My Darling Boss,
My boss likes to say, “You should know __(insert habit/predilection/taste/leaning/whim)_about me by now!”
And I should. As an assistant, I should know many things about my boss – and I do. I know that he likes decaffeinated coffee in the mornings. I know that he likes to snack on nuts. I know that he is not a morning person. I know that he likes his assistant to pay attention to details and to know things an assistant should know: schedules, names, faces, addresses, phone numbers, important dates and promises made so that they can be kept.
It’s an odd job. Of course so are many other jobs (professional magician, production assistant for adult movies, mortician…) – but it is such an odd job. To think I know so much about one man, his family, his habits and tastes – someone I am neither related to nor in love with – is one whole facet of strange. Stranger still is the fact that I do know so much and yet for the most part feel myself uneasy and in the dark because, the question is: can you ever really know what someone else wants? Or more unsettling: know what they want but doubt your ability to deliver it? I feel uneasy everyday. I walk into work with a bright smile, but underneath it I am hollow, as though removed from my own skin. That’s a decoy walking in. I am standing outside the water. I haven’t jumped in.
|Edward Hopper New York Office|
But my boss is not a shark. He never gnashes his teeth. Never barks or bites; just wears me out with his heavy sighs and questions because I wear him out with mine.
Lately, I have been spinning a downward spiral at work; an airplane with a clipped wing and a pilot who stunned, goes in and out of consciousness. The plane nose dives and the pilot wakes just in time to pull it back up. Then blacks out. The plane dives again. I can feel my boss’s frustration, even though I know he is too kind to say it full force. He sends me reserved emails instead, with exclamation points (!) to emphasize his exasperation.
“Why did you do this?” He cannot wail in person. It is unbecoming. Unprofessional. So he wails in a muted, manly, electronic way and I hear not the wail but the “ping!” of my phone’s email alert. It is a sound I have come to dread above all others.
In the beginning, I never wrote that I was sorry, because I wasn’t. I often made mistakes, but it was the first month. Then the second month. Then the third. Sometimes, it was a lack of guidance. No one held my hand and that’s fine – I could put two and two together. Boss hands me keys: his car needs gas. No? Then his car needs service. No again? Get something from the trunk. His wife calls. Something to do with: insurance. The company van. Picking up an ice cream birthday cake. Inquiries about my boss’s schedule so she can plan their vacation. But was I sorry to mess up? Sometimes. And if we were in the same room I would apologize profusely and earnestly, but there was something hollow about doing it via text or email. I simply didn’t bother.
But tonight I did, via text. Like a bad boyfriend. He said that he found himself reminding me to do things – simple things that should be rote by now – every three or four weeks. And I knew he didn’t mean it as a jab, but he added, “I hope you don’t need reminding to brush your teeth!”
I had just come in from a swim and stood dripping wet at my desk, feeling the carpet growing soggy beneath my feet. I typed my immediate reaction:
“I don’t. And you remind me more often than that.”
I stopped and wondered about the last two words still unwritten. How much would I mean them? I recalled an early conversation I had with my boss about being willing. “If you’re not smart, then you’ve got to be willing,” he had said. This heartened me at first, then bothered me. It exhausts me now. I am willing, just not willing enough for certain things. And the thing is, the main thing is: I am smart.
Slowly, deliberately, I tapped out the letters, smearing a few droplets of water that distorted the words, but did not make them any less true: “I’m sorry.”
I hit ‘send’, not sure if he would sense that I was serious, but I was.
In the afternoon I swam and did a second load of laundry: the darks. It was a pitifully small load, devoid of my father’s thick navy polos purchased in bulk at Costco and my mother’s nylon badminton shirts. This is laundry when you live alone: just your dirty clothes in a small, limp pile. Small because you’re not the type of person to let the clothes pile up. I used half the detergent I normally use and closed the lid, suddenly unaccustomed to the silence. Continue reading “The Wave”
A few days ago I cancelled a meeting without telling my boss. I didn’t think I had to. It was one of those things where the other party dictated what they thought should happen because it seemed like the common sense thing to do, and me, without applying common sense, agreed.
I can’t explain the thought process, perhaps because there wasn’t one, but the conversation went something like this:
J: “Hey Betty, can you cancel our Tuesday morning meeting with Boss man, Jeb isn’t in and we don’t have much to update Bossman on since our meeting with him last Friday.”
Me, wondering if it was a good idea, all the while knowing in my gut that it wasn’t, “Okay.”
Click. Click. Meeting cancelled.
On Wednesday morning, Bossman rolls in, nods at me, then goes to his desk.
A few minutes later my phone rings.
It’s Bossman. My voice cracks as I answer. He never calls this early in the morning, preferring to go quietly through his emails.
I get up and walk into his office, hoping that I haven’t forgotten the coffee again. I see that he has a cup on his desk. It’s not the coffee. He has a disgruntled look on his face, but then again, it is the morning. Early on he told me he wasn’t a morning person.
“Where’s my meeting,” he asks.
“Ah.” I mentally punch myself in the face. Here we go. “I cancelled it,” I say.
“Who told you to cancel it.”
“J did, Jeb’s out because there was a death in his family… and they said that as a team, they didn’t have any new updates to bring to you.”
“So you just cancelled it?”
“What is wrong with you? What’s the point of having a set, recurring meeting if you just go and cancel them at their whim? How does that keep them accountable? Oh so they have nothing to show me. Well, why don’t they just stay home? Maybe I shouldn’t even come to work?”
I stand awkwardly and nod along, wondering why he never raises his voice. I study his face. How tired of me is he? I’ve been here eight months…nearing nine now, and in a few days my employee evaluations are due – will he even bother to write it out? I imagine him pulling a huge guilt trip and telling me to fill it out on his behalf. “You tell me how you think you should be evaluated,” I imagine him saying. But back to the cancelled meeting.
“Sorry,” I say, “I wasn’t thinking. I figured…” I don’t know what I figured. I didn’t figure anything because…
“You weren’t thinking,” he says, “You don’t think. You don’t want to think. You just do. You just want to follow instructions, from anyone!”
I say nothing.
“If that’s the case, then you’d be better off working at Burger King. At Burger King, you just gotta follow instructions.”
He made an incongruous gesture with his hands, reaching up to pull some imaginary burgers down from imaginary shelves and placed them roughly on an imaginary conveyor belt. Had anyone been standing outside his office, it would have seemed like a terrible seated rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” but he was really demonstrating to me what life would be like at Burger King.
Finally I say, “Do you want me to call J and them upstairs? We can still hold the meeting.”
“Forget it,” he said, “Just don’t cancel my meetings for stupid reasons next time. Don’t let them tell you what to do. You’re here to hold other people accountable, not just to me, but to themselves and their responsibilities.”
“Got it,” I say, then as I walk out, make a mental note to think more.
I have good, thoughtful intentions I swear. But brain cells and memory are no longer on my side. Whose side ARE they on?
This morning my boss rolls in again, and I am pretty sure that at least for the rest of the week the calendar is good. All meetings are on. Things have been confirmed and reconfirmed. I am excited like an eager ninth grader in honors bio who read the assigned chapter a couple of times. I almost want Bossman to test me.
He nods good morning as he saunters past my desk and I grin brightly, assured that we’re both off to a good start.
I hear “snap snap snap” and from the corner of my eye I see the lights turn on. Next stop, coffee pot. And once he pours himself a nice hot cup and settles into his chair…
I snap my head towards him. He is walking towards the desk and motions for me to come in.
Oh goodness what now.
“You served me hot water again.”
My jaw slackens as though someone has hit me with a sledgehammer. The most obvious thing. ALWAYS, the most obvious thing. Concentrate on one thing and let another thing slip.
I rush to the coffee pot as my morning’s actions rush back toward me. My mental checklist failed again. It makes me sad that I need a mental checklist to make coffee. The fact that I had forgotten AGAIN to put coffee in the coffee pot seems the stuff of comedy and at the end of the day, my boss would tell David that it was his daily entertainment, a small, one woman show called, “What will Betty forget today?”
At this point, there is no point in explaining myself. I grab the coffee pot and laugh. What else is there to do?
I lift the cover and scoop the beans in. How could I have missed that smell this morning? And it’s almost like deja-vu, my standing there, scooping coffee into the the filter and thinking, “Good god I am so bad at this.” The conversation we had yesterday returns to me.
“I don’t even think I can work at Burger King,” I say.
“Nope,” he says without looking at me. He has already sat down in front of his computer and is running through his morning emails. He shakes his head and says drily, “Burger King would not want you.”
A coworker messaged me today.
“Word on the street is that you’re looking for something bigger and better.”
I was bewildered, considering I’d never before mentioned my intention to pursue a graduate degree in Creative Writing. People at work – bless their hearts – take you for granted after a while. Or do they? Sometimes I think my boss wants to strangle or throw the quartz paperweight on his desk at me, but then he gets strangely polite at times, tiptoeing on the phone when he calls, saying, “Is this a bad time?”
The absolutely honest answer is, “Yes.” But the other absolutely honest answer is, “No. You’re my boss. I’m your assistant. Call me whenever the hell you want.”
And seriously, he can. When I read the job description I had raised an eyebrow at the “24/7” part, knowing in my heart that I’d interviewed with someone who seemed rather personable and had more than an ounce of humanity in him. He wouldn’t abuse that privilege and certainly, he hasn’t. He called me at 7PM today, 1.5 hours after our standard 5:30PM “I’m outta here” time, and sounded positively awkward.
“Is this…are you…busy?”
I was sitting where I sit now, at my brother’s desk, reading the paper from two weeks ago (I have a perpetual back log of periodicals waiting to be read. I “catch up” by reading the news from two, sometimes three weeks ago. It’s absurd), and instead of saying, “Yes, I’m reading my backlog,” I sat up and laughed.
“Of course not. What’s up.”
He wanted me to cancel a flight, yada yada yada. The details of which are not important – but this is what kills me.
Word on the street is that it looks bad if your assistants are constantly leaving.
Though I’ve been here for almost eight months now, and truly, everyone whom I need to know knows me as well, I still get the occasional phone call looking for Bonnie. Sometimes, a character not unlike Rip Van Winkle calls asking for Gina, the very first assistant who I think quit nearly three years ago. Or was it two? I don’t know – but at the Company, a year is like dog years. 8 months is like 5 years. At the Company, I am almost a Veteran.
Well, until they ask me about stuff that happened in the Gina Era. Anyway. There were more than a few times when a gentleman called and thought he was being glib by saying, “Whoa, another new assistant? What’s he doing over there, scaring all you young girls away?”
And I laugh hollowly into the headset thinking, “Whatever, it’s none of your business,” but inside I’m wondering too.
The thing is, I’m doing a little survey now. I’ve come to know more and more EAs and when the conversation goes there, I always ask, “How long have you been working for so and so?”
And it amazes me, the devotion some of these women (always, they are women), have to the man or woman they are assisting. A few of my boss’s acquaintances have EAs that have been with them for nearly twenty years. TWENTY YEARS! That’s…almost as long as I’ve been alive. Most of the other EAs, while not twenty years in, are running the same marathon. Four to seven years – much longer than I’ve ever done anything in my life. I try to see myself in four years and the picture is almost blank. I try to see myself next year, in 2013. I think I’ll still be at the company in March, but like a watercolor brush at the end of the stroke, there’s not quite enough pigment to form a clear picture. It peters out – the page is white.
I perpetually waffle back and forth between loving my job, then despising the mistakes that I make which lead to my belief that I’m not cut out for this kind of work, then loving it again, because my boss forgives me and then asks me ever so politely to do things that I ought to do. It’s not just him – my other boss, David, the guy who’s utterly self-sufficient, also has his moments. In the beginning I accused him of having low expectations. He practically applauded when I printed an excel spreadsheet for him and glued it together.
“So smart!” he said, when I presented him with one long sheet, “Great idea!”
But I took advantage, began building decisions on past exchanges and at some point, decided it’d be okay to make certain choices for him.
He called me from a different time zone this afternoon and said, quite angrily, “Don’t ever make a decision like that for me again! It’s my prerogative to do this! It’s my prerogative! Why can’t you just follow instructions!”
I said, “Okay, I’m sorry. I’ll change it,” and did, but wondered what had brought on such a strong reaction.
Miranda the new EA downstairs just happened to stop by my desk.
“Is everything okay?”
I looked at her face. She wore no makeup today. She seemed stressed. I was stressed. No need for a stressed out vomit fest. I shrugged and said, “David just yelled at me, no biggie.”
“Why?” she said.
I thought about it for a minute. He was jet lagged, definitely. And if he slept poorly on the plane, then he was probably damn exhausted. He went from plane to train to meeting. Not exactly a recipe for bubbles and sunshine.
“He’s probably tired. I get snippy when I’m tired too.”
She smiled, “Oh tell me about it.”
But still. I don’t like getting yelled at, especially not at the end of the day. I went home, my exhaustion compressed with my irritation and throughout dinner my parents chided me to keep an open mind. Look how I was acting now, and someone had cooked dinner for me! Was going to pack my punch for me! And I was there, pouting because my boss had yelled at me.
My phone pinged.
It was David.
“I’m sorry.” He wrote, “It was my fault for not reading your first email carefully. Normally I would not mind you making that decision for me – but I have been traveling so much and am tired.”
My heart melted, the smile poured back onto my face. I was still exhausted – but it helped knowing that David was even more exhausted and that he had taken the time to apologize. It’s stupid. Petty. Selfish. But I collect these little moments because it proves to me that we are humans working with humans. It keeps me sane and helps me stay one more day.
Bigger and better things for me are on the horizon. But for now, this will suffice.
“If I had been like you when I was younger, I would have been much happier.”
It would have been a very sweet thing for my boss to say if he hadn’t meant that I was hopeless. Happiness = foolishness. Inept. Didn’t think things through.
“You aren’t happy now?” I asked.
“Oh I’m happy now, but when I was working, I wasn’t like you. I was afraid to mess up. So I thought things through. I would never come to my boss like you come to me now, just talking.“
I laughed because it was funny and because it’s what I do when I have nothing to say.
“Your parents gave you a good brain,” he said, “Didn’t you do well in school?”
“Then why don’t you use it?”
Should my confidence at work, or more specifically, in front of my boss be charted or graphed, it would look like a rather unstable company’s stock ticker. Up and up when I’m paying attention, writing things down, listening. Reading my damn emails. Down and down when I don’t do any or just half of that. I am one person inside his office, then once I step through the glass doors and am back at my desk, my spine curves a little. Certain muscles loosen – and if the brain is a muscle, that’s the very first one to go slack. I forget who I’m working for and busy myself with other things, other executives, and Gmail. And this tumblr.
My boss wants me to be a better person. I know and appreciate this. He asks me to raise the bar for myself by using my brain in relation to getting his affairs in order. As getting his affairs in order is 99% of my job description, this is not much to ask. Sometimes I even get his affairs in order. In a good week, his affairs are 90% in order. In a bad week, I’ve let what seemed like 50% of things fall to the wayside and he, with his razor sharp memory (don’t be fooled by his calm, sleepy demeanor and his perpetually reclined posture), shoots me little daggers of reminders.
“What happened to this and this?”
“Where are we on this and this?”
“When is this meeting I asked you to schedule?”
And with each ping comes a little zap to my heart and I want to die because goodness how could I have forgotten that! And that! And this! What the hell am I doing in this chair? Why hasn’t he stormed out to replace me already?
The worst (and funniest) is when I go in and speak to him because it’s my best version of firefighting – better talk to him in person than ping him back with my shortcomings – and he looks up, mildly surprised to see me in the flesh because he expects me to hide behind a giant screen of lost productivity. He adjusts his eyes to my grim, exhausted expression and asks point-blank: “Who’s the assistant here. You or me?”
“Then why the hell am I the one reminding you to remind me about things? Do you want to sit in this seat? You want my job? Because I can do yours a helluva lot better than you do it.”
Instead of reply with words, I just sigh and throw my hands up. My signature – the “I’m sorry, boss. I’m a dud. You hired a dud. And now I’m just going to throw my hands up and make the universal sound of tired defeat. Sigggghhhh.”
When I’ve gone old and hoary and have had children more productive than I, and they have children more productive than I, I’ll relish telling them the story of grandma’s first real job.
“I was the executive assistant, kiddies, it was my job to help my boss, the company’s biggest cheese to keep his appointments and remember important things.”
“But grandma, your memory sucks. You can’t even remember our birthdays.”
“I know, but back then it wasn’t so bad.”
At which point my daughter will pop her head in and say, “Mom, please. You never remember MY birthday and you gave birth to me. I doubt you could remember anything for your boss.”
Then I’ll sigh and shrug, a mischievous grin on my face. I’m always one for a story.
“Did he fire you?”
“Oh no,” I’ll say, (hopefully this will be the truth), “He thought I was useless, but I like to think that he liked my personality.“
“Did you make him laugh?”
This question will catch me off guard, but I will answer honestly.
“No, I did not. I made a lot of other people laugh, but I did not make him laugh. More often than not, he made me laugh.”
The grandkids will be perplexed, why keep a clown around when she can’t even make you laugh?
“Then…what did he like about you?”
And I’ll answer as truthfully as I can.
“I don’t know. Perhaps nothing. Sometimes, you can’t ask for love or even like, and you wouldn’t ever ask for hate. I think he just accepted me. Hiring me was his decision and he stuck by it. You don’t give up on people.”
“That’s why he told you over and over again to think things through, right Grandma? That’s why you tell us too, right?”
“Yes. In his strange, borderline indifferent way, he didn’t give up on me. Never exploded in my face. Never complained about his mouth going dry giving me the same lecture over and over, almost once a week. Sometimes twice a week, for over a year.”
“So he was a good boss.”
“Yes, he was.”
“Then why did you leave?”
And here, I’ll tell them two truths: one about myself and one about life. The first was that their grandmother was not good at very much, but she was quite adept at quitting. Quite. It could be masked this way or that: getting out while she was ahead, or just stopping something before she reached what would eventually be a dead end…but the fact of the matter was that she abandoned paths almost just as quickly as she began new ones. It was not always a bad thing, but certainly, many doors remained closed to her because her stride never quite hit the threshold. What’s more, it was written on her palm, in her life path line, which was not one line but many, tiny fine lines that crossed and recrossed so that it formed a chain down the middle, to her wrist.
The second was that for all her boss’s talk about using her brain, he had neglected to mention – not that he needed to, because wordlessly, by his constant presence and visible devotion the Company he created, demonstrated – that she should evaluate too if her heart was in it. For the old woman looking back, the two were never meant to be separated. A job without the other is just that: a job.
“Head and heart, darlings. Head and heart. It is not too idealistic, no matter what people tell you, to work with both.”
And my grandkids will nod and say, “That’s why you write, right Grandma?”
“That’s right. That’s why I write.”
I had dinner with my boss’s wife and their preteen daughter tonight at a fancy club, of which my boss is a member. There’s a gym there and separate “grills” for men and women -built like an old Tuscan building with a sprawling dining room that overlooks a man-made lake with geyser-like fountain, kind of a shittier version of Lake Geneva, though on a sunny afternoon the view from the dining room is quite nice. They did everything they could to make the patrons forget that they were actually dining in the middle of a bland business park, less than two miles away from the airport, and instead created the illusion, with the tall windows, marbled hallways and crawling vines that they were in some sort of opulent yet rustic escape, a Bavarian king’s winter hunting palace. The whole place is very strange. The patrons are mostly white – a tense mixture of old, new and corporate money, and old. My boss once said he felt like a newborn baby when he hung out at the club because everyone else had one foot in the coffin. Well, he didn’t use those words exactly – I’m pretty sure the expression he used was even funnier, or it was the deadpan way he delivered it because I had burst out laughing and for a minute thought, “Hey, this man I work for is pretty damn funny.”
And he is. I think I’ve got a good sense of humor, but that sense stiffens when I’m in “professional assistant mode,” (which, sadly, really isn’t very professional or helpful at all). In front of my boss, whatever I say in the way of humor usually falls down flat. There are plenty of other people at the office who think I’m funny, and I guess that’s good enough – but in front of my boss I’m too much of a nervous, stuttering mess. I leave the jokes at the door along with my brain and put all my energy into not forgetting anything he says, though I usually do anyway, because if memory serves, the brain is where memories are stored. All that forgetting makes him pissed, which makes me less funny.
For the most part, I think I’ve written this before, I like my job. There are mornings I wake up, glare at my work phone (from which my two alarms ring) and think, “I think it’s time to enroll in a master’s program. Any master’s program, with classes that begin after 10AM,” and certain evenings, when I drag my feet out of work at 6PM, my body exhausted not because I’ve done anything particularly physical, but because I’ve been sitting and staring at the computer so long that my body doesn’t seem to know how to straighten up and move any other way. These are usually the days I drive past a homeless person sitting near the freeway entrance with a sign that says, “Please help me, I’m hungry,” but what I read is, “Be glad you have a job, you ungrateful wretch.”
On particularly taxing mornings I am heartless enough to roll my eyes and think, “Well, at least you can sleep in.”
I don’t know what it is, but lately, I’ve been losing it. And I know what I’m overdue for is an attitude adjustment. My parents are sensing my unease, and my mom has taken to coaxing me with her usual spiel, of “once you make a decision, stick to it.” She is, of course, referring to my casual mentioning some months ago that I enjoyed my job and could see myself staying here for a while. I left it deliberately vague then, because I am nothing if not self-aware, but after the holidays and CES, I had thought, stupidly, that the “taxing” part of the job was over and that everything after that would be cake. So one evening, I announced to my parents that I planned to work at the company for at least another year.
They were overjoyed, low are their expectations for me, and said they supported me in whatever path I chose, but that they were very happy I had decided to extend my current status as a productive, tax-paying, salary-earning member of society.
“If you decide to go back to school after you put your time in, we’ll fully support you then, but please work as long as possible. Who knows? You may grow to like it more and stay even longer!”
My father half-joked (other half entirely hopeful) about my climbing the corporate ladder, but I pictured the tree outside my bedroom window and thought of how much I preferred to climb that instead.
But of course the taxing part of any job is never over, just as the taxing part of life – for the long haul – is never over. In elementary school I braced myself for math tests and spelling bees (which I secretly enjoyed because I read a lot and knew some big words, until I lost to a girl who read more and knew bigger words. Then I hated the damn bee). In middle school I dreaded math tests and puberty, though it sort of hit me like a mild cold – something that made you uncomfortable, but wasn’t so harmful as to prevent you from having friends (with similar symptoms) and being, for the most part, an upbeat human being. In high school there were too many honors and AP classes and the godforsaken SAT’s on top of that AND the million clubs I joined when really, all I wanted to do was play badminton. And even then I didn’t think seriously about being a writer – because in high school, you think very seriously about other things, but becoming a writer is not one of them. But almost every day, I wrote something. Somewhere. Either online, or in my diary, or in a long letter to a friend.
Any job, if you are seeking to turn it into a career, must be viewed as a marathon – Forrest Gump cross-country style – and not a sprint. It was stupid of me to promise what, at this point, I’m not sure I can deliver. I have a terrible record of commitment – to schools, to jobs (though to my credit I have never been fired, expelled or suspended and almost every job I’ve left – the ones I’ve bothered to list on my resume – have left their doors open to me in case I should change my mind one day. Imagined future epiphany: Oh my God, I did want to assist that funny man and get gas for him and lunches for forgetful executives forever and ever until the end of my days! I think not. No, I’ve come to recognize that my marathon is based on another road.
But when it comes to people, I stay. I have no problem committing my ears to their stories, their stories to paper. Some, I stay in their lives because I refuse to let them forget me. There is Jane, whom I met during my first week and liked immensely and who then promptly moved to Chicago. And more than a handful of others I’ve come to know and like and, when I get the chance, pepper them with questions about their lives outside of work because not only is it fascinating, it is sustaining.
At the Company, it is a rare bird who does not like the people. A young coworker once caught me on a bad day and in an effort to cheer me up, wrote a me a kind message telling me to look on the bright side, that we were surrounded by great people and that he had recently been offered a better paying position at a better job, but which he rejected because he couldn’t bear to leave the people. It was honestly a terrible day at work, but the fact that this young man took the time to write me the note cheered me immensely, and renewed my faith in myself. That is what the best kind of coworker can do for you.
I don’t believe everyone likes their work – I for one, do not mind the work, but I do not love it. I said I did in the beginning but that was me making the noises of a newborn – everything is new and fresh and you haven’t developed a sense of yourself in this new world. But then you grow a brain (the one you inevitably leave outside your boss’s office) and realize, “Hey, I don’t like the work, and perhaps I do not have to. Not as much as I think I need to. What I do like are my coworkers. I like almost every single one of them, even my boss when he is angry with me, even the strange, stoic product guy with the bad haircut who drives a rape van; even the loud, brash, borderline misogynist Chief of this or that because he is a good story and, more generously, misunderstood.”
And that’s why I stay. For the time being, anyway.
For the most part my boss has an even temper, regardless of how he warns me otherwise.
Continue reading “The Half-Light”
Behind me, men and women dressed in variations of cocktail attire sip on glasses of red and white wine. They talk excitedly (the women’s voices more animated than the men’s) against the live quartet, which plays a strange selection of classical music I associate with Shakespeare’s time.
I am sitting in a tiny alcove at the Ritz Carlton Dana Point where the hotel has set up a not very high-end version of a business center. There’s an outdated HP Deskjet in front of me, and an even older Lenovo computer and keyboard upon which I write this out. To my right, an off white hotel landline, the kind that normally hangs in the bathrooms in Las Vegas, right next to the toilet, in case you croak on the john.
I hadn’t planned on being here. On Thursday nights, I plan for yoga or some other exercise class. If I’m tired, I drive home slowly (to the frustration of other drivers), and have a simple dinner with my parents and then take a walk. If I’m really tired, I eat dinner, then stare at a blank blog post. But this afternoon my boss decided it would be a good idea if I went with him to an awards ceremony.
“If you’re busy, get someone else,” he said. But what do you say to that. “Oh yeah, I’m going to be busy. I was going to exercise.”
So I shook my head and said, “No no, busy? Pah. I’ll be there.”
So here I am, dressed in my not even very professional work clothes, hiding in the “business” alcove while women in sparkly tops and heavy perfume swish around behind me. The men look more or less the same, though some of them wear tuxedos that look so crisp it’s a bit too obvious that this is their first time at a function like this. Look at me. The executive assistant doing her own peculiar brand of sneering.
There are hobnobbers and then there are hobnobbers. Corporate climbers. Brown-nosers. Ass-kissers. Whatever you want to call them. You can spot them a mile away, but not before you hear them. They greet you a little too warmly. Shake your hands a little too firmly, as though willing you to remember their grip and their steely, semi-desperate stares.
At dinner later, I will meet a 50 year old female photographer, hired by the company putting on the event to take photos of all the honorees. She will have a hard look about her face, though maybe it’s because she’s tired of doing these events.
“Thirty years,” she’ll tell me, “I’ve been a photographer for thirty years, and before, I liked it. I worked for builders and took photos of houses and condos in progress, and it was fine. I went to shitty middle of nowhere places like Perris and Temecula and Fresno, but it was calming. I made little road trips out of it and memorized where all the In n’ Outs were, and when I got to where I was going, the houses would just be there and I would just photograph them and then head on out. There wasn’t no fuss.”
She will scoff, as though it were obvious, but not unkindly, “Well the economy went to shit and all those builders stopped building, which is how I got roped into gigs like these. These corporate circus shows.”
She will talk a little too loudly and you will be grateful to be sat at a table in the corner, right next to the speakers so that the “corporate ring master” at the podium will drown her out somewhat, at least to the people at the surrounding tables.
She’ll tell you stories about the brown-nosers she’s met, because she’s done the circuit for almost a decade now, and which CEO’s are the real deal and which are full of corporate “baloney sawdust bullshit,” though more often than not the latter are hardly ever CEOs but people on the brink who for some reason, just can never quite make it to the top.
She’ll nod her head not too furtively towards the chairman of this or that and say, “Like him. That guy is SUCH a phony.” You will think that perhaps Salinger based Holden Caulfield on this wiry, rather mannish woman sitting next to you who rather than eat her steak and shrimp pushes them around the plate, an errant corral.
“My boss is very genuine,” you say, and she will nod in agreement, and you can tell she means it.
“I know him,” she’ll say, “I’ve met him a couple of times and I can tell you, he doesn’t do that bullshit. I know who’s an ass kisser and I know your boss gets his ass kissed plenty and he doesn’t need to do none of that himself. He’s the real deal.”
You will look at your boss then, though you can’t see his face too clearly. He’ll be sitting at one of the head tables, dressed smartly in his tuxedo, which although pressed, is hardly new. He wears it well. His forehead will be a bit shiny from the warmth of the room, or all the bodies trying to introduce themselves to him and his wife will be standing next to him with the tired smile she puts on at events like this. He shakes hands with a tall gentleman and laughs, then turns slightly and his attention is quickly devoured by another shorter, rounder gentleman. He laughs again – a real, hearty laugh, from the belly. Or is it? You won’t be able to tell, but then again, does it matter? He’s doing his job. You’re doing yours. You turn back to the photographer, who hasn’t eaten any of the meat.
“He is the real deal,” you repeat, but she doesn’t hear you. She’ll be getting ready to stand up and has already lifted her heavy camera and hung it around her neck.
“Ugh,” she’ll say, “Save one of the desserts for me. I’m off to photograph some phonies.”
I finally finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, three months after my boss’s brother dropped a copy off at my desk. I learned more about Apple than I cared to know, and was slightly disappointed by the lack of insight of and from his family, but that in itself is a facet of Jobs’ life. Yet I can’t imagine anyone else having written Jobs’ story as completely as he did. Isaacson is not my favorite biographer (that distinction belongs to Ron Chernow – yeah cry your heart out, Isaacson) but I don’t know if Jobs’ story, if written by another hand, could have been as illuminating, or if Jobs would have wanted his story told any other way, which, I suppose, is why he chose Isaacson rather than the other way around.
I asked Jobs why he wanted me to be the one to write his biography.
“I think you’re good at getting people to talk,” he replied. That was an unexpected answer. I knew that I would have to interview scores of people he had fired, abused, abandoned, or otherwise infuriated, and I feared he would not be comfortable with my getting them to talk. And indeed he did turn out to be skittish when word trickled back to him of people that I was interviewing. But after a couple of months, he began encouraging people to talk to me, even foes and former girlfriends. Nor did he try to put anything off-limits. “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, such as getting my girlfriend pregnant when I was twenty-three and the way I handled that,” he said. “But I don’t have any skeletons in my closet that can’t be allowed out.”
I leave it to the reader to assess whether I have succeeded in this mission. I’m sure there are players in this drama would will remember some of the events differently or think that I sometimes got trapped in Job’s reality distortion field. As happened when I wrote a book about Henry Kissinger, which in some ways was good preparation for this project, I found that people had such strong positive and negative emotions about Jobs that the Rashomon effect was often evident. But I’ve done the best I can to balance conflicting accounts fairly and be transparent about the sources I used.
“I had a lot of trepidation about this project,” [Steve Jobs] finally said, referring to his decision to cooperate with this book. “I was really worried.”
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
“I wanted my kids to know me,” he said. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did. Also, when I got sick, I realized other people would write about me if I died, and they wouldn’t know anything. They’d get it all wrong. So I wanted to make sure someone heard what I had to say.”
-Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs
There’s so much of Jobs’ own voice in there that you don’t have to waste time wondering, “Well, did Jobs himself see it this way?”
My boss had a copy of the book on his iPad, which he said he was reading during his workouts, but when I asked him about it a few weeks after the book came out, he scoffed and said he didn’t have time to read it.
He nodded towards his computer monitor where his inbox was displayed.
“I have to read all this other shit.”
More than a biography, Isaacson’s book is a great management tool, not just for companies but for oneself. This is what I loved reading about most: Jobs’ lifelong mantra of simplicity. Taking away rather than adding to, a funny math that leads to success and sometimes, a legacy.
Jobs’s intensity was also evident in his ability to focus. He would set priorities, aim his laser attention on them, and filter out distractions. If something engaged him – the user interface for the original Macintosh, the design of the iPod and iPhone, getting music companies into the iTunes Store- he was relentless. But if he did not want to deal with something – a legal annoyance, a business issue, his cancer diagnosis, a family tug – he would resolutely ignore it. That focus allowed him to say no. He got Apple back on track by cutting all except a few core products. He made devices simpler by eliminating buttons, software simpler by eliminating features, and interfaces simpler by eliminating options.
That focus has always eluded me and, I think, escapes not only my generation, but generations before and after. This was my fundamental problem upon entering college – I saw all the choices ahead of me and felt compelled to pursue all of them, which of course meant I could pursue none of them well. But now, I’m beginning to “get” it. What do I need? What do I want? For starters, I know what I don’t want.
But there will always need to be sacrifices in pursuit of this simplicity. Jobs sacrificed (or perhaps for him, “sacrifice” is the wrong word) better relationships with his family. What will I sacrifice? More importantly, what will I eliminate?
I’m working on it.