I sensed something was wrong when my mother took me to Carvel ice cream on a school night and didn’t restrict my calories. “Daddy’s retiring next year,” she said. “How do you feel about us moving to Florida?”
She fanned out six Polaroids of an empty lot located on a canal littered with boats of different sizes. The plan was for the two of us to leave New York that summer. We would live with her Aunt Rose and Uncle Sam in North Miami Beach while our new house was under construction. My dad would join us once he closed his private CPA practice in Manhattan.
“Once we get to Florida, I’m going to buy you a special camera phone so you can see your friends on the other end.” I never thought to question this pre-internet phone invention. Instead I took her at her word and fantasized about a year-round tan, and a pink princess phone to show off said tan to friends left behind in NY. Richard Nixon was the U.S. President. I was ten.
The next nine humid years can’t all be blamed on my mother’s fantasy phone pitch. Moving to South Florida with older parents was not a homerun despite iconic Florida winters, a custom three-level marble sunken shower, and a built-in backyard pool.
For starters, my mother and father were almost the same age as my friend’s grandparents, but not nearly as fun. Instead of insulating myself in a cultural cocoon with kids destined for Yale and Harvard, I was drawn to blue-collar, baggy-rocking, van-driving surfers intrigued with a potty-mouthed New Yorker. My parents were horrified by their spell on me and unapologetically leveraged their parental power. They tried to bully me into socializing with nice Jewish boys like Ben Shaffer. Anyone with a future in medicine, and a home filled with original art.
But I rejected the Ben Shaffers of Hollywood Florida, and rebelled hard.
The grip of my mother’s fury over all-of-the-above hit the Hollywood streets the night she caught me in a lie. I wasn’t hanging out at my girlfriend’s house. It was her bridge playing night and I made the mistake of thinking she had not paid attention to my story about going to Erin’s house in North Miami Beach. Three hours and many cocktails later, she stormed her way into Big Daddy’s Lounge on Johnson Street and found me on the dance floor rocking an elasticized tube top clinging closer to my waist than my chest. I can’t remember the ride home, but will never forget what went down when we got there. Her epic, ‘HOLD ME BACK ALAN,’ was her primal plea to my father to cut off her access to a closet full of shoes and leather belts.
When we weren’t engaged in loud screaming matches and protracted silences, it was clear that their love for me transcended the worst episodes of parent-child turbulence. Half-joking, my parents always said I should put my arguing skills to good use and become a lawyer. Their mantra: “You have so much potential.”
Never questioning their why, but resisting their old-school messaging, a la “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” I eventually got on board and internalized their expectations to do something with my life.
I was a divided daughter when my mother leaned on me for support. One minute I was the problem child who drove her to therapy, and the next I was “Lisa sweetie”, dispenser of compassionate insights she clung to. Friends and family turned to me for relationship advice that wasn’t judgy.
She struggled daily to deal with her only son’s ten-year disappearance from her life, with no communication, while he was doing god-knows-what in Truckee, California. My older brother’s departure hijacked my mother’s emotions and hurt her deeply, but it also softened her edges and made her appreciate me more. I hurt for her deep down, but it felt good to be needed and acknowledged for a natural gift that actually helped people, and didn’t involve lying, blowing smoke rings, or doing tequila shots at a water fountain.
I considered family/marital therapy as a possible career calling, and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in psychology. However, I’ve never been one to dive head first into anything but relationships so I put graduate school on the back burner and half-assed it though a paralegal program, mainly to law-library stalk a handsome Jewish Canadian law student I fell for on a blind date.
With one month to go before paralegal school graduation, I met the one on a long distance blind phone date. Wayne’s velvet-jazz-disc-jockey voice was sexy; he was Jewish, but not too Jewishy, the meaning of which I can’t quite articulate. Like my dad, he was a CPA. Only Wayne was about to take over his father’s established diamond business in Virginia. If that didn’t make him a rare catch, he sounded cool and loved jazz, Eric Clapton and Paul Simon intensely, and he didn’t charm me, but instead made me feel that he waited his whole life to find me.
Anyone who was around before computers and hookups gets why this story gives us serious cred with millennials. Wayne and I had an instant long-distance love connection. Three months of expensive long distance phone bills was all it took for him to talk me into packing up my Mazda 626, say goodbye to my soft-eyed parents, and drive from Miami to Virginia Beach to test our relationship.
Husband Wayne and I were two years into married life when I landed an estate paralegal job for a tax attorney. Despite being a CPA’s wife, daughter and Stacy Lauren Smith CPA’s best friend, I had zero accounting aptitude. Operating under the delusion that law school was in my future, I powered through, spending days botching wills and trusts for my boss, a petite partner in a very prestigious firm. Nothing about this job and its big numbers was a good fit. Back in college my roommate had to balance my $200 checking account, yet here I was working for this ambitious lawyer who took a chance on me, and entrusted me to reconcile complex accountings for Virginia Beach’s most asset-heavy clients.
My inertia to pivot and find something more suited to my wheelhouse was remarkable, and second only to my boss’s unwillingness to pull the plug and end our mutual suffering. Whatever your 2019 brain thinks of the wisdom behind ‘finding your passion’ is beside the point. In this pre-Seinfeld era, passion was associated with sex and fruit drinks. The engine driving a majority of career choices was security, parental influence, or default, and factors less connected to by deep desire.
Craving the rush I got shocking Virginians with my unfiltered Amy Schumer wit, I spent less time at my desk working and more time in the lobby schmoozing clients, or wandering through the office, flirting with male attorneys, some of whom welcomed the distraction. As a paralegal hired to reduce her boss’s stress and workload, I was the wrong drug coupled with an infinite list of possible adverse side effects. You read this all the time. Celebs like Sarah Silverman and Amy or even Oprah describe the worst job they ever had. You wonder how the hell they got there.
This is how I got out.
Two tickets: Boss Jana and HR Robin.
HR Robin called me into her office and read from the file on her desk:
“…unsatisfactory…performance…immediate…termination…exceptional verbal skills… an engaging personality. Lisa needs to find a more creative environment like marketing and PR.”
Getting fired is always a shocker, even if it’s an answer to a prayer. But if anyone knew how to ‘fire with benefits,’ it was my Boss Jana.
After I packed my personal belongings, Jana approached. We rode 18 floors down to the lobby and walked through the parking lot to my car. I remember very tall trees in the background and some bagel place.
“Lisa, I know you think you should go to law school, but is that what you really want? I think you’re just trying to please your parents…I see you doing something more creative… something in marketing and public relations.”
I didn’t know what to make of free career coaching from a boss whose estate work I fucked up for two years. Who knew what was lurking inside someone choked by frustration, and buttoned up tight like a Brooks Brothers shirt and blazer?
Jana and I were reunited years later at a funeral for a woman who was tragically killed by her son. I never told her that her parting gift helped me find my writing voice, and that I became a published essayist, journalist and advertising copywriter. A funeral this horrific just wasn’t the place to gush with gratitude to the godmother of compassionate termination. Jana’s official termination message put me on a path forward which resulted in recognition as a standout writer in the eyes of my Washington Post editor, and possibly millions of readers, for the lovingly irreverent essay I wrote about my dying father.
“What can I say,” Jana said. “You were the best interviewee I ever had. And thanks to you I learned never to hire a paralegal who doesn’t reconcile her own checking account.”
So why am I dredging something that happened like 20+ years ago?
Jana was ahead of her time. She was willing to see something in me that nobody else did and tell me what she saw. Isn’t it crazy that I sucked at my job and could still qualify for this entitlement?
Why don’t more people should take the time to see and compliment other people’s hidden gifts? I’m talking about any occasion, not just termination. Is there ever a bad time to say to an employee, co-worker or friend, “Did you know that you’re really good at X and have you ever tried Y?”
Wayne and I co-own a specialty coffee shop. Baristas come and go, but we offer more than just a place to pull espresso shots while millennials go to college or figure out their next move. Just recently, Wayne, a CFO, was forced to fire someone who had trouble keeping up with orders when we got slammed. On the plus side, she was consistently amazing with people and had great gusto for the job. She made everyone feel happy (except when she messed up their drinks!) Though coaching didn’t help with the focus issue, and we had to let her go, she left knowing her enthusiasm was infectious. We brainstormed future jobs with her and made introductions on her behalf.
Channeling Jana, I recently worked with another barista who stepped up to a new leadership role at a critical time. She surprised us with her commitment to a new food product launch. I stepped out of my owner’s role and walked her through a conversation with Wayne to leverage her contribution into a promotion. She has a completely different take on difficult conversations and the courage to initiate them at work and home. Coaching someone to find their lane, and stay in it, has a magical effect.
Being open to Jana’s Termination Turnaround model should be the gold standard, but I guess it just depends on the company and its people. From an industrial psychology standpoint, anything you do to invest in someone’s growth and fulfillment is smart business and pure magic. Millennials are all over the self-awareness spectrum, but if the ones I work with are anything like I was at their age, chances are good they’ve paid more attention to perceived weaknesses and skills on the surface, and overlooked the richer stuff down deep.
Hiring the wrong person is costly. Not firing them can be deadly. And firing with benefits is the first step to an epic turnaround story.