Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

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










Story Slam—Part Two

In Essays on July 28, 2013 at 7:56 pm

july2013-slam-web1By Kate Gace Walton

Note: Some of you kindly asked me to share the tale I told at Thursday night’s Bainbridge Island Story Slam. It was told on stage, no notes allowed—but I have reconstructed it here, as best as I could.

This time the theme was ‘Summer Jobs’; last time, for the theme ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time,’ I described my most memorable ‘Night Shift.’ 

When I was in college, one summer I worked in Yellowstone National Park. I worked in a gift shop at Old Faithful.

We sold a lot of different souvenirs, but it’s the bedazzled sweatshirts I remember best. Sequined wolves, howling at a sequined moon.

Tragically, our uniforms were gingham. Blue gingham blouses—and aprons. The only thing missing was the yellow brick road.

My co-workers were all fellow college students and retirees, and we lived in a dorm above the store. In what I can only explain as some sort of crowd control scheme, we were all mixed in together—the students and the retirees. My roommate, for example, was a competitive bowler, actually named Flo, and I remember: on those beautiful Yellowstone nights, with no city lights to dim the stars, I could look down from my bunk…and see her teeth…sitting on the table next to the bed.

Most of the college students were out there to hike. We’d leave as soon as our shifts were over and return just in time to start work again. And, if we’re being frank here, many of the college students were also out there to, um, hike a little bit of the Appalachian trail as they say. So, our hours were erratic. We’d come home late; we’d oversleep. We were a constant source of irritation to our more mature roommates.

It might have all boiled over—these tensions between the students and the retirees—except for one strong, unifying force: the tourists.

Now, many of you have probably been to Old Faithful. Some of you may even have a wolf-bedazzled sweatshirt. But when I say “tourists,” I’m not talking about you.

I’m  talking about the people who put their toddler on the back of a bison to take a photo…

I’m talking about the people who came into the store and asked, “In what season do the elk turn into moose?”…

I’m talking about the people who asked,  “What time do you turn the geysers on?”…

It was these people, these tourists, who inspired us to set aside our differences and come together around a plan. And here is what we did: there was a wagon wheel hanging on the wall of the employee pub. We fixed it to the top of a post which we placed about twenty yards away from Old Faithful, just behind the boardwalk where people stand to watch.

And just as Old Faithful was about to blow, two of my colleagues—in their blue gingham and their aprons—started to turn that wheel, very slowly at first…and then faster and faster. And only when Old Faithful erupted in all her glory did they stop, slumped in seeming exhaustion. The crowd cheered. There were a few wry, knowing smiles…but honestly not nearly as many as you’d like to see.

I’ve been a part of many team-building exercises over the years, but nothing compares to the day we turned the geyser on. And the best part, for me anyway, was the rumor that it was all Flo’s idea.

Barking Up the Right Tree

In Essays on July 18, 2013 at 7:46 am

By Melissa Grieco

In the winter of 1993, I was living the life of a prototypical Gen X twenty-something. A recent college graduate, I had spent the previous year shacking up with friends and working at my first real job in Londonfacilitated by a British passport and family connections in the U.K. Now, at 23, I was back in Connecticut living with my parents while helping offset the gently levied rent through a part-time retail job.

Workstew Bruno & I picWith a youthfully carefree attitude and hastily slapped together Curriculum Vitae, I was in no hurry to embark on a career path. In fact, I had little inkling of where to head now. Having relied thus far in life on the comfort and structure provided by educational institutions and my self-imposed rigorous academic standards, I was at a bit of a loss. I entered my twenties with a thirst for life experience and adventure, but I felt these things could not be derived from the workplace which further dampened any enthusiasm towards a job search.

Exacerbating this life-path dilemma was my shiny Magna Cum Laude French/English B.A. degree from Amherst. Prominently inked in Times New Roman at the top of my resume, this would have been an asset if I had possessed a burning desire to become a high school teacher or United Nations translator. However, I had no aspirations in these areas. I had always been involved in animal and environmental causes; at college, I had led successful MASSPIRG crusades to banish both Styrofoam and veal from the school cafeterias. I was hopeful that I could translate this passion and activism into a paycheck. But without a scientific or veterinary background, I was unsure how to go about making that happen.

While regularly capitalizing on the employee discount at Banana Republic, I loosely pondered the future. A high school friend in a similar spot recommended that I get my aptitudes measured to prompt me onto an appropriate job path. And so I underwent a two-day-long battery of tests in Manhattan to find out what I was going to become. The results showed that I had many right-brained abilities including off-the-charts ‘ideaphoria’ which the counselor dubbed as “the ability to generate a rapid flow of ideas that can be used to inform and educate others.” This would lend itself to a career in journalism, public relations, marketing or advertising andfactoring in my other aptitudesI could make a great college professor. Hello tenure! Quite randomly, I was also adept with numerical series and would do well in accounting.

I had spent my year in England working as a marketing assistant so by default I decided to pursue the marketing angle. And that’s what provided my anchor and livelihood for the greater part of the next fourteen years. My marketing career propelled me through two recessions and the dot-com boom and bust. It paid the rent, gave me a lively social life, and took me to numerous U.S. cities. And, most importantly to me nowadays, it taught me how to write business copy, develop and execute a business plan, manage budgets, promote and sell products and ideas, produce documents, design websites, and make one heck of a convincing sales pitch.

It was marriage to my wonderful and supportive husband in my mid-thirties that gave me the confidence and independence to pursue other avenues that had seemed closed to me until that point. I had been volunteering for several years after work up at the ASPCA headquarters on East 92nd Street. I now decided it was time to leave the confines of the corporate world to indulge my love of animals by starting a dog walking business in the Manhattan suburb that we had moved to.

My dog walking years were therapeutic and enjoyable. The antics of my canine clients provided endless entertainment and color! My services were in high demand and it proved to be a lucrative livelihood. However, one is on call 24/7 year round and outside all day in the elements. Feeling a little burned out and busy enjoying a burgeoning hobby as a triathlete while juggling volunteer commitments and part-time work as a commercial print model, I decided to wind down the business. But I had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and was soon determined to brainstorm an alternative business plan that incorporated my passion for pet rescue. I had an ‘aha’ moment while preparing for my second Ironmanand voila!Trihound, LLC was conceived.

Fast forward to today and I have been lucky enough to crystalize all my talents and passions into my small business. Among other items, I design and sell dog collars and leashes with endurance sports motifs that are produced locally by a family-run factory. I donate 20% of corporate profits to an animal shelter. I use my marketing savvy to promote my products and business and work out of a home office with my rescue dog Bruno by my side. I am pretty convinced that without my corporate background and all the tools of the trade that I gleaned from it, I wouldn’t have had the proficiency to launch Trihound. Hindsight shows me that I wasn’t that lost at twenty-three. It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, but I was always on the right path, headed to exactly where I find myself now.

Born in England and based in Rye, New York, Melissa Grieco owns and operates Trihound LLC, a producer of lifestyle accessories designed for runners, triathletes, and the dogs who support them. In addition to the Trihound website, you can also follow the company on Facebook.  

Beginning Anew

In Essays on June 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm

By Dominique Veniez 

dommeditate2Not long ago, I came home from work on a bit of a high and deliriously updated my Facebook status. It read:

Yes—it took me until I was in my 40s to find a job that makes me happy. Boy, it was worth the wait! I think I’m right in my hunch that it’s unusual to start work at 7am and finish at 9pm and LOVE every moment : )

Honestly, seven years ago I would have rolled my eyes reading such “garbage” while sipping on a well-chilled Chardonnay. But then life has a way of running its own course. The more I fought my own path, the more reminders were rocketed my way, letting me know, in no uncertain terms, that I, indeed, was not the ruler of the universe and, in fact, have much less control of my destiny than I could imagine!

I grew up a child of privilege. By age 16, I had moved countries six times, could speak three languages fluently, and had been exposed to more cultural diversity than many experience in a lifetime. While I was worldly in some ways, I was clueless in others. I lived in a cocoon of fine homes, fancy cars, and private schools. During a bout of pneumonia, I remember asking the nurse at the hospital why there wasn’t any Dijon mustard to go with my meal.

I was always taught that I could be better…if I tried harder. That translated for me, from a very early age, into the notion that I wasn’t good enough, that at some point in the future, when I was my BEST, I would be good enough. I can imagine that some readers might relate. Don’t get me wrong. Hard work and dedication are, in my humble opinion, absolutely necessary for fulfillment in one’s life. It was, I believe, my child brain that didn’t process the instruction as it was intended.

And so, my childhood, teen years, and early adult life were infused with drive and a “do better” mantra. But for me, my drive to improve was only sustainable for brief periods of time. I would inevitably crash and burn into a variety of different abysses, only to pick myself up and try again and AGAIN. This time will be different.

After marrying in my late 20s, birthing two beautiful babies, and moving two more times, I hit bottom. It was as if I was floating outside of my body, watching my life, but not really participating in it. On the outside, I appeared to have the “perfect” life: wonderful husband, beautiful children, three dogs, lovely home, two cars. All that was missing was the picket fence. But my perma-grin and my maniacal volunteerism made up for the lack of a fence.

At home in the night, alone with my thoughts, I could not sit in my skin anymore. By day, I silently searched for ways to improve. I must be doing something wrong. There were self help books and healthy diets. There was constant busy-ness. And then, eventually, there was nothing. No more smile, no more energy, no real relationshipsjust me, living outside my body.

In the midst of all this, life handed me examples and opportunities to let go of my vice grip; she also pushed open the door, just a hair, that I might walk in a different direction. And on one fateful day, for some reason I decided to peer around that door. There I met someone: a fiery, red-headed dynamomy first yoga teacher. Imagine what your stereotypical yoga teacher might look like and then smash that image. As I spent my first few lessons curled up in the fetal position, I was present to just being “seen, heard, and understood” by the generosity of another human being. There was no judgment. And, for those moments, I was enough.

I have heard stories of sudden “Great Awakenings.” My story is nothing of the kind! As weekly lessons evolved into daily practice, yoga became my new “be better” project and, after countless hours, I was sure I had mastered the physical form. Now I was wholenow I was perfect! What had begun as healing had now become an unhealthy addiction. Yes, even yoga can be addictive when used as way out. Although I was certainly not living in that abyss anymore, I had not begun truly to live in my body and be in the acceptance of ME, flaws and all.

Following three years of “perfect” practice and after completing an intensive teacher training, I was struck with a violent attack of vertigo which, ultimately, lasted eight monthseight straight months of dizziness, nausea and, yes, definitely depression. My “drug” had been taken away. Yet again, I filled my life with busy-ness and bravado.

Finally, when the dis-ease of doing became too uncomfortable, I returned to my practice. There was fear of a repeat episode, no flexibility, no strength and, yes, a touch of humility. I was a beginner. Hallelujah! There’s something so beautiful about the excitement and fragility of new beginnings; the possibility to see with new eyes; to see the perfection of imperfection. Slowly, life itself began to take a little less effort.

That is where I am today. It’s as if it has taken 44 years to begin again; to be able to wake up some days with the excitement of a four year old. “What will happen today?”

And, so, now before I practice and before I teach any class, I remember. I remember that I am not the ruler of my students, let alone the universe. I remember that I am so incredibly fortunate to have been gifted a body that works in all its imperfection. Everyone has their own story that they bring to their mat and we are all completely whole just as we are. Each day we have the choice to begin again.

Dominique Veniez is a certified YogaWorks trained yoga teacher in Vancouver, BC with training in restorative yoga and yoga for PTSD, Addiction, and Mental Health. Through her own yoga journey, Dominique can attest to the healing qualities of yoga. Teaching in studio, school, hospital, and private settings, her belief is that the lessons learned on the yoga mat can show us how to stay steady in the chaos of life and keep a sense of humor along the way.

Photo credit: courtesy of Dominique Veniez.


Sign Me Up: From Grocery Carts to Model Ts

In Essays on May 15, 2013 at 8:14 am

Editorial note: I am struck by how much this veteran’s homecoming differed from this one’s.

By Jack Kissler

Jack KisslerMy first job was hustling shopping carts at the grocery store where my mother was a checker. They couldn’t pay me because I was only fifteen. The manager slipped my mom some overtime so she could pay me. I loved the job even if it was only for a week. I was outside, and I could run.

My next job was a gas station attendant. Flying A, just like The Fonz. I was outside, and I was around cars! That got me through high school.

At that point in my life, despite my 2.0 GPA, I figured I was too smart for college. But my mom said, “Jack, if you want to continue living here, you will go to school.” By the end of my first year at junior college, the edge was off my ego. I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, and I felt pretty low.

They were hiring at the Post Office, so I took the test and got an offer about two months later. I loved the job. It was outside, and I could walk. I figured, here I am: set for life. Easy job, good pay, sick leave, three days off every fifth week…sign me up. That’s what I was doing on that fateful day in Dallas.

Soon, though, my days of carrying that leather bag were cut short–Uncle Sam needed my services. The draft was alive and well back then, so I could have waited for conscription, but I knew where I wanted to go. I made a deal with a recruiter: Europe in exchange for a three-year enlistment.

Within weeks, I was off to Fort Ord for basic training, then clear across the country to Fort Gordon for signal school.

The troop ship left from Brooklyn Army terminal, and I saw the Statue of Liberty over the stern as we went under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  Five days in the North Atlantic was like a cruise ship. Not a ripple that August.

Bremerhaven, Paris, and then Fontainebleau. Home for the next 24 months. My job was to babysit a 2½-ton truck with a signal hut on the back. Oh yeah, it towed a trailer with two 5kw generators. I was part of a three-man team. Me, a PFC, an Sp4 and an E-5 Sergeant. Life was really boring. There was no work. We were just on standby. We field-trained twice a year. We played pinochle; we drank beer, smoked cigarettes and mostly wasted our days. Nights and weekends we traveled.

We would bug out of the lower motor pool to any place warm. I liked the Special Services library. I was hiding in the stacks one cold day and I found a college catalog that said I could go to school and study cars and become a high school auto shop teacher.

In an instant I knew that was me. Cal State LA, sign me up!

No more Army, no more Post Office, and only three years left until I could graduate. Thanks, mom.

Congress had just passed a good GI bill and they offered to pay all of my school costs. YES indeed! Sign me up! The VA also financed my first home in North Town. It cost $25,000.

During my third year of teaching, the movie American Graffiti hit the theaters. I loved that yellow ‘32 Ford. I wanted one. That was me. Sign me up!

But raising two boys and all that came with that, the five-window coupe was always just out of reach. Looking back, I probably could have swung it, but that’s water under the bridge. 

I taught high school shop for the next forty years and retired in 2008.

I now own a ‘27 Model T hotrod. My son owns a ‘29 SSK replica hotrod, which we converted into a woody wagon.

Next year, Im going to sell my ‘27 and start building a ‘32. It just might be yellow. 

All that has gone before has given me the skills, patience, partner, and cash I need to do what I’m doing now.

Jack Kissler, based in Gig Harbor, Washington, is probably hard at work on his Model T right now.

Settling for Passion

In Essays on May 5, 2013 at 3:56 pm

By Indrani Stephania Stangl

Indrani Stephania StanglMy ‘career path’ is a long road filled with wrong turns and poor decisions. Along the way, I discovered that you don’t need to be passionate about what you’re paid for; you just need to be passionate about something.

I grew up on the Stanford University campus. My best friends’ parents were Nobel Prize winners and international scholars. When I was a kid, I had the typical dreams: movie star, model, chef, veterinarian. But by college, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. When I chose a major, it was on the day of the deadline. I picked Cognitive Science without knowing what it was (and, frankly, I’m still a little unclear). When I graduated in 1991, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer (‘decided’ is a term used loosely here…it was more like ‘it sounds as good as anything else’). So I went to work at a corporate law firm as a paralegal assistant, alongside other goalless floaters who were struggling in various phases of life. It didn’t take long for the experience to quash whatever interest in law I’d had. The arrogant young lawyers struggled to bring in new business, and always felt the burden of being one billable minute away from losing their jobs. They took these stresses out on me, and I lasted less than a year.

The next year was one of jobless bliss. I moved back in with my parents on the Stanford campus, hung out with their dogs, sat by the pool, tanned, partied, and made friends at the junior college where I was taking prerequisites for vet school. I got a part time job at a veterinary clinic, only to discover that I was terribly allergic to cats. It did not matter how much Benedryl I took; I was a ball of snot and phlegm that could barely take a breath between sneezes. That was the end of that. The vet dream was flushed away with so many Kleenex.

One day while I was napping on the couch with the dogs after a few hours of sunbathing, my mother approached us with a rolled up newspaper. I thought she was going to discipline the dogs for being on the furniture. But instead, she beat me over the head with it screaming, “GET A JOB!” She threw the paper at me, revealing that it was the classifieds, with lots of red circles around things like “Nanny Wanted,” “Sous Chef,” and “Personal Assistant.” I was infuriated that my mother thought I should apply for any of these jobs; I was so much better than that. But I took her mental breakdown to heart. I needed a job. I needed a life. Hanging out with the dogs all day was fun, but I was whittling my time away. I looked at the paper and made a few calls, and sent a couple resumes to various places. I ended up temping for a burgeoning high tech company.

I was in the heart of Silicon Valley, but before the high tech boom. Friends who stayed with tech made millions at places like Yahoo and Google, but after a few months, I quit that temp job for a permanent job at a bank, making $2,000 a month. When the tech firm called to say they missed me and wanted to offer me a full time position, I turned them down saying I already had a job. They were purchased a year later by a huge company, while I was slaving away in a role in which I had zero interest. After three years, the bank offered me a promotion; my response was to quit. Around this time I rescued a dog from a shelter. She was neurotic as hell, skittish and aggressive. She brought a lot of focus to my life, even if my parents felt it was ‘misdirected.’ Looking back, my only real constant has been my need to have a dog around. A dog doesn’t judge what I’m doing with my life. A dog is a companion that cannot criticize.

I realize now that having too many choices, being told I could do whatever I wanted to do, that I was smart and talented and had the whole world at my feet, was debilitating in its own way. In retrospect, I probably should have gone into marketing or communications, but at the time I was overwhelmed with the possibilities, and I lacked guidance. Ironically, I went on to get a master’s degree in counseling, and I now work at Stanford, surrounded by bright kids with their futures ahead of them, declaring majors like Product Design, Journalism, Film Making, and Business. Oh, to go back in time—but fortunately, I’ve never felt that my job should be the source of my fulfillment.

Yes, I settled. But I have a good job, a job in fact that many would want. I work with smart students and brilliant faculty at one of the best colleges in the world. The environment is both physically beautiful and mentally stimulating. I make decent money—not enough to travel the world or buy nice cars or designer clothes, but enough to rent an apartment in a pricey neighborhood, go out to dinner a lot, travel a bit, and have a canine companion. I’ve decided it’s enough. My job doesn’t have to be my passion. Instead, I have a job that helps me support my passion.

I tell people I have a ‘real job’ and a ‘pseudo-job.’ I used to think that I would love to be paid for my ‘pseudo-job.’ People often say that it is incredibly lucky to be paid a salary for what one is passionate about. But if you are obligated to work at your passion, will the passion die with time? I am fortunate to have a job that affords me enough time and causes little stress so that I can focus on my non-profit dog rescue, my passion. If I were paid, I am quite sure I would not feel the same way.

For the last seven years I have been a volunteer at Pound Puppy Rescue, and for the last three of them I have been a member of the Board. I run all the logistics: manage the volunteers, answer all the e-mails, keep the 12,000 followers on Facebook updated several times per day, problem solve, put out fires, manage transportation from shelters to foster homes, coordinate the spay/neuter program, negotiate with shelters to release dogs, manage adoption events, care for sick puppies, and deal with the drama of rescue people. I see the horror and cruelty that our human race is capable of every day, as well as the love of people coming together to save a dog from imminent death.

Almost daily, I have inquiries about how to volunteer with the rescue, from people who say they are passionate about dogs. It is very rare for these people to volunteer more than once or twice, because they don’t have time—usually because of their ‘real’ jobs. As for my ‘real job’, I have had offers for promotions as well as new positions at other campuses and in private industry, but at this point in my life, I’m not interested. I’m in my mid-40s and I realize it would probably make sense for me to make a career change sooner rather than later, if something comes up. But for now, I don’t want to risk my ability to stay focused on my passion.

Yes, my volunteer ‘pseudo-job’ can be stressful—more stressful than my ‘real job.’ I lose sleep often. I am not paid a salary. However, I am rewarded tenfold by the feeling I get when I find a permanent home for a dog that feels love and safety for the first time. My ‘real job’ is just a job. My ‘pseudo-job’ is my life’s work.

Indrani Stephania Stangl was born and raised on the Stanford University campus, and currently works in Student Services there. She is a longtime volunteer at Pound Puppy Rescue, a non-profit rescue organization that saves pregnant dogs and puppies under three months from the pound. Even when she doesn’t have a dog by her side, she always has a pocket full of dog treats, just in case.

Photo credit: Jim Block 

The Gift of Getting Fired

In Essays on April 25, 2013 at 5:50 am

By Alison Buckholtz

AlisonI forgot their names immediately after they fired me, so I’ll just call them Dick and Jane. He was a shaggy cowboy; she was a wannabe New Yorker editor with big hair and cheap glasses. They were married to each other, and I, very single at age 22, was secretly comforted that the universe in all of its wisdom could find matches even for these strange specimens. But that’s where any positive feelings ended.

It was 1992. I had answered a vaguely-worded ad for an editor, placed in the local paper. I had just received my M.A. in English at the nearby university and wanted to stick around. I liked the house I shared with five other grad students, a ramshackle mansion close both to campus and to the main street that made up “town.” My roommates were toiling away at Ph.Ds in English literature, each unhappy in their own special way: one girl ate too much; one cried all the time; one refused to emerge from her room, even on Sunday mornings, without full make-up. The least miserable girl among us, who was brilliant, looked like Morticia Addams and never spoke. We rarely saw our male roommate, a farm-bred Fabio, who brought a steady stream of bespectacled beauties up to his room and locked the door.

It was one of the most optimistic times of my life because I knew that deciding not to pursue my stop with an M.A. and earn money doing what I loved, which was working with wordswas the right path for me. I didn’t feel superior to my friends, but I did enjoy having somewhere to go at 8 in the morning, and being able to come home at 5 or 6 and do whatever I wanted. During grad school, I spent every evening in my library carrel, positioned near a narrow window where I could watch undergraduates with time on their hands playing Frisbee and having picnics. Not to be chained to that spot, looking on as others lived their lives, was my spiritual salary.

My real salary was another issue altogether. My parents had generously paid for school, but I was clearly on my own now, financially, which was fine by me. This editorial job paid just enough to get by, if I kept the babysitting gigs that had kept me afloat as I worked through the Victorian canon. The only real problem with the job was that I wasn’t really sure what the place did. It called itself something along the lines of Herbal Healing, Inc., and I was tasked with writing the monthly newsletter.

Dick and Jane, who owned the company, said they wanted a “real” writer to get their newsletter to a new audience, and they gave me my own office. I sat across from a large room full of young womenyounger than mewho had had babies in high school and needed to make a living. They sat in front of computer terminals all day, sifting through enormous piles of mail from people ordering some kind of cancer-killing pill or powder. I was still very unclear on all of that. All I knew was that my new colleagues typed names and check numbers into a database all day. They were friendly, but for some reason they all hated the single-serve pull-top cartons of Dannon yogurt I brought in, so eventually I just started eating lunch alone at my desk.

So here’s a typical day: Dick brought me hand-written letters from people who had been sick, then taken certain pills and healed themselves, and I wrote “human-interest stories” for the newsletter based on these testimonials. Jane stayed in her office. The girls across the hall entered data for 50 minutes at a time, then smoked outside for 10 minutes.

The only problem, as I saw it, was my mom. She’d warned me against taking the job from the moment she heard about it. We fought bitterly. She said the place practiced sham science, and that I’d be throwing my education away. But I suspected that what she really wanted was for me to be closer to home, and that my staying away was a terrible disappointment to her. There were harsh words and lots of tears, but I was determined to make my own way on my own salary in my own city. We stopped talking on the phone for a while. But then, on my first day at my new desk, a florist came to the office to deliver a dozen roses. They were from my mom. The card wished me good luck and lots of love.

When I accompanied the other girls on their smoke breaks, they told me things that made me nervous, like how most of the people who sent checks were very old and dying soon, so you had to be sure to get their money first before you shipped them the pills or powders. In the university library at night, I started reading up on the cancer cures I was writing about, and each one was quickly and easily disproven. I asked the law librarians where I could find information about how the company had registered itself. With each new, discouraging discovery, I felt a little sicker. I mentioned it to one of the girls during her smoke break the next day. She didn’t acknowledge anything, but I saw her talking to her supervisor later. I thought that was a good sign. These girls hadn’t had the time to do the kind of research I was doing, but they deserved to know if Dick and Jane were running a scam.

I resolved to plow ahead. I had to prove to my mom that I was right to take the position, even if, in the end, I exposed the place as a fraud. I’d be a different kind of superhero then, but still a superhero. Dick told me how well I was doing, so I knew I had more time to gather the evidence. The newsletter stories I was writing were reaching so many new people that Jane, on her one visit to my desk, told me that they’d be hiring a marketing director. He or she would share the office with me, and the interviews would start the next day. Would I mind if the interviewees asked me any questions?

I was flattered as the prospective candidates, who all looked like young Willy Lomans, filed through the office; I looked forward to having a colleague. Two days later, the smoke-break girl and her supervisor came to my desk and pulled up chairs. Only the supervisor spoke. Although I liked her because she was more of a mom type than the others, she was the most revolted by my yogurt of all of them; she only ate orange peanut-butter crackers from the vending machine.

“Dick and Jane want me to let you know that they’ve hired someone for the marketing job, and this person will also take over all of the writing,” she said. She had lost a lot of weight fairly recently, and the loose folds of her stomach rested on her lap like the softest pillow. No wonder she seemed so maternal.

“They have also asked me to tell you that we no longer need your services. I’m here to ask you to gather your belongings from your desk. I’ll stay in here while you do that. Smoke-break girl and I will escort you out.”

It dawned on me that they had interviewed my replacement right in front of me. The rest is a blur. I didn’t have much there so it didn’t take long: pencils and pens, a notebook, the card from my mom’s flowers, sending her love in another person’s cursive. I put it all in my purse as I was monitored. The supervisor hugged me, and I hugged her lap-pillow back, but it wasn’t very comforting.

I arrived back home around lunchtime. Although I’d only been working for about three weeks, an empty afternoon had already become foreign. Only Morticia was around, so we didn’t speak and I didn’t have to explain anything. I lay on my old mattress on the floor, a mattress that came with the house, and spent the rest of the afternoon sobbing. That night, I called my mom, who was immediately outraged on my behalf.  It was a lot of variations on “How dare THEY fire YOU,” and by the end of the conversation she vowed to call her lawyer friend so we could sue them for wrongful discharge. I was too sad to be part of that “we” in any meaningful way, but I went along with it because I was just relieved to be a “we” again.

I went along with it as I packed up my room, faxed resumes and cover letters, and planned to move to Boston to live with my best friend from college. I went along with it as I accepted an entry-level job at a prestigious publishing house in the Boston area. I went along with it as I saved my money, living with my best friend and her parents, whose kindness launched me back into a life of work.

One afternoon, my mom called me at my new office to tell me that the suit against my former employers, which I was sure was dead on arrival, had succeeded. There would be a certified check coming in the mail. It wasn’t as much as “we” asked for, but it was still significant. Mom thought I should use it to buy a really good mattress and bed frame.

So I did. Twenty-one years, six moves, and five fulfilling jobs later, one of my kids now sleeps on that same mattress. Clearly, mom was right.

Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin paperback, May 2013).  She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, and many other publications. She lives in the Washington, DC area.

Photo credit: Victoria Restrepo

If You Know

In Essays on March 8, 2013 at 5:31 am

Note: New essays are on hold for now, but here’s a gem from the archives. 

By Meg Heimovics Kumin

Meg_Heimovics_KuminWhen I was two, my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” I probably threw my Cheerios at him.

I was six when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” I thought thirty-two was oldancient old. I had all the time in the world.

I was twelve when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” By then, all the career and personality tests had told me I was exceptional at math and spatial reasoning, and I should be an engineer. I wasn’t sure I agreed.

I was seventeen when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” By this time, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Two years earlier I had picked up my dad’s 1970-something Nikon camera and fallen in love with the lens. I took classes and put a darkroom in my parents’ basement. I became photo editor of the newspaper and photographer for the yearbook. I spent all of high school behind the camera and under the dim, red light of the darkroom. What did I want to do when I grew up? I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer! I wanted to follow Jane Goodall around the primate world. I wanted to capture the next “Afghan Girl.” I wanted this, but I also knew it was a pipe dream, and never, ever, going to happenunless I got really good.

I was twenty-one when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” This time I was on the cusp of graduating college with a degree in American Studies, with a focus on race, ethnicity, and culture. I stumbled into the degree following a thirst for understanding people and identities. It was a discipline that taught me to read, think, and writeand I loved it. But I was no Cornell West, and I worried that I’d spend the rest of my life waitressing.

So I spent my fourth and fifth years taking engineering electives including calculus, physics, and computer programming. It was coding that lit up my mind. It was like one, never-ending puzzle, and I loved it. I began to think maybe those career tests were right. Following graduation, I pursued a Master’s in Computer Science.

I was twenty-seven when my father told me, “If you know what you want to do by age thirty-two, you are going to be all right.” This time I smiled, and so did he. I had figured out what I wanted to be. I had just landed the best job in the world as a software developer at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute writing biological collections management software for natural history museums.

I got married and three months later, we found out we were pregnant, rather unexpectedly. Within a year of landing the best job ever, we welcomed our whoopsie-baby, and I had a crisis of identity. Did I want to be a grown up inhabiting the working world, or did I want to get lost in my child’s world? I decided I wanted it all.  Fortunately, my boss was more than accommodating. I became an anomaly in the Mommy Wars: I was a full-time employee who brought my baby to the office. With a bouncy seat next to my keyboard, I tickled his tiny toes while I wrote java code.

I was thirty-two when we welcomed our third-born to the world. We also welcomed the rotavirus, and influenza, and sick days quickly outpaced accrued leave. It became clear that being the mother I wanted to be AND having the career I thought was for me, was unsustainable. I quit my job as a software developer to stay at home and be a childware developer.

I was thirty-two when my father told me, “Your mother is in the hospital. The doctors say she has a tumor that runs from her ear, down her neck, along her spine, into her armpit and onto her lung. The prognosis is not good.”

I was thirty-two when my father had a nervous breakdownnot the metaphorical kind, but literal catatonia. The doctors said he needed an institution and a dose of shock therapy, or the prognosis would not be good.

I was thirty-two when neither parent could care for the other. For the next year and a half, it didn’t matter what I wanted to do, I did what I had to do. I got to wear my stay-at-home-mom hat and chemo-buddy hat and power-of-attorney hat. I might have looked all grown up, but I was navigating life like a six-year-old behind the wheel of a Mack truck. How I got through it without becoming an addict or clinically depressed is the topic of a story I will probably never write.

After my mom passed, I found writing and the words poured out of me. I read and wrote and wrote and read. I used the voice inside my fingers to try to make sense of where I’d been, who I’d become, and who I wanted to be.  I picked up my camera and began attending to small wonders; it filled me with a love of life again.

I was thirty-five when Kate Gace Walton butted into my life and did this thing that she does. She asked me, “What do you do? Will you write about it?” Little did she know it was a loaded question, as virulent and unsettling as this year’s flu.

It’s been two years since Kate first asked me to write this essay. I wish I could say I blew it off, but I didn’t. I obsessed about it. Countless times, I closed my eyes and asked myself, “What do you want to do?” Again and again, I thought about where I’d been and what I’d done. I thought about what I would regret having never done. The picture became clear. I wanted to live life in Kodachrome and capture it with the lens.

So I took the plunge. I built a website and made a plan. I announced to the world, “I’m doing it!” While thirty-two was my father’s number, perhaps thirty-seven is mine. I may not be a National Geographic photographer, but I’m on a path of passion and no regrets…and it feels better than all right.

Meg Heimovics Kumin is a photographer based in Lenexa, Kansas. Her work can be viewed at Meg Kumin Photography

Calling Dr. Hackenbush

In Essays on February 26, 2013 at 5:19 am

Editorial Note: Unlike most of the other essays published here, this piece was not written for Work Stew. Lisa Maguire created it for her blog, and the eagle-eyed Amy Gutman spotted it and sent it my way. Because it’s a fine example of stewing out loud, I asked Lisa for permission to add it to Work Stew’s essay collection, and she graciously agreed. 

By Lisa Maguire

Lisa_MacguireI recently started working as a volunteer at a horse rescue here in Connecticut. The barn has about a dozen unwanted draft horses salvaged from feedlot auctions. Many of them are workhorses from Amish country and know how to pull a cart or a plow. The rescue hopes to turn them into riding lesson horses, therapy horses, or, if they’re not sound enough for work, companion animals.

All afternoon I mucked out stalls, stacked hay bales, and filled water buckets in a freezing horse barn. I made numerous trips to a manure pile pushing a wheelbarrow wobbling over iced mud. I came home tired, sore, and smelly. I had a blast.

It occurred to me that this was the first meaningful work I had done in years. Work that had tangible results (I could see the clean stall) and a purpose (the rescue relies solely on volunteer labor). It was also work that I was able to do without any politics or controversy. Unlike working in an investment bank, no one disputed who was going to fill up which water bucket; no one stood next to your just-filled bucket and claimed your work as their own; no one emptied your just-filled bucket and then refilled the bucket, saying you had not done it right; no one debated the process controls and regulations around filling up the buckets, taking out measuring sticks to see how far from the lip of the bucket you’d filled.

My employer has just announced cost reductions that will eliminate 10,000 of us. This follows six white-knuckle rounds of lay-offs since 2008. People are losing their jobs left and right in my business. The majority of us let go will probably never work in finance again—the jobs aren’t there. Over half a million financial services jobs have disappeared in the last five years. Many people were hired back in 2009 and 2010, but they are now on the chopping block again as big banks move out of proprietary trading and shrink their balance sheets to comply with regulatory capital rules. When I see the magnitude of the expected job losses, I wonder what will happen to us.

Even in good times, many of us were never that into spreadsheets; we were lured by the money and the opportunity to work with smart people. Now that we are faced with being cut loose, and pondering a future outside the financial world, most of us are asking the same questions: What is meaningful work? Is doing what I love a viable option? Will I earn enough to pay back the investment in the training required? Will I ever be able to retire?

I love working with horses, so this week’s idea is to become a horse dentist. Laugh if you want, but there is no need for a veterinary degree (4 years and  about $200,000) and, unlike a farrier, a horse dentist doesn’t need the upper body strength of an Olympic shot putter.

It’s not surprising that I want to work with animals. My female friends and colleagues looking for their next career are all contemplating caring professions: teaching, social work, psychotherapy, physical therapy, yoga instruction, career coaching. This is probably in reaction to having spent most of our adult lives working in the macho culture of Wall StreetHorse dentistry is also a caring profession, and better than the above options for a misanthrope like me because I won’t have to listen to the incessant chatter of my clients.

Also interesting about the new careers most of my friends have considered is that few of them require as much education or as many qualifications as our current jobs. Partly this is due to our age and circumstances. We no longer have the luxury of medical school, or, in my case, vet school—we are middle aged and need to start earning soon. The other characteristic these jobs have in common is that they cannot be outsourced. Many of them are not even professions but trades.

I don’t know of any men thinking this way. Not a single man I work with has talked to me about another career outside of finance, much less downshifting to a more satisfying but lower paid job—like building bicycles or making furniture. Are they as Hanna Rosin suggests in her book The End of Men, unadaptable, unwilling to consider lower paid work, even if the Wall Street jobs disappear? Or is this just a recycling of the female ‘opt-out revolution’ while the men start their own businesses or get hired by hedge funds?

It has been said that the dot-com boom can be traced back to the recession of the early 90s, which shed so many corporate jobs. All that talent had to go somewhere, and it created an entirely new industry. I would expect something similar to happen now. This supposes, however, that the people leaving finance have the incentives to start something new and enterprising. Where will all that talent go? Hedge funds cannot possibly absorb all the people being sidelined. There will undoubtedly be new ideas and new industries coming from these laid-off brains.

At the same time I wonder: will all these forty and fifty year-old yoga instructors find clients? Will the newly certified teachers find schools? Are there enough insured bad knees out there to absorb all these physiotherapists? I don’t want to think about whether there will be enough horses out there with equine malocclusion

I would like to think that people will seek meaningful work they enjoy. I don’t think that the next new idea will make people as much money; the world is just too competitive (and any new industry or technology is unlikely to be able to create barriers to entry as effectively as old-line Wall Street firms). The rest of us too old to be a part of it may end up working in trades. Maybe this is the beginning of a societal shift; let’s call it The New Humility. We will have to wait to see the shape of this trend, how many of the people downshifting are older, or are women.  I will be awaiting this with interest from my desk at the bank, wondering whether the day will come when I will no longer be reviewing spreadsheets but peering deep into a horse’s mouth.

Lisa Maguire is a financial services executive and aspiring horse dentist based in Stamford, Connecticut.

How did I get HERE?

In Essays on February 14, 2013 at 6:52 am

By Lilly Dimling 

Lilly_DimlingI’m in a schoolyard in the Dominican Republic, surrounded by smiling kids. How did I get HERE?

It was not a straight route, I can tell you that. It had twists and turns that took me after college to live in Washington DC, Ann Arbor, Prague, San Francisco, Beaune (France), and Sydney. You’d think I’m running from the law, but no—I’m just in a constant state of reinvention or perhaps refinement.

Now in my mid-40s, I have three Master’s degrees, and I’m onto my third career. When I kept returning to school, some people asked why I didn’t just go ahead and get a PhD. These people didn’t know me very well—when there’s so much I’m interested in and so many places I want to see, why would I narrow my focus? Instead, over a period of two decades, I’ve followed my drive to learn and to travel. This took me from a job as the International Manager at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to a decade of working in the wine industry…and now it has brought me HERE, to this schoolyard.

I work for a nonprofit started in 2009 called the Global Soap Project. Did you know that 2.8 million bars of soap are thrown out per day in the U.S.? And did you know more than 2.4 million children die each year from hygiene-related illnesses? The single most effective and affordable way to prevent these deaths is hand washing with soap. So, the founder of our organization had an idea. Hotels donate to us their discarded soap headed to the landfill, and we reprocess it into beautiful new bars we deliver to orphans, disaster victims, the chronically poor, and our local homeless. Our vision is of a world in which no one dies because of a lack of access to soap. This is the simple version of what we do. The reality involves partnerships, distribution logistics, behavior modification, hygiene promotion, sustainability planning, monitoring and evaluation. It’s all easier said than done, but the world’s waste can and should be repurposed for good.

Officially my title is Operations Director, but as anyone who has worked in a small organization knows, I wear many hats. I manage the hotel partnerships, I run the volunteer program, I identify soap distribution partners and arrange shipments, I answer the phone and all general inquiries, I post on Facebook and tweet, etc. But the best part of my job is when I get to go in-country and observe our partners distributing soap. I get a tingling feeling and I exhale. Our soap, which has now made it to 28 countries, brings with it hope and dignity as well as health. Soap! Such a simple thing most of us take for granted. I’ve learned from this job to be thankful for what I have. I struggled with that for a long time, always wanting more, anticipating something better up ahead. I now realize that I already have far more than I need.

So, this is where I am–working in water, sanitation and hygiene. HERE can mean Atlanta, Georgia, where our headquarters are—or it can mean any one of the sites we visit. Whatever it means, I know this: I feel intimately involved in international development and global health. And I like it HERE.

Lilly Dimling works as the Operations Director for the Global Soap Project, based in Atlanta, Georgia.