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.

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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.

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This is a dress.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Seventh Bear

If I ever have my own ad agency, I’m going to call it 7th Bear. Here’s why:

I’m gonna tell you a little story. Once there was a great big pregnant bear. And after a painful labor, she gave birth to seven baby bears. So she was very tired. And she looked at her seven babies, and they were all gooey and slimy with afterbirth. And in that miraculous way that Nature has built the bear, she felt in her heart a tremendous welling up of material feeling. Maternal feeling. And this maternal feeling filled her with strength, so she licked and licked and licked her babies, one after the other, rendering them clean and fresh and beautiful. That is until she got to the seventh little bear. Right then, she ran out of gas and dropped dead. Muerto. And the six, well-tended little bears, with their beautiful brown coats, shed a tear, a tender tear, and bounded off into the woods. To have wonderful lives. And the seventh cub, the unlicked cub, went into show business. (Tada). Whenever I can’t believe the behavior of somebody in the business, I think, this is an unlicked cub. Whenever I can’t believe my behavior, I think, I am an unlicked cub. Being shocked, being taken aback, it’s a waste of time. This is the way we are! This is the mess we’re in! Let’s get on with it!

~John Patrick Shanley, Four Dogs and a Bone

 

Why I Think Smash Is A Tragedy

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People want to talk to me about the TV show Smash all the time. Without preamble, they’ll excitedly tell me they saw one of the actors in the park, or confess they lurked while a scene was being shot on their street, or start singing one of the songs at me. It’s a fair assumption to make, that I know and love this show, given my obsessive love of all things musical theatre.

But I can’t watch it.

It’s not that I don’t want to, or that it’s not interesting. It’s a TV show about making a musical, for God’s sake. Throw in an iced coffee and a chocolate croissant and it’s the intersection of everything I love in this world.

But it also hacks me to shreds. It makes me sweaty and anxious and teary-eyed. It makes me crave slice after slice of thickly buttered toast, washed down with pudding.

I know, my theater major is showing, but here’s the thing. At the center of Smash, at least the episode I was able to sit through before I ran screaming from it, is the relationship between songwriter Julia and composer Tom, played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle. Julia and Tom are best friends who are also a creative team.

Julia and Tom are everything I had, once. Julia and Tom are everything I lost.

When I was a teenager, I had a friend. A best friend, who we’ll call ES. He was theatrical, smart and funny, with puppy dog eyes and a thick mop of shiny black curls. He was cherubic, mercurial, adorable. He was a straight guy who loved musical comedy as much as I did. It was pure pleasure, he felt like home from the start. We loved all the same things — Shakespeare, black Converse sneakers, Woody Allen’s movies, driving at night, pitching a fit over nothing. All those things that matter so much when you’re young. We spoke the same language. We sought the same talismans.

We grew up together. And in growing up, we first became creative partners, and then lovers, and then a married couple. We were a truly inspired creative team. We were an utter wreck at the rest of it.

Here is the kind of magic we did together: when we were still in high school, we convinced a local town in Westchester, NY to fund a summer theatre program and let us run it. I was the artistic director, he was the executive producer. Over the course of four years we successfully produced big musicals, straight plays in rep, and original children’s theatre — all by the seat of our pants, just making it up as we went along. When we moved to New York after college, we produced a series of shows and cabarets that were pretty good, even in retrospect. We were never happier than when we were working together. When we were working together, you could believe we were actually in love. We could even believe it. But really, what we had was what Julia and Tom have — the abiding affection and trust, the secret language and safety that grows around and between two people who are genuinely, platonically ideal for one another in the pursuit of a common passion.

And oh, how we screwed it up.

Looking back at it now, I think we just didn’t know how to separate the fire we felt when we were working together from the kind of sexual, romantic love we both craved so acutely. It would have been so much easier if one of us had been gay, but there we were, absolutely besotted, married really, through our work, and our dreams of the future. We were going to Broadway, to Hollywood. We were going to have an office overlooking Times Square, with a partner’s desk. Al Hirschfeld would make a sketch of us at that desk, and it would have 5 Ninas in it.

We were partners for 12 years. We were married for 5. I cheated on him first. He was the one who eventually left me. For another woman. With whom he’d been having a prolonged affair. Four days before Thanksgiving.

Like I said, theatrical.

And when he left, I wanted to die. I was so angry, so bereft, so utterly boiled and peeled, all I could do was howl like a wounded creature. Not for the loss of him as a husband, certainly, but for the loss of my friend, my partner, my creative other half. I couldn’t imagine how I’d work without him, even as he was blowing my life to pieces.

Remarkably, it passed.

The last time I saw him, he said to me, “You’ll see. We’ll be like a Woody Allen movie. Years from now, when all of this is in the past, we’ll be friends again. We’ll have lunch. We’ll laugh at each other’s jokes again. Maybe someday we’ll work together again.”

And I said, “You will never see me again. Ever. Say goodbye to me.”

I have been true to my word. He’s tried to friend me on Facebook, and I’ve blocked him and his entire family. He’s emailed, and I’ve deleted them unread. (That’s a lie. I read them. Then I deleted them.) I know it makes me look like a villain, a bitch. But it’s an act of self-protection, not agression. He was an elemental part of my life from the time I was 15, and when he left, I had to obliterate him to have any chance of surviving. He was so large, you see, so tremendous. He took up so much space in my head. For so much of my life, most of the things I believed about myself were the things he told me. I desperately needed space, even if it was my own little corner in hell, just to meet myself. To begin constructing a life that didn’t include him, his voice in my ear, his interests directing mine, his dreams weighing more. I couldn’t do that if we were meeting for lunch once a month.

It’s been a long time now, more than a decade, since that day he proclaimed we’d find our way back to each other and I called him a fool for it. I haven’t changed my mind; I don’t want him in my life. But I think I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can miss him.

Not too long ago, the Internet went crazy with a rumor that Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny were involved in real life. It made me nostalgic for the 90s, and while I walked to the subway, my thoughts were full of Hootie and The Blowfish, Pop Up Video, and The Real Live Brady Bunch, a stage show from the Clinton era that was exactly what it sounds like – comics acting out entire episodes of The Brady Bunch, saturated with sexual innuendo and Gen X irony. It suddenly seemed like the best idea ever — EVER! — to produce a Real Live X-Files, somewhere in the East Village or Brooklyn, with the audience waving around tiny flashlights and the actress who plays Scully singing that Bree Sharp song as a finale.

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and reached for my cellphone to call ES.

It was pure instinct. Because there was a time when I could call him, and he’d pick up and say “What?” and I’d say “Real Live X-Files!” and he’d say “I love it! Flashlights! And the tickets look like FBI badges!” and I’d say “Bree Sharp song!” And he’d say “Scully sings it! At the end! And the guy who plays Mulder plays guitar! And Skinner and Krycek sing back up! And Flukeman!” And I’d say, “I want to play Scully.” And he’d say “No! You’re too tall! You direct it!” And I’d say “I am not! She’s 5’3″, I’m only 5’5″! I’ll wear flats!” And he’d say “You’ll be a nightmare if you don’t direct it, you’ll just end up complaining and giving whoever we get to direct it so many notes that they’ll quit.” And he’d be right.

There is no one I can talk to like this anymore. There never was, before him. There has never been, since he left.

I started crying, in the street. Because losing that kind of friend isn’t just sad, it isn’t just terrible. It’s fucking Greek tragedy. It’s the end of Hamlet.

I don’t ever want to see him again. But I think it’s a good thing, to be able to miss him. To allow myself to think of him without feeling like I’m about to spontaneously self-immolate, or turn to dust, or freeze and then shatter. To cry a few tears in the street and move on.

I can miss him now, without wanting to die. But I just can’t watch Smash.

Black Box

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My mother annoys me.

I love her, and we get along fine. Better than fine, frequently. We make each other laugh, and we’re on the same side more often than not. She adores my daughter and treats her like royalty, like Emerson is here to do something very important and my mother’s job is to nurture her until she fulfills her destiny. And that fills me with tenderness.

Even so. my mother annoys me. Which is an improvement, because she used to drive me to the acidic, smoking, volcanic glass edges of shrieking rage. But after 10+ years of therapy that in large part involved dissecting, pinning open, labeling, cataloging, and filing away everything dark between us — from the queasy vibrating terrors of paradigm altering betrayal to petty hurt feelings — I can say with utter honesty that I love her dearly, and she annoys me.

I’ve also come to realize that, when it truly mattered, she gave me what I needed most.

I’ve been thinking about this because my favorite professor from college has asked me to write a little essay about the value of a theatre education, for a display in the arts building on campus. And the surprise is — it really was valuable. (Why is this surprising? Because while other people were studying for calculus exams, I was lying on the floor in creative rest position pretending to smell an orange.)

I didn’t end up making a life in the theatre, but my education gave me the ability to stand in an empty black room and create worlds. It taught me the rhythm and sensuality of language, the craft of story. It taught me how to swallow my fear, stand up in front of strangers, and persuade them to follow me into laughter or terror or grief. It gave me a bright, clear voice, and the ability to drop or recall my New York accent at will. It taught me that evil can be charming, that goodness can be complicated, that love is sometimes a dagger plunged into your beloved’s heart. It taught me how to think on my feet, how to be in the moment. It taught me how to concept, how to improvise, how to riff an idea with a partner like we’re playing jazz. It gave me a lexicon of private jokes, which make musical parodies and movies about show business infinitely funnier to me than they are to civilians (that’s what theatre people call non-theatre people, and I’m still delighted to be counted in the club, however marginally). It gave me a home, where passion and a black turtleneck were the only price of entry, and everyone valued my broken places and moody sadness. It gave me a safe place to be, until I could make the world safe for myself.

And the reason I was able to pass into this state of grace? To spend my days reading Greek myth and Shakespeare, my nights playing onstage with friends I loved so much they still feel like long-lost family. To wrestle with ancient passions, and pain, and elemental comedy. To be part of something so much larger, so much brighter, so much more complete, so much BETTER than I could imagine real life could be. Something I needed, craved, more than food, more than air, more than love.

Because my mother let me major in theatre.

When I was in college, I knew so many people who were majoring in English, in Communications, not because this was what they wanted or cared about, but because their parents wouldn’t allow them to major in theatre. Because their parents threatened to pull their tuition if they did. As an adult, I have met 50-year-olds who still wistfully look back on those days and wish they could have been braver, could have declared that theatre major, declared themselves.

But not me. I have my regrets, but they are all of my own making. Because my mother not only allowed me to declare a theatre major, she encouraged it. Encouraged me to run with it, as far as I could. To lie on that floor and SMELL THAT ORANGE like no one had ever smelled an orange before. And more. She took me to see Malkovich in “Burn This,” to countless musicals, to the opera, to the ballet. She paid for Saturday theatre school in Manhattan, for performing arts camp. She came to every show, even if she had to drive 4 hours to see me play farmer’s daughter #6 in “Oklahoma.” She joyfully made space in our living room for the “Godspell” set, for the elephant we made for “Barnum.” She welcomed home an endless cast of romantic boys and dramatic girls, all invited to stay as long as they needed to and eat all the American Cheese in the refrigerator, provided they called their mothers first and got permission.

My mother annoys me. In a flash, she can slip a thin silver knife under my skin and make me bleed, just with an offhand remark. And I know I hurt her too. That she craves more closeness with me, and I can be selfish and withholding with my affection. That I struggle to forgive what she believes should be forgotten.

But when it mattered. When it truly mattered, she gave me everything I needed. And then some.

And that is where I’m bringing the curtain down on this one.