“Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…”

This is another one of those “True Confessions” moments.  The names have not been changed to protect the irrational loser, in this case, me.

When I was six years old, we moved from a small nondescript house in a small nondescript subdivision on Glenwood Avenue in Fostoria, Ohio to an older house on Cory Street.  900 Cory Street to be precise.  Even though it was a distance that was easily walkable, when you’re six, moving is a big deal and it seemed like a long way away.

cory

The Cory Street house today, sadly in disrepair. (Stolen from Google Street View)

The Cory Street house was older.  As I recall, it was about 50-60 years old back then which would make it over 100 years old plus or minus today.  It was a three-bedroom home with a tiny den downstairs.  There was no heat on the second floor, so we all experienced in our bedrooms the extremes of weather that existed over the six years we lived there.

The house also had a basement.  It was divided into two rooms.  The first was the laundry area and had enough room for a couch that was there for a while, but wasn’t a permanent fixture.  The Siamese cat, Samantha, lived down there and so did the associated lingering stench of the litter box, which later became my job to maintain.  I was really bad at cleaning up poop — a characteristic of my being which I embrace to this day.

The second room was the furnace room.  Dad set up his workbench in there and for a time, Dad actually practiced his mantra of “a place for everything and everything in its place.”  Of course, his self-compliance was cyclical and I recall the workbench being cluttered as much as it was orderly.

The furnace was a large, old coal furnace which some years before had been converted to burn natural gas.  It was a monstrous, roughly cylindrical presence, extending from ceiling to floor, with multiple cylindrical ducts jutting angularly out of the top on their way to the floor above.  Samantha used to hop up on top and sleep on top of the furnace for obvious reasons.

Next to the furnace was the blower.  We called it the fan box.  It was a strong fan encased in a large sheet metal enclosure.  When I think about it today, I wonder why it had to be so large but I guess that’s the way they built stuff back then.

When the thermostat upstairs got cold enough, it activated the furnace and fan.  The fan in the fan box roared to life and the furnace ignited warming the house and making my childhood memories of that house as warm and as cozy as it made the air upstairs.

I was downstairs in the basement with Dad as he was organizing the workbench for the first time.  My six year old self had never really given a lot of thought to the heating system in the house.  Unless it breaks, who the hell does that anyway let alone a six year old kid?  Anyway, there I was standing right next to the furnace when the thermostat kicked on the furnace.

When the heat kicked on, the gas jet on the front of the old coal combustion chamber activated.  It made a loud whirring noise, almost a screech as the methane gas roared and was shot into the combustion chamber.  The jet had three louvers on the side which opened allowing air to get in and my little six-year-old eyes could see the first controlled explosion of the gas as it began its way to the combustion chamber.

So put this all together.  You’ve got a loud fan, a screeching set of louvers opening up to reveal a fire-breathing dragon looking thing and the roar of the combustion itself ringing in my ears; all in the span of a second or so.  So naturally I did what any self-respecting six-year-old might do.

I panicked.

Well, I didn’t really panic.   I screamed first.  THEN I panicked.  Then I kept on screaming.  Loudly.  Then I ran.  The screaming alone probably would have scared me even though I was the one doing the screaming.

I beat feet out of there at warp factor eight, even though Star Trek wouldn’t be thought up for another four years or so.  (Even then, I wouldn’t see it regularly until it was well into syndication.  But that’s another story.)

I don’t remember what happened after that except to say that I must have calmed down before too awfully long.  But the sheer terror of that moment remained behind and I was scared shitless of that furnace for a long, long time.

I eventually got over the fear of that furnace room, eventually setting up my electric trains, my chemistry set and my own little version of my Dad’s workbench in there.  But it took a long time for me to make friends with that furnace.  I would slowly open the door and peek inside and announce myself out loud to the furnace as though it had been expecting me.  I talked to it, told it that I was a friend and that I knew it wasn’t going to hurt me, knowing secretly that this was a bald-faced lie.  Over time, though that furnace and I made friends and it wasn’t too long before I barely noticed the roar of the gas jet or the rumble of the fan box when the thermostat issued its orders.  I could play there quietly or with my friends in perfect harmony with that big, scary old converted coal furnace.

Earlier this week, I was trying to find the office gym and the locker room.  The locker room is in the basement.  To get there, you have to leave breadcrumbs so you can find your way back.  Much to my dismay, the path from the locker room to the gym leads…

<wait for it…>

… through the boiler room.

boiler

My nemesis. You can just feel the malevolence, right?

The first time I opened the door to the boiler room and I wasn’t expecting it, I about shit my pants.  In a split second, that moment of panic (less the screaming, thankfully) consumed me.  All of my smarts and education went out the window and I instantly transformed myself into 187 lbs of irrational panic.

There was NO WAY IN HELL I was going to go through that goddamn boiler room.

Ever.

I slammed the door, eyes wide and pulse racing.  (And this was on the way TO the gym!)

Damn.

Once I recovered a bit, I found a way to get to the gym by going around the evil boiler room which, like its distant cousin, the converted coal furnace on Cory Street, roared and rattled and screeched at me like it knew I was terrified of it and it was enjoying it.  I think it was laughing at me.

It was.  I swear it.  I’d bet a month’s pay on it.

Now, a week at the gym has passed.  I’ve discovered that I can get to the gym and back by going around the boiler room.  However, that means going from the Turner Building to the Fairbank Building and THEN around to the Annex building and ascending the sixty-six steps to the attic gym where my then elevated heart rate has some real use.

I’m getting a little better.

I can actually bypass the longer trip through the Fairbank Building IF and only IF I cut through a tiny corner of the boiler room.  Tiny.  It’s literally two steps and two doors.  I could do it with my eyes closed if the evil boilers weren’t there.  But they are and embarrassingly enough, I still have a hard time opening that first door and scurrying across the smallest part of the boiler room floor. If that second door is ever locked, I will have a heart attack and die right there.  Of course, maybe that’s their sinister plan all along.

It’s not any better when I come back from the gym.

I can do it now.  I can.  I really can.  I don’t like it, and I try not to look around.  If the lights ever go off in there mid scurry, you can bet your boots I’ll be reversing course and doing my exercise by way of LA Fitness or Gold’s Gym or something.

It’s embarrassing to think that here I am a grown man still unnerved by pipes and furnaces.  I mean seriously! What the hell?  But for that heart-stopping moment when I crack the door and I dash two steps to the other door, I am not a grown man.  I’m six and I’m in my new house on Cory Street.

And I have a new friend to make before it’s home.

Buy This Book: “Green Card Soldier”

Former Army Public Affairs colleague and outstanding public affairs practitioner Bruce Zielsdorf has penned “Green Card Soldier.”  It’s a novel that…  Well, duh!  It’s his book.  I’ll let him tell you about it:

GCS_cover_frontGreen Card Soldier is an historic adventure novel that follows the exploits of Andro Babich – a naïve, but inquisitive teenage soccer star frustrated by his mundane life on the family farm in Bosnia. In the early 1990s, Andro’s sporting hopes are drowned as the former Yugoslavia is battered by thunderous storms of religious and nationalistic disgust that rip apart families, villages and the vast Balkan countryside. Once-civil debate decays into hate mongering, land grabbing and ethnic cleansing on all sides.

‘This tragic tale is told by Heath Winslow – a cynical, yet self-deprecating, war correspondent who, for decades, has seen much the same in other locales around the globe. Both characters challenge readers with the question: Can life become richer – and people stronger – when we look beyond labels to appreciate one another for the unique individuals we are?

“In the years that follow, Andro escapes to Greece, sails to America and joins the Army. As a Green Card Soldier, he soon earns his U.S. citizenship. Andro then returns to Bosnia as a USAID worker. During these vexing escapades, he meets a multitude of dynamic people and faces a mountain of barriers to reaching his life’s goal. This swarm of forces tests his drive and attempts to skew his moral compass. Andro eventually has an epiphany about achieving his quest… his life’s goal. In the end, our Green Card Soldier identifies several simple, but universal truisms that he intends to plant as part of his former homeland’s rebirth.” 

You can see more about Bruce and his book by clicking through to the book’s website here.  From there, you can download a preview and preorder the book.

Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Come back when you’re done.

Good job and welcome back!

It’s being released in paperback on January 14th by Hellgate Press. I’ll be there to get my copy.

You should be too.

Congratulations on the book, Bruce!  All of us from Army Public Affairs are proud of you!

Bruce Zielsdorf, author of "Green Card Soldier"

Bruce Zielsdorf, author of “Green Card Soldier”

Early Review of 2014: Meh.

So 2014 is here.

Big whoop.

So far, it doesn’t feel any different than 2014. Perhaps I have unreasonable expectations or fantasies that the world will suddenly be a better place when the New Year begins. But really, the New Year is nothing more than an arbitrary moment. It could have been a day before, a day earlier or anytime really. Yeah, there are big celebrations, but the world so far has continued to spin at a relatively constant rate and the orbit of our planet around our star is undisturbed – all really, really good things.

So why should I expect something different?

Tradition. Convention. The manufactured expectation that the media places upon the changing of the calendar. Like most people, I DO expect something different, but as every year past, I don’t get anything different. I know why, too.

It’s all my fault.

I recognize that the passing of a year, another birthday or another seemingly significant day doesn’t affect change. I have to do that. I have to make decisions and choices. I have to be willing to affect that change instead of waiting for some random sidereal moment to make it all better. It’s up to me to make those changes.

People often quote or misquote the last few lines of the poem by William Ernest Henley.  (It’s pretty clear why people only quote or misquote the last few lines; those are the uplifting lines.  The rest is kind of depressing.) Here’s the whole thing titled “Invictus:”

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I am, dammit. It’s all on me. All.

Though being an Army guy, I prefer to think of myself as the colonel of my soul.

Good Riddance, 2013

Welp, it’s almost over. 2013 is quickly coming to a close and I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled. In fact, if I had my ‘druthers, I do a cut and paste on the whole year and forget to paste it.

Yeah, 2013 kinda sucked for the most part.

To be fair, however, 2013 did end on a positive note, so I’d prefer to just write off from say January up until November. The last two months were a vast improvement owing in no small way to getting hired after nearly two years of being out of work. That alone has made the whole of 2013 eminently redeemable.

I don’t mean to come across as cynical and sour, though many days I still feel that way. It’s going to take a while to erase some of the angst of looking for work and not finding it, disillusionment being the key word for all those months. And make no mistake; it’s hard to break the habit overnight of feeling like ten tons of crap. So I’m taking this step to help move away from the negativity and into a more positive place.

Here’s my list of things for which I am grateful. Now, these are in no particular order, nor is there any priority involved. Unless there’s something funny in there, which I don’t know ‘cause I haven’t written it yet. But funny stuff goes in where it works best.

Off we go. Things for which I am grateful:

–  My sense of humor. Lord knows I’d not have made it through this without one. Thank goodness mine came standard issue. Some think my sense of humor is… well, defective. Fine. You can think that. Sometimes I do too, but I hit more than I miss, so you naysayers can bite me. (See? Still cynical and sour. I’m working on that.)

–  Being hired. Of course, I am VERY grateful for the opportunity to rejoin the workforce and stop screaming at the radio every time the job numbers described people who have given up looking for jobs. I DID give up for a while when I was sick and didn’t realize it back in 2012, but in 2013, it just pissed me off to hear that. Being back in the workforce and being blessed to work for the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center is something really cool. While I’m still new here and learning the ropes, everyone here has welcomed me and made me feel at home. So to all of my new colleagues and bosses, thank you for hiring me and thank you for making me feel so at home.

DVR–  My DVR. Holy crap, my DVR has 3 TERABYTES of storage for high-definition TV shows alone! While much of that is consumed with reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” and Seth MacFarlane’s animated shows, being able to watch “Person of Interest,” “Elementary,” or “American Horror Story” whenever I wanted to was a godsend. (On a related note, I just binge watched ten episodes of “Person of Interest” some from many, many months ago. I recommend the show. However, I do NOT recommend binge watching ten episodes.)

–  Credit card companies. Yes, while I was unemployed, I used my credit cards to pay bills. Far, far more than I should have, but hey, when your back’s against the wall and you’ve got kids for whom you’re responsible, you do your best with what you’ve got. So I’m grateful that no one cut me off. Of course, now 2014 will be the year of worrying about how the hell I pay this all off. But at least we’ll all be fed for the foreseeable future.

–  Speaking of kids, I’m grateful for them. All of ‘em. Jon and Andy, my two grown-up kids who are scattered across the continent. You can read more about them here. I’m immensely proud of them both and love them like crazy. Nate and Garrett are my significant other, Beth Geyer’s kidlings and they have made 2013 bearable. There’s no greater comfort than a small child’s hug or having them fall asleep next to you while watching TV. As heavy as they are, it’s never a chore to carry them upstairs, dead asleep and tuck them into bed. There’s no greater gratitude for me than knowing that circumstances I’ve tried to create permit their sleep unburdened by the things that keep me awake at night. That’s my job. Whatever it takes.

881702_10151487112734793_1668790575_o

–  The dog.

Nope. I lied about that.

–  I’m grateful to the online community for keeping me company when I can’t get out of the house, which is pretty much always. Thank you for entertaining me, engaging me and giving me an outlet for socialization even if it is virtual in nature. I recognize that you’re all real people on the other side of my screen, and I value your friendship, your candor and your confidence. I’m extra grateful that I DO get to see many of you in person from time to time. Thank you for being so welcoming and so supportive.

–  I’m grateful for politicians.

Nope. I lied about that, too.

beth–  Beth Geyer. She allows me to be a real parent to her children, and I try my best to do a good job. I’m grateful for your support when I succeed and for your kindness when I fail. I am grateful for your boundless beauty and your sense of humor. You are extraordinarily clever and your wit and impeccable comedic timing are the stuff of legend. Timing like that you can’t teach. (Nate’s got it, too.) I am grateful for your presence in my world. I’m also grateful for your Sub Divines – the singularly most delicious sandwich recipe ever brought to a relationship ever. Did I say “ever?” Oh, and for your love of beer.

–  My Toyota Prius. It’s paid off.

photo–  Jeff Tobin. Jeff and I go back to 1972.  Last week after a server crash, I sadly lost a terrific essay I wrote about our long-standing disagreement about who’s the better drum major. He’s been a good dude for well over 40 years, and I have always valued our friendship, perspective and the rapport we’ve shared for a year or two now. Specifically, though, I am VERY grateful for you introducing me to single malt scotches. Yes, that was a 2013 thing. I was visiting Chateau Tobin in May near our birthdays this year (we were born 16 hours apart) and Jeff set us up with a scotch tasting. Changed my life. I am grateful for you and for your liquor cabinet.

–  HD Radio. Not satellite, but HD Radio. It’s a form of digital terrestrial radio that no one knows about except geeky guys like me. Living near a big city I can get a whole boatload (yes, it’s a large boat in case you were trying to quantify a boatload) of HD Radio stations you can’t receive on the regular FM band. Relatedly, thanks to Best Buy for having an open-box desktop HD Radio for $29.99 that was going for nearly $100.00 on Amazon.

That’s about it for now. I’ll have more later, I’m sure. Baby steps, you know.

Oh, and to you, my reader. Thank you for reading this. And thank you for commenting, liking it or whatever. Maybe you could think about the things in 2013 for which you are grateful. Tis the season and all that, right?

Jeff Tobin's Gingerbread House (Used shamelessly without permission.)

Jeff Tobin’s Gingerbread House (Used shamelessly without permission.)

 

P.S.  If you speak binary, you’ll get the message.

Ten Things I Learned During My First Week at Work

1.) How to spell “FHWA” correctly.

2.) How highly automated hiring a new federal employee is. (Good thing I’m a computer nerd, otherwise who knows where I’d have wound up.)

3.) Commuters in Northern Virginia have neither changed nor improved in two years.

4.) HOV lanes + Prius = relatively pain free commuting.

5.) The difference between RD&T and R&T.

6.) Where the gym is.

7.) That the pop machines in the break area take credit cards.

8.) What I used to call a CAC card is now a PIV card.

9.) All bureaucracies have much in common.

10.) Dry erase markers bleed through a notepad’s next two sheets below the one on which I’m scribbling.

Ten Things to Do Before Going Back to Work After Two Years

1.  Adjust attitude.

2.  Learn how to get dressed BEFORE noon.

3.  Take suits to the tailors to be let out 2″.

4.  Catch up on prime time TV shows on the DVR.

5.  If it’s a government job, wait 48 days.

6.  Review wardrobe for fashion faux pas.  Wear anyway.

7.  Stop unemployment checks.  (Oh wait, they stopped on their own.)

8.  Help the dog get over her separation anxiety issues by hiding in the closet daily for 30 minutes.  (There are those who still believe I’m in there, but that’s another discussion.)

9. Get vintage Starsky & Hutch lunchbox and matching Thermos out of storage.

10.  Express gratitude for your good fortune.

55,209,600 seconds – And I Feel Like I Counted ‘Em All

HireMe

22 months to the day.  That’s how long it took.

1 year, 9 months.  15,336 hours.  920,160 minutes.  55,209,600 seconds.

639 days

A long freakin’ time.  And it felt like it, too.

881702_10151487112734793_1668790575_oDuring that time I went through countless minor depressions, a couple of big ones, constant worry, sleepless nights, a diabetes diagnosis, hundreds of disappointing job-related emails, two kegs of beer, about a bottle and a half of 18 year old scotch and bought a dog.

On October 1st, the first day of the twenty-second month of uninterrupted unemployment and about 43 days after I applied, I got hired.  It was also the first day of the government shutdown, so imagine my surprise when I got a call from a government employee telling me that I had been tentatively selected for a government job.  (Turns out that the agency for which I will be working is funded differently and wasn’t affected by the shutdown.  Who knew?)

I tried to remain calm when I got the call and answer the person’s questions accurately without sounding as though I was about to explode, even though I was.  “Yes.  My full name is Daniel James Wolfe.  Yes.  No.  Yes.  Yes, I accept the offer.  I’m on my way to Ohio.  Do I need to turn around and come back?  No?  Ok, then.  Yes.  I’ll expect your email and respond right away.  Of course.  Thank you so much!  I look forward to being part of the team.”

Well, I’ll be damned.

Wallaby Darned.1

Holy crap!

Then I got back on the road continuing my trip home to Ohio trying to concentrate on the road but so horribly/wonderfully distracted by the news that I could think of nothing else.  I really think I was in shock.  No exaggeration.  I didn’t believe it.

Hired

Before too long, I decided that I was so distracted and probably a road hazard, in my case an unguided 70-mile-per-hour Prius Missile.  (Kind of like a Tomahawk Cruise Missile, but WAY more eco friendly.)  

I was hungry anyway, so I pulled off and stumbled across a buffet restaurant next to a reasonably priced (read cheap) Holiday Inn Express.  I had an early dinner and then decided I wasn’t getting back on the road so I checked in to a hotel room with a Jacuzzi tub and decided to treat myself to a nice long bubbly soak and an early bedtime.

First thing upon entering the room was to boot the MacBook Pro and get connected.  Worst hotel Wi-Fi EVER!  They should have gotten a nastygram from me, but hey, I just got a job!  I didn’t care.

I set my computer up and my first thought after the Jacuzzi tub loosened my muscles and my upper bicuspids was “Time to do job applications.”  As they say, old habits die hard. 

Ha!  Not tonight, bitches!

But of course, the “what if’s” got me and all I could think about was “What if this falls through?  I’d better keep up my routine just in case.  I mean, it ain’t real until the first paycheck arrives.

“Ding!”

New e-mail notification.  It’s from the aforementioned government worker (A VERY professional and pleasant woman, by the way, lest you think I’m disparaging a faceless, nameless person.  I’m just respecting her privacy.)  It’s the “official” tentative selection notification with a form to fill out and return.

Ok, now this felt a little more official and a little more real.  After all, I now had something in black and white that confirmed the earlier phone call.  I reviewed the form and returned it as fast as I could, not worrying about appearing too eager even though I was.  (In my haste, I discovered a day later that I had made an error and had to send in a corrected form.  Honesty is the best policy and all that, right?)

“Ding!”

Another email from my new best friend, the nice government employee saying that she’d received the email and the completed form and that the security manager would be in touch.

I slept like the dead that night.

I woke up the next morning with the usual sad sigh that I had been sighing for the previous 639 days.  It took a few groggy minutes, but I eventually realized that I didn’t have to do that any more – at least tentatively.  I got up, showered, took advantage of the free and relatively flavorless breakfast in the lobby of the hotel and proceeded toward Ohio where I subsequently arrived and began writing this note.

Trying to keep the faith over 638 days of being told “no” is a difficult task.  Perhaps my years of auditioning as an actor in Hollywood and being rejected literally hundreds of times helped to handle the sheer volume of job rejection notices I’ve received.  I think that’s part of it.  But much of it came from the support of family, friends and others who kept telling me it was just a matter of time.  They all helped me to keep the faith and to keep plugging away at it.

vec_logoI also was required to take two job search seminars from the Virginia Department of Employment Services.  What I expected to be a bureaucratic bunch of bull turned out to be extremely valuable and marked the turning point in bettering my chances of success.  One other big lesson from all this: Bureaucracies aren’t all bad and sometimes the people who work in big bureaucracies DO care.  I offer a big thank you to the people at the Alexandria office and to one of their instructors in particular.  I wish I had her name handy, but unfortunately I don’t.  Her advice was invaluable in turning things around for me.

One person, though, was most directly affected by all of this and I want to be specific and thank my son, Andy.  Andy had his appendix out a few weeks back, and as I was traveling up to Alaska to visit him during his recovery, I got the call for the job interview for this job about which I’m writing.  I rescheduled my return trip to accommodate the interview (at considerable expense) but that meant I still had to create a 5-7 minute presentation for the interview.  I had to do that while I was in Alaska and away from all of my archives on CD. Preparing that presentation took a substantial amount of time away from Andy and he was kind enough and understanding enough to say “Call me when you’re done with your presentation and we’ll get together then.”  He was very gracious in giving me ample time to square it away.

And to Beth Geyer, my significant other, who waded through all my old archive data CD’s, put them one by one in a computer in Virginia and waited patiently so that I could download from Alaska all the stuff I needed for the presentation.  You also share in the success of the presentation and in the positive outcome of the interview.

And to my former employer and friend Ron Newlan, who was gracious enough to give me a great recommendation when contacted for a reference by the selecting authority.  Couldn’t have done it without you!

To both Beth and Andy, thank you!  I love you both and would not be writing this without you.

To all of you I leaned on for support, thank you!

So hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go – at least tentatively.  But it’s looking good.

Day 640 is no longer day 640.  It’s day one.

 

Footnotes:

1.  This is a Wallaby Darned:

Peach flavored frozen drink from Outback Steak House.  No real relation to the story.  It just popped in my head when I typed "Well, I'll be damned."

Peach flavored frozen drink from Outback Steak House. No real relation to the story. It just popped in my head when I typed “Well, I’ll be damned.”