Saturday, December 10, 2016
Fleeing Babylon (Parts IX–XIII)
This is a personal essay I wrote about ten years ago, just after leaving Church magazines and starting my current job at BYU Studies. It details a bit of my rather unusual career, which has been shaped by an idea I’ve written about before, the “organizational imperative.” This is the third of four segments.
I get to know Kirk Hart, a white-haired, slightly ostentatious scholar who wears a samurai headband when he drives his red Alfa Romeo convertible. One day I tell him his book has rescued me at a fundamental level. It enabled me to see my enemy and to preserve the inner core of my being. He merely says, “You have no idea how many students have told me that.” So I am not as alone as I have thought.
In 1987, the dean asks me if I will take over as editor of Exchange, the Marriott School’s alumni magazine. I know nothing about editing, but I see this as a way of maybe making my job more permanent. I learn editing on the fly, through the corrections of Byron Bronk, a talented copy editor at University Publications. I split my time between teaching and editing.
The next year, the dean puts me on an administrative contract and makes me the school’s director of publications. I am now producing marketing brochures, faculty directories, and various printed odds and ends. I am still teaching a class or two, but I am also working directly with the dean’s office. This gives me the misperception that the job might turn into something longer term. After two years, the university employment office informs the dean that my position does not exist. “Of course it does,” I say to myself. “I’m in it.” But it is not an approved university position. I have been living on what they call “soft money.” After nine years, my one-year contract finally ends.
In 1991, I land a job in a struggling little four-horse shop in Provo. I run the literary agency. I spend an eventful year there. I sit in on a threat to sue Stephen Covey for breach of contract. He is in tears. My boss relents, and Covey comes through with more financial support for their joint venture that largely pays the bills at our little business. I ghostwrite a book that eventually sells over a million copies. I land a contract for my own book, Economic Insanity, an effort to question the four pillars of the corporate system that won’t actually be published for four more years. I go to Manhattan and visit editors and executives in the big publishing houses. I turn down a $100,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for the book I’m ghostwriting. I wonder if I’m some sort of idiot. But on behalf of the “author” I accept a similar offer from Warner Books. I am supposed to get 20 percent of the agency’s 20 percent. I receive 10 percent. I quit on principle. Also because I can’t stand working there anymore.
I start a little business with a partner from the agency I have deserted. We name our business the funcompany and produce a hilarious organizer, which spoofs the Franklin Dayplanner. We call it the funplanner. It does relatively well in certain markets, particularly college and LDS bookstores, and several times we come close to getting our big break. The president of Follett College Stores, a consortium of 400 college bookstores, orders twenty copies to give away as Christmas gifts, but he won’t push his buyer to put them in his stores. So it goes. My wife and I joke about me being self-unemployed, but we don’t laugh. The funcompany has two mottos: “We put the fun in dysfunctional” and “We’d have more fun if we had more money.” We do earn a little cash by signing a contract to produce a peripheral product for Franklin Quest, the company whose product our funplanner is parodying. They apparently don’t see the irony. They also don’t know what to do with our peripheral product. They actually forget to include it in their catalog. Predictably, it fizzles before ever getting off the ground. But we are glad Franklin picked door number one: a hefty up-front payment with smaller royalties. If they had chosen door three, the small down payment and larger royalties, my family might have had to experiment with food stamps.
I take on free-lance editing jobs. One is a book manuscript by a retired Ford executive detailing his adventures in Grenada after the G. H. W. Bush administration recruited him to buy a rum plantation and establish capitalism on this formerly communist island. He escaped with just the shirt on his back and arrived in his native Vermont in a blizzard. Another is a manuscript by the retired president of Blockbuster Video, an Italian who came to America after earning a PhD from the Vatican University and ended up sweeping floors at McDonald’s. He worked his way up to vice president before jumping to Blockbuster. His manuscript is an attempt to wed business with the humanities. I know from personal experience how impossible this is. The manuscript is seven hundred pages long. I cut four hundred pages. It is still too long. It will never sell.
I have four kids now. My family is close to starving. Sort of. I have tried to avoid corporate America. I have largely succeeded, but my brushes with it have been invariably unpleasant. My few experiences in what my students used to call “the real world” have left me feeling more than a bit grimy.
I hear that the Marriott School is looking for a part-time editor for Exchange. I meet with Bill Siddoway, a gem of a man who is now associate dean. He hires me. Between my “fun” self-unemployment, my free-lance editing, and Exchange magazine, we survive four more years.
Eventually Bill moves on, and his replacement wants to go in a different direction that doesn’t happen to include me. Once again I bid the Marriott School farewell, this time for good. Meanwhile, the funcompany is dying a slow but not-so-painful death. Palm Pilots and other electronic gizmos are making paper planners obsolete, even funny ones. My kids are becoming teenagers. Life is expensive. I need a full-time job. A real job, as my students would say. I find one for a couple of months but get myself fired for being too outspoken about the corporate ship’s current captain, who is navigating the company into a sea of red ink.
I have an MBA. I have taught operations management for nine years. I have run an unsuccessful little company. I am also a pretty good editor. But I feel particularly unmarketable.
Only those who have been unemployed can understand the despair that comes unbidden to the heart and the feelings of worthlessness that accompany the inevitable thought that nobody needs or wants your particular set of skills and experience. Imagine, basing your sense of worth on what organizational America thinks of you. How screwed up are we as a country? I wonder if I have wasted the eighteen years since I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in German. I wonder if my long attempt to flee Babylon has merely left me unmarketable and unwanted.
Technically, I’m not really unemployed. The funcompany is still struggling to sell off the last of its inventory. But we have not printed a new funplanner for the coming year. And as the inventory dwindles, my status gradually shifts from self-unemployed to unemployed.
Four months go by. I am losing hope. Then something truly serendipitous occurs. Some would call it coincidence. I call it direct intervention. I am called to be ward executive secretary. As almost my first assignment, the bishop hands me a Church employment bulletin and asks me to post it. I look through it first, though, and see a job opening for an associate editor at Church Magazines. I remember applying years ago for an entry-level editorial job at the Ensign, but I wasn’t qualified at the time, and the pay was somewhere south of Kmart. That’s why I haven’t considered looking there. But this is not an entry-level position, and I have done a fair amount of editing in the intervening years.
I call the Church employment office. They tell me the job is closing that very day, but they ask me to fax them a résumé. The next day I get a call from Marv Gardner, managing editor of the Liahona. He wants me to come in for an interview and an editing test. Later I find out I aced the test. Not bad for a defunct business instructor who never had any official editorial training. Marv hires me before I’ve even fill out an application, which I do afterward as a formality. The pay they offer me is a pleasant surprise. It is almost double what I averaged during my years of self-unemployment. My family will certainly not starve. I also have benefits—and kids who will all need braces.
This job is a direct gift from heaven. I also see it as another fortuitous occasion to dodge Babylon, although I’m sure I would have embraced corporate America at this point had it come calling. I am too naïve to understand how naïve I am.