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Point of No Return

Leaving San Fransisco

“We thought you might do something with orchestras.” I'd pictured many responses my parents might have when I told them I was opening a bookstore, but not this. I'd been so worried about their reaction to me abandoning my career, I never thought they'd perhaps been expecting it for a while. Even if the details were off, the general idea wasn't. After programming for nearly twenty years, we all knew it was time for me to move on.

Telling my parents wasn't the hard part. They were supportive and relatively happy with my decision, especially since I would be moving closer to them. Instead, try explaining to friends in California that you've decided to return to Ohio. This was outside the realm of remotest possibilities for most people I knew. When you're in Ohio, California is the state with everything, and from the flipped perspective, the reverse is  just as true: Ohio is the state with nothing.

As it turns out, the first friends I told about my plans were not local; I was quite worried about word getting out. This was borne out of a desire to keep the status quo as long as practical; everything changes when people know you're leaving. I find it's a bit like being a lame duck politician: your long-term value is diminished, you can't be depended upon, and eventually social gatherings get kind of awkward. You're still around? Weren't you leaving?

Unhelpfully, I also had the voice in my head, reminding me that no one was forcing me to leave. This voice, which once told me that nothing was preventing me from opening a bookstore, now told me something similar but altogether different. Nothing was stopping me from putting everything on hold and remaining in California. Perhaps I could wait a bit, maybe until March? March, of course, being shorthand for "undetermined". Future. Never.

It was remarkably easy to apply zero effort toward my departure. I had still shared news of my departure with only a few local friends. I made up excuses of all types to delay telling my company, to delay telling the orchestra, to delay sharing the news with friends and former colleagues. I lingered in this uncertain state, believing that I would be on my way soon, but not being entirely ready.

To spur myself to take action, I was going to have to use some sort of forcing function. It turned out there was a good deadline I could use for tax reasons: I did not want 2018 taxes to have the added complexity of including both self-employment and working for another company. I would leave by the end of 2017, making a clean break, IRS included.

With a deadline established, continued dormancy was not an option. Even so, I had to push myself every step of the way, inching forward against the inertia of a comfortable lifestyle. I measured progress against what I called the "point of no return". Until I got there, I wasn't committed, and theoretically could back out of the entire project. But once I hit that point, indeed, there was no returning from it.

As fall lengthened, I started to take real steps forward. This wasn't easy, and I took some comfort in knowing that they were technically reversible. I told the orchestra's board I was leaving, but no problem: I could find a reason to cause an indefinite delay. I shared the news with colleagues, no problem again: they would love if I were able to stay an extra week, month, longer. 

With these real steps came challenges. I’d been ingrained in life in San Francisco, and there were many hard conversations about my responsibilities being transferred, friendships suspended, and future plans broken. At times, it felt like I was leaving a trail of carnage behind me — every conversation resulted in disappointment and sadness. This took an incredible emotional toll, and I only pushed myself in deeper, seeing as many people as possible and delaying packing and preparations for departure to an unfortunate extreme (I started packing just five days before leaving, with three of those five also being full workdays.)

What was that final point of no return? Telling my landlord. I couldn't quite hear the cheers from my apartment, but with a new tenant came a $600 increase in monthly rent, thanks to the wonders of rent control. Once I sent that email, it was all over. Any attempt to stay now would be all but impossible. My course was set.

I arrived back in Cleveland just 26 hours before Christmas. An intensely emotional, stressful, and wrenching month had just come to an end. Where did I go from here? How, exactly, would I go about the business of selling books? I can tell you honestly: I had no idea.


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Ryan Magada