It occurred to me that I really have never been successful at anything I've done. I was a so-so student in both high school and college, with enough "flashes of brilliance" to keep people interested in what I might do, but not enough to put me on any fast-track. Of course, my "ominiverous" interests didn't help, leading me into a triple-major ... had I been able to focus on one thing I could have made quite an impact in that, but I've always been scattered between too many projects.
Graduating from college was a "shock" in a "not seeing the forest fo the trees" sort of way ... I was so tied up into getting my particular course work finished (one of the down-sides to doing a triple major was that I was always taking single or double over-loads) that I'd never gotten around to really looking at "what's next" and had no plan. While my Mom was willing to pay for me to go to Med School or Law School, or an MBA program, I really had no interest in those, and would have preferred getting an MFA or a PhD in religion and/or archaeology, but, again, there was no plan, no preparation to apply to anything.
This was all complicated by my having been already working for my Mom for several years, I never had any "vacations" when in college, since as soon as I got out of school, I was in the (Public Relations firm) office the following Monday. I think a lof of why I didn't have a plan was that there was no push from her end to have me do something else, although we clashed constantly. The "path of least resistance" was for me to just show up at the office after graduation and stay there, which I pretty much did (a side note: I had been on the radio in college and had taken a couple of "summer intensives" up at Northwestern's Radio/TV/Film department, getting very good grades, and anticipating that I would move into their graduate program ... only to discover that they officially didn't take anybody right out of college, and that I'd have to wait for at least a year to get in ... irritatingly, a gal that I'd known from Lawrence that had been a "house mom" in a dorm for two years since she'd graduated got a spot in the program right then, like that was "useful experience"!) after having spent about a half a year cranking out resumes and tapes to various media outlets (hell, I did manage to get one interview, but it was to be an on-air sportscaster on a small rural station, not exactly what I was looking ... or optimal ... for).
So, after finding that I was not going to be going to Northwestern, and not being able to find anything in broadcasting (it was not a good time to be a white male looking for a media job!), I took my Mom up on her offer and went on full-time as a V.P. in the P.R. company. Again, I'd "grown up in the business" and had been working there since she'd started her own company and had useful background (in writing, graphics, and communications) for it, but it was never "the thing I wanted" and I mostly felt like an "outsider". Now, I did many successful things in my years there, but I was never "in control" of anything except for the specific projects, the programs and campaigns were never "my babies" and so ultimately there was no "glory" when they went well. Frankly, due to personality issues in my family, there was little "glory" at all, since our target always seemed like 110% and coming in at 95% was a "failure" to be picked over endlessly ... all successes were just a check mark, while any failures (no matter how ultimately trivial) were writ large. The atmosphere led me to ratchet up my drinking (which had been pretty substantial all through highschool and college) to nearly "mythic" levels. When I quit drinking (which involved six weeks in an evening outpatient "chemical dependence" program) I was easily going through a liter of gin (typically, but not exclusively) a day.
I suppose that my quitting drinking is one "success" in my life ... I went from a liter-a-day to zero over-night (literally), and haven't had a drink in 20 years since. I just wish that felt like it counted for anything. Of course, if I I hadn't quit drinking, I'd probably not lived to see my late 40s, but it sure feels like a empty achievement.
Anyway, that was in 1985 ... over the next few years I got married and the company had some setbacks, things were changing (these damned MBAs coming out with the "Harvard model" where they would only spend money on things they could directly quantify, which meant for PR ... even programs that had been successfully producing results for years ... that they were forced into situations where it cost more to measure a program than to run it, giving the MBAs a handy reason to just cut it out of the budget) in our corner of the industry, and we saw long-running "showcase" programs getting the axe at our clients. I had been self-publishing my poetry ever since college and eventually wanted to "professionalize" it (largely to have a company name in ads) and started my publishing company, Eschaton Productions, as a side project in early 1993. So, when I was in a near-fatal car crash in the fall of 1993, all the pieces were in place for the next big change. My Mom decided that giving her age (and declining mobility), the trends around the business, and my questionable availablity (she discovered that she was almost unable to work without my getting her around), that she would close the business at the end of 1993. I was "out of the loop" on this decision (being hospitalized for over a month after the crash), and had it presented to me as a fait accompli while I was still at the Rehabilitation Institute learning to walk again. So, there I was, a busted up bag of broken bones and mashed organs, with no job to go back to. While there was a decent amount of a nest egg coming in terms of stock from the profit-sharing plan, I was at a loss for what to do, but eventually figured that I would (once again, splitting my efforts) try to make a go on the publishing thing (I'd made a lot of contacts at the Parliament of the World's Religions which was held in Chicago the week before my accident), and try to build an Event company based on my experience running that end of things at the PR firm. In the Spring of '94 I took a prep course for the CMP (Certified Meeting Professional ... a very difficult accredation to get) exam, and ended up passing it. Unfortunately, largely due to the same issues that brought my Mom's company down, I was never able to get a single client for the Event end of the business (although I had a few minor consulting gigs for other PR-type things). In the meanwhile I'd made at least ONE good decision, in that I came out with a "bang" on the book end, with five initial titles (I later heard from our wholesalers that this got us attention that would not have been the case in a one-or-two title start).
Unfortunately (and those of you who've been reading this journal since 2000 know the gory details), we never made the sort of sales that we had hoped/planned for. While I figured it would take a few years to "ramp up" to profitability, we "hit the wall" after a few years ... we were getting close to break-even in 1997 and opted to go for a big push in 1998, doubling what we'd been spending on advertising/promotion, hoping to get over the hump ... our net increase in '98 over '97 was $15.00 ... a very depressing result. We'd been trying for years to get into the major chains (heck, I even drove to Ann Arbor, MI to sit in the lobby of Borders' HQ to try to talk to somebody (we'd been getting these response cards back for our various releases saying "we're planning on stocking this and will be gettting them from such-and-such wholesaler", but no orders ever appeared, and I was hoping to get that worked out!), but got to sit there for three hours, leave a note, and go home (somebody did call on our voice mail on a Sunday morning a week later to say "hey, the wheels move slowly" or some such, they obviously felt bad about my having come out there, but couldn't really communicate with us).
It turns out that both Borders and B&N don't like to deal with individual publishers, and it didn't matter that we were available though a half-dozen wholesalers (including their main suppliers!), they only wanted to deal with "full-service distributors". Now, I'd always been hesitant to go with a "distributor", firstly (and most obviously) due to their taking another slice of the pie, and we were operating on pretty slim margins already, but secondly due to the amount of control you handed over in these deals. Over the years I'd been "rushed" by many distributors, but had not much cared for their catalogs. Well, in late '88 or early '89 this new group came calling. They were called Access Publishers Network, and they had a real sharp catalog with a lot of other presses that I admired in it. It turns out that they had hired on a lot of folks from Atrium, a "new age" sort of distributor which had gone out of business a year or so previously, so they had a lot of expertise in our niche. They did a good pitch, and (feeling this was the only way to get into the major chains) we signed up. Little did I know that I was going from getting five or six "middling" checks a month (from our various wholesalers) to getting no money ever, but that ended up being the reality of it. It turns out that Access was a total scam, set up by these "as seen on TV" guys, who were draining money out of the book biz (our money ... they were only entitled to a cut) to fund other projects ... when they got forced into an involuntary bankruptcy, they owed over 1,000 creditors, and we were way down on that list. So, by mid-2000 I found myself with nearly no books (well, we had borrowed money to re-print a number of our titles, and had those) since they had sold through (yes, via Borders and B&N) most of our inventory, and less than no money (having already had to borrow a huge chunk for the pre-Access reprints) to print any new books to get back into our previous channels. A sane man would have seen this as "game over", but I still had our direct sales (such as they were) and the sales through Amazon going, so we dragged on, I ended up getting my books back (see here for details) in March of 2001, and have been watching Eschaton shrivel and die (although it's still haunting me) for the past five years.
As long-time readers well know, during the late-90's I also had another business, a Rexall Showcase International distributorship. My accountant got me into this as a way to develop a secondary income stream on the side. While I love the products (and still use quite a bunch on a daily basis), I was never able to get any "traction" with the business. Now, part of this is ME ... for some reason most people would rather die of thirst than to buy a bottle of water from me .. but part of this is "unfortunate timing" as the company went through a world of changes (from a new compensation plan in '99 to their getting bought by Numico in 2000 with a new compensation plan, to the merger with Enrich to form Unicity with a new compensation plan, to the sale by Numico to in-house ownership with a new compensation plan, etc.), making it almost impossible for me to be able to "pitch the program"! Given how important some of these product are (or should be), I feel like a useless sack of shit that I've not been able to "introduce" them to other people. I have been clinging on there in the hope that one day I'll be able to "make a go of it", but right now that whole network marketing thing looks like another big stinky failure on my part.
OK, so by 2001, Eschaton was pretty much dead (insert feeding tube joke here if you wish to), and I had been searching out "other options" ... sending out a ton of resumes to see if could get back into PR or some other niche in the Publishing industry. Unfortunately, having been "out of the game" for so long, I was not getting anywhere with that, and even working with a "career counsellor" didn't get stuf un-stuck. In the summer of 2001, Ed Hubbard (a long-time collaborator on the book biz) came up with an idea of a series of conferences that his Telepathic Media group wanted to produce, and (my having worked with him on several pagan-organization conferences previously) he asked if I'd like to co-conspire on this project. Now, this was pretty much exactly the kind of a gig that my then-counsellor was suggesting I get into, and I jumped into it with both feet, developing thematic materials, posters, tickets, IDs, ads, web pages, and a whole promo program. What did it get us? Squat. Since the theme of the conference was "sacred sexuality" and there was going to be nudity, etc. involved, we were on thin ice as far as permits/regulations were involved. We pretty much had to have the event sold out in advance or it couldn't happen. If it was all pre-sold we could run it as a "private party" at the gallery we'd booked, but if there were any on-site ticket sales, it suddenly became a "public performance" and would require a dozen different inspections/permits/etc. ... plus Ed had gotten the heads-up that Vice was just waiting for the chance to jump on this, meaning that, at minimum, several of our speakers would get busted if we were just a smidge off on the paperwork. Despite getting a lot of "interest" in the event, it turns out that nearly nobody was pre-ordering tickets and at the very last moment we had to cancel the conference, figuring that the results of going on with it were worse than the results of shutting it down. Being the guy with the CMP, the guy with the PR background, the guy who should be able to pull off a conference in my sleep, I felt like a TOTAL failure on this, even though the "outside stuff" (over which I had little contact and no control) killed it off, I still felt like I'd failed big time. That was June.
So, there I was, Eschaton had failed, I couldn't make RSI/Unicity work for me, the conference had gone down in flames, I wasn't getting any traction on my resumes, we were dead broke, what more could happen? I spent the summer pretty much playing "Mr. Mom" when what happened? Yep, 9/11 ... right there on my TV screen They say that 9/11 "most effected" middle-class middle-aged white guys, since up to that point we'd "never felt vunerable". Well, it must be true, because the deep funk I'd gotten into only got worse with the whole attack-and-aftermath. I ended up with a cable-news habit that I still find hard to break.
Anyway, one of the things that the career counseling that I'd gone through had identified as a possible thing for me was going into I.T. ... and I'd looked around and not found a program that looked right (some looked promising, but I didn't have the background for, having gotten out of college before stuff like "object-oriented programming" had be developed!). I'd made one attempt to do this on my own (I found this "weekend crash course in C++" ), but that failed miserably (I'd even sent The Wife and The Girls away for the weekend to have all the time to myself, but couldn't make heads or tails of half of the book). I heard in January of 2002 that the Chubb Institute was opening a new campus in downtown Chicago, and they had a programming program that looked ideal, and I went down to check it out in early January. I aced their test (I just half-missed one question), and got signed up for the first class at the new location in March.
Again, those of you reading this in 2002 know how that all went ... there were six units in the program, and by the end of the 3rd unit (well, actually, a week into the 4th unit), I was the only man standing out of a class of 27 (and I'd gotten a perfect "A" so far). Chubb's corporate guys had "issues" with paying for me to be essentailly tutored the rest of the way, and asked if I could wait for the next unit to "catch" up. Needless to say, I was not happy with this (as it meant that I was going to be unemployed for another six months), but what could I do? I ended up auditing three classes (one on basic computer stuff, and two on web design), and ended up re-joining the program with about five people (two of which had previously dropped out of my original group). However, by about week three, we were down to 2 guys, and then they transferred in one more from the suburban location. We went through the last 1.5 classes with the 3 of us, each the last survivor of their starting 27 (yes, it was that gruelling)! I really busted my ass on the program, going weeks with 2-4 hours of sleep, and by the time I got done I was so sick that the doctor told me I was pretty much a coin flip away from being hospitalized. However, by January 2003 I was done, and had graduated with honors (my professors had been arguing with me that I didn't need to get an "A", but I just couldn't let things slide intentionally!), which I take it is unique for that programming course (where, obviously, only about 4% make it through at all).
Now, you would think that this would be a "success" ... after all, I'd come out of a killer program with a best-ever grade, and the admiration of all and sundry. But, what did it get me? NOTHING! It took a year of my life, a big chunk of change (another loan that's still outstanding), and I couldn't get a job interview to save my life! Here I had this nice shiny piece of paper saying that I was hot shit for "business programming and web development" but there were NO JOBS (or at least no jobs outside of India), and since I didn't have ANY "experience", I was in no position to compete with the thousands of unemployed I.T. folks on the street since the "collapse of the dot-com bubble". So, once again, a nasty FAILURE arises out of what could have been a triumph. Once again, no matter how hard I worked at something, outside trends/happenings leave me hanging over the abyss.
So, early 2003 was spent churning out new "tech" resumes and hoping that the Chubb placement people might find me something. I mean, I was NOT going to be picky, I was willing to write SQL statements all night on 3rd shift doing "maintenance programming" at a bank, but nothing came. Every day I'd shoot stuff off to listings in the paper and 99% of the time I'd never even hear back (hell, I'd get all excited if somebody made a "courtesy call" to say they'd gotten it). This went on for quite a while and we (again) were feeling desperate. The Wife suggested that I try another "Career Counselling" thing and we found this LifeWork group that seemed like it was a good fit, and I started to go out there (they were in the SW suburbs, so I had to rent a car) once a week starting in July '03.
The LifeWork folks completely over-hauled my resume, and re-focused my job search on "professional" targets rather than "tech" targets. Unfortunately, I think that what was really being emphasized was the "jack of all trades but master of none" vibe that my multi-faceted resume can give. It seems that to publishing/media folks it looks like I'm a PR guy or a programmer, to tech folks it looks like I'm a PR guy or a writer/producer, and to the PR folks it looks like I'm a tech guy or a printer. Once again, after months and months of cranking out resumes, attending job fairs, going to endless networking events, I hadn't even been asked to interview anywhere. Do you know how that feels? We'd even "dumbed down" my resume (so it didn't read Vice President, CEO/President, etc.) to get past the "overqualified" filters, but nothing seemed to work. It feels like I've been doomed to not even being able to get my foot in the door on a job, despite having the talent, training, and experience to do dozens of different things. "Big Stinky Failure" must be written on my forehead.
So ... then comes January 2004, and my Mom's death. Needless to say, dealing with this, and its aftermath, has taken up large chunks of the past year and a half. Of course, while trying to deal with that, I get the news in March that LifeWork is going out of business (kind of hard to be a successful career conselling group if you're not able to get any of you current clients jobs!), leaving me feeling more adrift. The one "positive" out of all this is that we got some life insurance money. Which sucks, of course. Nothing like having to lose your Mom to have your ass temporarily saved.
Now, the new gig. Last summer/fall, The Wife was fed up with working for the state (it's a long story, but she really did get screwed there) and wanted to find something that she could do from home. She'd been through about a dozen possibilities (all of which sounded like Bad Ideas to me) before coming up with Club Z! ... it would use her M.Ed and feed into her "wanting to do good in the world" fixation. It also could provide me with something to do other than waste more money on resumes. Unforuntately, we got into this once the school year was already underway last year, so were playing catch-up all the while (so much of this thing is "who knows you", and obviously nobody knew us last year), by May of this year (our high point) we had gotten up to about 1/3 to 1/2 of "where we need to be". While I rationally don't think that our goals with this business are "pie in the sky by and by" the day-in-day-out reality of trying to get clients is frustrating. We have about 66 schools in our territory and we "need" to have 50-100 students on-going to make this thing work for us ... that's only 1-2 students per school, which shouldn't be too hard, especially considering that about 60% of our previous student came from outside our actual territory. However, every chunk of change that goes out the door for advertising and promotion that doesn't seem to do anything brings me down so hard, it feels like everything else I've done, running in heavy surf, in a dream, being chased by monsters.
Anyway, I just wonder what it would feel like to be SUCCESSFUL at something? To not have something that I've worked hard and long on, thrown my body and soul into, fall to pitiful pieces at the end? I get so sick of busting my butt to try to make a go of something only to find that I would have been ahead of the game to have sat around in front of the TV eating twinkies and scratching off lottery tickets instead. Bleh. Sucks to be me ... sucks to be me.