A SHORT HISTORY OF ME
Back in the mid-eighties, I went to an event at The Tech called The Digital Storyteller. Dana Atchley was a one-man show. He sat on a stool onstage and told a story about his life. There was nothing extraordinary about his life but he made it interesting by the way he creatively assembled his life's photos and videos in a timeline with high production values. Actually, he had a program expert do all the production work. At that time, it took a complex multimedia authoring program called Macromind Director to enable Dana's visual storytelling
I always liked that presentation, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I started thinking about a slide show of my own. It was hard enough just to go through the boxes of prints, sleeves of slides, scrapbooks, clippings, and miscellaneous video formats to cull out the few that told a story. I got it down to about 500 elements which was to be what I call a Visual Autobiography. I would be using ProShow Producer, an affordable software program that was relatively easy to use. Still, it took a while to learn the program, digitize, assemble, design, and decide how to edit it all down, what music to use, etc. I eventually produced two stand-alone versions: a 28-minute full-length and a 3-minute trailer.
WHAT MY STORY IS...AND IS NOT
That Visual Autography was essentially a music video essentially painting an idealized picture of my life with Suzi. It's all good...but it’s missing narration and context…the rest of the story. So, the following is a text "supplement" to the video. It's a backstory, a loose narrative, a collection of anecdotes of things that were happening more at the ground level.
If there is an organizing theme for this text, it's about things that happened that made a difference…things that changed my future. Some people say freewill is an illusion. If you think you're in control of your own brain, try turning it off. This is about how change happens....call it fate, karma, or luck...some good, some bad. Of course, it's how we cope with change that makes the difference. I'm not saying I have any answers. In many ways, I was just along for the ride, as you will see...
MY EARLIEST YEARS...
Warning: Science Lesson. My earliest ancestors were a hydrogen atom and a helium hydride molecule who were very attracted to each other and would eventually go on to become stars in their own right. I’m not sure if this qualifies for true love or not, but it has to start somewhere. They then gathered with other like-minded particles and formed into a dense sphere where they fused into nuclear powered stars. These stars eventually gave birth to the very elements that would eventually become me.
Fast forward 10 billion years…the Solar System has started to form, one of a trillion other systems in the expanding universe. Another few billion years or so, things started to settle down and the Earth, the roiling mass of a dumpster fire started to take shape, began to cool, and it started to rain. After centillions of random chemical interactions, a miracle occurred. A tiny bit of organic matter self-organized and twitched into a living cell that could replicate itself. I was on my way!
My unicellular ancestors were determined and clever. They collected themselves into clusters that had differentiated functions. When the going got tough, they would mutate and naturally select the best of them to survive. They dominated the oceans and eventually the conquered the land too. Then, came a series of extinction-level shitstorms that damn near killed all of my relatives, not once, but at least five times. There were an infinite number of variables in play, any one of which could have flipped the planet into a whole new future…one without me, or any humans for that matter.
But the last doomsday event was The Enabler. A six-kilometer asteroid slammed into the Earth, took out the dinosaurs and most of the other species…but, not some small mammalian brothers and sisters who would evolve into...
various Hominins in East Africa. My species, Sapiens, began to flexibly cooperate to create pottery, fire as well as stone tools and some pretty decent weaponry. There were other contemporaneous (homo) species of humans but Sapiens eventually ruled the day. We are the one of the few, maybe the only, singular species on the planet. The message? Nobody gets to the Top of the Food Chain by being nice.
But my Stone-Age ancestors lived for about a million years in stasis…with no significant advancements in tools, language, or hunting. Then, about 200,000 years ago, a miracle happened. A fluke DNA mutation started rewiring our brains. In a relatively short period of time, advancements were made on everything from language, agriculture, and best of all…beer!
My Future-Self had made it to the beer-drinking stage! At last, a reason to keep going.
Just go with this for a minute. Consider the probability odds of me being born as me. When a man loves a woman, very much, 250 million different sperm compete for the affection of a single female egg. When a single sperm penetrates the egg, a unique individual is instantly created. The odds of that sperm getting lucky is 250 million-to-one. Now consider the specific timing of that union, on that day, on that minute, on that microsecond. Shift one microsecond either side and I would not be here...maybe a Baby Einstein, but not me. Now go back a hundred generations and thousands of ancestors. You get the idea.
The mathematical odds approach infinity. AND YET, here I am! Just a bunch of quarks and electrons arranged in a specific pattern that describes ME. And I had nothing to do with it...I did not choose my parents, or my place of birth, my race, my genetic makeup, or the year I was born. But relative to the estimated 100 billion humans that came before me, I won the lottery.
MY EARLY YEARS
So, as explained above, after some 13 billion years in the making, I was born a poor White Child in the southern part of southern Memphis on Halloween night. I only weighed only 5.5 pounds and, as my mother later confessed to me, I was a gawky baby with bony knees and elbows. Imagine the disappointment. I wonder if that had anything to do with her smoking…or drinking?
One of my earliest memories of the south is walking shoeless, in the heat, through the dust and dirt over to a neighbor’s house and asking for a PBJ sammich. Every day! Maybe I felt the need to offset my low birth weight? Or maybe my mother was trying to starve me. I had a feeling she had it in for me.
For example, my very own mother didn’t want to deal with me, her only child. I had a black nanny who took care of all the disgusting things babies do. As the first born, I think I was experimented on, as a kind of trial-and-error method of child raising. Hey, something’s wrong with Jay!
Get some Ipecac! No, no, get the enema bag!
My childhood was filled with unnecessary hazards of the time. I remember going to the local shoe store and, to see if my little kid shoes fit properly, I had to stick my foot in a goddamn X-Ray machine. Look, it’s too tight. Hey, I think my toes are getting hot!
When I was in Kindergarten, I had to walk to and from home which was over a mile and seemed longer. Yes, kids walked in those days. There were no busses, and my mother did not have a car. One afternoon our class had an art project that had each of us cutting and gluing strips of construction paper. I had not finished mine and the sadist martinet of a teacher made me stay after class to finish it. I was to be made an example…for all to see what happens when you miss a schedule, a scheduled you committed to, right? Apparently, I never learned that lesson because I would hear those words repeated many times later in life. Anyway, when I finally finished, it was getting dark. On my way home I had to go through what was called the Danger Zone, a sketchy part of the neighborhood. Then I saw them. A couple of Third Grader hooligans coming out of the shadows, up to no good, coming my way, giving me some shit, pushing me around, and calling me a faggot. I didn’t even know what a faggot was. They finally got bored with me. Anyway, lesson learned. Next time I would bring my kindergarten scissors and gut those fuckers.
My parents rented a two-story house during The War. This was when sacrifice was cool, not like today where everybody whines about everything and sacrifices nothing. We had tin can drives at school to provide steel for the war. We took our table scraps to a corner collection point where they would be processed into food for farm animals. Everything was rationed. I would see cars driving down the street on the rims alone. It was bleak, man. I had a pet box turtle that committed suicide by jumping off the second story balcony. I guess he just couldn’t take it. I gave him a proper military funeral and donated his body for the animal food program. He will be missed.
does this look like someone happy to have me? Photo on right is LuLu who took care of my cousin Joanie and me.
MY PARENTS AND SIBLINGS
My father was a Special Agent for the FBI. His service firearm that he carried every day, was a .357 Magnum. He claimed it would stop a car just by shooting the engine. I remember thinking, that’s pretty bad ass. The government gave him a black-on-black Oldsmobile for personal use, but the family was not supposed to ride in it. Like, who is going to know, and besides, how else could we get around? My father made me swear not to rat him out to J. Edgar, who, we were told, was pathologically insane. Anyway, the Olds had this cool stealth Siren and Red light nicely ensconced behind the front grill. Whenever I would ride in the car, I would beg him to punch the siren.
Do it G-Man! One time in heavy traffic he actually did it and it was like Moses Parting the Red Sea,
It was about this time that my parents announced that I would soon have a new baby sister, and everyone was pretty excited. I wondered…did anyone ask me if I wanted a sibling? I don’t think so. And just where do babies come from anyway? It was explained to me that…a seed is planted in my mother’s stomach. What? How did it get there and, more importantly, just how did it get out? I don’t think I got an answer on that one. So one day, there it was; my sister Martha Lynn, looking like a fucking human larvae that had…somehow...gotten out of my mother’s stomach.
The whole thing was was disgusting.
My parents bought their first home in Kansas City, on the Missouri side where I could safely walk to my middle school without getting hassled. One morning when I was in 6th grade, I happened to be walking along with a 7th grader and I was just making small talk: So what do you guys actually do in 7th grade? He said, and I am not making this up…We have Sex Class and one of the requirements is you have to go up in front of the class and DO IT…with a girl! I did know they had sex ed but...
Four years later I was told that we would be having yet another baby sister, Nina (Nan) Elizabeth. Not again! I was not happy and I’m sure my father was not that happy. Who would there be to cite baseball stats off the cuff and name the Chiefs starting lineup? That’s zero for three.
To make matters worse, my sisters and I were always bickering. It was just what we did. Yeah, there were two of them, but I was older and more devious. How devious you ask? One normal day I was in the back yard wondering what to do. Hey dig a hole! A deep hole and fill it with water. Now carefully cover the top with twigs and shit to carefully camouflage it. Now what? I know, set up a long jump challenge for my sister, the one who was always trying to prove herself better than me. We’ll see about that! I placed the two marker sticks defining the challenge distance and It was On. Bet you can’t and…Ka-Ploosh! Jay 1; Martha Lynn 0.
As a pre-teen kid, one of the things I would look forward to was the Manor Man delivery guy. This driver would bring bottles of milk and multiple selections of sugary white bread rolls right up to our back porch! But that wasn’t the best part. The driver carried DRY ICE in the van that was used to keep everything cold! Dry Ice is frozen carbon dioxide and, at a minus 110 degrees, it would burn your fucking hands just by touching it. But in our world, it was a valuable resource, a key ingredient needed for our science experiments. To make this sting, we planned Operation Ice Liberation, our little kid version of a Special Ops Strike Force. That’s Ops, not Opps, BTW. While my pal Barney served as a lookout, I would have no more than 30-heart-pounding seconds to enter the open van, secure a small block of the hot stuff, put it in an insulated bag, and get back before the driver returned. Once secured, we used a hammer to fracture the block into smaller pieces which increased the surface area, effectively turning it into a weapons-grade ordinance.. We always kept a cache of small metal cans, usually found by rummaging through the neighbor’s trash. Soldered-steel brake fluid cans were perfect…right size, right feel, screw top. I would fill a can with half dry ice and half water for…maximum lethality. Now, with the CO2 bubbling and fuming, I would quickly screw the cap on and LOB that sucker it as far as I could. Ka-BOOM! Shrapnel everywhere. SCIENCE!
But it didn’t stop there. As a neighborhood gang of ten-year-olds, we were always playing war games with cap guns. Good guys vs Bad guys or whatever. It was really a Free-for-All, the objective was to sneak up and shoot…anybody. Last person standing wins. The Problem was, there was never a clear definition of being shot. I shot you. No you didn’t! Yes I did! There was only one way to settle this. I got a spring pistol that would shoot tiny BBs. It was so harmless it wouldn’t even break a lightbulb, but it was something. For example, I shot little Jimmy in the stomach and he dropped his gun. Ouch, you got me man! I was the first Good Guy with a Gun! With one enemy down, I went next door and climbed up into the rafters of Tommy’s garage…in a perfect sniper position. Soon, as the clueless Tommy wondered into the garage, totally unaware of my presence above him. I tilted the gun down toward the ground…and I am not making this up…a BB literally FELL out of the barrel and softly plopped onto little Tommy’s head. I guess he thought he was shot and ran screaming into his house. Then…his mom called my mom…and the other moms and it was over, bitches. My spring gun was confiscated I was remanded to my bedroom pending further disciplinary action. OK, it was stupid. Don't try this at home. War is Hell.
TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL
After middle school, I attended Southwest High for 8th grade. It was a big public school. I remember it feeling like some kind of asylum with big classes and long hallways filled with vague antiseptic smells. I was undermotivated and lost in the anonymity of it all. Luckily for me, my parents came to the rescue. At the end of the first year, they told me that Pembroke Country Day, a private all-boys high school, was the place for me. For my own good they said. I had to take a bunch of tests to see if I could even get in the place. Being White was not sufficient…although probably required. After the written and verbal tests, my parents and I came in for a summary meeting with the school’s headmaster. The Good News: I would be starting as a Freshman in the Fall! The bad news? I remember the headmaster’s last words to my parents as he paused dramatically…while looking over his half-rim glasses: “I think, however, that Jay is going to have a bit of a struggle here”
I took that admonition to heart and, at the end of the first year, got ranked 3rd in my freshman class. Did that make my father happy? But what about football? Right. So in my sophomore year I tried out for the team. all 140 pounds of me. I thought it was all a bunch of macho jockstrap bullshit but I vowed to give it a shot. Somehow, and believe me I’m not sure how, I sufficiently impressed the coach to get listed as a first string guard. I didn’t even know what a guard was, let alone the strategy of the game. But my father said he was very proud and promised he would come to my first game but...I’m sure he had a good excuse. Pretty soon though, I was tired of the whole fucking rough & tumble team sports thing and switched over to more civilized sports like track, tennis, and squash...and something I could play later on in life.
Pem-Day was college prep, heavy on STEM with no arts or humanities. It was an all-white-all-boys school with a quasi-military feel. Every Monday we would gather for convocation with the pledge of allegiance and recitation of prayers. I mouthed the words without thinking. But actually I was thinking…that the whole thing was a crock. The one thing my science classes taught me was to think critically and question dogma. So here was my adolescent logic on the Christian Hypothesis: An all-powerful-all knowing god sends his only son, who was actually him, to sacrifice Himself for the sins that He created but, it turns out that he actually didn’t die, so is that really a sacrifice? Also, what kind of a message is it to sacrifice your own son, or anybody’s son? Couldn't god just expiate our sins without a blood sacrifice? And if there IS a God who claims to love us, why doesn't He make it clear to everyone who He is and what He wants us to do? There are hundreds of religions, each one a competing certainty that the other is going to hell. So either there is no god or He doesn't care about us. And, by the way, why was Jesus, the son of this all-knowing god, and a god himself, unable to even read or write? Just asking questions here.
One of my Catholic friends warned me that I was “going to hell” for all my blasphemy. So, I argued, God loves me but will threaten my soul with eternal torture because of thought crimes? Isn’t that pretty insecure for a Supreme Being? I guess my masterful logic fell on deaf ears. My friend went on the become a Man of the Cloth.
Then coincidently, or maybe correlatedly, my parents decided that it would be a good idea that
I attend church...Every Sunday! And not only that…but I should become an Acolyte in the Episcopal Church! This was for your own good, young man, I was told, to experience the church’s…teachings? Neither of my parents were religious but my indentured servitude would give them cover for their friends who pretended to be. In those days, there was a lot of social pressure to at least talk the talk and sometimes show up. Honestly, the thing that bothered me the most was that I lost a good twenty-five percent of my precious weekends.
I have to say, though, I served with a pretty cool minister. Every Sunday he and I would meet before service to go over the day’s regimen, like estimating the amount of sacramental wine would be needed to absolve the sinners in the congregation. If I over-estimated it, the minister was
required, under church law, to consume the remainder.
I never got a complaint about that.
One morning, I summoned the courage to bring up my issues with faith and simply asked if would I be eternally punished just because I had some doubts about faith. I remember his answer...
“It’s not about what you believe, it’s about how you live your life”
My father and another ex-FBI agent had started a food brokerage company and it was doing well and growing. Arlon was a larger-than-life figure. His circle of friends extended off the horizon. I remember once going with him to Chicago, I can’t remember why, but as we were walking along Michigan Avenue I could not believe how many people would greet him by name. Hey G. Arlon, the G-Man! I really had no interest in doing anything in the food business…but there was ONE company perk for me. Every year he would lease a different company car, usually something from General Motors, back when GM had something decent to offer. Arlon didn’t know much about cars, or anything mechanical for that matter, which was a good thing because I was pretty abusive on the hardware.. Take, for example, the 1960 Metallic Red Oldsmobile Super 88 known as Big Red. This WAS my Father’s Oldsmobile and it was better than most of the crap that was later sold using that bespoke 80s slogan.
My friend Joe (not his real name) (his real name was Dick Paterson) had a ‘60 Mercury Monterey (his father’s, that is) and we would often have lengthy discussions as to how it might compare to my father’s Olds Super 88 in the quarter mile. Only one way to find out, Bitches! Kansas City had a bonafide Drag Strip on the North Side open to any schlub who could pony up the entrance fee. One performance enhancement that everybody knew as a Scientific Fact was that engines breathe better if you remove the factory air cleaner. It was a simple procedure. Just unscrew the wingnut, lift off the assembly, store it in the trunk and screw the wingnut back on the post so as not to lose it. Don’t get ahead of me here. The Super 88 was a boat of a car with a big flat hood. Off the line you would hear a great bellowing sound from the big four-barrel sucking wind. The Bow would literally rise up and then plane out, just like a boat, as the car thundered down the strip. After a few hours of hooligan fun, we headed for home going back through North Kansas City.
Then, somewhere, in not the greatest part of town, as I eased away from a stoplight I heard a sickening chunka-chunka-Boom! sound. I quickly shut off the engine and coasted to the curb as a perceptible wave of nausea came over me. The worst possible thing had just happened and I knew what it was. The wingnut had worked its way off the threaded shaft and fallen into the carburetor and then…somehow into the engine…fucking up everything.
But, no worries, God was with me. Or rather Dick was with me. He pulled up just behind me and we worked like a synchronized Pit Crew. I got the air cleaner out of the trunk and put it back on while Dick borrowed me the wingnut from the Merc and I buttoned it all up… looking just like it came from the Factory…
The car was towed to the shop and was in there for a week. Later on, the Service Manager told my father that I was “very smart” to shut the engine down so quickly. Otherwise it would have really fucked up the engine. Yeah, a wingnut must have been dropped in the carburetor on the assembly line. Yeah, I thought that sounded reasonable. BTW, what were you doing in over in North Kansas City, young man?
Now it was getting close to graduation and I had to apply for college…somewhere. I told my father I wanted to go to Pomona College. When he asked why, I said it was because...it was in Claremont California…you know, mountains, ocean, weather…WRONG! So wrong. OK, redirect and I applied to Duke University in North Carolina. Why you ask? Because I had some classmates going there, an erstwhile girlfriend, and there was this professor guy, J.B. Rhine, who was doing some Cool Shit with the paranormal. It was away from home. I would study…engineering, I think. Also…James Taylor! Yeah, all those good reasons. Where the hell was my counseling?
Then things went all pear-shaped. All that College Prep did not prepare for the details of real life. I submitted my college application under Jay Wilson, the actual name I used for everything, and the name everybody knew me by, while my SATs were submitted under my so-called legal name George A. Wilson, Jr. a name I never used, a name I hated, and now I hated even more. Duke was not able to reconcile both names this until it was too late. So, one minor slip-of-a-pen turned out to be one of those life-changing events. Another one of the infinite number of variables that determine the future. Anyway, at the last minute, I was able to get into the Engineering School the University of Kansas. Go Jayhawks!
KU was a beautiful campus on top of Mount Oread, more commonly called “The Hill” people were friendly and it was close to home which was also a convenient dropoff laundry service. And here, all that College Prep crap actually did pay off. I was able to get into accelerated classes for all my mechanical engineering curriculum like physics, calculus and analytical geometry, chemistry, etc., but I really wanted to be on the conceptual front end of things, not the geek figuring out all the details of other people’s ideas. Remember, I am not good at details. Near the end of my first year, I met a guy who was working on some kind of conceptual Space Car which, he told me, was part of the Industrial Design program. what? That was an epiphany. Companies would actually pay you do this shit? I did a little more research and switched majors for the following year. But…ID was heavy on the Visual Arts and I had never had a fucking art class in my life. So, at this point all that College Prep was useless. But, bottom line, four years later I graduated at the top of my class…for whatever that’s worth. This was Kansas University, in KANSAS, not one of the Country's Top Tier Design Schools. On the other hand, I think I got a better balanced education with liberal arts. Anyway, getting employed was now Job One.
is this goddamn sanctimonious enough?
After graduating from KU, I still wanted to go to California. Wrong Again! My father was adamant that I needed to go where there the jobs were…Industrial hellholes like Chicago, Detroit…all the places I desperately wanted to avoid. But he was right. So…I was lucky to land my first job in a small boutique studio in Lake Forest, a beautiful suburb along Chicago’s North Shore. With my first real employment settled, Suzi and I planned to get married. We had been dating for the past three years, mostly in the summers and the timing just seemed right, at least to me. (Fifty+ years later it still seems right) Anyway, I had permission from Suzi’s father in the traditional way but...it turns out that my parents had different ideas. When I announced my plans to get married, they demurred…just why couldn’t I find a nice rich girl from a list of their Country Club friends? Is that really so difficult? I had met their daughters and they were all like dead-end deal-killers. It was a very long and emotional night but eventually they realized I was serious. Just add another disappointment to the list.
Good thing I was not around for the wedding planning. I just had to show up. So, honestly, my so-called happiest day was agony. The formal Church service was bad enough…but the reception line at the Carriage Club was fucking endless. Who ARE these people? All my parents’ friends, that’s who. I couldn’t wait to just get out of there. Sometime later the gifts started coming in. We were newlyweds just starting out, needing basic essentials more than anything, right? I have never seen so many silver-plated bowls and useless paraphernalia in my goddamn life. I think most of those things are still in storage.
After the wedding, we packed up the ’62 Chevy and headed for Lake Forest. I had rented a garage apartment on a six-acre estate just two minutes from town where I worked. Looking back, the garage apartment was a ramshackle place, as was the main house. But it was also very romantic, separated from the house and surrounded by tall Lilac bushes that wafted perfume air through the open windows. The owners were a very sweet older couple who would bring us baked goods and treated us like family. Lake Forest was an idyllic small town, like something plucked from a vintage Spielberg film. After a year or so we moved on to a newly constructed apartment in town with more room and actual appliances, but we always would fondly remember our first place. A few months later, one morning I picked up a newspaper and the headline…made me cry: the nice elderly couple who had rented us their garage apartment were both shot, and killed, by their son who was Home for Christmas. The reason? They had asked him to shovel the snow from their driveway.
Three years later I changed jobs from the sleepy town of Lake Forest to the Big City…Downtown Chicago, Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile, up on the 17th story of the Playboy Building, bitches! I was working for Mel Boldt & Associates, one of the premier design firms in Chicago. Suzi and I moved to Evanston and got an apartment on Hinman Avenue, locally known as apartment row. All of the old apartments were heated with coal, which had to be on its last leg, and yet, what I remember of that place, apart from the daily on-street-parking-only-cluster-fuck, was the insidious dirty coal soot, sooty soot fucking everywhere. Soot ash visibly falling from the sky, soot on the windowsill, soot even got inside the refrigerator…but other than that it was great, if by great you mean you mean soot.
If heating with coal was like living in the Late Carboniferous period, taking the L-Train was like riding in an Iron-Age Science experiment. No, it was not powered by coal...it was electric but it was old, really old. You could see just how old by just looking at the sedimentary layers of peeling paint. On a hot summer day, the commute home was chock-a-block with people like one long Sweat Box. Then there was the electric ozone smell…mixed with body odor, cheap cologne, and cigarette smoke. There was the threshold-of-pain screeching of the iron wheels on tight turns. Sometimes, everything would suddenly stop. Dead Silence. Did the circuits blow...or what? No one was talking. Then it would start again. And that was just in the summer. The winters were even worse. And that was my commute life for three years.
Mel Boldt, the founder of MB & Associates, was an iconic figure, if by iconic you mean like a cone. He was 5’-7” and 220 pounds AND YET in 1968 he was listed on…and I am not making this up…the Top Ten Best Dressed Men in America, up there with familiar names like Johnny Carson and Richard Nixon. He was a Trumpian-like figure full of bluster and bullshit. He had a stable of seven cars including a Chrome Yellow 1970 Ferrari 365B Spyder and a Mercedes 600. He sponsored a race team with a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR Gullwing. He was rarely in the office, which was a good thing. He had no taste or design sensibility and he had three VP stooges making sure that the daily quota of billable hours was met. It was a Design Factory of sorts but served as a kind of a Grad School for young designers like me to learn some stuff and then move on. It was definitely fun for a while being in the center of things and experiencing city life.
In 1970 Mel Boldt moved the office from the bustle of downtown Chicago to Mount Prospect, a sleepy suburb northwest of Chicago. I welcomed this move. First of all, I lost the L-train hellscape commute as well as the coal soot dystopia. Suzi and I were able to buy our first house in Gleview, a two-bedroom, one bath place at the quiet end of a cul-de-sac. Also, there was no soot. Except for the soot that somehow trailed us there; inside our shoes, and in every crevices of everything.
Extending my stay at Boldt’s was not without a strategy. I had been vying for a senior position at Ampex Consumer Products all this time, patiently waiting for an opening. And my patience paid off. what a change. I would be working for Arden Farey who was a Master Designer as well as a great manager and later on, a good friend. Ampex was a leader in consumer electronics design at that time, so it was all good on paper. But…and here comes the bad news. Shortly after I joined, Arden started going in for a series of medical tests. I didn’t know why but there were clues, for example we would be walking down a corridor, he would be talking to me and suddenly kind of bounce off the side walls. I thought maybe he just lost his balance, but he was an elite cyclist and a champion Hobie Cat Sailboater. Eventually, in one of our morning staff meetings, he dropped the news: after weeks of elimination tests, the diagnosis was Multiple Sclerosis. The future progression was unknown. Some people live relatively normal lives; some people don’t.
Our first house:
616 Forest Avenue, Glenview, Illinois
and my BLM BRG MGB-GT
Then the Second Shoe dropped. After only six months, and with no warning, the entire fucking Consumer Products Division was shut down. The Corporate bosses in Redwood City thought that Consumer Products would never be profitable given the Japanese Juggernaut looming over the horizon. The Magnetic Tape Division had just lost $100M through incompetence but CPD would take the hit. Fortunately, Arden was transferred to Ampex’s California Headquarters.
Unfortunately, I was not…
It was 1972. This was my first time out of a job. We had only been in the Glenview house for a year. I interviewed around but jobs were tight. Lots of proforma “we’ll keep your resume on file.” Right. It was a weak economy. It was winter. It was depressing. Then, out of the blue, I got an interview with Motorola New Ventures in Arlington Heights, another northwest suburb. This was a newly-formed 20-person Think Tank with its own facility, intentionally separated from the corporate environment. This was an innovative challenge to see if a big corporation could retain the most creative and entrepreneurial types by providing a hands-off playground for ideation, resources for development and the promise of big rewards. It was a lot like what most Silicon Valley companies now do routinely. It was funded with 1% of Motorola’s gross income, which was a lot for a 20-person team.
But here’s The Thing. Although all these guys were genius entrepreneurs, they were also a bunch of prima donnas. Most of them were still negotiating over their contractual details months after starting. In effect, they were staging a kind of strike. To make matters worse, New Ventures’ Director was always arguing with some Corporate VP and stirring up shit. In the meantime, I was a fish out of water with no one to talk the language. Most of these guys were uber-conservative…and I was the presumptive liberal. They’re probably all wearing MAGA hats by now. At lunch, they really got wound up. The conversations flew over my head. Any one of them could have held their own on CNN’s Crossfire, with or without their guns. One of the physicists thought we should pre-emptively nuke China. Do I have to say again I am not making this up? Everything in here is true.
After a year of bickering with the suits, the Director resigned and announced he was taking key staff with him. The well-intentioned Grand Experiment had cratered. To my surprise, but not my delight, the director extended an offer to me but it required moving to somewhere in Ohio. Anywhere in Ohio was like a total deal-killer. It would just mire me in another place I did not want to be. But it also meant I volunteered myself back into the vagaries of unemployment...again.
The West Coast was still my "place to live" goal but actually I had never even visited there. But I knew one thing: I had had it with Chicagoland's hot flat cold slushy cloudy weather. So in 1971 Suzi and I took a vacation to the Bay Area to actually validate the dream...or not. It was May. Spring had sprung. My sister Marty and her 1st husband lived in the beautiful town of Mill Valley, just north of the Golden Gate bridge on the Eastern slopes of Mt. Tamalpais. We connected up with them and got a personalized guided tour of the Bay Area. they saved the best for last. We drove down the the Central Coast to Carmel where Clint Eastwood was the bespoke mayor, then down through the Redwoods in Big Sur. We stopped at the famous but understated Nepenthe for lunch. Perched 900 feet above the Pacific Ocean, it was the kind of place I imagine God would have if He had money. At that place, at that moment in 1971, I made a commitment. Fuck it, we would find a way.
Turns out, luck helped me do just that. Not long after the Motorola debacle, while wondering what kind of miserable fate I was facing, I got a call from Darrell Staley, the design manager at Ampex Headquarters in Redwood City. A position had opened up…and could I join them with an all-expenses move to boot? Yes, I think I could do that. Bitches, after 33 years of waiting, we were finally on our way. We put the Glenview house on the market ourselves. I even made the yard sign. We sold it on the first day to the first buyer for the first price. A neighbor lawyer drafted the contract for $100. Maybe prayer works?
The move was all arranged by Ampex travel department. My MGB-GT would be shipped via truck along with all our other shit. We piled in the ‘68 Oldsmobile 442 with our dog Byron and…headed west. We took the southern route through Flagstaff, San Diego, and then all the way up California’s coast where the air was perfumed with wildflowers and ocean mist. My head was spinning.
The three of us stayed in a dog-friendly motel while we looked for a house. In a few weeks we found one in hills of Portola Valley, adjacent to Stanford’s open space, and close to Palo Alto. We walked through it, and in literally ten minutes, signed the asking price offer on the hood of the realtor’s car. It was a perfect bookend to our Glenview sale. In that time, in that place, our life had completely transformed…this time for the better.
THE AMPEX YEARS
In 1973 Ampex was the undisputed world leader in professional audio and video. The founder, Alexander M. Pontiatoff had liberated, WW2 German wire recorders to start the business. The Nazis had literally neglected to patent the audio devices. They also lost the war.
After we got settled, I came into the Design Studio for my first day of work. There was a secretary and six designers including Darrell, the manager who saved my ass from a lifetime of midwestern dystopia. (no offense to Midwesterners here...you may have the last laugh) It was a very laid-back-hang-loose atmosphere just like I had imagined California Dreamin’ would be.
Of course, Ampex had its leadership position because there was little competition. Ampex held all the major world patents in audio and video. They had a captive and willing market for any new product. The upstairs engineers dubbed our Department The Playground, and they were not wrong. It was fun, maybe too fun. I often asked myself...How long could this go on?
For example, one day, three of us decided we would all buy identical Honda XL250 trail bikes. On weekends, we would strap them into Al Martin’s ’68 Ford Falcon pickup, along with our camping gear, and head off to the High Sierra’s desolation wilderness. We would ride the trails, take in the intoxicating scenery, and camp out under the stars. Living the Dream…
I considered Darrell to be a good friend but at some point he began to change, and not in a good way. Over time, he segued from wearing tie-dye shirts and blue jeans to rep ties and three-piece suits. Maybe it was his divorce. Maybe it was his midlife crisis. But he was slowly turning into a corporate douchebag. He developed this hyper-critical demeanor that was at the least disturbing, and at the most, pathological. His was unnecessarily abusive to the sweet secretary who had been there for decades. Worst of all, there was no reason for any of this. He began picking off the staff sequentially, one by one. Watch out, Staley has a bug up his ass today. I began to keep a daily journal just to document the bizarreness of it all. Eventually, it was My Turn. He began to intercept new projects for himself, leaving me hanging with little to do. Finally, I decided to execute an end-run. I managed to convince Ray McKinnon, one of the better designers, to help me design and build a full-size conceptual model for a digital spot player, something I knew was on the project roadmap and something that could demonstrate our department’s leadership. It was BIG…eight feet wide and six feet tall with a cool backlit control panel and we did it all in just two weeks. It looked great. It showed leadership. Everybody loved it. Except you know who.
It was time to go anyway. I had been there 13 years and none of this was advancing my career. I had my exit interview with the Division VP who told me, and I am not making this up, had he known, he would have switched our respective roles. Yeah, like that would have worked. ?
When I came to Ampex in 1973 design jobs were scarce, just like my father had said. But by 1986, when I left Ampex, Silicon Valley was beginning to buzz with product innovation and design potential. Apple began to show how just how critical design was to the bottom line. Steve Jobs went on a world-wide search to find the best design firm. He selected the German company frog with a contract worth millions of dollars, which was a lot of money in the 80s. About this time, several British firms also invaded the valley, eventually coalescing into IDEO, a firm that perfected the process of extracting the maximum amount money from their clients. But, to be fair, they redefined everything else too. It was a good time to be a designer.
1973 Selling a house. Just that easy.
Click image: for video Memorial to Darrell Staley
Ampex Think Tank
Before I gave my notice at Ampex, I had to have another job queued up. Once again, the timing was in my favor. GVO, a 25-person Product Development firm in Palo Alto was looking for a Design Director. I already knew the principals, so it was a relatively easy sell. Three key designers had just left…to form Lunar Design, a company that went on to become one of the premier design firms in the country. But I thought GVO had a lot of potential and consulting would be more diverse and more…interesting.
Sidebar: This would be the first time I would be managing a large team, so there was a bit of a learning curve. This stuff is not taught in school. If there's one thing about creative people, it's that they're all different. They're not like, say, accountants. I spent more time playing amateur psychologist than managing design. The internecine bickering and infighting was time-consuming and cut into those always precious billable hours. But the bickering was low-level and manageable. The politics was high-level and more insidious. More on that later. Then there's seeking, selling, and acquiring new clients, writing proposals, matching projects needs with staffs' skillsets, managing existing clients, leading by example, providing team-building outings, constantly upping the strategy game, giving annual performance reviews, fighting with management about everything, etc keeping morale up when the workload is low, laying off people when it gets too low. I didn't particularly like doing these things but, honestly, everything generally ran smoothly when workflow was high and everybody was busy. But...when there were the inevitable lulls in the work, the knives would come out, looking for scapegoats.
All this additional stress was not just due to the consulting dynamic, it was the increased competition. It used to be that there was plenty of work to go around and the pace was a lot more relaxed. It was considered beneath designers to advertise or market themselves. Corporations like Ampex were even fatter. Why? No competition. At one point Ampex made more in patent royalties than new product sales....which should have been a red flag.
Anyway, I would report initially to Bob Abler, VP of GVO Marketing. Bob had been recently brought in to bolster sales and even out the feast-or-famine cycle of the consulting business. Bob was 60ish and had a lot of experience, but his laser focus was on how to cut expenses...a lot of expenses. No amount to save was too small, and no amount of time was too great to waste on it. He was, to put it charitably...Pathological Cheap. And believe me, I could write a whole chapter on that alone but, ok here's one example: we were driving over to a client in the East Bay on a really hot day. I noticed that Bob would periodically turn OFF the air conditioner and then, when it got unbearably hot, he would turn it back ON. I was thinking: Just how much fucking gas could you save by doing this? Armchair thermodynamics would argue it would even take more energy. Even if it did save a few pennies, consider the tradeoff. By the time we got to the client, I was soaking wet.
Hey, did you guys over walk here?
By all outward indications and demeaner, you would think Bob was serious, savvy, level-headed, rational, sober-to-the point of boring…and you would be right. And yet…he and his wife were members of an unnamed cult that would drop everything and, sparing no expense, head off to view the latest… Virgin Mary Sighting. I am not making this up. These apparitions were often sighted in some pretty strange venues...like some skanky men's room in Rancho Cucamonga. But these sightings were reported all over the world. That was never a problem for Bob and Lu. They would go anywhere. Of course, they were discrete about it, but with behavior like this, leaks happen. I always wanted to ask: So, Bob, how do you know it’s the real Virgin Mary? Do you have a photo ID? And the whole Virgin thing…I mean, c’mon man.
I never did ask those things, and he never talked about them but in 1996 he DID warn me: Get ready. Armageddon is Coming…on the Eve of the Millennium. So what, pray tell, can we do?
You guessed it. Hey, I guess it worked!
2nd CALIFORNIA HOUSE
The GVO thing was going pretty well and I was promoted to VP, and no longer reporting to the ghost chaser. About this time, Suzi and I had been in the Balsamina house for 17 years and we were looking to move to a quieter place in the Portola Valley hills. One day I was riding my mountain bike in an area we were monitoring and saw a For Sale sign going up. I called the realtor immediately and we were among the first to get in. We buzzed through the place, and my adrenaline was pounding. It was just like reliving the excitement of our first house all over again. Yes, it needed a lot of work but that’s what sweat equity is for, right? It was very quiet and had a Very Zen feel about it. We made an as-is-full-price offer with a $5k cash kicker to boot. Then… just as we had feared. There were three other competing bids and we had to wait…and wait. It was agonizing. Finally, the phone rang! We were IN!
But the offer was contingent on us selling our house within the seller’s timeline. We weren't in yet. Shortly after we listed it, we got an offer from Dale and Ann Gruye. Dale was the co-founder of GVO who had since been semi-retired. It was to be a transition place until they could make their big move to Montana. It's a small world, I guess. Seven degrees of Dale Gruye.
The new Ciervos house was everything we had hoped for. It was built in the mid-60s by a Sunset Magazine executive. Twenty-foot-high industrial windows looked out over Coal Creek Open Space, Fogarty Winery, and the fog piling over the ridge just like Weaponized CO2 ;-)
LEAPING OFF THE CLIFF
I had been at GVO now for about eight years. We had grown to some 45 people. We had a good thing going, great comradery, and we were having fun. We even organized a one-week 16-person raft trip down the Grand Canyon. As a way to expand our capabilities, we began to build out a customer research offering as part of our services, adding to design and engineering. We were one of the first design consultancies to do this, and it was a bit of a risk as all new things are. The supposition was, the insights from research would inform the design process and feed the rest of the development cycle, right? Of course, like Liberty Mutual insurance, clients only pay for what they need. Some clients only wanted research, which was ok but didn’t help feed design or engineering. But beyond that, the “new thing” was the hook, and the research guys were now the face of GVO.
This started to become an issue of client ownership and slowly turned into a Culture War. The "risk" of doing this, it turns out, was that it became a turf war, an identity crisis of who we were, what we offered, and how we could best compete. The bottom line is after two or three years, the research people, most of whom had oversize egos, had morphed into a faction for control of the company. I had done what I could to mitigate it, without success, and decided it was time to move on. I offered my resignation to Noland Vogt, the CEO, and last remaining founder of the company. I gave him my thoughts on the possible coup I saw coming. I’m not sure he understood it at the time, but two years later he admitted to me that everything I said had come true, which ended with his own ouster and GVO, the very company that he founded and nurtured, was forced into bankruptcy and its physical assets liquidated. The core insurrectionists stiffed the creditors, which included Noland's retirement, and started a new company with a new name but kept the existing portfolio and clients.
So anyway, there I was. This was the first time that I had quit a job with no idea what I was going to do. It was not liberating. it was free fall. I did apply for a director job at one of GVO's competitors. The guy was at least honest: "I don't know what the 20-somethings would think about have a 55-year old as director" Yeah, I get it. Ageism is the last "ism' that's still ok...Old people jokes, discrimination...whatever, have at it.
Maybe I could “reinvent” myself. But like what? I thought I had enough equity in the house if things really went sideways. This whole thing was a left-brain emotional decision. The rest of me was just along for the ride. My sister was here to help and gave me a cardboard homeless "god bless" placard.
Hey, nothing was off the table.
But, once again, thanks to someone upstairs, or kismet, or whatever, I was sitting in my tiny home office wondering what the fuck I was going to do...when I got a call from one of the engineers at Ampex. They heard I left GVO and wanted to know if I could help them out with a new project that was just starting. Yes, wait, hold on, let me check....YES!
So the Ampex redux was the start of JWD Consulting. My Ampex project in 1997 just so happened at a time when a convergence of technology and the internet allowed me to work from a home office. I had a CAD and rendering program and could FTP files anywhere in the world. I had more fun, had better, more substantial projects, and was making essentially the same money working half the time…if you exclude all the time I spent with tech support, as well as marketing, but hey, I could log four productive hours in the morning, get out on my mountain bike in the afternoon, and get home in time for a beer.
All this was just fortuitous timing, a quirk of fate…a matter of luck, karma, whatever. I managed to get 3M’s Visual Systems Division, a former GVO client, that required coordination between my virtual engineer in Northern California, the manufacturer in Germany, 3M in Texas, and me in my crow’s nest of an office in Portola Valley, all made possible by technology. I had simply lucked myself into a dream job.
The best and biggest single project that I landed was Schilling Robotics in Sacramento. This 150-person engineering company was the world leader in undersea robotic manipulators for ROVs, remotely operated vehicles. They wanted to expand their business and the only way to do that was by creating the entire ROV from scratch. The CEO called me after seeing some of my work on a large audio console for GPS in Grass Valley. IDEO had been contracted to do some preliminary research, so that was at least an indicator that this company was plugged in to design. After several discussions, I was asked to create a turnkey proposal for the design and engineering of a two-person ROV control console. The deliverable would be a working prototype delivered to their dock.
The console would be inside a 20' container bolted to the surface ship. It would allow the pilots to maneuver the undersea robot and view telemetry such as camera, sonar, and various other sensors. I had been pitching myself as a “Virtual Designer” meaning I had links to other professionals to assemble a custom project team. Now I would have to Walk the Walk. The control console would be a major component of the $2.5M ROV system. Jesus, what did I get myself into?
I contacted Bob Hursey, one of the engineers that I had worked with at Ampex and he agreed to join the team (who was me). We were off and running…that is, until about two months into the project, Bob came to me and confessed that he was in over his head and would have to bail. WTF? There were just too many unknowns and to many risks. Now I was starting to worry. Walking the Walk…Strike One. So I scrambled to find another engineer, one who was not only up to the job, but one who was also available. I was able to contract Dan Wood, another engineer I knew, to pick up where Hursey left off. We were back on track.
The first round of Phase 1 design concepts were not meeting the CEO’s expectations…too big, too clunky. My counter was: “the components I was given were limiting the options” He totally understood and managed to score a beta set of electronics from a Canadian firm, as well as some other things, that allowed for a much sleeker design. Concurrently with the ROV project, I was doing work for 3M’s video projector division and I managed to convince the Schilling team to use a projector so that the system’s metadata could be viewed by their customers. It was a nice connection to make.
Eventually, after the design was reasonably complete, I contracted with a model shop to build a full-size appearance model. After a couple weeks, I drove over to the shop for an in-progress review. There was something wrong…something just didn’t look right. It turns out the model maker had mis-read a key overall dimension, so we had a bit of a reset. OK, not a major issue. The major issue was my second engineer quit. Where’s my jar of Xanax? I somehow...managed to get a third engineer to take the handoff. His first task was to calculate the console’s shock loading on the surface ship. It sounded kind of important. He had no idea how to design for that spec and I was thinking, what if we got it wrong? What if this guy quits over this? I’m running out of options here. So I called the lead engineer at Shilling and, as a member of the team, simply asked for help. No problem. A couple hours he had the answer, scribbled out on the back of an envelope. That’s what a good client does.
Eventually, it was time to fabricate parts for the working prototype. I was sent a line-item part cost prior to committing. Good thing. The two machined control deck end caps…and I am not making this up…were $28,000! I didn’t argue, I redesigned the part.
We finally got the prototype assembled and delivered. It looked great. It was 20 months in the making but it was an amazing experience. Would I take on that kind of challenge again? Absolutely not. I averted several disasters only through sheer luck. Schilling Robotics went on to redefine the ROV industry. A few years later, during the BP Gulf Oil Disaster, their ROVs were called in to help fix the leak. There it was…on TV!
One day I got a call from someone in 3M’s Overhead Projector division, as a referral from the video projector group. Believe it or not, OHPs were still the Cash Cow for the entire division. They had a new project to reduce the manufacturing cost while improving the appearance and ease of use. I flew to Austin, met the team, came home and wrote the proposal. It was accepted and I was off and running…until I got a call a week later. The CEO had intervened and declared that this project was too critical to the future of the company to be limited to one company, so I would be competing with another unnamed firm.
I told the project manager that this competition would change my entire workplan. Rather than generate multiple concepts, with iterative feedback, I would use my existing schedule and budget to develop and submit ONE design, what I called my Best Shot. The design criteria called for the OHP to be easily portable because a lot of 3M’s customers were salespeople. After working through several approaches, I settled on one that had a clean and compact way to fold up, with an aesthetic that mimicked the design language of the laptops that were often used with the OHPs. I submitted my single concept, in multiple solid modeling renderings, embedded in a PowerPoint presentation and…hit SEND. The plan was to fly to Austin and follow-up with a presentation to the Senior Staff.
A few days later I got a call from the project manager. No need to come to Austin, they had already made a decision. The other firm had presented some "very innovative” concepts and won over the internal team. Their next step would be to take them on the road for a five city focus group evaluation.
It felt like a gut punch. Just who the hell were these guys and what could they have done? I would not find out until two weeks later when I got another call from 3M. They were on their last leg of the focus group sessions and were getting mixed results. Then, on the last session they decided to include my one design. Boom...to the top. But as this was only one session, they would have to do the whole tour over again, this time including my design. Both firms were allowed one week to make changes. I submitted essentially the same design and stuck them with a big tab.
Long story short, my design prevailed, and I went back to 3M’s headquarters to begin the next phase discussions. Then, I saw them…the so-called innovative 25. Maybe they were innovative but they were not appropriate for the OHP market and culture. 3M admitted that they did not know their customer and learned a lot during the whole process.
view from JWD World Headquarters / Crow's Nest
THE NEIGHBOR FROM HELL
So now flashback a few years earlier to our new house on Ciervos Road in Portola Valley. Before we had moved in, we had noticed the house just below ours looked abandoned, but in a serene and tranquil way, surrounded by tall grasses, looking like something out of an Andrew Wyeth painting. We couldn’t see it from our house, and our houses were far apart, so we didn’t ask questions.
A couple of months later, we noticed that someone had moved in. Being good neighbors, we took the initiative to walk down to introduce ourselves. Immediately I had a bad feeling which was only to be more than validated as time went on. Eric said he was a contractor, and he was going to be working on his shitbox of a house that was visibly listing about five degrees. (shitbox was my term, not his) He went on to say that he was "never moving" and "nobody tells us what we can or can't do down here." Ciervos was a private road with four houses on it, including ours, on the edge of the Vista Verde neighborhood. Everybody had at least two acres so the houses were well separated. Lefholz's house was on the western edge, and therefore even more secluded.
A couple weeks later, I had just gotten back from a business trip to Japan, jet-lagged and in serious sleep-dep. It was 2:00 am and Lefholz's cur of a dog was barking...every 30 seconds, almost on cue. At my wit's end, I dialed Eric and...he picked up in the middle the first ring.
"I thought it might be you" I girded myself to be civil.
Eric, it's 2 am, can you put your dog inside?"
What followed next was a little surreal, but I remember it well:
"The dog's just barking at the wild animals" he said.
"It's 2 am Eric and..."
"We were here first"
"Who is We?"
"Bill and me"
"What the hell does Bill have to do with your dog barking...?"
sidenote: Eric had been renting a room from Bill Hayden, a neighbor who lived at the end of Ciervos. Hayden was a Stanford heart surgeon who was in partnership with Thomas Fogarty.
A few weeks later, on a crisp Saturday morning, I was enjoying a nice café latte when suddenly the air was filled with loud roaring and clanking sounds, followed by the sickening stench of diesel fumes wafting up the hill with plumes of dust and...traces of cigarette smoke. It turns out that the quaint picturesque house had been acquired, under the table, by the aforementioned Eric J. Lefholz, the ne’er-do-well contractor and self-appointed Expert Landslide Fixer. The property suffered a slide several years ago and the house had been red-tagged as uninhabitable. But no worries. Eric J. Lefholz was On It. Did he have a plan? Did he have permits? Fuck no x2.
So there we were. Our dream of living in a Zenscape of Solitude just went up in smoke and dust. But wait, it gets worse. Lefholz then moved his whole fucking corporation yard; all of his aging heavy equipment, a yellow D9-CAT, some beater dump trucks, old diesel tanks, and a shitload of miscellaneous junk and just plopped it all wherever. The other two neighbors on our private road cut him some slack, thinking that he would fix the slide, improve the property, and everybody would live happily ever after. Lefholz told everybody he either had permits, or he didn't need permits, depending on who was doing the asking. .
We put up with this nonsense for years. He would offer dirt-hauling truckers the option to dump their load at his place, rather than the landfill. He got free fill, they got free dumps. Win-Win. Of course, the dirt was not engineered fill, it was shit. But it was worse than that, moving dirt was just a hobby. Every day at 5 o’clock, he would come home from his day job in his clattering diesel truck, I would hear the door slam and…wait for it….
rrrrrrrrr…boom clatter clatter. He’s on top of his smoking, hissing, D-9 dozer, pushing dirt til the fucking cows come home.
One summer he stopped dozing on his own property just to start again on the uphill neighbor’s land. Dr Bill had actually contracted him to excavate out an extensive French drainage system. It cost him $40,000 but he was happy to pay it because 1) Lefholz is an Expert and 2) There would be no burdensome engineering or permitting fees or inspections. The backhauling, noise, grading, and gravel delivery lasted all summer long. By September it was all buttoned up. By March it had all slip-slided down the hill.
The following year, the same thing happened on Lefholz’s own property. The massive amounts of the dirt that had been so painstakingly bootlegged and artlessly graded, over multiple years, had slumped down the hill like a slow-motion mass of chocolate pudding, right into the rain soaked creek, leaving parts of Woodside mired in three feet of mud and debris. At some point, a group of inquisitive Woodside residents followed the creek up Alpine Road, looking for the source of the problem. And there they found one Eric J. Lefholz, sitting atop his wheezing and smoking D9 dirt mover. Tossing aside his cigarette, he told them that yes, in fact, there had been a problem, but that he was working in tandem with the county to FIX it. Also, because The County considered him to be such an Expert, he did not need permits so it’s all good.
They thanked him profusely and left.
The next year, Eric and another contractor started dozing an access road into to his property from Alpine Road, a county fire road within Coal Creek Open Space. Somehow, he was able to get a key to the entrance gate. This cut would allow him to move heavy equipment, dirt delivery, and all kinds of shit without having to haul everything up the hill. But Alpine Road was a popular hiking and biking venue that could easily collapse under the weight of heavy equipment…not to mention that the whole operation was illegal and violated multiple laws in various jurisdictions.
That was the last straw. We started lobbying San Mateo County in earnest at the highest levels. It turns out they knew all about him. Eric was sitting on a shitload of RED-TAG-Stop-Work orders that he had simply ignored. His considered opinion was: fuck the county and fuck the permits. The county won’t do anything because they would have to take it over and assume the liability. Finally, several members of the County Counsel came out to do a walk-around. Ultimately, because of Lefholz’s blatant and continual refusal to comply, the County had no other option but to sue his ass. He holds the record of being the only person ever to be prosecuted for non-compliance. The judge sentenced him to complete 65 mitigation line-items, including full soils engineering and all the permits required for stabilization. Failure would mean confiscation. Yes, there would be more noise and dust but at least, after eight years, we knew there would be an end to it.
After 12 years, Peace was at hand.
It took him two years to complete all 65 stipulations and he was able to do it only because his trust fund had just come in. We had already moved to Santa Cruz, but we heard thru the grapevine he started building a giant garage. He did have permits for the garage, this time, but Lefholz was nothing if not defiant. The approved plans specified an unimproved second story. Unimproved means NO living quarters…for example, like no four bathrooms, no four bedrooms, no kitchen, no wet bar, etc. He was still gaming the county, but the hammer would come down again. More on this later.
My virtual design business was going along just fine until the Twin Towers came down. My current projects, pending projects, potential future projects, all came crashing down with the towers. I was drifting along in blissful denial. Maybe I could just retire…but 911 tanked my portfolio too. One day I got a call from a friend who told me Plantronics in Santa Cruz was looking for a Senior Director of Design. I was not that enthusiastic, but what did I have to lose? Work for a couple of years or...
I applied through the recruiter who put me through the prescreening process. The previous two directors had not fared well so this next hire was considered critical, and they had been looking for a while. Plantronics designed and manufactured headsets of all kinds, mostly for business use.
I passed the pre-screening and came in for an internal two-day interview! By the middle of the second day I was fried but by then they started selling me. Is Plantronics the greatest company or what? It was an engineering and schedule-driven company and design seemed to be the whipping boy. It was also mired in big company process with executives competing as to who could make the longest PowerPoint presentations.
I would be reporting to Craig May, the Senior VP of Engineering and Marketing who was this uber-conservative Texan dude. When I say Texan, I mean he still lived in Texas, on a 160-acre ranch in the middle of goddamn nowhere. Plantronics arranged his commute so he could fly in on Monday and leave late on Thursday. Craig hated Santa Cruz especially after he and his family were downtown one day and subjected to the horror of a gay pride parade. It turns out he was a former evangelist so, you could probably guess he and I were polar opposites. But he was also smart and able to spin anything to his advantage. There was no communication, we were on different frequencies. I was being second-guessed at every turn. So I thought maybe having a credible 3rd party confirmation might help validate my ideas. I contacted Jump Associates, a world leading consultancy in strategy and innovation. I had the top two principals come in to meet a couple of the VPs first. That got a big thumbs up, so I approached Craig with the idea. After I got a lot of “we already know everything” he reluctantly agreed to hear them out. The four of us met in Craig’s office. These guys were professionals from a world-class organization but Craig was having none of it. He was hostile, he was sarcastic, he was rude. It was cringeworthy to the max. As we were leaving, Dev said to me: “Well, I can see you’ve got your work cut out for you”
Yes but I had a contingency plan. I had set up a follow-on meeting that day with Julie, the VP of Human Resources, who had been tasked by the CEO to “create a culture of innovation” She told me she had no idea even where to start. So, right after the disastrous Craig meeting, I marched Dev and Udaya over to her office. Within a span of two hours, my head was spinning…in a good way. The HR meeting was as good as the Craig meeting was bad. Everything clicked. But now what…?
The next day in the Senior Staff meeting, Craig just had to embarrass me and tell the assembled staff just how much he hated Jump. “It was the worst meeting I have ever had in my professional life” But by then, the CEO was cool, and had been briefed by Julie, so he knew what was going on. His subtle demur was: “I would be interested in hearing about that sometime, Craig”
But after a year of pushing the ball uphill, I was like fried. I needed this job for sure but by now it was taking a toll on my health. Finally, I went to HR to give notice that I would be leaving. They understood. After a short conversation, Julie called Craig and told him I would be coming in to talk. She hung up the phone and had that look…Yeah, so he’s not in the best mood. So what, this time I has nothing left to lose. I laid it all out for him. After what seemed like an interminable forever, he actually told me to think it over. I was scheduled to go our UK Division with the VP of engineering who also reported to Craig. On the trip over, we talked. He convinced me not to leave, but to redefine my position and get someone else to deal with Craig.
Which is exactly what happened. Life became livable again. Six months after that, I went to the monthly All Hands meeting where company business and strategies were shared with all the employees. Ken, the CEO, put the first slide up: THANK YOU CRAIG MAY. Craig was gone without a fucking trace. No good-bye party, no nothing. Ken made a few obligatory statements, but it was clear what had gone down. In the meantime, I had redefined my position as a design strategist working three days a week which would give me full benefits and two days off. My second dream job! It took signatures from the CEO and CFO since I would not tied to any business unit. BTW, Jump Associates ended up with a $400k contract to come in and do their innovation thing, which was wildly successful.
Plantronics Design Staff -Black Friday 2009
During the first 18 months at Plantronics, when I was at my wits end, I told Suzi we had to devise an exit strategy. We would use the equity in the Portola Valley house and move somewhere outside the Bay Area. So we spent a fair amount of time looking at places like Nevada City, and Oregon's Portland, Bend, and Ashland. We kept coming back to Ashland. It was, and is, an idyllic small town: right size, sophisticated, good medical, decent weather, good mountain biking, and great brew pubs. It was voted one of the Best Places to Retire in 2005. Eventually we bought a nice sloped one-third acre lot after talking to some architects and builders for a reality check. It was part of a 20-lot development one-half mile from the town center but with the look and feel of the country. Even if we decided not to build, it would still be a great investment, right? Besides, I had always wanted to design my own house since like forever. This would be my chance.
I teamed up with a designer in Ashland who could work with me to create the architectural plans and get them signed off. I would be creating a 3D file in tandem working around the myriad building restrictions imposed by the city. Even though this was an approved development, the city made it exceedingly difficult to build anything. They even required a landscaping plan where every goddamn tree had to be identified and only those within the foundation footprint could be cut. It took well over a year to get the plans submitted to the city for approval. And they got kicked back! Why? We had neglected to include the solar shading schematic. It turns out that during the few weeks during winter solstice, the house would shade the neighbor’s property about six feet over the property line at a time when 80% of the days are cloudy So, after a year’s worth of work, IF the neighbor objected, the entire plan could be denied. Also, there was no fix to this. The restrictions had defined a very tight envelop. I was starting to panic.
The offended property was a vacant lot with no local owner of record. After spending some time on a search, I finally found the owner listed in LA. I called him up…and held my breath. Thankfully, he was totally fine with it. No worries dude. We were good to go!
We put our Portola Valley property on the market in December, not the best time to sell but the place looked great. It was great. After all, I had invested 17 years of sweat equity but the siren call of Ashland was beckoning. It would be a natural change, or at least that’s what I thought. After a couple weeks on the market with nothing but lookie-loos, we were beginning to get concerned. Then we got a call from an interested party who wanted us to be home when they came by, which was unusual but who knew more about the house than us? But when we saw them drive up, they were elderly, and by elderly I mean older than us. Who, in their 70s, is going to want to walk up 33 stairs…in the rain…carrying groceries? Anyway, they walked up, did a perfunctory walk-around, didn’t even go outside, asked us no serious questions and left, just as we predicted. But, to our surprise, they came back a few days later with an offer and a few days later it was a done deal. Our place was to be their “winter home” alternating seasons with their primary house in Wilson, Wyoming. It would be a 90-day close to give them time to sell one of their multiple properties..
I woke up the next day with a queasy feeling. My gut was telling me something. Why was I not excited? Then I sat down and thought about just what had happened, a reality check, something I should have earlier, say like before we sold the house. I mentally projected two years from now. We were in Ashland. The house was built. It was December and… I started to quietly panic. The final papers had been signed. I had given notice at Plantronics. I felt the click-click-click of one-way ratchet moving relentlessly forward.
Then it became obvious. It was the right-brain emotional momentum of designing my own house had simply blinded me to the changing reality. The original reason to move was to get out of a job and a boss I hated. But that had all changed. I now loved my job, the one I had redefined for myself. Portola Valley is an amazing place to live. We had friends there. It doesn’t snow. We knew no one in Ashland. It was remote. What would I do? What the hell was I thinking? But all this time Suzi had been blissfully sailing along, her heart totally set for Ashland. After three years of planning…after we had sold the fucking house…how could I tell her I was about to pull the plug on our dream?
And where would we go now?
Ashland Lot 2008
SANTA CRUZ HOUSE
I contacted my boss at Plantronics, told him the story, and asked him if I could come back. Absolutely. That was some relief. Now for the hard part. I sat down with Suzi and, over a glass or two of wine, and laid it all out. It was a complete surprise to her. But, after shedding a few tears, she realized I was serious and said she would support whatever I wanted to do. We had 90 days to figure it out and the clock was ticking. It turns out selling your house and then buying it back, or something even close to it, is impossible. Any livable place in San Mateo county was now outside our price range. I concentrated more in Santa Cruz County. But the close date was looming and we were coming up with nothing. One day I saw an ad for a home in Pasatiempo, a golf community close to Plantronics, and stopped by on my way home. It had potential but was depressingly depressing with lots of deferred maintenance. The house had been on the market for more than a year, and for good reason. After spending 17 years of sweat equity on our Portola Valley house, the idea of doing it all again was overwhelming, but the thought of renting an interim place was even worse. Anyway, after several weeks of agonizing negotiations with the ditzy woman owner,
we had a deal.
Move-in day was joyless. Before anything, we had to haul all the former owner's leftover shit to the landfill, then the house needed to be tented for termites. We had to stack everything in the garage and patio room and find a motel to wait it out. After that, we had the whole inside painted, had some walls removed, and all new carpets. We actually lived in the house while all this was going on. It was like a war zone. We left the kitchen for last. It was totally disgusting. Everything had to go, nothing was salvageable. I designed everything in CAD and acted as a general to coordinate various subs, all while I was working. What seemed like a never-ending mess eventually started to come together, After months of live-in construction there was light at the end of the tunnel. This was the house in 2017.
THE LAWSUIT FROM HELL
It turns out the light at the end of the tunnel was a train coming the other way. One day on my way home from work, I picked up the mail and opened an innocuous looking letter. It was a certified notification that we were being sued by the buyers of our Portola Valley house, you know the people who didn’t even bother to walk outside...for non-disclosure of a landslide. I had no idea what they were talking about. We had the top agent in Portola Valley and the contract had disclosed a mind-numbing amount of shit, plus all the boilerplate. That’s what I get for selling to a New Jersey lawyer. I knew the dirtbag Eric Lefholz was behind this.
The contract called for arbitration with the loser paying all legal fees so, in my naïve mind, I thought it would end quickly and we would prevail once our buyers realized they had no case, right? After all, there was no public record of any slide on that property. And, even if there was a slide we knew nothing about it, and neither did anyone else. Nevertheless, I needed to hire a lawyer. I asked our real estate broker, who was also named in the suit, for a recommendation. A week later I was on a retainer for $530 per hour with a firm in Palo Alto. After all, we were being sued for more than out net worth. No time for a cut-rate hack
As if the lawsuit wasn't enough stress, my doctor flagged a PSA test that had spiked. It should have been non-detectable. I had surgery at UCSF just two years earlier for prostate cancer, and this meant it had reoccurred...somewhere. I contacted Dr. Carroll at UCSF and scheduled an appointment. When I got there, he seemed defensive. “Whatever you’ve got, you had before the surgery” Honestly, that wasn't even on my mind. I just wanted it fixed. After about 20 minutes or so, he just got up and left the room. I sat there for a few minutes and wondered WTF? This was not the first time this had happened at UC with other doctors. They just walk out, with no goodbyes, no see you laters. So I wondered down the hall and saw him in his office. “We done” Yes, we were done. Too weird.
So the next day I had all my files FedExed to the Stanford Oncology Radiation Dept. I was to have six weeks of “salvage” radiation which, to me, sounded pretty serious. Who names these things? The treatment took place in a large dedicated room called a linear accelerator. It had this giant articulated robot that was programmed to go around above, and below me, targeting the tattoo dots they had placed on me. I was to come every weekday for six weeks. On more than one occasion, there was some kind of malfunction,…which was more than a little unnerving. To fix whatever was wrong, they didn't call Tech Support, they called the Physicist. Ten years later I experienced hematuria which were caused by radiation burns to my bladder. Luckily it could be treated by six weeks of hyperbaric chamber sessions. I'm sure there's some axiom: you fix one thing it breaks something else.
We were still working on the Santa Cruz house, albeit backing off some of the more ambitious plans. The lawsuit was still rolling on relentlessly. My attorney deposed both of the buyers separately. Turns out that Lefholz had told them, without evidence, that there had been a landslide on the property that we knew about and didn't disclose it. Did they bother to corroborate any of this? No. George Harris, the buyer and a very Trumpian Jersey lawyer decided to hire a geologist, after the suit was already filed. He knew he had been lied to but he would just bully his way through, I was still naïve enough to think…when they find nothing I’m going to get all legal fees which, at this point, were significant. I was even fantasizing how I would spend the money.
Forget the optimism. My dream job at Plantronics had only just begun, requiring sign-offs from the CEO and CFO. Then came the 2008 financial collapse. That was the coup de grâce. I was laid off along with 18% of the company. OK. So to summarize: I had recurrent cancer, a lawsuit for more than our net worth, and I just lost my job. Did my luck just run out? The good news was I was just becoming eligible for Social Security. Also I was able to pick up a few consulting gigs for a few years. Honestly, that made the difference between survival and disaster.
So Harris’ geologist filed his report. It turns out that there was a slide on the property, most likely in the 1906 earthquake, 60 years before the house was built. Moreover, it was not affecting the house in any way and had been stable since 1906. So where’s the damage? We’re done here, right?
This whole thing was the fluke of flukes. What are the odds that someone (Harris) would believe a nutcase like Lefholz to bring on a loser-pays lawsuit without first checking out the goddamn facts? In no other universe but this one., apparently. Harris was not about to back down now. I thought, if we go to court, we’ll win, right? My lawyer advised me that you never know what a jury will do and, even if we win, Harris could just appeal until we ran out of money, which was diminishing by the minute. That was an epiphany for me. The law is not about right or wrong, or justice, or even the law. It’s about who has the most money.
We settled out of court. At the hearing, the judge told our lawyer that George Harris was despicable. During the final adjudication, when we were all before the judge, Harris and his lawyer were snickering, reveling in their extorted windfall like a couple of giddy teenagers. Part of the their draconian stipulation was that we could not leave the country until the judgment was paid. I was livid. Worse of all, Lefholz had actually gotten away with the Big Lie.
But...we were living in Santa Cruz but we still had friends in the old hood. Remember Lefholz had built out his monster garage that stipulated no living space. A source, who shall remain unnamed, told us that he was bragging about it and how he fucked over the county, you know, those bastards who sued him. It turns out he built 2400 sq ft of full living space above the garage. Among other things, it amounted to felony tax evasion. So one day, unannounced, two code enforcement agents just happened to pay him a visit exactly when he was moving some kitchen appliances into his illegal loft. BOOM! Down went Lefholz! He was forced to get permits to rip it all out and get another set of permits to put it all back, with penalties. Also upgrade the septic to accommodate three bathrooms. Boy howdy was he pissed.
The timeline here is about 2013. I'm going to pause it here for a while...
What advice would I give to my younger self?
Honestly, I'm not sure. As I mentioned, good luck has saved my butt more often than not from bad luck. although, to be fair, since there was no way to run an alternate future scenario, who knows? Obviously, I would advise to think carefully about major decisions. Get opinions from those you respect. Even those you don't respect. Sleep on it. Role play scenarios to imagine various outcomes.
On balance, I had more good luck than bad luck, but luck is not a strategy. Some say you make your own luck. I would say, be situationally aware and be prepared for anything...trouble or opportunity. I was fortunate that I knew what I wanted early on. I was diligent in pursuing my goals but I think I also recognized early on the idea of a work / life balance. My goal was never about money...rather money is the measure do doing something well, well enough at least to be comfortable without letting stress ruin it all. Some stress is good; it hardens you for life's battles.
So, what about my biggest disaster: the Lefholz-Harris clusterfuck.. Could I have foreseen either of these? This is just luck turned on its head. But, in spite of all that...on net, our best years were spent living in such a special place. That was what made selling the house to such assholes and the lawsuit so infuriating.
As to the lawsuit, I have to believe this was the fluke of flukes. What are the odds that any normal person would believe the ramblings of a nutcase like Lefholz to bring on major lawsuit without first checking out if they were true? But, he and his Episcopal Minister wife did exactly that. The same people who did not even bother to walk outside, who did not read the multiple disclosures, and who bought the house as-is. I guess the lesson is buy lots of liability insurance and never sell anything to a New Jersey lawyer.
So, what would I advise people growing up in the 21st century? The cliché traditional answer would be to follow your passion, do what you love, and surround yourself with good friends. These are worthy goals but the truth is, life is complicated especially in a time where change is exponential, and technology seems to be taking over everything, traditional education is at best fleeting, at worst, obsolete. Concentrate on the Four Cs:
Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration, and Communication. Be a Truth-Seeker...which is easy to say but difficult in a world of constant disinformation. One recommendation would be to read Jonathon Rausch's The Constitution of Knowledge--A Defense of Truth. Also, be a generalist. Be flexible. Be curious, never stop learning. Discover that niche thing where you can excel...that thing you would do even if you didn't get paid. Also make sure it's not something a 'bot can do.
If that doesn't work, make sure you've got a good line of credit and solid trust fund.
A final thought on technology:
Science tells us that anything is possible given sufficient knowledge as long as it doesn't violate the laws of physics. Anything means Anything. Our species has the potential to create a God and we seem to be headed in that direction. Hopefully this time, we can create one that has a sense of humor ;-)
If we can make it through the coming series of bottlenecks like nuclear annihilation. climate disasters, an AI apocalypse, etc., we may be able to create a utopia where energy is free, anything can be created, atom by atom for free, and no one has to work. Sounds good, right? On the other hand, I remember an early Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit where having every wish granted is not heaven, but hell.
Sorry Gen Zers, it's up to you now...