Team Shanghai

Shanghai Office, 2018

As I walk through our US offices I cannot but wonder how my younger colleagues would react to an office environment that would have them sharing a 7’ x 7’ table with six other colleagues – not as a conference space, but as a an office.

After a week here – seated on a bench in a tiny storage space with my lap as my desk, hemmed in with boxes filled with brochures and swag – cubicles began to seem luxurious.

I will always be filled with admiration and gratitude for this team, who performed miracles in business growth and client service with a bare minimum of overhead, and yet sustained remarkably high spirits.

Sunshine Republic

Joan Didion has long since decamped to New York, but she is a native daughter of the Golden West. So unlike many Gotham-based scribes, when Ms. Didion casts her gaze upon one or another aspect of the Left Coast she brings a familiar’s clarity of nuance rather than the more pedestrian opacity of caricature set down by scornful outsiders.

Her essay “Quiet Days in Malibu” (1978) had many effects upon me all at once. It was a jog to my memories, to be sure: I was a teenager living in West Los Angeles at the time, going to summer camp above County Line beach, hanging with friends with houses along PCH, and living on the fault line of the “Local vs. Valley” surf culture that sought to claim territory gang-style along the sandy stretches of the Santa Monica Bay. She reminded me how different Malibu was then, transitioning from a long cliffside artist’s colony to a millionaire’s neighborhood, and bearing at the same time the marks of each.

Most stirring, though, was that through her description of the place and her profiles of a handful of worthy but unsung locals she allowed me to see the place in a way that I had felt but had never articulated. I had dismissed Malibu in my mind for what it has become: a West Coast Cape Cod, a retreat for the rich and famous hungry for the geographic isolation that served as a poor substitute for privacy. Didion gently removed those specs, reminding me about what I had quietly loved about Malibu in my youth. It was perhaps less the scenery, less the inspiration of rocky perches above the Pacific, than my unspoken belief that there was something inherently egalitarian in a community where rock producers, movie stars, and aerospace executives could live alongside bohemians, painters, surfers, bikers, and squatters in a kind of harmonious melange.

This was the essence of what I loved about California, what made me proud to be a Californian, and what brought me back to the California coast after decades abroad. Malibu for me was a place where your checking account was at best an amplifier for your character, but that in the end it was your character that determined your merit, not your car, your mansion, or where you grazed. It was an earthy retreat from the pervasive superficiality of Tinseltown.

I set down the essay and I stared out the window of my home, a half-hour up the coast and worlds away from Malibu, which is now a city and not just a community. Call it nostalgia or idealism if you must, but Joan Didion made me wonder if that eclectic, egalitarian Malibu might still be there under the mansions, the tourist joints, and the bougie eateries.

Perhaps I will don my t-shirt and cutoffs, climb into my pickup truck, and drive down and look for it.

(Photo: Malibu, California, early 1970s by R.L.Huffstutter)

The Stepaway

For most of my working life, I thought retirement was a dumb idea. Working was good. It gave me routine, purpose, and a paycheck. My first boss, Larry Powell, worked well into his eighties. My longtime role model, Harold Burson, worked into his nineties. My in-laws retired from the military in their sixties but kept working well into their seventies. All of them stayed lucid, active, and healthy.

Retirement I saw as G-d’s waiting room, a long, slow wait for illness, incontinence, and an appointment with the mortician. My dad essentially retired in his early fifties, was diagnosed with dementia at 64, and died six weeks before his 69th birthday. I had seen others retire, move to Palm Springs, and go into terminal decline. The lesson as I took it was clear, and I swore that I would exit the day they carried me out feet-first.

As with many things, life happened, and my view became more nuanced. My marriage went through a mid-life crisis and, thank G-d, came out the other side. My son, our only child, started dating and went off to college. COVID hit. Burnout happened, and I didn’t even notice.

In the meantime, great things had come into my life. Our move back to the US had proven profoundly positive. My involvement in the Scouting movement became a source of fulfillment. I reconnected with my faith in a way that was more meaningful and sustainable. For the first time in my life, I had activities – avocations – outside of my working life and enjoyed them immensely. And I had begun keeping a list of things I wanted to read, write, do, make, and achieve while I still walked the Earth, and that list was beginning to fill a notebook.

Perhaps as important as all of it, I rediscovered the vocation I had always wanted and never had the resources our courage to take: scholarship.

And my family. Oh, Lord.

One night, as I was adding item #496 into my Bucket List (seriously, not hyperbole), my wife and son staged an intervention. They sat me down as if speaking to an addict. My wife told me that she knew I had been working for many years to support the family and that we were now in a position that would allow me to pursue the activities that gave me the deepest fulfillment. My son put his hand on my shoulder and, summing up, said, “dad, it’s your turn.”

I wept long into that night, overwhelmed by gratitude, humility, and pure relief. Finally, finally, I was able to face what I had been burying for a very long time. And I vowed that this new phase would be anything but a gold watch, golf, gin, and grandkids: I would step away from my career, but what I would step into would be a different kind of post-career life.

After a lot of thought, I reached out to the founders of my company. They were supportive and understanding, especially when I told them it would not be immediate but five months hence, giving the company and I adequate time to plan and adjust without causing disruption.

A load was lifted. There was no guilt, just resolve. The fifth phase of my life would begin August 1, and I was going to do it right.

That fifth phase is what I will chronicle here. Join me as I redefine the post-career life.

Great taprooms have superior beer. Superior taprooms also serve their own root beer (or a very good craft brand).

One advantage of staffing Wood Badge…

…was not having to prep and cook our own meals. These tacos were the least exotic examples of a week of incredible camp food that included savory pies in puff pastry, Philly Cheesesteaks, a final barbecue feast that would have impressed any Texan, and desserts that belonged in a patisserie rather than a camp kitchen. Teresa D. not only pulled this off, but she also offered versions of each meal that were vegetarian, vegan, and Kosher. It was one of the most demanding weeks of my life outside of work, but Teresa helped make it all better.

Happy Birthday, Dad

My father would have been 95 today. Dementia took him at 68. He never got to meet his daughter-in-law or his grandson.

Happy Birthday, dad. I miss you. We miss you.

Having your Powell’s Books shopping cart open in two different windows is G-d’s way of saying it’s time to quit goofing around and place the damned order.

You know you have eaten the right foods when you wake up Monday morning at 5am after 6 hours of sleep, push through an hour of work, make coffee for the spouse, plan the day, and knock out a 20-set weight training session without feeling too winded.

Note to self: Sunday is sushi day from now on.

How easy it is to stand in judgment of those we scant understand.

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