One of life’s more turbulent waves that threatened to topple me (see In search of solid ground for reference) happened a year ago today, Sept 15 2016. As that wave washed over me, it stripped me of identity and self-worth. I nearly lost my life in the attempt to stay afloat, and I still feel as if I haven’t recovered my breath. Here’s what transpired, leading up to that unforgettable day:
In a happier and more hopeful era of my life 8 years ago, I left a tenured university faculty position to move across the country to start a new career. While several motivating factors were involved in the decision to leave my university job of 13 years, the most dominant one was hearing the wise “you will regret not trying far more than you will regret failing” in my head. The opportunity to take a lead role in a major science mission was the stuff of my childhood fantasies. In terms of prestige, the role would be the pinnacle of my career, a responsibility that only a handful of scientists have had the privilege of shouldering. The challenge, the science, the potential for “making a difference” and “establishing a science legacy” excited me. So I resigned my faculty position, packed up and moved west.
The position was challenging from Day 1. The engineers and other specialists were running into technical roadblocks. The program was slipping in schedule, and going over budget (none of these items, by the way, were under the purview of my position, which was more science-oriented than management), and getting to the point of actually being able to provide a service to the science community and deliver science data seemed to still be on a distant horizon. The community was growing impatient, and support was dwindling. Cancellation of the program loomed. I did my best as its main science representative to remind the science community of its future scientific value and potential, hoping to retain as much support from those future users of the facility as we could and hoping that the engineers could work out all the kinks soon. They did, and the program cancellation eventually resolved itself, after a few additional scares (which are stories for a future post).
This kind of challenging environment can either bring out the best or the worst in people. Often, people will band together in the face of opposition and challenges. They have each other’s back and embrace the “a rising tide lifts all the boats” philosophy. Many of my colleagues were not those kinds of people, a sad realization that came much too late for me.
My primary responsibility was to insure that the scientific objectives of the mission were realized. A straightforward responsibility, but complicated by the fact that the majority of our team were employees of the prime contractor, who admittedly also tasked with insuring the scientific success of the mission. Indeed, the contractor was tasked with nearly every aspect of the mission, including selecting the kinds of science projects that would be conducted by the facility. The demarcation in roles and responsibilities between contractor and government oversight was always murky, at best. As might be expected, the non-clarity in who-is-doing-what, who-is-the-person-making-the-final-decision instigated unhelpful spirited discussions and debates. The program manager, not a scientist himself, frequently made matters worse by choosing sides. In reality, the organizational structure of the program was such that my position and the program manager were supposed to be equal: I was the science lead and he was the lead on budget and schedule management.
In spite of the above, I got along well with the program manager and actually considered him to be a personal friend. We exchanged many stories about our families over the years. He leaned heavily on me to provide motivating science justification to help save the program during some of those times when it was about to flat-line. He was one of the few people that I confided in … and perhaps even cried with … when I received my MS diagnosis. In short, although I didn’t always agree with his management style and decisions, I trusted him.
In the fall of 2015, things suddenly started getting … weird. The program had successfully emerged from a very tough 8 months: another congressional assault to kill it, launched in January 2015, had been at least temporarily defused. My perseverance and science advocacy was partially responsible for this success. Since the stay of execution did not come until August, I worked overtime for most of that year, working with the prime contractor in assembling tiger teams, launching various science studies associated with the mission, and developing a full-blown proposal that would articulate a strong rationale for the continuing existence of the mission. In the October time frame, my friend — the program manager — did something that was quite out-of-character. Little did I know that this seemingly small incident was the beginning of the end.
I was asked to give a science lunch talk to a gathering of mostly engineers and budget managers. On the morning of, I woke up not feeling particularly well. My cognitive dysfunction was in full force; I was having more than the usual problems with word-finding, resulting in a halting style of articulation. I had spent a lot of time polishing the slides — some with really cool animations — so I wasn’t too worried. I could lean on the slides if I needed a prompt during word-fishing. I’ve become an expert in dealing with cog-fog. Sometimes, when there is a truly awkward moment of silence while I stand there trying to will a page of the reverse-dictionary into my head, I will make jokes about it to keep the audience entertained to buy a little more time. The conversation going on inside my head while trying to kick brain into overdrive probably goes something like this:
me: “what is that word that people use for the thingie that looks like a rectangle with dots and lines all over it? Hurry up, you lump of grey and white matter! I’ve run out of jokes to keep these folks distracted while you come up with this word!”
brain: “recalculating … recalculating … starts with a ‘p’….. sensing maybe a 4-letter word … … Uh, Pat, I’d like to buy a vowel? Let’s try ‘o’. I’d like to solve the puzzle? p-l-o-t !
me: “whew! That took forever. Now what was I going to actually say about this damn plot?”
Anyway, the talk was acceptable (not my best performance, but certainly not the worst). A few people made a point to come up to me afterwards, during a brief break, to tell me they enjoyed the talk. One woman was particularly memorable: she introduced herself as a skeptic of the mission — one of those who thought it should have been axed long ago — but that the science results I showed had her reconsidering her opinion. That conversation made me feel better … maybe the word-fishing wasn’t as awful as it seemed in my head.
At the end of the day, the program manager pulls me into my office, closes the door, puts both hands down on my table and declares
“That talk sucked, it really sucked.”
Startled, my immediate response is to begin apologizing for my performance: “I am soooo sorry! Was it really that bad? Today was not one of my best, cognitively speaking. I know that my delivery was not smooth, and I probably had to rely on the slides more than I would have liked. Was my delivery the problem? Can you tell me specifically what sucked the most?”
He said: “It just sucked. I got lots of feedback. Loooooots of feedback.”
When I inquired what kind of feedback, he was unable to provide details, other than to say that most people in there probably would not have the background to understand the science I was presenting (Note: the organizer specifically asked that I present science results). He was unable to provide the names of a few people in the audience with whom I could speak, so that I might get a better understanding of the concerns. Also notable was that he didn’t ask if I wanted to join him for dinner that evening, as he nearly always did when he was visiting my campus. Well, that following morning, I had breakfast with a scientist colleague and close friend who had been in the audience: he thought my talk was great. He has never hesitated to tell me when I am full of shit, so I believed him. I polled 4 or 5 other people, with the same positive feedback. What was going on?
I had never had this kind of interaction with my friend, my program manager, before. Literally overnight, he seemed to morph into a cold, distant, and a completely different person. I figured he was sick, maybe having problems at home. I dismissed the event as an outlier that should not detract me. While none of us wants to make a tempest in a teapot, turns out that in this case, a growing tempest was exactly what was happening. I had just witnessed the first crack of thunder. [to be continued]