Archive for May, 2012

May 22, 2012 at1:05 PM

Cathy Douglass on Walking Forward Together

There are lots of ways to build a happy life. Ten Girls to Watch is full of stories of women’s lives and careers, some straightforward climbs up the ladder but plenty of curvier paths as well.

In real life, Catherine Douglass is the Executive Director of inMotion — a pretty amazing job. InMotion provides free legal services in matrimonial, family, and immigration law to low-income women in New York City. Most of inMotion’s clients are survivors of domestic abuse, and every day, Cathy helps change women’s lives. Pretty amazing, right? But that’s not exactly where she started out. Lucky for all of us, she was gracious enough to spend some time telling me all about her career and the women who helped her along the way.

What did you think you wanted to be when you were in college and what kind of job did you actually end up getting out of school?

I graduated in 1965, and back in those days  the goals for women tended to be you’re going to work for a little while until you get married and have kids.  You could be a nurse or a teacher or a couple of other standard things. No law school, no business school. I became a teacher.

I always loved the kids, and when I walked into the classroom I felt anything could happen. It’s so funny, I’ve always said that teaching was the toughest job I ever had. I remember one of my teaching jobs. I was about 24-years-old, and I had a class of 40 kids squeezed into a small classroom. To figure out how to survive in that environment… that was a challenge.

How did you end up in law school?  

I left teaching in part because I felt teachers weren’t respected. It breaks my heart that it still hasn’t changed. I wanted to be able to make a bigger impact on the things that matter in the world. Both for myself and for the kids.

But I also went to law school because I lived in books, I loved languages, and I really felt as if I wanted to learn about how the world worked. Why things were the way they were. I thought I was going to do public interest law when I got out of law school. I studied women in the law and poverty law and land use planning, only to graduate in the mid 70s to find there were no public interest jobs for people coming out of law school. I went to my corporate job instead and found that I thrived there.

You became a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher — no small feat! — and then left to found inMotion. That’s a pretty bold move. How did you make that decision? 

It was the biggest, most difficult career decision that I’ve made. I had learned a lot in my practice of law. I had made it from an associate to a partner at the firm, but there was nothing I was doing that was touching my heart. It was all in my head. And then one of my dear friends said, how would you like to join the board of a battered women’s organization? They needed lawyers on their board, and that was my first nonprofit experience.

I joined this organization’s board, and within six months I was heading up a project in the Bronx, and a year after that I was co-heading the board. I said to their legal director, why can’t you go to firms like mine and get people like me to volunteer? There were only two lawyers on staff, and she looked at me and said “In what minute of the week would you imagine that I could build a pro bono program?” I thought, I know what a pro bono program looks like. I care about this, and I could do it. And that was it. I talked to her, and she said go for it, and I decided it was time.

Were there women who inspired you along the way? 

There still weren’t that many women working in corporate law when I started, certainly not in senior positions. I mainly took each step with a cohort of other women who were at the same stage.  I was one of the first people who said the women in this place have to get together! We were the “Women of Willkie.” That’s the way I expanded my thinking about what my options were and how to take the next steps that I was tempted to take. I’d go to my circle of folks, and we’d figure it out. So rather than learning from people ahead of me, it’s been much more a sense of camaraderie. Of support from people who are walking forward together.

One of my joys now is that we have that sort collaborative cohort of people working together at inMotion.  Whether it’s policy leaders, the staff, the board, we’re coming together to creatively make a difference.

Thanks so much to Cathy for sharing her story! And if you’re interested in contributing to inMotion‘s work, they’re a great organization doing great work. Check them out!


May 17, 2012 at8:05 PM

Suzanne Berne: The Dismantled Lunatic Intercom Years

Suzanne Berne is the author of four wonderful books, including A Crime in the Neighborhood, and, most recently, Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never KnewShe was also my thesis advisor in college. In Ten Girls to Watch I made up a thesis advisor character, and the person I made up is pretty great (read the book July 31 and you’ll see!) but Suzanne Berne still wins. Lucky for all of you, a decade of pestering from me still hasn’t scared her off. Here, she answers all my questions about how she got her start and the trials and tribulations of her twenties.

What did you think you wanted to be when you graduated from college? 

Alas, what I thought really wanted when I graduated from college was to be adored and admired by my boyfriend at the time, whose feelings toward me remained skeptical. In my spare time, when I was not brooding about this, I wanted to be a writer.

What kind of job did you actually end up getting as your first job out of school? Was there anything that made it particularly awesome or awful?

My first “real” job after college was as the classified ads manager of a weekly newspaper in Connecticut. What made that job most challenging were the personal ads, which were often mailed to the paper with a check and were also sometimes unprintable. In those prelapsarian days, I could not e-mail people to suggest alternate wording for their classified ads; I had to telephone them. For instance, I recall telling one man that he might get more replies to his ad if he revised “No fat chicks” to something like, “Welcome willowy types.” That conversation quickly became unconstructive. People also complained if their ads were unsuccessful, so I spent hours apologizing to angry customers who hadn’t sold their snowshoes or their beagle puppies (I was also the paper’s receptionist). Eventually I had to quit.

What was your first real apartment like? Anything notably atrocious about it? 

I had my first apartment—one I didn’t share with a roommate–while I was in graduate school. It was behind what had been a small private mental institution and had once been the caretaker’s quarters. Beside the door was a panel of buttons that presumably once opened or closed doors remotely, and there was a dismantled intercom that made faintly lunatic noises whenever the wind blew. The apartment was over a garage and was extremely small; to get to it, you had to climb a flimsy outdoor iron staircase then walk along a kind of open catwalk that was treacherous when icy, but the apartment itself had lots of windows and was very charming. Except for the cockroaches. They were huge and entitled, unimpressed by the “roach motels” I bought and set around the living room. One of them was the size of a gerbil and used to prance around when I had people over for dinner, making the floor shake.

Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties? 

My early twenties were when I was in grad school, and also when I was falling in love with the man who became my husband. But for a while we lived far apart and so we spent a lot of time visiting each other. I remember driving across Nebraska to meet him somewhere and having to spend the night alone in a town that was hit by a tornado. I sat for an hour in a motel basement with an elderly couple from St. Paul, who were very nice. Then the next morning I got in my car and drove on. This experience seemed unremarkable to me then. I expected climactic events like tornados to pass by and leave you unscathed, just slightly inconvenienced.

Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?

When I was 27, I published an essay in what used to be the “Hers” column in the New York Times Magazine. I remember feeling embarrassed when it appeared because the essay was about being flashed and I’d never envisioned my “big break” as involving something so undignified. My mother was also embarrassed. She kept saying, “So many other things have happened to you! Perfectly nice things.” I had to agree. But I began writing travel articles and book reviews for the Times not long after that essay, and people would tell me they’d seen and article or a review I’d written, and I would feel briefly famous.

How about a moment or experience where you finally felt like you’d “made it”? Maybe not in a big way, like “Now I’m a gazillionaire!” but maybe more like “Yay! I no longer live with a roommate who leaves her socks all over the kitchen floor.”  

Well, my “I made it” moment came when I had an infant and a two-year-old, so socks on the kitchen floor would have been an improvement in my domestic situation. My first novel was chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover book and they brought me to New York to give a reading at the big store they had at Lincoln Center and put me up in a fancy hotel across the street. I was still nursing, however, which meant I had to bring my daughter along. The reading went well; lots of people came; one of my sisters was there to hold the baby. But she began to shriek the instant I was done and my sister had to hand her over. Unwisely, I’d chosen to wear a long dress. So instead of basking in my glorious moment, I scuttled off to a supply closet, where I had to pull off my dress and huddle on the floor with the baby, surrounded by bits packing tape and paper clips, and by the time I’d reassembled myself and her and emerged from the closet, almost everyone was gone.

Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
You know, there wasn’t—and I’ve wished so often there had been someone to take me in hand. When I was in college and grad school I had writing teachers I liked and admired, but I didn’t know any of them well enough to be able to see how they conducted their lives as artists. And I could have really used a mentor who had kids! These days a lot of women (too many women, frankly) write about balancing motherhood and artistic careers, but when I had small children I didn’t have a clue how it was done, especially because I was also teaching. And most of the writers I revered and was trying to emulate were childless, at least the writers who were women.
But I remember something Toni Morrison wrote once about finding time to write however you could, and she said, “Don’t make the bed. It needs to air out, anyway.” I took that as a kind of mantra, believe it or not.

While Suzanne wasn’t lucky enough to find a mentor in college or grad school, I was lucky enough to find her. Not only was she my first real writing teacher, she also helped sad, unemployed college graduate me find babysitting jobs and cat-sitting jobs. She helped me find my way to grad school. She encouraged me for years and years and years before I had much of anything to show for myself. I couldn’t be more grateful. A big thank you to her for this interview and so much more.

May 10, 2012 at8:05 PM

The Everything Pretty Girls and Some Un-Pretty Apartment Stories

You know what I like? Pretty things. As do Julia Scribner and Venessa Williams, the lovely ladies behind the blog Everything Pretty. In addition to being connoisseurs of the beautiful, they’re also having real-life adventures that are not so far from the fictional adventures of Dawn West, the narrator of Ten Girls to Watch (if you’re just tuning in, that’s my novel. It comes out in July. You should read it!) Like Dawn, both Julia and Venessa are twenty-something transplants to New York City, who also happen to work in publishing, and maybe, just maybe, they’ve had a few misadventures along the way. I sat down with them to hear the tales.

In addition to being bloggers extraordinaire, you both have cool jobs in publishing. How’d that happen?

Julia: After college, I went through a time where there was so much pressure to get a good job, but I was just more of a gypsy than that. I wanted to do what I thought would make me happy, so I tried a lot of things.

I’ve always been obsessed with wedding and events. I thought I was going to be a wedding planner. I’d wanted to do that since I was like ten. But when I graduated college, I fell into working at magazines. I worked at Boston Magazine, and Philadelphia Magazine. After working there for a year, I decided to quit, pick up and move to San Diego. The first day I moved to San Diego I fell in love, with the city and a man, and he ended up getting a job offer in Hawaii, so I picked up again and moved to Hawaii.

Living in Hawaii did not end well. We had a horrible horrible break up, and I jumped on a plane on the 4th of July and moved to New York August 15th. I’ve tried all these things, and when one thing hasn’t worked out, I’ve just kept moving forward.

Venessa: I kind of had the opposite of Julia. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’m still trying to pursue that. Since forever. Since career day. Since first grade. I always wanted to move to New York too. I got a job after college with Simon & Schuster, and I’ve been here ever since.

How did you two find each other?

Julia: We’re on the same floor. I was so intimidated when I started working here. I didn’t really have a set team, and one day I walked by Venessa’s desk and all I hear is this little whispery voice: “Hey, I like your outfit.” We started chatting and we decided to go to yoga together. I felt like we were like dating for the first couple of months. I knew I wanted to be friends with her, but you know…

Venessa: I’m blushing right now. Ha! But yeah, I told her about the blog that I’d just started, and I just noticed right off the bat that we have similar styles. The blog was hard to do myself, but I was still obsessed with it, and Julia knows the ins and outs of all the digital stuff, and after a little bit, I asked her to join me. We’d go to yoga, and then we’d do a wine and cheese and talk about ideas.

So tell me about your first apartments. How has that gone for you?

Julia: When I lived in Boston I lived in Allston, and I lived in the grungiest apartment ever. I locked myself out of the apartment one time, and to get back in I had to scale the fire escape and punch through my screen.

But living in New York, was the first time I had a random roommate. My worst story — one Saturday night my roommate when out on a date. And then, it’s like 5 o’clock in the morning, and I’m asleep in my bed, and I hear my bedroom door slowly creep open. I was scared out my mind. My gut instinct was just play dead. But I jumped up, and oh my god, it’s her date, standing in the middle of my doorway, naked. I lost it. He’s sleepwalking, and he comes forward and tries to get in my bed. Finally, he comes to and just says, “Oh wrong room,” and turns around and walks out. I really had a heart attack. I mean, terrifying.

Venessa: I’ve lived in the same place since I got here four years ago, and it’s great, but I did have a crazy neighbor. It was this girl, we met me outside the apartment. She’s in her 20s, she’s in PR, she lives right above me and she says let’s exchange numbers so if I’m loud or you’re loud we can call each other. I thought, how nice, my first neighbor in New York reaching out to me.

But then I start getting these calls. Oh my gosh, do you hear those banging noises? she’d say. Most of the time I wasn’t even home. She’d tell me she was worried someone was breaking in or other strange things. Then she starts calling me in the middle of the night. Now I’m starting to get pissed and I’m thinking this girl is crazy, and I start not picking up her phone calls, and then I start getting these nasty texts. And then she starts blaming me for the banging noises.

The next thing that happens, I started getting water leaking through my ceiling. The landlord looks into the pipes and can’t figure it out. This goes on for months and months, until finally they go up into this girl’s apartment and discover she’s been letting her bathtub run over. Just pour over. She’s literally been trying to drown me. So yeah, they evicted her. But how crazy is that?

Have either of you had any great mentors who’ve helped you along the way?

Venessa: My first boss, who now works at Scholastic, her name is Bess Braswell, and I call her for everything. She’s gone from being an associate manger in a cube to being a director, and she’s not even 30 yet. She’s just so smart and she just has common sense. She took the time when I was an assistant to explain everything to me. This is why you do this, this is why you do that. There are a lot of people who don’t actually bother to do that with new people. So now I make sure to do that myself with anyone new. I’m not sure she really volunteered to be my mentor, but I kind of nominated her! It was like, I’m calling you so you’re my mentor. I choose you.

Julia: I’d probably say my brother. He gives me great advice. I’m in the position I am today because of a lot of work advice my brother has given me. Even applying for jobs that I wouldn’t necessarily think I was qualified for, he was the one who told me to just go for it, and how to present myself. It’s been so nice, moving to New York and being closer to him.

Thanks so much, Julia and Venessa, for chatting. And congratulations to Venessa on her wedding last week! You know you want to pop over to Everything Pretty and see all the pictures!