Leaving New York

Lake George, by John William Casilear, 1857

MARK BRENNAN’s move to the Hudson Valley helped him come to terms with Covid – and much else

My wife and I rounded up our two dogs on March 13th and, in a mild panic, abandoned Manhattan for our house in New York’s Hudson Valley. I shouted a quick goodbye to our cat Sofia, who was deep in sleep on the radiator. We then dashed out the door, certain we would be gone at most three weeks, once the corona virus had blown over. Sofia had only left the apartment twice in her ten years, both times for vaccinations at the veterinarian. I arranged for our trusted housekeeper Laura to feed her and clean her litter box daily. We saw no good reason to put Sofia through the stress of a one-hour car ride, let alone the adjustment to a new living space, since cats hate strange surroundings. Plus, who would keep the pigeons off the apartment’s window ledges and eat the scary, yet thankfully rare, water bugs lurking in our kitchen?

Two weeks later my wife and I jumped back in the car, with the same sense of urgency now in reverse, to rescue Sofia from New York City. In just 14 days, the city had become America’s Covid-19 epicentre. Laura had called us every morning to report on Sofia. But each day I became increasingly concerned as she fretted over her husband Daniel’s sleepless nights coughing up phlegm and gasping for air. Laura, her two daughters, and her brother Pablo, took Daniel to the hospital twice that first week. Both times he tested negative for Covid-19. Finally, after one especially rough night, Daniel returned to the hospital where he was immediately whisked into the intensive care unit. New York’s hastily enacted executive order to prevent the contagion’s spread now prohibited Laura, due to her exposure to Daniel, from entering my apartment building to care for Sofia. I worried that similar troubles might befall Sofia’s backup caretaker. So, despite my dogs’ protestations, we brought Sofia upstate to live out her remaining eight lives.

With two happy dogs, one disoriented cat, a preoccupied wife, three online-classes full of confused students, and a loyal housekeeper whose husband teetered on death, I locked down in quarantine for the pandemic’s duration. Even though the virus destroyed human lives all around us during March and April, my dogs kept me sane as they remained obliviously upbeat. Then one of them died.

Samantha’s demise was as sudden as it was saddening, and all the more dispiriting as it brought the reality of widespread death right into our home. Samantha’s brother Ivan sank into depression after losing his lifelong playmate. Sofia, on the other hand, luxuriated on her sunny country window perch. Instead of hissing at filthy pigeons through grimy urban windows, she now spent her few waking hours watching turkey vultures, red hawks, and bald eagles swoop through the pine trees enveloping our house. She stared, transfixed, not blinking once, when woodpeckers drilled into towering hemlocks. The mood reversals – a happy cat and a sad dog – added to the confusion about the efficacy of masks, the prospects for a vaccine, and the virulence of the virus blaring from my television.

My wife’s anxiety thankfully eased as the financial markets found new equilibrium levels. I adjusted to my new routine as my online classes plodded along. They provided a respite from my solitary habits of reading and writing, even though I felt guilty for shortchanging my students who pretended to learn while I pretended to teach. Laura’s husband spent seven harrowing weeks on a ventilator. Her daily calls in distress to update us on Daniel’s weeks-long ordeal showed me just how rough Covid-19’s unlucky victims had it during the pandemic. Sofia’s new Hudson Valley country life of watching the region’s most spectacular birds of prey energized her. By contrast, my lockdown life with my surviving dog, my harried wife, my disgruntled students, and my distraught housekeeper pretty much sucked, and all the more so after Samantha’s unexpected death.

A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch), New Hampshire, by Thomas Cole, 1839

But then I called the cops on my pity party. Lockdown life didn’t suck. I just entered the second year of my battle against stage 4 throat cancer. Pandemic-induced boredom looks like fun compared to chemo’s paralyzing nausea and radiation’s second degree burns. Luckily, fentanyl eased my pain for those three agonizing months. But it also left me in a haze that prevented me from reading or writing, or even watching television. Students, friends, neighbours, and relatives visited as I stared into space unaware of their presence or the time of day. I don’t remember my conversations with any of them. Even worse, when they now remind me of our chats I have to confess that I have no recollection of our encounters. At the low point of my cancer treatments, I spent my conscious hours in search of empty barf bags when I wasn’t consumed by a fear of imminent death.

Then, as the lockdown dragged on, I oddly found it hard to suppress my glee. New Yorkers have had to force themselves to put on insincere happy faces during the pandemic’s worst moments lest they commit the most unforgivable American sin – pessimism. No fake smiles for me. Freed from the delirium produced by fentanyl, cisplatin, and gabapentin, I can now focus on a book or follow a movie plot for more than two minutes. So I attacked the unread texts that piled up during my year-long hiatus from thinking. I wrote more. And then I remembered my premonitions of death during my treatments. When my doctor told me I had a 50% chance of survival, my first thought was that I would never get to all the books in my unread pile. If pressed, I probably could have thought up some other regrets I might have had based on my premature coin flip of a death sentence. But I didn’t bother with such speculation. Now with Samantha’s death, Daniel’s near death, and the pandemic’s ever-present threat of death as my prod, I resolved to tackle important life goals before cancer tackles me, again.

My 1908 house and its 19 fireplaces, far too large for just two humans, a dog, and a cat, also came with 12 bucolic acres and an overgrown garden. Ivan would spend each morning fruitlessly searching the property for Samantha in the weeks since her death, while I followed him around, trying not to cry. He would sniff, run, sniff again, then jerk his head around toward me as if to say, “I give up. Please tell me where she is.” My outdoor security cameras capture coyotes, foxes, bears, opossums, raccoons, deer, and bobcats traipsing across my property at night along with Amazon and UPS trucks delivering essentials by day. The wild animals’ olfactory feast distracted Ivan temporarily from his sister’s mysterious disappearance. Squirrels and chipmunks tantalize him as they dash across the lawn at daybreak. Turkeys spread their fantails to scare him away. It works. It scares me too when accompanied by their guttural gobbles. And while Ivan asserted canine domain over our little fief, the unkempt garden screamed for my attention.

A fellow professor, Jeff, checked in with me in mid-May just before grades were due. When he mentioned he had been gardening during quarantine I immediately thought of my verdant mess. I asked Jeff if I had missed planting season and how much work it would require to resurrect my garden. Jeff’s thoroughness and attention to detail, his most admirable traits from my perspective as one whose career depends on his organizational skills, kicked into high gear. In addition to answering every one of my questions he even sent me links to the Department of Agriculture’s website so I could determine my village’s temporal growing region. He included pictures from his earliest harvest. With Jeff’s gentle prodding, I took the next step and asked my Portuguese groundskeeper Humberto when he could till my plot so I could start planting. Humberto answered,

I can do it whenever you want Mr. Brennan. But I’ve got to tell you, the groundhogs have eaten everything I planted this year and I’m losing my mind.

Despite Jeff’s enthusiasm, Humberto had provided my first out. I wanted to have a bounty of vegetables like those in Jeff’s photos. But thanks to Humberto’s complaint, I started to imagine excuses to drop the whole gardening idea. Getting dirty hasn’t been my thing since I hung up my football cleats in 1985. My dogs run around the property only to return with ticks and, weeks later, the inevitable Lyme disease diagnosis. My oncologists think my cancer probably came from the 9/11 World Trade Center dust, my preexisting skin cancers, or a combination of the two. With coyotes howling after dark, I didn’t think gardening at night would be safe even if the darkness protected me from the sun. I felt an urge to email Jeff to confess I was a quitter before I even started. Then I remembered how desperately I missed the outdoors when I was stuck indoors during my cancer treatments. So I didn’t email Jeff.

The next morning Ivan and I patrolled the property while my wife made our coffee. In addition to my usual morning duty of overseeing Ivan’s first daily romp, I now had a mission: I pretended to survey the garden’s prospects while in truth searching for more reasons to dismiss the idea. I checked the sprinkler system. The recent heat waves had turned my lawn into the world’s largest bolt of tan corduroy. But the garden looked like a plot of Brazilian rainforest had dropped from the sky right into my yard. I had originally figured I would tell Jeff that, in my reduced physical state, I would not be able to carry water buckets all the way from the house to the garden. My functioning irrigation system cut off that escape hatch. As I wondered which other feeble excuse I could fob off on Jeff, my wife came storming out of the house calling for Ivan. She yelled that the coffee was starting to get cold before demanding to know why I was rooting around the garden. Drawing on what little enthusiasm I had left, I told her of my rapidly faltering plans to provide us with unlimited vegetables for the next few months.

My wife grew up in Indiana. Her father became a gentleman farmer after he tired of the corporate rat race. According to my wife, the children of gentlemen farmers should be known as “involuntary labourers”. My father-in-law’s hobby became my wife and her brother’s childhood nightmare. While her teenage girlfriends hung out at the mall or chatted on the phone, my wife weeded asparagus patches and tied tomato plants to supports. Over the years she has had flashbacks that evidence her long-simmering resentment. If I praised her corn soufflé one night at dinner, she might snap back, “You ought to see how much fun I had when mosquitos ate me alive as I picked my father’s corn”. With each passing day I spent concocting feeble excuses for Jeff, I lost another day of seasonal growth. So I tried to sell my plan to my wife. She exploded:

Great. Don’t ask me to help. I did enough of that as a kid. And I don’t want Humberto out there working 40 hours per week so we can eat a $3,000 zucchini.

The next day I formally dropped the garden idea. I hired a Latin tutor to keep me busy instead. There will be no 2020 fall harvest chez Brennan. But I prefer to focus on the positive. Without gardening I won’t restart the sunburn to skin cancer to throat cancer cycle. Coyotes won’t attack me during my nocturnal weeding sessions. Cancer has provided me with enough laughs so the ticks will have to find someone else to infect with Lyme disease. Thanks to the sprinklers, my garden will still be the lushest 100 square metres on my property. Humberto will have to busy himself with my other 11.9 acres. My wife can sauté a $0.79 zucchini as she reminds me how much her back always hurt while bent over picking green beans. And Ivan has stopped looking for Samantha since his new brother, eight-week old Tony, arrived in September.

And I can now thank my Latin tutor for teaching me the English word “velleity,” which comes from the Latin infinitive velle, meaning to will, wish, desire, or intend. Jeff’s infectious passion, gardening, has become just my latest quarantine velleity: a wish or desire not strong enough to prompt one to action. Lucky for me and my personal dignity I won’t have to face Jeff in person this fall; we will both be teaching online. Our physical distance will minimize my red-faced shame. But my shame won’t go away. My newest velleity has prevented me from writing him an email to thank him for his suggestions and encouragement.

Corporate account

Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts

BENJAMIN GELMAN describes a shocking – but salutary – first foray into the ruthless world of work

It was my first relaxing summer weekend. I had been toiling away at one of America’s ‘Big Four’ accounting firms as a consultant for ten months, and felt I needed a break. I received a negative COVID test, took off from work on Friday, and drove a couple of hours for a peaceful few days in the woods with a friend. I was about five minutes into my return journey when I got phone service again. Alone in my car, I pulled over to see if I’d missed anything important on my work phone. There were the Friday newsletters and a few emails I was CC’d on. I also noticed I now had A Conversation With the Talent Leader on my calendar for Monday midmorning, which I knew wasn’t the protocol for getting a raise. Sure enough, within 24 hours I had been fired.

Once COVID-19 sent the United States into full-blown lockdown, my firm claimed its employees were its number one priority. It would limit promotions and raises, reduce discretionary spending, and contract the partnership payout pool, all to protect employees during these tough times. The higher up in the company, the more you’d feel the impact – the logic being that higher-ups are, quite literally, able to afford it. As an entry-level analyst, this sounded quite fair, if not altogether redemptive for Corporate America.

Then COVID survived its first news cycle unhindered, and it was pretty clear we were dealing with a radically different kind of event. All bets were off. The Big Four entered survival mode, and would do whatever they had to. I was just one of thousands of employees left to fend for themselves.

My family and friends have assured me that these are unprecedented times. It wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t beat myself up. And to some extent they’re right. If COVID hadn’t ravaged the world, I probably wouldn’t have had The Conversation put on my calendar. However, while COVID was the catalyst, my downfall began long before. If I’m being honest with myself, I deserved what came my way.

Even if the impetus was unforeseen, like all things done at the Big Four, the selection process was incredibly structured. The firm didn’t part with 50% or even 25% of their workforce. I was on the left-hand side of the bell curve. I fitted right in with the auto-generated list of lower-tier professionals to terminate. Given the circumstances, I would’ve fired me too. And yet…

It wasn’t always like this. In high school, I scored a 36 out of 36 on the college placement exam. I graduated from a prestigious undergraduate business school with just about the highest honours available. Several of my professors made it seem like my career success would be a given. But it turns out that academic success does not transpose so neatly into professional success.

It’s worth revisiting the university business structure at this point. To keep the lights on, private universities in America charge students hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also rely on alumni remembering their university days fondly enough to donate years later. These schools, therefore, have a strong incentive to keep their students happy and satisfied. Put another way, students are consumers. They pay money and expect an experience that’s ‘worth it’.

Much of my achievement has taken place within this quasi-consumerist framework. The institutions and people I knew were typically on my side, helping and rooting for me to succeed, conspiring alongside me. So I learned to work with understanding and patient stakeholders. When it took me longer to read than my sixth-grade peers, I was given extra time on my exams, which, astoundingly, lasted through the end of university. If I had too much on my plate during finals, I could almost assume one professor would allow me to turn in a term paper late. And even my summers spent in professional environments manufactured a sense that the intern had special privileges and status. Rules tended to feel more like guidelines. Accommodations were boundless.

Older people often tell my generation (I am 24) that we feel an undue sense of entitlement – we expect much more than we deserve. I have to admit I was a very fortunate child. My parents worked tirelessly to provide me and my brothers with all the opportunities they’d never had – private education from kindergarten to the age of 18, carefree summers, a debt-free college experience. If my laptop or phone broke, I knew I’d have a replacement soon enough. My family didn’t go on lavish vacations, but I struggle to remember a time when I didn’t get something I really wanted.

At the same time, though, I do not feel wholly responsible for the charges held against me. In fact, those who complain about the young are themselves at least partly culpable. Children and adolescents react to what they see, absorbing and digesting what’s around them. And if ‘the culture’ is responsible for cultivating this sense of entitlement, who made that culture? I’m not sure of the answer, but if you let children eat candy, they’ll do it till they’re sick.

I don’t mean to offshore responsibility with this logic. I could spend time dissecting who’s to blame and why, or harping on what I would’ve done differently. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Shifting the blame doesn’t shift the reality. Part of growing up is owning what’s yours. I thought I already knew this from books of ancient wisdom and modern psychology, which said essentially the same thing. For example, in Jewish culture, once you become Bar Mitvah’ed, and thus a man (at the respectable age of 13), you’re accountable for all your deeds, good and bad. Victor Frankle, a Holocaust survivor with all the reason to resent and crumble to his environment, credits his survival to the

…the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

More recently, J.K. Rowling counseled

There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.

My ten months at the Big Four was a proper lesson in accountability – making me confront and internalize my failings.

When I started at my firm, I discovered immediately that a boss wasn’t the same kind of authority figure as my parents or professors. Bosses are not necessarily invested in your personal success or happiness. Moreover, I was receiving money, and others had their expectations of me. All my naive assumptions were flipped on their head. My belief in myself and benevolent cultural, even cosmic, forces was shaken to the root. I’m not sure all those carefree summers had prepared me properly.

I bumped up against my project manager almost immediately. Our personalities clashed head-on, and unlike many of the people I had known, he was unwilling to accommodate himself to me. I sought consensus and hoped to know my new colleagues on a personal level. He had more of a ‘Get Shit Done’ philosophy. When I asked about his weekends, he’d answer in a breath, “It was good,” then smile in a way that said this-is-the-end-of-this-conversation. In one feedback session over a firm-sponsored trendy coffee, he told me I wasn’t “hungry enough.” My other advocates and mentors scoffed when I unpacked the feedback with them. What the hell, they asked, does that even mean?

I did what was asked of me. I got my work done. I dropped the ball once in a while, but not markedly more than the other First Years. And I knew I was capable of persistent, strenuous effort. Maybe my mentors were right – he was speaking in vague terms because the subject of the feedback was subjective. We simply didn’t get along. But even if I couldn’t follow the exact calculus, in a way I understood my manager was picking up on something more profound than working styles. Eventually, I’d come to understand what he meant.

The first reason had to do with entitlement and expectations. Through recruiting pitches and conversations, I had developed a rather glamorous picture of consulting, and my reality simply didn’t match. For the entire, albeit short, duration of my employment, I was working on a long-term, internal project. That meant while my peers were flying around the country, rotating through different industries and teams, solving real-world business problems for Fortune 500 companies, I was maintaining internal programming for the Big Four. Furthermore, the “cross-functional” aspect of my project meant my superiors tended to be auditors or financial advisors instead of consultants. Almost none of the things I had expected to find in consulting were present. I was disappointed, unhappy, and unmotivated. I didn’t want to work myself into the ground on something I hadn’t signed up for.

So I tried to get out. I spent a lot of energy and brainpower ruminating on the shortcomings of my project and wondering how to remove myself. I dabbled in corporate politics. I even entertained an attempt to ‘fail out’ of the project (1). I thought I was being responsible – taking ownership of my situation, changing my environment. In hindsight, I see all this mental energy would have been better aimed at helping my project, succeeding where I was. I was wrong to expect my situation to adapt to my strengths and preferences, or to believe the onus was on the firm to find me better opportunities.

The second reason for my apparent lack of hunger had to do with why I entered consulting in the first place. For the easily compiled laundry list of gripes, I am extremely grateful for my childhood. I cherished the Jewish education I received from my private school, and I loved that my mom was always around to pick me up from the bus stop. I grew up with an air of love and support. When thinking about myself as an adult, I consistently return to these standards. To raise a happy, successful Jewish family, I must ensure there’s a yard on which to play and sound finances, including a near-bottomless education fund. Because I’m a man, tradition dictates financial responsibility falls mostly on me. Although my girlfriend says she cares about having a career of her own, the communal indoctrination of Man as The Provider lives deep in my psyche, kept alive by anxiety and responsibility.

Business schools espouse and reinforce similar values. From what felt like the first days of our first year, students were already preparing themselves to secure prestigious, high-paying corporate jobs. In many schools, students have an end-of-term practice, calculating precisely what scores they need on the final exam to secure an A in the class. My business school peers, meanwhile, would congregate to project the financial returns of various career trajectories. For a college student concerned about paying his bills as a 45-year-old, I found a strange satisfaction in the ritual. However, watching my talented friends filter into the same handful of jobs raised concerns. These were young adults who would succeed in anything they put their minds to. I had trouble believing half of my graduating class was so interested in investment banking.

When I got to the Big Four, I found myself doubting my motivations and decisions. I still felt acute pressure to ascend to the upper-middle class. If I wanted to raise a family like that of my childhood, the Big Four was certainly the place for me. On the other hand, I kept wondering why I felt the urgency to enter corporate life. I didn’t grow up dreaming of having a career in consulting, and could see enough of the industry to know it wouldn’t really stir my passions. Perhaps, I started to think, having a contented father was more important to a happy family life than money. While my childhood had been glorious, thanks to my parents’ self-sacrifice, maybe there were other possibilities. And yet, it’s possible – even probable – I wouldn’t be enamored of any job, so I might as well choose one with a large salary. Maybe I shouldn’t risk everything on account of a post-college existential crisis. Consumed with such doubts, I found it hard to exert myself to my true potential. I wasn’t “hungry” because I wasn’t fully bought in.

As I continued to ponder my manager’s feedback, I started to see myself more objectively. I developed a new attitude based on a simple fact – my project wouldn’t last forever. Even if this particular project, or this job for that matter, was not how I wanted to spend my energy, it was where I was. When I moved on to whatever was next, I’d be taking something with me. The demanding and unsympathetic nature of the corporate world had shocked me, but I had begun to realise the very discontinuity and discomfort could offer life-lessons richer than any business skill. But if I wanted to learn these lessons, I would need to exert earnest effort – a feat near-impossible while keeping a tally of what’s ‘fair’. Perhaps, as clichéd as it sounded, if I worked hard, was persistent, and stayed humble, things might even themselves out.

My performance slowly improved. I ended conversations by asking how else I could help, kept assignments and timelines organized for my team, and volunteered to do grunt work for my managers. I took notes and formatted documents. I drafted emails and double-checked instructions. But I’d left it too late. When my firm decided to terminate employees en masse, they didn’t look at my last month of work. That fell outside the firm’s fiscal year-end, and therefore outside their evaluation parameters. Truthfully, even with my new attitude I still had a long way to go. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate; I would have loved to get an honest second chance, a tabula rasa. But that’s not the way things work.

My current challenge is parsing through my experience. Our culture often speaks of ‘resilience’ after a disrupting or shocking incident, but the way it is commonly described is misleading, if not altogether wrong. You tend to hear metaphors like you get hit and you have to pick yourself right back up, or when you fall off the horse you have to get back on. These suggest the incident from which you must recover happens in an instant. Sure, with proper traumatic experiences there might be a focal point of resilience. But there are many other categories that demand a different type of resilience.

I experienced a slow, steady mental rewiring. I willingly submitted, even conspired, in my own downfall. Over the course of ten months, I came to accept the hierarchical truth that I was replaceable – a nobody at the bottom of the food chain. In trying to play my corporate-assigned role and listen, I forgot what my voice sounded like. I forgot my drives, my passions, and my capabilities. I let the Big Four prey and when it was done, I found a neglected self. Even so, I’m resisting the urge to hit the reset button. Although I’m left with a larger sense of self-doubt and a greater risk-aversion, I also feel more grateful for – and less entitled to – the good in my life. My Big Four experience, though leaving psychological turmoil, has stimulated tremendous growth that I would dare trade-in. So I’ll continue to sit with my pain to (hopefully) make sense of my experiences.

From where I stand now, I see glimmers of hope. I remember that I’m smart and capable. I tell myself I don’t need to have my 25-year plan mapped out. I don’t need to hold myself to a preset standard of success, which is bound to cause stress and restrict some of life’s excitement. With good principles and the right amount of luck, I trust I’ll figure something out. It will take time for me to come to terms with my deflation, and rebuild confidence. But I know this confidence will be built on things more real and stable. Besides, all over the world, COVID has disrupted countless lives and forced millions to rethink all kinds of assumptions. I’m just one of many. This is the hand I was dealt. I might as well try to play with it.

Author’s Note

  1. In the back of my mind was a story Malcom Gladwell told of himself where he once purposely flew into the wrong Carolina to avoid the work he didn’t like. His editor told him to cover a story in XYZ town. But there was an XYZ town in both North and South Carolina. Instead of clarifying, like a normal person, he got on a plane to the wrong town, guessing (rightly) his editor would never book him on a similar project