birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

The Grand Delusion

We're all faking it to some extent.

It's what's necessary to get through the work days when every fiber of your being tells you you should be doing something else. When your Spidey-sense is tingling and reminding you that this shit just isn't right.

The bitter truth is that the alarm bells went off for me less than 30 days into a job that I stuck with for nearly four years. I'd like those four years back, please.

Faking it 'til you make it is apparently one of those working-world axioms that recruiters, spouses and bad career counselors trot out to justify why you should be doing something that you know you hate but which they're sure is going to get you someplace better off if you just ride it out long enough.

It's possible I bought into the unreality when the job interview itself went so well. I was recruited. I was dined, then wined, in that order, with an all-day interview that floated so many airy possibilities that it should have required that oxygen masks be dropped from the overhead compartment.

We're expanding. We need people like you who can think outside the box. You can redefine your role. We're open to possibilities. We like questions. Our door is always open. The parent company loves us. We've won awards. We'll revisit your salary once you're in for 6 months. Yes, there's a union, but there are no walls here.

And I so wanted to believe in the possibilites. The rapport over that second bottle of wine at dinner was palpable. Despite the straightforward warnings I'd been given by a few people ahead of the Day of Wooing by some folks who worked there, I saw possibilities. I believed it when this prospective new boss eagerly detailed her vision for a department that would defy convention and push the boundaries of creativity, personal exploration, and team-building.

At least I got the salary figures in writing.

And the training project I'd been promised was indeed real.

They just hadn't bothered to tell anyone else in the office what we were supposed to be doing. And the boss that had sketched out this vision of a grand future together was so busy recruiting other hires and advancing her own agenda in meetings that we barely saw her. But, hey, take the initiative. Sort it out among yourselves.

She, with my aide, even managed to recruit one of my friends from the same workplace we'd shared for a couple of years but which was undergoing its own early death throes so was shedding staff via buyouts and old-fashioned attrition.

In retrospect, if felt like one of those WWII movies where a team of unique talents with some misfit characteristics is recruited and trained for what no one suggests until late in the second act will likely be a suicide mission.

But the signs were there, and mostly definitely less than 30 days in.

The uber-boss whose welcome-aboard one-on-one meeting consisted of him reciting his credentials from his last job, including the number of awards the place had won, at least three times, using then-hip buzzwords like "synergy" and "enterprise," and correcting my use of the word "many" to "some" because a boss of his had always emphasized that journalistically you could easily prove "some" people did something but that "many" was a much higher burden that likely wasn't true.

Some people had warned me about the groupthink. Many more would roll their eyes over such in the many rah-rah staff meetings to come.

We were part of a chain. And within those first 30 days I was there as the Kool-Aid was poured and consumed collectively at one of the many quarterly staff meetings in which those in charge would tout profit margins relative to our sister entities, grand initiatives were launched, and obscure benchmarks of success were trotted out. Questions from the staff were eagerly solicited and then acknowledged ("That is the best question I've heard all day.") then instantly glossed over on any requested specifics. The questioner was then invited to the uber-boss's office, wherein they were presented with Orwellian assertions of success ("We are growing readership in unprecedented numbers. We have always been growing readership.")

Spidey-sense tingling? Indeed it was.

Within the first 6 months of the job, I'd been witness to another new hire (the third of our bright young recruits) show us the payroll checks of several managers (including our boss) she'd taken from the bin over the weekend ("just to see what people are really making"), been grilled by the uber-boss as to why my friend and I weren't focusing on our own work such that we had time to report said "borrowing" of checks to management, and been told by the boss whose check our colleague had liffted that it was OK, we have no secrets here anyway.

Within 9 months, the visionary who'd recruited me had hired new department heads, wound up the toy, sold her home and moved to Detroit for bigger and better things. One of those prospective new department heads, in a group meeting with the team she would head, was asked by one of the senior copy editors to spell the word "impostor" according to trade style. She took the bait. She got it wrong. The copy editor declared her that which she had failed to spell correctly. She was our boss for the next three and a half years.

Within a year, the new design guru had, by management decree, incorporated me and seven other direct reports from the departments we had been promised we'd be part of, under the guise of improving efficiency and harmonizing vision under a universal desk. She spent more of that corporate money bringing in a design consultant, who proceeded to ride the local bus and take copies of the paper to the beach, where she laid them out to pick a new color palette that would be more organic to our readers. "Blue" became "Ocean." "Tan" became "Sand." Down became up.

But I stuck with with it. My part of the shared delusion was that change is opportunity. Talent and hard work would pay off. My wife and I could afford a bigger place. It was only temporary. We were young. And, the mantra of many of a parent would always return: You can't be flighty. Stick with it and they'll stick with you. Ride it out.

The capper was when our boss, the design chief, presented us with the upcoming holiday schedule. It was blank. She'd laid out all the shifts, including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, that needed to be covered. She said, "Work out out between yourselves. I'm tired of everyone complaining that they can't the time they want off for travel or holidays. I don't care which of you have seniority."

She left the room, and I took the calendar and pretended I was in charge. Or at least enough of a manager to navigate some agreement between me and my colleagues so that everyone got some part of the time off they'd requested and only partly screwed on the time they'd desired and deserved if only there were some guiding principle like, oh, say, seniority and first-requests-in and who'd gotten the last holidays off.

I'd like to say that was the last straw. That I recognized the moment for what it was and beat a hasty retreat for the door. But that wasn't the case.

Instead, it was sale of the company, to one of the sleaze bags of the industry, that forced change. They gutted the union protections. They hacked the pay and benefits. They made us accept new offers of employment, at immediate 20% salary reductions, within 24 hours.

My wife left the place within 4 months. I was out in 5.

Neither of us looked back, and my next gig was the one that felt like home. I was there for 15 years. And pretending in any capacity was only rarely necessary.

Words and actions

A fraud