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Dance (a true story)

Will you believe me if I tell you that I can dance?

As odd as it sounds, this 50 year old, white guy from New Jersey has been cutting some rug, shaking some leg, busting some moves.

Maybe it is just relief. Or, maybe it is something more.

It all started on Monday, June 30, 2008. In the morning. In the shower.

The shower is nothing like an Arthur Murray Dance Studio but it is where I was when the moves first hit me. There, with the dangers of soap, water and glass I was suddenly struck by an urge to samba. Or was it bossa-nova? Was it the pulse of Staying Alive that I was hearing or was it only the hiss of the shower head? Was that the cool smoothness of a white 100% polyester leisure suit that I felt on my skin or was it only the tickle of Dial soap bubbles?

I knew that this was just a stall shower on Laurel Valley Avenue Circle in Bradenton, Florida but for a couple of seconds it was the dance floor from Saturday Night Fever and I was grooving!

If you are ready to lock me up now, just wait… it gets better! The dancing may have started on Monday but the grinning, the grinning started a week earlier.

I had been at work. The day was almost over and my boss’ boss asked me to stop in his office. He solemnly informed me that the rumor mill was probably correct; I would most likely be laid off by the end of the week.

It is funny but my initial thoughts had nothing to do with me but more with him. I am 50 years old with no children. He is 38 with two kids. I asked how secure his job was and he indicated that we would both be looking for work. He is a good guy; I felt sorry for him.

I told Don and he was understandably concerned. I could have cared less. I have been working since I was 12 years old. Shining shoes, delivering papers, making submarine sandwiches… no, I never actually got to make the sandwiches, I just got to cut the onions. Have you ever cut 100 pounds of onions by hand? It is not pretty. They say that you get used to onions and that over time they do not affect your eyes or sinuses. Uhhh, they lie! You never get used to onions; you just find ways to keep the tears and snot out of the food.

At one point I worked three jobs so that I could afford to go to computer school. I worked in a mailroom during the day, a jewelry store in the evening and on weekends I worked as a night auditor for a local motel. This meant that on Friday I would go to my mailroom job at 9am then directly to my job at the jeweler at 6pm then directly to my job as a night auditor at 10pm where I would work until 9am. Twenty-four hours with no break.

There were some nights when the numbers on the balance sheet would just swim around and columns would total differently every time I added them. But I made it through all of that and I would make it through this.

It was three more days before I received “the call”. It was from the HR office:

“Hello?”
“Hi, Greg, this is Danamichele. Could you come down to the HR office, please?”
“Sure, I just need to finish something. I will be down in a minute.”

I had a white-board in my office and I would write quotes on it every day. Things that I found interesting, funny or inspirational. Things by Helen Keller, Leonardo Da Vinci. Quotes from songs or from bumper stickers.

I would write these quotes first thing in the morning and all day people would come by and see what the wisdom was for that day. They would also help themselves to the large jar of chocolates I kept on my desk but I like to think that the wit and wisdom was the big draw.

What I had to finish before I went down to HR was to write something final on the board so that everyone that came by knew that I had been let go. I should have thought about this sooner and was pressed to come up with something quickly.

I chose two quotes. The first was the title of a song by the band Genesis: Los Endos. The second was a verse from the song Gutter Ballet by Savatage. So, my board looked like this when I walked down to HR:

LOS ENDOS
GENESIS

THE JESTER TAKES HIS BOWS,
SLIPS INTO THE CROWD,
AS THE ACTORS FADE AWAY.
ANOTHER DEATH TO MOURN,
ANOTHER CHILD IS BORN,
ANOTHER CHAPTER IN THE PLAY.
IT’S A GUTTER BALLET.
SAVATAGE

I liked the Genesis song title only because it played well off of their name. Los Endos (endings) and Genesis (beginnings). It seemed appropriate to me. Similarly, the Savatage quote conveyed the same ending/beginning theme but also juxtaposed the savagery of the gutter with the sophistication of a ballet.

Knowing for days that this was coming, I had prepared a list of questions. I grabbed my list and headed down the hall. On the way I said goodbye to friends that I passed and made a few detours to say goodbye to some others. We hugged and promised to keep in touch. It seemed more painful for them than it did for me.

In the HR office I listened patiently while they informed me of the difficult decision they had to make, how corporate profits were down, how it was for the good of the company, blah, blah, blah. When they finally handed me my severance package I pulled out my list of questions and started down. What about my 401K? What about vacation time? What about the stock option?

They seemed awed. Should I be quivering, crying or getting all emotional? Why were they looking at me funny?

“You have a list of questions?”
“Of course. I wanted to be prepared.”
“You knew this was coming?”
“Everyone knew this was coming and who was on the list.”
“But, how?”

There was no answer. I could only smile at her with pity. Did she really think we were all that stupid? Did she think that she was really that smart?

Danamichele and I were sitting in guest chairs just inside the doorway of the HR office. Behind the desk sat Peter, his hands folded and the perfect look of concern and sadness on his face. It was all I could do to keep from laughing.

You see, Peter flew down first-class from the corporate office in NJ. He would be staying at the Hilton on the beach instead of the Americinn right next door to the office. And, as was his way, he would be driving a rented Lincoln instead of an economy car.

It should be no surprise that you would not find that Lincoln or Peter anywhere near the Beantown Diner across the street from the office. No, Peter much prefers to navigate that big ole Lincoln away from diners and more toward those steakhouses and seafood joints rated highly in Wine Spectator.

It seemed cost cutting was not really on the agenda here.

I got answers to my questions and was escorted to my desk by a visibly upset HR clerk. On the way, I assured her that it was OK. She was going to see some ugly things today but I was not going to be one of them. I hugged her and told her to relax. It would all be over soon.

The normal process is to be escorted out of the building by an armed guard. When I had heard that I would be laid off earlier that week I had asked that they treat me like a real person and dispense with the armed guard. For six years they had trusted me with their systems and now they were going to treat me like a criminal? No one needs to be humiliated that way. No one.

So there I was packing my things and consoling the girl from HR. Most people passing by tried to avoid eye contact. It must have been uncomfortable for them. We all knew this was coming but the reality was too much for a lot of people. I winked and smiled at those brave enough to look my way. I handed business cards with my personal email and phone to those people I wanted to keep in touch with.

At my car I gave the girl from HR a stack of my business cards and suggested that she make them available to anyone who asked how to get in touch with me. I got in my car and drove home. It was 9:30am on Friday, June 27.

But this isn’t a story about firings on Friday; it is a story about dancing on Monday.

Why would I feel so happy if I just lost my job? Was I crazy?

These were interesting questions and the answers were really obvious. It would just take me another month to fully realize them.

At first I thought that maybe I was just over-compensating for what should have been panic with an overwhelming sense of calm. But when the sense of peace persisted I began to dig a little deeper.

Jackson Hewitt, my former employer, had never been a great place to work. They never cared about little things like priorities, planning or preparing. Everything was always top priority. Everything was always late. We always took the shortcut and had to retrace our steps at a later time. If it weren’t for the pay and the generous bonuses I would never have stayed as long as I did.

Four years ago the company went public. The slide into oblivion had begun. Wall Street’s initial love affair waned quickly. Stocks peaked then dumped. Heads rolled and “new” management was brought in. The Board courted a series of washed-up, one-trick ponies whose tricks really weren’t that impressive the first time around. These tricks were certainly not relevant anymore and although competitor profits soared, our company profits slumped. Maybe the Board didn’t notice because all of the ponies were awarded zero-dollar stock options. Workers, however, were awarded nothing.

I am going to get a little crass here to illustrate how I felt. Imagine yourself on a small tropical island. Sunny days. Warm nights. Cool breezes. Blue waters. Clear skies. Pina Coladas. Hammocks. Fine food. All of the amenities you could want. Except the beaches are shit. Literally. In fact, the entire island is just a pile of shit that has been decorated to look like a tropical island. And it stinks.

You look around for a way off of the island. There are no boats, planes or other forms of transportation. You hang around knowing that if the winds blow just right it doesn’t really smell too bad. In fact, you kinda get used to it.

Other days it gets so bad that you consider just jumping into the water and swimming to the next island except there is no other visible land. You look in every direction and there is nothing. You could swim for months without ever seeing another island. And what if you swim in the wrong direction? Fear holds you on the island.

So there I was. Everything looked pretty but underneath it was really awful. The downside was that there was literally nowhere to go. The economy was bad and the local environment did not have high-paying tech jobs. To leave meant a major change in lifestyle and another relocation, packing, selling, buying, hauling, address changes, email changes, change, change and more change.

Thankfully, I was not given the option of swimming off the island. I was pushed. Like a bad episode of Survivor, I was voted off of the island.

And to my surprise, it wasn’t so bad. The waters were not icy and shark infested. Actually, they were a perfect temperature and very inviting. Amazingly, I didn’t tire as quickly as I thought I might. There was no effort in swimming away from that island. Every stroke I took provided additional energy to take the next stroke.

It has been a month and that island is nowhere in sight. There are many others visible. I swim up to them from time to time but I haven’t built a home on any one. I am enjoying the freedom of swimming. I know that one day I must choose but for now I will just swim with the tide.

So, I did it: I went from the shower to the ocean – and all I really wanted to talk about was dancing.

From that morning in the shower until now I have been lighter in my loafers. Actually, I have been light in the loafers for a long time but that is another story. There has been a spring in my step that has been missing for years. There is a joy in my life that I had not thought possible.

There are many reasons for being so happy at what seems to most people like a very stressful time in my life. The biggest reason is that I am refusing to worry. The path that I am on is exactly where I am supposed to be. I am here for a reason and my only job right now is to figure out what lessons I need to learn and which steps in this wonderful dance I need to take next.

Had this layoff come at another time in my life it might have been devastating but it happened after two years of training to become a professional photographer. It came after I had formulated a plan to expand the photography business and to leave my corporate job in December, 2008. It came right between the two biggest photography jobs we had booked.

I left Jackson Hewitt and immediately started packing to head to Miami for a ten day photo shoot. We arrived in Miami and were granted “staff” privileges allowing us to come and go in all of the venues as we pleased. Although we were working, we were treated like celebrities by everyone.

How many times have you received a standing ovation at your job? We received several. We were photographing choruses from all over the world. They would come to us after they finished their performance and we would arrange and photograph them.

The energy they brought with them from their performance was infectious. It filled the ballroom that we were photographing in and kept our spirits peaked throughout the week. We were working with people at their absolute best. They had worked for months preparing and had just completed their performance. They were on a high.

And they were the ones who should have been applauded but instead, they raised their hands and applauded us for doing something that we thoroughly enjoyed doing. Amazing! There were times that I worked for 72 hours without a break at Jackson Hewitt and no one ever applauded me. Here I was doing something I loved to do and people were showing their appreciation.

In fairness, I must say that Don is pretty amazing with large groups of people. The smallest chorus was three men. The largest was one hundred and seventy five. Don spoke to the largest groups as easily and as intimately as he spoke with the smallest groups. I learned a lot from watching him and appreciated his professionalism. By their applause, the choruses obviously shared my appreciation.

I found myself not so much walking around the ballroom as I worked but more “moving” around the ballroom. Or should I say “grooving” around the ballroom?

We worked long, hard days in Miami. I was up working on the computer until 1 or 2am and in the gym by 7am every day. I would do my yoga to loosen up then crank up the iPod and hit the treadmill for an hour. Someone noticed that I make full use of the space on the treadmill. Most people just clop, clop, clop on the treadmill. Not me!!! No, I dance on the treadmill!

You should see me. I am all over the tread. Front, back, side to side. I do half steps to the music that move me backward or I do double steps to scoot forward on the belt. Or, to stay in one place, I do long strides to match the beat of the music. I move from side to side or up one side, across, then down the other. I do figure eights. My arms move to the music or beat along with the drum line. Whatever the music demands…

So, there I was in the hotel gym in Miami at 7am being approached by a young black man who wanted me to show him how to dance on a treadmill. I did what I could but I kept thinking that this is not something you learn, it is something you live.

I was not only dancing on the treadmill, I was dancing in life. No one can teach you that.

I watch myself now and I see a very happy person. I see all of the stresses in my life replaced with options, with opportunities, with possibilities. I see myself as more productive, more supportive. I see myself as a better person.

Sure, there is no money coming in but that is just temporary. You cannot be as happy as I am and not be productive. My bliss will take me places I never dreamed possible. I am not an idle person. I love to work and I am capable of working very hard. I am open and creative. I am vibrant! The money will come.

The difference is how that money will be made. I have made a solemn promise to myself and to the world that I will no longer live on a little island of shit and pretend that it is paradise. I will pursue something that makes me happy and that makes this world a better place for EVERYONE (not just for me).

I awake every day energized and full of love and hope. Just look at me and you can see it. Just watch the way I move. Do you recognize it? It’s called dancing.

And it feels great!

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