Introduction, or How I Landed This Gig As a Writer

I never set out to be a journalist.

Well, that’s only partly true. In 1988, after getting a degree in journalism from Northwestern, I got married and started working in a shoe store as a shift manager. One of the workers, we’ll call her Nancy (since that was her name), kept complaining about me to upper management. She said I never did any work. That I stood at the counter all day. That I didn’t reorganize the footwear properly. I once had a dream that I grabbed a pair of penny loafers from the rack and threw them at her in a fit of rage.

So, after working there for about 18 months, I was downsized. But hold on – this all sounds grim and hopeless, but it turned out to be a positive thing.

You see, eventually, after some soul-searching (get it?), I started looking for another job. My wife, about three months pregnant at the time, showed me an ad from the local job placement center with a position to work at a summer camp for disadvantaged kids in northern Minnesota. I thought to myself, I can work at a summer camp for disadvantaged kids in northern Minnesota. Why not? That’s a perfect segue from my gig at the shoe store.

We were quite the pair. She wobbled around the camp scolding the disadvantaged kids, I ordered the food and made campfires. This was my dream job, a far better arrangement than the one I had at the shoe store with Nancy. We painted dilapidated buildings, learned how to cook spam and eggs, ingratiated ourselves to the local lawn maintenance company. (Full disclosure: they offered their services for free because of the whole disadvantaged kid thing.) Oh, and my wife gave birth.

Then I got fired. Again.

To this day, it all seems like a bad indie movie, the one where the puppy has to wear a cone around its head and two guys go driving off into the stark unknown. Life at 60 frames per second, you know? Except the guy in my movie was my wife and the puppy was a beautiful baby girl named Rachel. We had to move in with my parents, who would regularly tell us to move out. I thought about ending it all, aka working at K-Mart.

Somehow, by sheer happenstance, my dad started making friends with the CEO of NordicTrack. You remember NordicTrack. It almost seems like the company is still around. They made those cross-country ski exercise machines, the ones with the wooden planks you shuffled back and forth. Long before the Internet or Chipotle, this is how they used to make us exercise. (Little known fact here: the new NordicTrack is just using the brand.) Being a young father and inescapably destitute, my dad arranged for me to interview with the CEO, who offered me a job in customer service.

This is sort of amazing: I read about 50 books during my years of employment at NordicTrack, most of them while simultaneously answering the phone. I once talked to Mac Davis. I even heard that one of the other customer service reps had talked to Tom Hanks. (This may have been a rumor.) We all became cross-country ski machine experts. I mean, we could take them apart, build a wooden robot, dismantle it again, and put the ski machine back together again with a newly invigorated flywheel assembly.

Around this time, I discovered the Mac. Also, I realized that I hated working as a customer service rep and I had read enough books. I told my boss at the time, who knew all about the CEO connection, and he suggested I try writing some ski machine repair manuals in my spare time. I remember setting up a Mac next to my customer service terminal and a copy of Watership Down, loading the 24 disks for Adobe Photoshop 1.0, and playing around with flywheel assembly schematics. I became adept at explaining why the cock-arm rod needed a loving tap to fit into the forward handle bar kit. When anyone needed help explaining ball-bearing maintenance for the undercarriage unit, I was the man for the job. I stopped reading books and started crafting my own, complete with a 32 page visual guide to cardiovascular safety. Eventually, I moved on to greener pastures: a spectacular run as the copywriter at a lumber retail giant. A few successful years working as the technical writer at a company that made a proprietary sign-making device, eventually moving my way up the ladder of sign-making success. I even spent a few years in the corporate world.

Then I got fired. Again.

Oh, I can laugh about it all now. The twists, the turns. During these formative years, my life at home became much richer – we had three more kids, bought a dog. For ten years, I worked at eight different companies, and rose to the lofty position of documentation manager. Life was good. But I yearned for more consistency, which is one way of saying: I wanted to work for myself. I had this strangely clear picture of how this could work. I would get up in the morning, walk over to my computer, and start doing stuff. I would not have a boss who could decide my fate. I would control my own destiny.

This was in 2001. I was fired a week after September 11. Since then, by some surreal form of providence, I have written somewhere around 12,000 articles. I’ve tested 8,000 products. I have a close personal relationship with the FedEx driver. We have hugged. Just last week, I wrote ten articles. I’m not sure how. I’m amazed I even landed this gig, to be honest. Two decades ago, I figured I’d be working with Nancy in the shoe store, defending myself with penny loafers. Or maybe I’d still be at NordicTrack, explaining how to repair the seat cushion springs with a standard Philips screwdriver. Sometimes, you get fired for a reason. For me, what seemed like an incongruous path was actually all by design. It led me to freedom.


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