Saturday, December 01, 2012

My High School Reunion.

Last week, I went to my high school reunion.

It was a blast seeing all the pals from the good old days of my youth.   It was a casual affair, at the local Elks club, which used to be the post office, itself a throwback to a younger version of my hometown.    Father time was kinder to some than others, but everyone there was in great spirits as we each bounced around the room, reacquainting with all the old mates.    Where do you live?   Do you have kids?   What do you do?   It was a lot of fun and surprisingly without a hint of one-upmanship to be seen.   Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be back in the same post office together, nearly two teenage lifetimes since we'd said our goodbyes on graduation day.

Whoever said 'time flies' wasn't kidding.

We told stories from the high school glory days and laughed about all the stupid things we did when we were young and stupid.     And we talked about our lives today.  In the interest of time, most of the conversations seemed to skip the decades in between and cut right to the current chase.   Of course, I never get tired of telling my story of what I do for a living.   Short of my friend Jimmy who flies one of those F15's overhead every few days, I still think I have the coolest job around.   And who doesn't like to talk about ice cream, right?

As I drove back from my old hometown of Mansfield, Massachusetts, after the obligatory drive by the house I grew up in, I sorted through the many conversations I'd had over the course of the night.   One in particular stuck in my head.    My best friend in first grade was a kid named Franny.   He and I were inseparable back in those wonder years.   He was the precocious artist, and I was the kid who could tell time in first grade.  And of course, I was also the kid who always had ice cream in his freezer on account of his dad worked for Howard Johnson's.   Needless to say, few were surprised when I confessed I now worked in 'ice cream'.  Franny lived on the left coast for most of his adult life, so we haven't been in touch except for one time when we hung out during a business trip I took to California back in the 90's.   Turns out, he got laid off a couple years ago and had to move back.   With the job market working against him, he became truly the starving artist and was forced to relocate to his parents' house in Mansfield.   The image of him living under his parents' roof now brought it all back for me.  

That's exactly what happened to me about a decade ago.

If you're a long-time reader of the Ice Cream Diaries, you've heard this story eighteen different ways, so I'll try to keep it brief.   Around a dozen years ago, I was living quite comfortably as an engineering manager at a promising telcom start-up.   I wouldn't say I was living my dream life exactly, but it was a pretty good life nonetheless.   The money was great.   I was living in downtown Boston.  I worked a lot of hours and had a long commute, but the work environment was fun, exciting, and full of promise - the next big thing.  I had a eclectic circle of friends and made time to mountain bike, take pictures, write, and do all the other extracurricular activities I enjoy.

Then one unassuming Tuesday, the rug was literally pulled out from underneath me.   Suddenly and without a hint of warning (OK, there probably were signs, but it seems I wasn't paying attention), I was unemployed.   I remember that walk of shame like it was yesterday, box of desk trivia clutched under my arm, walking zombie-like toward the exit door, mind desperately trying to process what had just happened and how could I not have seen it coming.

Minutes later I was sitting on a beach.  I pondered who to call first as I licked my wounds like a deer hit on a country road and left for dead by a stranger in a white Buick.   What happened next was a moment that literally changed my life.    Like when the Grinch realized he hadn't actually stolen Christmas, and his heart grew out of his chest.

I made a decision.

And in that moment, I turned a devastating, humbling, ego-shattering experience into an event so empowering for me, I am still feeling its effects more than a decade later.

I decided that this was going to be the BEST thing that ever happened to me.

I took stock of my situation in the most positive terms I could muster.   I was single and didn't have a family that would go hungry in a few weeks.   In fact, I had been living below my means for most of my adult life and had a nice financial cushion to fall into, along with a decent severance and unemployment that would soon be coming my way.   I comforted my ego by reminding myself the company was failing.  It had yet to build a real product, and the first prototypes had turned out to be prohibitively expensive.  Sure, there were things I could have done differently at that job, but I did the best I could, and being laid off was probably inevitable.    This turn out to be fact when the company faded to black less than a year later.

By the end of that fateful day, I was overflowing with an energy and excitement for life I hadn't felt in years.   I could DO whatever I wanted.    I could BE whatever I wanted.   I could GO wherever I wanted.    I quickly decided I would seize that moment for the entire summer.   I had always wanted to drive cross-country.   On the way back to my apartment in Boston, I bought an jumbo road atlas at WalMart.

That summer took me to 37 states, 13 national parks, including Alaska and Hawaii.    I returned rejuvenated, refreshed, and reacquainted with many lost friends and relatives.  I also returned with countless priceless memories, thousands of photographs, three full handwritten journals, and a rough draft for a book for my little brother.   It was an amazing journey, equalled only by the three month trip to Australia and New Zealand I took two weeks after I returned from my tour of the USA.

Those truly were days of living in the moment.

I must admit, though, after almost a year of vagabonding, the thought of trading in my cubicle for an ice cream kitchen still hadn't popped into my idled mind.

No, that happened a few months after I'd returned from the other side of the planet and was living with my parents.   Yes, living with my parents.   In my 30's.   Just like my friend Franny from first grade.   That's another moment I can remember like it was yesterday.   Dad and I were sitting at the kitchen table.   We were drinking Folger's coffee and reading the Boston Globe.    He had sold his own ice cream shop just a few months before.   I don't really even know where it came from, but the next words out of my mouth were the ones that would redirect the entire course of my life.

'So what do you think about me opening my own ice cream shop?'

Hang in there Franny, everything happens for a reason.   Take it from a guy who knows.