Forty-four minus six

In six days I celebrate the forty-fourth anniversary of my birth.

Counting down to that day, I am posting birthday memories.

In the past decade, since the instigation of my family’s tradition of traveling somewhere warm for Christmas, many of my birthdays have been spent on an airplane. At least in the early years, before I began making my own travel arrangements and not leaving it up to my sister.

Because of the position of my birthday, perfectly balanced between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and with the generally high cost of travel on those two holidays, my sister would typically book our return on my birthday. Whee. I get to spend my birthday shuffling in and out of airports or crammed into an airplane.

The second Christmas trip I participated in was perhaps the first one filled with meaning for me. It was 1998, and I had moved away from my hometown to take a job in Austin, Texas, working as a contractor for Apple Computer. Austin was home to many tech companies, and Apple kept their sales support and tech support people there, rather than in Cupertino, California, where their corporate HQ was (and still is). My position was in Customer Relations – not tech support, not sales support, but the team that solved customer problems and dealt with complaints.

Being so far from home (2,315 miles) made being with my family more important than before, but I was working hard trying to get a “white badge” at Apple – not just a contractor, but a full employee, with all the benefits and prestige that entailed. Well, it was prestigious to me, a confirmed Machead. So I let my sister, back in Portland, make the arrangements. That year our destination was Cancún, Mexico.

However, I was having trouble navigating the politics of internal Apple; even though everyone around me acknowledged that I was following protocol, two of my customers had complained about me all the way to the top… Steve Jobs himself. One would wonder how one man was capable of micro-managing a company of (then) 8000+ employees worldwide, but such is the genius of Steve Jobs.

The Friday before I was set to fly off, my boss pulled me into his cube and laid out the scenario. He knew I loved Apple, and I knew the company and products backward and forward, so he had fought to keep me at Apple. But I couldn’t stay on the CR team. It was too high-profile and they couldn’t allow the highly-emotional customers to keep complaining up to the iCEO. It was bad for the whole team.

My choice: go to straight tech support, or sales support. They both paid less, and even being offered the choice was demoralizing. I picked sales support for reasons I no longer remember.

My boss urged me to have fun in Mexico, clear my head, and come back and keep trying.

What a way to start a vacation.

I kept this secret from my family the entire time we were there; mom and dad, my sister and her husband, my sister’s mother- and father-in-law, and their adult son, David. And I threw myself into “having fun” mode from the first moment I landed. Story for another time, I suppose…

When it came time for us to all return home, though… I was broke. I had overspent. And the reality of what was waiting for me back in Texas was sinking in again.

We were all traveling together, on the same plane, as far as Dallas. Then I got on a plane to Austin, and everyone else continued on to Portland.

When we got to the Cancún airport, though, there were problems. I didn’t pay much attention to those problems, but we eventually got onto an Aeroméxico flight to Dallas. I was hungover, headed back to a demotion and completely broke, going to a city I had failed, in six months, to make my home.

When we got to Dallas, we were late for the next flight. My sister and her in-laws managed to wrangle tickets on the next flight out that night to Portland, but my dad was not so lucky. He did talk Southwestern into putting him, mom and me up in a hotel overnight, as the least they could do for all the problems (it was Southwestern’s problems that caused us to be bumped back in Cancún).

I remember us almost losing mom in the tram system at Dallas, before we could get to the hotel. It was cold outside, and we had to walk a long long way with our luggage. It was made to seem even longer because we had to deal with mom’s frailty and complaints. The reason, or one of the major reasons, we had begun to travel for Christmas was because a few years earlier, mom had fought, successfully it seemed, lung cancer; the trips were our way to celebrate that. But the treatments had left her weak.

The three of us finally got to the hotel, after having flown and walked and argued, with airline personnel and each other, all day. It was exhausting. Travel often is. We were mostly silent as we checked in.

As dad and I said goodnight in the hotel corridor, outside our rooms, dad said, “It’s your birthday.”

It was after midnight. Technically it wasn’t my birthday at all. But we hadn’t gone to sleep yet, and it felt like the longest day, ever. And we would all have to be up early to catch our respective flights back to our final destinations. I laughed at the absurdity of it all.

“Let me at least buy you a drink for your birthday, son.” I agreed.

He got mom settled in in their room. I dropped off my luggage. Then we set out to look for the hotel bar.

Which was closed. We had a good laugh over that, then shuffled back to our rooms.

The next morning I got up early and flew back to Austin. I didn’t stay very long; by February I was back in Portland.

But that’s a different story.