They Say It’s Your Birthday

Yep, I do. I’m forty-eight years new today and consider that, on balance, I now spend only about twenty-five percent of my time being naive and neurotic as my second greatest accomplishment after my son. If you read this blog (and if you don’t, well, you’re already here so you’d may as well) you know that I’ve parted with my expensive things, moved to a village in Wales and have generally rediscovered what it’s like to simply not give a damn, and it’s lovely. It’s so lovely, in fact, that I have a difficult time getting fired up enough to find topics about which I am passionate enough to write. Maybe this is what Eminem meant when he said that once his struggles were over, his creativity deserted him. Now that I’m not part of the stress-hewn populace of the never-ending marathon to who can be most frayed in the good ole U S of A, I’m just not that pissed off anymore. About anything. So yes, Em, bro – I got you. We’re just alike, you and I. Well, except for the upbringing, addictions, crazy mom and misogynist lyrics. But the loss of good material and the pale skin thing I can totally relate to. We must at least both share an almost constant need for SPF 50. But I digress.

As I sneak up on fifty from behind and hope that it does not notice that I have somehow managed to go so far untouched by things most others suffer from age, I have chosen to do so in a way so as not to anger the gods that have allowed me to remain largely preserved, and I have also become more reflective. I’ve thought a lot lately about how I ended up this way; here, metaphorically and practically, in this space metaphysically and in Wales geographically and how it is that I managed to survive given how many people I’ve pissed off along the way. You see, if it weren’t my birthday this entry would instead be entitled, “Parents, Teach Your Children Well,” except that it would be a caveat emptor to doing so too well, as my parents did. My parents = two of the most decent, honest, hard-working people who ever lived. Period. But they were also, I’m afraid, incredibly naive, and in bringing my sis and me up with certain beliefs or standards, also set us up to be almost constantly at odds with something or someone or the universe at large. So as I scrape the bottom of nearing fifty, it occurs to me that an alternative parenting guide might have just made my life a bit easier, made me a bit more patient and calm, and would have kept me from being able to anger people who otherwise have the temporal constitution of the Dalai Lama himself.

Revised Parenting Lesson 1:

My parents, for example, when it came to honesty and hard work repeated such trite phrases as “it doesn’t matter what you do, do it better than anyone else.” Or, “as long as you work hard and do your best at whatever you choose, life will take care of you and we will be proud.” And then there was “take pride in your work and be sure you know your job better than anyone else.” Or the most often conflated and abused, “hard work pays.”

This is why I am good at what I do; I do work hard and I do try to ensure that I know more about my given field than anyone else, or at least better than the clients who pay me their hard-earned money to instill upon them skills they do not themselves possess. It is also why I, almost daily, want to reach through a phone line or across a sales counter and strangle customer service representatives at almost any number of companies. Because I know an increasingly astonishing amount more their goods or services than they do, and I also seem to care more despite being their customer rather than someone who is – I don’t know – paid to work for and ‘service’ the needs of said company’s clients. So no, mom and dad, other children were not taught the same standards we had instilled in us by you and if you really wanted to help us, you would’ve said, “hard work pays, but there are also lots of idiots out there and the real world is a minefield of laziness and willful ignorance wherein yes, you will excel, but only because your competition is so entirely unprepared, uninformed and stoned on sugary treats their parents let them have but of which we deprived you in place of spinach which made your neurons super-connected and has made you this hyper-efficient nerd ball of excellence. But you also be occasionally tripped up, blown off course or even blown to bits by one of these idiot-mines, so never go anywhere without your bullshit repelling flack-jacket. And a really good and loyal attorney.” But they didn’t, so here I am. Warning you to do so for yours.

Revised Parenting Lesson 2:

“You can be literally anything you want to be. We’ll support you.” Or “dreams do come true, especially with hard work, so dream big. You can achieve whatever your heart desires.”

I was brought up by a strange combination of Gilligan’s Island, I Love Lucy, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island. All entirely wholesome shows which alternately showcased fantasy, travel, glamor, fashion, style, beautiful people, exotic locales, the trappings of wealth and more. They were also, of course, all entirely fiction. Something our parents might have done well to have pointed out. Because you see, when you’re born a redhead fireball with a predisposition for mischief and a high IQ and then your parents layer in the “you can achieve whatever you can dream,” and top it off with a daily dose of aforementioned TV shows, you’re destined to be just a little bit, well, high-spirited.

My sis can recall my greatest hits better than I, but that’s possibly because they typically also happen to be my more embarrassing exploits and she has a special reserve in her gray matter for those. I’ll let her contribute her list and save that entry for another day, but suffice it to say that believing life is a great big bowl of cherries each ripe for the picking has led me to more than one catastrophe in my life. But why should that be? I’ve lived in four countries, traveled to more than thirty, made disgusting amounts of money, dated a prince (true – sorry. A lesser prince of a smaller country, if that makes it better), speak three languages, crushed the MENSA test at seven (though they don’t let you in until you’re ten, bastards), met countless leaders, both elected and military, in the US and elsewhere, could both charm a snake and piss off Jesus.

So I’ve had a great life, right? Well, I’ve certainly led an interesting one because you see, no one really wants you to have all of that. No one really wants the smart girl to also be pretty, the pretty one to also be brilliant, the pretty, brilliant one to also be from a stable, loving family who brought her up with good values. Or the pretty, brilliant, stable, loving one to also be able to make her own money and pave her own way. No, we want someone who appears to have all of that, but who actually has three nipples or seventeen personalities- one of which is named Dawn the Psychedelic Dancing Mule – a secret knife collection and an unhealthy bloodlust, daddy issues, a closet full of creepy dolls or – better yet – some horrifying combination of all of the above.

That’s why our society is so obsessed with celebrity in whatever form it takes; reality, politicians, sports figures or whoever. We don’t want to idolize them; we are waiting with drool covered chins for their inevitable demise. So why would anyone ever want to aspire to anything if their only inevitable fate is to be knocked down by a baying mob? I have the scars of the battle from having believed the myth that you can really be everything you want, go anywhere you please, achieve anything you desire, and I will need at least a few more years to figure out if what I have been put through, as a result, was really worth it. What I can tell  you as I sit here at forty-eight, though, is that I am still today looked at skeptically by others, with a persistent air of, “well there must be something wrong, right?” And all it does is make me wish I did have the knife collection or at least the creepy dolls.

Revised Parenting Lesson 3:

It is still very much a man’s world. And to teach your little girls anything different would be to do them a great disservice.

Our dad bought us quad bikes and go karts, provided every sporting lesson a kid could want and generally led us to – or at least let us – believe that the world would be no different for us than it was for him. He did it with the purest of intentions and most kind of hearts, God rest his soul. But it did us few favors.

I refer frequently to the fact that I have spent my life and career working in ad agencies of various stripes and if you want to see where misogyny goes to not only survive but thrive and breed, one need look no further than this untouched last bastion of all that is wrong with workplace norms. I wrote the below excerpt a while back about one of the many men I have encountered in the places I’ve worked, and it is entirely true.

“A few agencies ago I worked under a man who had and still has absolutely zero idea about digital. Which would be fine were his title not SVP of Digital. He was and is the most full of crap individual that whatever god you believe in ever wasted time creating. If he was, in fact, a vessel of any god; I have often thought just the opposite. But my heavens can he talk: about golf, about women (too much, in fact, openly and about really young ones for a “happily married” executive of 50); about himself when he used to be a serial drunk. He ran up the company Amex to as high as $23K a month doodling all over the country and then making up reasons for the trip after the fact when the expense reports and receipts were due. He also had the card “compromised” on more than one occasion. On porn sites. I know that’s exactly where I use my personal Amex, never mind the company one. Several serious, large clients absolutely despised him and asked that he never be invited to another meeting; others – usually clients led by women who didn’t know enough to challenge him and who lapped up the attention – welcomed and cooed at the very sight of him. But they were small money; little potatoes.

Yet since I left he has been made not only a partner but an equity partner. Why? Because he was on the “inside,” one of the boys. But more importantly, he’s a man, a buddy, a non-threatening ally to the extremely insecure CEO who knows even less about digital and almost nothing about advertising. He tells him exactly what he wants to hear, hangs on his every word, tells him his horrible ideas are platinum, and never, ever says anything negative in his presence. He is to this CEO what Dr. Conrad was to Michael Jackson. But perhaps my favorite part of this tale is that if this agency had done background checks (and I’m sorry, but who doesn’t since like 2004) when he was hired they would have found a criminal history of DUI, reckless driving and other various and sundry items strewn across three states, and if they had really checked his references, would’ve found out what he did to the company finances at the employer immediately preceding this one. But they didn’t and they won’t because they don’t want to know. They are all “happy” in back-slapping bro-land and that is all that matters. For now, at least.”

He has Christmas dinner with the CEO; I was told not to look the CEO directly in the eye or speak to him unsolicited if I passed him in the hallway. Yet I handled and substantially grew the largest client in the entire agency. If I – or any woman – were as inept, inappropriate or guilty as the SVP in question, we would’ve been frog-marched from the building and an all-company email laden with passive-aggressive innuendo would’ve been circulated immediately thereafter. You know the type: “we appreciate her efforts, but…” Or, “circumstances have recently come to light about…”

And no, this isn’t the worst example I could come up with; far from it. It’s just that many of the others are so horrific I refuse to remind myself of them on my birthday. Or any day, really. Years of yoga, running, and bourbon were invested in my ability to forget and I will not digress or regress now. Anyway, I’ve had men send me unsolicited photos of their junk, show up at my hotel room door (after having their secretary book me into their same hotel so we could “meet” about important worky type stuff), and I’ve even had one entirely male-dominated company boss impose upon our mutual bank to call in my credit line because I would not relent in selling my business to them. Of course, the banker in question was also a man and yes, he complied.

I’ve known two men at recent agencies who are both diagnosed with very specific mental or behavioral issues and are prescribed medicine for such. They each display, on occasion, outbursts that would not be out of place in scenes from Anger Management or Fifty First Dates, but they get away with it because they “contribute.” Really? In my first ten months at one agency, I increased the largest client’s revenue – my client, and only my client – by twenty-three percent, which might not be a big deal if the client weren’t already spending over ninety-five million. Yet if I so much as complained about not getting my expenses reimbursed on time, I was called “emotional.”

The truth, parents of girls, is that we have to work ten times harder, keep our mouths shut, dress like Hillary Pantsuit Clinton, look like Hillary Pantsuit Clinton, and never, ever express an opinion if we want to just be left alone. But who really wants to aspire – or wants to raise their child to aspire – to just being “left alone.”

* * * *

So how do I cope? Well, you see, the underpinning of this all is that my parents did do an extraordinary job; I am one of the most frighteningly tough people one could ever hope to encounter. I also have the most remarkable family with which a person could ever be blessed, as well as the same best friend since I was a child. And for all of that, today, I am more thankful than I could be for any other gift.

But there is a trade off. Send your children into the world to conquer, challenge, frustrate, tear down and trailblaze as long as you’re there for the inevitable fallout; to be their safety net. Tell them to dream big, work hard, that women and men are equal, but temper it with reality and be prepared for the eventual disappointments. Tell them no one is perfect, everyone is weird, and everyone fails. Tell them that comparing themselves to others is the beginning of the end. And tell them to write, express, get it all out, one way or another. Because that’s the final lesson I’ve learned and about which I’ve written frequently: creativity is no longer the vaunted pursuit it once was during the most enlightened periods of history. It is too often instead seen as an eccentricity, a fault, a sign of weakness or illness. What it is, though, is entirely freeing. It’s acknowledging a dimension within us that was put there to digest, order, and make sense of it all, and which needs to manifest itself so that we may go forward. It’s the pressure valve on the proverbial teapot of life. And long may it whistle.

One thought on “They Say It’s Your Birthday

  1. Happy Birthday brilliant red head. I’m not quite sure how I happened upon your writings, but I certainly enjoy them. Glad you could exit that treadmill.
    God Bless.

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