Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

Dog in the snow

Dog in the snow
Canon PowerShot S95

Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me


This is the last in a short series about the most difficult time of my life, ten years ago right now. I told this story in January of 2011, but rewrote it for today.

I knew I didn’t fit, but I took the job anyway — I had been laid off, and I wasn’t able to pay the mortgage. I stayed in my field, testing software. But it was an old-line, top-down insurance company, and we were on a government contract. I had always been freewheeling and entrepreneurial. I chafed at the plodding pace, the red tape.

I made manager after a year. Why did I apply? Why did I get the job? I still didn’t fit. But now I could see what drove our chilly relationship with the government: a culture of obfuscation and gamesmanship, fueled by my company’s vice president. I couldn’t play that way. Instead, I built friendly and honest relationships with the government’s project leaders. My peers couldn’t figure out why I was so effective. I earned the VP’s suspicion.

Months later word came down, no explanation, no exceptions: all managers would take a battery of intelligence and personality tests. I’m plenty bright and play well with others, so I didn’t worry. But a few weeks later my boss called me into his office. Normally very animated, he sat still. His jaw clenched, then unclenched. He said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but your test results are in. You don’t fit the profile. HR is coming after lunch to terminate you.”

I sat, gobsmacked. Profile? What do you mean profile? Fire me because I suck at the job, fire me because you can’t afford me. But fire me because of a test? Was this even legal?

It turned out that 20 other managers in the organization got canned that day. The common thread: the managers who remained played well with the VP.

I had no energy to fight: a tattered marriage, unwelcome at home, a fresh lease on a tiny apartment. Strangely, I was asked to stay on for 30 more days “to manage the transition,” whatever that meant. I couldn’t tell my team, and I especially could not tell the government; the VP would handle it. If I kept this deal, there would be severance. Almost generous severance.

My government contacts kept scheduling me for conference calls happening after my last day. With a few days left, the government’s project leader called wanting me to fly out for a meeting. Backed into a corner, trying not to scotch my severance, I told her that as part of a restructuring I would no longer be the test manager, and that she would need to talk to my boss.

My office

My office at one of my career stops. Bask in its beigeness.

I didn’t know she and her boss were at my company’s data center with the VP. She told her boss what was happening — and they made a beeline for that VP. She called me later: “We cornered him and read him the riot act, demanding to know why he was demoting his best manager!” At once, I felt a rush from the compliment — but also dread, because I knew that as soon as the VP came back to town I’d hear from him. And sure enough, I did, at top volume: “Why the fuck did you tell them? Why didn’t you follow protocol? What were you thinking?” I fired back: “Protocol? What protocol? You said you’d tell them; you didn’t. They were scheduling me for meetings after my last day. They needed to know.”

The VP forced his shoulders down, leaned back, pushed out a breath. He smiled, a sickly, clenched thing. “Well, Jim, you’re good people. We want to take care of people we like. Don’t worry, you have a job here. We’ll find you a new assignment.”

I was unfired.

Much later, the government’s project leader explained that they had modified the contract to write me in as a key player. Unbelievably, it meant that the company could not reassign me off the project or terminate me except for cause. Clearly, the VP was trying dance around that, waiting until I was gone to tell our government contacts that I’d resigned to take another job.

Any love or loyalty I had for the company had been trampled, torched, napalmed, and nuked, but I accepted the job they offered me, an advisory role at my manager’s salary. They made no assignments but continued to pay me. It was a blessing: my marriage would end in an awful, protracted fight, stress crushing my chest, sleep elusive for days on end. I thought I might lose my mind. I certainly could not have done the job I had lost.

Six months in, an assignment finally came: performance testing and test automation, which needed technical skills I lacked. I was sure they still wanted me gone and would plot my failure to accomplish it. But the fellow I joined in doing these things had once reported to me. He said, “You’re the only manager here who gave a damn about me and treated me well. I see what they’re doing to you. I will teach you everything. You will not fail.”

He apprenticed me over the next six months while my personal life calmed down. I took my new knowledge to a different company to build a test-automation practice. I was just beginning to build a performance-testing practice there when a colleague called to tell me about a great opening at a highly regarded local software company. I spent four years there running a large testing team and building automation and performance practices. Next, a startup software company invited me to build a testing practice from the ground up. I’ve been at it for almost two years.

I’m at the top of my career today, and I would never have been able to do it unless I’d been fired.

I once worked for a company whose CEO got his whole executive team to lie for him in court about a sexual harassment charge. Read the story.

Recommended reading


Here’s what I liked best this week from the blogs I follow.

I just don’t have stories in me, not made-up ones about people who don’t exist. Amanda Hill does; they just come to her. One is coming to her now, and she’s writing it down. She writes about how it happens. Read A Writer’s Mind

Jaye Watson tells a great story about the time God tapped her on the shoulder, trying to get her attention. It worked. Read The Tap

On the 100th anniversary of World War I’s Christmas Truce, Heather Munro tells its story — of German and British soldiers meeting in tentative peace on the battlefield. Read The Christmas Truce of 1914

It was John Smith’s first 35mm camera: a Kodak Retina his father loaned him. John tells its story, and shares some family Kodachromes this camera took in the 1950s. Read The Christmas Camera

Nicholas Middleton tells the story of Dufaycolor, an early method for capturing color images on film. It dates to the 1930s. He shares some Dufaycolor images. Read Dufaycolor


Carspotting 2014


Whenever I see an old car parked, I photograph it. It’s become tradition at Down the Road to share the annual crop with you as the year wraps up. I’ve adjusted that tradition this year: the bar for inclusion was lowered from 25 to 20 years. I’ve shared many of these cars with the audience at Curbside Classic and have linked to those stories where they exist.


1991 Chevrolet Lumina APV. My nearby Meijer attracts old cars like my porch light attracts moths. These were weird minivans even in their day. Those that survive generally look pretty good thanks to plastic side panels. More on Curbside Classic here.


1991 Dodge Shadow ES. In 1991, as now, cheap cars tended to get used up and then discarded, especially due to the minimal maintenance provided by their second, third or fourth owners. Which makes it truly remarkable that this Dodge Shadow ES made it to 2014 with just a couple of bumper scuffs and a tiny bit of rust on the left rear fender. Read about it at Curbside Classic here.


1979 Pontiac Grand Prix. This pristine Pontiac waited illicitly in a handicapped space next to Kroger. More on Curbside Classic here.


1990 Ford Taurus wagon. I remember the first time I saw one of these — it stopped me dead in my tracks, so good looking it was. Before, wagons were stolid and boring, slathered in fake woodgrain. More on Curbside Classic here.


1989 Nissan Hardbody. Several of these trucks still roll near my home, but none looking like they just drove out of the showroom like this one. More on Curbside Classic here.


1990 Cadillac Allante. Spotted on Main Street up in Zionsville, this Allante was for sale. More on Curbside Classic here.

1985-89 Plymouth Reliant b

1985-89 Plymouth Reliant. I’ve never so much as ridden in one of these, which is remarkable given their 1980s ubiquity. A brief meditation on Curbside Classic here.

1991 Buick Regal Custom Edition d

1991 Buick Regal Classic Edition. My eyes, my eyes! Such ugly junk tacked onto this flaccid Buick’s roof. More on Curbside Classic here.

1963 Ford Galaxie a

1963 Ford Galaxie. This photo is sort of cheating: this car has been parked here for at least 20 years. It fronts a restaurant in Danville themed for The Andy Griffith Show. More on Curbside Classic here.

1991 Toyota Corolla b

1991 Toyota Corolla. This car looks just like one my stepson bought as his first car. What a hunk of junk it was! Read its story on Curbside Classic here.

1987 Ford LTD Crown Victoria h

1985 Ford LTD Crown Victoria. Found at a different Meijer from the one I normally visit, this Crown Vic is tricked out inside with Hello Kitty gear. See it at Curbside Classic here.

1964 Ford F100 d

1964 Ford F-100. If you’re younger than 30, this truck looks quaint; if you’re older than 40, you’re probably thinking, “now that’s truck.” Spotted in infield parking at the Indiana State Fair. More at Curbside Classic here

1992 Saab 900 Turbo d

1992 Saab 900 Turbo convertible. Another State Fair find that I haven’t written about yet for Curbside Classic.

1940 Buick Special a

1940 Buick Special. My sons and I came upon this old Buick on State Road 135 in Bean Blossom, Indiana. It looks great at 20 feet, but when you get up close you see its imperfections. But I’m happy that it survived at all. More on Curbside Classic here.

1973-80 MB 450 SL c

1973-80 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL convertible. I spotted this one in the parking lot of a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, where I was late to meet my brother for dinner. More on Curbside Classic here.

1977 Chevrolet C10 c

1977 Chevrolet C-10. My friend Dawn and I spotted this truck in Roann, Indiana, while we were there to check out the town’s covered bridge. More on Curbside Classic here.

1978 Ford F-250 Explorer d

1978 Ford F-250 Explorer. I found a lot of trucks this year! You might know the Explorer name from Ford’s flagship SUV, but before that, Explorer was a trim level on Ford’s trucks.

1977-85 MB 300D f

1977-85 Mercedes-Benz 300 Diesel. I found this Mercedes on campus at Rose-Hulman when I visited there in late October.

66-71 Jeepster Commando

1966-67 Jeep Jeepster Commando. One of the many times this year my Ford has been in the shop, I spotted this old Jeepster out front. I’ve seen a couple of these in shows and auctions, but never an unrestored original still rolling. It was a frigid November day — not soft-top Jeepster weather. This Jeepster’s lack of side reflectors peg it to 1966 or 1967 — 1966 was this truck’s first year, but the Feds mandated side reflectors for 1968 and beyond. More on Curbside Classic here.

More cars spotted: 2013, 2012, 2011.

A little Christmas wish


Plastic Kindergarten bellPlastic Kindergarten bell

My Kindergarten teacher, Edith Coles, gave these little bell ornaments to all of her students every Christmas. She hand-painted the student’s name, along with hers and the year, on each one. She must have made hundreds of them during her teaching career. Can you imagine the hand cramps?

I shared these photos on Facebook, where many of my childhood friends remembered their bells. Several still had theirs. Some of them posted happy memories of Mrs. Coles and of childhood Christmases. One friend even posted a photo of her bell, which has hung on every tree in her home since she received it in 1969.

A few cents’ worth of shiny plastic, a few strokes of paint, a whole bunch of good memories. It takes so little. May your Christmas be filled with such little things that create lingering good memories.

The Christmas bellwether


This is the third in a short series of stories from 10 years ago. A sad story for Christmas Eve, but with a hopeful ending. Just one more story to go after this, next week.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, having Christmas as a family. It was our last.

I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, that my marriage was over. How did I miss it? She wanted me out; I had holed up near our home in a one-room apartment. My wife was lighter, happier without me. She changed churches, she made new friends — this was what moving on looked like. It frightened me.

What did I say that convinced her to do Christmas together in our home? I can’t remember. Perhaps she wanted a show of normalcy for our sons. Maybe she wanted one last memory with my mother; they had been close. I can’t believe my parents were willing to come. They had to convince my brother. They did it for me, they did it for my sons, even though they knew, even though it would be anything but comfortable.

I recall only random details. There was dinner: not elaborate and overflowing as in years past, but a routine Sunday pork roast. Decorations were sparse, with no tree, but gifts were piled up for our boys. I bought my wife a gift, pajamas, something I knew she needed, the kind she liked; “I told you not to buy me a gift.” I slept on the couch, my parents on the futon. There must have been breakfast; there had to have been. I don’t remember everybody leaving.

But I remember being back in my apartment that morning, alone, the whole day after Christmas before me. I sat on my bed for hours, pain and loneliness pinching my face, loss pressing into my shoulders, grief crushing my chest.

Divorce hurts. Have you been through it? I can’t speak to yours, but mine was so destructive that it took me years to recover from it. I’m not ready to tell those stories yet. But I am ready to say that I remember that Christmas, the one that foreshadowed a terrible year to come, a year of loss after loss, of anger, of agony, of tears.

Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home

Opening a Christmas gift in my childhood home

I remember better the Christmases that followed. My sons and I spent the next one in South Bend, comforted to be with family in my childhood home. That next year, stability crept in and I found solace; the grief and pain eased some.

By the next Christmas my church had invited me to live in its parsonage. I invited my parents and my brother to share Christmas there; it is where our family’s Christmas spaghetti tradition began. A year of rebuilding followed, of figuring out our new family ways, of making new traditions.

By the next year I had bought the little house in which I still live. We’ve had seven Christmases here, my parents, my brother, my sons, and I, and we will enjoy our eighth tomorrow. For a few years, each Christmas was better than the last, foretelling a better year to come.

But three or four years ago, I felt it: we had a routine Christmas — wonderfully good, full of food and family and closeness. But that had become the norm. And I knew our lives had recovered, and we were just living again.


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