Transitions

1993-1994

The Nova Scotian adventure was my longest bike trip ever, and despite the challenges, it left me feeling inspired and more than a little restless. In a few months, I'd be 40 years old. The beauty of the Nova Scotia country made me long to live in the country again. I felt stuck in Montréal, shackled to a huge mortgage I could barely afford now that Jaromir wasn't working. Although I liked my job, I worked far too many hours. I lived in constant fear that I would lose my job if I failed to meet whatever deadline I was given. It took turning 40 to teach me how to set limits, and that I had the right to say "no" to unreasonable demands.

I began nosing around for another job, and got an offer from Marion Merrell Dow, a pharmaceutical company with Canadian headquarters in Laval, to set up a desktop publishing service. Before they made an official offer, they required a complete physical examination, by their physician at their headquarters. I found it somewhat unsettling to be stark naked in theirs office, poked, prodded by a doctor working with whom technically I had no relationship. It seemed like my dream job, offering a substantial pay raise (from $45 to $55K) working in a field where I had considerable interest and expertise. Plus, I was intrigued by the challenge of working in a totally French-speaking environment. Finally, it seemed, I would be fully integrated into québecois culture.

When I gave notice at Velan, I was thunderstruck by the reaction. Tom and Ivan Velan wrote me a 10-page letter urging me to stay. It was my first inkling that my position there was entirely secure, and all those years of self-doubt and over-compensation were for nothing.

Wedding party, left to right: Stephanie Born, Ivan Rohan, ?, Biance Stecko, Ivan Stecko, Claire Thé, ?, Marie-Anne Dostaler, Jirka Svitek, Mario.
Cutting the cake, December 18, 1993

Jaromir and I were married December 18, 1993, at our house. Nataša Foltanova was my bridesmaid and Marie-Anne played the flute. We made most of the food and all of the wine ourselves. Jan and Jim came all the way from Kansas City for the wedding. Tom and Dana Velan came to the wedding. I had bronchitis, a sinus infection and a fever of 38 C.° I fell asleep on the couch during the reception, which was a delightful cacophony of English, French, Czech and Slovak.

I began working at Marion Merrell Dow in January, 1994. Almost immediately I realized that I was at the center of a vicious power struggle. The company was reeling from an acquisition an a few years earlier, when Merrell Dow purchased both Marion Laboratories of Kansas City and Laboratoires Nordiques, an elite French-Canadian enterprise based in Laval. Meanwhile, a major recession set in, and some of Merrell Dow's patents were about to expire, including Cardizem, which at the time was the best-selling medication for heart disease. After the merger, most top management positions were filled by English speakers who had relocated from Merrell Dow's plants in Markham, Ontario or Kansas City. I was brought in as part of an effort to reduce costs but was met with open hostility by the staff of Laboratoires Nordiques. As their marketing manager explained to me, "reducing costs is never a good reason for doing anything." At the time, a palette of Cardizem was worth $250 K. Up until then, the company had been extremely successful, no matter what business decisions they made. Once a year, Cosette Communications — the largest advertising agency in Montréal — would take MMD's entire marketing department on a cruise. But Cosette also charged MMD $130 for a set of four-color films when the going rate at the time was about $30.

And all of this was unrolling against a background of heightened ethnic tensions, and Québec prepared for a referendum on independence from Canada.

"I am as welcome as a fox at a rattlesnake convention," I wrote in my journal. "From the middle managers' perspective, I am a policeman sent in to bust up their cozy relationships with the ad agencies."

Behind the managers was an army of secretaries and administrative assistants who had Harvard Graphics on their PCs and who were outraged that someone from the outside was brought in to fill this plum position. One after another, they marched into my office to let me know that either a) my services weren't needed by their department because they were already taking care of it or b) their supervisor had promised them a job in my department.

Socially, I was completely isolated. I sat alone every day at lunch. I was too low on the totem pole to sit with upper management, but if I sat with any of the French speakers, they'd lapse into icy silence until I left.

My first task was to order a computer and a printer. I placed the order within days of my arrival, and anxiously awaited its arrival. Weeks passed, but the equipment never arrived. The purchasing manager, Manon L'Ecuyer, refused to place the order because, as she later explained to me, her authorization would provide "no added value".

Undaunted, I brought in the MacIntosh and printer we'd puchased with money from the wedding and set up shop. Initially only one group — the Education Department - would give me work, but when I quickly turned around projects at a substantially lower cost, I began to make inroads.

However my personal life suffered greatly. In my journal I noted that I typically worked until 8:00 or 9:00 at night, so weekends were consumed by domestic chores. Of course, I had bronchitis most of the winter. Four months into my new job I was pleased to report that I had "cut back to 50 hours a week."

Meanwhile, Jaromir had slipped into a deep depression. He paid less and less attention to his appearance, and lost interest in the activities we used to share, even if I offered to cover all the expenses.

That summer Québec was in a deep crisis. The third referendum in eight years was in the offing. Unwilling to take a chance on an independent Québec, many companies were leaving the province and moving their corporate headquarters to Toronto. The unofficial unemployment rate — including those who had exhausted their benefits — was 23%. We were terrified that Jaromir wouldn't find a job before his unemployment benefits ran out, and with an interest rate of around 12%, I wouldn't be able to make the mortgage by myself.

Heartbroken, we put the house on the market, asking only slightly more than we'd paid for it, but the only people who looked at it were bottom feeders looking for a bargain on properties vacated by Anglophones who were fleeing the province in droves. The worst was two guys who asked for a tour and later claimed that while they were there, one of them was a building inspector and had climbed in the attic and found a broken beam in the rood. I had just painted that entrance to the attic, and it was still sealed, so I knew he was lying.

Jaromir's mother fell ill that summer, and Jaromir flew back to the Czech Republic for six weeks to be with her and to eventually attend her funeral.

The Vision

In May, 1994, a chain of events gave me a tantalizing glimpse of the future. I was sent with my colleague from Ontario to MMD headquarters in Kansas City. Jan and Jim had scheduled a trip to Moab that week, but they invited me to come along. My meetings wrapped up at 1:00 on Tuesday. Jan picked me up at MMD and by 2:00 we were on the road to Utah.

At Delicate Arch near Moab, Utah, May, 1993.

The long drive across the Kansas plans was more interesting than I thought it would be. The plains rolled upward and became higher and drier until suddenly a blue silhouette of mountains appeared on the horizon. We left Limon early in the morning and crept up a bank where we surprised three antelopes. As curious as cows, they darted back and forth, shaking their white pom-pom tails before rolling out of sight over the edge of the dunes, as if they were on rails. West of the Rockies we ventured farther and farther onto the surface of the moon. Mountains became mesas, aspens gave way to juniper and piñon and cedar, then dropped away to reveal veins of rust, buff and gray-green on the naked, tortured canyon walls. Mountain tributaries met, fused and eventually evolved into the mighty Colorado River, our guide and companion through Utah.

A dry plain stretched west from Grand Junction. There were no towns, no houses and the only roads were marked 'ranch exit.' We turned south at Cisco onto a side road and plunged into the Colorado River canyon. The road wound between red walls and wrapped around monoliths in the shape of office towers, statues and mythical creatures. Rafters made their way along the sluggish, murky Colorado River. It was 93 degrees on the canyon floor. Within an hour of checking into the hotel, I had bought a swimsuit and sandals and rented a mountain bike. By 7:00 am the following morning I was heading out of town along the Colorado, between red canyon walls glowing like hot coals in the morning sun. Already it was warm enough to bike in a T-shirt and shorts, and the air was fresh, sweet and dry.

When the pavement ended, I left the Colorado behind and climbed into Kane Springs Canyon. The trail soared above a small brook in a twisting, turning red rock canyon. I stopped frequently to drink and to take pictures of desert wildflowers blooming exuberantly in the cracked and barren soil. I crossed a small stream where there were traces of the most recent flash flood. Not long after, the trail opened onto a high, wide and windswept canyon. I crossed the canyon toward a monolith, but when I tried to photograph it, the wind blew away my camera case and I spent a good half hour combing the desert for it. By a miracle, I found it clutched in the talons of a small sagebrush. It was nearly 10:00, the sun was rising higher and hotter, and my throat was stinging from the hot wind and whirling red sand. Time to slip back down the canyon. A morning I'll always treasure, and hopefully repeat again.

My father and his most prized possession: a 1980 cherry red Dodge Tradesman van.

Somehow, we soldiered on. My car died that winter, and my father offered me "Consuela", his beloved 1980 Dodge Tradesman van. We flew to Florida to spend Christmas with my parents and bring back the van. When I first got behind the wheel, I felt like I was driving a barn. The gearshift was a long crooked metal rod, somewhere on the floor behind me. Somehow, we drove it back 2000 miles in the ice and the snow back to Montréal. It was already 15 years old, but I would drive if for another eight years, always with fond memories of my father.

Marion Merrell Dow went through its third takeover in five years when it was purchased by Hoecsht-Roussel in May, 1995. With every takeover, there were massive layoffs, and they were clearly designed to achieve "culture change." Unilingual Anglophones were the first to go, and they were followed by those who were the wrong age or the wrong color. I was shifted from one department to another, but I survived all the cuts. When MMD closed its facility, I was joined by my counterpart from Ontario, and together we continued to expand our operations, eventually achieving savings of over $600,000 a year.

The referendum on Québec independence — now rebranded as Québec sovereignty — was repeatedly postponed. I became a Canadian citizen on May 17, 1995, partly to take advantage of a narrow window of tolerance for dual citizenship, and partly so that I would have the privilege of voting "no."

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