Giving up

My working life could be said to have spanned 30 years. That would include the hardest part, the 10 years it took to find a full-time job, and the more than 20 years it took to lose, let’s say, a full-time job. The thing about the latter…it was so unexpected.

In my years as a writer for Silicon Valley companies, work came and went, the economy swelled and contracted. And the one constant was anxiety. I kept encountering dry spells. Work would vanish. No one wanted me to ghostwrite an article, compose an annual report or draft a speech. I would stuff large brown envelopes full of sample pieces and mail them in all directions. I would make phone calls, send emails. No one wanted me. Was this the end of work?

Many a freelancer has gone through this. If there was one clear, objective difference with me, it had to do with my body. What did people think? This was the unknown with any new client. It was something of a ritual. Arrive in the glassy lobby of some company, sign in, get a badge…then, moments later, meet the marcom.

The marketing communications functionary was almost always a woman, usually young. I never said anything about walking with a crutch or having one paralyzed arm. Nothing to explain, or even comment on, as my aluminum crutch clicked down some Silicon Valley hallway. Had she given me a funny look, looked surprised at meeting a cripple? Nevermind. Power through this.

Meet the writer. Almost always we were starting a project. Meaning, before long, the focus would shift to my work, the finished piece. Invariably, there were revisions. But if the basic task was done, and done reasonably well and on time…what the hell about the weird limping and disturbingly paralyzed hand. The guy delivered.

Still, with every assignment, there were serious doubts. Invariably, some aspect of computer science or electrical engineering had to be mastered quickly. I had no technical background. I seemed to be faking it, every time…and this just might be the last time, incompetence exposed, ignorance outed.

Each project began by reading technical articles, specifications or notes. I fought for the gist. If that proved elusive, I sought the flow. Some point was being made, some argument developed. This thing or process or approach was better, the company alleged, than what had come before it. Sometimes it was revolutionary. If the marcom delivered this news unflinchingly and without a grain of rhetorical salt, I had to remember to nod forcefully and look serious. Wow, I might even say. The writer was supposed to drink the Kool-Aid.

Writers, even the least cynical, do their work by looking askance at everything. They also survive by being introverts who keep cards close to the chest. Writing requires a fresh look, something bordering on objectivity. Marketing spin has to be subtle enough to escape ridicule. Yet ridicule always lurked in the distance. One of my colleagues recalled meeting with a fidgety young operative at Apple Computer who described his product as a “cultural revolution.” The writer tried to explain that the Chinese had used this term to unfortunate effect. The Apple kid wasn’t impressed.

In short, being a freelance writer involved a lot of fakery. And that was the strange thing, the odd feeling that came over me somewhere in my 40s. First, it was getting harder to pretend that some piece of computing equipment could legitimately be associated with revolution. Second, I didn’t care.

I knew the latter would be fatal. For 15 or so years a sort of harnessed terror had served me well in Silicon Valley. Survival. What would happen if I ran out of hysteria? How would I get money? Fear worked well. And then, as though someone had flipped a switch, it didn’t seem to work at all. How was I going to survive without self inducing a sort of manic fear of failure? Gradually, the specter of humiliation, homelessness, even starvation…no longer served to goad me.

Of course, when in doubt, we put one foot in front of the other and simply carry on. Habit is a perfectly acceptable motivation. I’ve done this before and can do it again. And by the late 1990s, as my own drive was failing, Silicon Valley was booming.

For me, the challenges of work motivation were only part of what I faced. Increasingly, I used a wheelchair. The transition to rolling, rather than limping, at first seemed daunting. But there were plenty of rewards. Without quite admitting it, my world had shrunken. From my office in Palo Alto, when I crutched out to find lunch…I didn’t go far. Half a block would do. And, one had to admit, no traffic light was green long enough to allow me to fully cross a street. With the wheelchair, I found myself zipping all over downtown Palo Alto. I was surprised at what was in the shops. For the first time in years, wandering aimlessly was not a luxury. There was lots of stuff out there.

From time to time I had to make a business trip. And, of course, I had to revert to non-wheelchair use. For professional journeys, it was me and the crutch. I would use a wheelchair, and a pusher, at the airports, of course. But once I was behind the wheel of my Hertz car, nothing else was rolling.

Car rental was dubious. Still, there was no alternative. It had to be done. At home, I drive my own car with a set of highly adapted controls. Most important, the accelerator is to the left of the brake, not the right. So what to do with my Avis car? Tuck the right paralyzed leg out of the way, twist the body hard…and use the functioning left leg to hit the gas and hit the brake. Hit the road, therefore, maneuvering through the maze of, say, Phoenix Airport in search of some Hilton Garden Inn.

It took about two hours to get showered and dressed in those motel mornings. What the hell. I can’t recall what small company had brought me to Phoenix, on this particular occasion, but there I was. Already feeling physically exhausted because breakfast had to be, just had to be, housed in a separate restaurant a long limp across a parking lot. Self-service, of course. On the way back, I mounted the curb to the sidewalk, briefcase already in my rental car…when something went wonky. The curb was just a bit too high, perhaps. I aborted the maneuver, placing my foot back down on the tarmac. Then something gave way. It wasn’t really involuntary, losing my balance. I didn’t really lose my balance. I lost something else, something that bordered on will. Because I could see my overall situation. For a reason, some reason, I couldn’t get up the curb. Or could I? Could I safely? That was the real, and the only legitimate, question. Something in me knew it was time to give up. I sat down on the curb. All around me, the Phoenix morning was under way. Drivers were driving. Cars careening. Cripples crumpling.

A man and woman emerging from the breakfast room helped me to my feet. I thanked them profusely and limped toward my Hertz car. They followed me. No need to worry, I told them several times. They persisted. Both stood watching as I backed out of my parking space. I waved and smiled. They walked away.

And I had decided walking away, from an accident, was good. My fearful hysteria had a purpose, actual survival. A new purpose. The old purpose, financial survival…had seemed more or less the same. But now I knew it wasn’t. Life was shifting, priorities changing, and it was all a mystery, but it was my mystery.

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