Uncle Mo

Ah, to write.  It’s been a while.  There was a point there — gosh, it’s over a year ago — where I felt like I’d spent what I had to spend emotionally —  said all I could said from the top of one mountain — and that it was time to go do some climbing to go get a new perspective on things from the next mountain over.  In the last 14 months, I’ve posted but once, and it was about something that really shook me to my core and which needed to be addressed.  I think the significance of the topic shows in the quality of the post.  It’s called “The Golden Couple” and I hope you’ll go back and read it.

But it was a one-off because for a while there, the act of writing seemed to me like such a selfish pursuit.  I’ve been investing in my gig, and my kids and their interests, and in making sure that once we all got our lives turned around — which I think we have — that we would be able to breathe some life into the engine and push forward with momentum and steam.

I think that now, as I try to start to write again, one of the things that stands in my way is just how hard writing seems to be.  This is new to me, because there was a time when I didn’t own this point of view.  I used to write for a living, kind of.  Back in my television gig, I wrote all of my own copy — as did most of the people at all of the networks at which I worked — and I didn’t think much of it.  There were a few simple rules:

1. Don’t go for a funny lead on a serious story.

2. If you don’t have your good sense of humor going, don’t force the joke.

3. Always end obit stories the same way — “The Deceased was XX years old”.

Those basic tenets rarely failed me, even when the limits of my talents did.  While I didn’t always write well, I could write passable stuff in bulk, which was important given the line of work.  I wrote newsroom copy.  I published a kid’s book, based on my wife’s illustrations.  The resume had some lines, but it was thin, and as the author Tama Janowitz once said of work like mine, “Compared to not writing, that’s writing.  But compared to writing, that’s not writing.”  That’s me, pegged.

By comparison, man, I see some of the stuff my ex-colleagues and old friends have done and I’m just in awe.  Ron Lieber, whom I’ve known since we were kids, writes good stuff daily for the New York Times.  I mean, the New York Frickin’ Times!  That’s just up in the clouds, and it says nothing about the books he’s completed over the last 20 years.  If you don’t know Ron, you might be more familiar with his wife, Jodi Kantor, who wrote the much-publicized “The Obama’s”, and while I’d like to know more about her reportage, I’m just floored by the massive scope and tenor of her project and the fact that she finished it and finished it well.  There’s other guys I went to flippin’ elementary school with who have not only written novels, but full series’ of novels.  Or who have become experts in their fields and written books that may fall into the category of history, or popular sociology, or biography.  That’s thick, meaty stuff.

And for all of their awesome accomplishments and successes, some of those guys aren’t even on the front lines.  Not like the war correspondents who write with insight and inside info with bullets flying by their heads, or the guys in no-wrinkle suits and bad ties who hop from primary to primary and small town to smaller town to barely a blip on the map, just to hear the same trite applause lines from the latest conservative flavor of the week.  These guys literally burn years of their life, or put their lives in serious danger in the case of the war correspondents, and they do it not for glory, but for their need for truth and their passion for the art.  God Bless them.  I don’t have the stomach for it.

And then, of course, there are the professionals I read on a regular basis —  heroes of mine, in a way — who just make interesting observations about life as seen through their prisms in sports or in politics or business or what have you.  Their senses are keen and focused, the observations wry, astute and funny.  You know the general makeup of this group — Drew Magary, Chuck Klosterman, the First Read gang at MSNBC, the sharpies on Politico and Huffington Post and countless other really good writers that people send me whom I’ve never heard of previously but who leave me thirsty for more.  I’m not sure any of them make any real money, and if they do I know they work their asses off at the other, less enjoyable parts of writing (to a writer, anyway) that help pay the bills, but they sure as hell have my admiration.  It’s damn intimidating.

In the end, I’m not sure how much — or more to the point how well —  one can write if one isn’t writing regularly.  I tend to doubt the insight the inconsistent writer presents about an aspect of life if I know that writer isn’t really intensely focused on that aspect of life.  I’m not sure how much that person has to miss about the rest of life in order to maintain that narrow focus, and I’m not sure I really want to sacrifice that in order to be a consistent writer myself.  Maybe I’m jaded, or comfortable, or just lazy.

But then again, maybe I’m not.  I know that sitting here writing in the wee hours of a Thursday feels like waking up at dawn on the first day of a golf trip with the fellas.  The muscles are creaky.  The smell of dewy grass hovers.  The sun hasn’t yet burned off the mist.  But there is the confident knowledge of blue sky to come and the hope of the noble attempt well executed ahead.  And so I set forth.  I make no promises that I can write well, but I do promise to write.

Hold me to it.

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The Golden Couple

They were the golden couple.  Literally, perhaps.  Her blonde hair seemed to flow until it faded into the horizon.  He, while brown-haired, had skin so pale it winced when it saw the sun and his eyes reflected light like an Idaho stream in summertime.  And, damn, when they looked at each other it made you believe you could turn rainbows into gold.  It made you believe in the beauty of the possible.

The first time I introduced my then-girlfriend-now-wife to them was at a big party.  In anticipation, I had told my wife about their glorious wedding, when I had served as best man.  This was the kind of wedding about which great men write epics; not because it was extravagant — it was hardly that — but because the sincerity of their love, and of the love of everyone around them, was so palpable you could reach out and squeeze it between your fingers.  His father told a moving story about how the journeys of these two once-innocent children somehow found each other to create this perfect relationship.  The father was in tears, and as I looked over my man’s shoulder into the bride’s eyes, she was in tears, and her bridesmaids, and I could feel the groomsmen shaking as as well.

And then, when the time came for the pastor to ask if anyone objected to this couple getting married, he instead turned the couple to the congregation and asked if those who would support them would rise.  They did, as one, and the air went out of the room, as the world stood perfectly still and completely silent, save for the sweet music of love playing a tune for anyone willing to lend an ear.

Love was strong.  Love was possible.  Love was alive.

That evening with my now-wife at the party, the affair was already fairly well along when the Golden Couple arrived.  The party throbbed on, a sea of strangers and murky faces, when they made their entrance seeming to float above everyone else, just at a time when the daylight was just beginning to turn to amber, and as that light danced across their faces, they simply shone.  My now-wife saw them before I did and gasped, “Who are those people?”

My face relaxed as I said, “That’s them.”  And my now-wife, seeing them for the very first time said, “Of course it is”.

Of course it was.  They had been married then a year?  Maybe two?  And they still held the glow of newlyweds.  We saw them some, but not nearly enough over the ensuing years.  They settled in one part of the country, with us in another.  We all moved around a little bit.  They had a baby as beautiful as the two of them combined.  We had ours.  “We’ll get together in the spring,” we would say.  “Or perhaps we’ll have a reunion of all our friends this summer.”  It didn’t seem to happen, but we never questioned that it would happen.

Then recently we decided to make it happen, and we invited them to join us on a trip.  I didn’t hear back for several days, but when I did the response I got back was, “We split up in March.”  And everything simply iced over.  Doors banged shut.  The world went gray and cold.

I don’t know the details of what happened between them, nor do I care to.  Things happen over the course of a marriage.  Sometimes the bonds between people aren’t that tight, and even a small slip can cause the whole thing to unravel.  Sometimes even the strongest ties and deepest loves can’t hold up against nature’s weightiest forces.  Sometimes people can forgive, but sometimes people can’t forget.  We 40-somethings are at a point in our lives now where we know the realities of relationships and the hardships of life, but we still want to hold out hope for the possibility that love and joy can somehow conquer all of the hazards the world throws in our way.   It’s why I want to scream, “Not these people.  Not them!  This can’t possibly happen to them!”  Even as I don’t have any idea what, if anything, happened between them.  Even though I couldn’t possibly have told you the status of their relationship.

What I do know is that some years ago — count back to 15 or 25 or 30, the number doesn’t matter — we all had dreams.  We had visions of who we wanted to be, what we wanted our lives to look like and who we wanted to share those lives with.  We’ve achieved some, to be sure,  but other dreams haven’t materialized.  It isn’t too late in the game, but its late enough that we have pasts now and patterns of behavior, and the history of our decisions can be impossible to untangle.  So many of the things we believed in once have fallen away.  So many of the things that comprised our core values have been challenged and disproven and forced us to reevaluate.  So many of the things that we used to think — that I used to think — I don’t know if I can think them any more.  It hurts too much to invest like that.  It hurts too much to be wrong.

And damn, of all things, this was one that needed to turn out right.  These children once had the audacity to dream big, to love big, to lead the way by shining a light with their hearts and asking all of us to follow.  This was our example.  Theirs was the dream we all believed in.  And now it’s gone.  It may not be the death of love, but it’s the death of theirs.

That’s plenty sad enough.

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Perhaps you’ll remember my college-age younger brother, whom I fairly excoriated in these pages a few weeks ago.  I painted a picture which let his actions stand as a representative of his generation, in a way which was meant to paint the generation (though not necessarily him) in an unflattering way.  Well, wait ’til you hear what he’s done now.

It’s actually really cool.

Over the past couple of weeks, and largely of his own impetus and direction, my brother has been able to connect with some pretty important people in areas of life in which he is interested.  One name you would definitely know.  The other, maybe-maybe not, but people who move in that guy’s circle respect and revere him.  Both of these people can help my brother get where he wants to go, if he manages the relationship well, but that’s not really the point.

In the case of the second PIP, my brother somehow found out about a reception in whcih this PIP was involved in San Francisco.  Knowing he wanted to meet him, my brother drove with a friend to San Francisco and was able to connect with the PIP.  After they spoke, the PIP invited my brother and his friend to take a meeting the next day.  At the PIP’s house.  In Portland, Oregon.  So my brother and his friend hopped into the car and drove north again, 10 hours to the meeting.

Now, again, while I hope the meeting goes well for my brother, neither the outcome of the meeting nor the people with whom he is meeting is what I find cool.  I mean, we arrange and take meetings our entire adult life — sometimes with people who are big important names, and sometimes with people who are lesser names but can actually make big important things happen.  Some of these meetings will lead to something tangible, many more evaporate into the ether.  My brother has landed a couple of big ones at age 19, which is terrific, but these meetings predict absolutely nothing about either his ability to convert these meetings into successes, or his ability to land more meeting (or to want to land more meetings) in the future.  I’m not impressed enough by the names — or the fact of names — to think that’s cool.

What’s really cool is that my brother got in the goddamn car and he drove.  One guy told him he could take a meeting, and my brother drove ten fucking hours to make it happen, with no real sense of how the meeting would work out, and no real guarantee that the meeting would even take place.

I can’t remember the last time I drove six hours or eight hours, much less ten hours, to do anything.  Not for a cause.  Not for love.  Nothing.

Of course, my brother is 19, and he doesn’t have any other responsibilities or anything else to care about other than his version of saving the world.  But what eats away at me is not that I have responsibilities which hold me back from undertaking such an adventure.  What eats away at me is that I don’t have any subject, issue or emotion I care about enough to undertake such an adventure.  I let my “drive” take me off the road of adventure.  I lost interest in life’s journey.   My focus on a single path has led me away from scoping out interesting blue highways that might have resulted in a more fully actualized me.

I was exchanging emails recently on a similar subject with my college friend Jane, who wrote back, “Why can’t we go back 20 years to when we were nothing but potential?”  This is not a new question — it’s something privileged western 40-somethings have been asking for decades.  And though I’ve left plenty of potential unfulfilled, I don’t want to go back 20 years to relive situations that might yield different life outcomes with more potential realized, yet which would invariably bring about a separate set of mistakes and regrets, too.  That said, there are elements of Jane’s question that resonate with me, and I think the idea is to take those elements that remain relevant, and maybe reframe them to make a stronger question that applies better for the more lived-in grown-ups we are today:  How do we take the dreams of our past, and the experiences that have brought us to the present, and realign them in order to design an interesting and engaged future?

Look, of course, if you just hop into your car without some kind of destination in mind, you can easily end up lost on a road to nowhere, but it’s just as unproductive to sit idling in your garage, fooling yourself into thinking that you aren’t slowly killing yourself anyway.  So it’s time to come up with the things I want to see, to do, to be and then hit the fucking road and go track them down.

This all because of a spark of ignition from my brother.  So who deserves to be excoriated now?

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The Rest of the Story

Okay, so first of all, I believe we should be clear of all legal hurdles here.  I DID have to change a few things, so I thank you for your patience in waiting for the rest of the story.

Several people have pointed me to the numerous blogs that have taken this up as discussion.  To that I thank you sincerely for your interest in my story, in Dale Tallon and in the Blackhawks.  Many respondents have been critical of several aspects of my presentation — my motivations, my methods, my facts.  That’s fine.  I would expect that many people would find fault in my actions or performance.  I’m not blameless here.  To answer those questions:

*I stand by my facts both in the story I initially reported in the summer of 2009, and I stand by those I am presenting here.  There were a few details which were not entirely correct, but they had more than kernel of truth to them.  I will admit below to the things that were incorrect at the time I reported them, and why they were incorrect.  In total, however, I have never been more proud of a story than this one.

*My methods are and were clean.  Anyone who knows the way I did my job knows that I was 100% ethical, completely dedicated to getting the story right, and if I had any questions or doubts about the conflicts a story might present I always erred on the side of caution with management, but pushed very hard to make sure the reported story told the truth, or I wouldn’t tell it at all.

*My motivations then were to tell the story honestly.  My motivation now is two-fold: therapeutic (to help me get past this), and commercial (this story is the starting point of a much larger piece, what I hope will be a book, about how one goes about making huge career decisions while his professional and personal life is crumbling around him). Judging by my initial feedback, I have something substantial, content-wise, and I’m looking for a publisher.

This piece of the story probably won’t satisfy fans looking for answers of what went on internally with the Blackhawks as to how and why they fired Dale Tallon, their former GM.  I do care about that point, and there’s a big part of that story that has never been entirely told.  I’ll share what I know, eventually.  But that part of that story is unrelated to the one I’m attempting to share here, which shines a pretty interesting light on the (dying) broadcast television news industry.

So all that said, I look forward to all of your comments, critical as well as supportive.  I will publish all that are clean and that don’t take personal shots at anyone else.  Please feel free to spread this story to anyone you might feel would be interested in reading about it.

We resume with the last full paragraph from part 1:

By this time it’s well after the workday has ended, ten-fifteen or so, which means I’m attempting to reach people who are friendly professional contacts, but probably not actual friends, at home or on their cell phones or by text.   That’s always a little bit of a dicey proposition.  Most of these people are not responding.  I try different approaches as I leave messages – with some I’m polite and straightforward, with others more aggressive – while still not revealing what story I’m working on.  Finally, I try a playful tack with a person who might not be on the inside of this decision, but would be close enough to know it happened. “So what are you guys going to do with the new office space?” I text.  The response I get is rapid and terse, “Call me” is all it says.

From this source, I get a pretty solid story.  He doesn’t know the details because he wasn’t in on any of the discussions, but he knows there was a meeting of all the front office people.  He saw the general manager leave, and leave angrily, about an hour before everybody else.  He’s been told to clear his schedule for the afternoon, he presumes for a press conference, but to tell no one that he is emptying his schedule.   I take all of this information back to the source who had said he would be willing to confirm, and he does, telling me that the Blackhawks had indeed fired Tallon, who cleaned out his office, and he tells me that the team is going to announce that Stan Bowman will be the next general manager.  The contact then outlines the way all the promotions will work so the team can fill out its front office.

(As it turned out, some of what my source told me in this would later turn out to be a little premature and/or not quite correct.  The team, in effect, did NOT fire Tallon as the GM.  Once they realized they still had to honor his contract and that there would be some negative public relations associated with firing him, they assigned him a different title to allow him to stay in the organization.  Though that title would be completely ceremonial, and while he would remain with the team on paper, Tallon would never go on to contribute to the team from his new role.  But as reporting goes, to the extent that one would call those errors, that’s really more about semantics than it is factually erroneous.  Second, in what would become a bit of a sticking point for me, and what my sources did not know, was that Bowman, the man who would eventually become the new GM, had not yet agreed to take on the new position.  The team had offered him the job, but at the time I was going to break the story, he had not yet accepted, and many members of the Hawks’ front office thought it appeared to be a close call.  Still, most of the story, and all of the breaking news points, were completely correct.  At its most base level, the team had removed Tallon from his title as the general manager).

Nonetheless, at this point, I believed we had enough to go with.  I checked my watch – 11:10pm — too late for the nighttime news, but in time for the show that would run at midnight and through the overnight hours, as well as online.  After relaying everything to the show producer and to the acting executive producer, we broke the story on our website and via a breaking news crawl running at the bottom of our screen on television.  During the midnight show, I was on live with the anchor, Kip Lewis, via phone announcing to the world that this reborn team had just fired the man who had orchestrated its revival.   By 12:20, at the end of the show, we were all on the phone again doing the post-mortem on the show, agreeing that this was a terrific journalistic moment for our network and a big win for our station.  Maybe it was as clean and big a story as the network had broken to date.  Before we hung up, our acting executive producer asked one question – would I blog about the story for our website before I went to bed?  I said that I would.  I finished the blog and went to sleep just after 2 in the morning.

My blackberry first buzzed about 4 hours later.  One of the radio stations in town wanted me to join them on the air.  I told them I’d be happy to, but I needed a cup of coffee and, per network protocol, I had to check in with our media relations director first.  While I waited for his return, I checked on how the story advanced from when I went to bed.  All of Chicago’s morning news shows and websites, and most national sports websites, were reporting, “According to Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, the Blackhawks have fired their General Manager.”  I was mentioned in many of the stories by name.  My wife and I high-fived each other because in that instant, we both recognized that this was the story that should firmly cement my authority on the beat and should make me indispensible to my network. I certainly hadn’t set out on this story with that goal in mind.  This story had kind of found me, but it was going to be the one that should finally grant me leverage for my contract talks, which I hoped would begin in 3-4 months.

And this was a significant development for us.  As a family, we had been struggling for some time.  Even though I had been the main anchor in my previous job in Buffalo, I had accepted a reporter position in Chicago which paid less in real dollars in order to have the chance to work in my hometown, and the chance to work in a large market.  I had absolutely no problems with that contract, at least in part because I received promises from the management people who had hired me: assuming I performed well in my first contract with them, they would make up the difference to me in my second contract.  I was satisfied.

But we had several personal hardships during that first contract, including my older daughter having to endure some medical issues that were only partially covered by our insurance.  Because those medical issues were complicated, and because my daughter needed some assistance, my wife was unable to go back to work, and we had accepted the position in Chicago based on a budget with her having some part-time income.  We adjusted, we made some sacrifices, and we got my daughter past all the medical problems.  It all turned out fine, but we were counting on the promised salary increase in contract number two.

But the networked reneged on those promises because that increase never came.  To be fair, the network did fulfill some provisions of my contract; for example, the managers had to let me know in writing that they intended to renew me within 90 days of the contract’s expiration.  I received that notification, so I didn’t have to worry that an offer was forthcoming.  But my contract date came and went, and none of the managers communicated an offer to me or to my agent at the time.  I ended up working three months past my contract, and thus without any protection, before I received an offer.  When I did receive an offer it was only for a cost-of-living raise, not what had been promised three years prior.  Looking back through the prism of the deep recession that was only beginning to arrive, I probably should have been grateful.  But given what we had gone through as a family, that was tough news to hear.  That said, I accepted that second contract, and set about trying to make myself as indispensible and valuable to the network as possible so that we would do better in the third contract.  My family was on the right track, and now we had this triumph to present when we actually talked with the network about a contract extension.

But closing in on 3 hours since the radio stations had started calling, our network’s media relations director still hadn’t returned my call to give me the permission to go on the radio stations.  That seemed to fly in the face of what most networks do when one of their people breaks a big story.  It should have been my first hint that things were starting to go haywire.

After both Chicago sports radio stations and one national show had called me again, I tried the media relations director again and this time I got through.  “Josh,” he told me.  “Just hang on.  We’re working through a few issues about the story.”

I said, “What kind of issues?  I’ve got this story right, don’t I?  Are the Blackhawks denying it?”

“No, they aren’t denying it” he said.  “But there are some things that they aren’t happy about.”

At this point, I should disclose that our network was owned in percentages by the teams whose games we broadcast – the Blackhawks, the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, and Chicago’s two baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox.  By definition, there was always the potential for some conflict between a journalistic enterprise, like ours, that reports on its owners as part of its regular practice.  The complexities of this conflict are enough to be the subject of an entire book, or at the very least, the subject of a course in sports journalism and sports business ethics.  But in our newsroom, as a rule, we were encouraged by our managers to go get information and get it right, because it was important to break stories and our own teams would expect it of us.  The only rules to that end were that we were to make sure we had at least two solid sources, like all good journalists, and to not to take unfair or unreasonable verbal or written shots at anyone associated with any of our teams without sufficient evidence to support it.  I felt pretty confident that given what I had reported verbally, and given what I had written, that I had operated within those parameters.

With my reporting skills, I would learn much later about the course of events that was still in the process of playing out at our studios.  Going back to the previous night, as I was gathering the evidence and information about the story we were breaking, I had been in touch with our show producer and my good friend John Schippman, who as the most veteran producer in the building was acting as executive producer, meaning he oversaw all the information coming into the newsroom.  John also organized the way we would present it – what information we would use and what distribution platforms, including television and website, would contain that information.   John was and is an extremely talented producer, but at that time he was not officially considered management.

None of our actual managers were present as I was breaking the story.  Charlie Schumacher, who was 9 months into his first stint as a news director at any station anywhere, was home for the night.  Our Executive Producer, Lissa Christman, was on vacation.  Our Assistant News Director, Kevin Cross, who would normally be in the office at that time of night, was absent for some reason (I don’t recall the specifics, but I do recall that it was legitimate).  I assumed, wrongly on my part and probably unfairly on my part, that while I was news-gathering to break the story, someone in the newsroom had been in contact with someone from management.  That said, producers usually had clearance to clear stories, and I was very consistent about making sure that all my written stories were first previewed by someone in authority.

Additionally, the blog I had written was also supposed to be vetted by someone in management.  The process was that I would submit my article to one of our webmasters.  The webmaster was then supposed to turn the article over to our media relations director.  The webmaster on duty that night was a very sweet 22-year-old woman named Katie, who had practically been my personal assistant through the Blackhawks’ playoff run because of how frequently I had been updating the blog.  In the course of that two or three month stretch of time, she maybe had to alter 3 or 4 minor items, like typos, over what must have been 30 blogs.  Katie stayed up late that night, waiting for me to finish writing.  When I sent her the blog, it was past 2 in the morning.  Not wanting to wake anyone up at that hour, but also wanting to make sure the blog was on the website as promptly as possible, she posted the blog immediately, without first having it proofed by management.

So at 6:30 in the morning, our General Sales Manager, Phil Bedella, a man with a great head for business but a frigid heart for all things artistic, journalistic and humanistic, found the blog on the internet, and for some reason there was something in it that he found objectionable.  Bedella had several options available to him at that point.  He could have let it be and waited until he arrived at the studios to discuss his objections with our news people.  He could have called one of our webmasters and asked to have the blog taken down until we could discuss his objections.  He could have called me personally and asked me to rewrite it or edit out what he found objectionable.  But Phil Bedella was the man who controlled our network’s budgets.  And with my contract six months away, what Phil Bedella did was to send the blog directly to an executive at the Blackhawks with a note that essentially said, “We just reported something on our website that you won’t like”.   That said, the blog stayed on our network’s website for another three hours or so before it was pulled.  The fact that it was pulled became a conversation topic in the blogosphere by people who had witnessed it (and some who had saved and reposted it) before it was pulled.

I’m still not sure what the team found objectionable in the blog, and neither did most of the people who commented about it after it was pulled.  After thousands of readings, I still consider the blog to be centrist and balanced.  At one point, some weeks later, one of the Blackhawks’ executives told me that he felt that in the blog I took a pretty good shot at an individual in the team’s front office.  Yet while I was critical of the ham-handed way in which the team handled the situation, and while I disagreed with the move on its face, I also wrote that the logic behind their decision was sound and understandable.  And to the point that I had taken any individuals to task, I had not named any names.  In fact, you would have had to know very intimate details of the situation – the way only a team insider could — to know that I was taking a certain individual to task.

Whatever happened in the meetings at the studios between my managers and the team, whatever was discussed over the phone and at what volume over the next several hours, all I know is that in the end I was not allowed to go on the radio to continue the story.  None of my managers, nor anyone on the business side of my network, had the courage to tell me this to my face.  They left that task to our assignment editors – the blue collar guys who handle distributing the assignments to the reporting staff for the day.  So that editor, my good friend Joe Collins, told me that not only could I not be on the radio, but my assignment was that I would have to cover the Blackhawks’ press conference introducing the new general manager.

Of course, I went ballistic.  By management’s logic, I had caused enough problems so that I couldn’t go on radio stations to talk about winning the story, how it had developed, how I got the break, or to promote my station or myself, but I was still okay to cover the next step of the story.  And given that I’d been told the Blackhawks were upset, I was concerned that when I went to the press conference, I would be walking into an ambush.  I insisted on talking to Charlie Schumacher, my news director, before I went out to my assignment.

Our discussion was animated, and, after spending the morning being chewed out by his boss, our General Manager, Jim Corno, Charlie was clearly and understandably agitated.  In retrospect, the discussion was pretty interesting, and would also make a great case for a journalism ethics class.  Charlie started out advancing the point he had been hearing all morning – from the business perspective.  The position was essentially that in breaking a story about one of our business partners, and writing about it critically (though honestly and fairly), I had abused my access to the team and violated aspects of the partnership between the team and the network.  What was interesting was that as I argued the journalist’s perspective, illustrating point by point how I had only used access to provide perspective, and that even where I was critical I had refrained from taking unfair shots or writing unsubstantiated rumors, Charlie listened to his newsman instincts and agreed with me on a large majority of those points.

The part where we disagreed most was about whose responsibility it was to have the story vetted.  I told him that I had followed all the proper procedures that we had in place.  I’d double-sourced the story.  I’d cleared it with the managers on duty.  And I’d sent my blog to the webmaster, who was supposed to vet before posting.  We agreed to disagree on this point, as Charlie indicated I should have been more cautious.  And we agreed to agree that we should put better structures in place in the future for these kinds of breaking stories which involved our business partners.  I was far from completely mollified about the way things had gone down, but I felt okay enough about my newsroom and proud enough about the story to go to the press conference, though I had plenty of trepidation about how members of the team’s front office would react when I showed up.

Much to my surprise and relief, the Blackhawks’ front office personnel were all terrific.  Every single one said hello, shook my hand and treated me with the same respect and professionalism that they had for the previous four years in which I’d covered the team.  I couldn’t have told you then which of them had been upset by the blog or by the reporting, or which ones knew I had even written a blog or broken the story.  The actions of the involved personnel, from the team and the network, indicate a lot about their characters as well.

After the press conference, part of my job was to interview both Bowman, the team’s new General Manager and the Team President, John McDonough.  After I interviewed McDonough on camera and for the record, I asked him if we could have a private moment to chat.  He said sure, and asked my photographer if he would leave us for a few minutes.  McDonough and I had a very pleasant, very private conversation in which he expressed some disappointment not that I had broken the story, but in what I had written.  I defended it on the grounds that what I had observed over the course of the season – and wrote about in the column – added much-needed context to the story.  I said that from my point of view it removed a lot of ambiguity about why the team had made the move, and that it actually did so in a way that made the team look more professional and less petty, even though that was a by-product of the story, not my personal goal in writing the story.  (He then added that if I ever wanted more context for a story to call him, just not after 10 o’clock at night.  I chuckled to myself, because journalism doesn’t work on anyone’s sleep schedule, and that after 10 o’clock was exactly when I would have needed to call him regarding that story!)  But in the end, McDonough said he understood that I was doing my job as a reporter and doing it well, that he had no problem with my actions and that he looked forward to my covering the team going forward.

It’s also worth noting that after the press conference, Charlie Schumacher distributed an e-mail to our newsroom in which he congratulated by name everyone on the team who had produced all the coverage of the story from inception to conclusion, including me.  It was the right thing to do, especially to include all of the support staff who busted their asses to make the story happen.  In the memo, he cited our hustle and thoroughness, and called it “A great day for our network”.

I had a few opportunities to interact with the hockey team over the next several days, including covering the team’s annual fan convention and doing a feature story that took viewers behind the scenes of their practice facility.  That story was part of a collection of stories by our network’s beat reporters that was later nominated for a regional Emmy Award.

I spent much of the next few weeks on vacation, both recovering from the season past, and girding up for the season ahead, which, because of the Blackhawks’ assemblage of talent, I assumed would be another long one.  On the Thursday before Labor Day, I was scheduled to anchor our midnight news and highlight show.  After our early news, I poked my head into the office of my news director, Charlie Schumacher, and said something along the lines of wanting to figure out how our schedule would work for the upcoming season.  After the midnight show, I was surprised to find him sitting in his office in the wee hours of the morning, still working.  Charlie asked me to come into his office and have a seat.

He said, “You have a contract coming up in February, and I wanted to let you know that we are not going to renew that contract.  We’ll honor the rest of the contract and if you should get a job in the meantime we’ll let you go within reason.”  That last part was meant to sound gracious, but it just meant they would only get in the way if I went to a direct competitor in Chicago.   It did not mean that I was free to leave and to continue to be paid while my contract finished its length of term.  If the network had fired me, they would have been obligated to pay me while I sat on the sidelines.

When I asked him why my contract wasn’t being renewed, Charlie told me he had been concerned about my sourcing in the Blackhawks’ story (even though everything I reported had been proven dead solid, and two of our other reporters had since gone on the air with stories that were blatantly factually incorrect), that he was concerned about how I would cover future controversial Blackhawks’ stories, and that he was unhappy about some of my recent performance.  When I pressed him for examples on the last point, since it was the first time I had heard about it, he cited two specious occasions: one in which I didn’t correct a co-anchor’s mistake on the air (which would have been very bad newsroom politics), and another which had happened over 10 months prior.  Ten months, and yet he was telling me now for the first time.  I was pissed, and I knew he was lying. Charlie did allow me to take the next day off.

The next couple of months went by in a blur.  I was confused, and a little sad, but also relieved.  My wife was a mess.  I talked to several people in the Blackhawks’ organization to make sure that they hadn’t forced the decision, because even if they believed I had made some transgression, given the amount I had given to the team over the 4 years prior – a record which included Emmy-nominated stories and coverage, as well as writing a book about the team for their charities – I couldn’t understand how that transgression could lead to my losing my job.

There was a telling moment when I talked again with McDonough, the team President, roughly a week after I got the news.  He said, “I fail to see how this is a Chicago Blackhawks’ problem.”  Separately he said, “We have our staff in place, but if you need a recommendation to work for another team or to cover another team, or to work for another television station here in Chicago we would be happy to speak to them about you and we would speak in superlatives and only in the positive.”  Much, much later in the process, after I knew the direction my search was taking me, I again summoned the courage to reach out to some members of the team’s front office staff.  On at least four occasions, in discussions with four separate team officials, each one reiterated that once the initial shock of my getting the story had worn off, they understood I was just doing my job and doing it well.  They had no problems with my reporting.   They said in no uncertain terms that they had not asked the network to relieve me of my job and that they were disappointed that I wasn’t asked to return.

And so, in short, the conclusion I reached is that I was let go simply because I made too much money for what the managers at my network had budgeted for the slot.  As I write this, more than ten months after I was told I was not going to be renewed, the network still hadn’t replaced me on its on-air staff roster, though someone else had taken over the Blackhawks’ beat.  That’s the prerogative of any network, or any business, to make sound financial decisions.  Ultimately the managers at such a network have to determine what is the best business move for them.  But they never told me that was the reason I was being released.  If they had told me, while I would have been upset, at least I could have understood the math.  Those kinds of decisions are being made at television stations all across the country.  The local television news industry is an industry that is on life-support, and anchors and reporters will never again

Instead, the network did something truly despicable.  They called my ethics into question, and they let me hang on the implication that I had been irresponsible professionally.  At one point, in an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the writer of the article quoted Charlie Schumacher saying, “I had trouble with Josh’s sourcing on this story.”

This also led me to believe that the solid relationships I had built with the team I had covered had been poisoned, and that denied me access to what could have been a landing place, or at the very least an excellent resource as I looked for more opportunities.

That was a very difficult thing to go through emotionally.

In fact, it was one of many things that were difficult to go through emotionally.  For starters, I couldn’t just walk out.  I had five months left on my contract and I needed to have that income while I looked for something new.  (And as an aside, it is very unusual in television for a station to tell you that you are out and yet keep you on the air.  More often than not, the station will pay you to stay home for the rest of your contract, but will enforce all the no-compete clauses in your contract).   So I still had to go back into that workplace every day, watching someone else take over what had been my beat, and on a daily basis encounter the people who were presiding over my figurative execution.  I probably did years of damage to my psyche by staying, but it was either that or become financially bankrupt.

But that was nothing compared to the damage that reigned on my hopes and dreams.  I had built a career of nearly 20 years, from a dream that had existed at least 15 years longer than that.  I had never pictured myself doing anything else.  I had carved out an identity, and loathe as I am to admit it, that identity was personal as well as professional.  Suddenly, the arc of that career, and of my identity, was gone.  With a family depending upon me and my income, I had to figure out not only where we would be earning money and the effect of the temporary loss of income on short-term and long-term plans, but also other large-scale questions as well: Who was I in the working world?  Did something about me, or the way I am in the workplace, cause this to happen?  And now that I had reached the end of this path, what would the rest of my life look like?

But why is any of this important to you?  Given the depth of the recession we are still climbing out of, you probably know someone who experienced something similar to what I went through.  Maybe something similar happened to you personally.  My story, while it took place in the public eye and with the soft-core sex appeal of sports and big city media as a backdrop, is without question less important to you than is the story that touched you personally, as it should be.  My story illustrates that people lose jobs for all kinds of reasons that are unfair, or out of their control, or just plain wrong.  And yeah, it sucks out loud.  The process of losing that job in that manner is not only deflating, but it can also be paralyzing, especially for someone who considers himself to have been a productive, industrious and loyal employee.

The positive for me is that by being denied access to so many things I had worked for forced me to look at my skills, my goals and my opportunities in a completely new light.  From that experience, as difficult as it often was, I learned that I didn’t have to be limited to being a television journalist, nor did I have to be limited to talking about hockey.  I discovered that I could present my talents in a different way that could bring value to another company, in another industry, in a completely new kind of role.  I found out that I didn’t have to suffer through the frustrations of seeing my old childhood dream not quite live up to my imagined expectations, and that I could create a new dream more appropriate for my current self.

The goal of the book I have written is to help you others get past the clouded uncertainty of a mid-life career shift so those people can see the way out to a brighter future.  It won’t be like following a recipe, where one can measure the exact amount of ingredients one needs and the perfect amount of cooking time to prepare the savory meal of the new career.  But there are a few steps that are necessary to follow in general, and we can play with the measurements to fit personal tastes and inclinations, in order to get everyone into the right frame of mind to succeed.   Perhaps my followers (and your contacts) will even succeed beyond the limits of their wildest imaginations, in a role or in a place where they never imagined they’d find success.

A final thought before launching the larger story:  When I was starting the process of going through my own job search, tons of people tried to pick up my spirits by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.”  I don’t quite buy that.  What I would say to them then, and what I still believe now, is that we are responsible not for finding that reason, but for creating it.  When one has a break in the continuum of life, one receives the chance to assess his set of skills and learn new and exciting ways to apply them.  He has the chance to redefine himself by learning new skills and launching new goals.  He can look at r\his current job situation as an opportunity – an opportunity to launch new dreams, an opportunity to network with new people, an opportunity to have a better, more satisfying professional life, and an opportunity to become a different person with new ways in which to define success.


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The Original Blog

Hey, guys.  First of all, thanks for the unbelievable amount of reads and responses to the “Breaking the Silence” blog, both positive and negative.  My special thanks to Sam at secondcityhockey.com and the Committed Indian, and to RK at Indianheadnation for the publicity.  You are all great fans.

 Let me also add this: A number of you have jumped to conclusions about who did what, who I think is to blame, who the bad guys are, etc.  Don’t.  You’ll be surprised, and a lot of good people are being unfairly criticized in the comment space.  As soon as I can share the whole story, I will.

A number of you have criticized me for being a tease, or for doing this because I need affirmation.  Hey, I get why you feel that way.  And I need validation as much of the next guy!  But as I wrote at the top of that blog, this is part of a much larger project that I’m working on (one that only tangientally has to deal with the Blackhawks but which I think you’ll find interesting), and I admit that I am trying to generate publisher interest in that project.  I’m following the advice of someone in publishing, who says I can submit more soon.  Thanks for your patience.

In reading this, a number of you have asked to see the original blog that I wrote on July 14, 2009, that many of you believed led to my not getting renewed.  Well, you’ll have to wait for the rest of the story to find out if that’s the case, but in the meantime, even though it isn’t totally relevant to the outcome, here’s the original blog, unedited even from some of the things I would rewrite or tone down if I had the chance to do it again.  I’m not blameless to be sure, and I understand some of the things that upset the Blackhawks and Comcast Sportsnet.  But I absolutely stand by the story, my sourcing and my observations from several seasons covering the team. 

Thanks again for being such passionate fans of hockey and the Blackhawks, and for taking the time to consider some of the things on my mind.

July 14, 2009

Late Monday night sources told me the Blackhawks had fired Dale Tallon as GM and replaced him with Assistant GM Stan Bowman. With Rick Dudley already gone to Atlanta this off-season, it means that the Blackhawks have turned over virtually their entire front office since John McDonough came in as president, with Bowman being the lone exception.

First, some thoughts about Bowman. Stan is a very sharp guy. Though his background is the financial side, rather than the player/scouting side, he’s been around hockey all his life. (He was named after the Stanley Cup for Pete’s sake!) He’s been involved in the decisions about on-ice personnel since I’ve been around the team. With Stan, the club is in good hands going forward.

But how Stan ascends to the general manager’s position, and how it became available in the first place, betrays big political maneuverings in the front office. Those kinds of things are never healthy — not when those conflicts are ongoing, and in the end they aren’t healthy for those who survive the conflict. These kinds of manifestations of petty jealousies are worrisome for a franchise that has had so much going in the right direction.

To the outside world, it appears that the Hawks fired Dale Tallon because he cost them money when the organization bungled the distribution of the RFA offers two weeks ago. But it likely isn’t so. First of all, the agents and players I talked to disputed the notion that the Hawks lost money in the mistake. Every one of them doubted that the players would have automatically become Unrestricted Free Agents even if the Players’ Association won their grievance, which was a questionable proposition. Second, it isn’t clear that Tallon was the one who made the mistakes, even though he took the blame for it last week. There’s even a published report from Sunday’s Boston Globe by the esteemed veteran hockey writer Kevin Paul Dupont that cites a source saying that Tallon wasn’t to blame for the RFA mistakes, but that McDonough himself had a hand in delaying the contracts.

So there are clearly two stories here. The first claims Tallon made the mistakes. That story leaked to TSN at night on July 3rd, three days after the contracts were late. The question is why then? And who released it? I raised those questions at the time, and in my last blog you’ll note that one of the possibilities I suggested was that “It could be someone within the organization who has his eyes on the GM job, or who wants someone different in the GM job. All I can say here is that I hope not. But I think it’s a plausible scenario.” With the clarity of a little time and a few more developments, it looks to me like this is the scenario that allowed the contract snafu to reach the public.

The second story is the one that reached the Boston Globe, and in retrospect it looks like the defense put out by Tallon’s supporters. Why, then, did Tallon himself accept the responsibility? In part he did it because Tallon plays by old school rules of war and hockey and other sports — the man in charge takes the bullet because ultimately all the responsibilities are his responsibilities. And in part he did it because he knew that once that RFA story hit the streets, he was a goner.

We may never know the truth of what happened in regards to the RFA story. I highly doubt John McDonough had anything to do with delaying the contracts himself. For one, it’s bad public relations, and McDonough doesn’t stand for that. For another, McDonough is about mending fences not creating rifts. For a third, I think such a move would be beneath him. Let’s not forget, it was McDonough who made sure the team went to Dale’s father’s funeral as a team after a game in Toronto. John doesn’t fight dirty in his own house.

But could someone else, have intentionally held up those contracts, knowing it would make Dale look bad and cause the kind of negative publicity that McDonough detests? Last blog I said that though I hoped not, it was plausible, and I think so again here (Though for the record, I’m not referring to Stan Bowman. This isn’t how he operates. Nor am I trying to out the person here. It really isn’t relevant to the larger point).

And so I think this points to the real reason Dale was let go. There was a deep divide in the front office about many things. Certain player signings. Certain contract agreements. Direction about styles of play and which players fit those styles of play. During the playoffs, there were even some front office people who weren’t thrilled to see the Hawks advance as far as they did because that made it tougher to move Dale out.

Dale was not a perfect GM, but I liked him. Perhaps there were some contract negotiations that could have gone better. Perhaps there are managers with more natural intellectual talents. But Tallon certainly knew hockey up and down. He made more good trades than bad trades. He signed and drafted more good players than bad ones (though by less of a margin than his trading record). And he was a great guy to deal with — courteous to the media, gracious in returning phone calls and texts, and lightning quick with a one-liner.

But I liked him most because he loved his team — the organization as well as the individual players — with every ounce of his being. He churned as much about winning and losing when the team had a 66 point season, as he did when they were three wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals. There’s something to be said about having a guy at the top of the organization who allows his passion to burn so visibly rather than keeping it close to his vest.

We’ll find out over the coming months if the Hawks actually improved on Monday night. It’s very possible they did. But the days of innocence and wonder are over. The Hawks paid a price in blood and soul. They have to win, then hope the price they paid to do so was worth it.

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Breaking the Silence

This is a little different than the main theme of this blog, but again is part of something larger I’m working on, and it includes a little bit more background on the specifics of how and why I ended up outside sports journalism and in education leadership (That’s a good thing).

But I think it’s the right time to share some of this.  Let me know if you want to hear more.

The afternoon of July 13, 2009, should have been a quiet one, especially for sports fans in Chicago.  It was a Monday, and the first day of baseball’s annual All-Star break, one of the very few days of the year in which there are no major professional sports games scheduled.  For me, it was the first day of a 4-day mini-vacation, one which I felt I’d earned after working more or less for three months straight for Comcast Sportsnet, a regional sports television network based in Chicago, primarily as the beat reporter and studio host assigned to follow the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team.  But the day turned out to be anything but quiet.

I was having an alfresco lunch with a friend at an outdoor neighborhood café not far from Wrigley Field, when my Blackberry buzzed.  One of the producers from our network said he had just read an Internet report saying that the Blackhawks – the NHL hockey team I covered – was about to fire their General Manager.  Did I know anything about it?

By way of brief background, the Blackhawks had just completed a wonderful rebirth, having reached hockey’s semifinals in late May, after being one of the worst teams and most dysfunctional organizations in sports for the previous decade.  The General Manager, Dale Tallon, was an astute judge of talent and a popular, engaging personality.  He had engineered much of that turnaround when he took over as the General Manager in 2005, after previously spending a long time in the organization in lesser or different roles.  But there had been rumblings that he and other members of the team’s front office were having trouble getting along.  And a week prior someone in the front office had made a clerical error in re-signing some of the team’s players, which the team claimed cost them several million dollars. Tallon acknowledged the mistake publicly and took responsibility, but in reporting on the subject I discovered that the error was not his, but that he took the fall to protect an underling.  Through the implications of several industry contacts, I was also able to speculate (essentially, to report without attribution) that the error was not nearly as financially costly as the team was attempting to portray.  Because of all of that, there had been inside gossip that the Blackhawks might fire Tallon, and so yes, I told my producer, I did know quite a bit about it.

Also by way of background, responding to my producer’s text, even while I was on vacation after a long, consecutive stretch of work is typical in my business and what a good reporter has to do.  I knew this subject better than anyone else at my network.  I had connections and sources that would eventually be able to get me some answers, or some context, or would say something in a way that I would recognize as out-of-character and that would cause my ears to perk up, leaving me to chase after the threads of a story.  So though I had been looking forward to this day off for a long time, and though I was a little skeptical of the internet rumor because the story had been floating about for some time, I returned the call, told my producers I would put feelers out, and then excused myself from lunch to plug into my network of contacts.  I plugged in, reached out, and then went on with the rest of my vacation while I waited for the responses to come back in.

Several hours later, after the wheel of evening news had spun into the nighttime hours, I was picnicking on the lawn at a crowded concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s beautiful Millennium Park, when I touched base with my producer to tell him that I hadn’t heard anything from my sources either way.  He said that the story had not advanced from the rumor page and that he was getting ready to produce our 10 o’clock shows, but he asked if I would check with my sources again to see if there was any update to the story.

I left the concert and as I was walking out of the pavilion, I went back to my contact list for another try, this time expanding my outreach to contacts slightly wider than my circle of closest confidants and inside sources.  That decision allowed me to make an additional seven or eight phone calls to people with outside connections, instead of the three or four on the inside who might have reason to stay quiet because they were keeping a story secret.  Two of the seven or eight people in this secondary circle of contacts actually picked up the phone.  The first said that he thought this was just the old rumors gaining steam again on a quiet sports day, which was the main track playing in my head when I started through my contact list hours earlier.  But the second person said that while he didn’t have any hard evidence, discussions within the team, as he knew it, had moved again in the direction of firing Tallon as the Blackhawks’ general manager.

With that quasi-story, I felt like I could go back to my top inside contacts for reaction.  Often, in these situations, the people closest to the story are the people a reporter wants to contact least and last.  They are the ones who have a plan for how to release that information, and they have a vested interest in the execution of that plan.  Usually, they will stonewall or ignore a reporter, or often lie outright, which is frustrating to a reporter, but at the same time it is understandable because those people have a lot to lose if they are found out to be the source of a leak.  But one task a reporter has in his job is to build up relationships of trust over time, which he does by handling stories fairly, being ethical in his approach and in the execution of his work, and by earning the respect of the people on whom he reports.  Fortunately, I had a few people with whom I felt I had that kind of relationship, and after several attempts to reach all of them, one finally responded by text, saying, “If that’s all you have, I can’t confirm it.”

Now, that probably sounds like a denial, or maybe it doesn’t read like there’s a story there, but I knew this person well enough to read between the lines of what he was saying.  Let’s try it again:

“If that’s all you have, I can’t confirm it.”

That person wasn’t telling me that my supposition was incorrect.  He was telling me that I needed to do more digging, and that as long as I could report the story from another source, preferably a source who had been a part of the meetings, and who had more solid information than someone outside the proceedings telling me what he’d heard about the tone of preliminary discussions, my inside contact would be willing to confirm it for me.  In other words, my contact was pre-confirming it, letting me know without saying so that the story was true, but until I found out more I couldn’t use him as a source.  What that did, however, was to give me confidence to ask questions of my other contacts differently, or more aggressively, to elicit a response that would give me the information I needed to go back to my inside source to get the confirmation.

So now I’m pacing in my living room with the phone at my ear, my wife is calling me from upstairs to come kiss the kids goodnight before bed, and my producer is buzzing in trying to get the very latest because his live show is about to start, and we’re all trying to keep track of our competition in the business, because we have to assume we aren’t the only ones working this story.  We desperately want to win this story.  But we can’t run with it yet ourselves, because even though I believe the story is true, I don’t quite have it. Yet.

By this time it’s well after the workday has ended, ten-fifteen or so, which means I’m attempting to reach people who are friendly professional contacts, but probably not actual friends, at home or on their cell phones or by text.   That’s always a little bit of a dicey proposition.  Most of these people are not responding.  I try different approaches as I leave messages – with some I’m polite and straightforward, with others more aggressive – while still not revealing what story I’m working on.  Finally, I try a playful tack with a person who might not be on the inside of this decision, but would be close enough to know it happened. “So what are you guys going to do with the new office space?” I text.  The response I get is rapid and terse, “Call me” is all it says.

I think that’s all I should share for now, but if you’re intrigued, please give a response on this site letting me know that you want to hear more.

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Why Do You Do What You Do?

In the movie “L.A. Confidential“, one of the crucial thematic moments occurs between two of the good-guy characters, played by Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce.  Pearce plays the ambitious, self-promoting, do-gooder Ed Exley who can’t grasp the importance of teamwork within a police department.  Spacey plays Jack Vincennes, a once hungry detective who consults for a television cop show, but who becomes so consumed by the glamorous culture of Los Angeles and his own celebrity status, that it corrupts him professionally and personally.  The clarity of the more pure ambitions of their respective youths has been clouded by the complexity of trying to make it in an ambiguous moral profession in a morally vacant city.  Exley asks Vincennes, “Why’d you do it?  Why’d you become a cop in the first place?”  Spacey thinks for a few minutes, then, as if stunned by the realization of what his answer is going to be, his face goes blank, then locks in on Exley as he says, “I don’t remember”.

For a lot of us, especially those of us sliding into mid-life, that’s how we arrived at our own current jobs.   We started off with dreams, or perhaps we just took a job that seemed like it might be interesting, and that was where we started.  Over the course of time we made one professional decision after another.  We may have taken a promotion to make more money, or because it was the way to “advance”, even though that money or that advancement took us away from our passion.  We may have chosen NOT to take an advancing job, because it would have forced us to move away from a home or forced our children to give up their friends, and that relegated us to a certain plateau within our company.  We may have discovered what we thought might be an interesting offshoot to explore, and then that begat another offshoot, and then another, and suddenly like Jack Vincennes we are where we are, far away from our original goal, yet we have absolutely no idea how we got here.

For some people that is a blessing.  Some people are in even better places than they could have possibly imagined, God bless them.   Their initial interests led to what might seem, to us on the outside, like phenomenal financial success or fascinating, glamorous lives.  They seem luckier than we do, and probably they are.  It’s okay to hate them a little bit.  But much as we would like to ascribe their success to fortune — because to suggest otherwise would be to admit our own frailty and failure — we have to recognize that their successes are earned.  Their choices were good ones.  In fact, there are things we should be able to learn from them.

One place to start learning is to stop focusing on others, and to ask yourself, “Why do I do what I do?”  Now, as an aside here, this is not going to be one of those blogs in which the conclusion is, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.”  I mean, the money might follow, but then again it might not.   It kind of depends what you love, and how you want to apply that love.  For example, you might love everything about lobsters.  You might love their salt-water smell and their buttery taste and the spider-like appearance of their exo-skeletons.  You might like watching them swim in whatever that bluish water is in the tank at the grocery store.  And if you grew up in a certain culture you might even like the experience of setting the traps and catching them.  The literal tenets of the proposed axiom would tell you, Forrest Gump-like, if that’s what you love then you should become a lobsterman.   We’re here to tell you that maybe you should, but then again, maybe you shouldn’t.  Because for all your passion about lobsters, if making money is your top priority, you should know – or you could take a pretty good guess – that lobstermen don’t make a whole lot of it.

Certainly, in my case, I had a job I had dreamed about since I was a little kid.  When I was 3 years old, I went to a Blackhawks’ game in Chicago and came home talking about the hockey song (the Star-Spangled Banner), and the zamboni.  I remember playing golf on vacation in Florida as a teenager, and looking at a particularly large home with one of those big screened-in pools like they have down there, and saying to my Dad, “Wouldn’t it be neat to be the broadcaster for some team down here and living in a house like that?”  (This was of course before the Marlins, Heat and Panthers all joined the South Florida sports scene).  I loved LOVED LOVED hockey – I played the game in high school and juniors and in college.  I got to work in sports television, mostly covering hockey, for more than 17 years, which was almost the entirety of my professional career.  And when all hell broke loose in my professional life, I was doing those things in my hometown; covering the team I had grown up adoring, to some acclaim from my colleagues and peers.  But when I was told I was not having my contract renewed so I could continue that job, the very first feelings that washed over me was not neither sadness nor anger.  It was relief.

See, even though I enjoyed the day-to-day applications of what I did – all of the news gathering and storytelling, my fluency in the language of my profession, and the validation I received from knowing I understood my subject matter so well – there were so many things that were wearing on me.  I didn’t enjoy being away from my family so much at nights and on weekends.  I didn’t enjoy the politics of the newsroom.  And I certainly didn’t enjoy the fact that I felt like I was living contract-to-contract, and to some degree from paycheck-to-paycheck, to the extent that it felt like if I made one little misstep, or at the whim of a business manager, I could put my entire family in jeopardy.

Now, every job has its shortcomings, even the best and most glamorous ones.  Superstars of sports and Hollywood can make tons of money, but they live almost every moment of their lives in public, and with their futures dependent on their public image.  His or her mistakes, or personal character flaws, are played out for everyone to see.  High-rolling financiers can’t ever take their eyes of the ball, even on vacation, for fear of falling behind in information and losing track of their position.  It isn’t always easy for them to just disconnect.  Corporate managers may have security, but many are waylaid by the mind-numbing tedium of their individual jobs.  We all have to deal with some kind of aggravation or discontent.  No job is perfect, even though some jobs seem more perfect than others.

And that all brings us back to the original question of this blog – why do you do what you do?  It is a question that in this circumstance can be very difficult for people to answer.  When I was going through my own job search, as I looked around the landscape I saw lots of people who were in similar situations to the one that I found myself in.  I saw neighbors, friends, parents of the children with whom my kids were friends.  These were not shiftless, lazy, feckless people.  These were not people who were unimaginative or irresponsible or incompetent.  These were people who had built their lives and banked their futures on their competence and reliability.  They might never be the rock stars of their company or their industry.  They might deviate from their path slightly, and end up focusing their experience and expertise on a specialized or related niche of their current business.  But mostly, they believed that if they showed up, worked hard and produced solid work that they would be able to use their business competency as the backbone of their future.  Instead, their respective companies snapped that backbone in half, as had mine.

How could they even begin to answer that kind of question: Why do I do what I do? Suddenly, the futures that had once lacked clarity only because of the many potential paths available for them, were no longer visible at all.  One friend of mine who had been a bit of a jogger suddenly took up serious distance running when his company blindsided him by taking away his job.  Over the course of the several months of our synched up job searches, when I asked him how things were going, not only didn’t he change his response, he couldn’t change the way he delivered his response or the perplexed expression on his face.  For SIX MONTHS!  It was always, “I don’t know.”  There was no optimism, only confusion and a lost sense of purpose.  His running may have allowed him to run away from his pain and his feeling of loss, but after six months of being unemployed, he still didn’t have anything which he could run towards.

I felt sorry for him, because it was an easy feeling to comprehend.  Think about this: over the course of our adult lives, most of us, especially men, gain identity from what we do for a living and how we contribute to society. Our jobs are almost always one of the first topics of discussion when we meet new neighbors or families, which means the question of what one does for a living is a question one has to answer often.   We therefore feel failure or shame when we can’t answer that question with any degree of pride, or if we don’t have any answer at all.  Any one of us who loses a job may now also be dependent upon a spouse for financial support and benefits.  We have to face the notion of starting over – with a new company and perhaps a new career. So when our job goes away, so too does our confidence, and a huge piece of our identity.  The good news is that it can all be overcome.

Let’s ask the question again: Why do I do what I do? There is no right or wrong answer, because the answer is personal and unique to every one of us.  In your case, it may be because you have some confidence in how well you perform your job.  It may be because it pays you the amount of money you need to get the things you desire.  It may be because it doesn’t require you to be too committed, and you can get the hell out of the office at 5 o’clock without taking any work home with you.  Those are all perfectly fine reasons, and they are all intensely personal.

In my case, I did my job because I was passionate about what I did, even if the pursuit was somewhat childlike.  I did it because I received consistent validation for being good at my job and for being knowledgeable about my subject matter.  I did it because for a long time I thought I was on the path to making serious money.

But even before my network told me they were not renewing my contract, I had felt something was amiss.  The passion, and the knowledge and the validation were not enough to reconcile the fact that I felt I needed to make more money to continue to build the life I wanted to lead and what I wanted to provide for my family.  The lack of support from my managers in covering stories made it clear to me that we had philosophical differences about what were the most important priorities of my role.  And I knew that while my job was fun, it wasn’t providing an essential service to my community.  As my contract deadline approached, I knew I needed to have more support, a more important role, or a more lucrative deal in place if I was going to continue in this job.  I had already talked to my wife about the fact that if the network didn’t come through with a big raise during our negotiations, I was going to ask them to extend the contract through the hockey season at my current pay rate, and then I would leave when it was over.  The network ended up making the decision for me in a way that brutally and unfairly tarnished the end of that part of my career, instead of allowing me to leave it cleanly with my integrity intact, as I — as all of us — deserved.

But I had already figured out what my answers were to the question – why was I doing what I was doing for a living?  And from that question I knew that if I couldn’t make more money, then I had to stop doing it, or I had to do it somewhere else where I could make more money.

Satchel Paige, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Dodgers and in the Negro Leagues once famously said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”  And he’s right, because the thing that might be gaining on you, on me, on all of us, is our history, our old dreams, and, most importantly, our old visions of ourselves.  So if you are among us struggling 40-year-olds (or thereabouts), trying to find your way to a future that sings to you, then take stock of yourself in the present.  Identify the things from your work life that matter to you today.  It is this foundational piece of information that can launch you into your much brighter tomorrow.

I did, and unlike Jack Vincennes, I have freed myself from the doomed fate dictated by my previous choices and actions.  I answered the question and changed directions.  And now the credits are rolling as I drive away with the pretty girl in the passenger seat, and a smile on my face as wide as the desert sky.

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