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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Fifteen years ago today, my life changed. The funny thing is, fifteen years later I still don't know if it changed for the better or for the worse.

For most of 1986, I was out of work. Living with my parents at the age of 37 hadn't been one of my life's ambitions, but there I was (and grateful that the option was open to me). I collected unemployment, having lost my job with the shoe store the previous December. I put on a tie and went to interviews. I scanned the classified ads and sent out résumés, with a cover letter tailored to each prospective employer.

Finally, in July of that year, I had a call that resulted from a letter I sent to a blind post office box number. Office work. That's good, because I was hoping not to have to go back into retail, with its wildly irregular hours.

After I went into the Company's local office to fill out the application and take the typing test, they sent me to an office trailer on a job site in Marin County to meet the Boss. From the snide comments they'd made, I knew they thought they were throwing me into a snake pit. What I found out later was that they started an office pool about how long I'd last.

At the time, the Boss was pretty desperate for a personal assistant. He'd gone through several of them, both men and women, over the previous year, but he was on his best behavior during our first interview. For some reason, he really wanted me to work for him. A large project was looming, and he needed some stability in the Company, so he had a special interest in having our new relationship work out.

I know my work was good, but I don't think that was the only reason he treated me so much more respectfully than he treated anyone else. He sensed a vulnerability in me that he could exploit, because I was just as desperate as he was. He was nice to me so that he could jerk me around without my realizing it.

That's how it started. In those first few months, I worked three or four days a week in the job trailer with him, the rest of the time in the local office with the sane people. I saw him get into shoving matches with painters and plumbers. I quietly excused myself whenever his ex-wife called, so that I wouldn't have to listen to him shouting at her over the phone.

But he always dealt with me gently. Looking back, I don't believe he respected me as a person, but that's how it felt at the time. So I stayed. And stayed. And stayed.

He did respect my work, and he still does. I grew to know him well enough to write letters (even nasty ones) in words that could come directly out of his mouth. The difference was that I put those words into a framework that generally got better results than the undiluted venom he spewed.

The Company got its first computer later that year, a Compaq portable that I could carry between locations, since it folded into a large suitcase size. I taught myself Lotus 1-2-3 and began to dazzle the Boss with spreadsheets that presented information in exactly the format he wanted to see. It wasn't necessarily useful data, mind you, but it was what he demanded, so everyone was happy.

And that's been the basis of our relationship for exactly fifteen years, as of today. He makes obscure requests and I give him what he asks for. He's amazed that I'm usually a step or two ahead of him. I'm amazed that I've outlasted every one of the people who bet on my imminent demise, that July day in 1986.

Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake, from the top of a point.

A week after my interview with the Boss, I had a call in response to another letter I'd sent out. This one was from a radio station, looking for an office manager. I was tempted, but I wanted to give the Company a chance. I felt I'd made a commitment. For a long time, though, I wondered how my life might have been different if that other call had come first. Who would I be now?

And would I have lasted fifteen years at any other job? It's an intriguing thought, in a sliding-doors kind of way.

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