Landing Clean 

-a true story

Most of us who’re involved in the making of websites have got it good. The demand for what we do has out-paced the supply of do-ers since the beginning of Internet time, and in our trade when a boss or client or co-worker make things unpleasant we can just quit and do something else with someone else.

That’s precisely what I did back in the ‘oughts.


The first time was because of principle: leadership changes at the non-profit I worked at took things in a direction I disagreed with, so I bailed.

The second time was because of pride: the owner of the online retailer who’d pampered me like a show pony when I joined up had the temerity eight months in to try and throw a bridle on me and hitch me up to a plow. So, I just walked away.

In both cases, I probably ought to have toughed it out. In both cases my ex-bosses were unpleasantly surprised by how little negative energy it took to ignite the fuse of the career cannon I’d used to shoot myself up and out of their circus-tent of a workplace.

I don’t doubt there is professional character-building that results from prolonged suffering through workplace situations that’re emotionally or physically stressful. But in my peculiar industry, in this particular line of charmed work-life on the web, when the going gets tough — or simply when the fun stops — one can just “go freelance.”

“The Human Cannonball” by R. Muller (1879).
from the Theatrical Poster Collection at the Library of Congress

That’s what I’m doing when this story begins — working as a once-again-freelance web design and e-commerce expert.

I’m fussing with the air conditioner and going over the next day’s schedule in my tiny hotel room at a conference center on the outskirts of Kansas City. If you’ve ever been in Missouri at the end of July you understand about the air conditioning. Sometimes, it has a hard time keeping up.

The ten-cent word for the activity I’m preparing to conduct the next day is “contextual inquiry.” My client — Mike — is a spiritual teacher and online entrepreneur, and tomorrow he’s giving a full-day seminar for 75 devotees, some of whom are driving in all the way from St. Louis. I’m here to witness the goings-on of the seminar and interact with the attendees as if I were one of them in order to learn in vivo what I need to know about what Mike sells and what his audience wants to buy. One of his best selling products is a bumper sticker that says:

Thoughts Become Things — Choose The Good Ones®

jazz hands!

In the days leading up to this trip I joked with friends about my new “snake oil client.” But on the eve of doing the work — staring myself down in the bathroom mirror and miming the choreography of eye contact and emotional affect I’d need to make believable to the other attendees — it didn't take too long to persuade myself that I could pull this off. As an ex-Calvinist, I figured I had plenty first-hand snake-oil experience to draw from.

The next day was a riot.

I filled my notebook with observations, character sketches, and overheard bits of conversation. Mike’s command of the room and the coherence of his teachings over the course of the two three-hour sessions really impressed me. As did the attentive earnestness of his audience.

My cover remained intact all day; I don’t believe that any of the for-real attendees detected the imposter in their midst, and now that most of them had gone home I was milling around with the spendier sub-set who’d splurged an extra $150 on the post-seminar “afterglow” cocktail hour. Before long we’d be enjoying our beverages and one-one-one conversation with Mike himself.

There was a long table in the room set aside for the afterglow event. Mike started at the far end and slowly worked his way through the 10 — 12 of us “VIPs,” most of whom were wealthy-seeming older ladies. I sat down in the last chair on the opposite end of the table from where Mike was beginning his one-on-ones, and chit-chatted with some of the ladies near me as we waited for a conversation with Mike. Soon I discovered that the “free cocktails” were actually just beer or wine, and it was a cash bar after your first one.

I was on my 3rd Heineken before Mike finally made it to the far end of this table where I had just run out of interesting things to say to the woman seated next to me. As the guy two seats down from us starts to introduce himself to Mike we both slide our chairs over to give them some space. She’s now got the edge of the table at her elbow and I’ve slid out clear of the table entirely.

Eyeballing the gap between us and then looking up at me, she slides her chair out beyond the edge of the table, too, and adjusts her posture so that she’s now facing me directly.

She looks me in the eyes and says:

I’d been debating with myself as we were chatting a few minutes ago whether or not to say anything, but seeing as we’re just sort-of stuck waiting here I think I just need to say this to you.
I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable but I have the gift of being able to read peoples’ energy… and this is just extraordinary so I need to tell you

“you have the cleanest energy of any not-profoundly-mentally-retarded person I’ve ever met.”