Things Change…

A friend out here in Cali was describing a little café to me the other night that sounded right up my alley, so I stopped in this morning to work on a project/certification-design that’s due in a couple days – one of the very few specific goals intended for this sabbatical time. Walking up to the front door of this little place I thought “…feel like I’ve been here before”, and then after ordering and sitting down to start drawing/thinking/procrastinating and staring out the big window, I realized…. fuck, I have been here before…this is exactly where I was almost two and a half years ago, this same exact café, Sally Loo’s, near the train station, sitting at a table just like I am now, with papers sprawled out in front of me as I (…get ready for it…run-on-sentence…) prepared for being sued by clients that I’d worked for previously for 14 months who were suddenly taking a stance that not only did I not work for them but they didn’t even know who I was and had only met me once before in their lives for a preliminary discussion of a potential project and had since stolen $50,000 from them without ever doing any work for them during the 14 months I was being paid by them to do work for them and obtain our building permit for their project…for them. Phew… That’s a mouthful… And that’s a hell of a flashback to have on a sunny Tuesday morning while hanging out in California when times are pretty happy. For the record, I’ve never stolen anything in my life, even in my punkiest-of-little-punk days way back when; I was a moral-ed little punk listening to Black Flag and Rancid and the Ramones with my skateboard and 40 rolling around Webster; an idiot, yeah, but still moraled.

So…here’s the short story, how we got here, now, and a bit more. A ton of people have been asking me to write about taking this time off, so I guess I’m going to. Read at your own risk. My thoughts on writing: if you want to read it, great; if you don’t, great. I wish more people, everyone, would write things because somewhere out there there’s probably one person who will read what you wrote and it will change their life. Kerouac just wrote; he didn’t know anyone would read it decades later. So…everyone should write so that everyone can read. But if you don’t want to…don’t.

Thankfully I don’t think about it much anymore (only took a year and a half of twice-weekly therapy!) but it’s good to reminisce every once in a while. I think it’s kind of bullshit how we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut about things sometimes because you don’t want to ruffle feathers or crap like that, but I also totally understand it. Someone told me once that as a small-business owner you don’t get to have an opinion; your only priority is to keep the doors open and lights on and you don’t do that by spouting opinions and narrowing your clients by 50%. Luckily, I’m not in business anymore so I don’t have to worry about whose feathers get ruffled and I can say whatever I want. Life is by no means perfect; nothing is, ever, and design and building and construction isn’t even close to perfect – it’s pretty much just a steady series of making mistakes and then correcting them until you have a desired result that you’re at least okay with…hopefully maybe even happy-with, if you’re lucky. Although, that’s kind of life too, I guess. There is no script. There is no manual in the glove box. Anyway…

…It was all twilight-zone stuff and I’d never ever imagined anything like it happening in my worst-nightmare situations, to start. Other older builders had always cautioned me against my optimism and enthusiasm for the work (which I still completely blindly have even though I am currently not working, at least not on a jobsite – building stuff is still the absolute coolest thing in the world…whether it’s popsicle sticks or steel beams or sand castles, making stuff is awesome and always will be...) and they would always remind me “only takes one shitty client to change it all…you’ll see Horgan…you’ll see….” and I always thought no way it would happen to me. I laughed. I scoffed. I called them old, haggard, and disgruntled. It wouldn’t happen to me. But, it did…

Despite the thousand non-business ways that we, the clients and myself, were connected which aren’t even worth going into because it’s just insanity on my part at this point (that whole defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and over again with the same result but expecting it to change…yeah…there’s a reason they describe it as banging your head off a wall...); despite signed contracts; despite meetings with the bank; despite numerous architects and engineers and subcontractors involved in the many design changes and preparation over that time; despite a stack of emails and text conversations printed out that was three inches thick; despite over a year’s worth of breakfast meetings on Saturday and Sunday mornings at their home; despite a building permit being issued by the town after that 14-month’s worth of work; despite many year’s worth of employment history between my company and them; despite holiday dinners together; despite my donations to their charity; despite the hugs and love-fests and sappy BS; despite their text messages presented to the lawyers that actually said “we’re sorry we’ve said those things about you but we didn’t want people in town to know it’s a money problem on our end” and thought that was okay; despite all of this and a whole, whole lot more…I mean, it’s truly insanity to try to describe it all…they stuck to their story that they didn’t know me and that I’d stolen their money. It was truly astounding by any means. Just the ballsy-est, bold-faced-est lie you could imagine. And then they doubled-down on top of that and began telling people around town a few thousand-percent-fabricated stories about me, totally out-of-left-field stories, the power of rumor-mongering in a small-town island environment taking root – or at least in my head they were, turns out nobody really believed what they were saying anyway, but it still happened. My lawyer (hate that the phrase “my lawyer” is real but that’s the world now, and there is NO negating that, although I’ve since learned that “my lawyer” is a very US-centric phrase) reaffirmed with me continuously from the very beginning, from the moment he walked in our shop and all of the contracts and the three-inch high stack of emails and texts between us for over a year were in front of him for the first time, that I’d done nothing wrong – because I hadn’t. I’d gone far, far above and beyond for them actually, which is usually how I roll with clients. (That’s how most good builders are but you never hear those stories; only the horror-stories, the “shit-shows” as my buddies all said to me are what get told…but the good guys always give more than we take...I don’t know why that is…it’s a weird business in that way). But it was my first experience with people with a lot of money who could have literally wiped me and my decade’s-worth-of-work and starting-from-scratch completely away just…because? Because they were really practiced and good at lying and for some super-messed-up reason a few people believed them?? Because they were assholes?? Because they were d-list reality television stars and for some incredibly fucked-up reasoning that notion then immediately elevates them in people’s minds? They weren’t very special when they were just local, bumbling, goofballs who I would have to coerce out of my bar every weekend…but put them on television and now they’re suddenly incredibly respected? I don’t know why… I don’t actually think that about them - they’re just human, and being human is hard, really hard sometimes, and what’s behind closed doors will always be a mystery - but I could think all of that pretty easily. I should. Maybe I do, but only deep down in places we don’t think go to anymore. I think they’re just dumb, mostly. Pretty basic…

You could say I won the case in the end even though there wasn’t anything to win really – we said we would go after them for defamation if they continued doing what they were doing – which was blatantly outright lying; they then had to pay me what was owed and got back only what was theirs just as I’d said from minute number one, admitting they lied the entire time, and then they got to carry on with their life as normal as that may be, no big deal to them; I lost a year’s worth of contracted work, a ton of money keeping people employed leading up to it and afterwards including their own family members; I had to let go of employees almost immediately, people I really loved and cared about; I lost a ton of money paying my lawyer; lost all trust in just about everyone, and I certainly lost in almost all aspects of life outside of that one experience. I can look in the mirror business-wise and that was always important to me even though I’d trade it all in now for it to never have happened in the first place (one big lesson, trust your gut instinct – everything in my gut said “walk away” from the first moment…but I didn’t. The big telling moment should’ve been when they asked to remove the solar panels in order to save a few bucks on a 4000 SF home. That’s a big walk-away-from-a-project moment for me…but I didn’t.); and personally, mirror-wise, there’s probably a good argument there about what I see now personal-life wise, but never too late to work on things. And for all the people who wonder and chatter about why there wasn’t a follow-up lawsuit, who think that it seems so easy, that that’s just what happens these days - it’s not. Trust me, you start talking to lawyers about that kind of thing and start hearing words like “years” and “costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars” and “no guarantees” and it’s just not worth it, not in any sense, especially when you really, desperately, madly, achingly want life to just be normal again more than anything else. We did well as a business, but I wasn’t a big company with a bankroll to just fight that fight for the sake of fighting a fight, and even more so that’s not a fight worth fighting, not ever.

And besides, to put it in layman’s terms: fuck them anyway. There’s a fine line between stubborn and stupid. I was walking the line at that point and didn’t want to veer into stupid territory.

Life totally changed though. I changed, and not for the better, not by any means, at least not during that time. It was all very weird. Everything changed from that point forward and I (still) feel bad for the people around me after that…boy did it fuck things up, and yes it’s easy to say I let it fuck things up, but no one knows how to navigate shit like that the first time – there’s no blueprint for something like that; there’s no blueprint for being a human, being yourself; each day is a new page and you’re writing it as you go. There is no life balance at a time like this – you go all-in on one aspect of life because you are forced to, and you forget about everything else because you can’t fit it in, physically or mentally. You want to; you know you’re supposed to; you know you should and you’re trying to; but you just can’t. And you’re spending a lot of your time wondering, often aloud, to yourself, how did I get like this?

I was talking with a buddy in the business the other morning about similar situations and talking about how after the first time that happens, you approach just about everything in life with one finger on the “beware” button no matter the smile on your face and no matter who you are dealing with or talking to…business-wise and personally…it just becomes instinctual, and that sucks. That’s a really shitty way to go through life, and for someone who deeply loves people and all our weird quirky differences and details, it really shakes things up fundamentally. I think a lot of people would just say (and have just said), “well, that’s the price of business, that’s what it costs if you want to make money” and just keep their head down and keep going, put up with the bullshit, buying new trucks, bigger houses, boats, all that jazz that compensates for the bullshit. I know guys and builders who get off on that kind of stuff: the lawyers, lawsuits, and lies…all that alliteration crap. But nothing’s worth that, that whole putting-on-the-blinders thing. Nothing. Not even close. Nothing is worth that. Not for me at least.

So, honestly, that’s pretty much, basically, essentially, without getting too into personal details and that kind of stuff, why I just…stopped. It wasn’t that easy…it wasn’t overnight either as that was a few years ago now, and this was one instance – albeit a big one and it helped begin the peeling off of the blinders - but it also kind of was. Business was great again and had been since then – not easy, but if everything were easy, everyone would be doing it. Life was getting better again, kind of. And in the two years since then, I’ve worked for some of the coolest and most amazing people you could imagine with mostly everything aligning the way you’d wish it would - karma or something, but I’m insanely thankful for the people I’ve been working for the past few years. They’ve been amazing. Everything was okay on paper….everything was great on paper. (Sidetone: there is a great Descendents song called “On Paper” about something like this…)

But…we’re all going to the same place even though we all have different journeys getting there, and you better enjoy the journey because who knows what’s at the end – no one knows! I wasn’t enjoying the journey, not at all – and I still feel selfish just saying that, but I wasn’t even noticing the journey or any parts of it – and I wasn’t making the journey’s of those around me any better at the time either, and I do like to at least try to do that, believe it or not. I do think that’s really important. We should all do that, daily. I actually think the world would be such an amazingly better place if everyone would stop with the “me” for a second and think about others first. Even the Dalai Lama says that… The best and truest happiness comes from making others happy.

So… I stopped. That’s it.

To be all introspective-y for a second, I think it’s a lot ballsy-er to walk away from something that is going well; from something that generates a pretty healthy income and savings; from something that you started quite literally from a broken car with a fake inspection sticker and $130 in a bank account after finishing grad school; from something that you dreamed about achieving day-and-night for a long time and then actually did achieve…than it is to continue doing something that you don’t think is healthy for you or anyone else around you. It’s like getting to the top of the long, hard climb and then thinking, “meh, the walk up was better than the view” and then just walking back down. It wasn’t a hard decision. I studied finance and economics; I understand money and I’ve always been pretty good at managing it and making it, all that jazz, and I love working hard physically, mentally, creatively, etc, etc…but as anyone who’s known me my whole life will say, I’ve never made many decisions based entirely on money. I think it’s pretty evil actually. It’s important to understand in the same way that it’s important to know how to tie your shoes, i.e. you kind of have to, at least the basics, but it’s certainly not everything. Not even close. Flip-flops are awesome. My favorite food is white rice and probably seventy-five percent of the planet survives on that three-meals-a-day and doesn’t complain. It’s pretty simple. No one needs very much…

Anyway… Funny how life comes around….deja-vu and all that…sitting in a café, downtown San Luis Obispo near the train station, working on a project for the future someday, for who-knows-when, across the country from an island where I defined life for a long time and a place I really thought was kind of the last stop, and realizing this is exactly where I was sitting right as everything was changing almost exactly a couple years earlier.

Funny world…always changing…sometimes drastically, unexpectedly.

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