WAR STORIES: The Failure Files

There’s an old saying that talks about how experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. That’s never what one wants to hear in the heat of the moment, and in fact, there are times where, upon hearing such advice, the recipient of it may wish he or she had H. G. Wells’s time machine on hand to travel back in time and punch out whoever said it first. Trust me. I’ve been there.

Over time, though, I’ve found that that saying rings true time and time again. We’re supposed to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and learn from our failures. I’d like to think I’ve done a reasonable job of that, and, in some situations, enough time has passed to where I can comfortably discuss certain things that have happened. In a few cases, I can even look back and laugh, and that’s the purpose of the latest installment in my series of “War Stories.”

I’m not entirely sure how this will be received. If it helps someone out there get through something, though, whatever that may be, I’ve accomplished my goal. If nothing else, this’ll be pretty entertaining. Let’s get to it!

– – – – –

THE WORST SUMMER I’VE EVER HAD

In the summer of 2009, I thought I was in a pretty cushy spot. I had just received word that I’d landed a prime broadcasting gig at Ithaca College that fall, when I would enter my senior year (more on that in just a bit). That summer, though, I had gone out and earned an internship at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, doing what they deemed as “marketing, promotions, and operations.”

I figured this was a chance for me to branch out and beef up my resume. Even then, I knew that not everyone who goes to college for one thing winds up doing that particular thing as a professional, so I prided myself on being as versatile as possible (a trait I still value today). They threw a lot at me when I walked in the door, and I had my hand in just about every part of the internal operations…and then, things got strange.

Two weeks into what was supposed to be an eight-week internship, I got called into the office of Shane Williams-Ness, who was then the director of marketing and development at SPAC. She somberly explained to me that due to the downturn in the economy (and, by extension, SPAC’s bleaker-than-usual financial forecast), I was being let go. The company was very apologetic about the whole thing, and to their credit, in addition to being paid for the two weeks I worked, I received another check for two additional weeks’ worth of pay, which wasn’t something they had to do.

I now had to figure out something else to do to make money before going back to school. Out of necessity, I applied for a job at the local Target store in Kingston, New York, and wound up working to unload trucks five days a week from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. It was NOT a glamorous job, but I vowed to push through it, get the bonus for working odd hours, and wind up better for it in the long run.

Right off the bat, it was not a good fit. The environment was toxic, with several bosses treating employees like the fate of the world rested upon our abilities to unpack and stack one box per minute while most of the neighborhood was still asleep. Additionally, while I put an honest effort in and worked hard to do the best job I could, manual labor and I have never really gotten along (there’s a reason I’m a writer, folks!), so I was pretty miserable.

Far in advance, they knew when my last day had to be (in order for me to get back to college). Two days before that date, my supervisor calls me into the office. For the second time that summer, I was let go for, in her words, “working hard, but not improving.” That’s a thing? And for unloading and unpacking boxes, of all things?

Ultimately, it only robbed me of two days’ worth of work, so I wasn’t too bummed out. They had said that my last check would be mailed to me. However, it wasn’t, and a week later, I called. As it turned out, it was sitting right there on someone’s desk, which I found fishy because payroll checks have a defined expiration date. I ran in, picked it up, and did not spend a dime at that Target location from that day until I moved to the west coast.

Two funny postscripts: The week after I was let go from SPAC, Coldplay cancelled on them due to a band member being sick. The phones did not stop ringing, and it would have been my job to answer them and calm down angry people who wanted refunds, so I dodged a bullet. Additionally, a few months after my tenure at Target ended, I was at college when my phone rang. I picked it up, and it was a bubbly manager from Target in Kingston, asking me if I could work the next day. I quickly hung up, and to this day, I marvel at the nerve it took to make that call.

– – – – –

BOMBERS FOOTBALL: TWO WEIRD ROAD TRIPS

Remember that prime broadcasting gig I mentioned way back when? Well, in 2009, I was part of a two-man radio booth that handled broadcasting Ithaca College football games on the campus’s award-winning radio station, WICB. The other half of said booth was my friend Josh Getzoff, who has since become one of the top young broadcasters in the National Hockey League while working for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s got enough Stanley Cup rings to fill a sock drawer at this point. I’ve got an invisible title belt from being the winningest public handicapper at Saratoga this past summer. Sounds pretty even, right?

Anyway, that year was a blast. Ithaca went 7-3 that season and capped off the season with a win over Cortland State in the annual Cortaca Jug game (the Bombers haven’t won one since; President Collado, if you want to bring me back to the booth for good mojo Saturday, call me!). However, what I remember most about that year were two road trips, ones that did not exactly go as planned.

The first was the longest trip of the year. Being a Division III program, Ithaca didn’t travel out of the northeast much, but they did head down to the Mid-Atlantic area for a showdown with Frostburg State, located in western Maryland. It was my turn to drive, so we threw our radio equipment in my legendary 1994 Chrysler LeBaron (immortalized in a pair of wedding speeches last fall) and made our way south.

Game day rolled around, and we traversed to the press box. The first traumatic realization we made was that there was no free food. One of the lessons I learned very early (from ESPN reporter and early-career mentor Sal Paolantonio, in fact) was this: If it’s not catered, it’s not journalism. As it turned out, Frostburg’s contract with their food vendor prohibited basic functions such as bringing food to a press box for the working press. As such, it was going to be a long day.

The second realization we made, though, was much worse. We attempted to plug our “blue box” (the equipment that transmits audio back to a radio station) into all three phone lines available in the booth…and all three phone lines failed. Frostburg’s poor sports information director apologized left and right as we freaked out, and as we freaked out, WICB sports director Nate March and engineer Nick Karski were freaking out even harder in the control room back in Ithaca.

Eventually, Josh pulled out his cell phone and called the studio. We were patched in through the board, and rather than calling the game on professional headsets, we called it via speakerphone over one of the first “smart phones” ever invented while poor Phil Stafford twiddled his thumbs on the sideline (since we couldn’t throw to him). Josh and I bobbed our heads up and down for three hours, and that we didn’t headbutt one another at all that afternoon was a minor miracle in and of itself. Somehow, we got through the broadcast, and thankfully, that’s an issue Josh shouldn’t have to deal with anymore given his current job!

The second road trip was a few weeks later. Ithaca traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, for a matchup with Springfield College. It was my turn to do play-by-play, and I was as nervous as I’d ever been before a broadcast. Springfield ran a triple-option offense, one where it was very difficult to see who had the ball at any given time. While I did an acceptable job on play-by-play (during a game that included me snapping at Karski during at least one commercial break), that offense ran roughshod over Ithaca, essentially ending IC’s chances at the Division III playoffs.

As disappointing as the game was, the day would only get worse. Josh Getzoff was off that weekend, and fellow distinguished Ithaca graduate Josh Canu (who now has a darned cool job with NBC Sports) filled in. He picked up the task of driving us to and from Springfield, and his car died on him about 30 miles from Ithaca, in the small, rural town of Whitney Point, pretty late at night. We had to call one of our friends, who dropped everything, drove the 40 minutes to Whitney Point, and picked our sorry selves up from a gas station that may as well have been the set of a third-rate horror movie (thanks, Lauren!).

In some ways, I didn’t have a traditional college experience. I didn’t take a single math or science course at Ithaca, but I gained as much real-world experience in my chosen field as I could, and I was done with my traditional coursework (which included a major and double-minor) in 3 ½ years. That experience, including the sometimes-comedic onslaught of pitfalls that came with my extracurricular activities, prepared me immeasurably more for the real world than any sort of traditional core curriculum ever could.

– – – – –

THE BEST JOB INTERVIEW I’VE EVER HAD

Here’s a fun fact about me. I’ve interviewed well for every job I’ve been fortunate enough to hold, but the best job interview I’ve ever had in my life was for a job I lost out on in pretty gut-wrenching fashion.

Anyone who graduated college in the spring of 2010 can recall how hard it was for new-to-the-workforce twenty-somethings to find a job. The economy was in a horrible place, and lots of good people were struggling. I had sent out my resume and demo reel to hundreds of prospective employers, and while I’d gotten a couple of bites, nothing had quite panned out.

However, in June, I got a call from a group that ran several radio stations in Duluth, Minnesota. They were looking for a sports director and liked what they heard, so we lined up a time to talk. When we did, it was one of the best professional conversations I’ve had with anyone, at all, ever. For 45 minutes, we went back and forth about my experiences and qualifications, as well as what the employer was looking for. It wasn’t a grilling, but an honest conversation, one that I knew I was holding up my end of as it was happening.

The phone call ended, and a few days later, I got another call from the land of 10,000 lakes. I was incredibly excited as I picked up the phone, but that excitement quickly waned. As it turned out, they talked to 15 or 20 people about the job, and had planned to fly a small group of finalists in for in-person interviews. I was informed that I had made that cut, but that the person they originally approached with the job, whose refusal had sparked a nationwide search for a sports director in a decent-sized city…changed his mind. With that about-face, they no longer needed someone.

I was crushed, and in hindsight, it’s easy to see why. When you do all the right things, and you put the best face forward that you possibly can, only for fate to step in like that, it hurts. It would’ve been one thing if I did my best and it wasn’t good enough, but in this case, it absolutely WAS good enough to advance me to the final stage of the hiring process. I say with absolute sincerity that, to this day, I have never had a better conversation with a prospective employer, and that includes talks I’ve had with eventual bosses at Siena College, The Saratogian, HRTV, TVG, and The Daily Racing Form.

Having said that, things work in mysterious ways sometimes. I’ve set forth on a career that I’m proud of, and I have no regrets about the way things have shaken out for me. I’m proud to be one of the top digital media professionals in my field, as well as one of the most respected handicappers around, and who knows? If I’d wound up with that job, I probably don’t wind up where I am now, with a job I absolutely love doing.

One footnote: That call came midday on a weekday. I was home alone at my mom’s house at the time, and while I was still annoyed by the time she got home, I wasn’t necessarily devastated. When she asked how my day was, I explained the situation. Without any emotion, this was her response.

“Oh. That stinks. Nothing you can do about it. I didn’t want you working there anyway.”

THANKS FOR THE SUPPORT, MOM!!!!!

– – – – –

“BUT I GUESS YOU DON’T CARE”

OK, kids, here comes the deep water. In the summer of 2013, I was going through a divorce, and my defense mechanism was to drown myself in work while on-site at Saratoga Race Course. When I say that nobody knew what I was going through, I mean it. I kept my personal situation to myself, and for a few weeks, things were going okay (due in no small part to the overtime checks that started coming from The Saratogian!).

One afternoon’s main event was the honoring of Ramon Dominguez, a future Hall of Fame inductee who was recovering from a major brain injury sustained in a fall earlier that year. This was to be his first public appearance since the accident, and it was a pretty big event.

Ramon had done an interview earlier that summer with then-NYRA broadcaster Richard Migliore (who I’m now incredibly privileged and grateful to call a friend). It was an in-depth back-and-forth, and an incredible look into some of what Ramon was going through at the time. If you have the time to spare, look it up on YouTube. If you want to watch it now, it’s okay. I’ll wait.

OK, good now? Alright. Here’s where the nonsense comes into play. Ramon and his wife issued a statement through the NYRA press office, and in typical Ramon fashion, it was incredibly classy. Long story short, it said that the family was extremely grateful for the well-wishes it had received from the press, but that they would not be answering questions, as they felt anything worth saying was in the interview conducted earlier that summer.

That day, I got to my post in the Saratoga press box and opened up my email. In it was a note from a fellow employee at The Saratogian asking what we were doing for the ceremony. I alerted this person of the note all reporters received, and that there wasn’t much we’d be able to do other than cover the ceremony straight. This…did NOT sit well with the recipient of that email, who then insisted I contact Ramon’s wife. Trying very hard to keep my composure, I responded that the note specified Mrs. Dominguez would not be talking, either.

I don’t remember much of the third email I received from this person (by now, I hope you’ve seen that I’m hiding identities to protect the guilty). What I do remember is a phrase that’s burned in my mind permanently, and one that, to be frank, has probably played a bigger role in motivating me to be the best I can be than almost anything else.

“But I guess you don’t care.”

Let me explain just how ridiculously insulting this was to me. I was going through a divorce nobody knew about at the time, and thus internalizing a lot as I attempted to do the best job I possibly could. I was doing the work of multiple people at the track every day, putting forth efforts that would ultimately earn statewide and nationwide recognition long after I left The Saratogian later that year. Of all the things I could ever be logically accused of, not caring about my job was not on the list.

I did something I had never done before and have only done once since. I hastily wrote an email to the paper’s then-managing editor, with the correspondence attached, and essentially, the gist was something like this: “I work WITH this person, not FOR this person, and I will not tolerate anyone, let alone a co-worker, telling me I do not care about my job. Fix this.”

To the managing editor’s everlasting credit, the problem was fixed. I received an apology from the co-worker in question the next day via email, and for the next two months (until I left for a new job), I barely heard a peep from that person. Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself at the workplace, and don’t take any undeserved nonsense from someone you don’t report to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s