Monday, October 02, 2006

Feeling Adrift (or: Wake Me up when September Ends)

I haven't felt much motivation to write, but a lot has been passing through my mind.

I am feeling ambivalence over work and home, so I can't flee to one to seek refuge from the other. A paralysis has set in place, leaving me feeling powerless, hopeless, and unable to take action.

Let's start with the home front. Not quite a month ago, my wife, who has been in charge of bill payment since the spring of 2005, revealed to me that our income is barely covering what is being spent. She claims that we have $400/month to live on after all our bills have been paid, and that doesn't cover groceries or things like the kids' preschool tuition.

I asked her how long she had known that this was the situation. She said it was since February of this year. I asked her if she thought it had to do with her cutting back from 15 hours per week to 10 hours per week. She said she thought that might have something to do with it. I asked her why she didn't bring this to my attention sooner. She said that she didn't want to, given the rocky situation of our marriage this summer. However, it didn't stop her from making two trips to the riverboat casino and spending over $100 per trip during the same time period.

When I received my next paycheck, I took a look at the net amount after taxes and benefits had been paid for. Then I took a look at the bills for which I knew we had payments and subtracted those off. I arrived at $900 per month left over. Moreover, this was with my pay alone. This did not include the money she was bringing in from her job. I then took a look at the online billing facilities for our accounts. I didn't see anything odd in our utilities, but she was starting to defer payments in some situations so that we were in essence operating on a two-month billing cycle.

I did find one big surprise on one of her credit cards: she had run up a balance on one of the cards in the mid $5000 range. When I took a look at transactions, I saw several items from our vacation that we took in late May, stuff that should have been paid for out of money she said she earned through eBay sales. She had also charged the new freezer in the garage for approximately $400 and the kids' new swing set at over $370.

I also took a look at our savings account, which had seen deposits of over $25,000 in the past year and a half, most of it money I inherited from my grandmother's estate. There was around another $5,000 in tax refunds for the past two years. The amount was abnormally large due to an adoption tax credit from 2003. All that was left of that was $700.

I know that we spent several thousand on remodeling work she wanted done in the spring of 2005, and she had my consent to spend up to $2,000 to help out her parents with their finances after her dad had a stroke, but there's still a lot of money to be accounted for, and I don't think it's just because we've been going out to eat too much. I will need to do some forensic accouting, getting reprints of prior bank statements.

What makes even less sense to me is that my gross income went up by over 20 % when I started this current job in late November 2005. Whatever her hourly cutbacks took away, we still should have been ahead of the game with my pay increase.

Add to this complaints that my wife is unhappy with her job and wants to quit working, and I'm feeling some pressure to push for a raise at work.

Things aren't much better at work. I have been losing confidence in the discipline of the management at work. They seem to be pinning their future on the ability to secure venture capital financing, and to their credit, they have been getting positive vibes from a local VC.

When they're not busy romancing the VCs with presentations and paperwork, they seem to be channeling their energies into implementing features for certain customers, almost as if we are a consulting firm rather than an independent software vendor with a shrink wrap product. This has created foggy development priorities that seem to change from day to day. A lot of code is being churned out that won't be easily generalized or reused. Moreover, things that I had worked on with serious intensity in the winter and spring seem to have moved into limbo.

About seven months on the job, I asked the COO, to whom I officially reported, whether I would have the six-month review that was described in my offer letter. He wrote back saying that he would defer that call to the CTO, to whom I reported on a day-to-day basis. In an e-mail to the CTO, he wrote this about me:
he faithfully executed his duties and responsibilities in his position and is deserving of a performance review immediately

and then he added:
It is also my opinion that (his) performance has been exemplary and that he should receive a favorable review and that this favorable review be reflected in some positive monetary fashion as you deem appropriate

I never got a followup from the CTO. Within a month, the COO was no longer serving in his role, and they had the locks on the office changed. Soon thereafter, the CTO sent out a memo to the developers that said:
I just want to re-iterate that we are REALLY in a crunch mode right now. I am working an average of 12-14 hours a day trying to keep my head above water on all of our development and support task. Customers and revenue are waiting on your projects to be completed. If we can't get projects completed, we can't get revenue and that's a bad thing for everyone.

and further on down he wrote:
I really need your help in getting the projects that you have on your plate completed. We have customers who want to give us money and who are starting to get impatient about our lack of ability to deliver.

The thing that struck me as odd was that the project I was working on supposedly was a distant wish list feature that had been requested by a company that wasn't even a paying customer yet. To the best of my knowledge, there still isn't anyone just chomping at the bit for that feature.

I also was waiting for the CTO to implement portions of a client/server interface that had been done on my end for over a month. If anything, he was holding up features that I already had in place. After several promises to get around to working on it, he finally decided to task me with the larger problem of making a general, self-describing communication protocol.

The memo's disconnect with reality, combined with the lack of recognition for past work and uncertainty over future projects made me wonder if I should start looking elsewhere. I posted my resume on the major job boards and got a mix of nibbles. Most of them were for contract positions out of state. Since relocation wasn't a viable option, I nixed those.

One of the local positions is with a consulting company. I'm not sure whether they will match the pay, but the health benefits beat the tar out of the over $700/month I'm shelling out right now. Plus the office is located about 20 minutes closer to my home, which would cut out commute time.

Another position proved to be more problematic. It was for another startup in town that had just gone live with an alpha version of their software. It had gotten some national press just after it went live, and things were supposedly in chaos. The recruiter talked up the company, saying the head of the company was really successful in past ventures, and that they were looking for the best of the best. To get in the door, they required you to pass a programming test. He also said that they were working long days because of the technical problems they had been running into.

I told the recruiter that I'm not sure that I would be a good fit for the company, given the longer commute and my family life demands. I said that I would need some time to consider the opportunity. He also brought up a newer startup that the same guy was heading up. It was something a little less chaotic, and it involved some things that I had some knowledge of. I told him that I would be more open to that possibility. After taking a weekend to think about it, I responded, telling him that I didn't want to be put inf for consideration of the first venture, but I would like to be considered for the second.

The next week, I find out that my current employer has gotten in touch with the crazy busy startup regarding their problems. Our CTO makes several trips to their offices trying to troubleshoot things. He makes some basic diagnoses and they start talking up a bigger consulting arrangement. Eventually, the discussion turns to code review, and since they needed someone with expertise in C++, the CTO thought that I might be well suited to the task. The catch was that the mangement at the other startup wanted to make sure the reviewer met their standard for C++ knowledge, so they had me take the programming test they give to their prospective hires.

I had a few days to prepare for it, and I had a feeling it would be a test over esoteric aspects of the language, and I was right. With the exeception of a question about the difference between two aspects of the language, the test questions were of the "What would happen if you tried to compile and run this snippet of code?" The code blocks were mostly toy pieces of code involving pathological situations that no sane programmer would be caught doing. However, if you were one of those standards savants who knew the ISO C++ specification backwards and forwards, the questions would be child's play.

I scored 5/10 on the test. Supposedly, most hires are lucky to get 3/10 right, but they want someone who can score at least 7/10. Whether I will be allowed to review code remains to be seen. If that is their screening process, I can see why they are having so much troubles. At the high level, they probably have someone who is a real wiz at the language, but doesn't have much sense when it comes to engineering scalable software or designing someting so that it can be debugged easily.

Visiting the site of the startup to take the test made me feel a bit weird, like a scene in a bad sitcom. I placed a followup call to the recruiter to have me withdrawn from consideration from the other startup, just in case there is crosstalk between the two companies.

The close call I experienced with the startup made me want to take a breather from the job search scene. I am still following up on leads that I've already applied to, but I have taken my resume off line for now.

So, there is a financial crunch at home and discontent with work. What does that mean for me? That means there is less money for me to spend on myself, so that severely limits things that I can do to "make myself happy" for a change, as Michele Weiner-Davis puts it in her book Divorce Busting. Because I may change jobs, I have been hesitant about seeing a therapist because a change in health plans may mean that my choice won't be covered under a new plan.

I've found myself having bouts of anger and sadness. I try to do as much as I can in my daddy role. I do things for my wife, but no more than what I'm feeling inclined to give. This helps me avoid feeling like a martyr. I feel like my life is slipping away. I feel trapped at work. I feel trapped at home. Today was a severe low. For the first time in a long while, I began to think it would be easier just to give up on life itself.

Maybe this is a midlife crisis. Still, it's hard to go to work at a place where there is no focus, and it's hard to come home to a woman who doesn't want to cook, clean, or work at a job so that she can help us afford all the things she wants. I have noticed a change in sentiment since I found out about the money problems, I'm no longer pursuing this marriage. I feel like I have what Michele Weiner-Davis calls "Walkaway Wife Syndrome":
After years of trying unsuccessfully to improve things, a woman eventually surrenders and convinces herself that change isn't possible. She ends up believing there's absolutely nothing she can do because everything she's tried hasn't worked. That's when she begins to carefully map out the logistics of what she considers to be the inevitable, getting a divorce.

While she's planning her escape, she no longer tries to improve her relationship or modify her partner's behavior in any way. She resigns herself to living in silent desperation until "D Day." Unfortunately, her husband views his wife's silence as an indication that "everything is fine." After all, the "nagging" has ceased. That's why, when she finally breaks the news of the impending divorce, her shell-shocked partner replies, "I had no idea you were unhappy."

Or perhaps this passage from a rant on
Dad gets sick of this shit. Like the mom, Dad doesn't have so much time to run around with friends. His routine is pretty much composed of family life at home, which he understands and accepts. But, he still wants to have a little fun with his wife now and again. This is impossible to do for two reasons. First, she doesn't want to have any fun that doesn't involve the children. Adult pleasures were dispensed of in the delivery room.
Many married moms, 10 times out of 10, would rather have a marathon cookie-baking section rather than do something spontaneous or fun with just her husband. OK, 8 out of 10 times is fine, 9 out of 10 times is understandable, but 10 times out of 10 for the kids? Nothing for just you and your husband, or even just for yourself? There are women who are that slavish in their devotion to making sure their children are entertained at all times. But don't they realize that it will create side effects and eventually repercussions to their marriage?
No, they don't realize it, and even if they did, they lie to themselves about it. Women repeatedly try to fool and outright lie to themselves with the aid of self-help books, magazine articles and daytime television into believing that sex is not really an important marriage component to their husbands. Generally speaking, a woman will never hesitate lying to herself to maintain the belief that she's on top of it all. They honestly think (subliminally or consciously) that they can hold a man's sex life hostage.
The most disciplined of men, those who are planning their escape from sexual Alcatraz while his wife is orchestrating another backyard sleepover, knows why, when and how he is going to bail from his marriage. He waits until the lawyers are done before sending himself into new female company. Women continually fall for this crap, thinking they can get away with having a husband who's satisfied with a dormant sex life.
And when these good men break and leave, her defense of her own negligence is that "you don't understand how I really feel". As if to imply that if he did understand how she really feels, that he'd rightly throw his own feelings out the window (which is what she'd really like him to do), because Mom is so beleaguered and overwhelmed with all this parenting that she insisted she do all by herself.

I don't like feeling this way. It isn't productive. It isn't helping me deal with the long term. It certainly isn't appropriate for Schnarch's crucible, where you're supposed to let "the best in you" guide the process. I'm surprised I was able to churn out a blog post on it. Maybe this will help me overcome some of the inertia that has plagued me a good deal of September.
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