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Michabelle Inn

Operation Caracal, Part 4

Days 9-10, December 29-30

I’ve been saying that this trip was largely free form, and with no advance planning. That isn’t entirely true. Lisa and I have been wanting to have a weekend away, as a belated anniversary celebration. The opportunity to set up such a trip didn’t present itself until now. After discussing it with Lisa’s parents, we arranged to leave Caitlin and Michael with them, so Lisa and I could spend an overnight at a regional hotel, inn, or bed & breakfast.

After doing some research, we settled on the Michabelle Inn, a historic house within Hammond. This was perfect, because we didn’t want a long drive. We already had another one of those approaching, and didn’t need another.

Our little getaway started on the afternoon of December 29, when we went to lunch at a local restaurant, Café Nola. We were advised to not let the appearance of the place fool us. We had passed this place earlier in the week, and from the outside it doesn’t look like much. On the inside it looks like a sports bar. But the smell of food was enticing, so we ordered. Lisa had the grilled shrimp Alfredo, and I had the pasta fazula. The food was great, and even the lunch sized portions were generous. If you’re ever in this area, check this place out. Trust me.

After lunch, we did some sight seeing around Ponchatoula. It was a cloudy day, but the temperature was pleasant, and we took some photos of the historic buildings.

We were surprised to see a statue of G. K. Chesterton, because as far as we know the man had no connection to this area. This little mystery warrants further investigation.

Ponchatoula was an important railroad town in the past. If you look at a map of the area, you’ll see that many of the major streets run parallel to the railroad tracks. Today, the railroad is still an important freight handler. But for passenger and other commercial traffic, it is now second fiddle to the regional Interstate highways (I-12 and I-55). Even so, the earlier importance of the railroad is evident.

In the photo below is Old Hardhide, an alligator that lives in an enclosure near the Ponchatoula country market building. He is sort of the town mascot. Apparently he “writes” a column for one of the local newspapers. I would hate to be his stenographer.

After this, we ran a few short errands, then headed back to Hammond to check into Michabelle.

Statue, front fountain

 

This place was built in 1907 as a private home, and was converted into an inn in 1998. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1982, and is often referred to as “McGehee House” after the original residents. The current owners include a descendant of this family.

 

 

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Crashing in slow-motion

For me, 2016 will be remembered as a “bad year.” When it started, I was making plans for a year of accomplishment and success. Instead, it was the year where I watched my career decline, falter, and collapse.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in early March. When I first talked about this last June, I believed that I had survived the worst of it, and that things would start calming down. I was about as far from the mark as a person could be. Things were only in a lull when I wrote that article. They soon got uglier with each passing week.

I may as well set the stage and state that this doesn’t end well. Today, March 6, 2017, is my final day as an employee of the Library of Congress. After more than fourteen years with the agency, the complications brought on by ADHD have forced me to leave.

Now I’ll tell you how and why this happened.


First off, understand that removal from federal service – that’s really what they call it – is not a simple process. It takes a long time, requires meticulous planning, and a lot of documentation. That’s one of the reasons it doesn’t happen very often, and when it is done it isn’t done lightly.

In all likelihood, the Library made this decision as much as two years ago. Given how long this process can take, they would have had to start that far back for this to end here and today. The worst part is that for much of that time I wasn’t aware of what was going on.

And yet, the clues were there. In hindsight, I think the Library had been trying to compel me to leave on my own for quite a while. My job became increasingly intolerable, in one way or another. No matter what I did to change things, or to improve my work situation, nothing seemed to work. I was never good enough, I was never efficient enough, I was never thorough enough, or something. I was always falling short in some way. Improvement in one area never mattered as much as deficiencies in another.

You may be asking why I put up with such a toxic situation if it was so bad. That’s easy: my fear of the unknown, namely being without a job and of being unable to provide for my family, was greater than whatever fear I had of the administration at the Library.

I should have been more observant, and definitely more shrewd.

The process really got moving in the summer of 2015. By then, the Library most likely concluded that I was not going to leave unless I was forced to (and that is actually true). It was then that the performance related disciplinary process began, though at first I didn’t recognize it as such. It wasn’t until February of 2016, when I was given a written warning that I was in danger of receiving an unsatisfactory performance rating, that the true nature of my situation started to become clear.

It was also shortly after this that I was diagnosed with ADHD. That changed the whole situation, and put many things in a different light. Prior to that, I had been asking myself why I was having so much trouble, and why I always felt frantic and rushed. Now I had an answer, and with the root problem identified and addressed, I was confident that I could overcome it.

I was in constant contact with my professional guild (AFSCME 2910) about possible accommodations and help with legal issues. I changed my methods of therapy, and was put on a new set of medications. I implemented some workplace accommodations to help deal with the physical issues of ADHD. I frequently put in extra hours at work, in the hope of finding a pattern than would work for me. I was determined to sufficiently improve my work performance. By the summer things had quieted down. I thought I had found the right working pattern, and that things would start to improve.

The summer lull had given me in a false sense of security. In August I was given an assignment that proved to be exceedingly difficult, and I was given a very short time in which to prove myself. The task was indeed very complex, and had several facets to it. But it was not beyond the requirements of someone with my job title. Sadly, I was unable to adequately do the assignment. I thought I had, but I did not. Knowing what I do now, I don’t think there was any way I could have succeeded with that assignment, and the Library never seriously expected me to. The only possible outcomes were varying levels of failure.

I didn’t think my situation could get worse than this, because now I was quite sure that I would be receiving an unsatisfactory performance rating. But, in mid-September I was informed that I was not performing my job at the level expected of me, and that further disciplinary action would soon follow in addition to a likely unsatisfactory performance rating. I kept trying to improve, and working with my guild to find options

Nothing worked. In October I was informed that an adverse action was going to be filed against me, and that it would probably call for my removal. Even so, I kept trying to save the situation, if only because I had nothing left to lose. In November I received my long-overdue evaluation, which rated my job performance as unsatisfactory. I still kept trying. At this point I was hoping for a re-assignment or demotion, because I knew my current position was lost.

Finally, in early December, I was informed that I was going to be removed from my current position. Also, in the opinion of my superiors, given the severity of my unsatisfactory work, I was not being considered for re-assignment or demotion. I called on my guild one last time. I spent an entire day speaking with my representative, explaining everything I could in as much detail as I could manage. I also described, at length, exactly how my work is done, and how ADHD has created so many problems for me. My representative became crestfallen.

There is a fine line between being a quitter, and realizing that it is time to quit. On that day, I crossed that line.

I never allowed myself to seriously consider leaving the Library, because when I looked at the various issues in life that I need to juggle every day, the prospect of being without my federal job – or more accurately, the salary and benefits it provided – was too horrible to contemplate. But the facts were clear. The Library had exhaustive paperwork showing how that for the past three years my work performance had been steadily deteriorating. And for every argument my guild had for keeping me on board, my superiors were able to produce at least two additional arguments for why they shouldn’t. They didn’t know there was a medical condition involved until late in the game, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. Poor work, no matter what causes it, is still poor work.

A few nights later, in a fit of crushing despair, I finally accepted what ADHD had done to my mind: I was no longer capable of doing my job.

I considered ending my life. I’ve suffered from depression for most of my adult life, but I hadn’t been in a place that dark in over twenty years. But here I was, thinking about clocking out. I didn’t, obviously, but I still felt lost. The only career I have ever seriously pursued, or have any solid experience in, could now be closed off. I was faced with the very real possibility that I no longer had a career. I may have to go back to entry level work, or do wage based labor, to survive. For a man who is approaching fifty, has a medical rap sheet, a stay-at-home wife, and two young children to care for, this is a terrifying position to be in!

I still had one option. My guild recommended that I take involuntary retirement, based on a medical disability. It took some negotiating, but eventually a settlement was reached where I would be allowed to retire from the Library of Congress under those guidelines.

I was six weeks shy of my fiftieth birthday, so this was a very surreal experience. Most men my age are in the coasting phase of their career, and are getting ready to gather resources for retirement. Very few are actually entering it. Fewer still are entering it unprepared and against choice. But here I was, preparing to retire almost fifteen years earlier than I had ever expected.

I have applied to retire through the Federal Employee Retirement System (known as FERS). I have to be approved before I can start receiving annuity, and even if I quality, not all of my problems will be solved. More needs to be done.

So what am I doing?

Lisa and I are restructuring our family’s finances into something that can last long term. I’m trying to help Lisa find a job so that get her re-established in the work force. She is helping me look for a new career, or at least find a job that will help keep us afloat. We’ve both been looking over our various skill sets to see what, if anything, we can refresh or update by taking a class or online tutorial. We’re setting ourselves up with temporary employment agencies that may help get us through the upcoming drought. I’ve been contacting old colleagues from earlier chapters of my life to see what the professional landscape has become and where it might be going. I’m exploring some work paths that I had never seriously considered before, like home-based computer work, and freelance writing.

I’m trying to determine what I can or should do with the rest of my life.

I’m doing what anyone else in my position would do.

I’m doing what I have to do.

Driveabout

Operation Caracal, part 3


Day 6, December 26

This was another quiet day, with very few things planned. Caitlin enjoyed her new Kindle, while Lisa went shopping for professional attire. At another point, Michael and I went to run some errands. Actually I ran the errands, and Michael was along for the ride.

We also went what I call “driveabout.” That’s rather like going walkabout, only using a car, and generally it only takes an hour or two as opposed to a few weeks or months. Recall that one of the objectives for this trip was to scope out the area for possible places to live and work, should the need arise. So after picking up the dry goods I had set out to acquire, I picked a road and followed it. We proceeded to drive along a country highway, enjoying the scenery, and generally trying to see what this part of Louisiana looked like.

We motored our way along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, which took us through the towns of Springfield, Ponchatoula, Madisonville, and Covington. Along the way, I was able to get a good sense of the lay of the land, what a typical regional house looked like, and what kinds of services were in the area. I would have liked going further, but I didn’t want everyone else to get worried. You see, I had decided to go driveabout on a whim, so no one knew where Michael and I were! Aboriginal tribes might say that one goes walkabout (or driveabout) when it is time to go, and not when you choose to go. Naturally when we got back to Hammond, I was understandably greeted with:

“Where the hell have you guys been?!?”

Exploring this little piece of the world, that’s where.

Later that day I explored online real estate listings for the area, and took a peek at regional career options. The real estate prices were pretty good, especially when compared to similar houses in the greater Washington, DC area. Unfortunately, the career opportunities were not as encouraging. They weren’t hopeless, but options were thin on the ground, and I suspect competition is fierce. Mr. Wayne said that such has been the norm in Louisiana for many years. A lot of professionals are trained in Louisiana, through the various colleges, universities and trade schools. So when a professional opening appears, competition is rough. But because of economic factors, such openings are uncommon, and few professionals actually remain in state. Even fewer are brought in. The upcoming change in the presidential administration wasn’t helping this situation, nor was the residual effects of recent weather.

The weather is a constant concern in Louisiana. Floods and hurricanes are part of everyday life. There are sections of the state, particularly in the greater New Orleans area, that never recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and that was over ten years ago.

photo by Richard David Ramsey

The one major plan for today involved dinner at a favorite regional restaurant, Mittendorf’s Seafood. This place is located on the shore of Lake Maurepus, in the village of Macanac.

One thing that I really liked about this place (in addition to the delicious fried catfish) was that it is in what looks like a true bayou community. Less than a mile away you can see traditional bayou houseboats and stilt houses, right on the water. Some of the houses had tiny canals instead of driveways, with boats instead of cars. Were it not for the power lines and satellite dishes connected to many of the structures, one might think they had stepped through a time tunnel.

L to R: Ms. Mary, Caitlin, Mr. Wayne

L to R: Lisa, me, Michael

Caitlin and Michael, camping it up.

Day 7, December 27

This day was a bit different. My mother in law, Ms. Mary, had made reservations to take her daughters and granddaughters to a formal tea at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans.

So, Lisa and Caitlin got into their best available clothes and set out. I understand the tea setting was great, but for some reason the place was extremely cold! After tea, Ms. Mary, Lisa and Caitlin set out to complete the upgrades to Lisa’s professional wardrobe. Apparently Caitlin was not happy with this portion of the day’s activities, if her mood upon return is anything to go by.

The tea hour was strictly a ladies affair. But you must admit, they all looked great!

L to R: Caitlin, Kathy, Ms. Mary, Michele, Mya, and Lisa.

I had jokingly suggested that while the girls had tea, that us guys should get several pizzas, one or two beer kegs, a case of imported cigars, and pipe in the loudest sporting event that ESPN could dish up. The plan didn’t fly, but only because both of my brothers in-law had to work. One of them said the idea “had considerable merit.”

Instead, Mr. Wayne and I took Michael to the Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center in Hammond. He’s always enjoyed interactive museums like this one, so he had a lot of fun.

I was also able to discuss some of our possible future plans with Mr. Wayne, which was good for me. It can be hard juggling so many issues at a time, and a fresh perspective can be a big help.

Day 8, December 28

The only plan for this day was a visit to the home of Lisa’s older sister, in the nearby village of Loranger. They recently acquired a new home there, after their long time house in Ponchatoula endured one too many floods. Lisa and I really like their new house! It’s a one-story house with a large, central living area, four bedrooms, and two full baths. In terms of total square feet, I think it’s about the same size as our house. But since our house has two floors and isn’t laid out the same way, it feels smaller.

When we got back to Hammond, I took another look at the real estate listings to see if similar houses were available on the market, and what their price range was. Surprisingly, houses of similar design are available in parts of Culpeper county, at prices that are a little high, but not totally unreasonable. If we end up remaining in the Culpeper area, and our career situations stabilize, we may look into this further.

But after everything I had seen over the course of the past few days, I concluded that if the fates decide it to be, I could learn to like this region of Louisiana. Even with the difficult weather.

To be continued.


A driveabout can run for several months, and there are some famous examples. William Least Heat Moon’s book Blue Highways describes such a trip.


Caracal travelogue:

  1. Operation Caracal
  2. Louisiana down time
  3. Driveabout
  4. Michabelle Inn
  5. Arrival 2017AD
  6. Dems good eats
  7. First transition

Louisiana down time

Operation Caracal, part 2

Unlike some of our earlier family trips, this one didn’t have a lot of frills. For me, this was a chance to put some distance between myself and the problems I had been dealing with for most of the preceding year, and try to determine how best to handle whatever came next. For Lisa, it was a chance to collect and prepare for her upcoming plunge back into the workforce. For Caitlin and Michael, this was a chance to spend time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Days 3-4, December 23-24.

These two days were quiet days, devoted largely to recovering from the grueling drive. We did run some errands, such as acquire stocking stuffers for the kids and some other last minute things. One strange observation, for me at least, was the sight of teens and twenty somethings walking around in t-shirts, Bermudas, and Daisy Dukes. I know that Louisiana is one of the warmer parts of the country. But even so, the sight of so much traditionally summer attire at Christmas time created a cognitive disconnect.

As with the last time we spent Christmas here, Mr. Wayne prepared a traditional Lithuanian kūčios dinner. The main course contained fish, onions and mushrooms, while the side dishes consisted largely of, well, onions and mushrooms. Caitlin wasn’t very thrilled, because she’s not fond of mushrooms. She asked why there were so many onions and mushrooms in the meal. I told her that in the days prior to refrigeration, onions and mushrooms were among the few foods that could be preserved well into the winter. It was either eat these things, or go hungry until Spring. That’s not much of a choice when you think about it.

Day 5, December 25.

Christmas day was spent in Metarie, at the home of Lisa’s younger sister and her family. Michael had fun with his two young cousins, and Caitlin met her new good friend, a Kindle.

The dinner was amazing, with roasted Cajun-style turkey, a variety of vegetables, and some decadent Louisiana-style desserts. My blood glucose read me the riot act a short time later.

That evening, we did a drive-by of Celebration in the Oaks, a long running tradition in the New Orleans City Park. Lisa and I returned to Hammond, because Michael was falling asleep, but Caitlin stayed with the rest of the family and went through the entire display.

To be continued.


Caracal travelogue:

  1. Operation Caracal
  2. Louisiana down time
  3. Driveabout
  4. Michabelle Inn
  5. Arrival 2017AD
  6. Dems good eats
  7. First transition