On Being The Boss’ Favorite (And Having No Idea)

 

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Our office was so small that leftover birthday cake sat in the kitchenette until the crumbs petrified and the whole thing sagged and fell in on itself.  At the peak, we numbered five—the Boss, the Secretary, and three staff.  It was only a summer job, but the dynamics, those dysfunctional and terrifying familiar beats of office politics, still thrum inside me today.

Admittedly, my tactic was rather unsophisticated: head down, do the work, stay out of the drama.  It wasn’t a horrible way to proceed, but it was proof of my immaturity that I thought it would work.

In week one, I figured it out:  A, who had been around since the office was founded, was the favorite child, the son the Boss never had, the acolyte extraordinaire.  I was always surprised when he skittered out of the Boss’ office looking as pale and vulnerable as I felt.  He was the favorite—shouldn’t he saunter out of meetings, head high and gait assured?

B was shadowy—she, like me, decided to lurk in the shadows, stay out of the way.  She was better at it than I was—she couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds.  Her pale skin and soft blond hair made her seem ghostly.  She floated from her desk to the conference room, her expression always the same neutral inscrutability.   She never emoted—not so much as a smile.  I know because I kept track.

By week two, I’d snuck to my car to call a friend, holding back hot tears as I described a meeting where I’d been excluded.  “They shut the door!  Practically in my face.”   I went around and around (What did I do? Why does Boss hate me?  Is he going to fire me? WHY WON’T HE JUST FIRE ME?).  I would have kept going too—ad infinitum—but it was 83 degrees and humid.  As devastated as I was, I wasn’t prepared to die of heat stroke in my 1986 Honda Accord.

Not all the days ended with tears or hot, frustrated sighs and furtive glances at the calendar: how much longer until this job is over?

My birthday fell in week five, and by any measure, I was feted adequately with a cake (chocolate) bearing over two decades of candles.  B pushed hers around on the plate and left the first moment she could without it appearing awkward or hostile.  At the other end of the table, the Boss and A got into a long discussion about the propriety of NCAA rules.  I slipped out the side door, mumbling thank you for the cake.

I survived that summer in part because I accepted my role as number three out of three.  Last place.  Humiliating at times, but freeing too.  The floor was right below me all along.  Stakes were low, pedestals well above my head.   By week eight, I stopped trying so hard to break into the top two; I settled, accepted, surrendered.

Right after Labor Day, I cleaned off my desk and said my goodbyes.  I assumed I’d never see anyone from that random chapter in my employment history.  I congratulated myself on doing all my work on time, learning a bit about the field, and mastering a way to cry without making a sound.

Years later I ran into A at brunch– a forkful of omelet raised to his face.  “Christie!” he called.  Dodging a roaming toddler and a waiter with a tray the size of the Coliseum, he made his way to me.  Surprised by his warmth, I returned his hug, introduced my family.  We went through the basics—what we were doing now (both of us law), how many kids (me two, him three), where do we live (both of us in the city).

“I’ll let you get back to your eggs!” I said.

“You know you were his favorite.”

“What? Whose?”

“The Boss.  He talked about you for years after you left.  He said it was the best summer ever.  He liked your gumption.  Always said he knew you would be successful at whatever you did.”

Had I been eating, I would have choked.  Rendered mute, I nodded.  He must have confused me with another intern.  The Boss had never indicated he felt anything about me one way or the other.  In the empty space between me and the Boss, I made up plenty of stories (he hates me, he hates me, he hates me).

A threaded his way back to his table, and I to mine.  The shock lasted for several hours.  When it finally wore off, I scrolled through my memories of that summer, but couldn’t find a single piece of evidence for what A had said.

Not a single piece.

What was I missing?

 

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Hey, Graduates, Do Something Cool

Go forth, Graduates, and do something cool.  Do something no one else has ever done. Do something that adds to the goodness of this ragged old world of ours.  Surely you can think of something to do that no one else has done.

 

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbon

You can’t split the atom, because I’m pretty sure that’s been done.  Plus, I think you need a license and a PhD in physics, graduate students, and a laboratory.

But don’t be discouraged because there are things you can do without more schooling or a license from the state.

How about this:

Explain to the world what the lyrics to Some Nights by Fun. mean.  Because nobody understands that shit. What does it mean to have lips building a castle? I have no idea.  Go figure it out and report back.  Come back to me and “jack my style” (after you explain what that means).

See? It’s easy.

Pick something good.

Teach the world how to tell the difference between Keira Knightley and Natalie Portman.  Pick a video that’s gone viral and trace how something as stupid as a contrived video of kids telling their mothers they don’t suck went around the globe 80 times.

Add to the rich bounty of scholarship and journalism and entertainment, the stuff that makes this country great.

Aim high, trust your gut, reach for the stars.  Then sit down and do a video log that explains why children insist on sleeping in on the one day you have to wake them up and race to the airport.  Give me a good explanation about why Kathie Lee Gifford is a thing or why it’s so fucking impossible for a juice box straw to stay attached to the damn box.  Then invent the glue that will make that straw stay the fuck put.

Don’t just hide in your parents’ basement waiting for the economy to bounce back.  Make an app.  Create one that can tell the future– like what’s the exact date that my children will learn how to actually look for something they lost instead of wandering, glossy-eyed and unfocused, in a damn circle claiming, “I can’t find it!”

Write a book about a werewolf who time travels with a bow and arrow.  Then write the sequel.  Invent a pet that doesn’t shit. Or have hair.  Knit a blanket that will cover the hole in the ozone layer.  Outline a plan for peace in the Middle East.  Clean the Great Barrier Reef.  Clean your room, your fingernails.

It’s your life.  Do something grand.  Start today.  The future awaits you.

 

 

 

Help! I Fell Into A Goldfinch-Sized Hole

The following has always been a true statement since Miss Hunter taught me to read in kindergarten: I love to read.  I remember tenting my covers and burning through Judy Blume’s canon with a flashlight in junior high.  My love for a good story arc and a compelling plot runs deep.

Apparently, however, not as deep as the satisfaction of finishing a book.  I think I’ve had my tenses wrong all this time.  It’s not that I’ve loved to read; I’ve loved to have read.  I love watching the tally rise as I finish a book– that’s what really gets my juices flowing.

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Take this year.  I’ve read 18 books so far.  Around book 15, I started geeking out at the prospect of pushing myself to read 50 this year.  Could I? Should I? Let’s do it!  I picked up the pace, hoping to finish June with at least 23 books stuffed in my noggin.

Then I started The Goldfinch.  Damn, you Goldfinch, with your perfect descriptions of EVERYTHING and your expert language.  Damn you and your 80 gazillion pages.  The Goldfinch is a speed bump on my quest to digest more and more books.   There’s been no zipping through Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  Yet, I keep returning to see what’s next for the young protagonist Theo Decker.  I’m rooting for him; I adore the beautiful language.  (I’m supposed to call it “prose” and get my English degree on, but it feels like language to me; I want to bathe in it, marinade in it, and hope that some of her mastery rubs off on me.)

So, now I’ve spent a week with GF and am only 1/3 through.  The irony in all of this is that my next book is Proust, a challenge-read that a friend and I are undertaking for this summer.  (I should probably make peace with the fact that I’m perhaps only going to read 20 books this year.)

But the bigger issue?  I might want to look at my values because this little exercise, this musty literary corner of my life is a microcosm– how I do anything is how I do everything.  And my first impulse is always to value speed above thoroughness, quantity over pleasure and the goal above the journey.

And that is my real problem, not that GF had more pages than red states have guns.  No, the real problem is that there’s a battle I’m eternally (and internally) engaged in– how to harmonize all my wild and ferocious impulses into something manageable, productive, and ultimately beautiful, even those that are at odds with one another.

The One And Only Cardinal Sin In Emily Giffin’s New Book, The One And Only

One of the smartest legal minds I’ve ever encountered belongs to a woman who unabashedly professes her love for Emily Giffin’s body of work, so I don’t hate on chick-litty books because I’m afraid I won’t seem profound or erudite.  Ms. Giffin’s work clearly appeals to millions of people because she’s landed on the bestseller list six times.  Soon she’s likely to land there for the seventh time.

Nuttin wrong with a beach read

Nuttin wrong with a beach read

 

If you’ve read her previous books, you know her style and her themes.  In her latest, The One and Only, Giffin takes us to the Great State of Texas and immerses us in football and moral dilemmas.  And when I say “immerses us in football,” I mean you won’t go more than a page without a reference to the Heisman trophy, the Cotton Bowl, the NCAA or  NFL drafts.  She’s done her research on college football and I suspect that almost every bit of it made its way into this book.

As one of Texas’ daughters, I appreciate the reverence and respect she pays to the football religion.  I can’t say that I worshipped at that altar myself, considering I spent college Saturdays studying while the Texas A&M Aggies played at Kyle Field– the fans’ cheers rocking the stacks where I studied for Sociology 101 and 20th Century Women Writers. 

I’d say there were too many football factoids and conversations featuring the pigskin for my taste, but you gotta know, that I have zero taste for football.

It’s a fun read, though I’ll confess I was rooting for the professional football player and hoping there’d be some more graphic sex between Shea and fictional Dallas Cowboy Ryan James, but those are forgivable sins.  (True confession: I thought Shea’s romance with her best friend’s father veered too close to incest for my taste, but that’s just me.)

There was, however, one unforgivable transgression.  And only because I hate open letters is this post not styled as one to Ms. Giffin, but Emily, dear popular wildly successful Emily, how could you possible write a book about Texas with no less than 78 references to country music without mentioning Willie Nelson?  Honey, that was an epic gaffe.  Willie grew up 20 miles from Baylor University; he used to live in Austin, Texas; and for the Baby Jesus’ sake, he was best friends with Darrell Royal, the KING of Longhorn football.

 

Willie Nelson and legendary coach, Darrell Royal

Willie Nelson and legendary coach, Darrell Royal

You mentioned Sugarland.  And Taylor Swift.  And freaking Kenny Chesney, but no Willie?  How could you ask me to buy a character like Coach Clive Carr who is the age he is and expect me to believe he’s not listening to Waylon or Willie?

I can’t do it.  I can’t picture it.  I want to, but I can’t. 

Not sure what it says about me that a romance that smacks of incest isn’t nearly as disturbing as snubbing Willie Nelson, but do with all of this what you will, dear readers.

The Facts About The 5K I Won

See that?  It’s a trophy.  I Instagrammed it– Valencia filter– because I care.

A champion's trophy.

A champion’s trophy.

 

I care because it’s my trophy.  I won it.  And I won it by running my middle-aged bee-hind off in a 5K race.  I was the first woman to cross the finish line.  Because most of my readers are American, they’ll want to know my time.  We care about that stuff– we want hard numbers, figures, metrics, facts, the exact location of that downed airliner.  I get it.  It hardly counts if I can’t produce the numbers, right?

Fine.

I ran the race in 26:08:47 minutes.  And because your calculator is hidden in some annoying place on your phone, I’ll do the quick math for you– my pace was 8:44 per mile.

I should probably stop here.  Press “publish” and let the glory stand for itself.  No doubt I’ve already gone too far.  I’m bungee-jumping and I just passed the first look-out point.  I’m still hurtling downward, waiting for that safety rope to catch and pull me up with a jerk of my neck.  It hasn’t yet.

So more:

I’ve never won a race in my life.  In second grade field day I almost beat Melissa Zimmel in the 50-yard dash, but she elbowed me viciously at 35 yards, and I went home empty-handed, while she had a third-place ribbon pinned to her stupid pink Izod shirt. Bitch.  Two weeks later she tried to cheat by copying my spelling test.  I laughed inside when she spelled desks as “deskes” to earn herself a 94, six points below my perfect 100.

The race in question, though, the one that I WON, was a small affair, I admit.  Four dads who seemed to sprint the whole time beat me.  They, like me, ditched their children to worship the gods of speed and endurance.  We let our spouses handle the pesky work of keeping our children off the course and out of traffic.

There were other women in the race, I swear.  That they were either orthodox Jewish women running in long skirts or benevolent do-gooders shepherding a gaggle of earnest Girls-On-The-Run participants (most of whom had never run more than six yards) is none of your business.  There was one teacher huffing it, but I passed her when I sailed over her oxygen tank like a stag escaping a hunter’ rifle in hot pursuit.

Someone had to be the first woman across the line.  Someone had to enlist her husband to custom-build a trophy case to house the golden, stubby statue that I now call my own.  Someone had to pose for victory photos, seek endorsements from local businesses and offer to headline next year’s charity ball.

There are more facts that are still obscured to you, dear readers.  Facts about the weather, the wind’s velocity, the post-race swag, and the course measurement.  It’s possible you deserve those facts and I should serve them up like I did my times.  Maybe I’ve only served you the mashed potatoes, but you richly deserve your roast beef and fresh peas.

But perhaps I’ve said too much already.

The Lost Summer: The Bar Exam, Magical Cell Phones, and Brazilians

Summer 2003 was hot. Or maybe it was cold. Maybe it was unseasonably humid and hordes of mosquitoes swarmed the city. Maybe people died that year because of record-setting heat, which was dangerous in high-crime neighborhoods where people locked themselves in the “safety” of their apartments only to roast from the inside out.

I don’t know because I took the Bar exam that summer.

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Weather? What weather? I paid no attention to it or the news or my family. My beloved Grandmother died, but I was so frothed up about the two-day test that I balked. I didn’t go to her funeral. Like Ethan Frome swerving before he hit that tree, I told Southwest Airlines “I won’t be needing the ticket.” Then, I sat at the glass dining room table staring at my shoes wondering, “What will become of me? Who misses their grandmother’s funeral for a test?” Next thought: “What’s the difference between larceny and trespass to chattel?”

The first morning of the two-day exam I woke up several hours early to review my flashcards. How silly. We were told to wrap up our studying the night before and then let go. Either you know it or you don’t, they said. I decided I didn’t. I flipped through my color-coded, handmade cards, letting the ones I answered correctly fall to the floor like dandruff. It wasn’t about learning; it was about saving myself the agony of regrets that began “If only I’d studied a little bit harder.”

The second morning, I let go a little. I only reviewed a few esoteric concepts while I blow-dried my hair. I tossed the stack into the trash when I was done. It was my boyfriend’s birthday, and the celebration would begin as soon as I tackled 100 multiple choice questions covering all of American law. We had a reservation for one of those places where waiters rove around with slabs of juicy beef sides and slice it onto a warm plate right before your very eyes. Brazilian, I thought, like the waxing.  Ghastly on so many levels, but what did I care? The bar exam would be over.

With only one hour left in the test, I started to obsess about my cell phone. (If your cell phone rings during the test, you automatically fail.) I had taken my battery out of my phone and put it into a separate bag, but suddenly it seemed plausible that somehow it might have put itself back together and rung while I was trying to figure out this stupid question about the use of lie detector tests. I kept thinking I heard it ring.

Ohmygod, they’re going to come and kick me out of the legal profession before I ever start.

I finished the test and avoided other law students as I bee-lined to dinner where I hoped that heaps of meat might soak up my anxiety and bring me back to myself, the person who disappeared the second I cracked open my first study guide back in May.

I was a wreck through dinner.  I started every conversation with “do you think I answered the lie detector question correctly?” The anxiety clung to me like a rash.

The next morning I had the house to myself.  A Thursday.  I sat on the balcony for hours staring at nothing.  I felt the weather for the first time in weeks.  It was a cloudless, vibrant day, the sky so blue I couldn’t help but imagine God’s paintbrush.  I read the newspaper cover to cover, including the obituaries.  I called my family members and reintroduced myself.

I was back.

 

Agony and Ecstacy (But Mostly Agony): The Writing Process

I recently watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the point of which was to (1) contextualize the upheaval that Eat, Pray, Love caused in her life and self-concept, and (2) inform readers/writers that success is as up-setting of the natural order of one’s life as failure is.   I love Gilbert for being so honest about her failures and for reminding me that returning to writing no matter what my external circumstances are is a way to experience what she calls “home.”  She says she loved writing more than she hated herself.

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At this very moment, as a siren wails in the distance and the smell of last night’s dinner (curry) hangs in the air, and I couldn’t tell you where I fall on the self-hate/writing-love spectrum.  Right now, they are woven together, and I can’t tell if it’s a noose or a rope attached to a life boat.

So, writing.  I started writing seriously– with goals and publication aspirations– about two years ago.  I was 38.  The courtship was dazzling, the romance was whirlwindy.  The honeymoon was all ocean breezes and incessant sex interrupted only by room service bringing thick-cut bacon and farm-fresh eggs.

Now, we are in a marriage.  There’s morning breath.  There are dirty dishes in the sink.  Writing never sends me flowers any more.  There’s petty grievances and hardened resentments that make those early days when I thought Wow, I could seriously write a book seem like youthful folly, not unlike a choir member thinking Wow, I could be the next Mick Jagger.

The business of being intimate with writing is like being in any intimate relationship.  Sometimes you want wind the clock back to the days when what stretched before you was endless possibility as far as your eye could see– those days before you set your sights (and heart and soul) on that thing. 

Because writing is such a bitch.  Do accountants have to grapple with the existential crises? Do they stare at the cloudy heavens and ask Will I ever make it as a comptroller?

Seriously, why is writing such a damn bitch?

And why can’t I quit her? 

The other night I said to Jeff with a stone-straight face: I wish I could just quit writing.  You can, he said.  But I can’t, I cried.  I keep opening that document that has the first second third draft of my book and tinkering.  Searching for depth, the spaces to amplify and elucidate.  Then, I read The Round House by Louise Erdrich, and I want to stab each part of my cell that carries the desire to write because she’s done it so well and for so long.  She’s profound and moving and important– she’s a complete meal with a rich chocolate dessert.  My manuscript feels like cotton candy– no protein, no starch begging for butter, no riboflavin-rich vegetables.  It’s bubblegum pink.  It’s forgettable.

But, I’ll open that document today and I’ll cast about trying to shade the frilly parts into something darker, richer.  Something heart-healthy and high in calories.  Something with more gravitas.  I’ll aim to make her lover more complex.  I’ll develop the arc in a more compelling way.  I’ll have her eat rocky road instead of vanilla.  I’ll draft a scene with her mother that shows from whence the primal ache came.

Then, I’ll close the document and ride the bus home thinking, Why am I doing this? Why not just be a voracious and grateful reader? Why do I need to write a novel?

I’ve memorialized these thoughts thanks to the lovely, hilarious, irreverent, and always authentic Susannah from Whoa, Susannah who tagged me for a blog hop on the subject of writing.  I think it was supposed to be a light exercise, so when she reads this ponderous tome, she might unfriend me and stop following my blog.  (Bye, Susannah, I love you and we’ll always have the blog hop.)

In the meantime I’ll answer the questions that the other bloggers did and then I’ll tag some writers who may be more cheery on the subject of writing.  You know, people who take themselves WAY less seriously.

What am I working on?

Have I mentioned that I’m writing a novel?   

How does my writing/work differ from others in the same genre?

Here’s my hope: I hope my protagonist is an intelligent, ambitious, flawed woman with yearnings everyone can relate to and recognize.  I’d like her to have a stronger voice and I wish she would tell me how to fix the ending. 

Why do I write what I do?

 Honest answer? Sometimes I think I undertook the novel in order to become frustrated and have a giant excuse to walk away forever.  I’ve never taken a single creative writing class in my life.  A novel is a complex art form– why didn’t I start with short stories? Or haikus? Why did it have to be the novel? 

When I am not analyzing my subconscious need to sabotage my relationship with writing, I love writing on my blog because it’s fun, it leads to connection and community and it keeps me from losing my marbles over the damn book.

What is my writing process like?

 I’m pretty sure you guys have a good sense of how gut-wrenching and sublime the whole thing is.  Mostly gut-wrenching.