“It’s Simple.” This Is Why I’m Not the CEO (Or Someone Thereabouts)

organized desk.jpeg

Early in my short-lived career as an Executive Assistant (which is to say, about two weeks into a year), I was routinely flabbergasted by how clear my boss had everything in his head.

“Well, he’s the CEO,” my dad would say, “You think he got there by being confused all the time?”  Continue reading ““It’s Simple.” This Is Why I’m Not the CEO (Or Someone Thereabouts)”

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New Business

Edward Hopper "Office in a Small City"
Working Title/Artist: Edward Hopper: Office in a Small City Department: Modern Art Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma 1979/89, transparency #11ad scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 5_16_07

“I like my job.”

Really? You do? Betty….is that you?

I’m surprised too. A month an a half in, I’ve grown somewhat more comfortable with those words.

I like my job.  Continue reading “New Business”

How to Ace the Interview, Part 2: Tell (Some of) the Truth

This is Part 2. Read Part 1 Here.

Last to come in was the COO, with a J not an ‘H’. He seemed vaguely foreign with dark, slicked back hair and an angular face balanced atop a long, bony neck. He wore a crisp white collared shirt which seemed to be sewn into the slim, fitted suit jacket and jeans. I imagined (I didn’t want to look him from head to toe) on his feet were polished tan Ferragamos. “So Betty,” he said, and at first I detected an accent until he spoke for a few minutes more and I realized he had no accent at all.

Continue reading “How to Ace the Interview, Part 2: Tell (Some of) the Truth”

Flight

*Bringing back some old stuff I removed, just to remind myself that it exists. 

In a few days my boss will leave on vacation. In his absence, I am to drive to his house twice a week, once to make sure the main water line is on (horizontal) and once to make sure it is off (vertical). Before his departure, I must see that his dog Fluffy (one cannot make up such a creative pet name) is safely boarded at a dog hotel and that his housekeeper is driven to her home in South Central LA, worlds away from her “office,” just as my mind is often, at the office.

When I first interviewed, the woman asked me if I would be okay doing the occasional personal tasks for my boss. I nodded gamely, thinking that personal things wouldn’t occupy more than twenty percent of the job. My main station, after all, was still at the office, at the massive desk right outside my boss’s office. I had my own printer, was just a stone’s throw away from the fax machine, and had drawers stocked with office supplies and company swag. But things change. Or more accurately, certain situations reveal themselves slowly…. roses bloom then wither and fade. Job descriptions can do that too. 
Here’s the sad part. I’m pretty damn good at the personal stuff because it doesn’t take much brain power. Driving to and from my boss’s house is easy. Making sure his wife knows when the Kogi truck is in town so I can stand in line and buy fifteen burritos, fifteen tacos and four quesedillas before she comes to pick them up is easy. Making sure his kid has a ride to and from tennis camp is VERY easy. But when you’re tired all the time and you just don’t want to do it- any of it, regardless of whether it’s personal or for the company – everything becomes hard. 
This afternoon my boss gave me a brief lesson on booking flights. The itinerary itself was slightly more complicated than his usual LAX – wherever – wherever – LAX. It was something like LAX – wherever – wherever – wherever – wherever -wherever – LAX. I showed him several options for the whole trip, then he started to ask questions about specific legs. 
“What about from wherever to wherever? And what if I left at this time? How much is first class? How much is business class? Can I fly direct from LAX  to wherever? Are the business class seats completely flat?” 
None of this in one go, but in spurts. So I started to answer his questions in spurts and in doing so, confused the shit out of myself. I wasn’t blessed as my boss was, with razor sharp memory. I hang on to the tiny morsels – crumbs, really – of memory that I have and pray, like I did in high school biology, that those morsels would be exactly what he wanted to know. But of course it never is. Booking these damn flights took me a week. 
“I could pick up the phone right now, call the agent, and get it done in ten minutes,” he said, “But you need to learn how to do this. You need to learn how to make it simple.”
He strolled to the easel he has in his office for grand ideas and quickly wrote down the route options I’d given him with the corresponding times. I watched in awe – I had read the itineraries over and over and still did not know a single one by heart. 
“Look at it,” he said, “You’re making it too hard for yourself. I don’t know what you do that.” 
The only thing he was missing now, he said, was the price for each route, “That’s the only information I need you to get now.” 
I had gone bleary eyed trying to give him details about the shorter flights in-between, confusing myself and irritating him in the process, giving him B, C, D, E, and X, when really he just wanted to know the three different options from A to Z and how much each would cost.
He drew a squiggly line in between the A and Z and said, “All that shit in the middle is important, but you can tell me that later, when I’m done deciding the big picture, how to get from A to Z. When deciding A to Z, I need to know two things: how long, and what does it cost.” 
He held up two fingers and said, “It’s all very logical when you think of it this way Betty. Time and money, right? I have money, so sometimes that allows me to save time. But I still want to know what it costs. How can I get there in the shortest amount of time and with the best value? Those are the two most fundamental things when it comes to making decisions in life: time and money.” 
My boss doesn’t know it, but he’s quite the philosopher. I agree wholeheartedly with his statement but will add another fundamental: energy. 
It seemed that this particular exchange, above all others, underlined to me exactly why my time at the Company is drawing to a close.  

Return to Sender

“I’m sending you back to your parents,” my boss said.

It was my last day at The Company.

“Sorry?” I said, “I still live with my parents.”

He chuckled, “I know, but go home and tell them that I say, ‘Your daughter is going back under your care.’ My responsibility for you ends here.”

I laughed, wondering what he meant.

“This whole time, I felt like I was parenting you.”

Portrait of the Artist’s Father, Paul Cezanne 1866 Oil on canvas.

 I recalled an awkward moment at one of my boss’s events, where after he’d accepted an award a mob of people swarmed our table to congratulate him. His wife was seated on his left and I to her left. Their daughter had taken the seat on my boss’s right but had gone to the restroom. His wife leaned towards me, asking me one thing or other as was cutting through my filet mignon. A man appeared over my shoulder, patted me on the back and said to my boss, “So is this young lady your daughter?”

I shook my head a little too hard and said five “No’s” in rapid succession so that the pink slice of steak I had so carefully speared quivered and loosened from the tines of my fork. It belly-flopped like a tiny, shitty diver onto my dress.

My boss’s wife laughed and my boss pretended not to see my little mishap. Though to my surprise, he didn’t falter or vehemently correct the man, who also pretended not to see though it was his stupid assumption that ruined my dress.

“Oh no,” my boss said, “She’s my assistant,” then pausing to think about it for a moment, “Well, yeah she could be my daughter.”

I dabbed at the steak stain, (thank god my dress was purple) and smiled in what I hoped was a winning manner at the man, who seemed less interested in me now that he found I wasn’t a blood relation to my boss. My boss’s daughter returned to the table and was immediately accosted by the man and a few elderly women wearing too much makeup.

“Of course she’s your daughter!” they squealed, “Look at the resemblance!”

My boss’s daughter, ever polite and modest, smiled and said thank you. Thank you, thank you.

———

In his office, my boss leaned back in his chair, “I hope you learned a few things from me. And I don’t mean all these tasks I gave you, but just as a person.”

I mentally ran through a few of our key lessons, but my boss did an oral review.

“You forget this and that, don’t plan ahead, pass information around before processing it…”

I nodded, “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll try not to do that in my personal life, or in my endeavors to become a writer.”

“So you don’t need a reminder to brush your teeth, right?”

I laughed and shook my head. One night a few months ago after a particularly terrible streak of forgetfulness my boss had sent me what was most likely his angriest text ever: “I feel I have to remind you to update my calendar when you make changes every two or three weeks. This is your job! I hope you don’t need me to remind you to brush your teeth!” 

I read the message at 10PM on Monday night – only Monday! – and wondered how I ought to respond. Should I even wake up the next morning or would he write an email to me that night asking me not to come in anymore?

In the end, acceptance seemed to be the best reaction. I typed, “No, you don’t need to remind me to brush my teeth. And you remind me much more often than that.”

He didn’t write back, not because he was furious at my response, but because there wasn’t anything else to say. What can you do when the person you are angry/disappointed/frustrated with knows exactly why you feel that way and they accept it? You let them bathe in the frustration and hope they remember the shame and the resulting exhaustion. You hope they never let it happen again. 

“Nope,” I said, “I can definitely remember to brush my teeth.”  

My boss grinned, “Good. You learned something. Hopefully you can remember all the other important stuff.”

The Replacement

HR worked fast and stealthily. For weeks they said they had not found anyone until suddenly the resume of “the perfect candidate” appeared in my inbox.

“Please let your boss review,” they said, “We think she is the perfect fit and want to get her in right away before she goes somewhere else.”

I printed the resume (two pages!) and before my boss walked in, devoured her work history and references. If I were gunning for the same job I’d have gulped. She was, as her meticulously curated resume indicated, a professional EA, having worked at least two or three years in each of the positions listed. I was impressed.

“How old is she?”

HR looked at me as though I were stupid. And rude.

“You can’t ask me that.”

Hm.

I’m no mathematician, but I can put two and two together. Her resume indicated that she’d graduated college some twelve years ago with a major she had no intention of applying in the real world. Or perhaps she did – who knows – but most of us are familiar with the fear that strikes so suddenly when we’re on the cusp of stepping into “the real world.” Aspiring filmmakers, psychologists, philosophers, dancers, and yes, writers promptly morph into accountants, tutors, administrators and restaurant hostesses, the ink on their diplomas hardly dry, in industries as far from our hearts as the college campuses we so blithely wandered upon for four years. Time flies, as they say.

I studied the woman’s resume, trying to picture her face, mannerisms and style of dress. From the paper alone I knew she would interview well – how else would she have moved from job to job with virtually no lost time between? I imagined her striding in, briefcase in hand, suit tailored to a T, vibrant red lipstick applied expertly over thin, unsmiling lips. She would shake my hand with a firm if not crushing grip as though silently communicating to me all my failings, “Go and play out your girlish dreams in the cushy meadows of grad school,” this handshake would sneer, “Leave a profession to the professionals.”

She would, as any good EA ought to be, a door closed both to herself and to her boss, an icy cool enigma rather than how I was, a foolish open book who in the beginning shared much more about my boss and his schedule than he felt comfortable.

“Your job is to keep my schedule and act as gatekeeper,” he’d once written to me, “STOP OVER SHARING!!!”

She would certainly not commit a fraction of the faux pas I so freely showered upon the poor man. The coffee! That damned coffee machine! My damned, leaky memory! Her resume still in hand, I ran through the series of unfortunate events during which I felt sorry for myself but really, when I think about it, was really subjecting my boss to the brunt of it all. I made appointments but forgot to record them, leaving poor, soft-spoken foreign gentlemen sitting alone at my boss’s various lunch clubs while he had no idea because they weren’t in his calendar. More than a few times, I’d put down the wrong address, the wrong phone number, and mailed concert tickets to the wrong people (though they didn’t complain). And the most dangerous mistakes of all involved my inviting people outside the company to internal meetings (though in my defense there are too many Asian men with the same damn names) thereby sharing internal agendas, memos and email addresses with people completely uninvolved who would politely write back, “Um, I don’t think you meant me….” or, “I think you have made a mistake I am not on the board of your Company!”)

No. The woman behind this particular resume would make none of these mistakes and if she did, would EXPECT to be fired. She would recognize the gravity of all these situations and in her utter professionalism say very gravely, “It will never happened again.” I tried this. But after the second or third time I remembered an old fable and did not say it again. You see, I could not guarantee it.  But this woman, though faceless, seemed to represent some sort of Executive Assistant Messiah – she would lead my boss to the promised land where all appointments were checked. Secrets kept. The company’s leader and as a direct result its underlings would be run like clockwork. The bullets shot out at me with measured precision: “Step. Aside. Little girl. Step. Aside. This is the big leagues and your boss has decided to play with a better team.”

My boss came in and I handed the resume to him.

“HR found someone they think you’ll like,” I said, “Her resume looks pretty good.”

“Oh?” He took it, gave it a quick scan, and turned it over to read her references. Then flipped it back to the front. His expression remained unchanged. I searched his face for some indication of agreement. Finally he spoke.

“This looks good to you?”

I nodded, “Yeah. I mean, she’s got good work experience.”

He scoffed. What did I know about work experience? Boss had a point – my whole resume, with nothing omitted, was a compendium of odds and ends – a curio cabinet on paper. I’d worked several internships, all more or less writing intensive until I started at the Company which was email intensive. But sandwiched in-between each unpaid but “career-building” internship was a paying job at Rite Aid, Costco, Calvin Klein and, most briefly, a Borders calendar kiosk. Then I started here and was gainfully employed for a whole year, with a salary, benefits, the whole corporate shebang I’d heard about but had never truly experienced.  

So again, my boss was partially wrong: I did know a lot about work history, not because mine was long, but it was undeniably populated. 

At the very least the woman’s experiences were each longer than two years. I pictured myself staying at the Company for another year but shuddered at the image of myself ten pounds heavier and ten years older in the soul. I’ll pass.

“She hasn’t stayed anywhere longer than two years,” my boss said, “This isn’t the best work history.”

I gulped. Had he even seen my resume?

“This is the longest I’ve ever worked anywhere,” I said to him, “and it’s barely over a year.”

He looked at me over the edge of the resume, glasses perched on the bridge of his wide, fortunate nose. There was something fatherly about his look.

“You’re just a kid,” he said, leaning back into his ergonomic chair, “You can still change your ways and get away with it. I’m telling you now to knock it off. All that waffling… You say you want to write, then write. Don’t do a little bit of this and a little bit of that and not really write and then five, ten years from now try to pursue a writing career. You’ll be older with less time and less choice. You’re lucky now! You have a choice!”

I nodded.

He joined his elbows together and made a “Y” with his arms, “You’re at a fork in the road, you know? Pick a path and stick to it.”

It was very profound. I shuddered again. I saw the resume he held in his hand and how really, it was no different from my own resume, which he had held in the same way, with the same fingers and probably wearing that same shirt a little over a year ago, when I was on the brink of walking into his office. The only difference between her resume and mine (aside from superficial formatting) was that hers spanned more time. I had the benefit of youth – and though I was a year older I saw that the benefit was still upon me.

Mr. Obvious

This morning my boss asked me to get a quote for a private jet. I should have known by now, not to go above and beyond on certain things because it invites more questions, for which I’m normally not prepared. But as it is my last week at work I shrugged and thought, “Why not?”

I inquired after the company we normally used for such trips and asked after another one, introduced to us by some friend of my boss’s. This other company was much cheaper by a few thousand dollars. I raised my eyebrows and scoffed, “Well, I guess I know which one Boss will want to go with.”

My Achilles Heel, my boss will tell you, is my tendency to assume.

“You assume things, and then you are wrong. Never think you know anything when you can’t even be bothered to ask the right questions.”

It’s half true. I do ask the questions, I just ask silently, in my own head for a millionth of a second. It is, I think, a natural response when you are handed two vastly different quotes from two companies for what is essentially the same flight, to pause and think “Why? What factors make the prices so different? Is it the type of plane? The personnel involved? The marketing materials one company uses over another?”

I asked these questions, but chose to forgo the actions that ought to follow the asking of said questions: to hunt for answers. And it pains me to acknowledge that yes, after a year, I am still that silly girl that just passes around the information.

My boss is quick. I told him the numbers and he asked, “What kind of planes?”

I gave him a sheepish look, “Very good question,” and went back to my desk to find out. This time, I was more thorough, asking both parties what types of jets they used and why their service was cheaper or more expensive. Both parties returned with mounds of information. I processed it minimally before going back to my boss.

“Well, company B’s quote is cheaper because they use an older prop jet.”

He looked at me with a bemused half-smile, “And what’s a prop jet.”

“Um. I think it has the…” for some reason the scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Indiana Jones flies a small plane into a flock of seagulls came to mind, and instead of using words I awkwardly tried to mime a prop jet. My boss sat and blinked.

“Prop,” he said slowly, prompting me.

“Yes. A prop jet,” I made the motion again, stirring my arms like an old egg beater with a failing engine. After a minute, my arms tired. “No? Am I wrong?” 

“Prop…” he looked at me expectantly.

“Yes…a prop jet…”

“Prop is short for…”

“The wings are propped up by the engines…?”

He was sitting on one of the short red armchairs and when I said this, collapsed back in amused frustration. I stood before him like a shitty comedian. This scene has played out many times in the past year.

“God,” he said, slowing straightening himself as though recovering from a punch, “Propeller! Prop! Propeller! How could you not know this?”

I shrugged.

“And what’s the other kind of engine?” he asked, ever hopeful that he didn’t hire an absolute ding dong.

I laughed mostly out of nervousness.

“I don’t know. Uh. The kind of engine that you find in a….car?”

He stared at me in the same way I stare at people I think are dumb as rocks – namely people who say things like, “Oh Taiwan! That’s in Thailand, right?” – and said, “A jet engine, Betty. A jet engine.”

Ah. Of course.

He went on to patiently explain the difference between the engines, using words like horsepower and thrust, drag and gas velocity, moving his hands through the air in a knowledgeable way. I could see the diagrams wafting crystal clear around his mind’s eye, just not in the air before me. I nodded slowly at his every pause, a check to see if I understood – not really – but still, I didn’t want him to think he was wasting his time. My boss was taking precious minutes out of his day to make clear the distinctions between prop and turbo jets, I wasn’t going to say, “Whoa whoa Boss, hold your horses. I drive a Prius and fly economy.”

So I stood very still and listened.

Finally, at the end of the lesson he smiled as though it were all very simple, “Get it?”

I nodded. Oh sure. Yes. Prop. Propeller. Yes. Of course.

“Okay,” he said, “So what’s the difference?”

“Um. Prop jets… use…propellers to push the air and…”

My boss shook his head, “Man, I thought everyone knew this. You learn this in high school physics.”

I pursed my lips and blinked and threw my arms up in the air, “Ah…I  I didn’t take that class.” Then I laughed because that’s what I do when I’m nervous and want to change the subject. 

He slowly pushed himself out of the armchair, almost dazed that I had been under his employment for so long. How did he let me get away with it? How did he let himself get away with it! A year with an assistant who not only made coffee without coffee, but didn’t even have enough beans to fill her own noggin.

“No you didn’t,” he said, “you definitely did not take that class.”