My First Year at Annapolis…

My oldest daughter, Elowyn, is a Sophomore this year at Buchanan High School. I had the joy this past summer of starting the journey with her deciding where she will eventually choose go to college. If you follow me on Facebook, you know I’m quite proud of Elowyn as she is an incredibly gifted artist.  I view it as important that she explore where she might best thrive with this and her other God given talents. To this end, in August, we visited California College of the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, a beautiful school nestled in the hills north of Oakland. This past week, we also attended a Christian College fair at her high school, and because of her passion for the Arts, we narrowed the choices to those schools whose Art programs are a clear emphasis.  We now plan to visit each of these and other campuses where art is also an emphasis in the coming year so she will know and thus own the choice of school she will ultimately go to.

USNA  Class of 1988 Crest  "Sibi Aequum" - latin for  "To Thine Own Self Be True"
Class of 1988 Crest
“Sibi Aequum” –
latin for
“To Thine Own Self Be True”

My own journey in selecting a college began in 1983.   My father encouraged me while I was a Junior in high school to apply to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Up to that point, I frankly hadn’t put much thought as to where I might go upon graduation. First, let me say, I consider it a great privilege and honor to represent my home town of Fresno, California in having attended Annapolis.  Just this month, many of my classmates got together for our 25 year graduation reunion.   Although I was not able to attend this reunion, I am proud to call myself a fellow ’88 Classmate and consider many of them amongst the finest people I have ever gotten the privilege to study and later serve alongside in the US Navy as commissioned officers. It is fond memories of my classmates who have been quite active on Facebook this past reunion weekend that inspired me to make my second story to be about the events that led up to and got me through my first year at Annapolis.

I received my appointment to the US Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1988 while completing my senior year at Bullard High School in 1984.   I first learned of my appointment in February when I got a call from the USNA Admissions office.  Though quite excited (and anxious) about being selected, I was also quite quite surprised.  I did have the Academics, SAT Scores, and other community activity involvement to qualify for admission, but I was absent any Varsity Sports participation, which 9 of 10 appointees have.  Because of the quality of the Academics and the fully funded nature of the Education, Annapolis is amongst the most competitive and selective schools in the nation. Each applicant must get a congressional nomination and less than 10% of applicants are ultimately appointed each year. Given this, I just presumed that being passed over for appointment was probably very likely (and deep down, at least at the time, I would not have minded that outcome).

Graduation Night -  My Bullard High School Diploma in Hand,  I'm ready for the world or so I thought...
Graduation Night –
My Bullard High School Diploma in Hand,
I’m ready for the world or so I thought…

So… when the person from the admissions office called to tell me I had been selected for appointment, I was floored.  I just hadn’t planned on this happening and was more counting on other colleges that I was awaiting to hear from.  In fact, I later received an acceptance letter from UC Berkeley,  a Navy ROTC scholarship option to USC, and acceptance to the local university, Fresno State.   Of the options I was considering, UC Berkeley was my preferred choice.   As you learned from my first story, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, was a highly desirable outcome for me.   Interestingly, living in the Bay Area is now my daughter Elowyn’s first preference after visiting CCA.  In my case, I had the dilemma of having an appointment to the Naval Academy, a place I had not visited to compete with Berkeley, a place that I had.  There had been the opportunity to visit Annapolis the summer of my junior year in High School, but because of a scheduled open heart surgery for my Dad, we couldn’t afford me to go. This made the choice to go to Annapolis one I would have to make based on faith alone without any meaningful experience with the place.  Because of this personal experience, I’m being much more purposeful today in helping Elowyn’s choice of college be HERS and not mine.

To best understand why I made the choice I did, I need to describe a bit of my Dad’s history.   Dad was from Carthage, Tennessee.   He had quit school in the 8th grade and joined the Navy in 1956 at the age of 17 because he wanted to get out of his hometown to see the world. He was a Navy sailor through and through and rose to the rank of Senior Chief Petty Officer before a heart attack forced him to retire.   I respect my Dad a great deal. He was a self-made man that I truly admired for what he was able to accomplish even though he never finished high school. [Nov. 18, 2018 Addendum: I shared the rest of my Dad’s story in Ode to GMCS Robert A. Dickerson, USN]  My Dad, conversely, had a lot of respect for those who graduated from Annapolis and so strongly encouraged my application there.   When the choice came to the Annapolis or Berkeley, the capital of the liberal world that my politically conservative father so disdained, my Dad made it pretty clear if I chose the latter, I’d be on my own.   Even if I put his influence aside, it would have been pretty hard to turn down a fully funded four year top-notch college education like Annapolis particularly knowing we were of limited means to afford me to go to UC Berkeley without a scholarship. For those reasons, despite my anxiety of not knowing fully what I was getting myself into, I made the decision to accept the appointment to the Naval Academy.

I arrived in Annapolis on July 5th 1984, a day before Induction Day.   When I stepped off the plane at Baltimore Washington International, it was a hot humid summer that day in Maryland.  The terribly oppressive humidity had me second guessing immediately if I was going to be able to handle  the climate change.  I had not been on the East Coast since I was first born in Portsmouth Virginia at the Naval Hospital and so was use the very “dry heat” I had grown accustomed to in the California Central Valley.   And it got worse… when we arrived, we were given a pre-Induction briefing about the campus and what to expect.   The person briefing us, a First Class Midshipman, shared some bad news. “Sorry, but the Air Conditioning is not working here today… “, he explained then paused for that to sink in.    He continued, “…actually it hasn’t been working for about 140 years since they opened the place.”   The subtle biting humor was a clear hint of the mind games to be played on us later that were yet to come.   On top of the climate change, the anxiety of the hazing that would follow induction made it difficult for me to sleep that first night in Annapolis.  The next morning, I woke up with eyes bloodshot.  This being noticed by those checking in the incoming Plebes, I was escorted over to the Brigade clinic for a check-up.   I remember hoping that the problem was in fact an incurable medical problem, and thus would disqualify me from attending. I guess I was looking for an honorable way out of a decision I wasn’t all too sure about, but it turns out it was just what it seemed, a young nervous Plebe that didn’t get enough sleep.  I wasn’t going to get out that easily…

Plebe Midshipman taking their Oath of Naval Service on Induction Day
Plebe Midshipman taking their Oath of Naval Service on Induction Day

Sure enough my anxiety was well founded…  After swearing the Midshipman’s Oath of Service to the US Navy along with my other 1350+ classmates, we all said our good byes to our loved ones (well the rest of my classmates did, I came to Annapolis alone actually).  We then hurried back to our assigned rooms knowing the hazing by the “Firsties” (First Class Midshipman or Seniors at the Naval Academy) on Plebe Summer detail would begin as soon as we got there.   As a newly appointed Plebe, we had completely given up all the things one would normally call rights only to receive them back one at a time as privileges over the next four years as midshipmen.   We are called “Plebes” as freshmen as a reference to a “Plebian”, or the ancient Roman term for a person of low rank.   The yelling began even before we could get back to our rooms.   No one was immune.   Every Plebe was a target and there was no where to hide.   The first several days was a blur.   I remember not being able to do anything except urinate when I went to the bathroom for nearly a week.  Leaving your room made you target of opportunity and so you learned to remain unnoticed whenever possible.

Plebes in fomation studying Reef Points
Plebes in fomation studying Reef Points

Wherever you went as a Plebe, you spent every spare moment memorizing your rates from “Reef Points”, the collection of all the Navy trivia/facts you had to know verbatim and be ready to rattle off to a Firstie whenever they might ask you them.   If you didn’t do so successfully, it was an invitation to be singled out and yelled out all the more.   Every meal, we were also required to do “chow calls” where we had to stand outside our room or at the end of the hallway to remind the other midshipmen that it was nearly time for formation (essentially a time to check in and be accounted for) prior to every meal. We had to rattle off the menu for that meal else face the wrath of those listening carefully to ensure we got it right.

Morning PEP
Morning PEP

Every morning that first summer would begin at 5:30am with an hour of PEP or Physical Training (PT).   I was probably less prepared for this then most of the other Midshipman. This was because in addition to not being much of an athlete prior to arriving at Annapolis, I had developed a bad habit of smoking clove cigarettes my senior year in high school, a habit that switched to regular cigarettes later.   This made me all the less physically prepared for the rigorous PT that all Plebes were required to endure.   For the first week, because I struggled to keep up, I was put on the ‘sub-squad’ and forced to wear my PT shirt inside out until I could get in good enough shape to keep up with the others, something I became highly motivated to do.   It is amazing what a week of being singled out in such a way can do to make you work toward getting in shape.

Plebe Summer Parade
Plebe Summer Parade

Much of the summer indoctrination focused on making us disciplined in preparation for becoming officers in the US Navy or Marine Corps.  We learned to march, sail, prepare our rooms and our uniforms for inspection and many other things one that separate you from being a civilian.  Though we could “drop on request” at any point, one thing they made clear was that quitting during the first six weeks of Plebe Summer, that it would still require that you stay on the campus “mowing lawns” and other busy work while you watch the classmates you left behind continue to strive on.   In the end, most Plebes decide to hang on.  I had one roommate that first week of Plebe Summer, however, who decided it wasn’t worth it and so rather than simply quit, he indicated to the Firsties in charge of us that he was planned to kill himself with his bayonet.   We were issued these dulled blades as part of our summer parade gear which included an old World War 2 vintage M-1 rifle that had the firing pin removed. Both these weapons were meant purely for show and had no military value whatsoever, though my roommate thought differently about his bayonet that day.  He just wanted out and felt that was the quickest way to go about it.  It worked, we never saw him again. I’ve heard they stopped issuing these bayonets in recent years. I am guessing other Plebes have threatened themselves over the years similarly…

One thing you learn when you lose all your rights to as a civilian, is to depend on your classmates who are all persevering through the same hazing with you.  There were roughly 36 other Plebes in my company and we were all getting yelled at collectively.   We learned to look out and when possible defend one another as the only ones you can count on which is exactly one of the primary purposes of Plebe Year. With exception of my one roommate, the balance of my classmates and I made it through the rest of that first summer, the toughest 6 weeks of the first and toughest year at the Academy.   One of those classmates in my Plebe company, Al Perpuse, who survived this year with me, later become one of my best friends once we graduated from the Navy, a story I’ll share in a future story.

Me and Mom outside of Chauvenet Hall during Parent's Weekend
Me and Mom outside of Chauvenet Hall during Parent’s Weekend
Me In the Lobby of Mom and Dad's Hotel during Parent's Weekend
Me In the Lobby of Mom and Dad’s Hotel during Parent’s Weekend
Me and Dad outside 7th Wing of Bancroft Hall during Parent's Weekend
Me and Dad outside 7th Wing of Bancroft Hall during Parent’s Weekend

The first 6 weeks took a toll on me physically and mentally.  By the time Parent’s Weekend came around in mid-August, I had lost roughly 15 pounds.    I was already quite slim to begin with so by the end of Plebe Summer, I looked somewhat like I had endured a trial in a concentration camp.  When my parents came to visit, I think it must have been frightening for them to see how pale and thin I looked.  I think about my Mom seeing this dramatic change and how much she must have been brokenhearted for me, I being her youngest son.  [Addendum – 5/14/2014] On the occasion of Mother’s Day 2014, I thought I would amend this story to include my Mom’s perspective on what I went through this Plebe Summer. She wrote a poem I titled, “An Ode from Mother to Son” and shared it with NHK, a Japanese TV station that broadcast this poem and my Mom’s feelings about what I was going through. It was touching and so I thought I would share it with her and now you all so you can see what a mother goes through when her son goes off to ‘Military School’…

Her heartbreak, in turn must have taken a toll on my Dad as well. By that weekend in August, after enduring many a call home from me about how rough this place was, he offered that I could come home indicating there would be ‘no shame’ if I did.   I had thought about quitting every day that Plebe summer and I must have made that clear to him on those phone calls. Between the fact they wouldn’t just let you leave those first six weeks, and watching my roommate try to leave in the way he did, somehow by the grace of God, I was able to endure that challenging first six weeks..   Now that my Dad gave me that option, however, the irony was that was the day in their hotel room, I somehow found the courage to commit tearfully to them that I was going to make it NO MATTER WHAT they would do to me.  I rationalized that if I had made it this far, and that was supposedly the hardest part, I can certainly make it to at least Christmas.  Besides I didn’t want the decision to have quit haunt me the rest of my life.

I think I earned a lot of respect from my Dad that day. They hugged me and said goodbye at the end of that weekend knowing the next time they would see me was that Christmas. Some particularly cruel upperclassman on campus during the summer played “… I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” by Bing Crosby on their stereos with their speakers blaring out into the courtyard for all of us sobbing Plebes to hear as our parents dropped us off. It’s kind of hilarious recollecting now that they did that although I’m sure it seemed much less funny at that moment.

Thus, by the end of Plebe Summer, I had hit the bottom point mentally and emotionally, and from that day forward it was all a slow steady climb persevering through the rest of my Plebe Year.   The rest of the Brigade returned shortly thereafter for the start of the Fall Semester. Instead of having only a few Firsties on Summer Detail to yell at you, you now had the all the Seniors and Juniors (aka Midshipman Second classman) to haze you as well. The Sophomore Class, also known as ‘Youngsters’ are assigned to help you through that first year having just recently been Plebes themselves.   The Juniors were called “flamers” and were particularly charged to carry on the hazing on the Plebes through the Academic year. I lost another roommate that Fall semester as he concluded it wasn’t worth it and dropped out. Offsetting the intensity of the first 6 weeks of Plebe summer was the rigorous course work during the academic year. The upperclass were required to leave the Plebes alone after 7pm when study hour would begin and end at 10pm when it was lights out for us. This is one of the few times in life when I could remember actually looking forward to homework and studies at night.

Despite the stressful first year challenges of Plebe year, there were certainly highlights worth noting.   We were assigned “sponsors” in the Annapolis area as many of us being from all parts of the country did not have any relatives nearby. My original sponsors were from Severna Park, Maryland and they would come by on Saturday to pick me up so I could get a respite form the yelling and stressful environment in the dorms. They were truly a blessing that first year as they did a good job being proxy parents/guardians to us in that vulnerable first year at Annapolis.  I am grateful that the Academy offers such a program.

Then there was Navy football. One VERY memorable game that semester was played in Annapolis in mid November pitted Navy versus South Carolina, at the time the #2 ranked team in the nation. As usual, our upperclassman insisted we bet on Navy and give them ridiculous points spread. In my case, I gave the second class “flamer” in my squad South Carolina and 14 points. If he won, I would have to do chow-calls outside his room for the following week. If I won, he would have to do the same for me. Of course, with South Carolina being 9-0 and on track to go to the Orange Bowl for the National Title game, the chance of my winning were the same as a snowball’s chance in hell. But somehow that ‘snowball’ made it through and Navy won that game 38-21 upsetting the Gamecocks chance at a national title something that they remember us for to this day. I made the most of the week of payback to the second class being able to yell at him for the week outside my room. I believe my ‘chutzpah’ actually earned their respect from the upper class for rubbing it in that week. Though that ended up costing me a lot of his own payback in the weeks that followed, it was well worth it.

Army - Navy Game in Philadelphia.   Plebes from both Army and Navy lining up to bring in their team
Army – Navy Game in Philadelphia. Plebes from both Army and Navy lining up to bring in their team

Then there was the annual Army-Navy game in December when the upperclassman laid off the yelling as we all rallied around beating the Army football team in this annual classic.   There are many spirit related activities that week to include putting up ‘sheet posters’ with slogans like “Beat Army!”, “Go Navy!”, and having a huge bonfire the Thursday night before the big game. Though we lost that first year I was there to Army, it was still a pretty special experience to be part of the Brigade of Midshipman to include marching onto the field at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, something I would repeat doing all four years I attended Annapolis.   Every year, during this one week, we midshipmen all became equals as all of our energy was focused on beating the Army opposition. It’s a fun week to be at Annapolis realizing what a rich tradition you are privileged to be a part of.  This is a tradition, that many who know me well, lives on to this day.   Every December, I make it known my allegiance to Navy remains as strong as ever as I share a bold “Go Navy! Beat Army!” to all around me the week leading up to the game and generally host a party at my house to watch the game with friends and family.

Me in my Service Dress Blues and Dad pose at home during Christmas.  I gained much of my weight back.
Me in my Service Dress Blues and Dad pose at home during Christmas. I gained much of my weight back.

I received many letters that first year from my friends from Fresno.  Their encouraging words went a long way to making that first semester bearable.  Another key highlight was coming home for Christmas. It was pretty cool that my best friend from high school, Michael Ringer, insisted I keep on my Service Dress Blue uniform I was required to wear traveling home that first night I got back into town and we went to hang out with our other friends.  It was almost like he was as proud of me as much as anyone else.   It was both sobering and rewarding to hear from some of my other friends who said they were surprised I made it, as they had thought I would have likely quit at some point.   At that point, I knew I still had another semester to back to but more than ever, the worst seemed to be behind me.  I really had learned to handle a huge amount of stress albeit I wasn’t really sure that I always had a healthy attitude about it. I had felt I had given up so much and being away from the stress began to make me long for being free of persecution, something that would drive me to work harder than most around me.   This work ethic began to shape me in ways that you know from my original story and testimony, would eventually become less than healthy. For the moment, however, I became increasingly self-confident and that was what got me through that first year.

Plebe Herndon Ceremony
Plebe Herndon Ceremony

Second semester of Plebe Year seemed to go faster than the first and before I knew it Spring Commissioning Week was here as the Firsties finished up their last classes and qualified for their diplomas and their commissions into the Navy as Ensigns or the Marine Corp as 2nd Lieutenants. The kick off of Commissioning Week starts with the “Ain’t No ‘mo Plebes” ceremony as we as a class take down a “Dixie Cup”, our plebe year blue rimmed hat, off the Herndon Monument and replaced it with our normal midshipman cap. The monument is greased up with Crisco making it all the more difficult to scale. A funny fact is that our class had the worst record for length of time it took to remove the cap (over 3 hours and 12 minutes) until the class of 1995 topped our infamous time by clocking 4 hours to complete their ceremony. Regardless, we finished that task and became that day upperclassman ending for me what was the most physically and mentally demanding year of my life.

Though I would have had harder times emotionally and spiritually as my first story on this blog attests, I will always remember this milestone as a huge challenge that I endured, persevered and ultimately conquered.  If you read my first story, you know I have in the past 10 years, recommitted my life to Christ.   I made that decision after 20 years of having falling away from my original commitment to our Lord Jesus.   That 20 year journey “into the wilderness” began where this story began, my last year in High School.  Though I tried unconvincingly to keep my faith in Jesus Christ a priority at Annapolis that first year, I found  it difficult to share that faith while being surrounded by those who either had a goal to “break me” or those like me who learned to depend on themselves or one another.   It just became easier to skip going to Church and seek out other Believers as I developed a stronger belief in my own abilities.  I do NOT account for that decision to anyone but myself as I know there were other Midshipman who did not lose their faith along the way as I did.   I share this near the end of this story to explain that falling away from faith at this point was a part of what defined the path I chose to take and I am fully accountable for that decision.   But I’ll leave the rest of that story for another future post…

Though finishing up the remaining three years at Annapolis and graduating is a more rewarded and recognized milestone by others, surviving Plebe year I attribute as an accomplishment born more solely of my own self will to NEVER EVER give up.  Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and I learned to believe this was true having survived Plebe Year.  Though I would learn that there were clear limits to this belief later (Nietzsche was a theologian that lost his faith while I would refound mine…), this commitment to persevere through all hardship set me on a course of increasing self-reliance that would propel me through my remaining 3 years at Annapolis and the following 15 years of my work career and life.

My First Story…

I have been contemplating the last several months that I might start a blog to share my story – a journey that has taken me from the Central Valley of California where I grew up most of my childhood life to many places around the world as an adult.  As to why I’m writing this story now… Perhaps I’m feeling my age?   Maybe I have some wisdom to share?  …or maybe I just have too much time on my hands?   Well, whatever the motivation I invite you to read on….

Actually, I had been toying with blogging under the title “…A Story Worth Telling” for some time. The spark that made me decide it was time to publish this blog happened during LABOR DAY weekend after I came across in my readings an article from Harvard Business Review titled, “Please Stop Complaining How Busy You Are.”  While the article talks about good “time management” skills, I concluded that the claims people make of being “too busy” spoken of in the article actually mask our true priorities in life.   The fact is that when we tell people we are “busy,” what we are really telling them is how important our personal priorities are, and by inference, that they and their time aren’t one of them.  I have to admit I have said I’m busy for this reason many times throughout life.

The message and conclusion I invite you to draw from this?   I think it is healthy relationships with God and people and NOT just our jobs that are the primary outcome of good time management…

My most important relationship is the one I have with God.   This is a relationship made possible only through His Grace in that he allowed his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for each of us even though we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). My relationship with the Lord has been a story of personal redemption that transpired over a 26 year period of my life.  To keep this first post to just the specifics to my redemption and to entice you come back from time to time, I will leave out many parts of the rest of my story for future blog posts.

This FIRST story begins with my accepting Jesus as my Savior 36 years ago, in August 1977 when I was in grade school in Fresno, California. Things started out well enough. I didn’t seem to have much to be redeemed for at age 11, although I’m sure I was on track to need that Grace — even at that tender age. My family didn’t go to church regularly, so it was providential that I ever found the Lord at all. My brother became a believer a year before I did and because of witnessing his life change I decided I wanted what he had — a joy and peace I had never seen in him beforehand. His mentor, Bob, who led him to Christ, became my mentor as well.  One summer night after dropping off my brother following a Bible study, Bob invited me into his pick-up truck. He shared the gospel with me.  It seemed the “deal of the century!” God’s grace was free and I get redemption and peace that my brother had all by simply accepting that Jesus died on the cross for me? That’s a no-brainer!   I accepted Christ that night and it changed my life forever! I was so overjoyed that I ran into the house, told my Mom what I had done. My Mom is Japanese and was raised as a Buddhist so didn’t really understand the nature of grace;  As I explained what just happened to me, she said she wanted the same “deal”, so I led her to Christ that same evening!

The next several years were generally good as I did my utmost to honor my commitment to the Lord. By age 17, because of Bob’s influence, I was leading small group Bible studies in my home. I felt like I had a good handle on life and was on track to graduate with good grades and SAT scores. I had several college options and I ultimately chose the appointment to the Naval Academy as a member of the class of 1988.

Knowing the honor that comes with attending the Academy and being a family of limited means, my Dad (a retired Navy Senior Chief himself), pushed me strongly to apply.  Being the obedient son, I dutifully complied.  I began this process during the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. Knowing my life was going to change dramatically in the coming year after high school graduation, especially if I got into Annapolis, I decided I should “live it up” while I had the chance. At this point, I remember telling people my goal in life was to work hard so I could “do what I want, where I want, whenever I wanted to do it”. In the process of achieving that goal, I slowly became “too busy” for Church and what God called me to do as a witness to the salvation he freely gave me. My church attendance became sporadic, whereas nights out partying with my friends began to take its place.  When my appointment to Annapolis came in February of 1984, my sense that “time was short” increased dramatically.  I got more adventuresome in trying NEW things I would have normally said ‘no’ to before.  By the time I graduated I had stopped going to church altogether.   This became the start of my 20 year journey into the “wilderness” where my love affair with work and what I wanted to do became priority over my relationships with friends, family and practically everything else.

My Dad use to encourage me in my youth by saying “… anything worth having is worth working for” and boy did I buy into that concept.  By applying this work ethic to the extreme for these ‘wilderness years’ of my life, I found that work did prove to be means to get the ‘good things’ in life or so it seemed.   Many would describe me as a success, at least by the world’s measure during this time.  After graduating from Annapolis in 1988, I had a successful five-year career as an US Naval Officer.   This included wartime service aboard a Cruiser operating in the Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.  While in the Navy, I married Leah, and after finishing my second tour aboard an Aircraft Carrier stationed in Alameda, I resigned from the Navy and we relocated to San Jose, CA.   A productive 10 year career followed as Engineering Manager with a leading Medical Device Manufacturer in the heart of Silicon Valley.  While in the midst of my civilian career, my Dad had his third and last fatal heart attack in July of 1996.  Prior to his death, I truly believe my Dad had his own reconciliation with God about his own busy career in the Navy and civilian life. He tried to help me understand that work would NOT miss me someday.  It had forgotten him after he had a stroke three years prior and was forcibly retired.   He saw me repeating many of his same mistakes about putting work first over everything.  I was in the “zone”, however, and failed to see the wisdom of his words until nearly seven years later. I’ll share the rest of that story, too, in a future post…

Fast forwarding to 2003… In March, I had a fateful conversation with my wife during which Leah challenged me in a way that only she could. Leah is a person who I know truly loves me unconditionally and understands me better than anyone else I have ever known – she is my best friend and life partner. At that particular moment, I was at a career crossroads and I knew I needed her support – what she gave me was perspective. We both knew I clearly needed to find a better work-life balance; by this time we had two pre-Kindergarten daughters — Elowyn and Gigi – who were both suffering from my neglect, a neglect birthed of self-centered ambition.

At Leah’s encouragement, I interviewed for a job in our hometown of Fresno, where we both had family who she felt she could lean on when I was busy at work. While the interview went well and they offered me the position, I really didn’t want to move back; I felt like every time I saw someone I knew, I‘d be seen as a failure. So, ego firmly in hand, I told Leah I wanted to see how I would fare with other interviews I had lined up. The one position I really wanted was located in Oakland, CA. I enjoyed the Bay Area lifestyle and the feeling of significance that goes with living there, not to mention the familiarity that came from having lived there for more than a decade.  My still misguided instinct told me I needed to keep my work and personal network intact rather than go to what appeared to be career-ending isolation in the Central Valley.  That day in March, my wife had other plans as she gave me an ultimatum that day I desperately needed to hear.  She said, “I’m moving back to Fresno; it doesn’t really matter where you are, because you’ll be at work anyway…”  She further added, “… and I would rather see you work in a ‘gas station’ in Fresno than anywhere in Oakland.”

Her words had done it – I realized finally just what an obsessive and self-centered relationship I had with MY work. That obsession was akin to one with a ‘cruel mistress’ always wanting to know “… what have I done for her lately.” and yet it was never ever enough. In a moment of clarity, I saw something years of being a “closet Christian” had blinded me to:  True LOVE – meaning how God LOVES us — is UNCONDITIONAL.  It is NOT earned by what we DO, but rather is the gift of His Grace ALONE (Ephesians 2:8).  Leah’s words, though bitingly honest in her tone, said something I became deaf to from hearing from God — that SHE loved me for ME and not for what I DID for her. Amazing is a God who will use who WE love, regardless of where they may be at in their relationship with Him, to remind us of HIS love for us.  Valuing Leah more than anything else in my life, I agreed to take the job in Fresno and move our family back to my home town.

Though I finally put work behind my desire to restore the relationship with my wife and children, I felt constantly reminded of just how much I had lost. Those first six months back in Fresno saw me sink into a deep depression, like someone who had lost the most important thing in his life which for me, was my work career in the Bay Area. I began to strategize and even fantasize how I might get back there while my skill set as a project engineer/manager was still relevant. I would describe the experience as the equivalent of an alcoholic convinced he can have one more drink, or an addicted gambler who wants to play one more hand of poker.  As the chance of my getting my old “work groove” back faded, I sank deeper into depression — I was “stuck” in what seemed like professional purgatory in Fresno.  As it seemed that my colleagues at other companies continued to thrive professionally, it made my lost sense of self-worth all the worse. For awhile, LinkedIn seemed a tool my “cruel work mistress” used to torment me with what I lost during this time particularly given my only LinkedIn colleagues were from my former company.

Fortunately, in another moment of clarity, at the same time we returned to Fresno, I felt called to bring my family back to the Church. I figured, at the time, it was perhaps too late for me but at least my kids could find the hope I had encountered back in my youth.   Of course in retrospect, I can say that God had greater plans than just my kids.   Having avoided church since getting married 12 years earlier, however, I definitely felt apprehensive about the idea of going back to church.  I just was not ready to feel judged any more than I was already judging myself. Nonetheless, Leah, though not yet a Believer in Christ, was agreeable to the idea of finding a church for our family.  We tried out a couple of churches that for one reason or another didn’t work out. Then, we saw that a church was meeting down the street from our home   That church turned out to be Clovis Hills, which until 2004 met in the Alta Sierra Intermediate school gymnasium, less than a block from our house. We went as a family and we were smitten by the church the very first Sunday.

The first sermon series we heard that summer in 2003 was given by the teaching pastor at the time. The theme for the series was “Performance”.  The sermons included the premise that we all seek to outperform to impress others so that we can somehow overcome the sense of inadequacy in our lives.  Knowing just how obsessed I was with work, the topic seemed God-ordained. I began the slow painful process of overcoming my “grief” listening to the message of Hope each Sunday   My grief, however, was less about my lost father and more about my lost career (…grieving my father’s loss is a story for another day).  First, there had been denial and isolation as I tried to get my resume back out in the Bay Area believing I still had time to reverse the decision. I would even skip church several weekends and make last-minute plans to visit the beach in Santa Cruz near where we use to live just to feel “normal” again.  Anger and bargaining followed, as I tried to convince myself that bringing my family back to church would somehow earn me back God’s good will after years of neglect. When that didn’t work, I fell into a deep depression that I shared with very few people. Leah was the only one who could carry that burden with me and thankfully she loved me enough to see me through this very dark time in my life.

By October 2003, about 6 months after relocating back to Fresno, things had come to a head; work wasn’t going well, and a change was increasingly looking inevitable.  By then, the clarity from hearing the gospel over and over again at church each Sunday provided a window of hope for me. Then it happened.  It was the 17th of October.  As I reflected on a very moving testimony of a woman who had lost her baby due to miscarriage, I felt the Holy Spirit descend on me, calling me back into relationship with Jesus.  And as I finished that prayer, I looked to Leah and asked her a question for which I already knew the answer — she had prayed that prayer with me! Suddenly, years of not making Christ the center of our relationship was over! The burden I carried for 12 years of marriage of not professing my faith in actions or words was lifted!  With the help of Leah and several key men who entered this phase of my life, I began the slow steady climb out of a pit of despair that brings me to where I am at today, a redeemed and absolutely committed follower of Christ!

So, this past Labor Day 2013, I came to the decision that I would tell you this story of my work-life reconciliation as the first of hopefully many stories, mine and others, on this blog, A Story Worth Telling.  As you see now, my story worth telling is one of lasting redemption only available through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Though the details of my situation are perhaps unique to me, it is my hope that it is similar enough to many to be meaningful, particularly men, who face a similar idolatrous view of work and one’s own personal effort .  I suspect all of us can relate in some way to making something or someone a priority over a relationship God offers to each of us.  This relationship comes at no personal cost to us because He paid a price we could not afford to pay through his Son’s death on the cross.  I hope my willingness to share my own “too busy” for God story will encourage some own personal reflection?

Epilogue:  Much has happened since that day in the fall of 2003.  I am grateful to the very strong Executive management team’s support at my current employer as they helped me transition to my current role as Project Manager in a Healthcare IT department at Community Medical Centers.   This is a role I feel God designed me for.  Though proficient at what I do as a Project Manager, I value less the work I get to do and more the worthy purposes and the wonderful people I get to do these projects with and for.  I am especially blessed in that I found work-life balance that permits me to have time with my family that I neglected in my kids early years.   These are all stories for future posts and will commonly point to the day I recommitted my life to Christ I finally understood that:  Work, much like money, is NOT evil, but it is the love of them that is.   Our Lord wants a relationship with us, not with our job or other priorities.  It is these idols that we put before Him that keeps us from knowing his true nature.

Colossians 3:23 says that “…Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men”. When I got over my obsession with work, this aspect of my life was restored to its proper place.  Work is now just another means to demonstrate that I love and worship an all-powerful God who wants all of me, not just my productivity. Fortunately, God chose my wife to teach me that I am loved even when I didn’t love who I had become myself.

Hoping you had a relaxing Labor Day last week and maybe the opportunity to have been reflective as well!

Remember not to work too hard out there and become “too busy” to reflect on the gift of relationship that God offers you freely through His Son Jesus directly as well as through others who truly love you for you and not what you do for them!