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Archive for October, 2009

831299_human_spiritThose years in our first home went smoothly. Our expenses were reasonable, our income steady. Best of all, we lived in a town that posed very few temptations when it came to spending. There was a single movie theatre, two small malls, and a few modest restaurants and a string of fast food places – that’s all. If we were in the mood for something more, we had to drive to Toronto, an hour south of us. That happened only rarely. We were content to have a quiet, simple life, and it did wonders for our marriage.

Neither of us had been particularly ambitious when we first met, but gradually, that seemed to change. The same spirit that brought my husband trouble in school began to work in his favour now, and promotions came his way. Inevitably, he began to dream of bigger and better things. I couldn’t help but be excited for him, though in the back of my mind, I always feared the insecurity of his business ideas.

Those dreams came to fruition on one particular fall weekend, when he and another mechanic went to check out a garage in Toronto. Their intention was to rent it on Saturdays, where they would do repairs to supplement their regular income. He was gone for hours and arrived home on a cloud of euphoria.

“I’m starting a business,” he said.

“When?” I asked.

“On Monday,” he answered.

My jaw hit the floor. I wasn’t happy about it, but he’d made the decision already and there was no going back. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first in a series of impulsive career changes my husband would have throughout our marriage. Each time, I’d be blind-sided, but the truth was, his ambition and faith in himself, in contrast to my own rather limited self-confidence, amazed me. It felt wrong to squash his enthusiasm because of my own ingrained fear of risk. I felt powerless to do anything but close my eyes and hope for the best.

The move to his own business came with no plan and no extra money for the equipment he felt he had to have. Somehow, we managed, though not without going into debt. I became pregnant, and he sold his precious Mustang, saying it wasn’t appropriate for a newborn baby to ride in. The money helped keep us afloat for a while longer, until finally he gave the business up and returned to the job he’d left the year before.

In between, our marriage faced some personal challenges. We wanted to have children, and that proved to be a problem. It was a time when everyone seemed fertile but me. The joke I often heard was “I wish I had your problem,” or “I get pregnant every time my husband passes me in the hallway.” The idea of having a child of my own consumed me. After two years of trying, we saw fertility experts and I was put on clomid. Three months later, I was pregnant, and on cloud nine. Nine months aftere that, just one week past the baby’s due date, her heart stopped en utero, and my labour was induced. I never even got the chance to hold her, and I never really got over the loss. I’m not sure you can.

Having a baby became my obsession. I may, I was preganant again, but miscarried in August. I got pregnant in October, but miscarried in December. Two wweeks later I was preganat, but this time a I was under the care of a guynecologist who gave me propgesterone injections oince a week to heelp maintain the pregnancy. My son was born in September of 1977, and until he was walking and talking, I’m not sure I believed he was real. I was still in mourning for my daughter, though I didn’t know that then.

We quickly moved to a bigger, better house in Pickering, so Steve could be closer to his next job. Eight months into the job, we knew nit was not going to pan ou. We also found out I was pregant again, and accepted the fact that to make it financially, we had to take a few steps back and move to a smaller home in Brampton.

Soon Steve was promoted again, and at the age of twenty-eight, he became the youngest service manager at any Ford dealership in Ontario. Leadership came naturally to him. Within a year, he was president of the Ford Professional Service Managers’ Association. For the next fourteen years, there was the occasional roadblock, and sometimes a step backwards for a short while, but overall, his career flourished and he continued to be recognized as a bit of a maverick. He was chosen by General Motors to help develop the first automotive dealership college programme in Ontario. He represented his company at Rotary and sat on the executive. He initiated the General Motors Service Managers Association for Ontario. He won trips every year based on his department’s productivity and customer satisfaction ratings, and we travelled to places we’d never dreamed we’d see: Rio de Janeiro, Acapulco, the Canary Islands, London, the Pacific Coast of Mexico. In each case, we were treated like royalty; we ate in the best restaurants, saw 5-star theatre performances, stood in the courtyard of Blenheim Palace drinking mulled wine and watching the Queen’s Royal Guard march to “O Canada” in our honour. A private plane took us to Lanzarotte, where my husband snagged contraband volcanic rock to bring home (ironically, he has frequently blamed that rock for our bad luck since). On one particular trip, we were invited, out of the hundred and fifty other couples there, to sit with the top executives from General Motors Canada. People called him “a diamond in the rough,” and we both fully believed that nothing could stop him.

I can only write from my perspective in all this, because even though I often seemed in the background, I had some influence. Though I had less ambition than he did, I thrilled at his accomplishments. I had no trouble adjusting to the role of a woman married to a successful man, particularly when his colleagues seemed so warm towards me. I didn’t feel that I was spoiled, but looking back now, I was definitely living well. My husband told me constantly that I deserved it, and if I was dressed well, or spoiled in another way, he saw it as a reflection of his own success. It made him happy.

Perhaps you can hear it in my voice as you read this, but a subtle change came over me during those years. I’d married a mechanic, but he’d evolved into a true force of nature in the automobile business. I remember listening toithe song “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” then saying I can’t imagine loving someone who was incapable of dreaming. My husband had been the underdog in school, and as a teacher, I loved nothing better than to see an underdog surpass everyone’s expectations – particularly those who’d put them down.

In some ways, you could say that my husband became my “project,” my prized pupil. I was in awe of his success. My role came to be one of support for him because it seemed that if I helped him, made his home life perfect rather than forging ahead on my own career, his success would come more easily, and would surely outshine anything I could accomplish as a teacher. I effectively “tied my horse to his wagon.” I stayed home, raising our two sons, and taking care of the mundane things that didn’t interest him: homemaking, cooking, cleaning, handling the bills. A couple of times I ventured out into the working world: two years in human resources and a year in social services. Then we moved to the home we’d always dreamed about, a country place still close to the city, and I fell into occasional supply-teaching assignments at my sons’ school.

It all felt perfect, until a particular day a year later when my husband called to tell me that he’d be home early, that he’d been released from his job of six years. The reasons for his dismissal were really never clear. He was told he’d done nothing wrong and was given a fair severance and letters of reference. The disappointment was that he’d believed that it would be his lifelong job. He was devastated.

A week later, in mid-October, the principal from my sons’ school called to ask me to take over a class whose teacher had gone AWOL. I had no time to think of the all the reasons why I really didn’t want to do it. I felt I had no choice. I said yes.

The balance of responsibility in our marriage shifted. For three months, my husband took over the homemaking duties, and I returned to the role of full-time classroom teacher after an absence of eleven years. We expected it to be temporary, over at the end of that school year. Fate had a different plan.

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People talk about the difficulties of youth – their struggle to not only find themselves, but settle on goals and work towards them. Once done, they think there is nothing but smooth sailing ahead, particularly if a few darling little children have already rounded out and enriched their lives.

Don’t be embarrassed by your naivete. I felt exactly the same way at your age. Life was full of promise. Because we’d had some heartbreak in our first few years of marriage, I firmly believed our share was spent, that life could only get better from that point on. It was self-delusion in its grandest form and it predicted a perfect future.

I’m here to be a wet blanket, someone to tell you what you don’t want to hear – at least I didn’t want to at your age. The truth is this. You can set goals and plan and do all the right things, but if you grow too comfortable and rest on your laurels, your nice little life can all be pulled out from under you in the blink of an eye. In the worst of cases, your health or that of a loved one can fail. Sometimes, it’s one or two bad decisions on your part; sometimes it’s the people who decide you’re not “right,” and work to make a case against you. Often it’s the young up-and-coming executive who decide to protect his ass over yours. Yes, some people lie or choose to forget the truth, even people you thought were your friends, because when push comes to shove, the future of their career is usually more important than yours anyday, dear friend.

Hence, this poem written a few years back about a similar person who single-handledly started the 8-ball ruling that triggered the end of my husband’s corporate career.

MR. POLITICALLY CORRECT

He is really nothing special,
down deep feels it too, you know,
so he’s learned to play the charmer,
see how far the game can go.

His shoes are always shiny,
his suit pants nicely pressed,
his golf score breaks a ninety,
his very life seems blessed.

He flatters all the ladies,
he “yes, sirs” all he can,
finds a way to flee the radar
when the feces hit the fan.

He knows to smile when needed,
seems modest with his blush,
feigns innocence to save his hide,
maintains his Midas touch.

He’s young and climbing upward,
he’s old and scared to fall,
friend or not, you can’t trust him,
when his back’s against the wall

A year in employment limbo, a downsized positon where he was set up to fail, and finally, the pink slip. Six years later and we’re still feeling the effects, both monetarily anad psychologically, of that one momentous loss.

When you’re young, you can start out on a path where it seems you are invincible. Employers convince you that you have a brilliant future ahead of you as long as you “stick with the programme, and toe the line.” It’s a horrible thing to suddenly realize that you’ve planned poorly; that you’ve underestimated everyone else’s ambition and overestimated their loyalty to you. You’ve suddenly missed the boat; that in the game of musical chairs, you’re one of the people left standing. What’s even worse is knowing you’re 58 or 59, and your chances of regaining what you’ve lost are unlikely.

The one good thing we have gained, though, is that we’re much more realistic now. We’ve been through hell in the past six years and proven we are tough enough to endure just about anything. It’s a difficult transition, not knowing what comes next. We just have to rely on ourselves to make something happen, because it’s more and more obvious every day that no former colleague is going to turn this situation around and make it right for us. In fact, former colleagues seem to avoid us, perhaps victims of survivor guilt. For one or two people, it’s possibly even justified.

Everyone thinks it’s hard for young people who are just starting out in the work force, but at least they have years ahead, to win through trial and error. We have no time to waste, no time to completely fix what’s wrong.

I just keep telling myself “if it is to be, it’s up to me.” If we all say that, something good has to happen, don’t you think?

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