giving instructors adequate lead time to prepare for a class? Completely unnecessary. Employing salespeople who would say and do anything to make a buck, even if we couldn’t deliver on what they sold? Par for the course.
Our salespeople would sell ‘season tickets’ to allow a customer to take any and all of our classes for a set period of time for one overall price, a good deal in theory… but they would sell them to people WHO DID NOT OWN COMPUTERS. When the students turned in terrible ratings for the instructors because they (the students) literally had no idea what was going on and could not comprehend what the software was doing, we trainers were the ones held responsible.
The closest I came to being fired was when one of our salespeople sold one of those season passes to his computer-less mother, who, after a day of taking Intermediate PowerPoint (without ever having had Basic PowerPoint, Windows Fundamentals, or ANYTHING), went to him and told him she’d learned nothing.
On another occasion, I was told (on a ‘prep’ day where I wasn’t scheduled to teach) that I had to go into a room full of students RIGHT THEN and train them on QuarkXPress for the Mac. I knew QuarkXPress for the PC and would in any event have just worked my way through the student participant guide one exercise at a time, but that turned out to be irrelevant. Turns out that we had never paid for copies of QuarkXPress for the Mac and it had not been installed on the computers in the classroom. (I had to apologize profusely to the participants and tell them we would refund their money.)
This nonsense was somehow, again, my fault. I finally got through to our owners what had happened and they did a facepalm, but they did not turn around and discipline the training manager for that location, the guy who had so utterly failed to have his act together, scheduling a class we could not actually deliver and allowing the salespeople to sell seats in it. Unfortunately, this sort of idiocy happened much more often than you would expect.
So as for that SMS class — I’d been notified on a Tuesday that I would be teaching it the following Monday. Naively, I assumed that the software would work if I just carefully followed setup instructions and that I would hide my relative unfamiliarity with the product with my usual mix of confidence and BS. (This got me through a lot of nightmares over the years.)
Uh, nope. None of the participants could get theirs to work. Neither could I.
So why did I stay at that company?
Well, I was one of the very few people who could actually cope with the craziness without just running out of the building screaming; I was a good trainer and students did give me high ratings and I actually could go in and deliver classes on software I’d actually never prepped on or used. It helped that I am a very fast reader and could take in the gist of a topic and the exercise steps in the participant guide in a few seconds before turning to the students and saying “Okay, our next topic is…” People never knew I was seeing the software for the first time.
Also, I was paid pretty well. The owner knew I could do things that no one else could do and would do my best to be professional even in the craziest circumstances, and my reimbursement reflected that.
I managed to survive there for almost two and a half years before moving to Vermont and getting a job with a real, actual, professional software firm that wasn’t staffed by a bunch of former used car salesmen. Only one other trainer had lasted as long; with the exception of the two of us, no one else ever lasted more than five or six months.
Dénouement: A couple of years after moving to Vermont — sometime around the year 2000 — I got a voice mail message from the owners of that terrible computer training firm. Either they were looking to open a Vermont branch or they knew some other franchiser who was (it was not entirely clear which), and in any event, they wanted me to come work for them.