Work Life

Plot Twist

A few weeks before Luke graduated high school, the company I work for announced the closure of one of their San Antonio locations. It wasn’t the store I was going to transfer to, but the people who were losing their jobs in the closure got preferential placement in the other nearby stores. The position I had planned to step into was filled locally by someone else.

This complicated our relocation plans. I reached out to my regional manager, explained that my kids and I had no desire to remain in DFW but that I would prefer to remain with the company, and asked if he could offer any guidance or suggestions. He said that due to the closure there were no openings at my job grade in San Antonio, but there were openings in two Austin stores.

So the kids and I discussed that. We really wanted to move to San Antonio. But the thought of starting over from scratch at some other company was unappealing, and Austin does meet our basic list of requirements: public transit, plenty of wild green spaces, garden-friendly.

Cost of housing was almost a dealbreaker. I did a quick apartment search and didn’t find anything in our price range. So I contacted a local apartment-finder service and explained our situation, and an agent got back to me right away with a very decent apartment in a nice location. After another family council, we agreed to give Austin a try. Elizabeth and I drove down from Bedford a few days later so we could take a look at the apartment and I could interview for the new position.

The apartment was super cute, but its lack of washer and dryer hookups was less than ideal. I do not miss the laundromat life at all. Almost everything else about it was good though, especially for the price, so we agreed to take it if the job offer came through.

A day or two after that, I got a call from the man who had shown us the apartment. Not the apartment-locator agent, the actual dude behind the desk at the leasing office. I clarify this because the reason he called was to say that he had noticed how concerned we were about the lack of washer-dryer hookups, and that he was about to go on his lunch break and would be happy to run out to some other places that his company operates and see if he could find a better fit for us, unless we really had our hearts set on that particular apartment. Once I got over my astonishment, I gratefully accepted his offer, because laundromats suck.

So a couple hours later I started getting photos of apartments texted to me by this splendid fellow who had gone forth on his lunch break to find us a place that fits our needs and budget. And he found us one, and we signed the lease online based on his photos, and it turned out to be everything we needed.

There was a time when I would have been deeply comforted by how smoothly everything transitioned in mid-stride from a move to San Antonio to a move to Austin. I would have felt like everything was falling onto place exactly as it was meant to; like the hand of God was moving in my life to keep things on track. Old Me would have felt securely validated in her faith that things always work out for the best.

New Me was…not comforted. New Me felt slightly railroaded and mildly resentful at the collapse of my well-laid plans. New Me would still prefer to live in San Antonio, despite my very real gratitude for everyone who helped to make our departure from DFW possible.

I’m not going to list the people who helped us, because a decade of blogging has taught me that there’s a baffling number of misanthropes out there who have nothing better to do than harass people who are identified on the Internet. But I’ll happily recommend A+ Apartment Locators to anyone looking for help finding the right Austin apartment. And a big shoutout to Einstein Moving Company as well. We hadn’t planned to use a moving company, but packing and loading up the U-Haul was more of an ordeal than we expected. So many books. So much solid oak furniture that should not live in an upstairs apartment. So many trips up and down stairs. Getting my oversized front-loading washer down the stairs almost did me in, and the thought of dragging it up another set of stairs in the Austin heat made me want to weep. So we called ahead and hired movers to unload the truck into our new apartment. A few hours after I made the reservation, I got this email:

Due to availability issues with our car dolly, on the morning of our move we were sent to a different DFW U-Haul location than the one we usually use (which I also recommend if you’re in that area and need a U-Haul). The new location was a logistical clusterfuck that put us a couple of hours behind schedule in getting out of town. But instead of cancelling, Einstein Movers accommodated our new arrival time by sending out different guys later in the day. Great company, great service and they unloaded the 20′ truck into our new second-floor apartment faster than I would have thought possible. 10/10, would use again.

We have just begun to explore our new city, but so far we’ve found more to like than to dislike about it. The water tastes good right out of the tap, which is a luxury I will never again take for granted. Compared to DFW the people here seem less polite but more authentic, which I prefer. The green spaces are lovely and plentiful. Our apartment patio is perfectly suited for a small potted garden. My work commute is short and easy. Elizabeth has already begun to explore the local bus routes. The brand new Central Library is amazing.

The kids and I are still sort of pining for San Antonio, but I’m hoping that we’ll learn to love living in Austin for as long as we end up staying here. We’re all about embracing the new experiences. I think this will be a good one for us.

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Categories: Family, kids, Life, Travel, Work Life | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Decision Time, Part III

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

On Day Three we got down to business, driving around looking at neighborhoods, apartment complexes and libraries.

I cannot overemphasize Luke’s reliance on public libraries to feed his insatiable appetite for knowledge. He checks out stacks of books at a time, almost all non-fiction, almost all on political or historical topics. Access to a good library is fundamentally necessary to his happiness and quality of life. Unfortunately, the little neighborhood libraries in San Antonio are geared more toward families and young children. None of them met the needs of our young revolutionary.

Our search for the right neighborhood was no more successful than Luke’s search for the right library. We found a few pretty ones, but nothing really clicked for us.

We did check out a local H-E-B, which is where virtually everyone in San Antonio gets their groceries, and we had a small, childish laugh when we discovered what H-E-B stands for.

We had contacted some apartment complexes in advance and arranged for viewings. One of these was up on the far north side, which we had not yet visited. Driving into this part of the city on Loop 410 was a surreal experience. The farther north we drove, the more San Antonio’s unique Hispanic flavor was replaced by ubiquitous chain stores and restaurants: Target, Walmart, Home Depot, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Pappadeaux. It looked like North Richland Hills. Add some mountains and palm trees and it could have been Temecula. As we left the freeway loop and continued north on surface streets, it became more and more clear that a completely different culture presides up there. Before our trip someone told me that “living outside of 410 is like living in a real-life Truman Show,” and now I know what they meant.

And here I have to grudgingly admit, not without a certain small amount of self-loathing, that this part of the city falls more into our comfort zone than the colorful southern parts do. It checks all of the boxes: easy access to wild green spaces and hiking areas, sunny yards for a kitchen garden, boarding stables for Mahogany. This is most likely where we will end up, or at least start out.

When we got to the apartments that we had arranged to look at in this area, the office manager was out. We walked around on our own to get a feel of the place and realized fairly quickly that it wasn’t what we were looking for. The complex was built onto a hillside, and the driveways and parking spaces were so steep they looked like a transmission/parking brake endurance challenge. The location itself was uninspiring as well.

As we walked back to our car, the manager passed nearby in his golf cart on his way back to the office. He stared at us like he thought we were tweaker transients looking for scrap metal to pilfer.

We figured we might as well go in and talk to him since he was supposedly expecting us, so we changed course and headed to the office. I told him that I had spoken to someone on the phone about looking at the apartments.

Maybe he really did think we were transients or something, because he treated us as if we were wasting his time. He launched condescendingly into a list of requirements – income verification, criminal background check, rental history and so on – as if each one were a “gotcha” that would obviously disqualify us. By the time he realized that we were actual potential customers and adjusted his tone accordingly, we had lost all interest in doing business with him.

Those apartments weren’t right for us anyway, but the experience felt like a bad omen. For whatever reason, our appearance apparently wasn’t up to the local standards. What’s even the point of moving if we’re just going to end up in the same kind of conformist gatekeeping nonsense that makes DFW so visually appealing but culturally uninteresting?

The only other place that we had wanted to visit on the far north side was the “highest elevation point in San Antonio.” That turned out to be kind of a letdown too. The highest point in San Antonio is a restaurant parking lot that isn’t very high.

We chilled there for a while and talked about our impressions of San Antonio. The one thing we know for sure is that DFW isn’t where we want to be. It absolutely has its good points, but it’s a slow death of the soul for people like us. Here’s an example: in the four and a half years that I have lived in the Metroplex, I have not managed to have a single meaningful, get-to-know-each-other conversation with anyone there, and it hasn’t been for lack of trying. They are mostly a polite, pleasant people who are happy to chat about the weather and other superficial topics. I’ve had fun conversations, clever conversations, informative conversations. But whenever I try to bring up any deeper philosophical topics, they either laugh uncomfortably and change the subject, wander off, or tell me straight up that they cannot understand what I’m talking about. I’ve begun to suspect that there is actually no deeper level in their minds at all, even though that goes against everything I believe about the human soul. And yes, I realize how douchey and Iamverysmart I sound right now, but this is a profoundly alienating environment for us. Like, if it turned out that the entire population of DFW were actually androids like in The Stepford Wives or The World’s End, I would just be like, “Well, that explains it then.”

Anyway. Luke said that the absence of good libraries in San Antonio was a dealbreaker. I said that he just needs to give up on the little local branches and start looking at college libraries. We weren’t too far from UTSA at that point, so we drove over to look at its Peace Library.

Luck was just not with us that day. The library closed at 6pm, and we reached its door at 6:04. Still, the idea of having access to college and university libraries satisfied Luke. We agreed to give San Antonio a shot, and if it doesn’t turn out to be the right place for us, well, there’s a whole wide world out there just waiting to be explored.

When we were planning last year’s road trip to Austin, someone told me that we should definitely check out Enchanted Rock. We didn’t make it that time, but we did add it to the list of stuff we eventually wanted to do. So for this trip our plan was to leave San Antonio on the afternoon of the third day, spend the night at a campsite at the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, and spend as much of the fourth day climbing around and exploring as we felt like before heading home.

This should have been completely doable. I had submitted my vacation request about a month in advance, after clearing the dates with my supervisor. My request sat in the system, unadressed, until three days before we had planned to leave. It was declined.

I had mentioned this road trip to various managers over the course of the month and no one had given me any indication that it would be a problem. I have a new supervisor now than the one that I had originally cleared the vacation with, but still. I had requested less than half of the vacation time I had accrued – four days out of the week-and-a-half I could have asked for – and somehow that was too much.

Anyway, long story short, I spoke to my new supervisor and got my four days of vacation, but not the same four days that I had requested. So even if I had rolled the dice and reserved a campsite at Enchanted Rock far enough in advance, it wouldn’t have done any good because we ended up not being there on the night we thought we would.

We ended up just playing the whole thing by ear. When the sun set on the third day we were sitting near a fountain in a courtyard at UTSA, still discussing our life goals. Our tent was in the trunk, and we still wanted to see Enchanted Rock, so I called a KOA near Fredericksburg and tried to reserve a campsite. They were booked full for Spring Break, but they recommended a nearby park that offered no-frills tent camping. I called there and was able to secure a spot.

It was an hour’s drive to the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park. When I checked in the receptionist asked if we were going to Enchanted Rock. I said we were, and she advised me to get there as early as possible, since she had heard that the lines were already really long by 7:30am. If I had known how useful that bit of advice would turn out to be, I might have hugged her right there. For real, she saved our whole day.

Camping tech has come a long way since my childhood days of heavy canvas tents and dim kerosene lanterns. We just bought a basic 4-person Coleman Sundome for this trip, but I love it. The most challenging part of putting it up was the brisk wind that kept trying to blow everything away. Once we got it assembled and staked down, the wind was a non-issue.

Lighting tech is on a whole new level these days. Our little $10 LED lantern was almost too bright on its brightest setting. The half-brightness setting was easier on the eyes and still lit up the whole interior when we hung it from the handy loop in the center of the tent.

The lantern really proved its value when it turned out that these primitive tent sites had no access to electricity. It runs off of a lithium battery that lasts forever, recharges via USB and doubles as a portable charger. So it provided plenty of light for setting up the tent and eating the supper we’d packed, recharged my camera’s battery while we slept, and then (partially) recharged itself on the half-hour drive to Enchanted Rock the next morning.

But that’s a story for the next post.

Read Part IV here

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Family, kids, Life, Road trip, School, Travel, Weather, Work Life | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

A Few Words About Depression

Sometime in January I started to experience the symptoms of clinical depression. It was very gradual, but over the next few weeks I lost interest in most of the things that used to make me happy, like writing and drawing and reading and hiking. I felt like all the life was draining out of me. I wasn’t sleeping well, but it was hard to find the motivation to even get out of bed unless there was someplace I had to be. Riding Mahogany still offered a temporary relief from the dull numbness, but between my job and the weather I’ve been going weeks at a time without seeing her at all.

I know that depression is a complex and sensitive topic, but in this particular case I knew what was wrong. The friends I used to hang out with and laugh with and cry with and share my most intimate thoughts with are now physically unavailable to me. We live in different states. Facebook is a lifesaver for sure, but it can’t provide the sort of personal interaction and platonic physical affection that I apparently require to thrive. I haven’t had any luck yet making those kinds of friends in Texas. Although, as Giles once said to Buffy, “I almost made a new one, which I believe is statistically impossible for a person of my age.”

Anyway, the holidays had also taken their toll. This was the first Christmas and New Year in my entire life that I have ever spent completely alone. The kids were in California with their dad, and I was here in Texas discovering that working in retail during the holidays is its own kind of special. I made a few efforts to share some of my favorite parts of Christmas with my coworkers, but it obviously wasn’t the same.

After the holidays, some new issues cropped up. These were not problems that I could fix or change; my options were to endure them or walk away from them. And if I had had my close friends around me, I think it might have all been endurable. In my depressed state, walking away was definitely the right choice. The whole situation was starting to affect my health, which is where I draw a pretty hard line.

As soon as I made the decision to change what I could and leave behind what I couldn’t, the fog started to lift. As I implemented the changes, the numbness went away completely. I still have some bad days now and then, because it’s painful to walk away from things that you would prefer to have in your life, even when you know they’re not good for you. But that kind of grief has a keener edge than depression, so at least it lets you know you’re still alive.

And that’s enough exposition. The reason I came here to write this post is because I haven’t had much firsthand experience with depression, unless you count the last year of my marriage, and now that I have I would like to offer a personal observation.

When I finally admitted to my loved ones what I was dealing with, they were there for me. All we had was Facebook and my cellphone, but their love and support and well-wishes shone warmly through the fog I was drifting in. It made such a difference. Friends are so fucking important.

But there’s something else I need to say, as lovingly and respectfully as I can. There was one person…and I know that this person meant well. I know for an absolute fact that this person loves me and wants me to be happy and healthy and have a successful life. But when I began speaking openly about my depression, this person began treating me like A Depressed Person. Like that was my new identity, my defining characteristic. They would talk about all the changes I was going to have to make in my diet and lifestyle and whatnot, as if I weren’t already doing the best I could with what I had to work with. And I was like, “This isn’t my normal state of being,” and they were like, “That was then, this is now.”

Life tip: When someone is muddling along in a numb fog of depression, they don’t want to hear, “This is your life now.” They want to hear, “It’s going to be okay. I love you, I’m here for you, you’re important to me. We’ve shared some great times together, and we’ll share more in the days to come. The best is yet to be.”

I feel like people need to understand that, but I’m not trying to hurt anyone here, so that’s all I’m going to say about it.

In related news, I have traded my retail job for one that I think is a better fit for me. I am infinitely grateful for everything that I’ve learned during the past year, but I never really felt like I belonged in retail. I’m back in the food industry now, where all of my earliest jobs were as a teen and young adult. Retail felt like a soulless alien world to me. Going back to working in a restaurant felt like walking into a crowded party where all the people seem vaguely familiar. Plus it’s closer to where I live, and I’ll probably end up making more money there. I was afraid it might not be strenuous enough and that I would gain back the weight I’d lost in the retail job, but it turns out I’m going to have to develop more upper body strength before I’ll be able to keep up with all the heavy lifting. So that should keep me nice and fit. And as an interesting bonus, most of the people I work with there have absolutely no concept of personal space. It’s a busy, crowded, interactive environment and there is more friendly oversharing and casual physical contact going on than I know what to do with. Which is great for someone like me who thrives on that sort of thing.

Maybe I’ll even make some new friends there. I never cared much for statistics anyway.

Categories: Family, Friends, Health, Horses, Life, Love, Weather, Winter, Work Life | Tags: | Leave a comment

Thankful For: A New Perspective

This year’s Thanksgiving post is dedicated to my job, which is itself kind of an unexpected plot twist. If someone had told me last Thanksgiving that I would soon be working full time in retail AND enjoying the experience, they would have gotten my Skeptical Face. But I hired on part time about nine months ago and happily transitioned to a full time Lead position less than two months later, and while the job is not always easy or fun, it’s been incredibly educational and I’m thankful to have it.

It didn’t come naturally to me, that’s for sure. I remember at one point grumbling to my work supervisor, “There has to be a way to thrive in retail without selling my soul.” It was maybe not the most tactful thing I could have said, considering that he and his fellow managers are doing fine in retail, presumably with their souls more-or-less intact. I was having a bad day.

As melodramatic as it must have sounded, I was serious. I’d been working there for maybe four or five months at the time, and retail still felt like an alien world to me. I was also still working through some personal issues that I had brought with me out of my Anza experiences. When I looked back at the four-and-a-half decades of my life up to that point, it seemed like one long struggle to hold onto my personal integrity while most of the people I was supposed to trust self-destructed and tried to take me down with them. I had worked out a basic life philosophy in which there are two kinds of people: the we’re-all-in-this-together types, and the every-man-for-himself types. I had it firmly in my mind that the latter type is universally destructive to themselves and to the fabric of society.

Here’s the thing: retail tends to attract the every-man-for-himself types.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job right from the start. I liked the physical exertion and the mental stimulation and the social interaction. I liked most of the people I worked with. But I didn’t trust any of them. Sometimes I felt incredibly frustrated by the lack of supportive communication and by the “sink or swim” management style. Because I really do like my workmates, I wanted them to be more like my own artistically-inclined circle of friends. Us artistic types are all about sharing our feelings and discussing our deep, profound philosophies. Try that in retail and you get coolly and politely rebuffed. Sometime they’re not even polite about it. Sometimes that bothers me more than it should. To be honest, most of the retail people that I’ve worked with are not especially “nice” in the traditional sense of the word. They’re not mean-spirited or anything, they just don’t, you know, overburden themselves with concern for other people’s feelings.

And holy crap, these people hoard information like they’re charged by the word. Fortunately we recently got a new Store Manager, and the new guy is all about the communication. Let me tell you, it is SO MUCH easier to do your job when you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time an unfamiliar situation comes up, or have to call for someone who will use their own wheel to fix the problem but not give you one or tell you how to make your own. Yeah, I could probably come up with a better analogy than the wheel thing, but whatever, my point is that it’s been an adventure.

I’ve had two major epiphanies since I started working there. The first was three or four months ago, when I actually began to notice that, despite being The Wrong Type Of People, those managers, most of them anyway, were not actually self-destructing at all. In fact, they were navigating the retail world much more effectively than I was. It occurred to me that maybe there was a middle ground here that I did not yet understand, and that maybe these folks had some useful perspectives that I would benefit from acquiring. To use another descriptive analogy, because us artistic types love those, it was kind of like I had moved from France to Italy and then spent the next five months feeling aggravated by the fact that everyone around me was speaking Italian instead of French. While making no effort to learn Italian myself, because that would be the first step down the path of corrupt self-destruction.

Yeah, no. As soon I started really watching the other managers, without the judgy filter in place, I gained a new appreciation for each of their leadership styles. I realized that in a way, it’s a form of respect to let a person sink or swim on their own merits. And it’s way less exhausting than constantly trying to carry someone who doesn’t really want to be in the pool in the first place. Most of my job-related frustrations evaporated almost overnight when I stopped trying hold the retail system to the standards of the artistic community. I started choosing the traits I wanted to incorporate into my own management style. I was finally able to pick up the reins and start being a more effective Lead without feeling like the corporate villain in all of those Occupy political cartoons. I still freely share all of my wheels with anyone who needs them though, because I like working with knowledgeable, competent people. I never fix an associate’s problem without explaining to them how they can fix it for themselves next time.

My second epihany was more recent. Like, last week. Suddenly and with perfect clarity, I understood the fundamental underlying Truth of retail that had been eluding me since I hired on. The First Rule, the one that retail people instinctively follow but no one will tell you about or even admit to. It applies to every aspect of the business, from everyday job performance to the presentation of merchandise and everything in between.

I’m not going to reveal the First Rule of Retail here, because when you come right out and say it, it sounds kind of terrible, and I’m not looking to lose my job. But the nice part is that now that I’m aware of this rule, I can follow it perfectly without sacrificing any of my personal integrity. I have finally figured out the trick to thriving in retail without selling my soul.

And that’s just the big stuff. I’ve also learned a million and one smaller lessons in the past nine months, and gained some insights into human nature that throw my past experiences into a clearer light. I have a way to go yet and lots more to learn, but I’m incredibly thankful to be where I am. As another of my bosses said a few weeks ago, “Isn’t it funny how life puts you right where you need to be?”

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and may the path always take you where you need to be.

Categories: Friends, Life, Work Life | Tags: | Leave a comment

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