Valley of Depression


       Sitting there in my boss's office, I felt like a heavyweight boxing champion had just slammed his fist into the side of my head. Still reeling, I heard Ron speak again.
       "We didn't sign a contract when you came to work here .. ."
       I gasped. Then breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly, trying to relax enough to grasp what was happening.
       "but if we had, we would have signed you on for a year. We'll honor that...."
       I sighed.
       "There are a couple options. You can stay on as a full-time disc jockey for the next six months, but then the job's over. Of course, your wages will drop. OR you can go now and we'll give you a cash settlement to help tide you over till you get another job."
       I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Why?"
       "Well, you know, the ratings haven't been as good as we'd like."
       "What do you mean?" I countered. His expression didn't change. I pressed on. "When I accepted this programming position, the ratings were sliding downhill fast -- clear down to 1.2. The goals we agreed on for my first full year were to bring the ratings up to 2.0 in the target 25 to 54 age group. In three months, I stopped the downward spiral. I'd have been happy this first rating period if it had held even. But I haven't just stopped the ratings from going lower they've already turned around and started up!"
       "But in the 12-plus ..."
       "Sure, the 12-plus went down. You know as well as I do that you can't attract thirteen-year-olds and fifty-year-olds with the same programming. You told me not to worry about all the others, that 25 to 54 was our focus group, to turn around the ratings in the 25 to 54 age group at all cost.
       "But in the 55 and up ..."
       "Fifty-five and up wasn't who you asked me to attract." Why wouldn't he listen? "I did exactly what we agreed on. And I did it faster than anyone thought possible."
       Ron squirmed.
       I finally broke cold silence. "I am really surprised!"
       "I am too." Ron sighed. He seemed like a puppet moving on invisible strings, like a man forced by some superior to carry out an action with which he disagreed. He shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. "But, we'd better get back to the options."
       Both Keyli and I had grown to love the San Francisco Bay area. "So, if I deejay the next six months, any chance I can continue?" I asked.  "Or is it absolutely, written-in-concrete that on my anniversary date I'm gone!"
       "You're gone," he said.
       "Can I tell you in the morning?"
       "Morning's fine."
       In my office, I plopped into my chair and swiveled toward the window. One of the benefits of the job of program director at this station had been the view out the office window -- a marina, the Estuary, and Alameda Island. From this Jack London Square office in Oakland, any time of day or night I could look out and watch speedboats, freighters, military ships. During high-pressure days the sail-boats, cabin cruisers, and yachts had been my tranquilizer.
       Yesterday I was at the pinnacle of success. Suddenly it hit me: Fired. From the third job in the row.
       I didn't like getting fired the other times either. But they were no surprise. I understood why. I'd had disagreements and personality conflicts with management. But I'd dealt with those issues. Everything had seemed good here. So, why did I get fired? I didn't have a clue of any valid reason.
       I turned from the window. Whether I stayed or not, I'd no longer have the office. I numbly cleared my personal belongings from the desk -- pens, a letter opener, a list of business contacts. I lifted my wife's and daughter's photographs from the wall. One last look then I was gone.
       Why? my mind screamed as I plodded down the stairs. I trudged down the sidewalk along the Estuary toward my Jeep Cherokee. Ripples nudging against the pier taunted me, "You're just not good enough! You'll never deserve success." Desperation swirled the words round and round like a cracked record.
       City streets, the Caldecott Tunnel, freeway miles, more streets to my apartment in Pleasant Hill. I know I drove it, but it was a blur of cars zooming past me -- like everyone in real life was passing me up. Of sirens screaming, "Failure! J. Christian, you're a failure!" Of street lights blinking, "Caution--you obviously don't know how to make it. Stop -- get off the spiral downward."
       "My job's done," I told my wife, Keyli. "We've got two choices. I can deejay six months with a smaller salary then leave or I can leave now with severance pay."
       Inki bounced into my lap and nuzzled my hand. She always seemed to sense when something was wrong.
       As our discussion continued, Keyli liberally tossed in her evaluation of the decision-makers at the station: "They're nuts!" "They don't know what they're doing!" "You turned that station around-it's gaining an audience again.  What do they think they're doing?"
       My wife was with me. At least this marriage was solid. Keyli doted on me. I sensed I'd depend a lot on her assurances in the coming weeks.
       Next morning I told Ron, "I'll take the money." He seemed surprised. The bookkeeper cut me a check and I was gone.
       Yesterday I was program director for a major station in a bigtime radio market. Today I was unemployed. Yesterday I was earning good money, well able to pay high rent, payments on two new vehicles and a boat, and minimum payments on our maxed-out credit cards. Today I didn't know when or from where the next dollar was coming. Yesterday writers wrote success stories about me in national radio trade journals. Today a bookkeeper wrote my final check. Yesterday I was a success. Today I was a failure.
       I'd willingly given my profession everything -- way more hours than were required, all the physical and mental energy I could muster. I'd turned struggling stations around. In spite of success, I'd gotten fired from the last three stations.
       Why is this happening to me? I wondered. What am I doing wrong? I had followed the numerologist's advice precisely. I've done everything I know to do. And I'm still failing. What will tomorrow bring?
       Discouraged beyond anything I'd experienced before, I craved Keyli's support and friendship. She was the last prop that held up my sanity.
       She comforted me, encouraged me, assured me. "You helped put me through L.P.N. school," she said at breakfast one morning. "I'm working now and enjoying my job. Why don't you go back to school? I'll support us while you train for something you'd really like to do.
       "Me?" I questioned, surprised at the thought. "What would I take?"
       "What would you really like to do?"
       We crunched toast and talked about every career either of us could think of.
"Know what I'd really like to do?" I finally coneluded.
       "What?"
       "Radio."
       She looked, dumbfounded, across the table at me and blinked slowly. "But ..."
       "I love radio. I'm good at it. I can't think of anything I'd rather do."
       A few days later I felt a coolness slipping into Keyli's affections. Nothing I could put my finger on. Just a sense that something wasn't as it used to be. Forget it, I told myself, I'm probably just paranoid now.
       Then Keyli gave me a Valentine card covered with hearts and roses -- the biggest, prettiest card she'd ever given me ... and she'd added a handwritten, mushy note. I quit worrying and threw myself harder into job-hunting.
       Unemployment stretched into weeks. At home, Keyli's activities contradicted her card. She slept later than usual and left earlier than necessary for work. In between, I tried to talk with her.
       "I interviewed at a radio station in Marin today. If I get the job, we could move to an apartment between your job and mine and stay in the area. What do you think?"
       She responded blandly. "We can talk about it if you get it."
       Sometimes I asked, "What's wrong, Keyli?"
       "Nothing."
       Or, "Keyli, what am I doing that frustrates you?"
       "Let's not talk about it now."
       Keyli had locked me out of her life. No matter how hard I searched, I couldn't find the key. A month after I was fired, I joined her one evening in the hospital cafeteria during her supper break. We chatted a bit. But she squirmed and avoi- ded looking me in the eye even when we talked about the rain.  Finally I asked again, "What's wrong, Keyli?"
       "Oh, nothing."
       "You've said that before," I countered, "but something's wrong." I reached over and touched her arm gently. "Do you want to work on it, or do you want us to go our separate ways?"
       The question just fell out of my mouth. But I figured it was OK. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, to identify the problem, and fix it. The obvious answer was "To work on it." I was willing to do whatever it took to resurrect Keyli's warm smile, to make her dark eyes dance again. Not only did I love her, she and Inki were all I had left. I desperately needed to hear Keyli say she valued our relationship.
       Keyli swallowed her bite of sandwich. Our eyes met for an instant. She dropped her glance back to her plate and whispered, "To go our separate ways."

 

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