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  • My, how things can change in one year’s time! A year ago this day, I was putting the finishing touches on an agency’s planning for a Government Shutdown. It had fallen to me to be the one who implemented our plan, as both bosses I worked for at the time were out on the day that we had to start the planning, and so I ran with it for the next 2 weeks, making sure that everything that needed to get done, got done. You would never know to hear about it afterwards, that I had anything at all to do with that planning.

    But, that was fine by me. At the time, I really didn’t care about whatever credit I was given, or not given, for my efforts on the job. I was winding up a long year of grieving the loss of my second parent, my Mom, feeling very much like an orphan in a crazy world, and the people I worked for couldn’t have been less compassionate for what I was going through if they’d tried. Everything about my job, then, felt cold and heartless and completely devoid of passion. If I could have, I would have walked away from it all – I actually almost did.

    And then, we got furloughed. I went from all of that activity, all of that planning, to having to shut down my laptop, turn off my blackberry, and consider them both bricks, that I couldn’t touch or go near for the next 3 weeks, while congress demonstrated to the entire world how completely inept they were.

    After 3 days of hell – home alone, doing work around the house, never really comfortable, never knowing if I would eventually get paid, not really wanting to get paid for doing nothing, but also keenly aware of the bills that would need to get paid, watching the news, which included a lady getting chased from the White House to the Capitol in her car, with an infant inside, getting shot and killed in front of the Capitol – a guy walking onto the National Mall, dousing himself with a can of gasoline and setting himself on fire – idiotic congressmen attacking park rangers for not allowing visitors into the World War II Memorial, the very same congressmen who were responsible for shutting down the government in the first place…it went on, and on. Friday of that first week of furlough was the darkest day of my year. I had not a shred of serenity in my entire being, and serenity is something that I thrive on, what keeps me “on the beam”, if you will.
  • Then, a miracle happened. My wife, who knows me better than anyone, sometimes better than I know myself, made a suggestion. Maybe you need to volunteer your time somewhere. I really didn’t know if I wanted to do that. I was so mad, so off my game, I really didn’t think I wanted to do that. But, I knew that whatever it was I was doing with my time that first week, was not going to be sustainable, for however long that furlough would last. We had no idea, at the time, how long that would be. So, as I’ve learned through our 30 years together, when Kathy makes a suggestion and I’m not sure about it, 9 times out of 10, if I just say yes, things work out. That’s just how it works, with us. When I first was offered this job, 30 years ago, I didn’t think I wanted to take it. Kathy and my father thought I should reconsider. I did. And, here I still am.

    Anyway, I followed her volunteer suggestion, and showed up at a Food Distribution Warehouse, or Food Bank, if you will, out in Manassas, the following Monday, and said “Here I am. What can I do?” I stocked shelves for a couple days, filled orders for families that came in for food, learned the ins and outs of how the warehouse was run, and felt really good when I left to come home, 5 or 6 hours later. I was making a difference. I was helping to make food available to folks who really needed it. I stopped watching the news, and started showing up at that warehouse every day. That good feeling grew.

    They asked me if I could drive a truck. “I sure can. I love to drive trucks”. We need a driver. “I’m your guy!” I got to spend a couple days with a guy who showed me what life is all about. Ralph was just a regular, every day kind of guy, not a real talkative type, but there was something about him – a sparkle in his eyes, a confidence in his bearing, a way that he carried himself. I felt like it was an honor to ride shotgun with this man for two days, as we made the rounds of supermarkets all over the western county, out around Haymarket, Gainesville, Bristow and Manassas. The way those people in those stores lit up when they saw Ralph coming. The way he took the job very seriously, but not himself – he was as humble a man as I’ve known.

    He really had me when he was telling me how he’s been doing this for 6 years, ever since he retired, 6 days a week, 5 hours a day, and he said that friends ask him, “You mean, you do all that, and you don’t even get paid?” At that, he looked over at me, as we filled that truck up with donated food, smiled and looked up at the sky, and said, with that sparkle now glimmering in his eyes, “Oh, I get paid – plenty!” That’s when I knew – this is for me. I want what that guy has!
  • I was supposed to be his replacement driver when he went in for toe surgery. The surgery never happened, because the insurance never approved it, because the government was shut down, and somehow they were connected, so I never had to replace him on the rounds. Besides, the government finally decided to open up for business, and I had to go back. I would have preferred to keep driving with Ralph, and then for Ralph, a while longer. I felt like I was just starting to learn something from him. Something that I desperately needed to learn.

    So, I went back to work. Back to the grind. Back to the bosses who couldn’t care less about me, the job that I had no passion left for - but everything was different, now. I’d found my passion again. I knew I still had something in me that cared. I worked it out where I could keep driving for the Food Bank on Sunday mornings, as Ralph had mentioned that they had no one to drive, then, and hundreds of pounds of food were being discarded. I told the Food Bank bosses that I would drive. They worked it out with the supermarkets, and now that food is going to people who need it, instead of landfills. I found a meaningful purpose again. Before I knew it, my work situation changed, and I was given an opportunity to do something more meaningful there, for people who cared. Everything’s better, now.

    But, I guess it had to get worse before it could get better. A year ago today, it was just about to get as bad as it got. I look back now, and can only think – “Goddamn, I’m a lucky guy.” I feel like I’m the luckiest guy on earth. Today, I feel like I have a purpose. I make a difference. Every now and again, when I catch my reflection in a passing mirror or window, I think I might detect a slightly familiar sparkle in my eyes.

    What a difference a year can make!
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