Thursday, February 13, 2014

Little Boxes on the Hillside

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”   Luke 18:16, NIV

The years between ages 11 and 22 were rough.  Fortunately, I had some help from the man upstairs.

As I mentioned in “Christmas 1971,” we moved from Maryland to California right after Christmas.  We moved in with my grandmother and my Aunt Cecelia in Inglewood.  Yes, that Inglewood, where “all the rappers come from” according to one of my friends.

We stayed there for eight months.  All five of us hated L.A.   I missed trees.  In L.A., instead of trees in the highway median strips, the concrete was painted green.

In August we moved back to Maryland.  My dad bought a house in Odenton in a small neighborhood of split level homes that all looked exactly the same.  (“Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky . . .”)

I started at a new school (junior high school, no less) where I did not know anyone.  This didn’t bother me as I was used to that.  I didn’t have any of my school records, however, so I had to take a placement test.

After I took the test, I sat in the guidance counselor’s office to wait for the results.   This was back when computers took up an entire room, so I’m sure the test was graded by hand.  It took all afternoon.

There was another girl my age waiting also.  We started talking and discovered we had a lot in common.  We were both military kids.  She had five kids in her family; I had four.  We talked all afternoon.  Twenty minutes before the end of the day, I got my schedule and went to class.  Ten minutes later, Elaine showed up.  We were close friends from that day on. 

Elaine's family practically adopted me.  Did they know what I was going through? I never told them. Her mother probably guessed although she never said anything to me.  Back then people did not interfere with the way other parents raised their children.

 Instead, I spent most weekends at her house.  Her house was a little box that looked exactly like mine but it had an entirely different vibe because of the marvelous people who lived in it.  They even took me on vacation with them.  It was the first vacation that did not involve staying with relatives.  Her parents rented a house on Lake Owasco in the Finger Lake region of New York. We drove up there in her family's cavernous yellow station wagon, the kind with the "way back" seat.  It was the best vacation I had ever had.  I remember dreading the ride home because it meant I had to go home.  
Elaine's father was a military chaplain.  Her mother was one of the sweetest, most generous people I have ever met.  Both of Elaine’s parents were Christians in the purest sense of the world.   Naturally they took me to church with them.  

I had been to Sunday school a few times before that, but never to church.  My parents were both ex-Catholics who despised the church.   My mother went to a Catholic boarding school as a child, where the nuns tried to make her drink tomato (pronounced "toe-mah-toe") juice because they thought she was puny and needed building up.  How tomato juice was supposed to do that, I have no idea.   

My dad was a different story.  He did go to church with his second wife Doris, but he went in order to drum up business when he sold life insurance.  He later became a Buddhist to please his fourth wife.  He was religious when it suited him.

I found Christ through my friendship with Elaine and her family.  There were two things that got me through my childhood—school and Christ.  I went to school to get away from the house and to get support.  Jesus gave me support of a different kind.  I finished school a long time ago, but I still lean on Jesus. 

Was it a coincidence that Elaine, who was the same age as me, showed up at the same school on the same day and without her school records?   I don’t think so.  God put her and her family in my path to help me manage during those painful years.  

It’s funny how the things we learn as children stay with us through adulthood, both good and bad.  Because I was saved so young, my faith has never wavered.  

You know the coolest thing about faith?  It goes with you wherever you go.  You don’t have to remember to pack it because it’s already inside you.  You can gain or lose weight and it stays intact.  Get married, get divorced, have a baby, become a helicopter pilot, lose your job, whatever.  It’s there.  I pray every day for guidance and support as I work through this crisis. 

I’ve lost touch with Elaine.  Both her parents are dead now.  I miss them all.  Her family gave me the best gift—the gift of faith.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


I once worked for a lawyer who was so wicked that he reportedly withheld his daughter’s cancer treatments in order to coerce his estranged wife into coming back to him.  It worked.

It seems there is at least one of these in every organization, if not every department.   I mean that one person who is so dishonest and unethical, so universally disliked, and yet they always seem to escape repercussions for their abhorrent behavior.   

“Nemesis” was our resident Beelzebub.   Virtually every attorney who had the misfortune of working for or with her went to HR to complain.  One lawyer even quit rather than work for her. 

When I went to HR, the rep said:  “We can’t change her behavior but you can change how you react to her.”   What?  We can’t change her behavior?  Her behavior that so obviously violates the company’s values of “integrity, trust and respect?”   She was a walking ITR violation.  Those words were mocking me again.   How many employees had to complain—or quit—before the company would discipline her?  Or even better, fire her.      

There was a reason why management turned a blind eye to her antics and let her terrorize the minions.  Everyone knew the reason but no one would ever say it out loud.  And I’m not going to either.  Suffice it to say that people like Nemesis do a disservice to those who are truly qualified and deserve their positions.  

On one occasion, I dropped all my normal responsibilities to work on a contract that fell within her area of support.  I did it because I knew I could do it faster, cheaper and better than outside counsel, and in my judgment, that’s what the project needed.    

So I cancelled all my standing appointments with my regular clients, cancelled my regular office day at the Commerce Center, and did not return any of my clients’ phone calls.  I worked only on this contract for the entire week.   It wasn’t easy, either, because the clients kept changing their minds as to what they wanted in the contract.   I turned draft after draft.     

I finished the contract on Friday.  Late that afternoon, one of her minions sent me a message asking me to review a presentation for the sales folks describing the contract.   I politely declined, citing the fact that the contract had not even gone to the supplier and therefore we had no idea what it was going to look like in final form.  I said I thought it was a little early to be preparing a summary deck.   Also, I said I didn’t know anything about sales.  Finally, I pointed out that I needed to get back to my regular clients. 

There’s also the fact that the minion should have read the contract and therefore should have been able to review the deck herself, but I did not point that out to the minion.  Why is it that other people can throw turds over the fence at me, but it’s never the other way around? 

Honestly, I didn’t think it was that big a deal to say no.  Apparently the minion did.  She must have flipped my response to Nemesis because Nemesis responded with a vitriolic message blasting me because I said no.  It had all the usual “you’re not being a team player, blah, blah, blah.”   

I was livid.  I responded with much the same message I had sent to the minion, plus I pointed out that I had taken over another person’s job in addition to my own.  She responded with more insults.  At that point I stopped responding. 

When I went to talk to my boss about it, she didn’t support me at all.  Instead she said I shouldn’t have engaged in the dialogue with Nemesis in the first place.   Thanks for watching my back, boss. 

On Monday, Nemesis came to my office to talk about it.   She seemed to think that all we had to do was hug and everything would be ok.  I told her I had expected to receive a thank you from her, not a slap in the face. 

Her eyes widened in surprise.   “You expect me to thank you for doing your job?” she asked.  

“Yes I do,” I said.  “I think everyone should be thanked for doing their jobs.  People need it and they deserve it.   The fact that you don’t think it’s necessary tells me a lot of things about your character, and none of them are good.”    

She just smiled that Cheshire Cat grin she got when she was about to throw someone under the bus and left my office.  The next day my boss dismissed me from the project.  I know I should have been happy at that point, but I was pissed.  I knew it would eventually come back to bite me.  And it did.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Grease Monkey

The first time I worked in a corporate law department, the GC’s philosophy was that because the law department was a cost center rather than a profit center, the law department had to "add value" by providing a service to the company to justify its existence. 

The commercial lawyers at that company had a saying:  “be a grease monkey, not a monkey wrench.”    Don’t throw roadblocks in front of the business.  Help them accomplish their goals.  After all, if a company doesn’t make and sell products, there’s no company and no law department.   The law department was a service provider.   

This made sense to me, and so I brought this philosophy with me to the new company.  I guess I should have asked more questions about the role of the law department in this company, because apparently I was way off base.

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the major cigarette manufacturers and two industry affiliated organizations.  This was the so-called RICO case.  Then there were thousands of “smoking and health cases” in which individual plaintiffs sued the tobacco companies for the injuries they suffered from smoking.  There were also “lights” cases and cases brought by state attorneys general.  Suffice it to say, there was a boatload of litigation.  Of the roughly 50 lawyers in the department, I think about half worked on litigation. 

I’m not going to divulge any attorney-client confidences in this blog.  You can read all the documents produced in this litigation for yourself at 

The point is that it seemed to me that as a result of all this litigation, the law department took a different view regarding their role than I was used to.   Judging by the way some of the lawyers talked about the business, the role of the law department seemed to be to keep the business out of trouble.  In other words, protect them against themselves.  Not all the lawyers expressed this view, but some certainly did.

I didn’t see things that way.    I thought my job was to help the business folks get their jobs done.  I tried to find ways to help them accomplish their goals within the confines of the company’s policies.   For instance, when they had a new project or idea, I worked with them throughout the project so I could help keep them within the rails, so to speak.   I was an active member of a number of project teams. To tell you the truth, I really liked working on these teams.  I'd rather spend time with my clients than my colleagues.

As a result, in the business I had a great reputation, but inside the law department it was not so good.  I did not agree that the business folks needed to be protected against their own idiocy.  These were not stupid people.  They were smart, hardworking people.  They gave their lives to this company and wanted to do the right thing.   

This clash of attitudes put me at odds with some of my colleagues.  My frustration grew with time, especially when I saw that client satisfaction was not rewarded in the law department.     What do I do, serve my clients or brown-nose the inner circle?   Such a tough choice for me and a no-brainer for some of the others.   You know very well what I did, which is what led me to this place.     

Monday, February 10, 2014

A 41-inch Bust and a Cup of Coffee

Yesterday’s blog was quite intense, so I want to follow it up with something more positive.  Today’s theme is that something good can come from a bad situation.

My parents unwittingly taught me three important lessons.  I decided I would never, ever let a man control me like my dad controlled my mom.  Ironically, I married a man who would never think to do the things my dad did.  But I didn’t know that when I was 12.  At age 12, I decided to become a lawyer, mainly because I figured it would give me the financial security I needed.  I would always be able to earn a good living and take care of myself.   I learned to be self-sufficient and resourceful. 

My parents remarried when I was 17.   (He had another wife in between, but that’s a different saga.)  My father convinced my mother that he had changed, and he did, for a while.  My mother brought her car back with her.  This car meant freedom to her, and she was possessive of it.  Nevertheless, he convinced her to sell it and he bought her a Mercedes station wagon.  My dad made me sew all my own clothes to save money, but he drove a Mercedes from 1967 until the day he died. 

He owned another Mercedes when they got the wagon, but his was older and a stick shift.  He liked the wagon better so he often took it and left my mother with his car.  Problem was my mother did not know how to drive a stick shift.   For some reason, she convinced herself that she could not learn. 

“Get out there and teach yourself how to drive the car,” I would say.  “And if you crash it trying to learn, it will be his fault.  Or I'll show you how.  Or go to a driving school to learn.”

But she would not.  Apparently she would rather curse the darkness than light a single candle.

From this I learned not to set limits on yourself and not to throw roadblocks in your own way. 

I remember having lunch with a girlfriend who had three small children but she really wanted to go back to work.  Not for the money, but for herself.

“What’s stopping you?” I asked.

Well, there was child care expenses, and she could only work part time, and she probably couldn’t make enough money,  blah blah, blah.  Sheput those roadblocks there.  If you want to do something, find a way to do it. 

The third lesson I learned was not to let anything get in the way of my dream.   I had no money to pay for law school.   My dad had promised to pay for it, but of course he didn’t.  So I worked for a year to save some money, took out student loans and got a part time job during school. 

When I first started law school, my then-boyfriend, now husband, asked me if I thought I would finish.

What a stupid question, I thought.  It never occurred to me that I might not finish.   I answered, “Why would I start something if I didn’t think I could finish it?”  

I’m really not that different from anyone else.  I may be smarter than the average person, but intelligence alone is not enough.  I think the difference between success and failure boils down to one thing:  perseverance.   

As Newt Gingrich once said:  Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.”  I’m not crazy about Gingrich, but this quote makes a lot of sense.
I like Jayne Mansfield’s take on perseverance even better:  A 41-inch bust and a lot of perseverance will get you more than a cup of coffee - a lot more.” 

And you know what:  perseverance is going to get me through this dark tunnel. 
Coming up:  Grease Monkey