Twenty-five years after graduating business school, Sheila was between jobs. She had left one job to take another. But there was some sort of delay in when her new job would start. So, she did something she hadn’t done since graduation. She took a vacation. Not that Sheila could not have taken a vacation before. She just couldn’t get herself to do it. As she would readily admit, during much of her business career, she had been a bit of a workaholic and very much a control freak. And an anxiety junkie. “No one can figure out how to do my job. So, if I take time off, there’s just going to be double work and a big hassle when I get back. It’s just not worth it. And, anyway, I’d just worry all the time.” But somehow, being between jobs, things seemed different. So, after sitting around her apartment for two days, she packed a bag, got a cab, headed for the airport, and grabbed the first plane she could to San Francisco. Why San Francisco? Sheila had no idea. Her friend, Christine, had been there and had what she called an “interesting time.” Sheila wasn’t sure what Christine’s “interesting time” might have been. Christine had always struck her as a bit odd and. anyway, didn’t seem too keen to explain. It turned out that Sheila had a terrific time in San Francisco. Not that she did anything much except wander and just look around. Sheila was like an invisible, visiting Martian, looking but not really touching. And after three weeks, she headed home, called her new job and told them that she needed to start as soon as possible. She had had about all the vacation she could stand. Or so she thought. Six months in to her new job, she quit. And, when they asked whether she was going to another company, she said, “No. Not going anywhere else. Nope. Nowhere else.” Everyone told her she was nuts. She had a great job. They loved her at her new company. And quitting seemed so self-destructive and out-of-character for her. Her friends and her human resource director pointed out, if you leave a job after six months, there’s no severance or anything. And it’s something hard to explain to anyone who might think about hiring you in the future. Her boss suggested that she take a couple of weeks off, get a physical, maybe see a therapist, and come back to start again. And like everyone else, her boss, who was genuinely concerned, asked, “What are you going to do?” But Sheila knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going on vacation. This time for good. Over the years, she had built up a decent pile of money. She had no obligations. No family. She did some figuring and budgeting and realized that she really didn’t need to work anymore, if she didn’t want to work anymore. And she didn’t. First off, she went to France. Paris. She liked it. She did pretty much what she’d done in San Francisco. She wandered around. Talked to hardly anyone. Came back three weeks later. Headed to Houston. Left after two weeks. Then, she went to Montreal. She met a man there. Stayed for two months. That, Sheila would agree, was “interesting.” But unusual for her. And never repeated. For the most part, wherever she went, she remained an invisible, visiting Martian, just wandering and looking. One vacation after another. But on one trip – her last trip, it turned out – something happened. She wouldn’t say what. But when she got back, she bought a house in a small town in Vermont. It was a sight-unseen, all cash sale. Locals thought her, “Friendly enough but not very talky.” After a while, she got to be known as the “flower lady,” because every spring and all through the summer and early fall she would wander around collecting wildflowers in an old basket. And then, one day, they didn’t see her for a while. Eventually, they found her and her basket where she had sat down to rest during one of her flower-gathering walks. Her eyes were closed. Done with wandering and looking.
Jane can be a rough customer. She has a clear idea of what she wants for her magazine’s style and look. And she drives hard to get it. The results, so far, have been good. Subscriptions and advertising revenue are up dramatically since she came on board. When asked about this, she credits the magazine’s editor and publisher. She claims that her “vision” is merely a reflection of theirs. But everyone involved agrees; Jane is something special. Before becoming the art director of what had been a respected but slowly sinking magazine, Jane had been a successful advertising executive, making significant contribution to her agency’s bottom line. She did not do that by being a smooth talker. She was often brutally honest and challenging in creative and client meetings. But also, compellingly persuasive. The main thing is she knew how to develop an idea and to put together a creative team that delivered the goods. But just when things were going really well, Jane quit. She was going to be a movie producer. The few people who knew her well weren’t too surprised. Jane always a little restless, always looking for something more exciting. She admitted then and admits today, it was a crazy idea. It started out poorly and seemed headed toward getting worse much sooner than later. So, it was lucky that the magazine job happened when it did. At the time, she was at the edge of being middle-aged and was beginning to realize that she was no longer as rough-and-tough as she was when she started out. She had obligations, a family, a mortgage. Most important though, she concluded that being a magazine art director is who she is. Which is funny because, starting out, it would have been the last job she could have imagined for herself. But she’s good at it and has a lot of fun doing it. It also happens to be a world away from what she was growing up. Back then, her name was Simcha. She was an only child of a deeply religious, immigrant family. Her father owned a small dry-cleaning shop and did a bit of tailoring. Her mother was a housewife. Neither knew a lot of English. Their hope for their daughter – maybe to marry an accountant or, if she got lucky, a dentist. “Dentists do very well, Simcha. Don’t forget that.” They were thinking a nice house near a synagogue and grandchildren. Simcha was not thinking that way at all. By the time she was fourteen, she was running a typing service for her classmates and saving for college. Her parents did not think much of this idea. Neither had finished high school, her father to go to work, her mother to take care of her own mother. “Men don’t marry women who are too smart,” her mother said. Her father agreed. “Get your head out of the clouds, Simcha. This college business is not for you.” Simcha finished high school near the top of her class, started a business services company, and began taking courses at a local junior college. She did very well. Two years later, she got a full scholarship to one of the best colleges in the country, sold her business services company for more money than her father made in a decade, and – after finishing her college coursework ahead of schedule –graduated at the top of her college class and got into advertising. Five years after that, she married Forrest Slocum and her first name wasn’t Simcha anymore; it was “Jane.” Her parents did not go to the wedding. Later on, they didn’t want to see Jane’s first child, a boy. Or her second. They knew she worked at some kind of business in a “fancy office with fancy people, doing who knows what?” They never met her husband and, anyway, didn’t think much of him. “Some husband he must be if his wife has to work. Some lazy bum.” On the job, Jane is all business. So, you wouldn’t think she’d care about what her parents thought. But it kills her. She knocked herself out to get away from their world. But now tries to bring them into hers. Or, at least, to share her life with them. It’s finally beginning to dawn on her, though, it’s a waste of time. “You are dead to us. You wouldn’t listen. And it won’t end up good, what you are doing. This I know.” That was the last conversation Jane ever had with her mother. Her father hasn’t answered the phone in years. Now that the kids are older, Jane figures, she’ll have to sit them down and do some explaining.
Mickey is a man with very strongly held viewpoints. He sees the world as divided between either the avaricious and dishonest and the virtuous and honest. This often conflicts directly with how he sees his role as a journalist: as a discoverer and teller of truth. Fact and strongly held viewpoints do not always mix. He deals with that conflict in a variety of ways, many of which he admits are pretty funny. He is given to long screeds delivered to friends who have heard it all before and get a laugh by egging Mickey on. Another is writing long opinion pieces in a blog that he writes under the pseudonym “Mischa Winer.” And finally, he writes occasional food articles and restaurant reviews, pastimes that led Mickey in very surprising directions, the first to a bestseller, the second to a cult following on the internet. Mickey started writing the food articles as a joke. He would take a well-known recipe and attempt to reproduce it at home in his apartment’s cramped kitchen. Quiche Lorraine is one of the first. The results were rarely good – especially in the first couple of attempts – leading him to write about “Kitchen Catastrophes,” why things went so wrong, and how to fix them. After doing this for a year or two, he bundled a bunch of these adventures together and sent them off to a book editor who when nuts, worked out a book deal, and was astounded at the result. Mickey always wanted a bestseller, but one about some burning issue of the day, not about burned food. But suddenly, there was Mickey doing book tours and television interviews. His tiny kitchen became a shrine for weekend cooks until Mickey’s wife had enough and insisted they move to a bigger, better place. The restaurant reviews were almost as successful. Mickey focused on the pretensions of “big deal” restaurants and made fun of them. At first, the restaurants screamed calling Mickey all sorts of names. But they noticed that when Mickey did a number on them, business got even better. So, they started buying advertising on his podcast, giving Mickey a significant income stream. The trouble in all this is Mickey is becoming just the sort of person that he would do screeds about. Self-satisfied, avaricious, and not always as honest as he would like. In a word, it is hampering his ability to be the kind of journalist he had hoped to be. That makes him angry. And so, he does screeds about that, providing great entertainment for all his close friends. Still, he has to admit, it isn’t such a bad life. He has a bigger and fancier kitchen now. He cooks more too, pastries and breads as well as main dishes. And so, the kitchen calamities keep coming, one after another. He’s now compiling some of them into a new book. And he still does an occasional restaurant review although not with the same verve as before. He’s gotten to know some of the restaurant owners and chefs he once mocked with such sanctimonious glee. And some are now good friends. So now, Mickey is looking for new targets. He’s thought about politicians but decided they are too easy a target and there are too many political writers anyway. But lately he’s been visiting high-end art galleries and having fun.
Daisy has a smooth-as-glass façade. She works hard at it. She spends hours on her appearance. Has her hair cut and styled at a chic boutique. Wears designer clothes. Works out and eats an almost starvation, mostly vegetarian diet; meditates religiously; and is very careful about her personal hygiene. She turns up at the hottest clubs, is always in attendance at every major social event. She is also highly organized and very good at her job which is talking knowledgably about contemporary art and selling very expensive artwork to very rich collectors. Don’t let Daisy’s air of sophistication, her apparent self-assurance, or her social skills fool you. And very definitely don’t let her very busy social life lead you to the wrong conclusion. At 28, she has, until two months ago, lived at home with her divorced mother. While she will greet you with apparent pleasure, give you a sparkly big smile and a hug, it is all a ruse. She is terrified of strangers and, in particular, of men she finds attractive. And, for that matter, she is terrified of women she finds attractive as well. She wishes it were somehow different. As she reluctantly admits after glass or three of Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, her “real” life feels empty. She does not have and, in truth, never has had anything more than a superficial relationship with anyone. And it has to be said, she makes sure it stays that way. Her dates are invariably gay, charming and fun but social props. Or they are self-absorbed hustlers – men who she quite rightly observes are only interested in one thing: “Scoring Miss Daisy.” Or much older men, usually family friends. When she is with girlfriends, she complains bitterly about not finding “the right guy” or about how all men are such pigs. She got that last line from her mother who, after fleeing a marriage to a well-connected but alcoholic man, let herself go for years, cloistering herself and Daisy in a dark house, licking her wounds and filling Daisy with warnings about getting too close to others. So, leaving home for college was a shock, sometimes plain scary, for Daisy. That’s when she developed her smooth-as-glass façade. Always charming and warm, but distant. Her way to take part in the world but to avoid any real involvement in it. And up until recently it worked pretty well. That is until her mother turned everything upside down by getting over her anger and bitterness, fixing herself up, getting out of the house, taking art lessons, and meeting Charlie. He’s fifteen years younger than Daisy’s mother, A polite, thoughtful, and helpful man. A fair tennis player. A moderately successful realtor. Not bad looking either. When Daisy’s mother told her what was up, Daisy went a little nut. It didn’t help that when Daisy’s initial reaction was speechless shock, her mother laughed. “What’s the big deal, Daisy? I’m still young and Charlie is hot.” The next day Daisy said to herself, “Time to move out and get a place of my own.” When she told her mother about her decision, her mother said, “About time.” Charlie, being a realtor and helpful by inclination, found her a great place. She’s worked hard to decorate it in a style that reflects how she wants to be seen. When she isn’t off to some social event, Daisy comes home, makes a few calls to clients in other time zones, reads professional art periodicals, and sits on her post-modern couch waiting for something to happen, what she cannot imagine.
“This has got to be one of the worst jobs in the world.” That’s what Roger, Herman’s cousin concluded after Herman described what he did for a living. “It’s just a lot of crazy people and spending time and effort trying to do stuff that ain’t never going to happen.” To which Herman kind of smiled with half-closed eyes and whispered, “Yup.” Herman reacted that way to a lot of things. It was easier that way. Herman is a big guy, one of those people who doesn’t say much and who seem to be somewhere else a lot of the time. Anyway, that conversation was five years ago. Herman hasn’t seen Roger since because their talk happened about a week before it all went off the rails. Back then, Herman was Director of a 50-person regional planning department for a large midwestern state. His department dealt with issues like the location of a new shopping center, the impact of diverting a small creek on a wetland area. Or evaluating the effect of a new public works project on traffic flow. He got the job through political connections. And it suited him. He never got rattled when people got all hot and bothered, screaming and yelling, threatening law suits, or worse during planning meetings or public hearings. And within his department, he was a respected leader. Things could get stressful but the job was secure enough and if it didn’t pay all that well, there were a lot of benefits. He had a nice home, a wife, and two kids. In his community, he was somebody. But the thing about Herman is that while he might seem to be somewhere else when you talk with him, he really is in a way. That’s because, deep down, he sees himself as a complete fraud, his whole career built on good luck and deception. Others in his department had advanced degrees in economics, design, sociology and urban planning. There’s even a Ph.D. in anthropology. They deserved to be there. A Physical Education major in college, Herman never took a course in regional planning or anything related to it. He didn’t graduate either. Flunked out. Herman got his job through his childhood friendship with his state’s governor and on his ability to get on with people. His previous jobs were in sales. As he saw it, he was nothing but a faker and glad-hander. A pretender. And he went through every day fully expecting to be exposed and chased out of the building. So, when some irregularities in his expense accounts and a few ill-considered acceptances of gifts – including a paid vacation for his family – came to light, he figured his best bet was to resign before he became an embarrassment. Which he did. And which led him into a deep depression. He couldn’t see his way forward. He couldn’t see himself going back to selling stuff. And he expected that his career in regional planning was over. He was terrified. Even suicidal. But a few weeks after he resigned, he got a phone call. It was from a large, highly respected architectural and urban planning consulting firm. They needed a front man, someone who knew how to attract and manage clients. They had their eye on him for years. They knew all about him and his background. It took a big chunk of his adult life, but, right then and there, Herman was beginning to understand that if he were a fraud, at least he was good at it.
“The stuff I have to put up with, you wouldn’t believe.” Abe always says that when anyone asks him how things are going. But he has to admit that things aren’t all that bad. Business is better than ever. The store is in the middle of a community of Orthodox Jews and there is only one other kosher butcher shop nearby. And it’s run by an old friend. They don’t really compete. As they see it, their job is to work together, to make sure that everyone gets what they need. And his clientele is growing, not just because there seems to be more and more observant Jews in his area but because non-observant Jews and even people from other faiths like the quality that Abe delivers. Of course, there are a lot of rules to follow. And the rabbis that Abe hires to certify his merchandise have – each in his own way – been more than a little annoying. There are also a few customers Abe could do without. As Abe says, “The stuff I have to put up with, you wouldn’t believe.” And that includes his personal life. He just wishes it could be a bit pleasanter. His wife left him five years ago. One day, he found a note: “I don’t like you, never have. And you smell funny.” She just moved out and disappeared. No forwarding address. Apparently, she planned the whole thing well in advance. Abe was in a daze for months. “Smell funny? What the hell. She knew I was a butcher when she married me.” It wasn’t as though he didn’t have opportunities with other women if he wanted. But, after the “smell funny” comment, he wasn’t taking any chances. And anyway, his wife left without divorcing him so it’s not as if he could marry again so easily. And about anything else, Abe has strong views. “Fooling around. Not for me.” Dealing with the kids is no picnic either. Neither son had wanted to go into business with him. Or to be part of the community they grew up in. One, Alvin, got interested in science when he was in junior high school. Abe hoped he would go into dentistry. But not Alvin. A physicist! He went away to college, graduated cum laude, got advanced degrees, and then took a job in a very fancy laboratory. He met and married a woman – not Jewish – while on a fellowship in Ireland. A nice lady, Abe says, but says he can’t understand anything she says. The other boy is in television, does the news for a network in New York. He married another TV person, a gal from Iowa of all places. Also not Jewish. Her name is Paige. Very tall. Very skinny. Abe always asks, “What kind of name is Paige?” It’s his idea of a joke. Abe doesn’t make a fuss about his grandkids not being brought up Jewish. What’s the point? And he doesn’t make too much of a fuss that both of his boys and their wives seem more than a little embarrassed by him. When the topic comes up, all he’ll say is, “Too bad! I am who I am.” A long time ago, he decided there’s no point worrying about what you can’t do anything about. At the end of a long day in the store, Abe usually gets home, flops down in a chair, takes off his shoes, and has a Scotch and a slice or two of salami. Then, he’ll watch his son do the news on television while eating dinner. And, before bed, he always takes a long shower. So he won’t smell funny.