Friday, September 21, 2007

The Card of Death

I heard once that the 13th card in the Taro deck is the Death Card. It supposedly signals transformation, passage, or change of some kind, rather than an actual death. I don’t really believe in any of that crap, but it’s a good metaphor, none the less. My life has been going through some pretty major changes recently. Mostly good.

This seems to happen to me ever 5 to 10 years, even going back to my childhood. I think that most change is for the good – not just for me, but for anybody - and these recent changes are, but it doesn’t always work out that way, and the process can be very stressful. It’s sort of like jumping over a ditch to escape a large dog. If you make it to the other side, you’re in the clear and it’s great. If not, you’re now laying at the bottom of the ditch and you’re easy pray for the dog.

A few months back, on a whim, I applied for a job I saw in the paper. It is completely out of my field when compared to my past work history. This new position is decidedly white collar, where all of my past jobs have been blue collar. Although some might be considered a light shade of blue, I am essentially a high school dropout who has managed to do ok. This new job was a part-time position that would be perfect for a college student who was going to school in this field. In fact, that’s how it was advertised. It wasn’t really an internship, but definitely an entry level position, and not fulltime.

The position was for a database programmer for a company that manages health plans for large companies. About 15 years ago I took up computer programming as a hobby. My brother and I are both self-taught and for a few years we kind of fed off each other in our passion for it. Some of that included database programming. It just something I’ve always liked and I tend to become consumed with it when I’m doing it. My native programming language is Visual Basic, although I do know others to a less extent. With VB, I would be considered a Guru in some circles.

I submitted a “resume” that had not one of my past jobs listed on it. None of my real jobs even came close to proving that I was capable of the work I was applying for. What I handed in was a listing of programs I had written, languages I knew, what I felt I was capable of, and what I had done for others. I also included a CD with a database program I had written for someone else. The interview went well and I followed it up with a few emails. Much to my surprise I got the job. Honestly, if this had a been a real, full-time position I probably wouldn’t have had a chance. The lack of a college degree and no work experience would have probably ruled me out of even getting an interview, let alone the job.

The database programming relies heavily on the VB language, but it is not exactly the same as what I’ve done in the past. I was very, very nervous. Before I was hired I had assured my new boss that I was more than capable of doing the work, and now I had to prove it. For anyone who is in-the-know, we maintain several SQL Servers where the databases are stored and then I link to the tables through MS Access. Within Access I design interfaces and do all of the data mining and report writing.

They had been without a programmer for a few weeks, or maybe months. My boss, who is extremely capable at the database side of it, was able to keep things moving along, but there was a lot of work backed up. For the first month or so I absolutely devoured projects. I was just in the zone. I quickly got a handle on programming in Access and just started flying through the backlog of projects. At the end of my 3rd week my boss calls me aside and tells me they want to bring me on fulltime. Yea!

My predecessor was often talked about in God-like terms for his ability to program. Even so, in a meeting during my second month my new boss suggested that I was even better than him. He was a college boy, and I’m not knocking that at all, but I think the term “boy” does apply here. Apparently he was fresh out of college when they hired him 4 or 5 years ago. That would mean that he would have been about 10 years old when I started programming. I guess there is something to be said for experience. I met him once, and he’s actually a nice guy, and very sharp. I have know doubt he will do well in his field.

I’ll never forget one day, it was like my 3rd day on the job, and I hear my boss behind me say to someone, “I want to introduce you to our new database programmer”. I looked around as if to try and see who this new programmer was. After a few seconds I realized she was talking about me. I was the new database programmer! It’s all very exciting. I mean, I’m basically now getting paid to do what was my hobby. This is one of the few times in my life I can say I love my job. I can say it with a straight face, and without my words dripping with sarcasm.

For the most part, I felt confident with the programming aspect. My real concern was working in the office atmosphere. This is something I’ve never done before. Fortunately, it is a very causal work place. There are maybe 30 people who work in the building and it is a largely a jeans and T-shirt crowd. Although some do dress nicer, I think that has more to do with their nature than the requirements of the job. I really don’t own many nice clothes so I was concerned I would need to go out and buy a new wardrobe. In my second week I was told we were getting an important visitor and that I should dress nice for the day. Not really knowing what to wear I went and rented a blue, crushed velvet tuxedo with a white ruffled shirt. Boy was my face red when I showed up to work wearing that.

Seriously though, I have been asked to dress nice on a few occasions because someone important is coming in. I’ve worn the same 10 year old pair of J. Crew chinos and blue buttoned down shirt 4 or 5 times over that past 3 months. This was also the same outfit I wore to the interview and to my first day on the job. Pretty soon I’m going to need to breakdown and at least buy a second shirt.

While all of this is going on, I’m still working my other job. I’ve been putting in 11 or 12 hour days for the last 3 months. For the first month I was on the job I spent several hours every night after work and on the weekends getting a better handle on the Access programming environment. The pace was getting difficult to maintain, and the more I worked at my new job, the less enthusiasm I had for my old job. That is to say that there was ever any real enthusiasm there in the first place. My old job was never anything more than a means to an end. The end being the work I do on The Petch House. The job was only about 25 hours a week but it had benefits. Namely, insurance benefits. I can’t be crawling around on a 32-foot ladder in a stiff wind without health insurance. I had to keep both jobs until I started full-time at the new job.

So when was that going to be? Well, I wasn’t really sure. The new company is growing and in the very brief conversation I had with my boss at the end of my 3rd week it was put to me as “Later this year”. I think it’s a budget issue or something. I knew they were serious because there seems to be enough work and they’ve already shelled-out to send to a conference in LA for a few days. They also gave me a new computer, laser printer, and they keep telling me to pick out a new chair from the catalog. It seems I have a new career, but when exactly this is going to become a real, fulltime job is a bit of a mystery. More stress.

Ok, so I’m thinking November at the latest. I can do November. The extra money from working two jobs will be good so I’ll just work my butt off for another 2 or 3 months. And the money is good. Even at only 20 hours a week my paychecks form the new job are the largest paychecks I’ve received since moving to Eureka 7 years ago. Which, to be honest, is no great feat. Eureka is not known for high paying jobs, and to be honest, I haven't worked a 40 hour week in 15 years.

Unfortunately there were a few complications. Earlier this year I had gotten a new boss at my old job. We got along well at first, but our relationship had been slowly deteriorating. The Monday prior to the Friday when I was offered the fulltime position at my new job, my new boss at my old job called me in to his office and raked me over the coals. As I said, our relationship had really deteriorated and I saw this coming, but still, it was the most humiliating thing I have ever been through. Some of it was deserved, but a lot of it was over the top. One of the things he brought in to question was the full benefits when I was only a part-time employee. We were in there for nearly 2 hours and I was absolutely seething through the whole thing. It took every ounce of strength to keep from walking out the door that very second. I didn’t need the money so much as the health insurance. I can’t be uninsured.

It felt like I was being held hostage by health insurance. When will the good ol’ US of A get its collative head out of its collective ass when it comes to health care in this country? Without health insurance I’m one burst appendix away from being bankrupt. I was now officially miserable in the old job and I loved the new job more than you can believe. Honestly, I feel guilty about my new job. I enjoy the work so much that it just feels odd. I’ve had a lot of miserable jobs in the past. It really didn’t feel right to try and pressure them in to bringing me on fulltime any sooner, so I had to wait it out.

To make matters even worse, through most of this I’m seeing a doctor over some minor medical problems that I won’t go in to. This is the real reason I don’t want to leave the old job just yet. I mean, a broken leg or a burst appendix is always hanging over my head like the Sword of Damoclse, but has anyone actually looked at the cost of a few x-rays these days!? It’s pretty unbelievable what some of these things cost.

As soon as my current medical drama is over with, or at least to a point where it is manageable, I called my insurance agent who wrote my homeowners policy and ask him about short term, catastrophic health insurance. I don’t need drug or doctors visits covered, because I don’t plan on that happening over the next few months. It’s a gamble, but it’s a good gamble. I’m normally very healthy. I just need to cover those unexpected, major problems that may crop up. He says he can write me a 3 month, catastrophic policy for $275. I say fine, let’s do it. As soon as the ink dries I will give notice at the old job and be done with it. The problem is, they won’t cover me because I’ve been to a doctor in the last 3 months. It doesn’t matter if I went in there just to get splinter removed or if I went in covered with boils. No one will write a short term policy for anyone who has been to a doctor for any reason in the last 90 days. Grrrrr! It’s all very frustrating.

So I stick it out at the old job for a few more weeks. I wear two hats at this job. One, I’m an employee and a subordinate of the new boss, whom I don’t get along with. Oh, I should say at this point that he is 10 years my junior and easily a foot shorter than me. In another facet, I am the IT Guy. In this aspect I am a contract employee through a small company I run. And I do mean “small” in the most literal sense of the word. I make as little as a few hundred dollars a month with this business. It did much better at one time, but then I bought this big Victorian home I call The Petch House and…..well, you know all about that. The whole software business sort of took a back seat and I don’t do a whole lot with it these days.

The IT gig with the company is very minor because this is a very minor company. The one real aspect of it is managing a set of hand held computers used by the sales force. There is a desktop application that ties the hand helds in to our accounting software and the whole thing is very buggy. We bought crappy software that came with zero documentation and I’m the only person west of the Mississippi that knows anything about it.

So the day after my managerial reaming by my diminutive new boss I inform him that I will no longer be able to manage the IT duties for the company. This is my shot across the bow to counteract his shot across the bow at me. I tell him he has 6 weeks to find a replacement. I inform him that I will be happy to train the new person on a schedule I decide. At the end of the 6 weeks I can be called upon for emergencies but the new rate will be triple that of the old rate.

This did not go over well. I should say that I have always gotten along well with the owner of the company (remember, he gives me full benefits for a part-time job) and this is the only reason they got 6 weeks to find a replacement. The owner is out of the country while a lot of this is going on. Just when I thought my relationship with my new boss couldn’t get any worse it took a nasty turn.

Since the owner was out of the country, either my new boss did not feel he had the authority or he didn’t feel capable to hire a replacement for me. As the clock ticked he saw that he was going to need to learn the system and he started to ask (Demand?) that I train him. I was suddenly very busy and scheduled training that was inconvenient for him. This did not go over well at all. Our relationship deteriorated to the level of 8 year old boys fighting over a toy. It came down to a childish battle of will where he was trying to impose an authority over me that he didn’t have. Remember, as the IT guy I’m not his employee.

I came in to the office one afternoon and he was sitting in front of the computer I normally use. He had the desktop software loaded. He had a notepad ready to take notes. He told me I needed to train him on one of the modules of the software. I told him I had a prior engagement and I would be available anytime between 6 and 7 am and I needed 24 hours notice. With that, I turned and walked out of the office. I could hear him grinding his teeth behind me.

The next morning we had a knock-down drag-out argument about the whole training thing. He went ballistic and so did I. Later that afternoon I wrote him a letter informing him that I would not be training him at all on any of the systems in the office. (In all of my written correspondence with him I am nothing but perfectly professional). I quoted several of his emails to me outlining why I would not be able to continue a working relationship with him, and I paraphrased some of his more insulting comments to me in our most recent argument.

The next day he catches me as I’m about to leave for a sales call. He drags me in to his office. He has his Bible with him. He accuses me of libel and demands that I give him a written retraction of my letter. While this is going on, the production manager and the head of the maintenance crew are also in the office. The production manager is the man that gave me the curly redwood fence posts over the summer. We’ve always gotten along very well. In fact, I’ve always gotten along very well with almost everyone I’ve worked with there.

I listened to my bosses diatribe for a less than a minute and then said, in response to his demand for a written retraction, “That won’t be happening”. I then turned to the production manager and told him it’s been a pleasure working with him. He wished me luck, and I walked off the property. I bought $300 a month insurance policy to hold me over until my 90 day, doctor-free period is over. In October I can get the $100 a month limited policy, and maybe by November I'll be fulltime at the new job.

The best part is, two weeks later the system at my old job starting having problems. They quickly hired a new guy and brought me back in to train him. Because the 6 weeks had elapsed my new fee was now being charged. The new guy is one of these hired gun tech people who is probably charging even more than my new fee. The whole thing was so stupid.

This was, without question, the most bizarre working experience I’ve ever had. To celebrate that the whole thing was finally over I went and bought a new car. Well, actually, it’s a 2003, but its new to me. I really tried to buy one that day that I walked off the job. I just really liked that juxtaposition of walking off a job I’ve held or 5 years and then buying a new car. Unfortunately it took another week to find that car I wanted.

I bought a VW GTI VR6. Picture a small, blue rocket ship with power-leather-heated everything. I’m keeping the Boss 1971 Ford F-100 Custom Camper Special for dump runs and what-not, but it’s no longer my daily-driver, and it’s about time. I bought the car, not only to celebrate the ending my last job, but also because of finishing the last major project on The Petch House. There is still a lot to do, but bathrooms, kitchens, plumbing, wiring, and other big expensive projects are out of the way. It feels good.

So, if all of that weren’t enough there was actually something else going on that I really don’t want to talk about on such a public forum as my blog. There is another reason why I haven’t been writing on the blog so much lately. Don’t let your imaginations run too wild, because its not like I was knocking over liquor stores and on the lamb for the last 3 months. Maybe someone will let me do a guest post on another blog and I can tell that story as well.

I’m not quite to a point where I can begin to do regular postings again, but I do want to start writing at least something. I really miss the blog. And I have been getting some stuff done on the house, despite my chaotic schedule and my psychotic boss. I do have blogging material, I just need to get some sort of rhythm back to my life.


John said...

Welcome back and congratulations!

Before I had a kid, I didn't really care too much about the whole health insurance issue. Maybe it was because I was healthy and twenty-something. Or, maybe it was because I owed so much for college that bankruptcy was a moot point? In any case, I feel that same pinch now. Every major decision I make now is made in refernce to the health insurance issue. It is very depressing.

If you are looking for a venue for a guest post, send me an email. I'd be happy to post if for you.

Anyhow, glad to have you back.


Kathy from NJ said...

Greg, I am so happy that you posted. I was really beginning to get concerned. Six years ago my husband had a devastating stroke. My choices were a nursing home at $230 per day or leave my job and care for him myself. I left my job and had health insuranse thru COBRA for 12 or 18 months (don't remember), now ONE THIRD of our income goes to pay health insurance - medicare & supplemental for my husband, private policy for me. There is certainly something terribly wrong with health care in this country. And once you own any assets, like a house or some stock, you can't be without health insurance.

StuccoHouse said... health plans (w/ 20+ employees) have something called COBRA. It's a continuation of coverage if you leave that job...usually for 18 months. It's a little complicated, but you can make payment and enroll retroactively for 60 days (i.e. you send in payment after you fall off the ladder). If you know you are going to another group plan (with out a preexisiting condition exlcusion), this is a nice option to know about....and always gives you the ability to storm out of the office if need be (just don't make it "gross misconduct"). Not that I've done that or anything :-)

Congrats on the new job & other mystery event. We have missed reading your posts.

Janet said...


Congrats on the new job. It's good to have you posting again. You have been missed!

Patricia W. said...

Greg, a huge congratulations to you on the new job and sorry to hear how things ended up at the old one, at least your making 3X what you were before while you train somebody. I was a late bloomer and received my degree at the age of 38. I'm now working on my 2nd, will I ever grow up?

And yes, health insurance is a must. Ther are more than 40 million Americans who have none, many of them work full-time. Something's gotta give.

Sam said...

Wow man, congratulations on the positive changes going on for you! Glad to see you are posting again.

I was a freelancer in 2004 and 2005 and had a Kaiser Permanente policy that was the cheapest i could get (I think it was like a $2000 deductible but only $75 per month) for a few months. Never used it, but was glad to not be "skating naked." Hopefully in our lifetimes we'll look back in disbelief to these primitive times when everyone had to fend for themselves, healthcare-wise. I won't hold my breath or anything.

Greg said...

Hey Guys,

Yep, its COBRA. That's what I have now. It is $285 a month, which is great if I were going to a doctor. I go to a doctor like once in a blue moon, though, so it seems like a waste.

After Oct. 19th I go on the other plan, which is only about $90 a month. This sounds more like the Kaiser Permanente policy that Sam had.

What a pain!

Anonymous said...

Greg, it's great to read your posts again! Sorry you've been swimming in a sea of crap with the old job. I can sure identify with that kind of stress. I sometimes feel like I'm hostage to insurance benefits as well.

I'm so happy for you in your new job! I know it can be scary to take the risk of a new venture, but when it opens doors like this for you, it may just be the next great thing in your life.......or maybe the ??? mystery thingy ??? is the next great thing....What's her name, Greg, hmmmm??? Anyhow, looking forward to more posts!

M. A. from OHW

susan said...

Congrats on the new position!

I have only a high school diploma but have managed to pick up some high tech skills thru the Air Force and then in private companies. When I first got out of the military, employers were insistant that I get a degree or some kind of certification (which I never did). After 23 years, its a non-issue. I get payed more than some in my field with a degree because I am very good at my job, show up enthusiastic about projects and get along with my co-workers (a biggie). I think things are beginning to change in the work place. Companies are more interested in results than a piece of paper.

BTW, the day before I left, an engineer showed up in my cubicle ranting about a manager of a local resturant being incompetant. His comment to me: "I bet he only has a high school diploma". I am surprised I did not crack some teeth because I had to clench them together to keep from giving him the tongue lashing he deserved.

Greg said...

BTW, the day before I left, an engineer showed up in my cubicle ranting about a manager of a local resturant being incompetant. His comment to me: "I bet he only has a high school diploma". I am surprised I did not crack some teeth because I had to clench them together to keep from giving him the tongue lashing he deserved.

I know this deeling well.

Christine said...

I'm glad you're back and that you have such a great new situation. I missed your posts while you were gone. Is all the house painting done? How about some updated photos to show off all the stuff you've finished?

Ignatz Ruksfrotz said...

The health insurance thing has trapped so many of us. I'm glad you got loose. Enjoy your ride and chill a bit. You can breath deep again.


Alicia said...

Just amazing. I bet you are BOTH making a lot of money and having good sex.


Maybe it's time to stop worrying about the whole degree thing. I have a PhD, but you are one of the smartest people I read.

Karen said...

Ditto what Alicia said you are the smartest most intelligent person that I read besides being the handiest.
I missed your writing but you certainly made up for it with this one. I'm glad that things worked out and you made it to the other side of the ditch without any dog bites.
Best of luck with the new job.

Jason & Heather said...

Welcome to the wonderful world of IT! I too began my computer career as a hobby. I've been in the field for about 8 years now and still love it... though I would rather just restore old houses for a living now :)

Oh, and I had a boss like that once, the guy was a real psycho ass, he stood about 5'4" but thought he was ten feet tall. The only reason I didn't knock him out when I quit was because my mom was working for the same company at the time.

Greg said...


Boy, it's kind of like a separated at birth thing.

Karen & Alicia,

I don't take compliments well - they make feel uncomfortable - but those may be some of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. Thank you.

Marilyn said...

Wow, Greg. Talk about seperated at birth! I just posted after a long silent spell about my nightmare old job and a current project, and slowly easing back into working on my house. I also am a non-collegian. Then I came over here and read your posts that are eerily similar...

Alicia said...

Rest assurred, Greg, that in the future I will make every effort to continually make you feel uncomfortable.

(If it makes you feel better, I can tell you that I think you bought a stupid car!).