Thursday, September 6, 2012

FTT Off-Topic: My Old Boss, Elizabeth Warren, Talked To Eight Million People Tonight

The Boss Boss
As always with FTT O-T, this ain't sports and move along if that bothers you. As this is going to be about politics and have a link at the end, it might bother a good many of you. So be it.

Our tale starts in 1990. I'm 21, with two degrees from Syracuse University in journalism and political science, a second-hand bike, a dog, a seemingly insurmountable amount of student loan debt, and an equally daunting amount of credit card debt. I live in a slum rowhouse with several other Generation Xers, and was profoundly depressed that my degrees were of no use to get me a job in print journalism, or, seemingly, anything else that I actually wanted to do with my time. Now, of course, I realize that not getting a job with Gannett means that I actually have a career in my 40s, rather than multiple heart attacks. But moving on.

In terms of marketable / employable skills, my education meant nothing; newspapers were not hiring in the teeth of the Bush 1 Recession, and even if they were, the starting pay wasn't high enough to cover the debt payments and get me into the car that even the saddest journo needs to cover stories. My single most profound skill was many years of daily typing had gotten my testable speed up to impressive levels, and I didn't much care what you wanted me to do on an hourly basis, so long as the pay was good. So I became an office temp, a male in a pink collar world, and did this for the better part of a year to keep myself in ramen and paying the loans. Not a good time.

The thing about being a temp is that if you show any spark and find yourself in the presence of a halfway decent manager, they will attach on to you as a diamond in the rough, because so many temps, well, aren't good enough to get full-time jobs. So I had the occasional moment when some doomed dead-end marine insurance guy would try to enroll me in a career in his industry, or someone else would tell me of the joys of being a paralegal or actuary or court transcriber. None of which I was in any way interested in. I was holding out for journalism, despite the fact that it was becoming increasingly clear that it wasn't ever going to happen. Remember, the Internet is basically CB radio with monochrome text at this point. Not really an employer yet.

So after a year of drifting from crappy job to crappy job, with long hours spent trying to type quickly without actually thinking, I found myself sent out to the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. As jobs went, it seemed like it was going to make me actually think, and that was hard after many months of slackerdom. I had to handle the phones, copying and occasional dictation tape needs of six different professors. I did well enough, and sort of enjoyed the challenge of juggling my people, that they made me an offer to make the job permanent, and the benefits and steady pay were good enough to say yes. I stayed for a couple of years, and one of the people I served was tonight's prime time speaker at the Democratic National Convention, and the party's candidate to take back a Senate seat in Massachusetts. Her name is Elizabeth Warren. Here's what she said tonight.

What you don't get from her speech is that she's one of the country's foremost experts on personal bankruptcy, a staple on discussion shows (she's been on "The Daily Show" several times), and so good that Harvard hired her away from Penn. (Yeah, that kind of thing happens.) It's sad that this background is actually a detriment to electability, and that she wound up talking more about being a waitress, mom, wife and Sunday school teacher in her speech tonight, but so be it.

Small digression: I don't know your politics, and don't much care. That's not the point of this post. The bigger point is this: Professor Warren was one of the best bosses I've ever had.

Law professors are kind of like lawyers; smart enough to get to where they are, and driven enough to make many people regret that they got as high as they did. When I worked at Penn, I grew my hair long and started a rock band, and dressed like, well, a shabby law student. I gave up on journalism, spent my time trying to get women at colleges where my friends were still in school, and eventually wooed my first wife. Some professors treated me like a slacker, others like a necessary evil, and still others like someone who needed to be booted so they could get their own personal lifer in the position.

Elizabeth Warren didn't do any of that. She also didn't try to make me into a lifelong secretary.

Instead, she actually got to know me as a person -- at a time when she was writing books, teaching classes, raising a puppy that she brought to class with her (Faith, a golden retriever that was just a honey of a dog, and yes, her name was a pun to her field of study -- Good Faith! Bad Faith!), and being a mom. She asked me about my debt, my plans, my hopes. She gave me a great gift when I got married (a deep casserole dish that lasted for nearly two decades of frequent use before I cracked it), and never made me feel bad about what I was doing for a living...

But she also never let me forget that, in her opinion, I was capable of much, much more than taking care of her messages and copying.

Her students loved her; I pretty much did too. I was as good of a secretary as I could be for her; my other charges, well, not so much. She inspired that in people; you didn't want to let her down. When she left for Harvard, the job became a lot less enjoyable, despite a pretty cool guy taking her slot (perhaps there's something about bankruptcy that just brings out the human in law professors), and I was gone pretty soon afterwards, off to law firms where I was far more miserable but also far more compensated. Eventually this lead to a music trade show, marketing for musicians at a vanity press, and then just plain marketing. I've done the latter for the last 12 years, and have handled thousands of online advertising campaigns and clients.

I also don't get to where I am without her, and, well, the other good bosses and my second wife. That's how life works: we bring each other along, or we don't really go very far.

I don't know if Professor Warren will make it to the Senate. Her opponent is an incumbent, crafty, and has an unconscionable amount of money behind him. She's made powerful enemies with a clear heart, and is beloved by the Web's most progressive Web sites, which means that, combined with the anti-intellectualism that happens in elections, she's suspect to the general public. She's also new to this, has made some missteps (this is where people who don't like her get to make Native American snark, as if that has anything to do with anything), and the other side has shown that they'll go to any length to keep her out. She scares them, and they should be scared. (They also seem to loathe her as some kind of over-the-top socialist bogeywoman, so you know she's doing something right.)

But I do know this. Whenever I feel cynical about politics -- and gad, that's pretty easy to do now, isn't it? -- I think about how she's running for the Senate. I think about how much support and money she's already raised, and what she might be able to accomplish if she got in. If nothing else, I adore the idea of her cross-examining appointees for a good long while. I think about how good of a manager she was 20 years ago to me, and how good of a teacher she was to her students. I really, really, really hope she wins, because she's just, well, great.

So, yes, good people do sometimes get into this line of business. Just as good people get into every line of business. And that if you agree with them, you should encourage them.

Just as, well, she encouraged me.

So on the off chance you ever see this... good luck, boss. Really liked your speech tonight; really happy you came off so well under a national spotlight. And I'm happy to pay you back for the past kindness.

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