Wednesday, October 21, 2015

I don't do that anymore

I got my first job when I was 16 years old, and I haven't stopped working since. I’ve never had to wash dishes, wait tables or clean bathrooms for a living, and for that I’m grateful, because I'm not that good at cleaning and my sense of balance is awful, so I would miss spots and drop things, surely. I started working in the olden times—when, with several scholarships and a smidgen of luck, I was able to pay for my own college education. And I did it by working at, get this, the local public library.

After graduation, I taught freshman English at an all-girls’ Catholic high school, was an editor at an ag services publisher, and then turned my sparkling eyes to the low-pay, high-stress world of professional copywriting. I worked at a long list of agencies – direct marketing, advertising and a couple in that shadowy realm called “performance improvement.”

I worked at places that had angry partners, disgruntled employees and a complete lack of creative inspiration. I’ve been locked down in dingy conference rooms while the VP of the moment (a guy who looked like Fred Flinstone, wearing a Miami Vice blazer) told us why the American Express Gold Card was man’s greatest creation, and how we need to come up with something equally as good for the crappy HMO we were pitching.

I moved up to bigger conference rooms at different agencies, with people who were dressed more nicely, but I was still subjected to more lengthy lock-downs at “kickoff meetings,” where I was harangued by more suits, who demanded brilliant ideas to help that pillar of American industry, General Motors, sell more car and trucks. I’ve sat, pantyhose cutting off my circulation and big earrings tugging at my earlobes, while some former college football star accessed the deepest regions of his concussed brain all over the nearest flipchart page with a dried-out, de-scented Mr. Sketch marker.

Because I was usually the lowest-ranking female, often the only female, in the room, it was my job to transfer the ex-jock’s finished sheets to a clear spot on the rapidly filling wall, and to pretend to transcribe his notes, with great interest. Feigning enthusiasm used to be a big part of my day-to-day job. “Aren’t you excited about this Chevy pitch?! Are you ready to get to work??!” some jugheaded state-school grad would enthuse at me, and I would be expected to pull a credible joy-face while considering the prospect of pounding the Macintosh keyboard late into the night, entering the Big Ideas of our “program.”

There are a lot of things I don’t do anymore, and posting someone else’s flip chart pages on a bare wall is, thank God, one of them. Expressing unbridled going-to-Disney-World level enthusiasm over work assignments is another. These days, I’m a fixer, and fixers aren’t usually required to be enthusiastic, just effective. In my role as a freelancer, I’m no longer another cow in the barnyard stall. I’m much more the no-strings busy-bee, cross-pollinating from project to project, agency to agency. I see who always starts their meetings on time, who is afraid of impending layoffs and, vitally, who serves the nicest complimentary beverages.

Freelancers are treated differently than regular employees. No one ever calls me in when there's happy client, a functioning team, and plenty of time to meet the deadline. They call me when someone forgot something important, when the client screamed at everyone during the weekly review call, and when no one has any idea how this damn thing will ever get done. I often pick up the faint traces of a sniffle when someone calls on Thursday night (prime time for freelancer booty calls) to ask, weakly, “Are you available for a quick-turn project?”

And I like it, I like it a lot. I like the flitting, and I like the fixing, and I like doing quality work for places and people and topics that can only be described as “varied.”

That’s why a couple recent unpleasantnesses have reminded me of how generally smooth my freelance path has been. The first bump in my road was in a meeting that would have been unremarkable, except for the presence of man who clearly had fallen in love with the sound of his own voice the day he hit puberty, and has been unable to shut up ever since.

I was the one new person in the room, so he decided to tell me everything that had happened on this account since the beginning of time. And I get it, I really do, that everyone thinks their own product is very complicated and involved. I’ve been in meetings where people who make pens feel the need to begin by describing how ancient Egyptians used ink ... and then go on from there. This particular day, I was taking notes and paying attention, but then I noticed that this guy had Become Displeased. “I can’t tell if you understand me, because you keep frowning at me,” he growled. I looked around the room. The other man in the room wore a serious, paying-attention look. The other two women were baring their teeth in rictus smiles. Aaaah, this is a place where the girls need to grin like chimps, I realized.

“I’m paying attention,” I told him. He continue his narration, then stopped for a breath. “Do you like doing this? Are you excited about this?” he barked. I wondered, dimly, when the last time had been that a smile-demanding suit had asked me this question. A very long time ago, I realized. “Yes,” I told him, deadpan. “I am so, so excited.” And then, when the meeting was over, I gathered up my notes and left, the flip chart pages still dangling from the walls. Goodbye.

That evening, I was back at my office, finishing up some copy, when the phone rang. The caller interrupted my “hello” to tell me he’d been recommended by a friend of mine. “He SAYS you’re a writer; do you even have a website?” The sneer came through the line, and he interrupted me before I could spell out the URL. “My agency is writing blog posts for me at $300 per post,” he grumbled. “Well then, I would charge more,” I said, evenly. “Tell me why you’d be better than my agency,” he shot back. And I took a breath. “No, I won’t tell you that. You can look at my website and read my work, then decide for yourself. But I’m not going to pitch you on why I’m a good writer; I have plenty of happy clients who think so.” He started a long ramble about how writing got easier the more you did it, and once I’d written a few blog posts for him, I could crank them out in mere minutes. “There is no volume discount,” I said, catching his drift. And then, breaking the fourth wall I usually keep between work and my real life, I added: “I’m leaving for yoga class now. Goodbye.”

Some people are dissatisfied at their jobs twice a day, or twice an hour, or just all the damn time. I figure that being truly miserable only two times in the past few years is probably a pretty good average.  With that in mind, I’ll try to keep at this as long as I can, happily fixing and pollinating. The flip chart pages, the dried-out markers and those pasted-on smiles are, blessedly, not part of my job, not these days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Adoption math

Trust me, I spend as little time as possible thinking about math equations. Today, though, I’ve had math on my mind. Maybe it’s because I’ve been interviewing a lot of scientists lately, and some of their smarts might be rubbing off on me (that’s scientifically proven, right?). Either that, or the guy from the Harvard-MIT genetics lab did a mind meld on me during our phone interview. (He was certainly smart enough.)

Math seems to be the best way for me to make sense of the topic that’s really been front-and-center for me this week: adoption. Yesterday afternoon, I sat across from my daughter in a cafĂ©, sipping a cup of coffee and thinking about the impenetrable sense of loss she sometimes feels when she reflects on her life. “I was left in an orphanage when I was an infant, and I spent four months there. I don’t have words now for that kind of loss, because I didn’t have words then,” she told me. I nodded, and sipped, and thought. The day she was put in my arms was one of the happiest in my life. For her, it was something altogether different: not entirely happy and not entirely sad. My joy in that moment clouded the forethought to see how my utterly joyful experience was not at all the same experience for her. If I’d been keeping a tally sheet at the coffee shop, there would have been a checkmark in the “loss” column for adoption.

And then this afternoon I was invited to witness a friend’s adoption finalization hearing. On the 15th floor of a Minneapolis office building, my friend’s image was video-transpor-telemated to a courtroom in Florida. (Okay, so maybe the Harvard guy didn’t really help me all that much). My friend sat surrounded by people who love her, represented by mother, niece and friends, with three adoptive parents and one adopted young man represented. We were holding back sniffles and collectively bearing witness to the great good thing she and Josiah were doing for each other.

Together in that conference room, we were people who made space for fleeting but incredibly significant moment. We stood watch as that heart-meltingly beautiful six-month-old try to scoot across the conference table and eat the phone cords. The judge signed the paperwork, and we burst into tears and applause, probably not a very common sound in that particular conference room. It felt good to put that upbeat vibration, plus a dollop of baby drool, into that starkly serious space. I realized, as I tucked my handkerchief back into my pocket, that I was now tallying a checkmark in the “plus” column for adoption. For today, it was a great good thing that could not be denied, not if you looked for one moment at that mother’s face, or at all the beaming ones of her loving community. It’s been a long time since I felt such a lightness of heart, and certainly never on a Tuesday afternoon in downtown Minneapolis, so that has to count for something in adoption’s favor.

Back at work this afternoon, I am looking out my office window at a Starfire Maple that’s inspiring today, but will be bleakly barren in just a few weeks. The shorts-clad rollerbladers zipping down the big hill outside will be replaced by bundled-up and booted weather warriors. Everything changes. The beloved, dreamed-for child carries a story that began one way, was crossed out, and was started over. Adopted children live edited lives, and some of them find that redirection a very hard burden to bear. Sometimes, all the love in the world isn’t enough to save them from that pain.

But—and here is the secret I wonder if even my Harvard guy is willing to tell himself—sometimes love, just love, is exactly enough for what is needed today. And today was one of those times.