The following is a personal post. I don’t usually update this site with details of my personal life but felt the need to vent and I’m not sure where else to do it.
Six days ago Mars and I were at the pediatrician’s office for Penelope’s 1.5 year routine checkup. As I was entering Penelope’s next appointment into my google calendar, I received a daunting all-caps e-mail from our new CEO: *** TIME SENSITIVE COMMUNICATIONS *** – please leave the office by 3:15 today, enjoy the rest of the day. I had a sinking sensation in my stomach, based on a few other foreshadowing recent departures at Gaia, that it was going to be a heavy-handed set of layoffs. We went out for a snack afterwards, and Marissa told me her phone wasn’t able to receive any of her work e-mails; second sinking sensation. After we put Penelope to bed that night, I tried logging her into her account via web and that didn’t work either. A few secondhand messages on facebook and a closer look at the separate e-mails we received earlier in the afternoon pretty much confirmed my fear – she was laid off while we were at the pediatrician’s office, and I was kept on.
The next morning we went in to collect her things and sign paperwork. I felt a heavy sense of finality, sadness, and personal failure as we sat down with the new HR manager and quickly went over what she missed the day before.
Seeing the original copy of our terms of employment, the signature she signed on our first day six years ago and the original insurance forms dated 2007 really brought back a flood of memories and feelings. I remember the both of us being so happy and excited at the rare golden opportunity we’d been offered – to work together and collaborate as we had previously been doing freelance, but with the benefits of job stability, a nice salary, stock options, health insurance, free lunches, and the prospect of working with an inspired group of talented peers who we really understood and clicked with. Mars was a member of Gaia almost since its inception and the culture and humor and inspirations behind it matched our own; the idea of working for such a community and environment was so much more inspiring than the dry freelance work we had been doing for record labels and military subcontractors. On top of that, we were living practically back in my hometown, an area I’m comfortable and familiar with, with the support of my parents close by. Suddenly new opportunities opened up everywhere – buying bicycles and getting regular exercise, upgrading our computers and furniture, visiting my family for awesome home-cooked meals, Mars crafting and going to the salon for her hair. My parents had also invited us on an all-expenses-paid trip to Maui that happened to be two weeks after our employment started. Soon after that, we also hired two of our closest friends from art school, who ended up living in the same apartment building we were. It was a golden time, and it felt like we were finally in the right place, excited to work and live together.
The arrangement of working with one’s spouse is a double-edged sword though, and adds another level of commitment and upkeep to the relationship. I struggled with that from the beginning – the pull between wanting to work together in the ways we complement each other well and playing to the best of our strengths, and wanting to work independently and be recognized for my own skills and hard work as an individual. The workplace provided plenty of challenges for that struggle to manifest itself, and Mars fought emotionally and passionately to keep our collaboration alive. At the time I didn’t have an appreciation for what she was trying to do – she has an excellent sense of the big picture, of seeing the forest for the trees, and I often didn’t recognize that. She had another reason to fight for it though – the work I do is easy to see, it’s quantifiable and objective, it has a requirement, and when the requirement has been fulfilled it is complete. Her work is often more ephemeral in many ways – like I mentioned, it’s the big picture, it’s the spirit of the thing – sometimes that can be direction, sometimes storyboards, sometimes tweaks during development to fit the vision. That kind of sense is invaluable to me, since I focus much of my energy into polishing details and getting things finished. The end result is that I was often the one recognized and credited for the fruits of our equal labor.
Getting all of her work together to update her portfolio over the past week was a nostalgic and poignant experience. Looking back on the early work we did for Gaia – the battle animations, cars renderings, summer olympic games, aquariums, towns emotes, and game prototyping, I realized all of those projects really played to our strengths and were all products the both of us were deeply involved in. In retrospect, it felt like over the past couple of years our ability and/or opportunities to collaborate dwindled, and eventually our role shifted to one more suited to a solo artist. That is, completing a list of assets necessary to develop visual portions of a game. As the detail and execution half of our unit, more often than not those responsibilities fell to me. Left with nothing else, we tried to split those tasks – I did my best to funnel the more big picture ones to Marissa and take the nitty-gritty stuff I prefer for myself. But I think the passion she felt was gone – the magic of working together and showing off the fruits of our labor, of having created something greater than the sum of its parts, was no longer part of our duty.
I know that a part of that shift in direction has to do with the rapidly changing industry, with the constantly shifting nature of the company itself and the overarching choices that were made, but I also can’t help but feel a sense of personal failure on that front, and that’s possibly what bothers me the most about this. A sense that I didn’t value our collaborative relationship enough, our once golden opportunity, and in my relentless push to be recognized independently it slipped from my hands, a dead dream. That maybe if I’d worked with her more closely we would have been recognized as an inseparable unit and not rent asunder as we were.
As I mentioned, I’m a detail person, and it’s as easy for me to get tunnel vision working on the details of a project as it is to get caught up in daily duties and leisure. And perhaps that’s why I didn’t really see it coming. I may have had a very vague background feeling but never expected it would happen. But my better half is the opposite.
I was surprised at how well she kept it together when we went to pick up her things the day after. I felt terrible sitting in an all-hands meeting and the following creative team debriefing while she sat at my desk, excluded from even logging on to her former workstation of six years. To me, it almost felt like a final insult-to-injury to her from all of the times I’d been approached by a colleague to take part in a meeting or give feedback or been thanked or rewarded for a job well done without credit going to Marissa; a final exclusion. When that was all done and I saw how well she was taking it, part of me wondered if it was because she had known and accepted the eventuality of the situation long before. I remembered all of the passionate arguments we’d had and realized all that time she was just fighting for us to work better as a unit, and it occurred to me that maybe things hadn’t gotten better in the past couple of years, but rather that she’d resigned and accepted that this was how it had turned out.
The realization that this was the last time we’d come in to work together brought a sudden retrospection, a flood of memories of our nervous and excited first day, of vacations, friends and coworkers come and gone, of past successes, my marriage proposal to her at a Gaia Fanime panel, of happier times when it felt like we were unstoppable. As Mars said her final goodbyes, I couldn’t hold it together anymore. I ended up taking the rest of the day off; we decided to go to one of her old favorite restaurants for lunch, for old times sake, and start mentally projecting what the future might hold.
Sad as the situation feels, I also know it’s just the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. In a sense, I feel it’s brought us a bit closer again – I definitely feel more motivated to help and collaborate with her on our personal time. Since we’ve had Penelope it feels like most of our collaboration has manifested in the mundanity of running a smooth household; in a sense it’s been a motivation to affirm that the possibility of our artistic collaboration is not bound to our employment. Seems obvious, but in practice it’s ended up that way and the idea of breaking out of that is a motivation in itself. And knowing that we won’t have just about every waking (and sleeping) moment together lends a new sense of appreciation of her.
Six years is a fairly long time to stay in one place in this industry. It was a wonderful opportunity and I’m glad we seized it, and I’m thankful for all of the experiences it provided us together. I’d like to contentedly look back and say we took full advantage of it, but I’ll always wonder if I really did.