#81 Clueless: The End

When I left off in #69 Clueless Part 1, the departing president of the media company where I was publisher of the magazine had just left me in the lurch. Staff members had either kindly or cruelly nominated me for that position. And my new circulation manager who loved the job became irritable and quit. I was exhausted fighting to gain respect for our division. I knew the danger of being at least technically nominated but I decided, no I hoped, that the Philadelphia search firm would at least listen to my ideas. I knew it was unlikely I’d be considered. Mostly I knew what it would mean to an incoming president if I had been considered. A publisher in California warned me and said to go for it 100% or not at all. Unfortunately since the search committee contacted me I was stuck in no man’s land.

There was a fairly new HR director. He was someone to talk to in that lonely company. He’d described his wife’s health and his volleyball team. Sometimes when I needed a stroll outside my office, we’d visit. I didn’t know how dangerous that was.

We were growing with new publications, or supplements. It was the trend in regional magazines. Some large companies did hundreds of these. A reader receives an extra publication with their magazine about a specialized subject. It creates the opportunity to cover different topics with new revenue. It was both exciting and a strain for the staff.

I hired someone from another division to replace the circulation manager who left so abruptly. I had known her prior to working there and knew her positive energy and determination. She also became our marketing manager and planned public events to give us a greater presence in the region. We were really percolating.

I was aware that the financial officer, whom I never trusted, was fighting our growth but couldn’t understand why. If he didn’t believe me, he’d have to trust hugely successful publishers around the country. I arranged calls with a few publishers. Each publisher explained to him the financial advantages of doing supplemental issues. All of those conversations enthusiastically supported me. As soon as I hung up the speakerphone, he said, “So, they don’t think supplements are a good idea.” What? I was sorry I hadn’t recorded the conversations. One day I’d be sorry I didn’t record all conversations in that place. I worked harder.

A few candidates for the president’s position came through. A woman who had run a much smaller public company was pretty quickly chosen. I sent her a packet of materials to familiarize her with the publishing division. When she and her husband moved to the region, I was invited, alone, for dinner. I assumed that all division heads were going to be a guest at some point. Not so. I was being inspected. I don’t drink, but they poured a glass of wine for me at dinner, which I managed to knock over. The husband grilled me about my background and open person that I am I talked, an even bigger spill than the wine.

For a while it seemed that she and I were fine. We met once a week. I still had hanging over my head the fact that my name had been considered, ever so briefly, for her position. She had to know, so I decided to get that out of the way. Yes, I mentioned the unmentionable in the context that I was there to support her. Maybe she didn’t know, because after that the discomfort level escalated. I worked harder.

About six months after the young circulation manager mysteriously left, someone arranged a lunch for us. I was told it was important and I certainly wanted to know why she had been compelled to leave so suddenly. It took her quite a while, but under strict confidence she told me that the chief financial officer had called her into his office one day. He told her that she mustn’t tell anyone that they were having the conversation, especially me. He told her that absolutely under no circumstances was she to let the magazine subscriptions grow. She couldn’t tell me. She couldn’t do the job she loved. She was frightened so she left. Learning this I couldn’t see how I could do anything without dragging her into it.

There was an annual event where a prestigious organization awards prizes for media outlets in the entire Atlantic states region. All media competed. Our publication was the outstanding winner of the night. We won at least a dozen awards. Elated, several of the staff members and I called the president to give her the good news. She was not pleased. The staff was only grudgingly recognized at a company meeting months later. I don’t believe that board members were told.

Soon after the new president’s arrival, the company made plans to introduce her to key people in the region. I think I was the only one to set up lunches and meetings. One was particularly uncomfortable because it was an advertising agency president who couldn’t stand me. It had to do with the man I lived with for eight years. She had known him for thirty years. But I knew she should meet the new president so arranged a lunch, during which I was made to feel like boiled lobster. The guest brought up how she hates attractive women who know they are attractive. I knew she was shooting barbs at me, they both joined in. I was in shock at the absurd conversation. I wanted to say, “Hey, I was raised to believe I am truly ugly and it worked. So now can we get back to talking about this region? Otherwise I have to get back to the office.” But I didn’t say that. I endured it and politely took the guest back to her office, smiled and worked harder.

Because the company had no clear management style, fear was creeping in throughout. Most people didn’t understand the previous president, now they wondered what the new one was going to do. She had a tendency to throw people off in a management meeting. She’d give some report that wasn’t on the agenda, and then keep others from talking. I can’t watch the movie Conspiracy about the actual meeting of Nazis on the “final solution” without thinking of the way she ran meetings. Between the financial officer who would actually move money out of my budget if I were out of the office for a day and the president who couldn’t acknowledge the staff on their work, stress was mounting.

My nephew was getting married and I so wanted to go to out to Washington. But if I left for even a few days, I had no idea what could happen. And my ex, #56 It Takes Two, was suddenly determined to go west to escort me to the wedding. He had refused to go there when we were together. I could handle the stress of having to see my mother at the wedding, but between the fear of what they would do to the magazine, and the pressure my ex was applying, I chose disappointing my nephew.

At the company we were finally holding meetings to create a TV program. There was no original local programming, not even news. We formed a group to create something. But the president was the only one talking. In one of our private meetings I asked if she really wanted anyone’s opinions. In spite of the fear she used I was no hypocrite. She was not happy.

The group met to create a title. We were allowed to go around the table making suggestions. But I could see what was on her legal pad. She had the title all along. She pretended that she just thought of it. I’d have thought more of her if she had just said so in the beginning. So much about her was image or pretense. She made long time employees nervous even about posture or hand gestures during meetings.

This wasn’t going to get better. I hadn’t chosen publishing as a career. I was writing plays and screenplays when I joined the company. But I earned the respect of other publishers around the country. So I gave myself a goal of nine months to find something. But it’s bloody difficult for me to work with a full heart while planning an escape.

A colleague had hired someone to come in and help organize her office. So I did the same to make the most of the small space. I remember the president saying she hoped I wasn’t putting my own money into it. A big red flag I didn’t want to see.

For one of our upcoming issues we were doing stories of great adventures in the region. I didn’t feel right about sending a writer skydiving, and I had always wanted to do that. A friend was doing the story and I was going to jump and write my own account. It was a thrilling experience. And the photographer and videographer got great footage. One board member who liked to talk with me me invited me for lunch so I showed her a few of the photos.

At a board meeting not long after that, the same person approached me to say hello but the president literally got in the way. She actually kept me away from them or them away from me the entire evening. Now looking back it was like my mother showing up at my high school reunion. Red flag? Yes but apparently not red enough because I was still working hard. Surely she’d see what a great job we were doing.

When she first arrived at the company she began a long careful campaign to build a new building. No one could argue that the re-purposed school had been outgrown long ago, and it had lighting issues, safety issues, space issues, ventilation issues and leaking issues. She started looking at buildings in the region. Then she hired architects for a new building. We were all in meetings about the space needs for our divisions. When we saw plans that showed us the flow of space my office only said publisher. It was the only one without the employee’s name.

The president scheduled a sudden lunch with the HR director and me. I was stuffed into the backseat of his car and not told what this was about. I felt like a rabbit being taken out of nature and put into a cage. Over my salmon salad, I was told that I had to attend a couple of advance courses in management in New York. Now this was what I was trained for long ago in broadcasting. There was only one reason to make me do that. But I sat there probably with a strained smile, thanking them for the “extra training.” I lost my appetite.

I did attend those Cornell courses in Manhattan. The instructors wrote glorious things about me. But even I knew that I was being set up for the end. Did I start calling publishers around the country? I did not. I went back, said I got a lot out of the courses, smiled and worked hard.

In one management meeting the president suddenly went entirely off agenda and stated that there were no readership figures for my column. That was not true. But I was so stunned, I didn’t say what was in my head, which was that the only figures we did not have were the president’s column. And just as abruptly she changed the subject again. This was exactly like my mother making an untrue statement about me in front of others knowing I wouldn’t speak up. The truth was changed. I put out an email correcting the statement but that was pointless.

We were planning a golf supplement for the magazine. The sales department and our marketing manager were finding new advertisers. Editorial found great interviews. It would be a regional guide for golfers to keep. I had to leave for a conference. While I was away I was getting calls that the financial officer was trying to stop the publication in my absence. With a slew of phone calls I managed to keep it on schedule. We had a commitment with our printer and advertisers. And it was making a profit. But this was more of what I had been experiencing without any explanation. He kept undermining us, but why?

We were also planning an important story for an upcoming issue. Every April NPR and PBS asked viewers to turn off their televisions for a week. It’s a whisper but it is announced. We decided to ask three families to keep a diary of that experience. Just think of no computer screen, no electronic games, no TV for an entire week. The diaries we got back were pure gold. One teen hated and despised having to do the project from the first moment to the end. She fought it every day. But in the story she admitted she was actually talking with her mother for the first time in a very long time. We couldn’t have asked for a better story.

The HR director’s assistant called me. That had never happened before. Could I meet in the conference room? I arrived and the president said, “Your services are no longer required.” Something she must have wanted to say for a long time. She told me that there was a generous severance package and that I should go home. I didn’t look in the envelope. I told her that I had a dentist appointment and a meeting with my staff. This was a Wednesday afternoon. I was to be gone by the end of the day Friday. Did I at least defend myself saying that I had been brought in by the previous president to improve the magazine and revenue and that’s exactly what I had done? No. My demeanor was blank.

I did go to the dentist though don’t remember that. Later there was a casual event with the staff. The clearest memory is the weight that lifted off me when I drove home that night. I would never have to meet with that woman again. I think it was the next day when I told the staff that I had been fired. A friend came to help me clear out my office. I didn’t think to save my columns on a disc. On Friday I turned in my keys, my computer and briefly attended the proofing of the next publication. All very sedate.

The president killed the TV free week story. Some thought it was why she fired me. It may have been used as a brief excuse at the end, but it wasn’t the reason.

The severance was not generous. I think I believed that it would be. A large bonus I had already earned was not included. This was such a shock to me as someone who had always been sought out by companies. The so-called reference letter was a Xerox copy, one short paragraph oddly placed at the top of a page and it was unkind. I felt foolish since I had stayed, and not cut bait long ago. Some of the staff gave me a party at one of their homes. But we didn’t talk about what happened. I wasn’t about to make them uncomfortable.

Part of the “case” against me had to do with notes the HR director made. He said I had to consult him many times, back when he chatted about his volleyball team. I wondered what it took to get him to do that. He wasn’t there much longer.

Friends recommended a highly regarded lawyer. But that was just as uncomfortable. He wasn’t about to take on an institution. He treated me as though he was doing me a favor. I had to talk with an attorney friend to get advice on how to talk with the clipped manner of my attorney. All we got was part of my bonus and I composed a new reference letter. I never used it and don’t know where it is. The president stated that if any employer ever called her, she wouldn’t take the call. So why bother? The rest was a waste of time, lawyers talking to lawyers. The one standout point was that the company’s lawyer said that the president had a “scorched earth policy” when it came to me. Her hatred was going to take me down no matter what. That intimidated me plenty. I contacted a former board member to get his advice. He was willing to set up a conversation with a current board member, supportive of the magazine. I didn’t want the job back. The relief of not having to deal with her was exhilarating. I just wanted the magazine protected. But I knew he was in poor health and I didn’t have the courage to meet.

Now looking back, that president’s hatred of me for just being alive had me reliving the horror and deceit of my mother. And I was just as incompetent dealing with it or standing up for myself. There’s a book now titled Office Bad Girl. It posits that some women get to a higher level in business, assuming it’s because they are women. And they get rid of competent women around them.

When I got the lawyer’s bill, he wrote a note that he would have charged much more for someone else. Instead of writing back that he hadn’t really helped me or gotten what I deserved, I thanked him. He’s the neighbor of a friend and I saw him at gatherings from time to time. He’s a decent man. But he never got what I’d been through.

Other stories trickled down to me long after my firing. She went to such lengths to get rid of me I should probably be flattered. She was stopping staff members in the hall and telling them that if they had any complaints about me she was to be informed. But I was never to be told. Imagine how it made those employees feel. The HR guy had taken the entire staff to lunch, telling them that it was a new policy and they were doing the same thing for all divisions. They were to feel free to talk about me. There was no such lunch for any other division. And I never had a clue.

Just a few years later I was attending a big FCC conference in our city. Media coverage and ownership is my biggest social concern. The gathering was held for about eight surrounding states but was a complete hoax. Television stations in the region had gotten people to stand up and boast about them. That wasn’t the purpose of the hearing. There was little time for individuals who had traveled a long distance to speak of their regions. Suddenly in the auditorium a late arrival found a seat right in front of me. It was the woman who had fired me. She spoke to a friend next to me. Then she leaned down to introduce herself. I said, “Yes, Elizabeth Hainstock. We’ve met.” She didn’t stay very long.

Being fired is far worse than firing someone. I’ve only had to do that once and as a complete last resort. I know I’ll never forget his name or his face. And he’ll never forgive me.

A long capital campaign raised enormous amounts of money so the shiny new building went up. I’ve never seen it. Many many people who had worked for decades under difficult circumstances were told that their services were no longer needed so they never got to work there. A couple of years ago a national publishing corporation bought the magazine. That seems to have been the goal all along. I was hired to make it a better magazine, but not really. I believe there’s only one public broadcast owned magazine left in the country now. It’s life. It’s business. But there was no need to trample on dozens of people who had given so much for so many years.

 

 


#80 Booster Shot

I wrote in #4 Straddling The Bumper about being left in a hospital alone for surgery as a little girl. It was the most sweeping experience of my mother’s confusing behavior to that point, and likely I’ll stare at it again until there’s nothing more to see. 

After the surgery my father took me back to the Seattle hospital for follow-up exams.  When I was there for the surgery I was pretty numb not knowing what was ahead. But by that trip I so dreaded the dreary place, the painful tests and the heart pounding fear, I was sick by the time the two and a half hour drive was over. When we walked toward the old brick hospital complex, I grabbed on to the skyward rod iron fence that guarded the entrance, with both hands, and vomited into the weeds. I vomited again and again. My dad was impatient and annoyed. Or maybe he just didn’t know what to do. When we went into that antiseptic institution I was subjected to more of the long needles stabbed inside me, not understanding a thing. I had just turned ten. There was no discussion, ever.

Then my mother took me to the base doctor in our town. Not wanting more painful tests I started to cry in the waiting room and resisted going in. Turned out, he was just giving me a booster shot. She told him that this was what she had to put up with all the time. So he offered her a book on child psychology. She loved to tell, and often did tell anyone and everyone how I humiliated her that day.


#79 Two Worlds

On a hot summer day I snapped. I went for a walk by the river where I live downtown in a Pennsylvania city. As a floodplain, it is mildly downhill getting there and feels plenty uphill getting back. Nursing the pinched nerve in my back, the jaunt gave me sixty pain free minutes.

Along the river most walkers acknowledge one another, no matter the gender, age of the bones or color of skin. For runners it’s a different etiquette. Their focus seldom allows eye contact. But when I walk back the few blocks through the neighborhoods to my apartment, all that changes. Occasionally I nod to a person sitting on a stoop and they to me, but the walking camaraderie ends.

Feeling the heat that day just blocks from home I struggled and crossed to the shady side of a street. Near the end of that block there was a group gathered and my instant assumption was a fundraiser. My brain scanned remembering a day care center in the area, about a two second process. When I was almost directly across the street I heard them calling out, “Yard Sale.” A few steps more and they yelled it out again, then louder again. Not wanting to ignore them and as the only person in the block, I looked to my left, patted the pockets of my shorts and yelled back, “Got no money.” An odd phrase, but that’s what I said.

One teen girl teen hollered, “Got no money?” Several of them laughed, giggled, tittered. I stopped, but with no pause in my stride and without looking for traffic I crossed over to where they were gathered outside an apartment complex. By now I paid no attention to the purpose of the gathering, who they were, only to what that girl said, the laughter and complete preoccupation with why.

I had no idea what I would say until I said it. I wasn’t feeling anything, except the laser focus to find out what had just happened. From my mouth came, “Who said ‘got no money’ and laughed?” Great approach Elizabeth, probably appearing to them like a scrawny sweaty old white lady, which I was. My hair was wild with humidity. I took off my sunglasses instinctively knowing eye contact would be a good idea. There must have been at least fifteen kids, one woman and one man, all of them black.

There was still some chatter, and surprising myself further, I would not be deterred. Instead of speaking to the group I addressed the girl standing directly behind the table. I noticed a doll in a box marked five dollars. The teen girl looked at me understandably wondering why I picked her. Since the others kept chattering and I thought they should pay attention to me I stayed. One girl said that she hadn’t said anything. I said, “I heard someone holler back, ‘got no money’ and then laughing.’” I knew I appeared the mad woman I was, trying to assure everyone that I just wanted to understand. Did I look like I had money? I actually asked that. Because frankly that’s what it sounded like. Impossible for them to believe the scrawny lady didn’t have money. So I emphasized my point to the entire group. I had absolutely no thought that this was a bad idea, only that I needed to know why. One girl snickered (I’m at a loss for a better word) and I said, “Do you think I can’t be broke? Because I’m close to having to sleep in my car.” And that got attention and a hush. In defense of my exaggeration, it was only partial exaggeration.

I wouldn’t let go. One girl hid behind the others, so I asked if she was the one. She was particularly defiant and I said that I only wanted to understand why they would laugh. I started to walk away, not getting anywhere. Then the girl behind the table insisted it wasn’t she, and then the girl who giggled crawled under the table to the other side. Yes, I grilled her too.

I started to leave again, but turned back and asked if anyone realized that it was unkind. One very brave girl said she did. I thanked her. I wish I had said something more, something to let her know how brave I thought she was for being honest. I wanted to introduce myself to her. But I didn’t. I wished them luck with their sale and continued home, utterly amazed at what I had done, also understanding the inevitability of what I had done.

Though I was born in the south and we lived in New York, my father was transferred to an isolated part of Washington State. So we grew up solely with people who looked like my family. It wasn’t until I moved back to New York as a young woman that I got to know and work with different cultures and people of color. But that too was pretty much it. We worked together but we were not intimate friends. We did not live in the same town or neighborhoods.

Since I’ve lived here my heart has been missing such an important connection with the human race. That’s the only way I can explain it. Something’s missing. I live in a diverse building and belong to two groups, old and white. And as much as I thought that living in diversity would make a difference to that missing part of my heart, it’s only reinforced the divide. After years I’m finally accepted, rather than ignored. But we have polite hallway neighbor or lobby conversations only.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama made one of the finest truthful and brave speeches, The Philadelphia Speech, I’ve had the privilege to hear in my lifetime. His is the only photograph of a U.S. President ever displayed in my home. I admire him and was hopeful about the opportunity for our divided country to get to know the other sides, finally in this century. I was hopeful since at long last someone spoke the uncomfortable truth in that speech and still got elected. But as a nation we’ve scurried even deeper into our many separated trenches. And my heart still breaks about how separately we live.

That ache of the two worlds that exists in this country and in my daily slog through life wasn’t the only impulse that summer day. The other was the utterly baffling perception by others through decades that I have money and must have been educated at one of the finest schools, and that I’ve breezed through life with nothing touching me. All that, by looking at me. Rather than a privileged child, I was the puppy that barely escaped drowning.

Back when I was a publisher, a colleague and I had a business lunch. She is an unusually straight talking person, beyond brusque. Occasionally working late, she stopped by my office to talk about how difficult it was to meet men. So at the end of our lunch I thought it safe to reveal the pain and exhaustion of just having left the man in my life of eight years. What she said back was a smack, but it was the first glimmer of a peek I had into how others viewed me. She said, “Elizabeth, you’re not a sympathetic person.” Was she saying I’m not sympathetic to other people? She went on. “You have the best job in the region. You drive an expensive car and you’re always put together.” She did not throw in decent grammar. It felt mean, but it was what she saw.

On the day I approached the teens about their laughter at the possibility of my having no money, I was awkwardly but sincerely trying to break through a wall. I was straining to understand why they made an assumption. Scaring them was not my best tactic however. But one young girl spoke, and to me she was a bright spot in that moment and still is.

 

 

 

 

 


#78 Polished Silver

We grew up at the gasping end of the era of calling cards left on a small silver dish. That dish stayed out even though the custom ceased, so it became a mint dish.

One of the chores on my list as a girl was to polish silver. Flatware was in the wooden box packed away in felt. It was trotted out of the box on special occasions. The daily silver was used so much it didn’t need polishing. But the gigantic silver coffee service that was inscribed as a retirement present for my father required regular cleaning. In a big elegant house with pantries, a service that size would be kept behind glass doors. And no one could possibly carry it. In our little house, it sat out bombarded by oxygen on the dining room hutch. It was used only for parties to keep coffee hot with the Sterno heater. Otherwise days of receiving guests and bringing out the silver service were over. I think I used a few pieces for a friend’s wedding shower, but that was it.

Every month or two the service needed polishing. I didn’t use simple elbow grease the way they do in portrayals of English manor houses. I used a polish paste, which had to be washed off. The only place to wash that huge heavy tray was in the bathtub. Then I’d have to scrub the scratches from the ornate feet off the white tub. Did it occur to me to put a towel under the tray? It did not. That process began around 1960 and lasted about eight or nine years. When my mother moved into her new house she put clear plastic over the silver. I wondered why she didn’t do that before, but did not ask, or knew not to ask.

Around 1980 I received a notice that there was a package for me at what I think was the early days of UPS, the less expensive way to send boxes then. Unaware of what was sent, I’d leave work early, take the train to Connecticut and find the UPS center, which was always on the outer edge of any town.

What was waiting for me was a huge brown beaten up box the size of a filing cabinet from my mother. The corners were no longer corners and unfortunately it made noise. I had no idea what it was and knew not to expect an actual gift. But something was rolling around and banging inside. Someone helped me get the box into the hatchback of my car.

When I wrangled it into the side door of my house, I found the old silver service with no note or explanation. I learned later that my mother’s husband, the engineer packed it. All he had done was wrap a single sheet of newspaper around each piece, the finger bowl, the cream pitcher, sugar bowls, tray, holder, heater, hot water, coffee, and teapots. There was nothing cushioning them in loads of empty space. I removed the pieces, tarnished and badly dented from the journey to Connecticut. The handle had violently broken off the coffee service that rested in an ornate holder. Was I to thank her for this? I probably reservedly did. I knew she hated it and was getting rid of it. Possibly she hated it because it was my father’s. This way it would appear like an heirloom from her to me, and her problem was solved.

I kept my father’s broken retirement gift shiny. My neighbor who was a retired metallurgist offered to repair what he could in his basement laboratory. I never took him up on his offer. There’s a sweet story there for another time. Maybe the banged up silver represented my family.

I took it with me when I moved to Pennsylvania where there was plenty of room in that house to keep it out, but it’s never been repaired. Now it’s stored in the basement of a kind friend. I told my nephew that I’d like him to have it and he smiled. But it wouldn’t be a gift, unless I have it repaired and if they live in such a big place one day, that they could have something of his grandfather’s on display.

Today I was polishing some silver jewelry and thought of that silver service and how inelegantly but effectively the plastic had kept it from tarnishing. I put those necklaces back into the jewelry box, neatly and newly zipped inside a plastic sandwich bag.