Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Moving Out

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1978.)

ACCORDING TO A business principle espoused by Lawrence Peter, employees tend to rise to the level of their own incompetence. A good worker, for instance, might be promoted into a lousy boss.

By late 1977, I’d become a boss. My employees would have to rate my competence. All I knew was that I’d come to dislike this job because it had separated me from the work I loved.

My training was as a writer and editor. Now I did less and less of that work directly – and more and more supervising of those who wrote and edited. I was spending my days in meetings and on the phone, with little time left over for making up stories of my own and massaging the manuscripts of other writers.

Two negatives combined with two positives the same month of 1977, pointing me toward an exit from the Runner’s World offices. The negatives were the twin tensions created by Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running (where I seemed to steal credit for RW’s success from its founder-owner, and my boss, Bob Anderson) and the controversy swirling around the magazine’s latest shoe issue (where we were charged with rigging the ratings).

The first positive was that my income from book royalties now exceeded my salary as editor. The second positive: a replacement editor, Rich Benyo, was already in place as my newly hired assistant.

One September morning, my courage buoyed by my son Eric’s recent birth and the latest book-royalty figures, I walked into Bob Anderson’s office and handed him an “I quit” letter. I’d cleared out my office early that morning, knowing my welcome here would end as soon as Bob read that note.

Our few moments together were predictably unpleasant. Then I went home to start creating a new office space where I would try to salvage a writing career.

To his everlasting credit Bob did some heavy pride-swallowing. Just a day later his staff attorney, Bill Green, called to say, “Bob has a proposal for you. Can we meet at a neutral site to discuss it?”

Runner’s World signed me as an independent contractor, working outside the office on a prescribed list of writing and editing projects for a fixed monthly fee. This contract let me reverse the Peter Principle by retreating to the level of my competence.

WHERE WOULD you live if you could live almost anywhere? The likely answer: somewhere other than where you now are and must stay, at least until retirement frees you from the current home-near-job.

If you’re young, as I was in the year of turning 35, the dream move is usually a long time from coming true. Unless you get lucky, as I did in 1978.

I wasn’t retired, but my job was now portable. I could work anywhere with mail, phone and airline service. My improved income made resettlement a real and immediate option, and the choice came down to the final one during my now-annual trip to the Boston Marathon.

A random assignment of roommates by our tour leader placed me with Bob Wright from Monterey, California. I told him this was one of two places my family might move.

Our talk about his hometown was exceeded only by our discussion of the race. Bob, a civilian employee of the army at Fort Ord, said, “I know you’d love it here. And I know a realtor who can give you a look around.”

Within a month we met the real-estate agent named Annie, who spoke with the delightful accent of her native France. In July we moved 80 miles south to the Monterey Peninsula.

The actual address was Pebble Beach, a private development within the gates of the 17-Mile Drive. Visitors weren’t excluded. They just had to pay an entrance fee, as if to a theme park.

This area sounded more posh than it really was. I like to say now, “We lived in the slums of Pebble Beach,” far from the mansions (including Clint Eastwood’s) surrounded by the golf courses that border Carmel.

Our house was small in size and modest in price. We settled less than a mile from the unseen ocean, on a quiet street amid a forest of Monterey pines. I worked in our guest cottage, which would become such a magnet for visitors that we had to impose a one-night-stay limit except for immediate family.

Most of our neighbors were retired, many as ex-military officers. Ours was the only young family within miles.

I heard second-hand that the older folks wondered why I never left home for local work but disappeared on mysterious trips for a few days every month. He doesn’t look like a drug dealer or CIA operative, they speculated. So he must be either independently wealthy or a house-husband whose wife supports him.

Janet, the nurse, had found a job right away at Planned Parenthood. Our bright and beautiful daughter Sarah had started to school in nearby Pacific Grove. Our son Eric was healthy and happy.

I could run to my limits and beyond on coastal trails and fire roads through the forest. Life here was dream-like as 1978 ended. But too soon I would start waking up to hard realities ahead.

Photo: I handed the torch to Rich Benyo, literally at National Running Week and figuratively as he took over editorship of Runner’s World.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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