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A Survivor’s Story

On the local news the other night they wrapped up their telecast by showing a video of a kayaker surviving an attack by a great white shark in the Monterey Bay. The footage initiates after the kayaker has been knocked from the kayak. What you see is essentially a large shark tail thrashing in the water next to the kayak, while on the far side of this scene, the kayaker, buoyed by his life vest, is making his way calmly but steadily away from the scene. A good Sam in a sailboat comes by to scoop safely up the kayaker while the shark continues to nosh on the kayak.

Three points to this story: that’s one dumb shark; that’s one lucky kayaker; and that’s one brave sailboater (since the shark has clearly revealed its taste in boats).

I had a similar incident happen to me not long ago. It’s taken me a while to calm down from it all, as you might imagine. I think I’m ready now to tell my story.

I love oysters, and love photography. It’s not hard to marry these interests in our area given the scope of oyster farming that takes place just 90 miles north of our house, up in Tomales Bay. The waters there appear so calm, but you never know what swims, what hunts, beneath their surface.

Not that I went up there with camera in hand, got up close to oysters being farmed, and Jaws showed up to wreck my afternoon. I mean, that COULD have happened. My point here is, I love oysters.

So my lovely and thoughtful wife, this past Christmas, gave me a gift of a three-month subscription to an oysters-of-the-month club. Each month, 50 of those brilliant little bivalves were to be delivered to the house for my enjoyment. “Enjoyment,” I should say. You know the expression, “big things come in little boxes”?   It’s true, but that’s for better and worse, as I learned. In my case, much, much worse.

I find myself reflecting on how innocent my delight was when at last that first box arrived in January. Unpacking it, inside a Styrofoam cooler about the size of pressure cooker, alongside a few of those artificial ice packs, sat nestled a bag of 50 lovely oysters, plucked just days before from the waters off of Cape Cod (not far from Martha’s Vineyard, where you-know-which movie was filmed). Unbeknownst to me, IT was also in there.

The authenticity of freshly farmed oysters was reinforced by how dirty these guys were, “dirty” with the fine grained sand, that is, that was their bay bottom home just days before. Job one was thus to clean the oysters, a task I took to doing in the sink in our cabana out back.

Oh, how silly a romantic I can be sometimes. Having placed the oysters in the stoppered sink, I then ran water to create a bath in which to clean and rinse them. The smell of the sea that then rose off the water—how transporting it struck me! I no longer found myself just hunched over a sink in my suburban backyard but was back east, on the coast, reveling in the joys and mysteries of our Mother Ocean. The water itself was taking on that greenish, bluish, brownish cast, just like the real ocean, the sight of the oysters dissolving in the now cloaking murk.

In other words, friends: I never saw the strike coming.

I closed my eyes, the better to leave my present and be there fully with the sea. Visions of clamming in the Long Island Sound came to me, as my hands fondled and rubbed at the oysters beneath the surface.

That’s when it hit. Out of nowhere, a lightning bolt of pain shot up my finger, my hand, my arm. In an instant I knew I’d been hit, was being attacked! Worse, the beast’s grip on me was unrelenting, holding me in its clench!

I yanked my hand instinctively back and out of the now damned waters. Whatever IT was came with it, still gripping, still biting me. God had mercy, that when my hand reached the limits of its jerked withdrawal the force of the beast’s momentum exceeded its grip, and it flew off and–THWACK!–hit the wall behind me. I spun around, instantly prepared to defend myself from its second advance, all notions of a water born animal being incapacitated on dry land being lost to the injured animal rage that now consumed me. But it was a crafty beast, whatever this thing was, and the scene before me was all sudden silent stillness. Even the birds in the trees nearby had gone quiet, no doubt absorbed by this outburst of man versus nature savagery. IT had obviously successfully secured cover, and was now hiding, calculating, planning…

I calmed my ragged breath, I gathered my wits; I too held still. I may not have known just then what IT was planning, yet nor would I betray my strategy with any wayward movement on my part. I checked my finger where the beast had latched onto me—thank God it was still there (and surprisingly clean of blood, and uncut).

The tension grew exquisite, until I realized the force of it striking the wall HAD to have affected my assailant. Perhaps it was injured, perhaps my best bet was to go on the offensive before the beast could rally. But where was the accursed brute? I stood at the precipice of a make or break moment, I was Butch and Sundance on the cliff above the river, Rocky before the bell announcing the 15th round. I offered a silent prayer, then casting my fate to gods and wind–it’s go time!–I took action.

Dropping to my knees to better scan the ground before me, I stifled the a scream as my eyes locked with those of my assailant. Just as I suspected—it was no less a monster than a Liocarcinus vernalis, crouched beneath a chair across the way. The goddamned oystermen had sent me more than just their silly damned oysters. They’d shipped a grey swimming crab alongside them!

He was only about an inch in diameter, just a little guy, dazed as hell from hitting the wall, and barely twitched when I picked him up and deposited him in our compost bin (figuring he’d at least have a few days of good eating before succumbing to the environment).

At least I think he’d succumb, my friends. For all I know, he’s still out there, still hunting, still hungry for the flesh of you and I.

God be with you…and you’ve been warned.

To Post Or Not To Post…

Oh, the many faces people put forward where their on line presence is concerned! How shocking it continues to be to me that, seemingly overnight, we have all been given the opportunity to put up billboards alongside the highway composed of the lives of our friends, on which we get to broadcast any and every thought that comes to us. What a remarkable opportunity this is—and how utterly terrifying. Who among us hasn’t been struck, repeatedly, to discover what this or that friend really thinks about things? We’re definitely getting to know each other in a very different way these days, mes amis, for better, for worse.

There are some very obvious stereotypes that have emerged in all of this. Here, a short list:

  • The family guy: gush gush gush about their kids. It’s like receiving one of those wince-worthy year in review letters that come with many holiday cards (the ones that depict lives in which it apparently never rains), only every day. One only hopes you haven’t eaten recently when reading the next gush.
  • The chucklehead: nonstop jokes, goofy pictures, quirky videos of people displaying the most comical aspects of the human condition. Good—great—for comic relief, but I’m often left wondering if you’re paying any attention to what’s really happening out there these days.
  • The foodie: yes! Please! By all means, do show me the incredible Dagwood sandwich you made just now! Which, food photography being its own industry for a reason, always ends up looking a hell of a lot less appetizing on line than you think, old pal!
  • The world traveler: you look good with the Pyramids behind you! Oh, you clever thing, you, “holding” the Eiffel Tower in your hand like that! Where, oh where will life find you globe hopping next? I sit with baited breath….
  • The curator of Great Big Experiences: seriously, is it a divine law that if you go see Hamilton, you MUST LET EVERYONE KNOW YOU JUST SAW HAMILTON?

I’ll stop there as it’s feeling like I could go on forever (the animal lover, the political ranter, the motorcycle guy, the exerciser, the nostalgia buff, the lover perpetually on honeymoon, the single cause crusader….).

I know, I know: cast not the first stone, McWright. I’m as guilty as everyone else of posting just these kinds of things (I’m pretty good at avoiding the food shots). If I ever get a photo of me with some celebrity, I assure you, you’ll be the first to know! But I’d like to think I avoid overdoing it in any one direction, and that’s kind of my point here. Are you monochromatic in what you post, or do you diversify your on line presence, use up more of the technicolor range of that which actually constitutes your life (at least I hope constitutes your life)?

I’d like to think I generally do the latter, such that who I show up to be on line is a decent depiction of who I actually am (I mean, isn’t the point of Facebook primarily to keep each other abreast of what’s happening in your life, all of your life?). And if I do lean in one direction too much for a while (I’m certain I can be accused of this where current politics are concerned), well, that’s probably still a decent depiction of who and where I am right now. Like the weather, things should change shortly.

So here are my, now formerly unwritten, parameters for what I post on line. You are officially welcome to grade me on these going forward.

Regarding what you’re about to post, McWright:

  • Is it clever? Why say what you’re going to say in the most banal manner possible? Go ahead and dare to be entertaining. Dare to address the topic or event in a way that others didn’t see coming. Remember: some people out there haven’t started watching Game of Thrones yet, so you are in some serious competition for their attention!
  • Does it provoke…just enough? Who doesn’t like edgy? Who doesn’t enjoy being made to feel…hmm…uncomfortable in a…comfortable way? By escorting me up to that edge, but not shoving me off of it, I end up trusting you more, trusting that, while you may have whatever feelings on the matter you do, you also have enough perspective to not need or expect me to feel the same way. You give me a taste of the pie, not slam my face with it.
  • Is it different than what you posted yesterday? Please! Unless you’re keeping us up to date on something serious going on in your life (which, by definition, is what you’re about these days), play a different song, dj!
  • Does it offer a slightly different glimpse of…you? I don’t mean to go too far with this one, as this could become burdensome fast. But I like the spirit of it all the same. A good example: we all have guilty pleasures that we’re reluctant to admit. Go ahead and admit it! I posted the other day that I’ve enjoyed the heck out of this last season of Girls on HBO. What manly man does that?? But it’s true, and it’s me, and what the heck do I care about how others react to that, and won’t the heckling I may get be itself worth the price of admission? Though no one has responded to that post yet, so I assume they’re all still in horrified shock.
  • Finally, the age old, am I okay with my mom seeing it? Because she will! (Love you, Mom!)

So them’s my thoughts. But I have to go now, to give some shit to a buddy of mine who just posted a photo of the egg sandwich he’s eating as we speak.

My Year of The Band

Sometimes life just comes together around a thing, and there, blessing of blessings, you have it.

Owing to a random sequence of events, 2016 – 2017 will prove to be my “Year of The Band.” I couldn’t be tickled any more about this.

The Band occupy a deeply impressive place in rock ‘n roll history. At a time when rock was either heading into the psychedelic cosmos or taking steroids and pumping iron during its classic rock era, The Band dared to put out music that went back in time, waay back.  With a mix all their own of folk, blues, gospel, rock, and R&B, with an occasional touch of classical and sometimes a big dash of funk, The Band would have been the perfect house band for a paddlewheel steamer plying the Mississippi in an earlier century, late night, when the the guests are read to kick up their heels and let down their hair.

Their accomplishments are legion, their legacy perhaps the best example ever of being at the right place at the right time when early on they were asked by Bob Dylan to back him during his infamous “Dylan goes electric” tour in 1966.  They were arguably the band to put roots rock on the map, stand toe to toe with The Allman Brothers in launching southern rock, and should be credited as the forefathers of the country rock scene that emerged in southern California (The Eagles, The Flying Burrito Brothers) in the early ’70s.  They set the gold standard for rock documentaries, in partnership with Martin Scorsese, with The Last Waltz.  And of course they were there at many of the era’s most famous moments, starting with Dylan going electric: Woodstock, the 1969 Isle of Wright Festival; the trans-Canada all star train adventure known as the Festival Express, to name a few. George Harrison cited The Band as a major influence on him in the late 60s and early 70s; Eric Clapton tried unsuccessfully to join The Band.

Beyond their unique blend of sounds and songwriting, what probably distinguishes The Band are two things.  They boasted three exceptional singers, each of who could have fully fronted their own band–Richard Manuel, whose falsetto is best displayed on the songs “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released”; Rick Danko, whose voice emoted like no others, as in “It Makes No Difference” (there is simply no more heartfelt expression of these words in all of music as when late in this song Rick sings the line, “Well, I love you so much”); and of course Levon Helms, whose full throated back country drawl, as in “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” conjures up the deep south in a way Ronnie Van Zant could only dream of. Their other secret weapon was Garth Hudson, an absolute savant multi instrumentalist who lived to explore the outer reaches of the soundscape, and whose spontaneous excursions on piano or the organ in concert were the stuff of legend.  A great example of Garth’s contribution to The Band (and the world beyond) is when he revealed the remarkable funk potential of the clavichord, as he did in “Up On Cripple Creek.”  Whose your daddy, Trey McConnell?

Of course I missed all of this while it was happening (The Band broke up in ’76), though I can say I wasn’t geographically far from the action when they first got off the ground (they created their first album in Saugerties, NY, near Woodstock, about 100 miles east of Binghamton). Which isn’t to say they didn’t register for me back when I was young. Seems to me “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” as just one example of their music, was etched in my mind back then with the same sort of hymnal mythos as surrounded a song like “Amazing Grace”—timeless, perfect, with a story and message so epically told that listening to the song became reverential.

For all of these reasons, and being a hack rock historian, I do indeed revere The Band. Thus my delight at the sequence of events of which I’m currently in the middle, the better to know and touch and feel who and what this band was.

Robbie Robertson put out his memoir, Testimony, last year. As is to be expected, he did a book tour in support, and I caught him up in San Rafael in November. Robbie’s such a great talker and story teller that it was magic to just sit there and listen to him yak away. In describing his experiences supporting Dylan during the infamous “Dylan goes electric” tour, Robbie said, “That’s when I learned how to play the guitar without looking at my fingers, since I had to be ready to duck from shit thrown at us by the crowds.” Demoralized on that tour by night after night being met by a wall of boos and catcalls, I love the understated way that Robbie eventually approaches Dylan and says, “I’m wondering if maybe we should rethink our approach to this.” Much to Dylan’s credit his response was, “You’re right. Let’s play louder tonight.”

An unexpected treat to being there for Robbie’s event was in talking with the lady I sat next to that night.  Turns out, she was there for The Last Waltz, and indulged my every last question about what that night was like.  When Robbie first came out, he asked the crowd if any of them had been there.  She counted herself among about a dozen people who could say that in the crowd.  You have to be a good ten years older than I am to be able to say that.  I’d take on those years in a heartbeat to be able to!

In mentioning Dylan, I guess you could say my YOTB actually began in October last year, a few weeks before seeing Robbie, when I went to the Desert Trip festival. Granted, I never set eyes on Dylan that first night, due to the fiasco of my travel plans that day. But I can say, when John and I eventually pulled onto the festival grounds and stopped to present our tickets to security outside our parking area, the song carried on the wind from the stage was Dylan’s closing effort, Like A Rolling Stone. Dylan had just recorded that song in New York the day Robbie met him there.  So there’s that connection.

So first a minor Dylan encounter, then seeing Robbie.  This past weekend I wildly overindulged myself by running down to Austin to catch the opening night of The Last Waltz 40th anniversary celebration tour. This is a Warren Haynes based tour that features a number of other prominent artists, including Don Was, Cyril Neville, Taj Mahal, and Dr. John, who of course played at the actual Last Waltz.  Why I went to Austin is because I couldn’t make the performance that will take place this Saturday in San Francisco, which was going to drive me bat shit crazy. When I heard that Garth Hudson was going to play at a few shows, including the one in Austin, that more or less settled things and had me begging Ann to support my disappearing for 24 hours this past weekend to go catch this.

I’d like to be able to say the evening was end to end fabulous, but the truth is much of the performance was marred by a pretty bad sound system that allowed the deeper bass sounds to just crush the higher register guitars and vocals (sitting through a concert like that is not unlike being Tyson’s sparring partner). Still, the night was simply made by the arrival on stage for the final four songs of Garth Hudson. My Facebook posting pretty much says it all:

“They cap last night’s 40th anniversary celebration of The Last Waltz by bringing out Garth Hudson. God bless him, he’s stooped over, has a beard to make ZZ Top blush, needs two guys to get him to the piano… The crowd’s just so happy to see him, expecting nothing of this old hero…and then Garth begins to play. It was absolutely mesmerizing, a ten minute improv of funky Garth virtuosity, at the end of which he says, “Let’s do it,” and the band drops into The Weight. So, so joyous. “Take a load off, Fanny…and…and…AND…you put the load right on me…””

So, within 5 months I’ve managed to be in the same room with each of the two surviving members of The Band, including hearing perform the most talented musician in the group. Pretty satisfying.  And the best may be yet to come.

Sometime this past year I read that Big Pink is available to rent, the famous pink house in Saugerties, New York where many of the members of The Band lived while they worked out the songs for their first album (titled Music From Big Pink), and where Dylan and The Band recorded the famous “basement tapes” (once considered the holy grail of bootlegged recordings). I doggedly tracked that rumor down, and damned if it isn’t true. And damn right—I’ve rented Big Pink for two nights this June. I still can’t get my head around this, cannot WAIT to see and spend time at what may be one of the three most famous rock ‘n roll houses in history (Graceland and the chateau in southern France where the Stones recorded Exile On Main Street being the other two).

Consider the songs that were created at Big Pink: I Shall Be Released, This Wheel’s On Fire, Quinn the Eskimo, The Weight, Tears of Rage, Chest Fever. Aaaa-maaa-zing!

Being at Big Pink will be heady enough, but it will also allow me a base from which to go visit the site of Woodstock, about an hour away, another screamingly obvious bucket list item for this hack historian.

The Band.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that name reflects either a painful lack of creativity, or, truly remarkable balls for claiming it.  In truth it was more the former, a name they more or less whimsically happened upon at the time of signing with Capitol.  That their majestic body of work resulted in them earning the title is all to their credit.

“…and all the people were singing, they went, naa…na na na na naa….”

GOOD EVENING, BROOME COUNTY!

In the realm of topics to get conversations really grooving, I’ve got one that never fails to hit the mark: what was your first concert? It’s a question you can ask anybody, age be damned, and I guarantee you’re going to hear an entertaining story, told with an inspired look in the eye, slightly soft focused as people spontaneously dip into time travel. Sometimes the story will involve a megatour at a stadium (“The Jackson Brothers Victory Tour, Arrowhead Stadium, 1984”), sometimes it will involve a favorite artist (“Bruce Springsteen, 1979”), sometimes it will have demanded the person travel a distance since they came from small town America (“We road tripped from Montana to see Madonna in Seattle in 1985”), and sometimes the person will need to ask if a given experience counts. My favorite response of this sort has to be: “I saw David Hasselhoff perform at the Mall of America. It was for free. Does that count?” I knew this person desperately didn’t want THAT to count, but alas, I had to tell her, it indeed did. Live with it, sister, and love—LOVE—your story!

Most of the time, I’ve found, your first concert will be an unlikely artist that happened to intersect with your town and your age when you were finally ready to go see a show. And that’s great, given how colorful the responses often are. Ann’s first concert is a classic example of this: The Ohio Players. If you know my wife at all, The Ohio Players probably won’t leap to mind as candidates for her answer, but that’s less the point than the fact that her first show was a band that probably less than 1% of us can claim seeing. “Oingo Boingo,” “Thomas Dolby,” “Bread,” “Terrence Trent Darby,”…. Anytime a person’s answer makes you say, “Oh yeah, those guys,” it’s a fun first concert answer (because right after you’ll think, “THAT was your first concert??”).

Since it’s my question (!!), I’ve permitted myself actually two answers. And this is a fair mentality, one I’d happily extend to others in my same boat. Because my first concert was a show that my parents took our family to when we were fairly young, and then my second answer is the first show I ever sought out myself, when I was old and punk enough to go to a show with friends. And God bless the interweb, I can specify the exact dates of both.

First concert: October 21, 1973. The Carpenters (Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena, Binghamton, NY).

First concert as a semi-independent punk: March 2, 1978. Blue Oyster Cult (same venue).

I quite frankly take real pride in being able to say I saw The Carpenters, arguably the most popular treacly band of the 70s (and there were a LOT of treacly bands in that singer/songwriter era). Why? First, can you name a better concert-with-training-wheels band than these guys (I was 9 when I saw them)? Second, I once heard it said that there are two indisputable female singers with perfect pitch: Ella Fitzgerald, and of course Karen Carpenter (I’d argue Eva Cassidy as well). So I can say I saw one of them perform live, at least. Third reason, and write it down: Karen Carpenter was a terrific drummer! For proof go find videos of her when she and Richard played early on in a jazz trio—the chick could swing! And finally, while not a classic live-fast-and-die-young rock ‘n roller’s death, well, she did die young under what at the time were pretty freaky circumstances. Poor Karen may well have opened the world’s eyes to the tragic disaster that can be that condition.

The Carpenters?  Damn right, The Carpenters!

Okay, pretty lame, but still sort of cute.  If nothing else, given where I’ve gone in life in my live music enthusiasm, you have to figure The Carpenters put on a drop mic show that night.

[Fun, funky sidenote: I remember earlier that day watching the Oakland A’s beat the Mets in the 7th game to take the ’73 World Series. Sort of interesting, sort of ho hum, right? Check out this list of players on those two squads that day: Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, Rusty Staub, WILLIE MAYS, Reggie Jackson, Bert Campaneris, and one of the most vicious (and colorfully named) pitching rotations ever for the As: Ken Holtzman, Catfish Hunter, Vida Bue, and of course their closer, Rollie Fingers. I mean, hokum smokum! And then to see Richard and Karen perform later that night? LIVING THE DREAM!]

Does Blue Oyster Cult strike you as colorful, as unlikely a first concert band? Well then you didn’t grow up in Binghamton, NY in the late 70s. All those treacly songs that maple syruped out of our Coke can radios in the early 70s gave way later in the decade, when my crowd started to spread our defiant little teen wings, to a more unbridled appreciation for all things hard rock. And Blue Oyster Cult was all that, of course, AND, being from Long Island, we considered these guys more or less our band. And “BOC” was peaking in the late 70s, off of the back of their magnum opus album, Agents of Fortune, and then Some Enchanted Evening, their instant classic live album which came out later the year I saw them, thus serving as something of a recording of the show we saw.

So maybe a quirky answer if taken out of context. But for a late 70s blooming teenager? With the famous BOC lasers (they did it first, folks), the Godzilla drum solo, the hard rock anthem, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”? A perfect first concert for this punk, I assure you.

And, of course, the funky sidenotes: by the listing above taken off a website I see that Angel opened up for BOC this night, a faux-prog rock band I only remember for their logo being ambigrammatic (visually the same if flipped upside down). So too did Walter Egan, a one hit wonder from back then, and what a lovely one hit it was: “Magnet and Steel.” Meaning: even this night had its dash of bona fide treacle.

On The Wings Of Lavender

It was the silliest of moments until suddenly it wasn’t, when I found myself in Eden.

I went in for minor shoulder surgery on Friday. I’ve written before about being a frequent flyer where surgery is concerned, this one being around my 14th or 15th. I wasn’t feeling nervous about the procedure (I love a good nap). If I had any concern, it related to the fact that the last time I had surgery—in this facility, in fact—I ended up with a staph infection that resulted in having to reverse the procedure, go through an arduous process of fighting the infection, then performing the original surgery all over again (surgeries 11, 12, and 13, respectively). But that was all just crap luck as far as I was concerned, and still didn’t deliver much for pre-surgery jitters this day.

In any case, while they were checking me in, they presented me with the unexpected option for aromatherapy beforehand. Aromatherapy. Hunh, I thought. The nurse registering me explained that research indicates that aromatherapy can help with relaxation. While I was feeling pretty relaxed already, I thought about the scene in the waiting room I’d find myself in momentarily—the sterility of it, just sitting there in my flimsy gown—and thought, hey, anything that might bump up that ambience. What the heck–I said yes.

I’m taken back to my room, handed my gown, socks, and hairnet, allowed to change, and then I sit with another nurse who’s going to run a bunch of questions by me and prep my shoulder. In the midst of all of this, she notes where I said yes to aromatherapy, and she hands me a capped plastic vial that contains what appears to be a few cotton balls. “Here’s your aromatherapy,” she says.

Now, shame on me for at all fancying that “aromatherapy” might involve something akin to what you experience in a massage room—soft lighting, innocuous new age music playing, and the transporting aroma of something like cottonwood wafting gently on the wind around me. This version of “aromatherapy” bore little difference than had she handed me a similar vial and said, “Please submit your sample in this” and pointed me to the bathroom. “Lavender okay with you?” she asks.

Uhm, sure, lavender’s fine. I take the vial from her, which has a very clinical label on it with the facility’s name, five scents listed (bergamot, lavender, lemon, peppermint, and other) and a line for the date. The box next to lavender is checked, and the date written is today’s. If nothing else, I know for sure I’m getting myself some fresh lavender aromatherapy here.

While she continues with her questions, then sets about shaving my shoulder, I pop the cap on the vial and take a tentative sniff. Hmm…not bad. That’s a pretty accurate lavender smell. I take a deeper inhale of it. Why, yes, yes indeed, that is very lavender, I discover. And in no time, I go from zero to sixty in being curious to utterly tickled by this delightful aroma. In a word, this shit smells GREAT! Surgery? Hospital? I’m feeling in the land of Ali Baba, baby! I’m half tempted to just bag the vial and pop the cotton balls right up my nose.

The nurse notices my enthusiasm and laughs. “You’re liking the aromatherapy, eh?” My first reaction is, why you harshin’ on my aroma jam, yo? But of course the positivity coursing through my system on the wing’s of lavender has me smile at her like a drugged child and say, “Oh, yeah!”

The anesthesiologist, he then comes in, catching me nose deep in the vial, and he laughs too. “Doc,” I say, “beat ‘em, join ‘em,” and extend the vial his way, suddenly the world’s most generous junkie. He holds up his hands in no thanks and says, “I’m driving.” We both laugh.

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Point being, it was a terribly fun discovery, that this wholly artificial little intervention they’ve come up with actually had the outsized effect on me that it did.

After coming to following a successful surgery and getting my wits about me, Ann ready to take me home, and with post-op directions explained, they end my time there with the obvious: “Do you have any questions before leaving, Mr. McWright?”

“Can I take the aromatherapy home with me?”

 

A Good Boy

Ann called me Tuesday sometime around 8am. As I was in Florida visiting Mom, I knew the call couldn’t be good, being that early for her. She was crying when I answered and shared that Calvin had pretty much been up all night panting like mad, and seemed unable to settle down or get comfortable when laying down. By default he was thus standing a lot, but purposelessly. She knew something was wrong–very wrong, she felt.

These past few months for the boy haven’t been easy or good ones. Two months ago he developed some growth in his paw that caused him real discomfort when walking. After the doctor said there wasn’t much to be done other than surgery that could result in the removal of the affected toe, Ann declined that option given the larger potential impact of such a procedure on a 13 ½ year old dog. Bless her heart, she then proceeded to jerry rig a pad for his foot for his daily walks that really did seem to make a difference, using foam and blue tape and a boot. This she did every day, faithfully.

Then last week something else kicked up in another paw, rendering him gimpy as can be. The vet couldn’t quite figure out what that was about and suspected perhaps something small had penetrated that paw. As to whether it was still in there or not, couldn’t say. Ann tackled that one using the age old Epsom salts soaking technique, and damned if a day later he seemed better. Taping the one foot up, holding the other foot in a shallow bath of Epsom salts—she loves the boy.

And now the other day, this. Ann anxiously asked if I felt she should wait for her vet to open up shop, or just take him into a vet emergency room. I counseled the former, and of course Ann went with the latter.

Her next call to me was light years more despondent. They found a tumor near Calvin’s stomach, a sizable one that was pressing on the spleen, the liver. They needed to hold him there to explore whether the tumor had metastasized to other parts. In effect, this didn’t matter much to Ann. Clearly the only option for addressing the tumor was surgical removal, and as I already mentioned that kind of thing was a nonstarter. Calvin seemed indeed to have entered his end stage.

Well enough to get out of there, Ann brought Calvin home, the game plan being to monitor him and keep him comfortable (she left the vet with plenty of pain meds for that, and the name of a house calling vet, who could help us put Calvin to rest at home if it came to that). The next 24 hours quickly revealed where there didn’t appear to be a lot of room to keep Calvin comfortable. Calvin struggled to sit still, apparently no position being comfortable to him. He seemed to want to go outside a lot but would only walk out and then just stand there, as if befuddled by it all. He did eventually eat, so that was good.   Ann’s anxiety grew through the day Wednesday until she finally called the home based vet, who happened to be a neighbor. Sam came by and said things didn’t look too good. The goal then became to keep Calvin sufficiently comfortable for the next 24 hours until I got home from my visit. This would allow me to see the guy one last time, and also for Ann to not be so very alone in dealing with this gut punch of an experience.

Mercifully Calvin made it to my return. As did my wife, the preceding 36 hours being surely the worst she’s known in years, maybe ever. Anyone would hurt badly over the impending loss of a 13 year old pet and friend. Calvin came into Ann’s life right after her divorce, was there throughout the transitions in the next few years, including moving into her new home, and inviting the likes of me into her life. Calvin and Claire were the constants for Ann during some really shitty years, thus were the good luck charms that ushered in the goodness that has since followed.

I got home Thursday early evening. When I first saw and hung out with Calvin, I have to say, I was given pause over whether the agenda to end things was really necessary at this point. He seemed reasonably alert, and while he wouldn’t sit in any of the various ways we’re used to seeing him sit, he had a whale of an appetite, would wag his tail in the presence of food, and was able to go outside almost like normal.

However, even in just the short hour and a half between when I got home and when Ann had arranged for Sam to come to take care of things, I quickly saw how very and sadly off Calvin was. He would only sit in a manner he’d never preferred before; he’d get up only to just stand ther; there was only a lightless look in his eyes. He still had some life in him, but living was surely only going to slowly kill him in the coming days at this point. Of course we wanted to believe that he was caught up in some bad phase, one he’d eventually get to the other side of, but the data was all pointing in the wrong direction.

Ann asked me if I thought we were making the right decision. I understood the dilemma, now three-dimensionally, being here in his presence. I also understood all too well what my loving wife had gone through over the past 36 hours, over the past 8 months, really, since the day last summer I ran Calvin over with my car (fortunately I pretty much passed over him and he was shaken but fine within days). All the slow but real declines he’d experienced, the specific incidents that each stood to undercut his quality of living, which seemed to be emerging at a more rapid pace these last few months. He’d take his walk one day with the vim and vigor he’d shown for years, then the next day could barely hobble across the room. He’d dodged a bunch of bullets during this time, barely. A large tumor near his stomach? That was one bullet too many. I told her yes, I did, and I meant it, and hated like hell the instinct that whispered that truth in my ear.

That last hour with Calvin felt to me like the epitome of my experience of him this past half year. I enjoyed being there with him, but there wasn’t a lot of reciprocity in this. Calvin became almost maniacally Ann-dependent during these past months, tracking her every move, following her if she left the room, even going into the bathroom with her. It was sort of cute, sort of maddening for Ann, but I missed him and what affection he’d formerly shown me. Ann started to experience this goodbye in her way this past half year, but given the depth of their connection, that wasn’t going to curb in any way the intensity of her grief at this final goodbye. For me, I started saying my own goodbye to Calvin these past six months, and otherwise deferred to the affection he shared with his Momma.

I wish the actual procedure had gone otherwise. There are two steps in this kind of thing. In the first a general anesthesia is administered, allowing the dog to slowly go to sleep (this is what’s used for cleaning teeth, or minor surgery). After the dog is under, a dose of something is given to finally rest his heart. Sam administered the first shot and then left Ann and I to be alone with Calvin. He was already calm, lying there on the floor with us. Eventually he set his head down on his front paws, sleep taking over. It was as peaceful as you could hope for—until it suddenly was not. Apparently some dogs can experience an almost epileptic seizure with this drug, and this infernal reaction suddenly took our poor dog over. Ann was horrified, while I saw it for what it was, just a biological reflex. Sam came rushing back in the room when we called out to him and worked to both hold Calvin down and explain how oblivious he was to what was going on. That was too much for Ann who left the room at that point. I lingered a moment as Calvin calmed back down, then when he did, I leaned in for a last kiss on the snout. This reawakened the damn spasming some, and I left too. I know Ann will struggle with that moment for a while.

Sam and his wife Nancy (also a retired vet) finished the procedure, then came to give us hugs before departing with Calvin’s remains. I couldn’t help but hear every note from the sound of their car leaving, shock and sadness vying in my heart to grasp the moment.

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Ann’s mother once made an offhand comment about dogs that could not have rung truer to the dog owner education that came with my life with Ann and Calvin. She said, “Give a dog a little bit of food, a little bit of love, and they’ll be loyal to you forever.” Yes, indeed, Joan. Yes, indeed.

Calvin was a true Golden Retriever. Never a candidate for the Doggie Mensa Club, he could detect and would respond to a human emotion from across the bay. He didn’t beg for affection while welcoming all that came his way, and ditto (mostly) where food was concerned. He had that utterly charming habit of bringing Ann something in bed after his breakfast (most often a shoe), and that utterly horrific habit of rolling around on any dead thing he found along a trail. He rarely barked unless someone pulled into the driveway or walked past the house with their own dog. He cherished his goodnight routine—treats from Ann, then a loving rubdown from her, then me. I can’t remember him chewing a thing up of any importance, though if he escaped the house with a toy in mouth it was as good as buried within minutes. If you dropped your speed below 50 in the car he’d demand his window be rolled down. Nothing entertained him for more hours then sitting poolside with his captured tennis ball, knowing that damn ball was trying to escape back into the pool, and if it couldn’t figure out a way to do so itself, Calvin would eventually nose it in there, then barking to raise the dead at its treachery. And always, always, parked by the door whenever we left the house to be there when we returned.

So of course the house doesn’t feel quite like home for now; a 25% loss in pure heart will have that effect. What else to say? We loved you, “Calbeen.” And thank you for all of your love, you good boy!

Get Off Of My Cloud!

Perhaps nowhere is human nature more self-mocking than when you’re in a crowded situation and pissed off at everyone around you for it. You get ample opportunity to explore the many manifestations of this when you live in the bay area, being exhibit A of a victim of its own success. I can’t wait until two years from now, when I stop working and get to spend all my time strategizing over when to go to the grocery store, the hardware store, the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival, so as to avoid the irritating masses (which will be at 3am, 4am, and never, respectively).

One instance of this has nothing to do with living here, or anywhere in particular, and is a grim reality of which we have all partaken: the unique ordeal of attempting to score a ticket online to a popular concert. Since I’m a pretty avid live music fan, it is my fate to adorn the guise of combatant about twice a month in this regard. But guess what? I’ve figured out the trick to success, and here it is:

Oh, ha effing ha. Did you really think…?

“RIGGED! BIGLY!” Right concept, wrong target by he of the small hands. A buddy of mine just sent me this article that pretty much confirms everything we’ve ever suspected about the ticket sales systems. Yes, professional scalpers own these systems. Yes, bots are widely deployed. Yes, venues direct a huge proportion of available tickets to preferred customers (read: corporate sponsors). Yes, there are subscription websites that will provide anyone the presale passwords to every show. Yes, we are screwed and it is hopeless. Yes, Stubhub is your friend (who demands you pick him up in a stretch limo with caviar and Moet et Chandon in hand).

Does this mean Ticketmaster and Live Nation are to be spared of blame? Should I stop calling them Ticketbastard and Evil Nation? Well, they’re for sure in cahoots with venues where allocating seats to corporate elites is concerned. And their precious little service and processing fees will gall me to the grave. But just like the Ruskies can hack an election if it really wants to, so too can the reprobates of the internet hack these systems no matter the attempted defenses by the systems themselves. It’s a jungle out there, baby.

So, at least for now it really does boil down to how bad do you want to go, and if you do, then paying the man. Our consolation? That little wretch of a notion you have to let hold the door for you now and again: misery loves company. Then again, once you’re at the show, the lights drop, the band tears into that song you came to hear, that’s a joy that eclipses what it took to get there. And that’s human nature too.

What Did I Do? IV: A Final Critique and Grade

Heads up:  this is arguably a blog only a mother could love.  It’s l-o-n-g; it’s a “blogella.” If seeing how one person looks critically back upon his career might interest you, or likewise where knowing more about what the hell I’ve been doing with my time over the years is concerned, read on.  Or, consider jumping to the end, the final grade section, and see if what you read there makes the rest of it worth it.

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Having written in previous blogs about my interest in the exercise of critiquing my career (What Did I Do Part I), what my career path looked like (Part II), and why I chose to pursue psychology in the first place (III), I think I’ve set the stage to now offer the critique itself. Since I’ve never really heard anyone critique his career quite like I’m interested in doing, or read any such treatment, I’ve had to first think about what’s a sensible approach. Seems to me what a critique might best focus on would be the major decisions I made along the way, how I did at each step, and a summary sort of evaluation of the entire shooting match altogether. I’ll address the decisions and my performance together, then end with a final grade (spoiler alert: B+).

Here’s how I see the major decisions in my career (and when they occurred):

  1. To pursue psychology in the first place (1987)
  2. To pivot from clinical to organizational and join a consulting firm (1994)
  3. To transfer offices (2000)
  4. To go internal to Genentech (2003)
  5. To leave Genentech and drift a while (2006)
  6. To redirect from organizational to school and join Woodside Priory (2008)

Pursuing psychology

I’ve explained my decision making process here already. Bottom line: I had a real interest in psychology, but in a particular aspect of it—positive development, let’s call it (versus rehabilitative psychology). Since there weren’t any programs out there that focused on this, I had to go with what was available, a degree in clinical.

Was this a good call on my part, to “go with what was available”? In light of having no other specific career inspiration at the time, I’ll say yes. Anything else would have been an even bigger crapshoot, that’s for sure. What’s regrettable, though, is that this choice meant making a big investment in time and education that would prove to compel the rest of my career, whether I loved my experiences or not. Yes, I have heard of people who once they finished their law degree, say, decided to not do law. I wasn’t that put off by working in the field once I was positioned to do so (mercifully for me the field just then WAS that put off by hiring anyone, during its managed care induced ice age). But feeling like I had to do psychology at that point and going forward does seem to have been my fate.

Another point bears mentioning as well. A degree in clinical was also not a bad call had I directed my energies, once done with my degree, in pursuit of professional activities that actually pertained to positive development. So why didn’t I? Well, none ever really presented themselves to me. I didn’t see such opportunities out there and didn’t myself have any vision for what I could have done in this direction. About the only bona fide action in this space was sports psychology, which I’d not been exposed to during my education, and frankly wasn’t of any real interest to me anyway.

So that’s the main reason I fell short of pursuing that which initially excited me about psychology: I lacked a vision for what I could do (and earn the kind of money that paid the rent and began to chip away at my small mountain of student loan debt).

Pivoting to organizational psychology and joining a consulting firm

This was a great decision on my part (with huge thanks to my former classmates Lynn and Sally, whose thoughts and encouragements on the matter were why it happened at all).

To appreciate how comprehensive a game changer this was, you have to grok the space I was in the spring of 1994. I’m in Baltimore, I’m wrapping up a “post-doc” in behavioral medicine at Johns Hopkins, I’m dirt poor with my student loan debts coming due, and I’m searching altogether in vain for a job. This has me paying calls on completely depressing institutions (where my emphasis would mostly be on assessment, which I could do but didn’t really like doing), or pitching to private clinical practices (that would basically offer me an office, which I would rent from them, as well as pay my share for administrative support, and not even get any guaranteed referrals from them), or just striking out on my own altogether—essentially hang a shingle somewhere and walk the street outside with my sandwich board. All of this in pursuit of a job and work that I was fully capable of doing but not at all really psyched to do. In a word, it sucked.

I’m five minutes away from saying t’hell with it—bag this pursuit altogether and call my buddies to beg them for an idea for what I could do in business that might suit me. I happen to speak with my former classmate Lynn and share my frustration. She says, “Why don’t you look into the space where business and psychology interface? Sally is working in that area and loves it.” I call Sally, she tells me the space is great, and booming, then says these magic words: “Matt, of all my former classmates, I can’t think of anyone who could do this work—except you.” She gives me some names of firms in the organizational psychology space, I make calls to them, and pretty much overnight I’m being flown around the country to meet and interview with various interests. I went from “Fuck off” or “We can offer you this piddly shit” to “PLEASE come work here! We NEED you!” It was night and day, and profoundly encouraging for it.

I ended up joining Personnel Decisions Institute (God, that name!) for a handful of good reasons. First, they had a deep track record of hiring people like me—those with a clinical background looking to cross over to working in organizations—and successfully retrofitting their skills to work in this space. Second, they had offices around the country, and were growing internationally, and used their network of talent to deliver on large projects everywhere, thus offering the prospect of “seeing the world” a bit via my job (so long, lonely dimly lit room!). Finally, they had an office right up the road, in Washington, D.C., and that office was hiring. It all fell into place; I said yes.

PDI was a great start for me in this space. It just so happened that, right as I joined, the firm growing like it was just then, they held a three week orientation and training event at their headquarters in Minneapolis. So basically the first thing I did with the firm was to go to Minneapolis, along with about 25 other young, new consultants to the firm, where we were exposed to and trained in all aspects of their business, and of course networked like hell with each other. That was an awesome time, and those relationships were HUGE to my fate and experiences going forward and throughout my eventual 9 year tenure there (the first six taking place in our DC office, the last three in San Francisco).

So, how did I do there?

There are three things a consultant was responsible for in my job: doing billable work, managing client relationships, and business development (ie, selling more work to clients). I proved very capable at doing the actual work, and was okay at managing clients and developing business.

My smarts, my confidence, and my articulate nature all played very favorably where doing the work was concerned. I was heavily involved in a number of our services and developed a strong reputation internally across the firm for being able to show up and deliver. This was of huge benefit to me, since this meant other offices regularly requested I come and do a project in their city, that kind of travel fast becoming one of the more treasured aspects of the work I was doing.

The best of this came when the GM of our San Francisco office called one day and said, “Matt, wondering if you’d be interested in doing a project for us. It’s a two part project, covering two weeks of work. The first week takes place in Sydney, Australia, and then a few weeks after that, the second week takes place here in San Francisco. What do you think?” My answer was roughly, “Well, I think I just shit my pants in excitement over what you just said.” And, where this overall client engagement was concerned, this was just the start of things. I’d eventually go to Tokyo twice, and London once, doing this gig, each event having that week in San Francisco attached. Died…and gone…to heaven!

I experienced a few failures as well during those first six years in DC that are worth noting since they pretty much revealed an important truth I discovered about myself, which ultimately led me to leave the field altogether in 2006.

The first instance happened when three of us, including our firm’s head of our North American offices, my office’s GM and I went to Wilmington, Delaware to make a pitch for some high level work to the executive team of a regional bank there. I’d never worked with Dale, the muckety, and, given his role, and his coming to town to do this meeting, this meant that this was a pretty big deal for me to have a role in. We had a presentation prepared, each of us having a role in it. When we arrived and were brought into the boardroom, the atmosphere was hardly welcoming. The executives sat there stone faced around the table, the nonverbals all radiating a spirit of, “why the hell should we hire you guys?” I was first to present. And when I got up there…I froze. I froze! My mind literally went blank. For a small eternity, I groped blindly for something to say, eventually turning to my slide for an answer. I began to recite what was there on the slide, a truly pathetic, beginner’s technique, as if I was presenting to illiterates. It was flat, I was the opposite of convincing. You could feel the consensus in the room, both among the executives and even my own colleagues, that I was bombing. In no time, the prospect was dead, no matter how effective Dale and Mark subsequently were. The Q&A after our preso was perfunctory. The drive back to DC was a long one. It was an awful experience.

The second instance occurred some time later. AOL was in its booming dotcom heyday (“You’ve got mail!”) and was located just outside of DC. They were looking to bring on board what amounted to a resident executive coach, someone who would operate within their organization and coach various executives as needed. A phone call was arranged to position me as that prospective executive coach. On the call was some HR muckety muck for AOL, the head of my firm’s executive coaching practice, my GM, and me.

The AOL executive explained the opportunity then asked what questions I had about it.  So I asked a few questions.  Then a few more.  Then even more questions, after which I think I finally said something like, “That sounds like an exciting opportunity.”  Which of course was NOT an exciting response on my part.  The moment called for a summary of what I’d heard and my offering a shrewd depiction of how I would position myself and operate in light of AOL’s business dynamics just then, how I would add value.  The executive was underwhelmed.  The opportunity went nowhere.  The head of my firm’s executive coaching function (who saw a lot of potential in this opportunity, including it being a door opener for all manner of other business opportunities) was clearly put off by my effort.  The feedback I got was not unkindly delivered though it still hit me in a place that worried me.  More on this later.

To transfer offices (2000)

This was a decision driven not by professional interest alone, but significant personal reasons as well.  Professionally, my work on that international project out of our San Francisco office allowed me to develop a good relationship with Brian, the SF office manager.  Around this time Brian was looking to move out of his GM position and had floated the balloon my way of me transferring to the SF office and assuming that role.  So not only would this move be a step up career wise for me, but I’d also be working in San Francisco, which just then was the epicenter of the business world given the dotcom boom (as contrasted with DC, where there was some business in our region, but it was of course dominated by absolutely ghastly federal organizations).

Personally, my wife at the time, Mary Beth, and I were running into some serious marital discord.  This move represented an opportunity for us to hit the reset button out west.  I had a bunch of my closest college friends living in the bay area with their wives so we’d have a sense of community waiting for us.

All lights seemed green, so we decided to do it.

Then a light turned red (just bypassing yellow), and this decision became complicated as hell.  Shame on me, but in all of my discussions with Brian in SF about the move and my promotion, I’d never spoken to the head of our north American offices to confirm he was in support of this arrangement.  This may seem a gross oversight on my part (since the decision would be his, not Brian’s), but I think I may have assumed he was in support in what I was hearing from Brian.  In any case, literally a week or two before our move, Dale, the executive who would make the call on the SF GM position, calls me and says he wants me to not transfer to San Francisco but stay in DC and take the GM position there.  I mean, the bloody boxes are packed at this point!  And, of course, this move isn’t just about my job, but the fate of my marriage, something I couldn’t really disclose to Dale (or didn’t want to—Dale was a bit of a snake, so you walked and talked carefully around him, not wanting to hand him anything that could be used as a bullet against you down the road).

I pushed back, Dale dug in, even going so far as to say he was already thinking about promoting another consultant out in San Francisco into the role (but not saying he was for sure going to do so).  I had a world of additional experience in the firm than that consultant, but more importantly had too much else on the line for this move.  I said sorry, Dale, I’m going.  You can guess who eventually got the GM job in San Fran.

I was put off by this outcome and immediately began searching for another job (truth be told I was also feeling a tad done with the consulting thing, and was interested in “going internal,” taking a job doing my kind of work but within a company).  In this search process, I was one day from getting an offer from Levi Strauss when their business performance hit a wall and a hiring freeze was put in place (I’m serious: I went for my final, just-to-confirm-things meeting on a Thursday, and Friday the freeze hit).  In general, the job market had tightened considerably in the bay area around this time given the bursting of the dotcom bubble which happened beginning in 2000.  While I wasn’t happy about it, I resigned myself at that point to sticking things out with PDI.  This wasn’t the worst state of affairs.  I actually very much liked Chris, the guy who got the GM position and who handled my situation with sensitivity and respect, and liked my office team a lot too.  And my clients were a dream list for the bay area:  Peoplesoft, Kendall Jackson, Williams-Sonoma, and Genentech, to name a few.

So in critiquing this decision, I’d say it was a net positive one, though it hardly played out the way I’d expected.  I worked with great people, had great clients, did some good work, and experienced the incalculable benefits of living now in the bay area.

As for the other agenda in this move, on the homefront?  Yeah, that didn’t work out so well.  In 2003, I ended both my career with PDI and my marriage.

To go internal to Genentech (2003)

I made the switch from PDI to Genentech, heading up their new executive development function, in August of 2013. God only knows what my headspace was at that moment, though it couldn’t possibly have been good. In June my marriage had blown apart, unexpectedly in how it happened (though not that it happened, really), and in July Mary Beth had moved with the kids back to Iowa. It would be years before I processed all of that; point being, I couldn’t have had my wits altogether about me when I made this career decision, nor in how I proceeded in my new role and company.

That being said, this was still a very good decision, and a potentially AMAZING one. If you do consulting like I had been doing, invariably you will at least flirt at some point with the idea of “going internal.” You’ve heard about all of the tradeoffs—more money, more opportunity to climb the ladder, less influence as a member of HR (than as an outside consultant), less diversity of work experiences, less travel—and so, yes, you wonder if this existence might be preferable. And if I was going to make such a switch, Genentech presented an opportunity that could not have been more ideal.

Here in the Silicon Valley was a company that actually made something, made real drugs that really impacted lives, thus was not the type of place to suffer the vicissitudes of the insane digital marketplace like so many other ventures that dominated our area. Jumping on board Genentech was not taking a big chance on some daring startup that would hit or miss. At the same time, Genentech was starting to hit doubles and triples, was growing in leaps and bounds, and was poised just then to start smacking the ball out of the park. If the best time to join a great company is the day it was born, the next best time to join is as soon as possible, and before it had fired all of its big bullets. That was when I joined, at a second best time in its history.

I just didn’t happen to join it when I was in a very good space personally. Given what had happened on the home front, in changing jobs I was literally changing everything in my life right then. It was a lot. Emotionally I was compromised. From a different angle, I suddenly found myself making a lot more money, not having any restraints on me in the form of family commitments, all the while dealing with the exuberance of freedom and a new lease on life, yet experiencing what I described then as a warping grief at the loss of my daughter from my daily life. Let’s just say, it made for a volatile cocktail.

This was only exacerbated by three aspects of my new job. First, mine was a new function in the company, a function intended to improve the performance of a cohort of people who were experiencing a ton of success just then. In other words, there seemed very little that was broken among the leadership ranks at Genentech just then—and I was there to fix it. I don’t think I fully appreciated the delicacy of these conditions coming in, making of my work a potentially rather charged political matter. Second, I wasn’t coming in to run any existing programs, but to build them from scratch. You do this by networking and building relationships and getting the lay of the land and identifying opportunities, which you then gently propose and advance. So while there’s a lot of being there involved in all of this, there isn’t a lot of real, tangible work to do early on. And what’s that they say about idle hands…? Finally, my department itself was growing and changing quite a bit just then, including experiencing some changes in who ran it. And I ran BIGLY into some internal politics in all of this that caught me way off guard, and cost me BIGLY for it.

I experienced some successes at Genentech, and a lot of personal failure there. When I was there and working with an executive, I delivered. I even gave Art Levinson his 360 degree feedback, and that exchange went just fine. Where managing my time was concerned, in the ample white space that existed in my role as the function was finding itself and in a build out mode, I made fantastic hash of that. And where managing the politics of my relationships within my department was concerned, I was just god awful.

And that, bottom line, is why I eventually left Genentech after three years, and then left organizational psychology behind altogether: I cannot stand, and suck at, organizational politics. Not altogether; I’m smarter than that. But at the level these play out where the upper echelons of leadership are concerned in a company, yeah, that shit’s over my head (more accurately, my radar doesn’t tune to those frequencies, being fundamentally dismayed by them, even altogether contemptuous of them). My failure in front of the banking board in Delaware, on the call with AOL, my misread of the situation when transferring to our San Francisco office, the piddly gaffes I made at Genentech that were seen by others as much larger than that—what all of these incidents have in common is my having a tin ear for organizational politics. About which, I could give a hoot, though this disposition is not conducive, of course, to career advancement in the corporate world.

I have not missed a day of working in those environments since.

To leave Genentech and drift a while (2006)

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I didn’t leave Genentech so much as I tore out the door and pealed out in leaving the parking lot. And Genentech was a great company! That’s how funked up my headspace was at that point in my life.

Thank God Ann was there on my sideline.

Some career decisions you make to get away from something, some you make to go towards something. This career decision for me was all the former, and nothing but. Truth told, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do next. I went through the motions of setting up my own private consulting practice, and promptly discovered I had nothing in the tank to figure that one out (which would eventually close its accounts without a single dollar in revenue). What I slowly came to realize during this period was that the enterprise of leadership development, and of life in corporate America altogether, had grown dead to me. If you ask me, life in business brings out some of the best in people and a lot of the worst. It just seems like living in a state of chronic paranoia—mostly low grade, with periods of real freaking out—is baked into the equation. I blame it on politics, that advancement and achievement always seem to need a certain degree of scheming and positioning. It’s the great spoiler of the true meritocracy out there. It just is what it is.

Like I said, I wasn’t that good at this because I couldn’t find it in me to become that invested in the efforts. I regretted the demands of this life that seemed to run in the opposite direction of living authentically, a mode that a career in psychology would seem to be all about. I just couldn’t get into, nor past, the game that’s always playing out beneath the surface of the work itself. When I did allow myself to just be myself in a given moment (crack a joke in the middle of a meeting, ask an honest question that is perceived as impertinent), sometimes that scored me a point, and sometimes that cost me one. Bottom line, I hated that there was a scorecard at all.

Another element that proved discouraging to me about my work in organizational psychology was that it was ultimately pretty superficial work. What I mean by this is, when working in the field of leadership development, your focus stayed at the surface of things, the behaviors an individual used or failed to use that resulted in positive or negative consequences in the workplace. What you didn’t do was dive down into the motivational bases of those behaviors. “People don’t go to work to get their heads shrunk,” was the general law of the land (I understand that this is shifting since I left and that more attention to what drives a person’s behavior is being explored. Wouldn’t be surprised if this is being driven in part by the limitations imposed by a more purely behavior based approach. If nothing, businesses do tend to gravitate toward what works and creates value. If shrinking heads serves the business’s needs, the business will figure that out, an aspect of corporate life I did appreciate). My education in clinical psychology introduced me to the vast and vastly rich, almost Tolkienesque, realm of human motivation. To just focus on behaviors was thus a pretty radical limit to my notions of human behavior. In a word, it was boring.

The good news at this point was, I’d made some decent coin at Genentech, and my relationship with the very secure Ann seemed to have real legs under it. Somewhat traumatized and confused as hell about my career, I did the safest thing possible: nothing. I allowed my nonexistent consulting practice to languish into nothing, leaned back on my savings and just drifted for a while. Helped out on some projects for another consulting firm. Taught a few graduate courses in organizational behavior. Otherwise, I think it was around this time I got in my car and drove down to the Grand Canyon and stood at its rim looking upon the greater glory of existence. Which was such a great damn call just then!

A lucky man will play this hand, will just go ahead and leap not knowing what he’ll eventually land on. The shitty turns I’d experienced in my six years now in the bay area—not getting the GM position at PDI, the craziness I ran into at Genentech, the hash that was my personal life—were born of both circumstances and crafted by my own hand. I still felt like a lucky guy all the same, or knew on some level that luck was still mine to be had, still knew I would come through these dark and difficult times somehow intact. Ann being in my life was a huge signal that this would be so. Doing nothing for a bit gave me ample space to, well, heal, while not risking harm on anyone in whatever job and company I might find myself. With Ann as a proponent of this, I felt okay about doing nothing, even a little good about it.

A year went by and a second was doing so when fate knocked. I decided that second year I wanted to do something I’d always entertained, being to coach a lacrosse team, give back to a sport that had given so much to me. Lacrosse was booming in California just then so I figured there had to be a need and opportunity out there. Looked on line for local independent schools with teams, saw where one school had a team but no coach listed, wrote the AD an email, the next day I was in his office at Woodside Priory to seal the deal. I couldn’t possibly have guessed just then that four months later I’d be accepting a position at Woodside Priory as their school counselor.

Giving myself this two year sabbatical was one of the better career decisions I ever made. I love hearing other people’s career stories that involve just such a moment of “throw it all away and see what happens next.” I love that I have one of these myself.

To redirect from organizational to school and join Woodside Priory (2008)

I mentioned how during my “sabbatical” I taught a few courses in organizational behavior, did this at Golden Gate University, sort of a night school operation that offered degrees to folks looking to make a change in their careers. I proved capable at this, got great reviews, the head of the program loved me. So the idea of teaching held some appeal to me at the time I took on the lacrosse coach role. In mentioning this to the school trainer during some idle chat, she suggested I speak with the head of school about my interest, see if any opportunity to teach at the high school level might exist. I did, and promptly realized that my background was terrific for teaching classes in psychology but not much else, and the Priory was so small there were hardly any of these in their curriculum. So no real opportunity to do this at this school or to do so as a basis for the next chapter in my career. At the same time, I was connecting with various folks at the school through my coaching role, and they were taking a shine to me. So when their school counselor suddenly decided NOT to return the following year, they approached me and asked if I might be interested. There was fate’s knock, which I heard, and which I gladly answered in the affirmative. And here I am now in my 9th school year in this role.

Given that I’d never entertained operating as a school counselor, a fair question is, did I really know what I was saying yes to back in ’08? And the answer to that is simply no, I didn’t. Hadn’t a clue. Had to figure everything out about operating in that role in the year(s) to come. What I did know was that the trappings of this kind of position appealed to me on a romantic level that was pretty compelling. I mean, who amongst us that has watched Dead Poets Society hasn’t then dreamt of being John Keating at least a little, right?

This was indeed a more purely intuitive decision on my part. The damn lucky aspect of it was in this happening at Woodside Priory, which, as independent schools in Silicon Valley go, is about as perfect a fit for me as can be imagined. I say this as, most independent schools in our area profess to seeking to develop the whole person, while many of our peer schools are seeking to develop the whole young venture capitalist. The Priory has plenty of really ambitious kids, but overall I think we do work more authentically to develop their character and promote a semblance of balance at our school. It’s not just about achievement at the Priory, or achievement in future career terms. It’s about learning how to live a life well lived.

This has been a great career decision, and one that didn’t eventually become freighted with the baggage of nonsense that I ran into in corporate America. At Woodside Priory, like most schools, those that work there are really devoted to the mission of educating and developing young people. Unlike at other educational institutions, I suspect, this isn’t muddied by status needs and their attendant power plays to grab attention and influence. We are a RIDICULOUSLY healthy community. The degree of collaboration and mutual respect and just plain old enjoyment of each other is wonderfully off the chart. Nowhere is this more evident than in the time during which the faculty gathers for our monthly all faculty meeting. If you were to be walked into this room blindfolded and encouraged to listen to the sounds and tones in the room, you would just know you are somewhere that people are happy to be there and be together. It is precious.

Ten years from now I will most certainly look back upon my time at Priory and love this aspect of my time there the most, the robust sense of community that existed there within the staff. I found and experienced bucketloads of professional love at the Priory. Such a joy, such a blessing. Such luck!

As for how I’ve done in my work there, I know my colleagues and my bosses are happy with the value I’ve added over the years. In a school, especially a small school like ours, you do what you’re hired to do, and then you do whatever else you’re capable of doing to advance the mission. No one at my school is just a teacher, or an administrator—they’re also coaches, program directors, cheerleaders, after school club sponsors, etc. What I brought to my role could be described as an OD (organizational development) specialist. I’ve brought my understanding of how organizations work, and how to implement changes to them, to my job, as well as a general professionalism that can stand in something of a positive contrast to the more loosey goosey style found in schools, if you ask me. Consequently, I get invited to participate in various activities that a school counselor might not otherwise—our current professional development agenda to bring the school in line with “21st century education” principals, a key hire process, to consult on team dynamics in another department at the school—these kinds of things.

Another way I’ve added value in my school counseling role, which I hope isn’t all that unique to me, is in working to give parents a break where the effort to raise kids is currently concerned. I mean, lordy. Is this how the conversation roughly went? “Here’s an idea to help kids through the relentless hazing that is adolescence: let’s put in their back pockets a device the size of a deck of cards that gives them access to every trace of media, an unending supply of stupid games, potential contact with every other human being on the planet (including predators), and has the broadcasting capacity of a major television network. Yes, that’s what these kids need!” This, coming on the tail of a new book about the right way to parent being published every other hour since Dr. Spock launched the industry in 1946. Parents are freaking themselves out all the time. If they are well intended, if they really do love their kids, then they deserve not to. I’ve tried to echo my boss Brian’s advice at every turn: “Breathe.”

Finally, the kids. I think I’m good working with kids, sometimes really good, but not really great on a consistent basis. I wish I knew the secret sauce for allowing them to feel more readily vulnerable, which is the space necessary for them to feel the love and concern of others that can be so helpful, so healing. I sometimes wonder if this generation has learned to wear a thicker shell given how forceful the slings and arrows can be via social media. In any case, those kids that dare to really trust me get the best out of me, and I do my best with the rest.

The Priory has been a blessing, given its people, its fundamentally healthy environment, its utter lack of a political bent internally. It’s the exact atmosphere to get its employees to not just want to work there, but to invest themselves heart and soul in the mission of the institution. I will end my career on a very positive note, the best of my entire career. And who, of course, can ask for anything more?

Final career grade: B+

Matt, as we discussed, here is the basis for your final career grade of B+, a grade you should be proud of. Mostly.

 Pro’s:

  • Probably the standout feature of your career has been your openness to new possibilities and willingness to “leap” and pursue them. The vast majority of your career has been in endeavors for which you were never truly trained or educated—this alone reflects a courage to “go for it” that would make your father proud (he being someone not unfamiliar with radical career shifts himself). In your career you have been consultant, executive coach, project manager, salesperson, workshop designer and facilitator, public speaker, adjunct faculty member, OD specialist, individual contributor, team member, mentor, and esteemed colleague. You have fulfilled these roles throughout most major American cities and not a few international destinations as well. For someone who may have lived out his career life in a trade about which you were not fundamentally thrilled, you do seem to have made the most of it.
  • You did good work along the way. You were typically thoughtful and on point, often creative, and generally reliable. When the work was coming at you fast and furious, you worked at your best, able to handle a lot all at once.
  • You were a terrific coworker, and friend, even, to those with whom you worked. You brought a levity, perspective, and sense of humor to the workplace that could add crucial value just when the atmosphere in the room needed it most. You almost universally helped others to feel better about their own work. You never knowingly or otherwise screwed anyone over.
  • Finally, you did maintain the kind of self-preservation instincts that led you to “get while the getting is good.” This sounds like you were evasive, when it’s more that you knew when a chapter of your career was ending and moved on appropriately. Except that Genentech moment. That was a guy leaping from his car right before it crossed the rails as the train came barreling through. Ha!

Con’s:

  • It would appear you failed to not settle in your career where doing something you absolutely and incontrovertibly believed in, or wanted to do. Let’s be honest: you wanted to be a writer. You came nowhere near that.
  • As much as you did great when the heat was on in your work, you were that unmoored in your efforts when the heat WASN’T on, when you had time and space to figure things out for yourself. You consistently struggled to take advantage of these periods, which were opportunities to further forge your job and career destinies. The lack of a compelling overarching vision for your career, for that matter, seems to have been replicated in the short term demands and opportunities of each job. You just were not capable at “the vision thing.”
  • More specifically—since you did create various visions along the way—you were not good at going from vision to operational reality. You’re an idea guy, and a good one. You’re just not very good at the execution thing. All “N”, as the Myers-Briggs would say, and no “S.”
  • The whole organizational politics thing. It wasn’t that you were bad at this, but you did rise in your career to a level of operating in companies, at the senior executive level, that exceeded your instincts, and certainly your interests.
  • Finally, you took feedback too personally, let it cut deeper than it was ever worth. Dommage, and we move on.

Breaking Script

Word to the wise guy: don’t break script. Nothing good ever comes of it. You break script (your routine, your approach—your script), you’re breaking world order. Demons pour in through the cracks. I’m telling you. Don’t do it.

Simple example. You have that place that you keep your wallet at night, your keys, your smokes, whatever. Every night, there. One night, over there. Next day? You spend an hour searching, pissed.

Don’t do it.

I did it once, it hurt me bad. Punishment didn’t fit the crime. That’s why they’re called demons.

Grad school, 1990. I go out dancing one night with a classmate. That ain’t much, right? But that wasn’t my relationship with Carol. She and I mostly tolerated each other because of Claudia, a mutual friend. Can’t remember why but that night we broke script and went dancing. Demons poured in through the cracks.

Carol knew a dance spot. It was out there, in the ‘burbs south of Denver. Never been there myself (another broken script). We got there, what met us was a line out front longer than our patience. You can guess what we did. Broke script and went searching elsewhere.

Just so happens I’d noticed another place, not far, on our way in. On its tired marquee it said this, this and that, with Dancing! in the middle of it. We went there. No line there.

It wasn’t much of a scene. The bouncer, way pregnant, had a look like it was go time. Inside, a spent room adorned with neon Schlitz, dimly lit booths, a lighted circle of a dance floor toward the back. Lots of denim, ditto smoke. A strange mix of blacks and whites bent, it appeared, on not mixing. The place was on edge but the music was serviceable. We stayed.

We danced a while, ignoring things. Eventually the edginess pushed the fun toward the exit. Discussed leaving, agreed to do so in a song or two. About then the inevitable fight broke out in another part of the bar. Crowd rushed to watch. Not us. Can’t stand fights, was glad the assholes were far away. Fighters’ friends worked to separate them. That settled things for us. Last dance then out.

Last dance indeed. Out of nowhere a punch.   Right to the eye—a flash of white. I stumble, shocked, think, dirtball fucking joint! Carol comes forward to help me, then another dude. I can’t see, only sense chaos. They begin guiding me off of the dance floor, barking for passage. I try opening my eye, see only milky white nothingness. I faint.

Next thing I’m pissed that people are touching me. What the fuck?! Realize I’m flat on my back, coming to. People trying to help me up. I find the vision in my eye is still white nothing. “Your eye is damaged,” my brain tells me, simply, flatly. That wakes me up. “I need a doctor,” I tell the mob. Carol hears but is worthless, nearly hysterical. Mercy: dude that helped me off the floor is a nurse, knows where the nearest hospital is.  Jumps in Carol’s car and drives us there.

En route the nurse tells me my story. Hadn’t been punched at all. The two fighters had squared off again. One picked up a glass, threw it at the other. Missed wide, sailed, shattered against a table, me in the debris field. One life, the shard bounces off my chest. This life, direct to my left eye. “Corneal puncture” my reward.

Surgery two hours later to close the eye, then again a few weeks after to remove the cataract, insert an artificial cornea. Have had an old dog’s sight in that eye since. The image above is roughly what the scene before me looks like through that eye. A generous version at that.

Something to think about before you brag on beating me in tennis.

Something else to think about. Don’t break script.

WDID Part III: Why Psychology?

Here’s the crazy thing: I pretty much ended up pursuing a career in psychology because I was good at running a sweep in 4th grade and then really good at faking being suicidal in high school.

That’s a true statement, even if on the surface it sounds strange and not a little appalling. So here’s the backstory on how I got to the present professionally.

Way back in elementary school I had a coach in little league football whom I grew close to, not exactly sure why, I guess we just clicked as coach and player. As I made my way to high school, Bill went off and got his degree in psychology and eventually returned in the role of a school counselor at my school. His office was right up the hall from my locker so I used to drop in on him all the time, to b.s. and hang out, along with friends. Bill eventually launched what he called a “psychodrama program,” and I was one of its initial participants. It was these experiences that really set the course for my career in psychology.

The program was an innovative service that involved a group of us students enacting teens in crisis so that professionals who might work with such teens (teachers, doctors, EMTs, cops) could practice their intervention skills via role plays. My own specialty was playing a kid with a previous suicide attempt veering in the direction of considering another one. I absolutely loved swirling on the edge of the abyss based on what you, the professional, said during the exchange. If the exchange went well, the professional and I could end things positively, crisis averted, sometimes even in a tearful embrace; if it went south, Bill might stop the proceedings in order to save the professional from my wrath with helpful tips. In many instances (to up the ante, as it were) we wouldn’t tell the professionals I was playing a role until after the exchange was over (if you’re thinking that’s playing loose with ethics you’re right, though it really did serve to get people’s attention). All in all it was pretty electrifying stuff to me, playing the roles themselves, doing the debriefs afterward, coaching grown ups on how to work with a troubled teen, and revealing my actual, respectable self to them. The program was a hit, was requested all the time, and I even ended up receiving a community service award of for my efforts.

There was a second side to these experiences, however, that was equally if not more compelling to me, and that was in how we prepped for this work. In order to deepen our understanding of kids in crisis, Bill would have the team participate in lots of emotional awareness raising activities among ourselves, amounting to some pretty cool group therapy-like work. We got really open in those activities, learned how to be radically vulnerable with one another and to trust each other in that space, all of which instilled a lot of resiliency of character in each of us, not to mention growing comfortable being our authentic selves and not endlessly encumbered by the usual demands of adolescent artifice.

This was my first taste of willful, deliberate personal growth, and while at times it freaked the shit out of me, most of the time I was pretty dazzled by it. I started seeing the way things played out around me a little differently, started feeling less caught up in the drama of my teens and recognizing more my agency in them. That gave me a certain strength back then I didn’t necessarily see in my other friends, and definitely a confidence in “being in the world” in a way that has fed my comfort in operating within the intimacy that characterizes the kind of work I’ve done over the years (not to mention in all of my relationships).

But where the psychodrama work itself was concerned, my reaction to that was,“So this is psychology, eh? Getting real with yourself, and channeling that in ways that can have a real impact on others?” That seemed pretty cool to me. I knew well in advance of Duke what my major would be.

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All’s I’ll say about my undergraduate education in psychology was that it bore no—ZERO—resemblance to what I’d experienced in high school. Being a pretty popular major at the time, too many of the classes were these huge and impersonal affairs. The subject matter as presented was pretty dry, the professors too often long in the tooth. It just didn’t click for me at Duke (granted, I was pumping the majority of my energy into socializing and lacrosse there, so didn’t take the time to do anything to make my major come alive any better).

This left me a tad uncertain upon graduating from Duke if psychology was the right fit for me. I decided to spend a year working a few jobs in the field before pulling the trigger on grad school. This actually stretched into two years, during which I worked in an afterschool program for behaviorally challenged kids, and as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor for a county agency (blows my mind to think they hired a 22 year old with just an undergraduate degree in psychology to do this work, but then, given the population we served, let’s just say the clients got what they paid for). I guess I felt good enough at that point to go on in psychology, applied to various Psy.D. programs (which emphasize practicing psychology over researching it, a la’ Ph.D. programs), and went on to get my doctorate in clinical at the University of Denver.

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Did I sell you on that last line? Were you maybe a tad distracted by that half-hearted “I guess I felt good enough…”? Looking back, I realize that that was only about as good as it got for me back then. Those jobs in the field I worked before applying to grad school? Truth is, they were really pretty depressing—tough clients, paltry wages, cheerless institutional settings. And yet time at that point in my life (now two years out of college) felt to be working against me. Most of my friends were knee-deep in their young careers but indeed on their way (most of my friends did the 80s thing of going into banking, for that matter, so I should say they were on their particularly rollicking way). I’d sunk a good bit of time and effort into psychology, and lacking any inspiration to do anything else (such as go into business in some manner), I felt going forward into the field had become something of a fait accompli. So I just did it, though still not convinced it was the absolute right thing for me.

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Did grad school end up firing me up? Does having an almost affair with a sexy classmate count?

Grad school certainly involved its fair share of compelling experiences, some of which occurred in the classrooms, most of which happened during the various “practicum placements” (jobs in the field) I participated in each year while there. I did learn a TON about psychology in grad school, of course; in fact, relative to my undergraduate education, grad school finally found me really dedicated to actually learning something. I definitely wrapped things up there with a handful of real skills—in assessment, in various forms of therapy. But did I have a clear vision for where and how I’d apply them now, finally at the true advent of my actual working career? No, I didn’t. In fact, I even prolonged my time in and around grad school by selling myself on the notion of staying in Denver an extra year given some additional placements that became available to me (and over my father’s gentle but astute questions/concerns about delaying things further).

After that extra year, I went on to do my obligatory one year internship at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. Even in this choice you can see me still scrambling to figure out who I wanted to be when I grew up, given its behavioral medicine emphasis (a specialization I paid no attention to during grad school and, while open to the possibility, really had no particular interest in). During this year, two additional opportunities presented themselves to me—to teach an undergraduate course in psychology at Loyola University Maryland, as well as work on a longitudinal study of hypertension at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The latter became something of a post-doc for me, which I did during my internship and then for an additional year after. Finally, at that point, now 30 years young (!), edumacated out the wazoo, sitting on about $50k in student loan debt, FINALLY I was ready to begin to really work and really start earning an income (an overall financial strategy I would encourage to absolutely NO ONE). And STILL I hadn’t a strong clue for what I wanted to really do.

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So that’s pretty much a blow by blow of the answer to, why psychology. I’ve already Readers Digest-ed what happens in my career going forward here. Before drawing these reflections to a close with an actual critique of my career in my next blog, as well as offering a sense for what else I may have done if I didn’t pursue psychology, it may be useful to offer some key points about this origin story, points I’ve heard myself make to others or reflected on over the years.

  • My interest in psychology was prompted by the opportunistic fluke of getting involved in a very different sort of program while in high school.
  • While the program provided a bona fide service to the community, the personal development experiences that we participated in as part of the program were probably more compelling to me than the work itself.
  • A point I haven’t made yet, worth noting, is that the psychodrama program involved reasonably high functioning kids like myself pushing themselves to develop emotionally above and beyond what their usual life experiences were doing. In other words, my interests in psychology were not born of wondering why things go wrong for some people (which was altogether the emphasis of my graduate work), but rather why some people doing perfectly well seek to develop themselves even further.
  • Overall, my pursuit of psychology seemed as driven by a lack of inspiration in any other direction as it was a particular interest in doing this kind of work. I never burned for psychology. With each passing year early on, I just found myself slipping deeper into the commitment in this direction.