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Friday, September 30, 2016

Mr. Willoughby Part Two - July 5, 1994 to 2002

My relationship with the man who would become by longest and most trusted mentor was complicated and not without its ups and downs. Don’s demeanor when I worked with him all those years ago was stern, and yet gentle. His presence could be intimidating, but then at a moment when you least expected it, he could surprise you with a humerous quip. He was a lot like Colin Firth’s character in Bridget Jones’s diary (the first one) in that he has that stiff upper lip quality to him. It threw me off for a while after I started working with him, until I remembered that he is of the “silent generation” and came from very humble roots in British Columbia. I can well remember the first time I walked into his office to ask him a question. On his wall was a large framed soliloquy titled “Commitment” in large black letters. It went on to describe why commitment was so important to success – not in a cheesy, contrived way, but in a very real way. I knew instantly that this was a man I could identify with, who would understand and respect my work ethic.

A good way to illustrate his personality and the relationship that we had is for me to give examples of some of his funnier moments in the office:

  • People did not have their own computer at their desks because at that time they were too expensive. So the firm had a bank of about a dozen computers. The idea was that we did most of our work at our desks and then when we needed to do something on the computer, we would go use one of the computers. In practice, some of us would go straight to the computers and work there all day. Of course, when you have six accounting students sitting in an open concept space, you get to talking and pretty soon nobody is doing any work. This goofing off could go on for a while if the partners were too busy to come walking by the computer area. Anyway one day we are all talking when I notice Don come around the corner toward the computer area. He just stops and stands there listening while nobody except me notices him. After about a minute everybody turns around and looks at Don, who smiles his mischievous smile and says “I want some of the puppies from the litter when you are done. Okay?” before turning around and walking away.
  • One day I am standing in his office discussing his review notes on one of my files and at some point he starts frantically looking for one of the working papers that was I the file. He can’t find it, no matter how hard he looks and finally in frustration he exclaims “It’ a good thing my dick is attached, otherwise I’d lose it too!”.
  • We had a lunch room in the office and a lot of people liked to read books as they ate lunch. One of the guys was reading a book titled “The book of Questions”. Don walks in to get a cup of coffee and as he is walking out with it, he notices the title of the book, stops and with his usual mischievous smirk he says “The book of questions eh? You should get the book of answers!” before walking away.
5    Many nights when I would be working very late to finish a file, Don would come and chat with me at my desk. The chats would not be long, and there would not be a lot of personal information exchanged, but they would be long enough that I felt respected and that my efforts were acknowledged. As an aspie, I was fully aware of the fact that my behavior was quirky, but Don tried very hard to steer me in the right direction and help me, while respecting my dignity:
  • There was a time when my first wife Lea went to Hong Kong for 2 months after the death of her father and left me with very little money to pay the bills. She ran up a $2,000 American Express bill and it needed to be paid, as Amex did not allow cardholders to carry balances back then. I had no way to pay it. All this came to light when Don noticed that my shoes were worn right through and he summoned me to his office to tell me that I needed to buy a new pair. I explained that I couldn’t because of what was happening. Without skipping a beat, he told me to bring in the Amex bill and give it to him. He arranged for it to be paid and as far as I an recall, DID NOT take it off my pay. He also told me to buy a new pair of shoes and bring the bill to him. He reimbursed me for my new dress shoes. Although Doug Frew, the personnel partner did tell me about a note in my file to that effect, Don never did bring it up again.
  • Another time I had run out of black socks and decided to try getting away with a pair of my white socks. Don noticed and told me “You know, you really shouldn’t wear white socks with a suit. It just isn’t done.”. Embarrassed, I replied “Yeah I know Don.”, to which he said “Well if you know, why are you doing it?” as he smiled. I told him I had run out of black socks. But I made sure that I never ran out again.
  • Another time, I’m not sure how or why, I had a B.O problem.  I think it was the polyester dress shirts I was wearing. But Don gently let me know one day that I “wasn’t smelling too good”, and asked me if I drycleaned my suits regularly. Shortly after that conversation I went out and spent the last of my money on a good supply of cotton dress shirts and undershirts. I never went without an undershirt for the rest of my professional career and never wore cheap dress shirts again. Consequently though, I never had a B.O. problem again. It was an invaluable lesson that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to me over the course of my career.
  •  At the company Christmas Party in 1996 after I had written the UFE (Uniform Final Examination) and failed, Lea was talking to Don and some of the other partners. I was in the smoking lounge enjoying a few smokes with the smokers contingent of the office, when Don approached and said: “come dance with your wife Chris”. I waived him off and he left after some mild persistence. Lea later told me that she had been telling Don and several of the partners about the fact that I’d been having nightmares about being fired for failing the exam. It was then that I realized that what he was really saying was “come dance with your wife Chris. Get her away from the other partners”.
  • Don counselled me in the difficult period following the end of my first marriage, and subsequent bankruptcy.
  • When he could see I was working extra hard he invited me and Lea out for dinner with his wife.
  • He and his wife attended Lea’s grand opening of her business in the house the two of us bought just about a year before we split.
I worked for Don for just over 7 years, which for an accounting student is an eternity, given that most students put in their three years and then quit to go into industry. I wanted to become partner there and felt that the best way to do that was to stay and work with Don. Don and I even discussed the prospect and he let me know that while I had a long way to go, he would help me get there. But it was not to be. Six months after Lea and I split, I met and started dating Kay. For some reason that was unclear to me at the time, Kay felt that my relationship with Don wasn’t healthy. She would often tell me that he was using me and would never make me partner, despite what he said. I now know that this was a ploy to isolate me from all the people who mattered to me at the time. But unfortunately for me, as an aspie in love I was highly impressionable. In time, I began to feel that what she was saying was true and I resolved myself to finding a different job in Vancouver.

I’ll never forget the look of hurt, betrayal and anger on Don’s face when I walked into his office to hand him my resignation letter. He was polite after that, but had all the distance of a person deeply betrayed. He never did find anyone else to take over his practice.

He and I didn’t really keep in touch much for the year that I was in Vancouver after that, but when things went bad with my next firm, he did agree to meet me over breakfast to discuss what was happening to me. He didn’t offer to hire me back though and I could tell that he was still very hurt. However, within a few months of that meeting I had left Collins Barrow and was moving to New Brunswick to start a job with a stamp auction house. About four months after I arrived there, I received my copy of “CA Magazine” in the mail. In there was an announcement that Don had been made an FCA, which is the highest honour a CA can receive from his or her professional body. It is not something that you apply for – you have to be nominated by your peers. This year, after some 35 years of service to the profession it was Don’s turn. I decided to call Don to congratulate him even though he and I hadn’t spoken in several months. He sounded surprised to hear from me and accepted my congratulations, although his tone suggested to me that he didn’t really believe I was being sincere and wondered why I was bothering to call. It was then that I realized the gravity of my mistake in how I handled my relationship with the man to whom I owed so much. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Likely Hiatus in New Posts

This is just a quick note to my faithful readers to let you know that I may not have time to write and post new stories for the next month or so. If nothing new appears here it is not that I have quit writing and given up. Rather, it is because I have my hands rather full with:

  • My wedding to my lovely partner Steph, which takes place in just over two weeks from now on October 1. Although nearly everything is ready for the big day, there are still quite a few things that need to get done and require my assistance. 
  • We are in the process of trying to move to New Brunswick, as Toronto has become way too expensive for two self-employed people who are trying to get a business that sells stamps to collectors off the ground. 
This move is an absolutely huge killer of time. Anyone who has ever tried to obtain a mortgage as a self-employed person knows how difficult it is. Two self employed people? Forget it - unless you can put down 25-30% of the purchase price, it is damn near impossible. Fortunately for Steph and I, the company owes us a lot of money, and I have relationships with several of my old clients and mentors that are such that they are prepared to lend money to my company, which can then pay us back, so that we will have the down-payment that we need to qualify. However, securing those funds requires life insurance policies to be in place, corporate resolutions directing what will happen in the event of my demise, loan agreements to be drawn up, wills to be drawn up and so forth. All of this will require time and then Steph and I are going to New Brunswick this weekend to look at properties and make our offers. Finally, we are headed off to New York for our honeymoon on October 3 for a week. So it would seem that I likely won't get anything new written until mid-October at the earliest. 

However, as soon as I can write and post a new story, I will do so. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Mr. Willoughby - July 2, 1994 to Present Part 1

After my graduation from SFU in April of 1994, I began the brutal search for employment in my field. Articling positions were extremely hard to get in 1994 due to a glut of graduates at that time and the fact that the big firms were laying off large numbers of staff. It was the exact opposite environment to the one that the Enron scandal created in the early 2000’s and the one that exits today, where university graduates make good starting salaries right out of university. Back in 1994 you were lucky to make just enough to pay food, rent, transportation and have just a bit left over.  One of my first stories, “The Fart”, gives a humorous account of how I managed to blow my first job interview of that summer. I sent out over 100 resumes in May and June of 1994, and I can remember that at a cost of 63 cents each to mail, it cost me the last of my spare cash just to send out my applications. This is why being poor really sucks: you notice the cost of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and even the smallest unforeseen expense can cause the whole house of cards to come crashing down. Most of these were met with no response at all, and maybe about 10 or so sent rejection letters, which felt like torture: I’d see the envelope in the mail, get my hopes up, only to open it and be disappointed – again.

When I was sending out these resumes, at Lea’s boutique on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I was working at her front counter and going down the list of accredited firms to ensure that I hadn’t missed anyone on the list. My finger stopped at a name that elicited derisive laughter from me: “Cinnamon, Jang, Willoughby”. I said to Lea “What kind of a name is Cinnamon, Jang, Willoughby? Like I’m going to tell people, I articled at Cinnamon Jang Willoughby! They’re probably going to ask me if I worked for Mr. Bunn or something.” Lea was not impressed by my making fun of the name. “Chris, you haven’t gotten a job yet have you? For all you know they might be the only firm who will offer you one. What then? Will you turn them down because of their name?”

About two weeks after I sent out my last round of resumes, and we were almost completely out of money, the Vancouver Canucks played the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup and lost to them in game 7, after which we had the famous riot on Robson St, downtown. It was the biggest riot the city had seen and would not be equalled until the 2012 riot, 18 years later. I remember watching the game at my best friend Nicole’s place and being totally despondent because I had no money to pay for my own food when we all went out after the game. The entire time I was a wet blanket, moping about how badly I needed a job and how tired I was of being rejected. Sometimes I don’t know how my friends put up with me, but they did.

With just about a week to go before our utility bills were due again, a letter arrived in the mail from none other than Cinnamon, Jang Willoughby. With the now familiar sense of dread that I felt every time I saw a letter from an accounting firm, I opened it and unfolded it and began to read:

“Dear Mr. McFetridge,

We thank you for sending us your resume for our consideration. Our personnel partner, Mr. Doug Frew would be pleased to arrange an interview with you. Please give us a call at 604-435-4317.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Could this be? Could I actually be getting a second chance? Without wasting any time, I called the next day, while I was tutoring an SFU student in one of the courses I had taken. I was doing this as a way to make ends meet while I looked for work in accounting. I spoke to Mr. Frew, who sounded very upbeat and told me that my GPA was what caught his eye. "We like bright students" he said.  I came in for an interview and met with him the next day or the day after. He was an athletic looking middle aged man, about 6 feet tall with grey curly hair and wore a grey double-breasted suit. He was very friendly and spoke excitedly of the opportunity that working for the firm would afford me. He did not seem at all fazed by my lack of volunteer experience and the interview seemed to go very well.

About half way into the interview, a tall man with short, dark brown hair and glasses knocks on the glass door to Mr. Frew’s office. “Come in Dave” Says Mr. Frew. In walks Dave Harlos, a manager at the firm that I would eventually learn much from in the brief time we worked together. He saw me sitting in the chair and briefly introduced himself, before turning to Mr. Frew to discuss the issue at hand. I couldn’t really follow everything they were talking about, but at one point, I heard Dave say: “Doug this number in the shareholder loan account sticks out like a dog’s balls.”. They continued to discuss this file that Dave is clearly working on, before he finally tells Mr. Frew: “There is just no other way to put it Doug. When a set of books is fucked, it’s fucked.” I remember well the feeling of shock that I felt at hearing two senior members of a firm talking about their work this way. It completely flew in the face of everything the firms recruiting on campus had portrayed about themselves. However, I could tell that if I was hired, this was a firm I would enjoy working in, and I could tell, just from a few minutes in that room, that I would like working for Dave.  The interview continued more or less uneventfully and ended with Mr. Frew saying “It was a pleasure meeting you Chris. We have a few other applicants to see, but we should be in touch within a week or so.”

Three days later, I returned home from tutoring another student to find a message on our answering machine from Doug Frew. He had called to say that the partners had decided to select me for a second interview with the managing partner, Mr. Don Willoughby. I didn’t own a computer, and the internet was a very new thing at this time, so I could not just hop on a website to see what Mr. Willoughby looked like, or read about his background. So I just waited patiently for the day to arrive when we would meet. It came soon enough and before I knew it I was back in the elevator at tower 2 in Metrotown centre, heading up to their 9th floor office. I greeted the receptionist, Elaine and asked to see Mr. Willoughby. I was asked to sit and told that he would be with me in a few moments. After about 10 minutes or so, while I attempted to calm my nerves, a short, bespectacled, pigeon-toed man of what appeared to be Chinese descent appeared in the waiting room wearing a bright blue and white striped dress shirt and a lavender and blue checkered tie. I was impressed. I knew little about fashion, but from what Lea had taught me about fabrics, I could tell that this man’s shirt and tie probably cost more than most of us rookies would spend on an entire suit. “Mr. McFetridge?” said the man.” Yes?” I said. “Come this way please. I’m Peter Cha, the office partner.” “Pleased to meet you”, I said shaking his hand.

He immediately led me into the main boardroom, which was a somewhat dark room that faced the eastern part of Burnaby and had a large solid wood boardroom table. Seated at one end of the table was Mr. Willoughby. He was an older man, maybe in his late 40’s or early 50’s, who also appeared very fit and athletic, with perfectly coiffed dark brown hair, that betrayed just the smallest hints of grey. He wore glasses and no suit jacket. The cuffs of his dress shirt were rolled up slightly and what was striking was his watch, which he wore backwards, with the face on the inside of his forearm rather than on the outside. I would later learn that wearing a watch this way made it easier to see, at all times, what the time was. It would be years before I would realize how a person could be so busy as to require that level of time management. Mr. Willoughby, got up and introduced himself with a wry little smile and motioned me to sit. He was very imposing and at first intimidating, but almost immediately, I could sense a mischievous gleam in his eye and his smile. I didn’t know whether to trust my perception or not though, and I had no intention of blowing this interview, as it was now my only chance to literally keep a roof over our heads and the lights on. “Michael Ashby asked me to send you his regards.” I said as I sat down. Mr Willoughby acknowledged with "How is Mr. Ashby?" "Fine" I said. Michael Ashby was a customer of Weeda Stamps where I had worked a few years before. He had helped me get my resumes together and assisted with other aspects of my job search. When I told him I would be seeing Don Willoughby, he said he knew him and told me to send his regards.

I sat down and the interview started. Mr. Willoughby cut straight to the chase.

Mr. Willoughby: “I see here on your academic record there is a semester where you had all “WE’s”. Can you tell me what happened?”

Me: “I started university at 17, which in hindsight was way too young. As you will see there, I went through three semesters without a break and by the fourth, I struggled. I got sick and fell behind. I had tried to finish my courses, but I knew that the impact on my GPA would be disastrous, so I decided that it would be better for me to withdraw and come back when I knew I could finish my courses to the best of my ability”

Mr. Willoughby: “I see. What about your social skills? You don’t seem to have a lot of experience in clubs or other extracurricular activities.”

Me: “I am different from other people. I have always struggled with that. But I have worked hard to be able to fit in with normal people. I usually do OK, once people get to know me.” He didn’t look so convinced or impressed.

Mr. Willoughby: “So why did you choose our firm.?”

Me: “I wanted to be in an environment that values one-on-one working relationships. I have always had a close working relationship with all my instructors in university and I just don’t think I would be able to have that at the big firms. However, I think in a smaller firm like this that might be possible.”

Mr Willoughby, winking as he spoke: “We’ll offer you $15,000 a year and great relationships.”

Me: “Ok, that sounds terrific”.

With that he indicated it was time to go and we both got up. I had completely failed to see that Mr. Willoughby was kidding with that last remark and in true Aspie fashion, I took it literally and responded accordingly. He was completely unfazed by my reaction and never let on that I had just missed his joke. I shook his hand and left the office, with much anticipation. I really could not tell how I did, and therefore had no idea what to expect. Within two days I had received a call from Doug Frew that they would be making me an offer and could I come in to sign my acceptance. The relief and excitement I felt was indescribable, as I realized that our power wouldn’t be cut off again and as I realized that we would be able to afford our rent, no matter how badly Lea’s boutique was doing.
I went in the next day and signed my acceptance of the firm’s offer and was scheduled to start the day after Canada Day – July 2. Lea was right: this was the firm that offered me the job. I worked on Don Willoughby’s team of accountants, and occasionally did work for other partners, but not often. I loved this structure, as opposed to a pooled staff structure, because it meant that I was able to develop a close working relationship with Don.

My relationship with Don was complex. At first, I did not work very closely with him at all. He gave out the work and I sat at my desk doing it and only responding to him when he came by my desk to check on things. Unlike other people I had worked for before, Don was very good at giving feedback that had exactly the motivational effect he was looking for, but not in a way that made you feel he was being a jerk. About 2-3 months into the job, I had a file I was working on that he told me should take 2-3 days to complete. I was still working on it at the end of the week. On the Friday, Don called me into his office, shut the door and sat behind his desk and said: ”McFetridge, you have been working on that file I gave you all week. I’m just not sure that you are cut out for accounting unless you can complete that file soon. And, you may want to do something about that fuzzy hairdo.” Of course, I thought he was basically threatening to fire me. So I stayed late that night and came in the following day, on Saturday to finish the file and turn it in. He seemed genuinely surprised when I appeared at his office door on the Saturday afternoon and handed him the the completed file.  His review notes on the work I did were extensive and written in the most exquisite cursive I had ever seen. Here was somebody who learned how to write at a time when schools tested you on your handwriting – the slant, the style and clarity of the letters. It was, and still is the most incredibly distinct handwriting I have ever seen.

After that file, Don began to notice how hard I was working and he responded well to my work ethic. He was very receptive to discussing his review notes with me and slowly, but surely he started making small talk with me near my desk and in the lunchroom. This was the beginning of a long and close working relationship that would last the better part of seven years. 

Commentary on the Last Few Stories

It has been a while since my last post. With my wedding to Steph coming up in less than a month, things are getting pretty busy around here. So I have found it to be a challenge sticking to my writing schedule.

The latest story, "Lou the Butcher" is the first in a series of several stories detailing my experiences with the men who collectively taught me most of what I needed to know to function in the world of work. These stories are less about life on the spectrum and more about coming of age, through my interactions with them, my perceptions of them and their reactions to me are all illustrative of certain aspects to being on the Autistic spectrum.

In this story, one aspect that comes to light was my inability to respond to constructive criticism of my work in a socially appropriate manner. It would be many years and many jobs before I would master this important skill. The reasons for not being able to handle it were about ego, but not in exactly the same way as a Neurotypical, I suspect.

One of the pervasive feelings that I had growing up was the desire to "do the right thing". I wanted to be good and I wanted other people to recognize my goodness. This would often result in me agonizing over decisions that other people could make with relative ease. For example, my toughest situations would be those where I found someone else annoying, but my empathy for them and understanding of how much it hurt to be treated badly because I was different would prevent me from simply distancing myself from them. As I became aware of the fact that I was different and the fact that so many people around me took offense at my behaviors, which in a sense was taking offense at my very existence, I realized that I needed to excel at something in order to be merely just as good as everyone else. But I couldn't just be good at what I did, I had to be the best.

This meant that in this job I tried to be the best I could be: on-time, focused and I worked hard. But it also meant that I was extremely invested in what Lou thought of me. When he praised my work I was happy, but if he criticized it, I felt like the criticism somehow negated all the praise that came before it. It was as if I built my identity around my work, or more specifically, my performance. I saw any criticism as an attack on my identity, rather than seeing it as simple feedback and information. My reaction to this perceived threat was to defend myself and argue. Unfortunately for me, as someone on the spectrum, I couldn't see the look on my face, or hear my tone of voice when I responded. Thus, I was often perplexed as to why adults like Lou thought I was being rude and as he put it "giving him lip.". This story illustrates this well and shows that as the negative reactions began to accumulate to my defensiveness, that I began to withdraw and tried to avoid getting into trouble, even if it meant lying about dropping the pate.

The story also illustrates two other aspects of life on the spectrum: dislike of change and a skepticism towards Neurotypical standards of hygiene. This second of these is illustrated by my response to dropping the pate on the floor. Most Neurotypicals would immediately inform the boss and throw it out because they would assume that it was covered in germs and couldn't be eaten. My experience throughout my life, at least for me, is that I tend to be, well, a bit gross. Not totally, mind you, but let's just say that my hygienic standards have been "a work in progress". I'm basically very close to Neurotypical in this regard now, but in my teenage years, I had a very hard time understanding what I saw as an "obsession" with hygiene. I understood that things need to be clean and it is certainly not that I thought it was OK to be dirty, but I think my standards were just different. For instance, in the case of the pate, I would have reasoned that the floor was not dirty enough to contaminate the food. Why? Because of where it was - underneath the shelves where we didn't step, and because, as I said earlier, we scrubbed the floors down every night and hosed them down. In my mind, if I picked it up quickly and wiped it off, it might be a bit misshapen, but otherwise it was fine. I think my issue was that if I couldn't see it, touch it, taste it or smell it, I had a hard time accepting that it was there. I don't know for sure if this is an Aspie thing, but I suspect very strongly that it is. Actually, I think that those of us on the spectrum probably fall into two groups with respect to hygiene: those of us who are obsessive about it, even more so than Neurotypicals and those of us who are a bit more lax.

The dislike of change is another, very core aspect to life on the spectrum. Because we have so little control over how we are perceived and how we come across to other people, we tend to seek out order in other areas of our lives. We work very hard to create that order and it is very upsetting to us when something comes along to disrupt that order and we are forced to start all over again. In this case, it had taken several months for me to figure out what made Lou happy and what didn't, and to incorporate that into a routine that I could follow. Then, without any warning, he goes and brings in Adrian, Reg and Warwick and all of the sudden, I have to figure out what works for four different guys, at the same time. Later, in my professional career, I specifically chose one of my firms because I would work for four different partners and I relished the challenge. But that was in my 30's, when I had a lot more confidence. At 13, when I didn't have any confidence in myself, this working arrangement would prove to be unmanageable to me.

The previous two stories describe the early concerns that Steph had as we were just starting to date. It is here that I reveal for the first time, my single largest regret: having been unfaithful to Kay in the early years of our relationship. I was very upfront with Steph about this, as well as the process that I went through to attempt to rebuild the trust that I destroyed through my actions. In the first of these, Steph echos a perception that I have heard from many over the years: that of being a sociopath. I explain to her that for those of us on the spectrum, body language is more or less meaningless to us, and that we do not generally possess the innate ability to control our own body language. Consequently, most of the time when Neurotypicals react to us based on what they see, rather than what we tell them verbally, they get it 100% wrong.

The implications of this for us are incredible:

  • most relationships rely on non-verbal communication, so that many of us on the spectrum have a hard time maintaining relationships unless we are fortunate enough to be with someone who understands us well enough to know that they have to talk to us rather than simply relying on their perceptions. I am very lucky that Steph is one of those people, as was Lea. Kay unfortunately was not, and nearly all of our problems could be traced back to the fact that she felt that her perceptions trumped what I actually told her. 
  • success in most office jobs, from the interview, through to day to day office life is dictated by one's ability to master non-verbal communication. I had a very hard time with interviews until I was well into my 30's. Eventually with lots of practice, I was able to do very well in them. However, even with my confidence and all the practice that I had, being successful in the small firm in which I worked, meant that I had "to be on" all the time. I couldn't just relax and be myself. For me this pretty much ruled out a career in the big accounting firms like KPMG, PWC or Deloitte & Touche, and meant that I had to opt for smaller firms where the people in charge could get to know me personally and see what I brought to the table. That was my insurance policy: my performance. This is the reality that is shared by many who are on the spectrum. 
The next few stories will be about the other mentors that I have had over the years and my experiences with them.