PS... A Column

on Things

By Paul E. Schindler Jr.
Vol. 4 No. 38

Some things are impossible to know, but it is impossible to know these things.

October 8, 2001

Layoff Special/Rae's Bonfire

I have a day job, so I need to make it clear to anyone who comes here that the opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer, my family, or your great-aunt Mathilda. Offer not valid in Wisconsin. You must enter to win.

Some Material in this column comes from anonymous incoming e-mail; such material is usually reproduced in the Arial (Sans Serif) type font to distinguish it from the original material

Table of Contents:

General News:

    • Layoff In Depth
    • Rae's Beautiful Bonfire
    • Breaking Format

General News

Layoff in Depth

I was laid off this week.

Rarely in the life of a journalist do you get to write a six-word lead. Short, sweet and to the point. And while I have often been accused of burying my leads, no one can say I did it this time.

Thank you.

I guess when you send out 200 notices about your layoff after 20 years with one company, you should expect a lot of mail, but it was still nice of you to write. So many of you wrote, and I am grateful for your kind words and warm thoughts. I meant to write everyone back; I hope I did.

I want to single out a few letters for special praise. Michael Leeds brought one of the first post-layoff smiles to my lips when he noted that he only lasted 15 years at the company (the last 11 years as president, I might add). Lee Keough's note had the subject, "Congratulations," and was the clearest exposition of why this is a good thing. Bob Evans, a division senior vice president with whom I have worked in the past, complimented me on my decision to say Auf Wiedersehen and not Goodbye. I've left the company three times before, he implied, maybe this will be just another brief detour.

Mike Azzara modestly fended off my thanks for saving my job last March (he was very enthusiastic about multimedia) by noting that no one wanted me to leave, back then.

In fact, they say they still don't want me to leave now, but it's economic reality-check time folks, and an expensive old fart on a high-cost zero-revenue product is a target. Especially one who says, "Go ahead and lay me off. I'm at the end of my career. My wife works. The house is paid for. Save the jobs of some kids." They took me at my word, and I am glad for it. I have heard several philanthropists I respect offer variations on the theme, "there is a time in your career to make money and a time for public service." This is my time for public service. I am 49; I could have another whole career the length of the one I just finished.

Many of you know I have been expecting this for some time. As far back as last June, when I was told our webcasts had not been sponsored since January, I could see the handwriting on the wall. Things accelerated when my two beloved supervisors left to start their own consulting firm in August. I soldiered on, starting new projects, innovating, looking for partners, and prodding the sales side to look for new sponsors. I felt I was making a good impression on my new boss. All to no avail, as it turns out.

Friday the 28th, Fred Paul, my boss, mentioned, during a phone call I initiated, that he would like to meet me in the office on Tuesday Oct. 2. I had an uneasy feeling about the meeting. Over the weekend, rumors flew of large-scale layoffs at the company. Monday morning, in an effort to smoke out the topic of the meeting, I asked Fred if there was anything I should prepare or bring. "Just your keen intelligence," he said. "I always try to keep that with me," I riposted.

Tuesday, I got to the China Basin office reasonably early, completed most of my work on the webcasts, and asked Fred when he would like to talk. He said 12:15. He also said that, later in the afternoon, he wanted me to go over the operations of our CD burner. "Well," I said to myself, "he's making plans for the afternoon, so he can't be laying me off today."

In mid-morning, everyone else in the office was invited to lunch with the division president, except me. An oversight, I assumed. I asked my colleague Joy Culbertson to write back and ask if I could come to the dinner. "Sure, if he wants to," was the response.

When I walked in at 12:15, Fred asked me to close the door and said, "I'm sorry Paul, we're shutting down the webcasts and laying you off." An HR woman was brought in by telephone to deliver the detailed bad news. I got a generous severance package, which I am legally bound not to disclose, but it will ease the transition into my new career. One of the rules is I can't freelance for the company, which is fine, since I don't intend to write another piece of computer journalism as long as I live.

As my mother said to my dad for 45 years, "No point in being loyal to the company, they won't be loyal to you." That's not quite true; the company took me back twice when I left, and kept me on the payroll through two failed projects and three previous layoffs. I am grateful for the wonderful career I had, but that's over now.

It is amazing to me (but not to my amateur therapist mother or my professional therapist wife) that you can understand something intellectually, and expect it for so long, and still not be ready for it emotionally. I expected it for so long, in fact, that Marlow's first reaction was, "Well, Dad, I guess if you cry wolf long enough, eventually a wolf comes."

It was still like being hit in the gut. I didn't cry, but I considered crying. I didn't bitch, moan, whine, or complain, because none of that would do any good and wouldn't enhance my reputation. In fact, when I laid off most of staff and lost both of my web sites last March, Aaron Fischer told me there was some hesitation among management about flying me to New York to be with my staff when I told them their jobs were gone. "They were afraid you wouldn't be up to it. But everyone now concedes you were very professional and comforting and strong, and that you helped the situation," he said. I was proud of that. I was proud of the professional way I took the news last week.

I've been too depressed to eat much (Hallelejuah!) and now that I have finished cleaning and returning all the company's computer and telephone hardware, I suspect I will have more time to mope and feel sorry for myself. I shouldn't, but I will. It's just a stage I have to go through.

It's The Little Things

My biggest worry right now is about the little things. It all seems so weird. I am writing this on what used to be my old, slow, backup portable, and is now my only computer. I am looking at these words on a crummy, used 15-inch monitor, rather that the bright, beautiful, clear 17-inchers I have been using in recent years. When I went in to buy a monitor to replace the one the company provided, the dealer, who knew me, told his assistant, "He'll want one of the 17-inch models, not that reconditioned 15." I had to correct him. "Two weeks ago, I would have taken the 17. Now I have to be careful what I spend, because I don't have a job anymore."

The odds are excellent my next job will not involve working at home, that I'll have to get up and get dressed, and get my exercise and do my errands on the weekend, like everyone else. Finishing up between 7 and 10 isn't an option, usually, when you work in an office with others. And the really weird thing is this old, slow machine may be plenty fast enough for the vastly reduced range of things I'll be doing with a computer now.

What will I write in the slot for "employer?" What will I do when the health insurance runs out? Take less medicine and see the doctor less, I imagine. My weight loss program is going well, and lower weight should cure most of the chronic conditions that have me popping pills now.

It's just odd, that's all, and there's an empty place where my professional self-esteem used to be.

Some Other Thoughts

You may think it a little precious that I insist I was laid off. I know I used to think there was no difference between laid off and fired, and as a journalist, I perceived the first term to be cant and the second to be good, clear, Anglo-Saxon English.

I should have learned my lesson back in college, when I used the word "malfeasance" in reference to some activities by a campus patrolman. The MIT attorney called me in and suggested an immediate correction. Misfeasance meant that guy did something wrong. Malfeasance meant he did something wrong with bad intent. There is a substantial and libelous difference between the two.

The same goes, as it turns out, for laid off and fired. Fired is for cause; moral turpitude, poor performance, sex with the boss's wife (or husband), that sort of thing. Impeachment is firing the president. Laid off, on the other hand, suggests economic forces beyond the control of the individual--the corporation would like you to believe the forces are beyond the control of the company, too, although they rarely are. Still, everyone above me in the hierarchy at my company was quite explicit: nothing personal. Its just business (isn't that what they used to say in The Godfather before they whacked someone?). Your work was fine, but your product was losing money, and there are no jobs anywhere else in the company. Sad but true. In fact, there are no other jobs in the industry, which is why I am looking for another line of work.

Not The First Time

Would that this were the first time I had been laid off or fired. No, I have quite a record:

  • 1969: For eight weeks in the summer of 1969, I was a talk show host at KLIQ and KLIQ-FM in Portland, Oregon. It was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was also a rock and roll DJ and chief engineer at KVAN, Vancouver, but that's another story, and I quit voluntarily there. I was making $5 an hour, $20 per show at both stations. I was Gene Paul at KLIQ and Paul St. John at KVAN. Anyway, the weekend of Neal Armstrong's lunar landing, two events occurred that ended my career as a talk show host. First, there was a consulting engineer looking at the transmitter. I got in his way, and this irritated him, an irritation he shared with station owner Dave Jack (beware people with two first names!). Secondly, my shift coincided with the actual moment that Armstrong set foot on the moon. Although we had ABC radio coverage available, Mr. Jack, the station owner, wanted to counter-program. We were, indeed, the only station in Portland--perhaps the only radio station in the world--with a network affiliation that did NOT carry Armstrong's landing live. In four hours, I got three calls, one from my mother, one from my brother, and one from someone whose voice I didn't recognize. Of course, Mr. Jack was listening--it was the first show of mine to which he listened. A letter arrived Wednesday: "Because of schedule changes, your services will no longer be required, effective immediately." I listened in the next Sunday to hear what the schedule change involved. It involved someone else doing my four-hour talk show. I had been fired by letter. It wouldn't be the last time.
  • 1974: I graduated in June, and spent the summer working in the production shop of The Tech, the MIT student newspaper. In August, I started applying for jobs. The summer intern at AP Boston, a Harvard man, quit early to sail around the world or something, so I started the first week of August--the week Nixon resigned. I spent my first week polling the Massachusetts congressional delegation on their votes for impeachment. All the stories became moot when he resigned on Friday. A month later, Boston began school busing for desegregation. It was an interesting fall. I stayed on through December, but then the AP's editor, Wes Gallagher, sent out a memo that there would be a 10% cutback throughout the system. In the Boston Bureau, 10% amounted to all of me and half of Guy Darst. I was betting it would be hard for them to lay off half of him. Still I was surprised by the way James M. Ragsdale, Chief of Bureau, chose to lay me off. It was mid-December; he, like most sentient executives, was planning on taking vacation the last two weeks of the year. Every Friday night, he posted schedules. This particular Friday, he posted the schedule for the last two weeks, dropped some letters in people's boxes and left. I was busy on the four to midnight, and besides, if he'd had a letter for me, he'd have dropped it at the desk, right? Wrong. When John Steed came in at midnight, he found a snippy note, with carbons to the world, criticizing his performance. He called Ragsdale at home, at midnight, to chew him out. I turned around and noticed a note in my box. It read, "Dear Newsman Schindler, I have some not unexpected bad news for you. Your position in the Boston bureau is terminated effective with the close of business Dec. 28." Dick Haynes took me to the bar downstairs and bought me my first two Manhattans. I could barely walk out to the cab.
  • 1989: After 12 years, on and off at the company, I had taken a leave of absence to do childcare while Vicki prepared for her MFCC degree. During the leave, Sam Whitmore convinced me to leave InformationWeek to become a senior technical analyst at PC Week, for a $20,000 raise. For six months I was a weekly columnist, then for eight months I ran the Application Digest page. At Comdex 1989, Jennifer DeJong and I were in our swimsuits in a spa as the time for the staff meeting approached. We saw Sam coming and ducked underwater. When we came up, he was waiting for us. I always wondered if this was a factor in what happened, but probably it was the calculation by Claude the publisher that the newspaper would have to be 20% smaller in 1990 because of a computer industry recession. In any case, there were rumors about Julie and Jim in the San Mateo office being laid off. They called me the Thursday after Comdex about a meeting the next day with Sam. "They can't be laying you off," I said, "I've been invited to that meeting, and we know they're not laying me off." Sam laid me off. They give me quite decent severance, and Jerry Colonna took me back at my old salary.

As I say, nothing new.

Most of you saw my goodbye notes; I want to print one here that I have saved for years because it is the best I have ever received. It was sent by Dave Sims on Feb. 26, 1999, to 37 people who worked for my division at that time. With my departure, none of them are left. He entitled it, "It's All A Dream We Dreamed One Afternoon."

Thanks, I had a great time. Great opportunities and experiences, clever people, and more fun than a person should get paid to have. I'll never forget.
Some of you may have heard me drone on about The Hollywood Model, how I believe we're in an industry where people who know each other by reputation and experience come together for projects that last a year or two, then move on to new ones, destined to hook up again when opportunity allows. Believing that -- that some of us will surely work together again -- makes leaving just a bit easier.
Until then, good luck.
-- Dave

Rae's Beautiful Bonfire

What's the difference between a bonfire and a fire? According to

A large fire built outdoors, as for signaling or in celebration of an event.

Rae had a bonfire this week, on her 17th birthday, on Oct. 5, at San Francisco's Ocean Beach, right where Sloat meets The Great Highway, with two of her friends. They told stories, ate Smores, and a good time was had by all, except maybe Vicki and me, since we had to wait in the car. But actually, I love the ocean, and so does Vicki, so even that wasn't too bad.

We dined that night at Cha-Cha-Cha, a Cuban Tapas restaurant on Haight Street, not far from Ashbury, just across the street from Golden Gate Park. Excellent food, loud music, funky voodoo altars everywhere. Two stars for food, five stars for the low prices, four stars for ambience, but sit at the bar if you want to talk to the person next to you.

Breaking Format

One of the things a journalist has to know is when to stay in format and when to break it. Those of you who are sensitive to such things will notice that I have broken format profoundly this week. Those same people will know that one breaks format in order to emphasize how special an event is. This was a difficult decision: I have a very good letter from Larry King, as well as a top 15 list that I made this week. But the job of an editor is to choose what to put in and what to leave out. By the time I had said everything I wished to say about this week's layoff event, there was just no room for anything else. We'll be back to the normal mix of this and that next week, and with two weeks of backed up material, and no job to distract me, I'm sure it will be a super column, in terms of both length and content.

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