The conference above shimmering Lake Zurich was an intoxicating affair. Attended mostly by European literary lights and public intellectuals, plus a smattering of Americans, it was convened to explore new ideas and ways to tell stories in a world that had suddenly cracked open. The Berlin Wall had come down a few years before, and ideas once thought sacrosanct and immovable were falling away.
I’d given myself a year to start a new magazine in Berlin to capture the zeitgeist, enjoying the city’s cultural foment while facing the expected challenges raising the necessary cash. I was in Zurich to network.
Over the course of the weekend, I met an American magazine publisher seemingly intrigued by my idea. He planned to expand his publication’s reach by publishing a European version, he said. He convinced me that together we could achieve our respective editorial vision. I’d come back to the United States and work with him for a year and then launch a Eurocentric version focused on culture and politics.
I moved everything I owned from the vibrancy of post-wall Berlin to the cultural monotony of the upper Midwest, and on the very first day realized I had been hired by a New Age man-sprite who had misrepresented the terms of my employment. He refused, in my presence, to sign the contract I’d faxed ahead that codified our numerous conversations. “Let’s see how it goes,” he said as he pushed the contract back across his desk in my direction. He also neglected to tell the other editors that he was bringing in someone who would be above them on the masthead. It is an understatement to say there was no welcome mat.
Rage mixed with misery and embarrassment that I’d gotten into this fix kept me stuck for two consistently subzero winters. The original horrid boss was replaced by another. This was in #MeToo prehistory, I was the only female editor, and the new boss came from a magazine that thought gender parity meant putting a half-naked woman on its cover once a year. I didn’t fit into this new regime, either, as evidenced by the fact that he would hold editorial meetings without me.
Rage mixed with misery and embarrassment that I’d gotten into this fix kept me stuck for two consistently subzero winters.
The conference room where my editorial colleagues met was called the fishbowl. It was right off the reception area and glassed in with French doors. I could see them in there, in these meetings from which I had been excluded. The new boss had introduced a team-building exercise: He’d toss around footballs, tennis balls, softballs, etc., as he and the others tossed around ideas for the next issue.
Let’s freeze this frame for a sec. Imagine walking by the fishbowl and seeing that. More than several times. I’ve done a million reshoots of this scene in my mind. My current favorite is when I bust through those glass doors and lob a “Hey, guys, can I play with your balls?” into the proceedings. In the moment, though, I didn’t do that. I pretended I didn’t see them as I felt the red-hot burn of humiliation spread from my chest to my shoulders to my neck to my face and head.
There was, however, a guy in that fishbowl who, to this day, is one of my best friends. In those clarifying moments, with me on the outside of the glass and he and the others on the inside, neither he nor I reacted as we should have. For different reasons, we were both paralyzed.
At a loss one day, I went home after work and threw the I Ching. In my mind, the question I put to it: “Should I quit my job?” The Book of Changes responded: THUNDER and PARTING.
I’d been frequently told by the new guy that my editorial ideas were “ego-driven”.
I had my answer. I would take that job and shove it in the most performative and spectacular fashion I could. I would depart the job via an off-ramp strewn with petals of provocation, inspiration, and creative malevolence.
After that, I just needed to fill in the blanks. I’d been frequently told by the new guy that my editorial ideas were “ego-driven,” though I could never divine why he said this about me but not the male editors. I sketched out what a truly and satisfyingly self-centered issue would look like, and by morning I had a plan: I’d propose a themed issue on the art of quitting, and the day it went to press, I’d quit my job. I’d get paid to use my skills and telegraph my leave-taking. I’d juggle my own fucking balls.
My friend was immediately on board, and because the new boss liked him, we got the green light.
The issue would be called “Just Quit! The Fine Art of Breaking Free” and would take a considered look at the subject. We had a nun talk about quitting sex; another author argued that we should quit being good; a gangly quitter recounted his interchangeable existence in the modern low-wage economy; pro quitter Evan Harris, who actually wrote a book on the topic, would provide how-tos and quit techniques.
I’d propose a themed issue on the art of quitting, and the day it went to press, I’d quit my job. I’d get paid to use my skills and telegraph my leave-taking. I’d juggle my own fucking balls.
In my editor’s note introducing the issue, I quoted social theorist Frank Füredi: “Today the fear of taking risks is creating a society that celebrates victimhood rather than heroism… And the rather diminished individual that emerges is indulged on the grounds that, in a world awash with conditions and crises and impending catastrophe, he or she is doing a good job just by surviving.”
I worked on my essay’s layout with the art director, who was in on the joke. Three words pop on that introductory page, much larger in rust-red type: I (the very first word in the essay) and then the themed-section title, Just Quit.
My friend and I worked on it together. It came together easily. And the day it went to press, we both quit.
The issue came out in September 1996. I saw it on a newsstand as I drove west, toward a new gig at another magazine. I didn’t buy it, but I heard that a lot of other people did.