Monday, March 16, 2009

Shifting Gears: how I got from there to here

I was at Microsoft in my early to mid thirties. I worked ten, twelve, sixteen, even nineteen hour days. I wrote business plans, marketing plans, product plans, strategic initiatives, management memos, marketing memos and punchy Powerpoint presentations. The point, if you were good at it, was to be strategic and not lose yourself in the everyday details. I was a master strategist when it came to my work -- a disaster at the details when it came to my life.

While my desk overflowed with memos and papers, my house lay littered with unread newspapers, aging bills, outdated coupons, an unmade bed, and two weeks of laundry. My garden out front was a jungle, the rest of my yard, forbidding. House plants withered and stood like straw corpses on my mantle. My fridge held a stale carton of milk, a container of blue-green cottage cheese and two mealy apples. I lived on dry bagels, cream cheese, and cereal. A stranger to my neighbors, I was short-tempered, short on sleep, short on time. I squeezed friends, family, and relationships in like bathroom breaks at a commercial.

It wasn’t the life I wanted.

I left Microsoft and decided to consult. I’d left the company -- but not the work. I did the same thing on my own while I told myself I’d broken free. I was like a well trained dog that knows only one trick and does it over and over again. By the mid 1990's, I was thirty six and I'd had enough. I went to a career counselor, showed him my resume, then blurted out a confession: I want to get off this bus! My words echoed back at me in his chrome and glass, too clean, too white, downtown office. Six sessions and several hundred dollars later, the man suggested I start my own Internet company.

Is everyone crazy? I thought. Thanks -- but no thanks.

I turned off the spigot, declining new projects and clients. White space appeared in my planner and then, for a time, it actually went blank. It was like jumping off the White Cliffs of Dover, a beautiful, liberating, sailing, swooping, swan dive -- into sheer nothingness. For the first time in my life I had no plan and didn’t care. I followed a stranger friends called instinct. I took time off and met a man and thought my life would finally settle into place. I wanted roots, a dog, a family. Then, two years later, at thirty eight, it all came undone. The man didn’t want to break up. He just didn’t want to commit. I waited and waited, then walked away broken-hearted. I grieved… for the man I loved, for the life we imagined, for the family I'd hoped for. I wondered if life would always feel empty. Then I woke up one morning and thought,

Damn… Why am I waiting for someone else to start living the life I want?

A dog seemed the easiest, simplest place to start.

I found a breeder with an eight week old litter of Portuguese Water Dogs and corraled my brother to help me. On a cold, wet day in November, we drove to the woman’s house. She opened the door and five Portuguese Water dogs converged around us, barking and wiggling about, excited at the prospect of company. In the background, we heard the chirp and squeak of puppies in the kitchen. When I walked over to look through the gate, a stocky, square little pup hopped and wobbled over to greet me. The breeder reached down and lifted him up in the palm of her hand, holding him out for inspection. This one is yours.

He had jet black curly hair, soft as chenille. Two round, chocolate brown eyes and a curious face peered out at me. The breeder directed me to place him down on the carpet. He wriggled away and took off, sniffing at furniture, hiding behind chairs only to scamper free seconds later. He was into everything, his tiny tail fluttered in frenzied excitement. I tried to catch him -- but he dashed off again, nose down, legs out, looping about two armchairs as if barrel racing at a rodeo. I looked up at the woman. I’m in trouble. Aren’t I?

Yup, she replied. Big trouble.

My brother drove us home and I held him snug in my arms. That night, alone with this tiny new stranger camped out on my dining room floor, I soaked in the details of his small furry body. He lay fast asleep but his paws jerked and twitched as he dreamed. I wondered who or what he was chasing. A small pit formed in the bottom of my stomach. But my heart swelled with love and a strangely powerful, protective instinct washed over me.

What have I done? I wondered.

I felt his presence fill my home.

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