- Used now-historic computers and witnessed fascinating new technological developments
- Made best friends with officemates
- Witnessed dramatic business moments
- Felt kinship with co-workers, especially if they were going through a rough patch
- Experienced dramatic moments in business communication
Such as? How about the tiime the whole staff excused itself, one by one, in midafternoon thanks to a massive snowstorm. I was web editor and could not leave until I got the official word that the company's evening events were to be cancelled because that needed to be posted online. One boss and I remained, waiting for the word, knowing the big boss never liked to cancel anything for any reason. Outside the snow fell thickly and traffic crawled. Darkness fell. We waited. Finally the word came and I posted it on our most-trafficked pages and was bundled up and just about to leave when my boss said the cancellation did not show up on our website. Our postings had a history of lag time, on and off. I had measured it and it was always about 50 minutes and IT said they couldn't fix it, that it was a problem in our open-source software. Users would come to the site to confirm cancellation, and until I was sure they could see it, I would not leave. But in this case I showed the boss how to back out of his browser and then hard refresh. There it was. Then I fought my way to a friend's house because there was no way I could make the drive home.
The solution: Put a little table off in the corner and seat there (with place cards) the least distinguished guest and the second-least-distinguished guest, both unescorted females. We could neither see nor be seen by the diners, who had their backs to us, nor could we take part in their conversation. We were told with an apology that this arrangement was by lottery. Forgive me, but I doubt that one or two of the nationally and internationally famous would have been seated at the kids' table, lottery or not.
I'm from an ethnic subculture that loves to host and treats even the most extraneous guests as royalty. We would rather face a firing squad than set a few human beings apart as if there were not several alternatives to this arrangement, to wit:
1. Serve dinner buffet-style.
2. Buy or rent a larger table.
3. Use smaller chairs. (Accommodating guests is more important than matching or having to move your furniture.)
4. Dining room too small for the crowd? Move the table to the living room.
5. Have the hosts (or at least one of them) seat themselves at the second-class table.
6. Have the hosts buzzing around serving and refilling and ascertaining that all invitees are well taken care of (the hosts can eat later).
7. Move the event to a restaurant (doesn't have to be expensive) and write off the cost as a business expense and as a way to head off even a whiff of an idea that they sort their guests by importance.
I was so embarrassed at being thus Jim Crowed -- regardless of status I am still a human being -- that I had to try not to cry, asking myself grimly and repeatedly, "What would Eleanor Roosevelt do?" She famously said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." I wonder if anyone else was embarrassed by this arrangement. (Nobody said anything. I considered leaving. My parents would have seen the score, excused themselves and left. I thought that might embarrass the hosts in front of their other guests, and politeness required I should be embarrassed rather than they; and finally, I did not want to leave my poor tablemate twisting in the wind.)
As fate would have it, this happened to the only one who would ever write about it. It is what I have always done to stay sane.
I have learned that a middle-aged female no matter how distinguished isn't granted that halo of success and prominence the younger are sure that they will have when they reach middle age. Rather, the middle-aged female is a nonentity. The goosey voices of her kind get tuned out. People remark only on the way she dresses: a too-exotic scarf, a funereal black suit, maybe boots (groan), or microfiber flats that too clearly accommodate her bunions or bunionettes. But the clothes might as well be empty. She is an embarrassment; it is feared that her nothingness is contagious. That she might have accomplished notable things doesn't matter. Her fee might be twice what you make in a month. She might even be Secretary of State. But no halo.
It's a gleaming platinum halo; I have seen it around others, around the young, gifted, royal, and hopeful.
I wear it in my hair.
Act out of desperation and you will be treated like a bar rag.
"Desperate" and "despair" have the same root, "without hope." Thus desperation is a state of mind. I'm not saying "trouble is a state of mind." There is such a thing as real trouble: illness, no money, tragedies, threats.
But how many of us have had even 10 weeks of full-time training in how to handle trouble -- the one thing we know we will have? If you're like me and not very good at it, you might, "unencumbered by the thought process," fall straight into desperation, where you are vulnerable to exploitation, like the poor soul who calls a $3.99/minute psychic hotline to ask if he'll win the lottery.
We've all had our hands or minds wrung by desperate people. It is natural to flinch from them. And it is somehow natural, if a desperate person hangs around a lot, to want to injure them further, if only to make them go away. To take what they offer (anything! everything!) and escort them out. To shut the door in their faces. Or not answer the door.
I have learned to tell strangers at bus stops or family parties that I am a webmaster, or, if I really want to hear them talk, I say I’m a teacher (not a professor). “Teacher” elicits all sorts of commentary and memories, plus the “Guess What I Teach” game. Everyone always guesses right: I’m an English teacher. I fail to see what is wrong with looking like one.
But when you tell a stranger, “I’m a writer,” you'll get frosted or flummoxed by one of these:
- “A writer, eh? Ya know, my life could be a book. Whoo-ee! I’ll tell it to you and you can write it.”
- “What do you write?” (Disappointment or disapproval will follow regardless of your answer)
- “Have you ever heard of this book called (Dune, Twilight, The Lovely Bones, Ball Four)?”
- “Have you published anywhere I might have read it?”
- “So you get to sit home all day and write.”
- “My daughter writes poetry. It helps so much with her depression.”
Have you re-read yourself lately? If you are down, it might cheer you up. A few nights ago I got caught up re-reading my own books. I thought, "Man, I said that really well! It holds up! How did I do that? Can I ever do it that well again?" and although I know I could, given the same situation, for a few minutes I doubted it.
I'd say that was my own weird thinking, except I once interviewed a sitar genius named Imrat Khan who said he thinks the same thing when he listens to his own recordings -- that he could never surpass what he's already done, that future work will somehow be lacking.
These are fears, and fears have no existence apart from their host. Maybe Chuck Berry, 82, focuses on the future, not the past. I do appreciate the past for things accomplished and lessons learned. But a focus on the future -- even if it's only a contest deadline or writers' gathering that's coming up -- is a definite plus for the mental health of artists.
What had I done wrong, I wondered, and slunk away.
Now I'm beginning to see how what I wrote startled her.
- I had re-named, for an audience, the man she had called Dad and I had called Grandpa.
- In doing this I had asserted my difference from her. Mom did not at that time perceive us kids as differing from her in any important way. I was the eldest and my job was to break such news ("Mom, we're different from you") and absorb the response.
- In writing "Grandpa Pongratz" I had used the power to name. Such power in the hands of an eight-year-old--anybody would freak out.
- By writing, I had transplanted Grandpa from our entirely private family hothouse and placed him in the light normally reserved for public figures.
- Words on paper strike much harder than information conveyed verbally.
- Until that moment her father had not existed on paper, in prose, independently of his own hand.
Reminded of this by seeing Indian Paintbrushes growing in the roadside today, and remembering that long-ago car trip, on which Mom told me the name of those orange flowers.
More on this later...
1. Decide it has to turn a bigger profit.
2. Cut the director's salary in half.
3. Refuse to pay reasonable fees for "name" writers as instructors and speakers, and instead hire graduate students, unknowns or personal friends.
4. Exploit upper-class high-schoolers' career-minded parents and start a youth writing workshop that runs simultaneously, and then mix the youth in with the adults.
5. Use as a logo a typewriter image or a quill pen image obtained from a free clipart site.
6. Cut the publicity and mailing budget and rely on Facebook and Twitter to drum up interest.
7. Book and announce the workshop instructors at the last possible minute.
8. Accept all applicants, including those who can't write a plain English sentence.
9. Raise the price each year.
10. Stop offering a scholarship for a person who can't afford the price.
11. Don't bother sending acceptance confirmation or welcome letters, or orientation kits.
12. Instead of offering bagels in the morning, get a committee member's mom to contribute a dry little quickbread. Cut it into very thin slices so there are enough slices to go around.
13. Hold the workshops and events in cheaper, shabbier buildings and rooms.
14. Cease hiring the instructor who is a popular, proven success, whose workshops fill instantly; get someone more hip.
15. Because the fiction and poetry workshops aren't filling, combine them into a fiction-and-poetry workshop.
(#15, friends, is the death blow, showing a total misunderstanding of writers, the writing process, and workshops.)
We discussed aging and our worries, but more important than what he said was his honesty and directness. Honesty is the most exciting quality in the world: it ignites everything. An honest writer is never dull. Usually I feel self-conscious in such a presence, but we could have talked for hours. He said that his 70th birthday approaches, he is both awed and shy of it: What to do with it? How to fit oneself into it? How to spend the days that are left? How to accept the totality of one's life?
And he referenced Robert Frost, quoting a poem written by David Ray, titled "Thanks, Robert Frost" (here's the first lines):
Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
something that in the end we can bear.
This is the treasure Rockwell left me yesterday. It helped. And it also led me to another writer, which you know is like discovering a new planet.
It really helped getting my writing group involved in readying the Writing Group book for submission to publishers. One of us photocopied the book outline and sample chapters; two of us split the work of writing customized cover letters for each publisher; I made a spreadsheet to track submissions; someone did stapling and envelope-stuffing; she with the best handwriting addressed them and the SASEs; and finally one of us carried the packages to the post office and got them stamped for going (and returning; but we hope not). Any anxiety about that book -- now titled The Writing Group Handbook -- is divided eight ways. And so it rests lightly on the individual creative soul.
We, and specifically I, have no worries about whether the Writing Group book is good and worthwhile -- we know it is. Eight writers can't be wrong! A poet can never have the same secure feeling about a poem. But that's the price of writing poetry and wanting to publish it. I'll pay it -- but I am glad of having several other irons in the fire, and some writer friends.