Pour myself a cup of ambition

So I turned 40. I didn’t write as much about that, not even on Twitter, as I expected I might, mostly because thanks to my wife I completely achieved (overachieved) at my twin goals of distracting myself as much as possible and also surrounding myself with people who have loved me for so long and through so much that it was difficult, even for me, to forget what an accomplishment that is in and of itself. I am terrible at not treating birthdays, anniversaries and New Years as annual opportunities to harshly grade myself — so clearly getting through 40 without spiraling into any significant self-criticism means I’m completely grown up now and have nothing left to learn.

One great and unexpected gift landed on my desk the day I finally dragged myself back to work: the #ShanaTop40, a 3-CD compilation of the biggest hits of my lifetime, commemorated in a format that Meredith was also smart/kind/brutal enough to remind me I was alive for both the birth and relative death of. (It’s also available on Spotify, which is helpful because while my car still has a CD player, none of my laptops do.)

The #ShanaTop40 is fucking amazing, especially when played on the evening commute at top volume with the sunroof open. The drive home from work is a better barometer of my current mental health than any questionnaire could be. It’s how I coined the term crommuting, which (obviously) means the kind of driving home from work you do where whether you want to or not, whether you can articulate why or not, you basically navigate traffic through a cloud of crying. Sometimes it’s mere exhaustion. I genuinely love what I do, but being a boss lady is hard work (as it should be — the day managing people is easy is probably the day I should stop, because it will likely mean I’ve forgotten the essential work required to be human). Sometimes it’s much shittier than that. One pledge I’ve made at 40 is to stop calling the sexist bullshit that still simmers under the surface at pretty much every workplace by any nicer name.

I have a glass office. Nearly everyone on my staff has at some point come in and cried there. I’ve done my best to comfort and reassure each one that I 100 percent truly never will hold against them the way we — women, especially — just sometimes leak all our overwhelmedness out of our eyes. But I can count on one hand the number of times I haven’t held that in myself — until I got into the car for the drive home. My commute is a lot shorter now than it has been at other times, but I’m still usually a bit more settled by the time I pull up at the house. Crommute accomplished. On a hard but slightly better spring day, where I make that drive with the sun still above the horizon, a mix CD stacked with the best singles of the last 40 years is exactly what I need to remember how fucking alive I still am. Meredith’s annual end of year mixes come with stellar liner notes, but I guess it’s on me to write about these songs, or at least some of them, somewhere.

Track 4 is Dolly Parton, “9 to 5.”

Almost everything you need to know about me is that the most formative movies of my very young girlhood were Victor/Victoria and 9 to 5.

The first is a 1982 fake-French musical set in 1930s Paris, starring Julie Andrews as a desperately broke opera singer who finds unexpected success — and a complicated romance with a mobster — after she begins working as a (male) female impersonator. It’s queer and transgressive and romantic and every story I ever write about finding love among the other freaks owes it a major debt.

The other most important film of my impressionable youth, of course, is the 1980 feminist comedy featuring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as three fed-up secretaries at Consolidated, the impenetrably generic corporation where they are routinely demeaned, dismissed and harassed, especially by their boss, who they somewhat accidentally conspire to kidnap and then hold hostage (in his own house) while implementing the many common-sense workplace reforms he and his old boy cronies had blocked. I saw this movie when I was maybe 5 and became pretty obsessed with it, even though I’m not sure how much I really understood then. I had a huge crush on Dolly, her sweet southern twang and (admittedly) soft cashmere sweater sets. I played every game of Office as if I was Lily Tomlin’s character — “Consolidated, please hold!” I would chirp into my fake phone, placing multiple calls into imaginary purgatory until I was ready to choose one line and solve the next crisis.

Many of my favorite ’80s movies were business comedies — I was also a big fan of the ridiculous Secret of My Success, in which Michael J. Fox is legitimately in peak comedy form, but also features him and Helen Slater bursting into a big conference room to either stop or help stage a company takeover. (I don’t remember which — I just remember being so impressed by this kind of scene in every Wall Street-esque movie.)

But 9 to 5, it turned out, was for all its broad farce maybe the most accurate. Maybe still.

Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’ 
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’ 
They just use your mind and they never give you credit 
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it 
9 to 5, for service and devotion 
You would think that I would deserve a fat promotion 
Want to move ahead but the boss won’t seem to let me
I swear sometimes that man is out to get me!

But then, buried a little in the second chorus, is exactly the kind of sly, subversive faith that the movie has, that the secretaries of the world will win in the end:

They let you dream just to watch ’em shatter 
You’re just a step on the boss-man’s ladder 
But you got dreams he’ll never take away 
You’re in the same boat with a lotta your friends 
Waitin’ for the day your ship’ll come in
An’ the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll your way

Is it? I hope so. This song and movie is nearly as old as I am and there’s a lot in there that still sounds far too familiar.

But I was wearing a kick-ass lady boss jumpsuit the day I put this first CD in the car and I sang along to Dolly at the top of my lungs as I drove and I only wanted to cry a little. Mostly I was proud of having made it this far. I care more about being a good boss than I ever imagined would matter to me, all those dramatic boardroom scenes aside. I don’t need my staff to like me, or want to be my friend, or want me to be theirs. But I want to make the workplace better, at least a little better, for everyone else who’s just fighting to get through the day in one piece, too.


Originally published April 16, 2017, at tinyletter.com.