Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Are Toes Taboo at Work?

In Essays on September 25, 2014 at 6:32 am

By Jean Kim

Jean KimA pair of sandals derailed my academic career.

At least, that’s where it started. And to me, something so trivial represents the not-so-trivial burdens of women trying to succeed in the workplace.

Despite a fairly conservative upbringing, I never realized that a bit of toe was considered risqué in the professional world.

Having been raised by an at-home mother, I didn’t have many female workplace role models while growing up. During my student years, I would gaze in admiration at some female physicians, the ones who managed to look smart, unflappable, and unmistakably feminine at the same time. The statuesque middle-aged ER attending who stood tall in the midst of chaos, with long bare legs in a trim pencil skirt and stylish heels. The caring family practice physician-mentor in her white coat, accented by hip cowboy boots and glittering, tribal earrings. These women had a certain look: polished, glamorous but also open, warm, and wise. It was a balancing act I admired and aspired to pull off myself: expressing your femininity but still being tough and smart.

I grew up as a classic nerdy girl, who put studies first, fashion a very distant second (or tenth rather). I had thick glasses, braces, over-permed hair, and, as one high school summer camp roommate cruelly put it, “wore fourth grade T-shirts with shorts down to her knees.” On some level I even feared fashion as a beacon of female vapidity, sexuality, flirtiness, and popularity–an array of qualities that felt far from my experience. I dressed like a tomboy during college in Connecticut, in baggy plaid shirts, jeans, and chunky black shoes.

When I went to medical school in Virginia, I realized after meeting my glamorous family practice mentor that I was a budding professional, someone to rely on for my knowledge, my poise. And like it or not, appearance was part of the picture; I needed to project a certain image to my patients. I also found in time that I just plain enjoyed fashion as stress relief, an artistic hobby, and a way to connect to others through what I call “fashion socializing,” i.e. the exchange of fashion-related comments and compliments. I concluded that I could still enjoy brains with my Balenciaga, intellect with my Issey Miyake.

I moved to New York City for my residency training program. Manhattan was a great playground to continue my professional and personal style development. When I myself became an attending physician and head of a team, I felt that it was time to rock some divaliciousness with fitted suits, colorful skirts, and shoes shoes shoes.

I would still wear scrubs during dreary overnight shifts and clunky clogs or sneakers if bodily fluid spatter or needles were a potential concern; but on the unit during morning rounds, walking around with my team in tow and interviewing people, I enjoyed the chance to project my dream vision of female authority. Patients responded favorably; I even had one tell me she was upset that I wasn’t her doctor, simply because “you dress cute.”

I was promoted to a Unit Chief position at a venerable hospital just outside the city in wealthy Westchester County. I was excited to be running an all-female unit, with nearly all-female staff. I was ready to be a beautiful, strong Glamazon leader. But there were unforeseen challenges ahead. I was replacing a beloved older female leader who had departed abruptly, leaving a loyal team behind. Coming on board, I felt less like a Glamazon and more like the meek second wife in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the one who would never earn the respect of the uptight housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Early on, one summery day, a female co-worker said, “You are wearing open-toed shoes.” I was wearing a pair of dressy sandals. I didn’t think much of it. I’d worn similar shoes many times before at my previous job—peep-toes, espadrilles, wedges, etc.—and received the usual happy compliments. They weren’t flip-flops or Birkenstocks. They were fab.

The next day, someone slipped a copy of the hospital’s dress code under my office door. The passage about not wearing open-toed shoes was highlighted for me in green.

Really? Despite all my years of education, despite being the Unit Chief, despite being on point about medication interactions and suicide risks and various other major matters, I was being chided for my shoes?

I truly didn’t understand what was wrong about open-toed shoes for women in a professional environment, as long as they were dressy and formal. Especially in the summer. With a dazzling pedicure.

Then I looked online and realized that there were several places that considered open-toed shoes taboo for professional women. Even recently, a February 2014 article in The New York Times noted that “those who work inside the Beltway abide by one of the strictest dress codes in the country.” People have been asked to leave the House floor “for offenses as minor as open-toed shoes.” Even less restrictive arenas than Congress mention this standard. An article on business casual dress codes mentions the open-toed shoe taboo, which also crops up at law firms and in corporate settings.

This rule surprised me. It reminded me of the scandalousness of women first showing their ankles back in the Edwardian era…over a hundred years ago. The insistence on closed toes even smacked of the old Chinese beauty standard of women binding their feet into immobile crushed stumps. Was a little toe really so provocative, so distracting in the workplace? Was it a sign of loucheness in women, a frippery better suited for the beach than the boardroom?

My confidence in my ability to lead wavered from that point on. If I could get in trouble for my shoes, what about everything else? My voice, my hair, my clothes, let alone my clinical judgment or my decisions involving patients’ lives? There was no similarly trifling way to undermine a male leader’s authority.

Chastened, I wore nothing but ballet flats for the next few years. Being a young, soft-spoken Asian-American woman, I felt no one naturally respected me as a leader. The shoe incident only deepened this insecurity. It was enormously deflating to find that I could still at this stage be the oddball, scolded or mocked for my appearance. From that point on, my confidence continued to sink, and I had a very stressful tenure. I felt like a teacher getting overrun by a temperamental classroom, and no one would settle down unless I yelled. Then, they would just think I was crazy.

After a few more miserable years, I quit the world of academic medicine and switched jobs. Gingerly, I began to wear some dressy sandals again (ironically, at a military clinic—but I was allowed to as a civilian). One of my patients asked where to buy my newest shoes and got them for his wife. Female soldiers gave a knowing wink as if to share what they wore out of uniform.

Recently, I informally polled some friends about open-toed shoes for women in the workplace and found an interesting and clear generational divide; Gen Y and Millennial women seemed fairly clueless about the rule, and even indifferent. (“Why not wear dressy sandals in the summer? But not with panty hose, please.”) Older women, many of whom had long been working at law firms, businesses, and clinics, had been brought in line with the closed-toe rule. Interestingly, I could not find any guys who felt that open-toed shoes were inappropriate.

The open-toed shoe standard does not seem to be a majority view, but is still endorsed by a sizeable number. A survey done in 2012 by the Adecco Group, a global staffing company covering multiple industries, noted that 35% of the 1,010 respondents thought open-toed shoes were inappropriate in the workplace (as opposed to 76% who thought flip-flops were inappropriate).

I wonder why this standard has to exist at all. I could not find any evidence of where the taboo originated. Probably, like Eve from Adam’s rib, female professional garb evolved from the standard male garb: neat necklines instead of ties, skirts instead of slacks, closed-toe shoes like male loafers. And as these norms have evolved, I can see why there are workplace guidelines addressing chests and hemlines (although the hullabaloo over Hillary Clinton’s once showing a little cleavage was ridiculous). But why toes? I thought the raciness of feet was more the purview of fetishists, and not some mainstream distraction.

Is it really a problem that women have this little bit of freedom, that they can indulge in a wider variety of footgear than leather loafers? (Sadly, I can think of no fashionable equivalent of the dressy sandal for men. Paging Johnny Weir to prove me wrong!) Equal playing field means equally dull feet?

Or is it more that the message of leisure and casualness signals a threat to workplace values? That fashion is a form of female dilettantism, an invitation to not be taken seriously?

In truth, fashion can be powerful. I have found it a valuable therapeutic and professional tool in my job as psychiatrist. I’ve elicited fascinating comments and conversations from patients, both male and female, who would otherwise fear me or see me as little more than a closed-off nun. (Footwear reactions provide a cornucopia of Freudian data.) Fashion can bond people, can communicate in uplifting, confidence-boosting ways, and can bring beauty into drab corners. Perhaps this feminine touch is still too much of a threat to male-dominated corporate culture. And many women are too quick to judge one another for challenging the status quo.

Whatever the reason for the taboo, I say this: it’s time to get rid of this outdated standard for professional women, and take a small, open-toed step in the right direction.

Jean Kim is currently working as a psychiatrist and writer in Washington, D.C. and will soon be receiving her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She has written for numerous publications, and she has served on the psychiatry faculty at Mount Sinai and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. She earned her M.D. from the Medical College of Virginia-VCU and her B.A. in English from Yale University. 

Finding What Floats Your Boat

In Essays on June 2, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Editorial Note: A few weeks ago, over on Work Stew’s Facebook page, I posted the career advice that Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe gave to a fan who wrote asking how to find his “dream job.” Rowe’s response went viral–and it was pretty great. But I wanted to hear how others might have responded, so I solicited entries from Work Stew’s readers. What struck me about Ken Gould’s submission, below, is that he manages to be both grounded and encouraging. I liked that.

By Ken Gould

IMG_1205Listen for the things that ‘float your boat.’ Hint: they are usually not the big things. Very few dreams thump you on the head and announce “I’m Here!” Most reveal themselves in small events that make you happy or in satisfying interactions with a person or group. Hints are not loud, nor clear. They’re subtle, but they’re there. Listen for which experiences make you smile. Listen for inner satisfaction. Maybe it’s a chance to build something and you realize you enjoyed the process, whether what you created turned out well or not. Hints are hard to recognize, because often dreams do not come dressed as you expect or at the time or place you think they will.

Be both humble and adventurous in talking to others about finding what interests you. It is surprising how many people pick jobs and careers without asking around, without taking a ‘sounding’ from those important to them or even from a few strangers. It takes a certain amount of humility and strength to do this, asking others for counsel—without then feeling compelled to take that advice if it doesn’t fit your dream.

Look for your people. There are others who have walked your general pathway before you. Who do you aspire to be like? Who do you feel comfortable around? Who is it, that you see yourself in their stories? Who would you want to eat a meal with? Who would you want in your community—in your dream? Who do you want to be like as a young person and as an older person—at the different stages of a full life? Go visit someone doing something you find interesting. Visit the laboratory or studio or worksite or restaurant of people you enjoy—check out what they are doing first hand.

You’re unlikely to hit the target on your first try—range in. Often it takes a series of jobs, events, or interactions to get closer to understanding what exactly floats your boat. Said another way: you don’t have to stay with the first major you pick in college or the first career you try or the job you are currently in or the first sport you’re good at. Keep fine-tuning your dream. Take some risks to do this fine-tuning.

Sometimes it’s about place, but usually it’s something else entirely and place is a distraction. Some of my family members are convinced that one’s life is shaped and made full because of living in the right place or environment. In my experience, place is not that important. More important is your dream, your attitude, work ethic, and community. You should be the same kind of person pursuing your dream, whatever place you find yourself in.

Pay your dues. Don’t skip any of the steps in learning your craft or calling. Prodigies are rare. When you talk to someone who seems to have made it overnight, you almost always find out that they have been at it for years and years. In one way or another, they have been working hard every day for a long time to get where they are.

Calling, visiting with, and talking to folks is always better than writing, emailing, and waiting. Have a bias for action in pursuing your dream. Don’t write someone and then sit and wait for something to happen. Pick up the phone. Get on the bus or in a car or plane and go and visit. Make contact. It’s amazing what you will learn and who you will meet. Go prepared with questions.

Don’t be afraid to recognize the things that interest you, despite the din of other voices telling you what you should do. We have all of these expectations in our heads: “This type of job is what dad did.” “Mom said I’m good at this.” “These are the things that came easy to me in school.” Often we listen to others and then set limits on ourselves that don’t necessarily have to exist. What is it that you want from this brief, intense life we get? What are your dreams? Work at recognizing what is satisfying and resonates as true for you.

Finally: take my advice with a grain of salt. Your inner voice is the one to listen to. Listen intently. Good luck.

Call for Q&A subjects: Would you be willing to tell me what you do for a living, how that came to be, and how you feel about it? If so, shoot me an email (subject line: Q&A) and I’ll be back in touch shortly: I want to run more pieces like this one and this one.

Take This Job and Quit It

In Essays on May 8, 2014 at 1:09 pm

By Kelley Alison Smith

IMG_3936I had stopped whistling.

My usual habit of nearly always whistling in an idle moment – whether meandering tunes, old Methodist hymns, or riffs on pop songs revered and reviled – was gone.

I didn’t notice it right away. In many ways I was falling hard for this new place, with its tiny blue birds that had perfect red circles like bindis on their cheeks; its good-humored people including my staff members, who encouraged my attempts at Swahili and chuckled when I said I was “dog-sitting” for a friend, an unknown concept in their culture. Even the city’s chaotic streets, where being a pedestrian was both a dangerous thrill and a window onto all manner of informal economies, had its own gritty appeal.

Yet only two weeks into my new job, I knew something was very wrong. The honeymoon was already over. Instead of seeing the big picture – were we accomplishing our project’s goals? Were we adhering to the study protocols? – my new boss seemed unduly focused on the minutiae of how the African staff members spent their time. She expected me to hand out disciplinary warnings if people came in ten minutes late and often made comments about the staff that I found racially insensitive. Furthermore, she perceived any challenge to her authority as a threat, particularly when I questioned discrepancies in my contract, upon which she began to micromanage me about my time. Shortly after she returned to the U.S., I sent her an email expressing some of my concerns about my contract and her expectations. I dreaded her response all day. My emails and calls to family and friends back home took on a negative tone.

There are stories you never hear about a workplace when you are investigating a job. I knew that my new boss had a reputation for being “quirky,” but I was unprepared for the experience of actually working for her. The more I witnessed and heard from the staff, and my predecessor, about the stress they all felt trying to please this woman, the more I realized that I wasn’t willing to try. They told me how selective they were in disclosing any information that she might misinterpret, lest they receive a Skype call or email full of cursing and vitriol. I didn’t foresee becoming someone who managed from a place of distrust, which seemed a surefire way to erode staff morale and loyalty. I was already having trouble sleeping. My stomach churned. I began to realize that staying would mean further loss of my overall well-being beyond my happy-go-lucky whistling.

Back in 1980, the #1 country hit “Take This Job and Shove It” became a working man’s anthem about getting back at the boss who wronged him. The phrase itself has endured far longer than either its melody or its singer (Johnny Paycheck). I think that the idea of “sticking it to the man” is appealing for most of us at one time or another, when we feel we’ve been wronged, underpaid, exploited, undermined, or some combination thereof.

The truth is that “sticking it to the man” – or, in this case, the woman – is rarely simple, and there’s a real danger that you will be the one who ends up stuck. (Maybe that’s why it’s more of a fantasy than a reality.) I wanted to leave the job, but didn’t know how. My work ethic told me that quitting was a sign of failure; perhaps if I had a stronger character, I’d find a way to muddle through.

This year – 2014 – was supposed to have been one of great opportunity for me and my family. I was going to work in East Africa managing a health research project. I had gotten bored with my desk job back home and was itching to live overseas again. I had worked in developing country settings before, but was eager to gain more long-term professional experience in the field. The project itself was fascinating, and my family and I were looking forward to weekends filled with hiking, safaris, and trips to the coast. Things were kind of transitional in our lives, as my wife was also planning to change careers, and we viewed my job and this year as a much-needed interlude. All of the wheels were in motion for my wife and daughter to join me soon.

Quitting seemed unthinkable. “I’m not a quitter,” I cried to my father over Skype as things were fast deteriorating.

He reminded me that I had, in fact, quit a job before. “Remember Contempo Casuals at the mall?” he joked.

But that was 1988. And yes, there was the summer job as a housekeeper at an alleged mobster’s Jersey beach house. That gig came to an abrupt – and thankfully mutually agreeable – end when I started breaking out in hives after a couple of months of screening calls and keeping half an eye on the cars not-so-discreetly surveying the house. As an adult, though, I had never quit a job without a plan. In the past, when I had left jobs, it was because there was always another position waiting, a better or more exciting opportunity.

This time, there was no new opportunity on the horizon, but there was the proverbial “last straw” in the form of an email from my boss that implied that I was not trustworthy, something I had never before been told in my professional career. I declined to respond, feeling my blood pressure skyrocket. I went for a run and then spent the evening crafting my resignation letter. Although I believe that she probably cursed me when she first read it, I doubt it really came as a surprise. Her response was cool and surprisingly civil. That night, I celebrated with a friend over drinks and dinner. I felt liberated.

The reality of unemployment set in a few weeks later when I returned home to an oppressive New England winter and began cobbling together some part-time work with my former employer and applying for full-time jobs. It has only been three months since I got back, but there are days when my month in East Africa feels like another lifetime entirely. Spring is such a time of acceleration in the natural world, and it’s been frustrating to feel professionally stalled, wondering if I’ll hear anything back from potential employers, and when I have, waiting for them to schedule interviews, or second interviews, and to decide if I’m the right fit for them (record so far: no, no, maybe, maybe).

I’d love to say I’ve been regularly updating my blog or cleaning out my closets or any other dozen cost-free things that people always swear they’ll do when they have the time, but honestly, I have more often wanted to just go back to bed or watch Netflix. I have indeed been a little stuck. My already limited disposable income was long ago disposed of. And I’m one of the fortunate ones who could afford to leave a bad situation. We haven’t had to worry about not paying the mortgage, although we are past due on our heating bill, and my tenure among the un(der)employed has so far been brief.

One of the things that has most surprised me in the wake of my resignation is how many people have told me that they think I’m brave. Despite the liberation I may have initially felt when I first quit, the intervening months have not been easy. I have felt relief at leaving a bad situation, grief for a lost opportunity and at missing the wonderful staff whom I may never see again, and disheartened by the job search process. But I have not felt brave.

Like many people, I am hardest on myself, since I certainly think that someone who quits abusing drugs or alcohol, kicks a gambling habit, or finally leaves a toxic relationship shows courage and strong character. I’m not sure why I don’t view my resignation in a similar light. Perhaps it’s because I came very late to a real and meaningful career path. Perhaps it’s because I think that for many of us, work is not only where we spend much of our time, but where rewards for our accomplishment are often the most tangible, whether through promotions, accolades from respected colleagues, or internal pride at having done a good job, having made a difference. I don’t think I’ve made much of a difference over the past three months, seeking a job rather than finding fulfillment in one. When I look at the hundreds of photos I took during my African sojourn, I feel heartsick for what might have been.

That said, I also feel free and hopeful. I’ve run into my former boss a few times since my return. We offer each other a cursory “Hi, how are you?” and move on. I’m not sure if she’s happy with my replacement, and I really don’t care. I may be a quitter, but I’m whistling again.

Would you be interested in writing about your work life? If so, please email me (Work Stew Editor Kate Gace Walton, or drop me a message via Facebook, and we can chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether to publish will always rest with you. 

Am I the 1 Out of 10?

In Essays on April 15, 2014 at 4:37 am

By Shannon Winakur, M.D.

photoKate Gace Walton, editor of Work Stew, just posted a link on Facebook to an article about the high rate of physician dissatisfaction. It is disheartening to read this article, as well as the results of a 2012 survey conducted by a large malpractice insurance company that claimed that 9 out of 10 doctors surveyed would not recommend the profession.

Is it really THAT bad? In some ways, yes, it is that bad. There are more and more demands on doctors these days, especially the least well paid of my colleagues, those in primary care. See more patients, fill out more paperwork, answer more phone calls, learn a cumbersome computer system…all for the same or less income. Many physicians feel that the public looks down on them these days, that they have been vilified in the whole Obamacare debate. We certainly don’t command the respect that we once did. Reimbursements from Medicare used to be the “floor” in comparison to what other insurers paid for physician visits and procedures, and are now the “ceiling.” Every year, these reimbursements are cut, or there is a threat to cut them by Congress. And many physicians face a higher income tax bill due to changes made to pay for the Affordable Care Act.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Doctors still make a good living, for the most part. But we sacrifice a lot to get where we are now. The years of training are long, arduous, and essentially are rewarded with pay that is less than minimum wage if you factor in the number of hours worked. And now we are being at least partially blamed for driving up the cost of medical care. What doesn’t get discussed as much is the fact that we have to practice defensive medicine, in the face of a significant threat of being sued for malpractice. Because most lawmakers are lawyers, the tort reform needed to do away with defensive medicine will likely never happen…but no one sees the lawyers as the ones causing the high cost of health care.

In spite of all of this, I still like what I do, and I would still recommend medicine to my daughters as a profession. I am a cardiologist, and I am fortunate enough to be able to work part time: three days a week, with one weekend of call a month. I feel privileged to be of service to my patients, and I am honored that they share so much with me. I have been inspired by the work of Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, and My Grandfather’s Blessings. Rachel is also a physician, and talks about how each patient has a story. In reading her work, I have come to appreciate how lucky I am to hear these stories each day. I am fortunate in that I still have enough time to listen.

I find the workings of the physical heart fascinating – the muscle, the valves, the blood vessels, the electrical system. I am energized by educating patients and the public, especially women, about their cardiac risk factors and how they can prevent heart disease from developing. But even more compelling to me is the emotional heart, and how much emotions and stressors can affect the physical heart. To help with this aspect of heart health, I need to listen to each patient’s story. It is so gratifying to help a patient make the connection between the mind and the body, between the emotions that she carries and the physical symptoms that she experiences. In my view, the symptoms are “real,” even when patients don’t have anything wrong with their hearts. I do my best to go the extra step not to dismiss patients’ symptoms and fears when their testing turns out to be normal. Something made them come to the doctor, and that something still needs to be validated and addressed. I feel that that is my role as a “healer,” and I am grateful for this aspect of my job.

I am fortunate that my hospital has taken the issue of heart disease in women very seriously, and has developed a Women’s Heart Center. The program now consists of screening appointments with a cardiovascular nurse who educates each woman about heart disease risk factors. A profile is generated to help each woman know her own risk factors and what she can do to decrease the chance of having a heart attack. It is gratifying to know that we are giving women the tools they need to prevent heart disease – the number one killer of women.

While I thoroughly enjoy my job as medical director of our women’s heart center, my ultimate dream is to include the emotional heart in the process, and to give women the tools they need to take care of their whole heart – physical, emotional, and spiritual. I dream of having a more integrative center, providing women with ways to care for themselves through yoga, meditation, spiritual practices, and other methods to ease the stressors that affect their hearts and their psyches. This will likely take years to develop…so until then, I will continue to find the blessings in my job, in spite of all the “negatives” that exist. I will continue to find the rewards, one heart and one story at a time.

The April Fools’ Joke That Wasn’t

In Essays on April 1, 2014 at 7:29 am

By Heath Hardage Lee

Heath Headshot 3One gorgeous spring afternoon, my husband walked in the door of our Richmond, Virginia home and announced that he had just gotten a spectacular job offer. An offer he could not in good conscience turn down.


This must be a really bad April Fools’ joke, I thought bitterly. But apparently he was deadly serious.

“What the HELL?” I snapped, my East Coast snobbism kicking into high gear. The Midwest? The FLY OVER ZONE? Do they even have electricity there???

As it turned out, the job offer ultimately WAS too good to turn down. This was 2008 and Virginia, like many other states, had quickly descended into a deep economic recession. The kind of job my husband wanted in the financial industry was at that point almost impossible to find in the South.

As I fumed and fretted over this decision, the famous quote by American writer Horace Greeley jumped to mind: “Go West, young man, go West.” Or go Midwest in this case…

I had a successful fundraising consulting business in Richmond, my immediate family all lived there (my sister just two doors down from me), and my children were happy in their respective schools. Richmond was and still is my “happy place.” I love the culture, the food, and the history. But now it was time to put on my big girl pants and take one for the team.

So we moved in August of that same year, with me crying into my Starbucks cup all the way to Iowa, freaking out and generally thinking my life was over. It did not help that my father had just died unexpectedly. And I was about to turn the dreaded 4-0. In my mind, 2008 was turning out to be my Annus Horribilis. My Horrible Year.

A few months later, the tears had dried, I had the kids settled in their new schools, and we had moved out of a dreary corporate apartment into a lovely home. I decided I was done mourning my old life and former job. It was time to get over it. I had moved successfully before, to Charlotte, N.C. where I had jumped from teaching into the museum work that I loved. It had been a big turning point for my career, I suddenly remembered.

WinnieDavisThis move, I decided I would do the very thing I had been avoiding doing for about 15 years: writing a biography of a Southern historical figure that my museum career and educational background had completely prepared me for. In my hometown, I was always way too busy to do it. I knew too many people, was on too many volunteer boards, and I had too many family obligations.

Now I was something I had never been: anonymous. And I could do whatever the hell I wanted! Woo hoo!

So I did. I buckled down and made lemonade out of lemons, bloomed where I was planted, and came to love my new hometown of Des Moines. Which by the way has not only electricity, but also a surfeit of creative culture, great schools, and highly educated people.

Here, I have met some of the best friends I will ever have anywhere, joined the Art Museum as a docent, and attended the Iowa Summer Writers’ Workshop. I have also skied in Colorado, been to Mount Rushmore, and shopped the heck out of Michigan Avenue in Chicago. More than once.

imageOh, and I did finally buckle down and write my book: Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause, which was just published a few weeks ago by Potomac Books, a division of the University of Nebraska Press.

I think, ultimately, it took moving to the Midwest to gain the perspective I needed to write this biography. I needed expanses of time, as well as some distance from a subject I knew perhaps too well.

As I write in my book’s Acknowledgments, “Writing about Winnie has been a therapeutic way to stay connected with my southern past.” That past is an inextricable part of me, but getting away from the South and my home allowed me to flourish as a writer, an historian, and an independent woman. I think Winnie, who also left the South to pursue her writing career would be proud of me for making the move. She became the best version of herself in New York City. I can only hope the same transformation has occurred for me here in Des Moines.

Heath Hardage Lee has worked in the fields of museum education and historic preservation. She has also written for numerous magazines, newspapers and blogs. Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause, her biography of the daughter of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is her first book. 



Hi. I’m a Small Business Owner. Also a Collections Agent. And Someone Who Sometimes Wants to Break Things.

In Essays on January 30, 2014 at 5:35 pm

By Jim Thomsen

Jim ThomsenWhen you work for yourself, there’s your work—and then there’s all the work that goes into making sure you’re still able to work.

And some days, that work works on my last raw nerve.

I own and operate my own book manuscript-editing business. So, in my case, “the work behind the work” involves talking to prospective clients, communicating with current clients, managing my accounts, and the worst part: trying to get my clients to pay me.

Usually getting paid is not a huge problem. In my business, I provide an estimate, get a third up front, do the work, submit an invoice—and the client usually either pays in full, or asks to break the balance into payments. I almost always agree. The best clients usually set up an auto-payment on a set schedule, and it all goes fine. I’ve had more than two hundred paying clients in the four-plus years I’ve been in business, and I’ve almost always collected in full with a minimum of awkwardness.

But a small—and, sadly growing—subset of clients don’t set up an auto-payment, don’t pay when they say they’re going to pay, and force me to cyber-chase after them like a child tugging semi-ineffectually on a mother’s shirt sleeve. Most are apologetic when confronted, and cough up in a semi-timely fashion. Or at least explain why they can’t and then explain when they can.

I’m a nice guy. I understand that people have cash crunches from time to time (you know, sort of like the one I’m in right now because of all the people who aren’t paying up when they’re supposed to). I’m happy to work with you. But I’m not happy to see “nice” reinterpreted as “doormat.” I’m no doormat.

This morning, I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and spotted a new post by such a client. The post said she was happy to be off work for a week so she could fly down to New Orleans for a book signing.

This is the same client I’ve been cyber-tugging at since last May.

Back then, I collected the deposit without any fuss, did a developmental edit on her romance novel, and invoiced her for the balance. She didn’t respond for a while, then wrote back to say that a) she had lost her job; b) needed to move with her kids back into her parents’ home; and c) wasn’t sure when she could pay the balance.

I wrote back to say, “I understand,” and proposed to give her three months to regroup. At that point, I’d be back in touch, and we’d work out a payment schedule that fit her budget.

In early October, at the end of the ninety days, I checked back in. It took a few more weeks and a few more emails for her to respond, but she finally said she could manage $100 a month, on the first of the month. Fine, I said, and she sent me $100 via PayPal later that day.

Great, I thought. But then November 1 came around, and nothing. It took two emails and ten days to get the next payment. Same with December. And then nothing in January. And then that Facebook post.

I had what I politely call a “rage aneurysm.”

At that point, I’d decided I had cut her quite enough slack. So I sent her a message demanding the balance in full ASAP, or I’d file against her in small claims court come Monday.

We’ll see what happens, but I wasn’t bluffing. I did the research. Our emails comprise a legally binding contract, according to Washington state law. The small-claims process here is easy, and costs just forty bucks. It’ll be the first time I’ve done such a thing, and signing the papers and releasing the claim into the system will represent a sad moment for me. I don’t want this. I’m not vengeful or vindictive. I don’t want to hurt this woman’s credit rating.

That said, if I ever do see another dime from her, it will be cold comfort. And untimely comfort, which is to say, no comfort at all. Because it’s not just this client. It’s the one who decided not to hire me for a full edit after I did a sample edit for her, and is now dragging her feet on paying the agreed-upon ‘kill fee.’ It’s the client who agreed to hire me for a full edit but is dragging her feet on paying the one-third deposit. It’s the client who hired me over a year ago to critique her manuscript and hasn’t yet paid me a dime, though at least she’s still talking to me about it. It’s the client who’s declining to pay more than half after deciding, after the fact, that I overcharged her.

It’s the fact that in two days, I’ve got to write a check for rent. And as things stand now, that’s a check that’s going to bounce. And if it doesn’t, it’ll be only because I have a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency friend who will float me a short-term loan.

I was in this exact same position last year. Businesswise, things seem to tail off a bit in winter, I’m finding. And, you know, I get it. We’ve got holiday-spending hangovers. We’ve got seasonal depressions. It’s hard to finish a book on time when all you want to do is go to sleep at 4:54 p.m. on a given day.

But, dear drag-your-heels clients, what makes you think I’m any less vulnerable to that? Or any better able to weather it?

I don’t get the luxury of going to bed at 4:54 p.m. Or even 11:54 p.m. Because I have to work harder to make up for the money I’m not getting.

I groused a bit about this on my Facebook page this morning, and what emerged was a flood of private messages from fellow entrepreneurs, some of whom shared their own getting-stiffed horror stories. The common thread through them was a weary acceptance of what I now think of as “stiffitude.” (Yeah, I know, it sounds slightly dirty, but whatever.) A sense of “It happens, what are you gonna do, just move on and hope it doesn’t happen too often.”

Me, I just can’t accept it.

So I told my break-glass friend: “Send the check. And, if there’s any way I can tear it up come Friday afternoon, January 31, I will.”

But that’ll take some action from people who, I hope mightily, haven’t torn up their codes of honor.

And, in the business world, that begins with communication. And ends with cash.

Jim Thomsen owns and operates a book manuscript-editing business in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. He can be reached at, on Facebook, and on Twitter at @jimthomsen.

What’s It Like Living Off the Grid?

In Essays on January 29, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Brief note from Work Stew editor Kate Gace Walton: The last Q&A-style piece that I posted (featuring Christine de Brabander’s thoughts on business travel) was well received, so I decided to do another. For this piece, I asked Leland Dirks, a self-described “hermit,” what it’s like to live and work ‘off the grid.’ 

Leland DIrks1. Where do you live and what brought you there?

I live in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, about 10 miles outside of a village called Fort Garland, population 300. The county I live in has approximately 3,500 residents. Just to put that into perspective, the office building in which I used to work in Denver had about 50% more people than my entire county.

I grew up on a farm and loved the isolation, the time to read, the few distractions. When I left the farm at the ripe old age of 20, I vowed to never return. I was going to be a city boy, and I was. For the next thirty years, I lived in Denver, San Francisco, and Antwerp, Belgium. I worked for a large telecommunications company as a customer service representative, a supervisor, and a manager. My areas of expertise were technical writing, process design and management, group facilitation, organizational design, and some project management. I consulted for a while to start-up companies.

I lived in a beautiful Victorian house in downtown Denver and traveled all over the country, including a lot of time in the Northwest. My stress level was through the roof, and the many rounds of corporate downsizing and rightsizing made it worse. I finally reached a point where I’d had enough.

So, I started looking for places I wanted to live. The northwest was too expensive, cities had lost their charm for me, and I realized I wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, just like I did when I was growing up. Somewhere in heaven, my mother is laughing at her big city boy.

I knew this area from many camping trips, and when I checked real estate prices, I started looking seriously. In a very short while, I found my perfect five acres, with mountain views, a seasonal stream, quiet, and good solar exposure.

2. So you left Denver and bought a house there?

That would have been too easy. I had a well drilled and a septic system put in, and then I built a ten foot by ten foot shed. One hundred square feet. For the first winter, I lived in that shed with a dog, a cat, and—in spring—a baby chick. I didn’t know a soul who lived within a hundred miles. That was a long, cold winter.

When the snow melted that spring, I started building the house.

3. In what ways are you ‘off the grid’? In what ways are you still deeply connected?

I am off the grid in virtually all ways. All of my electricity comes from the sun (solar panels). My heat is provided by a combination of passive solar and locally harvested wood.  My property is in a dead zone as far as cellular service. There are no power, telephone, gas, or water lines that connect me to the world. My sole means of electronic connection to the world is through a satellite Internet connection.

Let me put it another way: The nearest freeway entrance is about fifty miles away. The nearest Home Depot is about a hundred miles away. The nearest Walmart is thirty miles away. When I need a quick run to the grocery store, it’s ten miles. The nearest Target is about 120 miles away. So I’m pretty “off the grid.”

My most important connections with the world are through the Internet, the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, and FedEx. I got to know them all pretty well when I built this house. The hardware store in town didn’t have a lot of the things I needed, so I joke with the UPS driver that he delivered about half of my house, in pieces.

4. How do you make a living?

I’m a writer. I write mostly fiction, but I also have some non-fiction and poetry out there. My first books were about the building of this place. Other than the concrete work, I did most of it myself, with the help of friends for some of the heavy lifting.

I’m also a photographer and sell some of my photos online.

My needs are meager, which is good, because my income is meager, too.

5. What does it take to live the way you live? What qualities does one need to enjoy it and to thrive?

It takes a love of silence, of nature, and animals. My three closest friends are two dogs and a cat. We talk a lot.

It takes flexibility. You learn to adapt. If you’re missing an ingredient for a recipe, instead of doing a sixty-mile round trip, you learn to substitute. It also takes a fair amount of skill. I helped an uncle with constructing a house when I was eight years old, and I helped some friends do renovation and remodeling, so that all helps. It’s good if you can be your own plumber, electrician, and carpenter, because there aren’t many of those out here.

Planning is a good skill to have. When you make a run into town, you want to pick up everything you need for a while, because a 60-mile round trip eats up most of a day by the time you’ve run errands, and hit all the stores you need.

I think it also takes a love of learning. I do a huge amount of research for projects before undertaking them, and I keep on learning when I make mistakes.

I’ve seen folks move out here in the summer, start building their homes, and by the time winter is halfway over, they’ve gone crazy (sometimes literally) because of the isolation. There are a lot of half-finished houses in the area and a lot of divorces of people who thought building at the end of the world would help make their marriage stronger.

But if you make it through the first winter, they say you’re a permanent resident. The locals treat you differently after that first winter, with more respect, with an understanding that you’re in it for the long haul. Winter temperatures are often in the -20s (Fahrenheit) and the wind chill often drops into the -40s.

A love of reading is also a requirement, I think. If not reading, at least something that brings the rest of the world into your head. Even a hermit needs mental stimulation.

6. Is there anything you miss about your pre-Hermitage life?

I miss fast Internet connections. I miss trying new restaurants. I miss sushi. And I miss being able to jump on light rail to go visit friends. I don’t miss the stress, nor the noise, nor the smells of the city. I kind of miss having a phone, too, but that’s a mixed blessing, when you figure out how much time you can spend talking compared to email or Facebook communications.

7. What do you value most about your current way of life?

I love the time to think, seeing the same landscape go through all four seasons, and the constant meditation. I love being able to go for a four-hour walk with Angelo and Maggie. And The Cat. I love to treat them well, because they’re my co-authors! Angelo, especially, is an amazing companion.

I love waking up just before sunrise, grabbing the camera, and sharing the photos of this beautiful place. I love writing down by the creek or in a grove of trees, sometimes on my iPad, sometimes in a composition notebook with a pen.

Most of all, I’m fascinated by the contradictions of my life: off-grid, yet connected in ways that matter…a hermit, but a sociable one, thanks to the Internet.

Leland Dirks lives and works in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. His books are available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble; click here for a complete listing of his fiction and non-fiction titles. He has also published a collection of photos documenting his ‘Valley of Light’; this volume is available in paperback and hardcover, and as an ibook.

Would you be interested in fielding some questions about your work life? If so, please email me ( or drop me a message via Facebook, and we can chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether or not to publish will always rest with you. 


On Business Travel

In Essays on January 10, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Brief note from Work Stew editor Kate Gace Walton: Most Work Stew contributors share their thoughts in the form of essays, but this piece happened to take shape as a Q&A. The back story: I used to have a job that required near-constant travel, and (as my questions will no doubt reveal) I grew to dislike being on the road for work. In large part to temper my own grumpiness on the subject, I wanted to learn how other people experience business travel, and frequent flyer Christine de Brabander gamely agreed to weigh in. 

1. You spend large stretches of time traveling for business. How do you feel about these trips: are they part and parcel of your ‘real life,’ or do they seem in some way like detours, or departures, from your real life?

Christine de BrabanderThey do not feel like detours at all. This is my real life. I have a job that involves travel. I have a family that works around the travel. I get comments from other women sometimes about my kids recognizing me, or questions about who’s babysitting the kids or how the family deals with all the travel. I’ve asked male colleagues if they get this, and they’ve reacted with quizzical looks and kindhearted responses. They haven’t experienced this, and seem to appreciate that it would make life more complex if they did.

As a wife and mother, there is still an expectation out there that home is my real life, and the travel is a distraction from that path. Men are road warriors, and women are still called upon to be the auxiliary heroines of the home front. And I understand that, because when I am home I definitely feel that the focal point each day is that time from 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM when I make everything tick: I prepare dinner, make sure the homework gets done, the kitchen is cleaned up, baths are taken, stories are read, and bedtime is observed. It’s very important, and I treasure it. I can see why people would call that my ‘real life’ and wonder how can I step away from that so regularly. I ‘get’ the question.

On the day before I travel, and up until I am walking out the door, there is an undeniable weight pulling me down for not putting all of those expectations first. That is when I question myself. But by the time I reach the airport I am walking as comfortably in that traveling life as I do in my home life. I think that if the guilt followed me on the travel, if I couldn’t shed it, then it would definitely feel like a departure from ‘myself’ (which, I think, might be what you mean by my ‘real life’). But it feels as much ‘me’ to be traveling as it does to be at home. I really embrace that autonomous part of myself who parachutes into assorted cities anywhere in the world and figures it all out. I can commute solo on trains in Japan where there are not even any English characters to sound out, repeating to myself, for instance, to get off at “barn door + curvy A + spaceship symbol” station.

My lifestyle gives my daughters a different view of how gender roles work. It opens their minds to opportunities they may not have recognized if I didn’t travel. And–bonus!–it has made my husband a much more involved father. He has a great relationship with the girls. Sure, he doesn’t take care of things the same way I would. They’ve eaten a lot of frozen pizza and ramen soup and Fruity Pebbles for dinner, and the girls have had to entertain themselves more. They miss me, but they’ve also confessed that they like the ‘dad time’ they get when I’m gone. I actually think that the forced ‘Mr. Mom’ time with our daughters over the past 13 years has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve given my husband.

I think perhaps he sees my travel as more of a detour for him than I do for me, a departure from his real life. He does not shape-shift as easily and completely into chief caretaker as I do into world traveler, but he makes it work. Each person in our family has a critical contribution to making it work. I am incredibly thankful to have a family so generous in spirit.

2. When you are alone in an airplane or a hotel room, how do you feel? Lonely? Liberated? Both? Neither?

On travel, when I’m through at the office, I am done with my work for the day. I don’t have to go back to my hotel and cook or clean. I can go to restaurants and eat whatever kind of food I choose. Even seafood, which nobody at home likes! There is no drama from somebody else’s day to deal with, and nobody’s mood impacting mine. The TV is off. It’s quiet. I can read a book or go online, whatever I feel like doing. All of that is incredibly liberating.

But I get lonely for people after a few days. I miss getting hugs. Touch is important, and totally lacking during business travel. Even beyond touch, I miss looking into eyes and faces that I love. It’s funny, how hungry you get to look at people you love. The faces of co-workers or strangers don’t have the same effect. I don’t think I realized that before I began to travel, how seeing people you love feeds the soul in a vital way.

The FaceTime app has helped a lot. Voice-only calls can be awkward and stilted.  But add the visual, and you are there with the person having a conversation. My youngest daughter and I ‘hang out’ on travel evenings, toting our ipods as we go about what we’re doing, and just chit-chatting as if I were there in the house with her. Last night she had a headache, and I read to her for about 40 minutes while she curled up on the couch near the woodstove. We’re always in the middle of a book together, even though she’s 13 and an avid reader herself. I bring our book along with me, and if we are in the mood then we read, just like when I’m at home.

3. Do you have any interest in exploring your destination when you’re traveling for business–or is it more about enduring your time there and getting home as quickly as possible?

I get very excited to check out a new place, or to go back and see ‘old friend’ sites that I didn’t know I’d get to visit again, such as the Sanjusangendo (Temple of 1000 Buddhas) in Kyoto, or the Duomo in Milan. I have seen some of the most beautiful places–bicycling on Mackinac Island, marveling at the rebuilding of Dresden, dining al fresco on chili crab and fresh mango under the stars in Singapore, or visiting an art museum in Rosario, Argentina. I think it would be a shame to travel and simply endure the time away to rush back home. I’m away regardless, and it doesn’t serve my family any better for me to sit and pine for them, and come home in joyless exhaustion. I have been given one lifetime to experience beauty and to learn about other ways of life. I can use those encounters to instill in my kids an appreciation for other people and cultures, and a healthy curiosity for how others experience the world.

4. I used to travel a lot and there was something about hurtling through the air at 30,000 feet that made me think hard about my choices. My ‘reasoning’ (such as it was) would go something like this: “If my plane crashes and I die, it will be because I was heading to this meeting for such-and-such a client. Is that how I want to go?” Do you ever have such thoughts?

I have briefly entertained such thoughts. But I’m very logical, and so I’ve also thought about how easily accidents can happen anywhere. I’ve entertained the equally valid thought that I have avoided fatal accidents in my local area by being safely up in the sky or walking down a street in France. “Lucky me, I not only get to be in Toulouse, I just avoided a fatal car crash.” If we can crush ourselves with guilt over potential bad choices on the one hand, then we must also congratulate ourselves on obvious good choices that have saved our own lives, right? I mean, I’m here alive today with the choices I’ve made. Would I be if I didn’t travel? That is unknowable.

5. Given that you see business travel as a positive part of your life, how do you think about limits? Is there any amount of business travel that is too much for you?

My threshold for being able to travel and keep a balance in my life tops off somewhere between 30–40% of the time. If I’m away from home fewer than 10 nights a month, things are smooth and positive as I’ve described. If I’m away more than 12 days in a thirty day period, we definitely experience stress. Over the past year, it has ranged from 0 to 17 nights away per month, with an average of 9. On the aggregate it worked, but there were a few tough periods in there where I wish I could have done better for my family. It’s not a guilt-free lifestyle, but there are enough positives that I try not to let the downsides bog me down. A favorite quote of mine, from Hafiz, is “What we speak becomes the house we live in.” I try to keep us dwelling on the bright side. I truly believe that I am a better person because of my travel, and that my family benefits from my being that better person. I’m much less constrained in my thinking, more confident in my own capabilities, and more relaxed because I get breaks from the domestic grind. While the family might say, “We’d prefer you were home all the time,” whether they would really choose that version of me is another one of those unknowable things, because that person does not exist.

6. It’s 8pm and you’re done for the day. Room service, hotel restaurant, or a local hotspot?

The best thing that I’ve ever done on a weeknight after work was to go to Friedrichsbad, the Roman-Irish thermal baths in Baden-Baden, Germany. It’s a 17-step bathing ritual in a “temple to the art of bathing.” Mark Twain described it in a letter to a friend such that, “…you lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20…”

What I do depends on where I am, and with whom I am traveling. (For the thermal baths, which are taken in the nude, I went alone. Nudity among strangers was no issue for me, but I would not undertake that adventure with colleagues!) Internationally, I almost always go out to a restaurant with a group. The relationship building with local colleagues happens to a large extent over dinner. All day long we sat in a conference room and were bored or agitated or overwhelmed, but put good food and wine in front of us and everybody just gets happy and talks and laughs a lot. That’s where you learn about the world.

But at least half of my travel is to this one Midwestern city, not a travel mecca, where there is simply not much to see. At the end of my days there, I typically pick up some take-out food and go back to my room to relax – and FaceTime my youngest daughter.

Would you be interested in fielding some questions about your work life? If so, please email me ( or drop me a message via Facebook, and we can chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether or not to publish will always rest with you. 

Take My Former Life … Please

In Essays on November 18, 2013 at 9:20 pm

By Jim Thomsen

Jim ThomsenI lost my job nearly three years ago.

It was one of the best moments of my life.

In early 2010, I learned that my position as a copy editor at a daily newspaper would be eliminated. The news left me more than a little panicky. I was in my mid-forties, and my skill set was strictly old-school. I didn’t care to adapt to a world in which the platforms on which the news was delivered had become more important than the quality of the news itself. A world in which people in jobs like mine were being washed away in a sea of red ink and poor vision and bad decisions and crushing indifference.

I knew that my job was going away, but, in a casual bit of corporate cruelty, I wasn’t told when. A few months, maybe. We don’t know. We’ll let you know.

That left me not only scared, but angry. At the world, at myself. I was angry at how cost-cutting had chipped away at good journalism, but I was angry with myself for growing fat and complacent on a union-cushioned job with an hourly wage far better than that of my colleagues at non-Guild papers. What would become of me? Was there any place in the job market for somebody who worked well with words, and words alone?

As 2010 dragged on, with the layoff date pushed back time after time as a major corporate consolidation lurched forward at glacial speed, I decided to pump up my savings by pumping up a sideline I’d had for a few years — editing book manuscripts for novel-writing friends. At the time of the layoff announcement, it had been good for maybe an extra five or six thousand dollars a year.

But I never saw book editing as a way to replace my income. It involved things I had never contemplated and thus assumed that I’d never be good at. Things like launching my own business, doing my own accounting and marketing, developing a different editing skill set to the point that I could compete for jobs with people who had been doing it all their professional lives.

I blundered away at it, however, spreading the word on social media, stumbling around at writers’ conferences and shoving my business cards and brochures at anyone who would look at them. I’d come home from the newspaper well after midnight, boil up a pot of coffee, and sprawl on the couch and doggedly mark up somebody’s manuscript till the dawn started to bleed through.

Still, I didn’t really believe it could do anything other than maybe buy me a little time to find another “real” job.

That’s where things stood on January 18, 2011. That was the day the ax fell.

I walked away with unemployment benefits and a little bit of severance money, enough to hang on to my house for a few more months if I didn’t find another job right away.

I also walked away with a weird, jittery feeling of pity for those who didn’t lose their jobs: They’re still trapped in the death spiral of the industry. They have to live with the reality that the good days in the newspaper business are gone, forever, and they have to clock in for work each day with a black cloud full of things they can’t control hanging over their heads.

On the other hand, I was free.

I might not find a job anytime soon, I knew, but anything was better than coming to work each day knowing my job was a literal dead end. Knowing that had poisoned my life, my relationships, the care and attention I had once enthusiastically brought to my job. It had turned me into a moody, brooding, bitter, self-pitying misanthrope.

Now I had been freed from my hate. In the crisp January cold, I walked out to my car, arms full with a box of journalism awards, in a strangely ebullient mood. I was confident that I could face whatever came next, even if I had no idea what came next.

And, that current of goofy good feeling held firm. Even as I lost my house and had to move in with my sister. Even as I failed to get a job interview, let alone a job, over the next several months.

I took the little money I had in reserve and parlayed it into further pumping up my side business … pretty much, for lack of anything better to do. I blundered around on social media. I bought every author or editor I could find a drink or a meal. I went to every writers’ conference I could find in Oregon and Washington. I studied my craft so hard that the Chicago Manual of Style became my nightly bedtime reading.

The money started to melt away.

Then, somewhere around Christmas, as I was contemplating facing the New Year from a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere, it happened.

The work started to pour in.

It wasn’t a bit gradual.

Somehow, in some surreal mix of goofball confidence, social aggressiveness, growing skill and a little actual talent, I had made it. Or was starting to. Maybe. I didn’t trust it, and yet, on some level beyond, or beneath, the rational … I did. It was a drunken feeling, a little George Baileyesque maybe, and yet unshakeable.

And I’m still here, to make a long story slightly less short.

And happily tearing my hair out over billing and sample edits and estimates and quarterly taxes and time management and twelve-hour days seven days a week most weeks.

And I’m still glad I’m nowhere near the newspaper business.

And I still think of January 18, 2011 as the day I was reborn.

The day I was given the gift of getting kicked out of my job. And my complacency.

Jim Thomsen is the owner and operator of Desolation Island Editing Services. He lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Top Secret: Selling Weapons of Mass Protection

In Essays on August 8, 2013 at 5:27 am

By Jan Devereux

JanDevereuxTwenty-five years ago I had what I jokingly referred to as “a very absorbing job” working as an associate brand manager for a market-leading consumer product sold in grocery and drug stores in over 100 countries. My brand’s name, like “Kleenex” (but not), had become synonymous with the product itself, so much so that our corporate legal department dictated that every single use of the brand name, from print ads to packaging to coupons, be followed by the registered trademark symbol. Headquartered just outside New York City, the Fortune 500 company, long ranked in the top five for its return on equity, was spending about $12 million annually in the U.S. alone to advertise a product that was already a household name in several languages, albeit one that proved a conversation stopper every time someone asked me where I worked.

By all rights, I had every reason to be proud of my nascent career in packaged goods, marketing my company’s 50-year-old flagship brand, one that had, by then, won the trust and loyalty of women around the world. Yet, despite having earned two Ivy League degrees, most recently an M.B.A. from Columbia, I found myself apologizing for the awkwardness talking about my career always elicited. My social circle, which included my husband’s fellow junior associates at white shoe Manhattan law firms and Princeton classmates working as analysts and traders at Wall Street investment banks, one-upped each other at dinner parties, boasting about working around the clock on multimillion-dollar leveraged buyouts and junk bond offerings. This was in the late 1980s; two decades later, some of these bankers and their attorney-abettors might regret—even feel a twinge of shame for—the global financial crisis their firms would cause, but back then I was the one made to feel embarrassed about my line of work. 

If you haven’t guessed, the product that occasioned so much nervous laughter, so many conversational dead ends, was Tampax tampons. From February 1986 through August 1988, I worked for Tampax’s parent company, Tambrands, Inc. (In 1997, Procter & Gamble acquired Tambrands for $1.85 billion, consolidating P&G’s dominance in the segment.) Today, it’s hard to imagine how deeply closeted “feminine hygiene” products were in polite society before The Vagina Monologues (1996) and Sex and the City (1998) broke longstanding media taboos about discussing a natural process that half the world’s population experiences every month from, on average, about age 12 to age 50. But, looking back on my brief period (sorry, couldn’t resist!) as a Tampax marketing manager, I see that the (crimson) tide was slowly beginning to turn, as younger female hires like me chafed against the strict FCC standards for decency that tightly constrained what the company could advertise.

“Discreet feminine protection” was our term of art, as though we were selling weapons constructed of cotton and cardboard for women to carry concealed in their handbags to guard against an enemy incursion by “Flo.” (Hard to believe, but just this summer women visiting the senate gallery in Austin, Texas, were barred from carrying tampons inside their purses, while visitors licensed to carry actual concealed weapons were waved to the front of the long lines for faster entry.) We poured beakers of a bright blue liquid onto white napkins to scientifically demonstrate the product’s “unsurpassed” absorbency, which meant of course that it was only as effective as the competition. (Indeed, being too absorbent had become a major liability when our competitor, Playtex, had voluntarily recalled its super-absorbent polyester Rely tampon after it was linked to a deadly epidemic of Toxic-Shock Syndrome in 1980.) Since the 1950s, all tampon ads had clung to the cliché of carefree young women swimming and riding horseback during their “special” time of the month to illustrate the product’s superior comfort and convenience compared to thick sanitary pads. (Covering its feminine hygiene bases, Tambrands also sold the market-trailing Maxithins line of pads, to which I was assigned when I first started at the company, and resolving shoppers’ “brand name confusion” was at the top of my list of job responsibilities. The oxymoronic Maxithins brand struggled to compete with P&G’s new Always pads, which were equipped with innovative “wings” that better protected against the threat of “leakage.”)

When Tampax finally won FCC approval to use the word “period,” a first on network television, we never even considered showing the actual product in the commercials, or even on the outside of the packaging. Instead, a detailed explanation of how the product’s applicator operated, and where and how it was to be used, was discreetly hidden on the lengthy instruction pamphlet tucked inside the familiar blue box. As the only former English major on the company’s marketing staff, it fell to me to edit those instructions, and I labored to make them and the accompanying anatomical drawings easier for anxious novice users to follow. (Leveraging my prior experience as a technical writer, I wrote: “Step 3: Hold the outer insertion tube with your thumb and middle finger. With the removal string hanging down, insert the tip of the applicator into your vagina at a slight upward angle…”)

Assigned to oversee the test-marketing of a new line extension of plastic-applicator tampons enhanced with a “soft, rounded tip,” I found myself, a 28-year-old woman armored in an ‘80s power suit buttressed with commanding shoulder pads, debating my product’s relative degree of “insertion comfort” and its performance on the critical “gush test” (believe me, you don’t want to know!) with the middle-aged men who presided at brand strategy meetings and copy presentations with our Madison Avenue ad agency. While my direct supervisor was female, all the company’s top management and the majority of its brokered sales force were male. There was one older woman high up in the in-house legal department, a mommy track role after slaving away at a big law firm, who was kind (or lonely) enough to eat lunch with me and the other much younger women from time to time. A quarter century later, the Tampax subsidiary remains a boys’ club, with men still holding three-quarters of senior management positions.

Tampax_vs_pads_88-1The modern tampon was invented in the early 1930s by a male doctor, whose design breakthrough was a telescoping, disposable cardboard applicator that would obviate the need for women to touch themselves during the tampon’s insertion. (Thank goodness he scrapped his original idea of a metal applicator!) Tampax Incorporated, founded in 1936 by three men, thrived during and after World War II, as newly independent and increasingly prosperous women entered the military and the workforce and started to reject bulky sanitary pads. (If you are not old enough to remember the belted Kotex pads of your grandmother’s generation, watch SNL’s spoof ad for Kotex Classic to understand why many women rebelled against wearing the equivalent of diapers once fashions and lifestyles changed mid-century.) 

Tambrands always had a very high proportion of female employees—it’s just that most of them worked the production lines in one of the company’s four factories, all located in depressed New England mill towns. As part of my work on the new test product, I visited the Tampax factory in dismal Palmer, Mass. several times to talk with the men in the R&D department about such pressing issues as the ability of the tampon’s paper wrapper to withstand the wear and tear of being carried inside a woman’s pocketbook. To test paper strength, they clamped a purse containing a wrapped tampon and other sundries into the jaws of a paint can shaker, and set it to vibrate vigorously for several minutes. It was a challenge, as the wrapper had to be flimsy enough to flush away, yet sturdy enough to survive the purse punishment intact.

Tampax_virgin_88Our team did shake things up a bit with a new print ad campaign, launched in the spring of 1988, that carried the provocative headline, “Are you sure I’ll still be a virgin?” (“I really wanted to use tampons, but I’d heard you had to be, you know, ‘experienced,’” confesses an older teen pictured looking demure in her beribboned pig-tails and seersucker Bermuda shorts.) Though neither the copy nor the wardrobe was cutting edge by pop culture standards—Madonna’s hit song Like a Virgin had topped the charts three years prior—our “virgin” campaign did raise a few eyebrows at The Wall Street Journal, which ran a brief story under the headline,”Feminine-Hygiene Ad Spurns Subtlety” (May 25, 1988).

Dispelling misperceptions about tampons and virginity coincided with a greater effort to convert Hispanic women from pads, another of my responsibilities, and one for which I was ill-matched, having studied French in school and knowing next to nothing about Latina culture. These days, in America at least, it might seem that worries about virginity and tampon use are well behind us, yet Tampax’s website still includes this reassurance in its section on sex and intimacy: “In the vast majority of girls, the opening of the hymen will allow easy insertion of a tampon.” In other countries misperceptions and stigmas endure. My 19-year-old daughter’s high school classmate spent part of a gap year in Jordan, and was reprimanded for casually offering to give her homestay sister a virginity-stealing tampon.

Three recent viral videos—this gem from Bodyform, a Tampax ad that ran in Russia and a promotional video for HelloFlo, a new monthly delivery service that the video’s blunt tween spokesgirl calls, “Santa for your vagina”—seem determined to move the needle to the point where working for a tampon brand might one day be considered cool, or at least worthy of a follow-up question at a cocktail party. Maybe. In 2007, Tampax was still telling American women to “keep your period private with Tampax” in an obnoxious commercial in which a pair of female shoppers are trailed through store aisles by a mariachi band singing about the women being “on their periods.” Six years later, the company seems to have abandoned its weak attempts at humor, as this year’s bland U.S. ad for Tampax Pearl reverts to the cliché of a woman in a white bathing suit diving into a pool, making me wonder if the company thinks it’s still 1988. At least she’s wearing a bikini.

Jan Devereux is currently working as the director of external relations at a charter public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She blogs at Salutations! and Cambridge Canine.

Image credits: Bio photo provided by Jan Devereux. Tampax print ads by Ally Gargano/MCA Advertsing, Ltd.

Other references (in addition to those embedded as links):

Tampax company stats

NPR story on HelloFlo 

Comparison of U.S. Tampax ad vs. Russian ad










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