My mom, the public health nurse talked to me about sexual harassment from the time I started middle school, plainly stating its definition and harshly stating its wrong. She told me stories about the old days at University Hospital when male doctors thought they could do whatever they wanted to and with “their” nurses. It was the season of Anita Hill’s Senate Judiciary hearings, where Clarence Thomas, awaiting confirmation to the Supreme Court stood accused, and it seemed the term “sexual harassment” was repeated on every TV and radio station every hour on the hour. My mom seized this opportunity to educate me not only about how to spot it, but the gender power differential that exists in society, making it politically difficult for women to report abuse, and even more difficult for their claims to be believed. She wanted me, as an eleven year-old, to understand my rights, and how to assert them. You have to be assertive, she often reminded me. Continue reading
Last Friday was my last day at a phenomenal organization, where I’ve spent the last three and a half years helping grant wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. I showed up at this well-known non-profit fresh from the tech industry, searching for emotionally fulfilling work, a place to land where I might at last grow and develop my career in ways that seemed to elude me previously.
When I told my friends I had accepted an offer at Make-A-Wish, some of them raised an eyebrow in disbelief, and all of them expressed surprise. You see, before I walked through those doors I’d viewed children as an irritation, an ubiquitous and thus inescapable nuisance, my advocacy of the child-free lifestyle well-documented and expounded upon freely. So going to work for a children’s charity wasn’t exactly the next logical step for me. But it was the exact right one. Continue reading
I believe wholeheartedly in the saying “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. The first time I heard it I was a kid and I remember thinking, ewww, yuck! I would never want those people anywhere near me. Why would you ever want the people you like the least, the ones you don’t trust, those who have hurt you closer to you than your friends? But I get it now. You keep them in close so you can control them. It’s a great strategy, and it works.
It gets tricky, though, because you have to use your powers for good. If you’re going to gather your enemies up into the fold and hold them close, you can’t fuck them over later. Continue reading
I knew I’d blown the interview as soon as I’d said it. My prospective employer asked about my biggest challenges, to which I replied that a therapist once told me my personality at work was like wild horses that needed to be harnessed and brought into line together. I watched as the interviewer blanched and slightly recoiled from me across the table.
Was it my cavalier mention of therapy? My direct and rigorously honest self-assessment? Or was it the image of my wild horses running amok in her shop? Well, I gotta be me, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my career, trying to hide or downplay my outrageous personality doesn’t work. Stuffing leads to resentment, which leads to hostility and acting out, followed by righteous resignation. No, it’s much better for anyone considering hiring me to know upfront who they’re getting–a dynamic, driven, ambitious, outspoken and high-maintenance individual who will work like, well, a team of draft horses for the right boss. The wrong boss, however, can expect to be trampled by the herd. Continue reading
I used to believe simpering was my greatest power, my secret interpersonal weapon. I affected a coquettish persona, donned the mask which I believed was the key to moving through the world. Later, a therapist and I named this simpering mask the “sex kitten”, as we worked to understand the connection between her and my blackout drinking. But before all that, I learned that if I widened my eyes, batted my lashes and ducked my head a little, people melted. I learned that if I asked for things in a singsong tone or a baby voice they seemed to come easier. Especially with men. Men were helpless against the almighty simper. They figuratively dropped to their knees, palms open, anything and everything on offer. They got out of the way. Or let me hide behind them. They handed whatever it was right over. I smiled and giggled in return, to close the deal. I didn’t know another way. Continue reading
My buddy Sam and I have this thing where we like to flip people’s attitudes from negative to positive in our attempts to usher society into the high vibe era. It’s become a game, really, and we enjoy sharing our success stories with each other. The tougher the nut, the more satisfying the crack. When we worked in the dress department at Nordstrom together and one of us had a difficult customer, we’d rub our hands together in anticipation, knowing the tough customer was totally screwed, about to be reduced to a puddle of vulnerability by our manipulative kindness. You see, people want to be seen, and validated, and told where the boundaries are. Sam and I inherently understand this, and use these truths to make the worst act their best. It’s fun for us. Continue reading
Nicki and I ran the back office of the organization, but our shared work station was situated in the front office. We were a crew of 25 crammed into 3,000 square feet on one level, pretty much working at bunk desks and feeling like sardines in a can. While the others had cubicles (though tight) or offices (though shared), we worked at a ramshackle amalgam of used particle board and dusty padded fabric that had been dropped in the middle of the building lobby. If Nicki backed her chair out too fast, she ran the risk of slamming into my legs, positioned four feet away at my stand-up desk. If I leaned too hard on my computer platform, the whole works creaked and threatened to collapse. We each faced a building entrance, and all day long visitors and colleagues streamed through the doors, constantly interrupting and disrupting our space. Our work station sucked, and we had the worst of a bad situation. Yet we were consistently the most positive people on staff. We chose to own that public space and create a welcoming, friendly, upbeat vibe we hoped would radiate through the office and change the culture. We called ourselves “The Positivity Committee” and formalized our program through targeted, strategic acts of kindness. Continue reading
I didn’t know what had coalesced in my unfolding adolescent sense of self in the summer of 1972 when I subverted gender-segregated work roles at a suburban Atlanta McDonald’s franchise. I hadn’t intended to when I looked in the eye of my shift manager and declared, “Have you ever heard of sex discrimination?” He had denied my request for a lateral move from my front-of-the-store counter service assignment to the male-exclusive crew on the cooking grill. At age 17, my freshman year of college under my belt and working the summer in a collective of temporary teenage hires, I had recognized a female ghetto when I was in one: girls worked the counter, boys worked the grill. Girls served the customers and boys cooked the meat. And I wanted to work the grill. Continue reading
I’d heard this one before. Several times, in fact, and so had the rest of my fellow acolytes who were fanned out around the oversized oak table in the dusky Irish tavern we frequented almost daily back then.
The story about the Academy Award winner who tried to seduce him at an Oscar party twenty-five years ago.
It didn’t matter if we were one drink in or nine, the punchline never failed to amaze, entertain and enlighten all of us. This is how we should be living our lives. This is life.
There was the oft-repeated tale about the awkward coworker who got duped into thinking that the attractive waitress at a seedier neighborhood watering hole had agreed to go out with him. Only when he showed up at the appointed restaurant for their rendezvous he discovered that he’d been set up in a different way. A few dozen of his colleagues enjoyed their elaborate hoax and shared a great big laugh at his expense.
The stories would always elicit the same collective chortling, brazenly reverberating throughout the bar and capturing the attention of the rest of the clientele. No matter how loud the rest of the patrons may have been they soon became our audience.
And we were his.
I often write about being a lawyer because that’s who I have been for nearly a decade. But that wasn’t always the case and after scratching together a living as a nine-dollar-an-hour bookstore clerk for fifteen months after law school, desperately lying to myself that I was better off than my former classmates because I wasn’t poisoning myself in that toxic profession, I finally found a job as an attorney. And I wasn’t afraid it would leech my soul through my pores in the process.
But I found so much more than that.
I found an identity.
I found home.
And it all started with him.
He wasn’t a father figure to me. I had that taken care of and was never in need of a surrogate. Rather, he was the superhero movie star I’d been missing my whole life, a larger than life archetype of charisma wrapped in a perfect tan year round. Always in a good mood, he was entirely unfamiliar with the negativity associated with stress or pressure and approached life as if the world and all of its pleasures were designed specifically for him.
Whenever he told the stories about his amorous conquests or winning the ’68 Barracuda by guessing the right number of gumballs in the five-hundred gallon globe at Disneyworld, or the constant parade of topless women at his house, who wouldn’t believe his life was a fairytale? Who could doubt that he deserved to have a following? A following I wholeheartedly joined the moment I was hired.
It all felt so good, the endless laughter, the bottomless drinks, the collective mentality that we were all part of the same unit. That we were one of his guys, or girls; gender was immaterial to the groupthink. He embraced you and made you feel like you were one of his, that he would look out for you and protect you when needed, he would guarantee a steady stream of entertainment and guarantee that as long as you stayed close by you would always have front row seats to the life of the party. Occasionally you’d get to play a feature role in his grand show.
All he asked for in return was, well…
He was self-possessed and never appeared to require even minimal external validation. That made his appeal that much stronger, that much broader, and it’s what led us all to spend hours at a time just listening to him recount the adventures of his life, over and over and over again.
Like the time he took the yacht he co-owned with a cousin up to Alaska and just missed getting eaten by a bear on a quick stop to the shore. Or the time he poured beer on the governor’s head.
He was my boss, but was he a good lawyer? I don’t know, honestly, but that’s less a reflection of the quality of his advocacy skills than it is on the fact that it just didn’t matter. All that mattered was that you wanted to be near him, with him, in his office, or the Thai place for lunch, or the bar after work, or his house.
My god, his magnificent house. The view of the Sound, the expansive, single story floor plan that had wings.
There we had numerous ‘offsite staff meetings’ during the workday, usually involving Bocce and Coors Light, and barbecues celebrating a promotion or wishing someone well as they moved away. The later the hour, the greater the crowds that would show up for these events and when they were in full swing there was nowhere you’d rather be.
The group made sure of that.
The hierarchy and social order that his disciples created dictated that if you were not present then you were fair game to be openly mocked. If you chose to act out of accordance with the mood of the group you were browbeaten into submission, made to feel a fool for wanting anything less than to be part of what the group had created for you.
Don’t you want to be a part of this?
Can you actually do any better?
Aren’t you grateful?
These aren’t questions that he would pose, generally, because he was too far above that. Without ever having to provide directives, he had his most senior apostles available as enforcers in case anyone drifted outside of the historically accepted dynamic. Sit, listen, drink, laugh, listen. But that didn’t mean he avoided putting his hands on the wheel altogether if the ship needed to be straightened out and put back on course.
I had, for example, one co-worker who presented himself as a straight man. That’s a fact. The group, however, saw him as effeminate and did not think he had ever demonstrated sufficient heterosexual masculinity to ever put his sexual orientation beyond doubt. Never mind that this was a man in his late thirties, a seasoned attorney who was good at his job and was loyal to the office. Never mind the fact that his sexuality was nobody’s business and any open speculation in the office, behind his back, was grossly inappropriate, deplorably unprofessional and unequivocally homophobic.
That never mattered.
Instead, whenever the group got together, be it in the office or after hours, the conversation always made its way to the ‘trial’ that would settle once and for all whether or not this gentleman was gay. Another senior attorney, a woman, in fact, was cast in the role of prosecutor in the case, charged with establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not straight. Our leader bore the heavy burden of defending our colleague in this kangaroo court, if it ever actually materialized, and persuading the jury of his peers that despite all evidence to the contrary, he was as straight as he claimed to be.
Yeah, it makes me feel as sick to write this as you must feel reading it. And it’s not like this was 1950.
The group discussed this ‘trial’ countless times. Dozens, at least. And whenever someone uncovered a new fresh piece of evidence it would be analyzed and reviewed and all would agree that our leader’s case was just hopeless and it was all accompanied with laughter so uproarious and out of control everyone got high from the sheer exertion of it. It was infectious and I don’t mean that in a friendly, positive way. I mean that it was viral and contagious. It was sick. And nobody ever had the nerve to mention that this took place to our coworker. Ever. There reached a point that when this took place I would leave and hide in my office out of embarrassment and disgust. But I can’t recall ever actually trying to stop it.
That would have been unacceptable. To do so would have resulted in a degree of ostracism that I wasn’t willing to accept. I feel like a weasel at Nuremberg taking that position but it’s the truth. You didn’t challenge the leader or you risked losing all status. In that office, in that role, in that city and that organization, status as one of his guys mattered more than anything else. Or so I thought.
Four years after I arrived he retired and a coworker of ours replaced him. Our leader’s influence lingered for a while – it’s hard for something that powerful to just disappear overnight – but it waned over time and pretty soon it became clear that he wasn’t bigger than the organization. He wasn’t larger than life or a savior from on high who was to be worshiped and exalted. He was just a guy who retired early to go and enjoy his fabulous life.
After he left I took a look around and realized that my career was stunted. I was in the same government job for four years without any advancement, promotion, professional development or increase in salary. I had been content with scraps for the entire time I worked there and was satisfied to walk in the great man’s vast shadow. To be clear, he always thought I could do better and encouraged me to look up and elsewhere for better work as I gained maturity and experience. I just didn’t. That’s on me, not him.
A few more years passed before I finally spread my wings a little bit and left the organization, city and state. As I look back I think of all the time I spent, some would say wasted, just sitting and basking in his glow, waiting for the next time he repeated a story, or the next time he threw a raging kegger, or the next time we could all collectively make fun of someone. I think about all the time I could have spent honing my craft and growing as a person and a professional, carving a career for myself that was built on more than just the reputation as one of many sidekicks to a man in the late twilight of his career. I think about all of that and have a hard time not resenting the culture he created and cultivated, wishing better for the young attorney who let his career lapse to be part of the popular kids club.
I think about all of that and one other thing.
I really miss him.
He commands the banquet room from the moment his lips part, pacing back and forth in front of us with verve, purpose and style, clad in a finely-tailored suit, never pausing to catch his breath or recollect. Summoning the words is no challenge. He has, after all, crafted and hewn them for just this purpose, in just this order, over the course of hundreds of events just like this, carefully selecting each letter until chained together they make the double helix look modest. Intricately bound, his words humbly bide their time within him until called forth to serve the master.
A few days earlier, on a sunny May Friday just before the blistering summer heat began its four-month assault on central Arizona, my law school held a party to say goodbye to the building that served as its home for nearly fifty years. I took the day off of work and celebrated the pending relocation to a much sexier off-campus edifice some ten miles to the west.
I think of this party as I sit before our presenter, enveloped in enchantment and disgust. I am mesmerized by this man and resent every word that leaps from his mouth. He peddles snake oil and I am determined to buy every last drop of it and then help him sell more. If only he would tell me how…
By what seemed at the time to be a happenstance of little note, over lunch at the old building’s celebration I bumped into a classmate of mine who I had not seen since we were students. We discovered that in the ten years since graduation we shared some overlap in our specialized area of practice, although in different states and at different times. Ultimately we agreed that we spent entirely too much time doing work that left us uninspired and unfulfilled, a refrain of discomfiting familiarity to anyone who has owned a law degree for over a decade. She went on to explain, with a vaguely dreamy look in her eyes, that after all of those years she finally found the path that gave purpose and mission to her professional existence.
‘The product,’ our magnificent presenter explains, ‘this product is something you cannot live without!’ Tell me more, I whisper. ‘Who here has ever needed a lawyer and not been able to afford one?’ A room full of raised hands. Eyes widening, he asks, ‘And how much does a lawyer cost when you need one?’ A thick murmur of quiet protest. ‘This product changes all of that. How have you lived without it for all of these years?’ I am ashamed when I admit in my own mind that I have never owned the product, finding it useless and a scam, and I pray that our presenter will not be able to detect these impure thoughts, pray that he will forgive me and let me buy and sell for him. He continues, ‘I have owned the product for more than fifteen years, it’s been in existence for more than forty, who could question its necessity?’ Cheers from the crowd, responding as if to their Reverend on Sunday morning. ‘Who could ever doubt its value?’ Nobody, the crowd shouts, nobody, nobody! He goes on, ‘Family… now family, who could argue against its legitimacy?’
After eight years, I told my friend at the law school, I finally moved on to something less stressful but equally unfulfilling. She, on the other hand, was part of a movement revolutionizing the way people practice and approach law. She didn’t elaborate much further, beyond saying it was unbelievably exciting, and as lunch ended the attendees were being gathered for a presentation in our grand lecture hall. She gave me her card and we exchanged contact information. As we parted ways and I sat down for the continuing education session, it occurred to me that I just spent more time talking to her than during the three years of law school combined.
I am grateful to be here with our presenter, to be granted this place in the audience, on this wonderful Tuesday night. His stories and witticisms continue as he demonstrates through PowerPoint all of the virtues of the product, and how minimal the cost is to purchase it, and how once we begin selling it, for a small upfront fee, we will be part of a larger community. ‘Family,’ he says again, ‘the possibilities are endless, you can make as much money as you want simply by recruiting others to sell for you. You will oversee their work for your business that will grow! It will be through your sweat and tears that you achieve success! And you will climb the ranks until you reach the top, and you will know happiness.’
Two days after the law school party my former classmate texted me to tell me how much she enjoyed reconnecting with me and that her company was hosting an event in a couple of days, a celebration for recent graduates and an opportunity to learn more about the organization. She invited me and, if nothing else, curiosity compelled me to attend.
The audience’s enthusiasm swells, a great wave rising with every step our presenter takes across the room, back and forth, a raconteur of the highest order fed by the reaction we before him provide. He regales us with anecdotes of people who had been saved by the product, who may have lost their liberty or livelihood without it. He then describes to us the endless perks, the tropical vacations, the BMW club, the worldwide network of support, friendship, and family. This all lay before us, to commit would be to join something much greater than ourselves. To decline would be to renounce paradise. ‘The choice is yours, family.’
When I arrived for the event on the second floor of a respectable businessman’s hotel on the outskirts of town, I was impressed by the size of the crowd and the buzz that coursed through it as everyone waited for the banquet room to open its doors and welcome us. My friend found me and introduced me to several people, including her mom and dad, and a beautiful young woman in a vibrant yellow dress. About three quarters of the people present were like me, unaware, uninformed and curious, many of whom appeared to be right around college-age. These must have been the graduates my friend mentioned. The rest appeared to work for the company and they each shared, I noted with a hint of concern that I quickly subdued, the same sly smile and mildly fervent glimmer over their eyes.
I recall the glimmer as our magnificent presenter reaches the end of his recital, which lasts twenty minutes longer than promised. I haven’t eaten yet and take exception to the disrespect for my time and rise as one with the group to applaud him and wish to myself that he would never quit his magical speaking. He leaves the room and then begin the personal testimonials.
As we entered, my friend led me to my chair, strategically placing me right in the middle of the crowd, towards the front, next to her mom and dad. It became clear throughout the evening that each individual was seated according to a scheme, likely repeated at these events around the country. The newcomer shall sit next to one member and one other newcomer. The members shall applaud, laugh and fully react to prompts, and shall give the impression of an unscripted call and response, which shall then result in the newcomers fully participating and growing comfortable, feeling wanted, and included, surrounded by the group. This happened repeatedly during our magnificent presenter’s speech. Even better, they seated all of the newcomers in such a fashion that getting up to leave would have been noisy and awkward. They created a captive audience.
Our presenter’s absence broke the spell and the testimonials were what you would expect. I was a failure, then I discovered the company and I have been blessed ever since. I was unemployed and beginning to engage in petty crimes, then the company rescued me. I am a mother of three and when my husband lost his job, I thought we would lose our house, then the company came and now we live in a bigger house. I was a lawyer, unhappy with my life and yearning for something more, then I found the company and I am never turning back.
After it ended I left as quickly as I could, feeling ill and suffering physical symptoms of withdrawal now that I was severed from that most charismatic creature. Barely pausing to say goodbye to my “friend” I made it outside, took in a breath of fresh air, got to my car and texted my wife that I had just endured a cult recruiting effort.
I researched the company a little bit the next day and the first couple of internet searches included the phrase pyramid scheme. The average employee, according to SEC filings from a few years back, earned two-hundred-fifty dollars annually. The setup was perfect: invite mostly recent graduates and describe to them a land of limitless bounty. Have the perfect embodiment of charisma pace the front of a room, invite individuals, lonely or lost, to join the family. Grab them young, ideally, maybe while they are trying to find a summer job or find their way, extract a few hundred dollars from them to start, and maintain the promise that the riches will come soon. Just be patient.
I didn’t fall for it, in the end, but even my skepticism was tested. Maybe this is legit. Maybe this is what I should be doing with my life. I haven’t really found my passion, maybe growing a business with great help and support is what I need. The magnificent presenter made it look so appealing, so wonderful. How could I go wrong? He wouldn’t lead me astray, would he?
The next day my old classmate texted me to ask me what I liked best about the event. I never answered her.
An educated man in my mid-thirties, I feel like I never should have been susceptible to a scam like this. But it all sounded so good, coming from his silver tongue, the riches and rewards, the meaningful existence, all just within my reach. I don’t believe that I was ever really at risk of falling for it, but it’s still nice to know that I got out of there with my wallet and dignity intact. It might sound silly, but I’m pretty proud of my resilience. Not everyone is so strong.
I’m glad I went through it. I’d never experienced anything like that before and I don’t know that I ever will again.
Now let me tell you about this opportunity that I have for you. This product will change your entire life…