Sunday, February 26, 2012

Work Life (MB)

I loved loved loved hearing about your current work life, dear. Because that is what you are doing when you are getting butt cramps driving back and forth to L.A. and cleaning up vomit and being stage mom -- well, just being a mom, for that matter, because the thing is no mom doing their job can rightfully turn away from the labor of nurturing a kid's God-given talent and willingness to put it to good use. And, I just want to say for the record that you are very, very good at your job.

When I saw the VW commercial starring Henry, my first comments to family and friends were "Holy Shit! They've only been out there, like, 8 months!" and "Abby obviously knows what she's doing." Now, that's not to take away from Henry's obvious God-given talent. I've been a groupie for years, and I'm a believer. But you only need to go to L.A. once to discover that there is an entire world of wishful could-be stars who just DON'T get their break for whatever reason. And I gotta believe that as learning curves and access issues go, a mom and son driving into Southern California from Wisconsin are extremely disadvantaged as compared to the Real Orange County housewife types who have lived around this stuff their entire life and who know some people and who have way more cash means to just get access and have had their kids involved in the right stuff since Day 1.

So, I am incredibly impressed that Henry already has had the awesome Jetta commercial -- which they are playing all the freakin' time -- and he looks so good and grown up and cute and he does just so perfectly well in that damn thing. And, I've received your simple email letting me know that Henry GOT the Verizon commercial which was one of the two call-backs you were painstakingly driving to L.A. for . . . . my distanced assessment is that you are achieving great success in your current endeavor. And I know, just know that you used your shrewd ability to figure out how to get something done right to accomplish this success. Congrats!

I just met yesterday for casual drinks with a client/friend who is also a young Executive Director (although the organization she runs is much, much bigger and has more infrastructure than the one that I direct). We decided, based on the recommendation from a super-ambitious law school friend of mine who now lives in Portland, to start a small group of gals who are finding their way in professional leadership roles, who can get together once in a while to hash out questions, issues, etc. For example, one question I always run into -- in a small organization with a staff of four, including me, how the hell is one supposed to do performance reviews? And is it even necessary? I mean, we're all on top of each other all the time, and in constant contact. So, my default position on this is: if there's a problem, we're going to talk about it, and the need to step back and do a cold calculating analysis of "performance" seems like a tactic to unnecessarily emphasize hierarchy or something. I recognize the need for people to be able to step back and think about how they do their jobs, and what they can focus on for the next year or whatever. So, just an example of reasons why it would be good to have a sounding board of other ladies who are not related to my job, who I can specifically get together with to safely hash out dynamics and tactics and ways to get from point A to point B in one's work life.

Reflecting on all the challenges I can infer that you must be facing in yoru current work life, I imagine you could use something like this too. I imagine that all the classic issues that face any professional are there for you: power dynamics (which agent has which connections, who has an advantage based on personal relationships), management issues (what if Henry really needs to do something to be successful but he's just not into it?), time management and need for support and infrastructure issues (I know you could use a secretary or driver right about now, but you're not there yet with the income, right?), etc. Anyway, work life is tough, and it seems we could all live and work 100 years and still be learning and mastering all the while.

I realized that a lot of my prior entries have been about really personal emotional family type stuff. But my outside-the-home work is a big part of my life these days too, of course. And things are going pretty well. But it took a long time for things to feel "normal" in my new work life. It's been about two and a half years since I switched from being an overpaid and undercommitted associate in a large law firm to becoming a "part time" Executive Director of a tiny non-profit agency, and, simultaneously, opening my own small independent law practice. At first when I made this switch, there was not a financial impact because I had a little cushion, but there was a pretty big sense that I was creating EVERYTHING from scratch in the non-profit and in the law firm. So, every communications piece I wrote for the non-profit, every Board of Directors meeting, every court hearing, every client bill, was like a new project -- no template, having to question every impulse or instinct I had and having to figure out if I really understood the power dynamics, process, authorities at hand, etc. It was more tiring than I realized, I think. And juggling both things was a bit of a challenge -- I needed the money from my client work but my Executive Director job never really "turned off." If there was an issue in the non-profit, I had to handle it, you know? And the fundraising -- oh, the fundraising. It's a small organization but let's just say I've done enough special events planning, and grant reporting, and grant writing, than I needed in my entire lifetime.

Over the last two years, things have gotten much, much more efficient. I've just done everything at the non-profit at least once before, you know? So it's not so cumbersome. The law practice just ticks along -- it's true what they say. Once you hang a shingle and get yourself out there a bit, the work comes. It's very liberating having these two positions in which I am the boss, I can figure out how I want to get things done, and I have a lot of flexibility to figure out how to raise my kids in the background of all this. I am absolutely thrilled that I never feel like I have to sneak out the back door of the law firm to go see my kid get an award at school again. I've also grown that little organization to a point where soon, I will not bear the burden of all of the work that bogs me down. I'm hiring contractors to help and will be hiring more employees before long. The drudgery that really ate up a lot of time -- filling out forms, making copies, composing letters to donors -- is becoming more and more delegable. We have templates, and we have raised enough money to hire some of that stuff out. Thank goodness! In the meantime, my only complaint about my work life of late has really just been that the money is tight. Working the way you want to comes at a price, of course -- there's a reason why people put up with the misery of working at a big law firm, and it's a six-figure reason. But I'm even rounding the bend on that issue, I think. It's just been an adjustment.

This weekend I am feeling particularly good about work -- perhaps before long I'll be writing in a more cynical state -- but, Friday we had an awesome fancy cocktail affair for the non-profit. It was WAY more grown up than any event we've ever had, and I ended up finding an 85% off Calvin Klein slinky but appropriate fire engine red dress to wear to it, a ton of interesting people with means showed up and partied down, and we were surrounded by ice sculputres and 20-foot tall flower arrangements. Hey -- that's some pretty fun stuff. Add to that amazing specialty cocktails, my time on the mic talking about the organization going fairly well, and some serious action on the dance floor to MJ and Salt and Pepa classics, and ample comments about how good that 85% off dress looked, and it was a pretty overall kick-ass night. Above all, it is so, so good to see our little-engine-that-could non-profit, which I inherited as a little-known organization that had just broken the six-figure budget benchmark, in this new state of legitimacy. We are basically rocking it.

On a funnier note, I have a good story that actually throws back to my law firm days but I've never really told anybody about it and I thought you would appreciate it. So, wearing my lawyer hat recently, I was helping a client deal with some intellectual property issues. I was able to usher them through some initial analysis of the issues and clarify objectives, but it was clear we needed to consult an intellectual property attorney from a larger firm to check our strategy and provide expertise on the specifics. So my client goes to this attorney we work with on these issues at the firm I actually used to work at. That's not a coincidence -- the whole way this client is my client is that I worked with them when I was at the firm, and for general counsel matters they came with me when I went to my own practice. But there are still specialized issues that they'll go back to the firm for -- retirement benefits, intellectual property, etc.

So we schedule this meeting with this partner from the firm, and it was pretty fun to go in there and consult with him as equals and run our strategy by him and basically get feedback that we were right on; kind of validating, you know, because when we were both under the same roof at the firm I was just this peon and now here we are working out a strategy as lawyers together.

But the point is the whole thing brought back this funny memory from when I was at the firm. It's hard to explain but there was this pressure to attend social stuff related to the firm, even when it didn't make sense in my schedule, wasn't the way I wanted to spend my social time, etc. It's a pretty universal theme of the lawyer world, at least in Madison. You sort of feel like you have to participate in the whole bit, inclduing these social obligations, to do well. And for me -- single mom with kids at home and generally super cynical about these sort of business politics games -- it's funny to think I even played along as much as I did.

But one happy hour after work in the summertime back then I went, and there was a mix of partners and associates, and this lawyer that I had to meet with recently was there. We all got just a bit loosened up and when it came time to head home from the drinking establishment, I walked out ahead of him and another partner and just as I was about to turn the the corner at the end of the block, I stepped on a street vent (the purpose of which to this day I am still unsure of). Before I know it my cotton H&M dress with cute 1960s stylings (tight boddess and full skirt -- very appropriate for work with a cardigan) flies up around my torso. Yes, the vent fully blew my skirt up, exposing all that was underneath to the law firm parnters behind me.

So, in that moment -- what can you do? Absolutely nothing. I hopped off the vent, batted down the skirt and impulsively whipped my head back to see if the gentlemen behind me had seen. Oh yes, yes they had. We all struck a balance between a healthy laugh and trying not to play it up too much. There were drinks involved so I'm not certain at this point if anyone said anything or what but let's just say it was acknowledged. Then, I had to continue walking down the street with them behind me, and the incident behind me, and all I could think about was "what the hell underwear am I wearing? what the hell underwear am I wearing?" I guess I just wanted to know the reality of what they saw. I think I figured it out before having to physically check, and -- it was my most expensive flame-red fancy pair from Victoria's Secret, of a styling that did not leave much up for question in terms of what my actual rear end looked like under that skirt. I couldn't tell (and am still not sure) what would have been worse -- that I be wearing something like that, which might make it seem like I was TRYING to be sexy, or if I had been wearing some tattered old thing that would have been clearly NOT sexy but still embarassing for other reasons, you know? Anyway.

The happy hour was on a Friday and on Monday I was in the office early and the first call I get on my phone is from that partner's office extension. I decide to just head off the awkwardness and picked up the phone saying "I hope you're not calling me to give me a hard time about the little incident on Friday, because I can tell you I am embarrassed enough about that."

And, it turns out he is calling for a completely different, legitimate work related reason, but after having explained that says, "but you have absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about" in this very pointed, slow way, to which I had absolutely no response. One of those moments when you're like, do I acknowledge that this may be a really inappropriate comment? I think he meant well, and wasn't creepy, and was trying to be nice, but -- it seems slightly suggestive, yes?

Anyway, I'm glad those butt-flashing law firm days are over and my sleeves are rolled up on my own work, in my own way, and I can see slow but real progress with what I'm trying to do.

I think you and Henry are seeing some serious progress with your work already and even if it's hard to see why you're driving carsick kids back and forth so much and why Henry has to dwell in commercial land for so long before a feature, from the outside it looks like you are seriously executing on a plan. Things just seem to take longer than one hopes.

So glad Hen and Peter are in touch. I wonder what Jimmy is up to? Is Charlie still an artist? How is Frank doing with HIS new work life, speak of the devil?

Anyway, I hope we get to catch up on these things soon in person. Still trying to figure out spring break. Our kids' weeks off of school don't match. Mine are off the week before yours. So. And, by the way, does this mean your kids are in school? Fill me in!

love love love


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