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.

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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.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/241175950/vintage-1980s1990s-jodi-kristopher?ref=market

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.

http://www.marymaxim.com/free-chunky-blanket-crochet-pattern.html

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.

http://www.johnnylovesjune.com/collections/canvas/products/corner-where-nobody-puts-baby

“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.

Always,

Stefanie

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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.

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.

It’s Called FaceTime for a Reason

This summer, my then 8-year-old daughter, Emerson, experienced two important rites of passage.

First, she became the object of a young man’s affection. This boy, whom we’ll call DG, had it bad for my moppet. So bad, in fact, that he asked if she had email, and told her that if she did NOT have email he’d make an email for her, so they could write during the evenings and over the weekend, when he was bereft of her company.

She told me this matter-of-factly one hot July night after camp, as she shoveled mac-n-cheese into her summer pink face. My baby, who has my pointy chin and round cheeks, her Daddy’s beautiful mouth, and more hair than anyone has a right to. My sweet little girl, who loves dragons and making things out of clay. My precious child, who is the kindest, funniest, and most generous person I have ever known.

“Well, Mama. Do I?” she asked.
“Do you what?”
“Do I have email?”
“Yes, my darling, you do. You have email so you can write to Grandma and Grandpa in Florida, and Grandma in Connecticut, and Yaya.” (That’s her nickname for my best friend, Lisa.)
“Well write it down for me, so I can give it to DG and he can send me an email.”

I didn’t just hand over her email address, of course. First I confirmed that this person was actually another child and not a 40-year-old ice cream vendor who hands out balloons to his “special” customers, but you have to climb into the back of the truck — which is really just a white van that he painted to look like an ice cream truck — to get your balloon (I watched far too many After School Specials growing up). Cue the epic eye rolling as she assured me that YES MAMA he’s a KID! He’s 10! We then had a giggly conversation where she admitted DG had a crush on her, and while she didn’t have a crush on HIM, she liked the fact that he had a crush on HER quite a lot.

I told her that she’s under no obligation to like him just because he likes her, that she doesn’t have to give anyone her email or phone number or smile for them or tell them her name or respond AT ALL just because a boy likes her. But if she IS going to be friends with him, she should understand that he has more-than-friend feelings for her, and be kind to him. And that if he, or anyone else for that matter, ever makes her feel uncomfortable or hurts her feelings or pressures her to be more than friends when she just wants to be friends then she should immediately tell me or her Daddy, and we will kill him. With our bare hands. And make it hurt. Bad.

Maybe I didn’t say that last part.

At the time Emerson didn’t have her own device on which to receive email. No iPad or iPhone or computer to call her own, because she is the most deprived child in all the land of Brooklyn. Her email came through on my iPhone, however, and so I was privy to the besotted musings of this 10-year-old Romeo. Here’s how it worked: He would send a message. I would see it on my phone, but not open it. I’d go home after work and tell her she had email. She’d take my phone and read the message, giggle, and then hand the phone back to me so I could type her dictated response, because I am her secretary. Sometimes she’d get bored and wander away, and I’d go scrambling after her because it is one thing to be transcribing a message from an 8-year-old girl to a 10-year-old boy, and quite another to be texting said 10-year-old boy by myself.

Things got serious when he started in with the emojis.

This went on for quite a few weeks. He even emailed her while we were away on vacation, counting down the days until she returned to camp, pumping out a string of emojis we had to consult a glossary to decipher. And then, sure as winter follows fall, came rite of passage number two: He dumped her. She went to camp one day, and he casually informed her that they were breaking up, but could still stay friends. She shrugged it off — she really hadn’t liked him that way, and was content with his ongoing friendship — but I admit to feeling a little miffed. I’d gotten pretty invested in all those emojis after all.

In August, for her 9th birthday, we got Emerson an iPad. She was so happy she cried. Mostly this iPad has been used for watching Wild Kratts (#TeamChris forever), taking photos of herself using Photo Booth, emailing grandparents, and FaceTiming Yaya.

And about a week ago, she used it to FaceTime DG.

I do not know what her motivation was. I think she was just missing her friend. He gleefully shouted her name when he realized it was her, and they talked for a long time, about school and games they were playing online, about his parents’ divorce and his brother and sister, about her fish. I didn’t eavesdrop – she did it in front of me, sitting on the couch. It was sweet, and tender. He told her he cared about her, and missed her, and was so happy to see her face.

He is a lover, this DG. His vulnerability slays me.

This is just the beginning, of course. The beginning of the boys and men (and perhaps women, who knows?) who will love her, whom she will love. And I want it all for her, all the ecstatic wonders and heart-cracking pain that is loving another person. The lavender-scented joy and the eating a tub of frosting in the bathtub while crying. I wish her everything, all of it, every electric moment of love and passion, eventually, when the time comes.

But first, this girl and I had some business to take care of.

I found her curled up on her bed, reading one of the BONE books. “Hey Emmy,” I said. “Can we have a conversation?” She put her book to one side and turned her open, sweet face to me.

“Sure. Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not. Why would you think you’re in trouble?”
“Well, what do you want to have a conversation about?”
“I want to have a conversation about FaceTime.”

I nude modeled in college, for sketch classes, and painting classes. I loved it. During breaks I would slip into a white robe, light a cigarette, and wander through the rows of easels, looking at the canvases and seeing myself the way others saw me. It completely changed the way I thought and felt about my body, made me appreciate the curved landscape of my belly and hips, my neck and breasts, the wild tumble of my unruly hair. I had a lover who photographed me nude, and I trusted him with my life. When we broke up, he gave me the photos, and the negatives.

I didn’t tell my daughter any of that. I will, someday, when my 20-year-old innocence and wildness can serve as a fond anecdote, rather than a model for her own behavior. Instead, I told her that sometimes when people have phones or other devices with cameras they can get a little silly and take pictures of their bodies, like their tushies, and then send them to other people. She laughed at that, thought it was ridiculous. And it is, I told her, it is very silly, but it is also sort of serious, because the Internet is an endless place, where nothing ever truly goes away. And even if you just send a photo like that as a joke, to someone you trust, once it leaves your Photos it might go anywhere. So we struck a deal. She will never take a photo, or video, or FaceTime of any part of herself below the neck. In a nervous spurt of creativity, I even made up a cheerful rhyme, to help her remember:

If it is not of your face, do not send it anyplace.

I also told her that if anyone sends her a photo of anything but their face she’s to show me or her Daddy immediately, and we’ll help her take the right next steps. If they show her any non-face parts on FaceTime, she’s to shut it down and come tell us.

I’m almost completely certain this was the right thing to do. She’s young, she’s so exquisitely young, but if you’re old enough to have your own iPad, know how to shoot photos and use FaceTime, and have a romantic boy to FaceTime with, then I think you’re old enough for this conversation. I think this conversation is required.

The world is so wide and full, so delicious and riotous. And I want her to have all of it. But for now, only from the neck up.

Just Stay in the Car

Photo by Emerson Gunning, who stayed in the car

(c) 2014 by Emerson Gunning, taken from inside the car

My daughter, Emerson, is visiting my parents in Miami this week. While the annual pilgrimage to visit grandparents in Florida is an ancient tradition among my people – those people being New York Jews – this is Emmy’s first time making the trip. My parents moved to Florida in October of last year, after a lifetime in New York City and Westchester, and we are all still adjusting to the new distance.

For Jonathan and me, it’s been a lazy week of sleeping in, Netflix binging, and take out. A delicious reenactment of the first six months of our relationship, when we put on pants only long enough to go get another pizza and rent more movies. It’s also an odd sort of return to my teenage years, those idyllic days when my parents would go out of town and my 17-year-old, green-eyed, James Dean lookalike boyfriend would all but move into my house.

Yesterday was Jonathan’s birthday, and we were awakened by a phone call from Emmy, who warbled an early-morning rendition of Happy Birthday and enthusiastically informed us that she was going on SAFARI today, to a place where the ANIMALS WALKED AROUND but you were perfectly safe, because you STAY IN THE CAR. There could be lions, or tigers, or monkeys, and maybe you will want to touch them and maybe they are dangerous but you STAY IN THE CAR and you will be fine.

Emerson is often a pint-sized guru, dropping wisdom about forgiveness, friendship, admitting when you’re wrong, and self-reliance (she is well named, this independent, imaginative, dragon-loving cherub of mine). But this particular bit of advice has been traveling with me, working its way into my thinking, the way poetry will.

I have a habit of getting out of the car, metaphorically speaking. Of wanting to run my hands over the tiger’s hot fur, feel his rough tongue on my skin, because he is exciting and beautiful, even though I know he is dangerous. Wanting to mediate the chattering drama of the monkeys. Wanting to help the giraffe figure out how to safely walk under the low-hanging bridge. Sometimes this works out fine – the tiger is growly but playful, the monkeys’ disagreement is resolved, the giraffe is rescued. Other times, more often than I’d like to admit, my good intentions end in troubled feelings, and I am reminded again that it is wise, good even, to empathize, to hold compassion, to listen, even to offer an opinion or perspective, if it’s asked for, if it can be received, but ultimately, you have to stay in the car.

Stay in the car.

Let the tiger slink by, let the monkeys sling it out, let the giraffe find her own way. You stay in the car, and you root for them, you send them your kindness and your care. But your business is in the car, behind the wheel, driving through soft summer air or under a brilliant winter sky, into the soft grey where morning arrives. You stay in the car, fiddling with the radio, keeping the temperature right. You plot the best route to wherever you’re going, get lost, find your way again.

None of which is to imply you can’t invite a fascinating gazelle or rumble-throated golden lion into the car with you, or that you can’t climb out now and then to ride a buffalo. I’m not talking about coldness, or a lack of adventurousness. I’m talking about cheerful participation from a secure place of your own.

Stay in the car. Drive your own safari. Let the tigers and the monkeys and the giraffes figure it out for themselves.

Be More Stupid

I had breakfast the other morning with a pal who is almost exactly half my age. She is 21, and I am 44, but despite this gap between us we are genuinely friends. We share a bespectacled,  busty brunette sensibility — a particular kind of hyper-responsibility and flirty trouble-making — along with a love for fat novels, greasy spoon diners, and Pat Benatar.

We joke that it’s a little like being buddies with an alternate version of ourselves — I call her “Past Me,” and she calls me “Future Me.”

She’s graduating college in a couple of weeks, and over breakfast we talked about what’s next for her. And I fully expected her to tell me she’d taken a job in some office, in publishing or advertising, where she’d sit in a cube and have health insurance and make a nice little paycheck and start climbing a ladder.

Nope. She’s going home to a beach town in California, where’s she’s going to be a waitress and make a podcast, and kiss every boy and girl who catches her eye, and read and write and stare into space. That’s for the summer. Then she’s coming back to New York City to give TV a try. And then she’s going to Greece, to work in a bookstore. And then she’ll see.

I’m not sure what she expected me to say, because as she laid out this plan I sensed a sort of defensiveness, or apology. But my response was simple. And it was this:

HELL YEAH!!!!!

When I was her age, I did everything I was supposed to do. And I kept doing what I was supposed to do for a long time. I took a responsible job. I married my long-term boyfriend. I flossed. I invested. I was much admired for being so smart, and responsible, and mature.

I was miserable. I felt like I was dying inside, all the time.  And then it all fell apart anyway. Spectacularly.

And so I say, to Past Me and anyone else standing on the precipice of choosing:

Be more stupid.

Do it! Be more stupid!

Don’t take that job in the office. That job is ALWAYS going to be there, waiting. But being 21 in a beach town, podcasting when you’re not making out with your boyfriend or girlfriend? You get one shot at that.

Don’t climb that ladder so fast. That ladder isn’t going anywhere. But being 22 in Greece? Gone before you know it.

Be more stupid. Make the foolish choice. Don’t be so responsible. Plan 2 months ahead, instead of 2 years.

That’s what I told her. And I promised her that I’ll hire her someday, unless she hires me first, but either way it’ll be fine.

And it will.

Because the truth is, the secret is, everything worthwhile tends to happen when you’re being more stupid. Your mistakes, your stumbles, your failures — these are the stories we tell, and the things we remember.

Be more stupid.

Next week, I’m taking her shopping for a graduation dress. And then I’m sending her off into the pink sunrise future, armed with her ambition and  charm, her beauty and brilliance, her mischief and heartbreaking freshness.

Off to be more stupid. Fantastically.

I couldn’t be prouder if I tried.