When Saturday Night Is Enough

My daughter, Emerson, graduated from 5th grade last Friday. It was a tender, joyful ceremony, as these things are, with applause for every child and a surprisingly well-choreographed group performance of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. There was a slide show that condensed the past 7 years into just a couple of minutes — round-cheeked preschoolers stretching into 11-year-olds as we watched (which is just how it feels in real life) — and a video of the kids and their teachers dancing and lip synching to Shake It Off.

My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in the back of the school auditorium with my best friend and de facto sister, Lisa, and our recently acquired 26-year-old surrogate son, David Goldberg. David came to us by way of our friend Sheryl. A few years back, when he moved to New York City from LA, she asked if I would take him under my wing. I took him to dinner one night to talk about writing and finding a job, and it quickly became apparent that our family had been waiting for him. That he is the gloriously fun, comic-book writing big brother Emmy has always wanted and the giant-hearted, Jewish, gay son Jon and I didn’t even know we wished for. He joined our family so seamlessly, so completely, that Lisa has him in her phone as “David Gunning,” and I frequently nag him about how he doesn’t visit enough (he already has a Jewish mother in Texas, so I’m sure he really appreciates this).

And so there we were, Mama, Daddy, aunt Lisa, brother David, all cheering for Emmy on this accomplishment, this marker of years gone by and new things to come. I never fail to notice how many we are, that we need a big table at a restaurant, a family joined not by blood but because we choose to belong to each other. It fills me with comfort, to be so many. It still surprises me, sometimes, to be a part of something so solid and real.

I wish that was the whole deal, happiness and celebration, surrounded by loved ones. I wish these sort of days could be simple for me, that I could stop my monkey mind and pain-seeking heart from butting in. But it’s always a wash of complicated feelings, of relief and sadness and happiness and loss, a miasma that leaves me trying to figure out what to do with my face, talking too loud and with too much enthusiasm, or getting weepy in front of near strangers.

I have a habit of searching for what’s missing. Of looking for the empty place in the middle of everything. Of holding myself and my life up to an impossible fantasy of normality and wholeness that is part Atticus Finch and part every TV family that ever laughed over a ruined Thanksgiving turkey or a vacation gone awry. Inside my head  I am nearly always performing a monologue entitled “YOU SUCK,” which goes a little like this:

Does my daughter look happy in that slideshow? Should we have gotten her a math tutor in 4th grade instead of waiting until 5th grade? Did she have someone to sit with on the bus to the field trip? Someone to dance with at the party? I should have volunteered more at school. I definitely should have made more mom friends. It’s been all these years and I still call most of these people “The tall one with the face” and “The one with the boots.” We should eat dinner together every night. Probably she’ll be a drug addict because she eats microwaved mac-n-cheese at least once a week. WHY THE FUCK WON’T SHE READ THOSE HARRY POTTER BOOKS LIKE THE OTHER KIDS? We need to figure out better lunches. I should teach her how to cook. First I should learn how to cook. God, I hate to cook. We should hike more. We need to teach her how to ride a bike. She needs a dog but Jon doesn’t want one.We should buy a country house, for hiking and biking and dog having. I work too much. I don’t take enough pictures. We watch too much TV. We should have had another baby so she’d have a baby brother or a sister.  What does a normal family even look like? How do I know if we’re doing it right? I’m failing her, I know I am, in all the ways I realize I’m failing and in hundreds of ways I don’t even know about because I don’t know how normal people are supposed to act.

When I was growing up, I was my mother’s Saturday night date. She was a single mother who worked crazy hours and traveled a great deal for business, and she also had an active social life (dudes have always dug my mom), but Saturday night was for me (until I decided I was too cool to go out with my mom and wanted to stay home by myself to eat a chicken pot pie and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). She took me out like I was a grown up, to PG (sometimes R!) movies and the opera, to the theatre and fancy restaurants, to museum nights and parties where people were flirting and dancing. I loved these nights, loved having my mother as a sort of friend, loved getting dressed up in one of the outfits she would buy for me (I still remember a pair of sky blue pants and a patterned blouse that had gold string woven into the fabric that made me feel like Brooke Shields).

Emmy and I started having Saturday night date by accident. One night when she was around 5 she was very sick, and we sat up on the couch together watching Nickelodeon while she vomited intermittently into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag, which I would casually tie up and throw away. (This is the definition of motherhood, I think. Being completely at ease with someone else’s effluvia.) I told her about how Grandma and I used to spend Saturday nights together, and she decided then and there that we would have a weekly movie night together, that Saturday night would be ours. We started with Disney, but as she’s grown older we’ve expanded our viewing. She loves movies where friends have fun together and women are badasses, and this has taken us to some fairly inappropriate places, which, just by nature of being out of bounds, has made our weekend ritual even more sacred. (Let’s just say she thought Bridesmaids was HILARIOUS but didn’t love Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

On the Saturday after graduation, we watched Dirty Dancing, and because it was a special weekend, I invited Lisa and one of Emmy’s best friends to join us (first checking with her mom to ensure she was on board with this choice of movie, given the abortion storyline and Patrick Swayze’s pelvis).

I really thought I nailed this event. We had a Pinterest-worthy dinner, complete with protein and vegetable, eaten at our table. The girls took pictures of each other carrying a watermelon and posted them to Instagram, then we ate the watermelon while we watched the movie. NOTE MY ADHERENCE TO THEME!

But despite my best efforts at normal mom-ing, the next day Emmy seemed a little out of sorts. I left her alone with it mostly, but did ask her if everything was OK, and reminded her that I was here to talk if she needed me. She said she was fine, that she was sad about school ending, that she was a little nervous about sleep-away camp, that she was a little sleepy. And then finally, as we sat down to lunch, I asked her what we should watch for next week’s Saturday night date, and if we should invite anyone to join us, because wasn’t it fun to have a houseful of people?

“Mama,” she said, tears welling up. “That’s just for us.” And she went on to explain that while she loved having friends with us, we should only do friend movie night on Fridays from now on, because Saturday is ours, Saturday is when we order sushi and eat it on the couch, and sit in the dark and laugh when Melissa McCarthy lets loose a string of profanity, and she asks if she can repeat the line even though it has the F-word and the S-word and the A-word and I say she can but she can’t tell ANYONE I let her watch this movie and now we have a secret, just us.

Just us.

I look for what’s missing.

My daughter sees what’s there.

I worry so much that nothing I give her is enough, that I don’t measure up, that I’m lacking and failing because our life doesn’t look like Little Women or Father of the Bride or Family Ties or Modern Family, and yet somehow, she doesn’t realize that we should send out Holiday cards and go to the library and and throw more parties and I’ve never had a mom’s group and I always feel like there’s some secret code for being the right kind of grown up, the right kind of mother, and no one gave me the rule book so I’m just winging it. Because I’m only now starting to realize that there is no right way to be a mother, no pinnacle of normal to strive for. There is only being the mother your child needs, whatever that is.

And Emmy needs me.

And so I will keep showing up, every Saturday night for as long as she’ll have me, with my encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals and my worship of Sigourney Weaver. Insisting that the only way to make popcorn is in a pot with oil. Understanding that bedtime on Saturday is merely a suggestion. And knowing that having someone next to you on the couch is one of the truest ways to feel loved.

Next week, Working Girl.

Just us.






Book Review: Lust & Wonder By Augusten Burroughs

Humble brag/disclaimer: I was sent an advance reader’s copy of Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs’s publicist. I received no payment for this post, but I am now so cool I won’t even hang out with me anymore.


I’ve been emotionally shadowing Augusten Burroughs since Running with Scissors was published in 2002. A chronicle of Burroughs’s harrowing, chaotic childhood, Running with Scissors made my formative years seem positively normal by comparrison. I may have had a secret grandpa, an absent narcissistic father, an emotionally inscrutable mother, a compulsion to peel the skin off my hands and feet, and the habit of telling elaborate lies — but no one ever sent me to live with a lunatic psychiatrist in a squalid house or told me being molested by a pedophile was good therapy. Sure, I was deeply insecure, lonely as hell, and scared all the time, but I was for sure less fucked up than Augusten Burroughs!

Dry, released in 2003, is a chronicle of Burroughs’s twentysomething years, which he spent working in advertising, drinking himself near to death, going to rehab, trying to figure out how to live sober while dating a crack addict, and watching his former lover and best friend die of AIDS. I spent my 20s marrying the wrong man, getting divorced from him, screwing a long line of one-night stands, visiting an alarming number of psychics, and reading a lot in the bathtub. I was a soaking wet hot mess, make no mistake, but still less fucked up than Augusten Burroughs!

With Lust & Wonder, Burroughs has come back into my life at a gentler time. For one thing, I no longer feel the need to judge myself on a continuum of fucked upedness on which I am way more fucked up than Anna Quindlen, far less fucked up than Kathryn Harrison, and equally fucked up as Cheryl Strayed. I’m a good man’s wife. Mother to a gentle, generous, funny girl. The daughter of retired Florida condo dwellers. I am what I guess you’d call content and settled, a state of grace that once seemed utterly unattainable. It seems remarkable to me sometimes, the love and goodness that have become my everyday life.

Love is the territory Burroughs charts in Lust & Wonder, chronicling his adult romantic relationships with the keenly observed humor and brutal intimacy that makes him such a rich pleasure to read, even as he’s showing you horrors. There’s Mitch, the “deeply odd” published author. George (the “Pighead” character from Dry), whose death sends Burroughs into a drunken spiral. “Normal and stable” Dennis, with whom Burroughs has a long-term relationship that’s perfect on paper and broken in reality. And finally, there is Christopher, who is all wrong — he’s short, HIV positive, and just happens to be Burroughs’s literary agent. They’re friends for 10 years before Burroughs finally admits his feelings. It’s impossible. It’s ludicrous.

Reader, he married him.

It seems the stuff of rom-coms, of fairy tales, the lost child turned self-destructive adult transformed by love and granted entry into the dreamed of “normal life.” But I feel the heft of the mythological at work here. The years on a stormy sea, the conquests, the challenges to be faced and monsters to slay, and the final return home where you are welcomed and known, loved not in spite of your damage and your secrets but because of them, because they are part of you and in this safe harbor there is nothing to be ashamed of at last.



Crisis Management: Ass Division

About six months ago, I started a new job. This is my 5th new job in a decade (not including freelance gigs), and my 5th career since graduating college (including my stint as a dog trainer). I imagine there are people who organize their work lives in a much more orderly fashion, who choose a ladder and then climb it. But for me, “career planning” has always amounted to running towards the next glittery thing in the distance while cheerfully hollering, “Hey, that looks interesting!”

For the past several years, I’ve made my living as a copywriter and creative director in advertising agencies. Agency life suited me incredibly well, I think in part because my first love – and career – was the theatre. I felt right at home with advertising’s lack of boundaries, intense emotions, freewheeling creativity, grueling hours, and sexual energy. But in the summer of 2015, a new opportunity presented itself: challenging, complex, well-organized, and, not to put too fine a point on it, highly compensated.

My new job is very different from my old job, from the way the company is structured to the kind of work I do. I’m out of my comfort zone in a lot of ways, and one change that’s rocked my world significantly is the way women dress. There’s no formal dress code, but there is an unspoken expectation that your shit will be TIGHT around here, and that means knowing how to walk in heels, statement necklaces, actual outfits and, in most cases, a Cartier tank watch.


Jackie Kennedy and her tank watch. The definition of having your shit tight.

My shit, to put it bluntly, is not tight. I am the sort of person who used to dress herself out of the costume shop at school. I never learned how to walk in heels, unless you count a Dansko clog as a heel, which, let’s be honest, no. At the last ad agency where I worked, I once wore a bathing suit cover-up as a dress. It was navy blue cotton and I paired it with brown flip flops and a wooden bead bracelet. I sort of felt this made it “a look.”

It’s not just the clothes, of course. The women I work with now were once the sort of girls who wouldn’t have sat with me at lunch in high school. We would not have lived together in college, or even gone to the same parties. If advertising is populated with a vast number of former theatre majors (or people who were theatre major-adjacent), my new industry is where sorority sisters and marketing majors come to work after b-school or a stint as a speech writer in Washington. They are gorgeous. They speak multiple languages. They are so brilliant it makes my head hurt. I spent my first month at this job terrified of them, but now I am simply in awe of their talent and generosity. And I won’t lie, inside of me there will always live a nerdy girl wearing a CATS t-shirt who knows all the words to Evita, and she is amazed and thrilled to be included among this flock of swans.

So I’ve been working on getting my shit, if not tight, then tighter, which in the warmer weather translated into a rotation of sheath dresses, all purchased from Lands’ End (thank you Lands’ End, for your easy-to-parse Wear to Work collection) paired with Tieks in a variety of colors. I inserted the diamond stud earrings my mother gave me for my 18th birthday, re-learned how to apply eyeliner, and bought a very fancy handbag (ok, it’s a backpack, but it’s a TUMI, damn it).

When the weather grew colder, I found myself with exactly zero things to wear. Apparently, my winter wardrobe for the past several years has included jeans, drapey scarves, furry moon boots, and long sleeved t-shirts. (Before I cleaned out my closet I had, no exaggeration, 17 long-sleeved black t-shirts plus one grey one. I guess I was feeling adventurous the day I purchased the grey one.) In a single very expensive afternoon I traded my sleeveless sheaths for a collection of wooly sack-like dresses and tunics from Eileen Fisher. They’re all pretty much shaped the same, except the dresses hit at calf length, while the tunics graze the tops of my thighs. I love them, because they feel like I’m wearing a woobie but look expensive and grown-up.


This is a dress.



This is a tunic.

And so one recent morning I was off to call on clients in an adjacent state. The meeting was at 10am, the car was coming to fetch me at 7:30. I enjoy mornings like this, rising early to shower and fuss around a little, getting the phone call that my driver has arrived, climbing into the back of the black town car and checking my email. It feels like I am starring in a movie about a sophisticated business lady who is doing business. On this particular morning, I was wearing black stockings, black boots, and a navy blue Eileen Fisher sack dress, and I was feeling quite fine as I kissed my husband and daughter goodbye and sassed myself down to the lobby.

My meeting was at a sprawling corporate campus, and at 9:50 on the dot my driver pulled up in front of the appropriate building. I left my coat in the car, grabbed my laptop, and climbed out of the backseat, where I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the plate-glass doors of the lobby and realized, with icy cold horror, that I was not in fact wearing the navy blue sack dress, but instead had grabbed the navy blue sack tunic.

I was standing on the corporate campus of one of the world’s most conservative companies, about to pitch a piece of business worth millions of dollars, and I had forgotten to put on pants.


Hi! Which way to the conference room?

The first rule of crisis management, as I understand it, is to assess just how big a problem you have on your hands. I could see in the plate-glass window that my actual crotch wasn’t showing, so this was a plus. I carefully turned around to look at my bottom, which was also covered. Sort of. Not by a lot, but there was no discernible cheek showing.

My natural instinct was to climb right back in the car, tell the driver to floor it, and email everyone to tell them there was an accident on the highway and I was stuck in traffic and I’d dial in and do my presentation from the car. But I also recognized that this is not what the women I work with would do. The women I work with, with their shiny hair and unflappable poise, wouldn’t let a little thing like lack of pants get in their way. Pants or no pants, they’d look at their tank watch and know it’s go time.

To paraphrase Dirty Harry, this is the kind of moment where you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Is my shit tight?”

I walked in with my head held high and my ass blowing in the breeze. I presented the hell out of that pitch. My shit has never been so tight, and I also should mention that I don’t wear panties under stockings because I hate how bulky they feel, so when I say my ass was on the line I am being completely serious.

This is how we grow, I guess. This is how we change. We dance like nobody is watching. We love like we’ve never been hurt before. We sing like no one is listening. And we pitch like we have pants on.

What I Did Not Do On My Summer Vacation

It is, somehow, autumn again, that season of sharp pencils, cozy sweaters, and mornings punctuated by the noise of a certain screechy bird that makes me achingly lonely. The quiet endings and erotic leaves of fall once made it my favorite time of year, but as I get older I find myself drawn to spring, abounding with fluffy baby animals, bright green shoots pushing up through the dirt, and honeyed light.

I am getting sentimental in my Demeter years.

I had a long list of books I meant to read, most of which I did not. In particular I did not read Jennifer Weiner’s new novel, Who Do You Love, because the story of a man and a woman who meet as children and keep losing and finding each other through the years hits me in a place I’d rather not be touched, generous and warmhearted as I’m sure it is. I also didn’t read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights because while your books, Mr. Rushdie, are also very good, reading the book description on Amazon tuckered me right out.

We had custom closets built in our bedroom and they make me so happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to live at Shutters on the Beach, and so late at night I put everything away in its own little cubby, light a scented candle, and pretend the sound of traffic on the BQE is the ocean.

Seabirds honk, right?

Jonathan and I spent a week at Kripalu, eating vegetarian food and farting our way through yoga class. I bought a fancy yoga mat and flip flops that have separators between all the toes. I also bought a book about Tantra, which I meant to read but didn’t.

All three of us, Jonathan, Emmy and me, spent a week in Phoenicia, NY, which is Brooklyn with more trees and a very long drive to get coffee. We attended the bar mitzvah of a dear friend’s charming son, in Woodstock, at a temple where the Rabbi accompanied herself on guitar and they hand you a maraca at the door. This is the kind of Judaism I can get with.

I listened to many, many, many podcasts.

I quit one job and started another. It was a good move, made for the right reasons. In the past, leaving a job always felt like a breakup, but this was more of a graduation. I’m an MRY alumna for life.

We have begun the process of getting Emerson into middle school, which is as terrible as everyone says it is. I recall my college application process as being significantly less stressful than this, but then again, I chose a college by evaluating which campus had the best sunset and was the shortest driving distance to my boyfriend.

I ended up transferring after a year and the boyfriend and I broke up, but there are worse ways to make a decision, I think. Those were some knock out sunsets.

How do you do what you do, every day?

I received this letter from a young woman who’s at the beginning of what I’m certain will be a big life in advertising. With her permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Stefanie,

What does a female need to do to have her name remembered in this business by the males she works with every day?

I thought it was something like “work really really hard,” “do really really good work that continues to make the wall and the pitches and the CCO’s desk.”

I read that it was to “lean in,” or “keep your hand up.”

I figured maybe “work the weekends,” “go in early / stay late” couldn’t hurt. And that “volunteer to work on this” would only yield positive results.

I even thought maybe the most basic, “introduce yourself” and “say hello in passing” might be totally valid ways. Seems sensible?

How is one expected to be motivated to keep doing the good work when if she does, a male writer is “accidentally” given the credit?

Or when she’s told, “He keeps forgetting you’re on this pitch. It’s weird. But I remind him and he thinks it’s really cool you want to help” ? Help? No, I want to win.

Who do you look to when there are literally no females in higher creative positions in your place of employment?

How do you do it? I’m sincerely asking. Is the answer simply “more”? More time, more work, more handshakes?

It makes me feel really sad. And sick. And then I wonder if my name was only remembered in the first place because I really liked to bake cookies in college. And that makes me sadder.

Sad Mad Woman

Dear Sad Mad Woman,

I have been obsessively thinking about your letter and how to answer you. In no small part because it could have been written by a 22-year-old me, just staring to make her way in the world and almost wholly unprepared.

You say it makes you sad. It used to make me furious. Probably sad is better, because you won’t ever find yourself having to live down a reputation for being “inappropriately angry,” “scary,” “dramatic,” and “overly emotional.”  You also won’t have the humbling experience of realizing it’s all true, and learning a new way to be.

I’ll tell you what I know. I’ll also tell you that I learned what I know from Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Tina Fey, Marie Forleo, Sheryl Sandberg, Janet Kestin & Nancy Vonk, Rebecca Solnit, and Naomi Dunford. So I did learn from the best.

This chart.

Things you can’t control include: how other people behave, how other people treat you, what other people think of you, the weather, the past, who you are related to, your sexual preference, and everything you don’t acknowledge. Also, the laws of physics and the fact that the cat will immediately kick litter all over the floor immediately after you vacuum. Because cats are assholes.

Things you can control: your behavior and how you respond to the behavior of other people. It may not sound like a lot, but includes everything from who you spend time with to how you develop and use your talent to whether you make it a habit of flossing every night.

You can’t control who remembers your name or who takes credit for your work. Only how you respond to it.

Youth is prized. Immaturity isn’t.

I once read that there is no such thing as a neutral woman. Every choice we make — long hair or short, makeup or bare face, long nails or short, manicure and pedicure or natural, skirt or pants, length and kind of skirt, bra or no bra, and on and on — every one of these choices telegraphs something. I’m feeling it pretty acutely myself lately, and often stand in front of my closet, asking myself, “What do 46-year-old grown-up ladies wear?” I’m still figuring it out, but I’ve decided it’s not the plaid dress I’ve had since 1998.


Vintage. Like me.

I guess what I’m saying is, take inventory. Are you dressing and styling yourself to look like someone who ought to be taken seriously? How do the people in your office present themselves? Do you mesh with the vibe? Do you look like someone they’d happily put in front of clients? I’m not saying you need to wear a nice pantsuit (unless a nice pantsuit is your thing) or be anything other than unique yourself, but you do need to ask what story you’re telling about yourself with your choice of clothes, hair and makeup. Who do you look like? I know I probably sound like a traitor to post-feminism, but you know what? If you show up at the meeting in a dress that looks like a shirt and you forgot your pants, they STILL may not remember your name but you can be certain they will remember your fanny.

Don’t lean in so far you fall over.

Look, it’s not worth it to work harder and harder and longer and longer and lean in and raise your hand and then suddenly wake up one day to realize you’re 40 and your asshole cat is dead and you haven’t taken a vacation in 11 years. It’s just not.

You need to go home. You need to read and knit and do whatever else it is you want to do. You need a way to recharge your battery and meet people who are not people in your office. You need to have a life. And yes, the hours in our industry are notoriously brutal. But the trick is, only work that hard when it matters. On a pitch? Work until you drop, sure. A launch, a deadline…all good reasons to put in the hours. But on a regular basis, showing up and staying late just for the sake of being there isn’t worth it.

As for volunteering to work on projects — do your own time. Unless you bring something vital to the table that no one else can bring, like the pitch is for a knitting business and you’re the only knitter in your office (Do you even knit? I seem to think so.) Otherwise, let the assigned team do the job they were assigned to do, and YOU go home. Or better yet, to dance class or whiskey tasting club or to dinner with a skier you met at the farmer’s market over the weekend. You need to live a whole life.

That said, in some situations it is good to be generous and ask if you can help. Not in a way that seems like you are hovering or trying to edge in on anyone’s territory, but if someone looks like they’re drowning or the pitch team is being run ragged, go ahead and ask if you can lend a hand.


I wish I could knit, then maybe I’d stop spending all the money on fancy Pottery Barn throws.

Don’t apologize.

Unless you are wrong, of course. Then apologize quickly, humbly, and with sincerity. I’m talking about things like “Sorry but, I had an idea?” “Sorry but, I think maybe I disagree with you?” “Sorry, I know how busy you are, but could you review this copy?”

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, stop. As one of mentors advised me, “Just be normal” and say what you mean: “I have an idea…” “I disagree with you and here’s why…” “Please look over this copy and let me know what you think by the morning…”

You do not have to apologize for showing up and doing your job well. You don’t have to apologize for your thoughts, your talent, or your opinions. You have nothing to be sorry for.

Don’t bake.

I am going to assume you no longer bake things and bring them to the office. But if you do, stop today. You can bake for your friends, your family, your boy/girlfriend, me, and your children, should you decide to have some. Do not bake for your workplace. You are not anyone’s mother, girlfriend, daughter or roommate at work. You don’t want them to remember you by your cookies.

Don’t sit on the floor.

Do you do this? There are no chairs left in the room so you sit on the floor? Stop it. Sit at the table or if there are no seats left, stand close by — not at the edges of the room and not in the corner.


“Stop interrupting me.” “I just said that.” “No explanation needed.”

Internalize this powerful advice from Soraya Chemaly: http://www.alternet.org/words-every-woman-should-know

“We’ve met before…”

This comes in handy when someone doesn’t remember you. Do NOT let anyone get away with pretending they don’t know who you are. Remind them, with good humor, that you’ve met, and where, and when. Do this every time they forget you.

Believe people when they show you who they are.

That male copywriter who “accidentally” got credit for your idea and didn’t correct the mistake? He’s a thief. Remember that for all your future interactions with him. He will take credit for your work, he will not pull you into the meeting or support you. Let that inform all your future interactions with him. I don’t mean you should be rude or hostile to him, or gossip about him. But don’t give him anything — no favors, no ideas, no help, no support. And protect your work against him.

Keep your cool.

If you need to cry, go somewhere private. If you feel yourself getting flustered or losing your temper, excuse yourself. When this happens to me, I sometimes pretend my phone is ringing and I have to take a call, and I put a worried look on my face, apologize for the interruption, and leave the room to collect myself.

Find an ally. Or many.

There may not be any senior women creatives in your agency, and that’s awful. But there is the 3% conference, AWNY, and all these women. Go to conferences. Reach out via email. Build a network.

And after all of this, there will still be some people who don’t remember your name, don’t acknowledge your contributions, and forget you are on their pitch. Time is not the answer, working harder is not the answer. Boundaries, respecting yourself, doing amazing work, taking credit for what’s yours (and being generous with credit to anyone who collaborated or helped you), refusing to be forgotten, reminding them that they DO know you, that you’re NOT sorry, and you are NOT going anywhere, this is where you start.



Nice Girls Do…Negotiate

I have a new piece up at LinkedIn, which is part personal story and a whole lot of advice about negotiating like bad ass motherfucker.

I had been working at MTV Networks for seven years on the day my paycheck was too big. I hadn’t gotten a raise, it wasn’t bonus time, and I wasn’t getting reimbursed for expenses—but for some reason my regular paycheck was hundreds of dollars greater than it should have been. I was nonplussed (in the traditional sense), and confess I thought about cashing it and not saying anything. But reason prevailed, along with guilt, and I called human resources. HR, also confused, said they’d look into it. Thirty minutes later I got a call from the head of my department, who apologized for the awkwardness but had good news to share. A recent audit of department-wide compensation had revealed I was significantly underpaid, and as a corrective measure I’d been given an increase to bring me into the correct salary band. I’d just gotten a double-digit raise.

You’re welcome!

I was happy, of course, but also unsettled. For a long time I’d had a vague suspicion that my salary didn’t compare to that of my colleagues, and here was absolute confirmation I’d been underpaid since my first day on the job. Every raise and bonus I’d received had been negatively impacted by my low starting salary and my failure to ever ask for a substantial increase, even though several promotions.

Here’s the irony of the situation: I was a senior-level contract negotiator in the Law & Business Affairs department. If ANYONE ought to have been able to advocate for herself it should have been me. But I was 25 when I started at MTVN, and so thrilled to be there, I would have paid them for the privilege of walking into 1515 Broadway each day. My insecurity never truly abated, and the certain knowledge that there were hundreds of people more than willing to take my place made it difficult to ask for more than I was offered. I failed negotiate for myself over and over, and I paid the price, literally, in real dollars.

Read the full post, 7 Tips for Negotiating Like a BAMF, on LinkedIn.

The Solid Ground I Walked On And The Safe Air I Breathed

When I was 6 years old, my mother and father divorced. He vanished like a sorcerer’s trick and she, until then a stay-at-home mother, went to work. She was very glamorous, dressing each morning in silk and wool, donning tall leather boots and statement jewelry. I had only the vaguest idea of what she did, but I imagined her as one of the career gals I saw on TV, a cross between spunky Mary Tyler Moore and cheerful Bonnie Franklin on One Day at a Time. A bus took my mother to Manhattan every day, where she rode an elevator to a high floor. There were late nights at the office, business trips around the country, and something called “market week,” which demanded all her time and energy several times a year.

When she was gone, I was entrusted to her mother’s care. No wrinkly bubbe, my grandma was young and charming, only 46 when I was born. I adored her, the way swing music seemed to play wherever she went, her delight in bawdy jokes, and the endless stories she told about her audacious youth. We had the most glorious time together.

My grandma posing for the camera as a young woman.

My grandma posing for the camera as a young woman.

But despite the love and care lavished on me by my grandmother when my mother was away, and my mother’s own playful affection when she was home, I was furious with my mother. In the dark fairytale I told myself, my handsome, charismatic Daddy’s strange disappearance had opened a door for her, and she had deserted me for a glittering life that lay elsewhere—in offices and on airplanes, in hotel rooms and tall buildings. My rage grew between us like brambles. I thought I knew the truth of her, that she was distant, and selfish. I believed I mattered to her, but not as much as everything else.

To call me a fool would be too kind.

In recent years, I have pieced together my mother’s version of this story. She resisted telling me, not wanting to upset me, but I have pried it out of her, a sharp-edged treasure.

On the day my mother kicked my narcissistic, philandering, thieving father out of the house, she was 30 years old, possessed only a high school diploma, and was in a mountain of debt she knew nothing about, because my father had “managed” their finances. She was movie star beautiful (I have seen photos and she was a dead ringer for young Elizabeth Taylor), deeply intelligent, and so terrified she could only manage to exist from one breath to the next. She began her career as a secretary at a company that manufactured underwear, and with nothing but her formidable grit, nimble mind, and unshakable determination, she rose to become Vice President of a lingerie company that was known around the world. Her success was personal, certainly, but it was also political. She was one of the women who cracked the glass ceiling so future generations could shatter it.

She did this not for vanity or ambition, but because there was no one else to take care of us. She divorced my father and settled his debts. She fed, sheltered, and clothed us. She bought me books, took me to plays, sent me to camp. All the while, she sheltered me from the painful realities of our life, never letting me know about the years of financial precariousness, my father’s cruelty, her exhaustion and sadness. She accepted my rage to spare me the weight of the truth—the Daddy I pined for had abandoned me utterly. He never called to ask how I was; he never sent a dime of support. My mother was the sun that warmed my shoulders and the moon that lit the dark, the solid ground I walked on and the safe air I breathed, and I never knew.

I see her with new eyes now; my anger replaced by awe for all she accomplished, for her courage and ferocious compassion. When I revisit our shared history, the thought of her — so young, so overwhelmed — makes me hurt. But there is one memory I treasure as a talisman and a comfort. When I was little, I would sometimes weep and beg her to tell me where my father had gone, ask why he didn’t love me anymore. And she would rock me in her arms and soothe me with the names of all the people who did love me, always starting with herself. “Mommy loves you,” she would whisper. “Mommy loves you most of all.”

My mother, gorgeous in a silk suit, dancing with me moments before my wedding in 2004.

My mother, gorgeous in a silk suit, dancing with me moments before my wedding in 2004.

This post originally appeared on the blog “I’m Just Sayin” as part of a series about the often complicated love between mothers and their children. 

Don’t Wear Shoes That Hurt

Today is my 46th birthday. It’s a surprising number, in its nearly smack-in-the-middle relation to the lifetime between 0 and 100, and its largeness (46? Seriously? That many?) although I’m not sure what age I think I ought to be. For years I mostly felt 19, and then later, for an even longer period, I thought of myself as 36ish. But this year I feel acutely, undeniably 46, which is a cocktail of responsibility, worry, joy, regret, and a slightly world-weary version of my inveterate optimism, along with knees that hurt when it’s cold and hair that needs to be dyed every three weeks lest I start to look like Jessica Tandy in her later years.

It’s hitting me, I guess is what I’m saying, that 46 is a number by which you are expected to have learned some things. I love reading the wisdom lists people write about age, 29 Things Every Woman Should Know By 29, 30 Things I Learned in My 30s, 50 is the New Black, Do Whatever the Hell You Want, You’re 80. My favorite is What You Learn in Your 40s by Pamela Druckerman.

These advice pieces always seem like jewel boxes, the sort your grandmother keeps tucked nearly out of sight up on her tall dresser. And sometimes, when you visit, she’ll take it down and show you her treasures – the circle pin from her high school dance, the engagement ring your grandpa gave her when they were young and poor, later replaced by the ring she wears now, the big diamond she never takes off but promises to leave for you one day, the necklaces and bracelets. They are a look into the author’s lives, the lessons they’ve learned the hard way, what they’ve saved and polished.

My accumulated knowledge, such as it is, is less a treasure box and more of a well-worn backpack. One that fell off a truck and rolled into a river and dried in the sunshine, got ripped against rocks, frozen in the snow, thawed in a meadow. And it’s filled with treasures, but they are things like abandoned bird’s nests and stones flecked with mica, single earrings and journals with flowers pressed between their ink-smeared pages.

But I think one of the privileges of 46 is getting to tell what you know, and so here are the things I carry:

Not everything turns out for the best. You are going to make some awful choices, there will be times when you don’t get what you want, you are going to say the wrong thing and miss opportunities, and you are going to have regrets. It’s weirdly comforting to know that it’s all right to feel terrible about some things. But you do have to find a way to live with your sorrows, a way to be in your life that isn’t ruled by the pain of what was and what could have been. You need to find a way to let it stay in the past. And if you can learn something and not make the same mistakes again, you’ll be all the better for it.

Stop being such a goddamned narcissist. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, and all the things that ever happened to you, that will ever happen to you, sublime and horrible, have happened and will happen to more people than you can imagine. That’s why we recognize ourselves in books we can’t put down, songs we sing out loud in our cars, and movies we watch and re-watch. Most of our experiences are universal, unless you’re an astronaut going on the first mission to Mars or something, and even then you’ve got people sharing that experience, and I bet your feelings setting out for Mars are deeply similar to those of every explorer who set out to chart unknown seas and territories. It may feel a little disappointing at first, to realize you’re not as unique as you thought, but it’s much less lonely.

Be generous. By now, with luck, you’ve achieved some success and have a little money. So when you hear from a nervous 20-something on LinkedIn who wants to buy you coffee and ask how you got to where you are in your career, take them to breakfast and tell them. When you see a new mom in Starbucks fumbling for her wallet and trying to soothe the baby, offer to help. Put down your phone and let your 9-year-old tell you about the dog she saw. Ask questions – was the dog brown? Did it have long legs? Thank your partner for putting the toilet paper in the bathroom, instead of complaining that they didn’t put it on the roll. When the mom who works 80 hours a week comes to a PTO meeting, introduce yourself and sit with her, and don’t tell her how it’s SO NICE to FINALLY see her since she NEVER comes to anything at the school. If you have the sort of relationship with your parents where calling them won’t cause you tremendous pain, then call your parents.

Sometimes it matters what people think of you. The trick here is knowing when to care and when not to. The ex-husband who snuck your collection of Kinks vinyl into his suitcase and told you he hated your haircut on his way out the door? Who gives a damn what he thinks. The boss who writes your performance review at work? You want him to think you’re knocking it out of the park. Learn to tell the difference.

There are cool kids. You may be one of them. No, really, right now someone somewhere probably thinks you are so cool they hardly know how to talk to you. Because who the cool kids are is relative, and believing someone is cool has everything to do with our own wishes and insecurities and very little to do with some empirical definition of coolness. This is why you should pursue you own big passions and nerdy niche interests and not worry about it, because that thing you always thought made you weird is precisely the thing that makes you wonderful.

Don’t be a jerk about music. You don’t have to love One Direction or care about Ellie Goulding. You can dismiss Ed Sheeran and Walk the Moon. Go ahead and roll your eyes at Meghan Trainor and Andy Grammer. Just shut up about it, because when you complain about music you sound pretentious, rigid, and boring. Stop it. And seriously, if you can’t dance to Uptown Funk, you hate life.

There are still surprises in store. After the tumult of your 20s and the striving of your 30s, your 40s can feel sort of settled. There’s the furniture and the rugs and the cups in the cabinets, and the books on the shelves and the photos on the walls, you’ve got a partner or you don’t, you’ve had children or not, the cat you had in your 20s died years ago, and you think, “Huh, so this is what happened. This is how it all turned out.” And then you find out they’re reviving The X-Files and even Skinner is coming back and you remember there is still time to fulfill your potential, for all the mistakes and missteps and stupid things you said, the choices you made and didn’t make, the regrets and the hurting knees and the compromises, for all of the things you lost and didn’t try for you can still be surprised by something so purely fantastic you never would have imagined it could happen. The world can still surprise you. You can still surprise yourself.

You don’t have to clean before your friends come over, but… Your friends really don’t care what your house looks like, but it’s still nice to clean the toilet before they come over. It’s a gesture of goodwill and civility. No need to make yourself crazy, just give it a wipe with a paper towel.

The cat will always kick litter on the floor the moment you put away the vacuum. I’m not speaking metaphorically here. Somehow the cat just knows.

Do that thing. Several years ago a manhole exploded on the street where I was working, and we were evacuated through the fire stairs and told to run downtown. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever lived through, because there was every reason to believe the horrific boom and smoke-filled sky was another terrorist attack on New York City. And as I was running from 40th street to 14th street in sandals that cut my feet bloody, I thought, “I’m so glad I just paid my life insurance bill. Damn it, I wish I’d written that book.” The dream that presents itself as an imperative when you believe you’re outrunning death? You should do that. Start today.

Never masturbate with a Clarisonic. Trust me on this one.

Don’t wear shoes that hurt. It’s not worth it. For years I tried to find a pair of heels I could wear and still feel like myself. It turns out that I am happiest in a pair of loafers, which accommodate my habit of walking while daydreaming and exude the kind of bookish sexiness I have been cultivating since I was 14. You still have places to go. You’ll walk there on your own two feet. Dress accordingly.

What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: G.I. Jane

When it comes to Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane, we are a nation divided. Ask someone about this 1997 film and you are likely to get one of two responses: a dismissive eye-roll accompanied by a jerk-off gesture, or a fist-pumping “Fuck yeah!” Rotten Tomatoes supports this observation, where the movie earns 55% on the Tomatometer and an audience score of 53%.

G.I. Jane tells the story of Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil — played by Demi Moore and her supernatural lats, quads, and glutes — the first woman to be accepted for U.S. Navy Combined Reconnaissance Team training (a fictional stand-in for U.S. Navy SEAL BUD/S). There is a plot here, something to do with Anne Bancroft’s Senator Lillian DeHaven making a deal to keep military bases open in Texas. But honestly, who cares? The power of G.I. Jane, its ridiculously strong heart, has nothing to do with plot and everything to do with action.


O’Neil is taunted and ostracized by her fellow trainees. Her military higher ups are a bunch of Sexist Evil White Men™, all of whom are conspiring to get her to ring out of the program. In one pivotal scene, her master chief (Viggo Mortensen and his lush mustache) beats the crap out of her and then threatens to rape her during a simulated POW training. In an environment known for pushing trainees to the absolute limit physically, mentally and emotionally, she is on her own, a pawn in a game she doesn’t even know she’s playing, and staring down institutional sexism that’s locked and loaded. But does O’Neil waver? She does not. She rejects any accommodation to her training (fuck that helper step on the obstacle course), does her push-ups like a man (no knees), and shaves off her hair while The Pretenders sing The Homecoming. As for the master chief’s attack, she breaks his nose with her head while her hands are tied behind her back and then tells him to suck her dick.

It will come as no surprise that, in the matter of G.I Jane, I am firmly in camp “Fuck yeah!” I love this movie, despite its predictable plot, stereotypically drawn characters, and unambiguous politics. I love it for its warrior heart and brutal training sequences, for Viggo Mortensen’s tiny shorts, Anne Bancroft’s silver-bobbed badassery, and Demi Moore’s buzzed head.


Among the eye-rolling set, a common complaint about G.I. Jane is that it’s an impossible scenario; that there is simply no way any woman could ever complete SEAL training.

This has always seemed a ridiculous argument to me.

This is an action movie. Last I checked, there are few complaints about a lack of it-could-happen-just-like-this-in-actual-life-as-defined-by-my-own-experience-and-abilities realism in action movies. Instead, we eat it up when a millionaire playboy is a secret superhero, humanity is enslaved to robot overlords, a regular cop defeats all the terrorism, a college professor takes on Nazism with a whip and a hat, and a lady in a yellow tracksuit is a sword-wielding assassin who can punch her way out of a buried coffin and kill you by tapping on your chest.

It may very well be true that no woman will ever have the physical ability and mental toughness to complete SEAL training. None have been allowed to try, although with the U.S. military lifting the ban on women in combat that is changing as I write this. We do know that most men who attempt it ring out, because it is hell. That anyone gets through elite Special Forces training is utterly remarkable.

For my money, I think there will be a woman SEAL one day. Women have a history of doing the “impossible.” But for those of us who cheer, “Fuck yeah!” at the mention of Jordan O’Neil, that’s not quite the point. Even if no woman ever makes it all the way through BUD/S, G.I. Jane will always be a clarion call, will always matter, because there is something deeper here, a truth we know in our bones and muscles.

G.I. Jane is a goddess myth in fatigues.

Jordan seems so much larger than life because she’s nothing less than Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and courage, law and justice, and war. She is the stuff of myth, and like all myth, she rides in the place where awe crosses mystery. You may not know her name, but you do know her. She is the grit that stiffens your backbone when it would be easier to quit. She is the fire in your belly that burns hotter than fear. And when the world tells you what you cannot do, what you must not do, what has never been done before and will never be done, not ever, it is she who speaks when you say, “Watch me.”



What should you eat while you watch G.I Jane? I think you should go ahead and have whatever it is you’re truly hungry for. Whatever the hell you want. Tear it up.

Read What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: The Silence of the Lambs and What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: Blue Valentine.

Want to know what to eat with that movie? Leave a comment here or tweet me at @stefgunning and I’ll suggest a pairing for you!

Heart of the Matter

The night before Valentine’s Day was going to be celebrated at my daughter’s school, I received the following text from my husband, Jonathan:

Emmy bought God cards. Won’t give them up. Crying. Help.

To translate our married shorthand, he was telling me that our 9-year-old, Emerson, had somehow selected religious Valentine’s Day cards, and now that he had discovered the fact he was trying to explain why she simply couldn’t hand them out to her friends, and she was very upset.

I called the house and he answered on the first ring. “How bad?” I asked.


“Like ‘Jesus died for you have some candy’ bad?”

“Like, one puppy telling another puppy that God wants us to be friends.”


“Also, there’s a Bible verse.”

He felt terrible about it, but in all honesty, those cards were sneaky:


Awww. Puppies! I’m glad we’re friends too, puppies!


Wait, hold up a sec…

In the grand scheme of things, one animal baby telling another animal baby that God brought them together in friendship is no tragedy. But there are several factors operating here that made this a Threat Level Red, Zero Card Thirty, codename God Cardgate situation.

First, there is the fact that we live in the kind of neighborhood where trying to find the owner of a lost blue hat can turn into a culture war. I just want to write my check to the PTO and bring my pie to the annual pie-related fundraiser, not set off a debate about the imposition of religious values on a multicultural community through the distribution of propaganda with a kitten on it.

More significantly, we’re Jewish! Sort of. I’m Jewish, culturally at least. Emmy is technically Jewish in the same way I am, because she’s the child of a Jewish mother. Jonathan was raised Catholic. We’re both Buddhist. And yet, in the sprit of Candy is Delicious and Everyone Loves Presents, we celebrate all the things, our Christmas tree glowing in the light of our menorah, Easter candy decorating our Passover table. We leave offerings to our Ganesha statue when faced with an obstacle. We welcome Persephone on the first day of spring. We smudge any new apartment we move into. My point is, if we were going to hand out God Cards, they would not feature the God of 1 John 4:8.

“Put her on the phone,” I said, standing to pull on my coat. It was now 7pm, I was still at work, and the evening suddenly included buying replacement Valentine’s Day cards, bringing them home, helping her to fill them out, and soothing her hurt feelings. Oh, and explaining God to her.

So, a typical Thursday.

“Helllloooo moooooommmmy,” she warbled in a tiny little voice.

“Hello baby,” I said. “I hear you picked out some cards with God in them.”

“Yes,” she said, crying. “I don’t understand. Daddy says I can’t hand them out, but they are just puppies. And I worked so hard on them. And there’s one for my teacher. And why is there anything wrong with God saying we should be friends? That’s nice!”

“I know, sweetheart,” I said. “And I’ll explain everything to you when I get home. But for now, you just need to trust me. I’m going to go to the store and buy you some other cards, and you can give those out.” We negotiated a deal. She would shower and put on her pajamas. I would buy new cards and bring them home. We would fill them out together, and I would try to find a way to tell her about the difference between puppies who love each other under the benevolent gaze of a gentle deity and the centuries-long bloody complexities of organized religion.

I thought about what I could tell her, while I shopped for cards at the CVS and rode the subway home from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I was raised in an atheist home. My mother is so anti-religion, such a disbeliever, that she threw a fit when I wanted to mention heaven in my grandmother’s eulogy. In the house where I grew up, no book was off-limits, no movie inappropriate, no cultural or political topic not worth talking to death, and my boyfriends started sleeping over when I was 16 — but no one talked about religion. I once asked my mother what she thought happened when we died, and she said she thought it was nothing. No heaven, no hell, no ghosts or spirit, no afterlife. Just the power going off in a house about to be demolished. Nothing left but the memories other people had of you, and a pile of paperwork to be attended to.

I met God my freshman year of college, in a Western Civ. class taught by a professor who captured my full attention. More than God, he showed me god in all his forms, and hers. A universe of myth and story stretching from the underworld to Asgard, spanning time from the moment that first prehistoric ancestor looked up at the sky in awe to me in the drugstore buying cards for my good-hearted daughter, and in doing so wrestling with ancient mysteries about what we wish, what we fear, what we stand for. I minored in Religious Studies in college, and while it may have started as a way of flirting with my professor and horrifying my mother, it matured into a genuine fascination with the sacred places of myth and faith, the archetypical stories of heroes and gods, goddesses and monsters. But for all this, I am no true believer. I have no answers. I’m just another traveler. Another curious wanderer. A storyteller who loves a big yarn. Perhaps, I will concede, better read than most.

I arrived home to find Emerson freshly showered, her thick hair combed out, wrapped in a blanket on the couch. I showed her the cards I’d bought. They had gel window clings on them, in the shapes of dragonflies, butterflies, frogs and owls. She thought they were wonderful. And I’d brought a special card for her teacher, too, with Snoopy dancing on it. We sat at the dining table together, me and my sweet girl, and I read her the names of her classmates while she carefully filled out each card, selecting just the right cling for each friend — a butterfly for Sophie, an owl for Gus, a dragonfly for Paloma.

“Mommy,” she said when we were done. “Why were the puppy cards not ok?  They were so cute!”

They were, I told her, they were adorable. But the thing is, those cards were about a specific God, the God that is in the Bible called the New Testament, and not everybody believes in that God. The people that do are called Christians, and not everybody is Christian. Some people are Jewish, and Muslim, and Buddhist. Some people don’t believe in God at all. And if you are a person who doesn’t believe in that Christian God, or any God, it can feel upsetting or confusing to get a card about that God. And anyway, religion is between the religious person and the God they believe in, we don’t impose those kinds of beliefs on other people. And giving out those cards could feel like you expected the person you were giving it to to believe in that Christian God.

She nodded. “Ok,” she said. And then she asked me the real question, the question at the heart of it all. “Mommy, what do you believe?”

What do I believe? I believe that religion is the cause of endless suffering, of war and hatred. That it’s a way to control the rebellious, creative, far-reaching, fierce thing that makes us human to start with. That it is yet a another way of dividing the world into an “us” and a “them,” and we have far too many of those. I am no fan of religion. But I do believe in something bigger than me, something vast and ferocious, made of rage and pain, pleasure and goodness, vengeance and forgiveness, something unknowable and unsolvable. I believe that sometimes god is a lion, with hot breath and a rough mane, and you visit him by sneaking through a wardrobe. Sometimes god is a grey-eyed girl who carries a bow and a quiver of arrows. Sometimes he’s a dangerous swan. Sometimes she’s a demon slayer. Sometimes god is a lightening bolt, a crash of thunder, a flood, or a fire. Sometimes he is a dancing elephant who clears the way forward. Sometimes she is a fierce mother who finds you in the dark and rescues you from the arms of a monster. I believe in the stories we tell, in the kindnesses we do, in the ways we find to love each other. I believe in the mysteries. I believe in what I don’t know. I revel in everything I don’t know.

“You’re so silly mommy,” she said, and she crawled into my lap and hugged me. “God is a lion?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “His name is Aslan, you’ll read about him one day.”

There were several cards left over, and Emerson asked if she could have the clings. She arranged them on her window, a little scene where the dragonflies flitted with the butterflies, and the owls kept company with the frogs. “They’ll be so pretty when the sun shines through,” she said, and she climbed into bed. I kissed her and hugged her, wished her sweet sleep.

I do not know what she dreams about. And I revel in that too.