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Jessica #49 - "Now What?"

May 9, 2009 | by Jessica

The pressure's on Jess to stick to her principles. Will she cave in, or will she speak truth to the corporate power and boyfriend?

"You what?" Joan, the associate publisher, bubbled incredulously over the phone from New York.

"I quit," I said softly, confidently, with eyes wide open.

"Oh c'mon, Jessica, don't joke like this," she said. "Sure, the publisher is annoyed at the fuss you kicked up, but no one is talking about firing you."

I was completely on autopilot, I realized, and yet also totally in control: saying what I believed, for the first time in a long time.

"I know no one is going to fire me," I said, still softly. "And now you're going to tell me that I am too good to lose."

I was shocked by my own bravado. I was exuding the confidence of holding firm to one's convictions. I was speaking truth to power! Next stop, Jessica joins "Sweet Honey and the Rock."

"Well, no one is irreplaceable!" she said, half-amused and half-insulted. "But you did build the show from nothing and it's been more successful than anyone thought it would be. You don't want to walk away from that, Jessica."

But I did. I really did.

"The truth is I haven't felt good about the fashion show for months," I said. "I am really glad that the higher-ups are pleased with what I've done, but I'm not. I'm really not."

I didn't need to be curing cancer, but I felt increasingly slimy about my job.

It wasn't that I needed to be curing cancer in order to find my job worthwhile. But I felt increasingly slimy about what I was doing. For months, I'd been listening to Alison kvetch about her looks and her weight. I couldn't help but see the fact that I was taking 14-year-olds and using them to sell clothing and images of what a beautiful adult woman is.

The industry was obsessed with all things physical -- looks, feels, fabrics, shades -- as if these were the essential aspects of being, not mere aspects or accoutrements to who someone is.

I knew that Joan understood, despite her protestations about my chucking a promising career. And after failing to convince me to change my mind, she asked me to take a few days to think about it.

But I didn't need to.

After we got off the phone, I spun around in my chair and typed out a long letter of resignation explaining everything in detail: I had tried to change things in small ways from the inside, but no one was interested. Over time, I'd tried proposing segments and features that were more substantive, more reflective of reality and less fake. But they weren't picked up. I'd tried making art directors more aware of how their choices conveyed exploitative messages. No one cared.

And then Ian's tasteless teen segment blew up in my face and made things completely clear: The fashion world goes against what is most important to me.

I didn't want to spend my life pushing images and ideas that tell women their value is in the way they look, and that, chances are, they're not nearly valuable enough. The timeless notion that the beauty of a woman is internal has gone from being a quaint Talmudic phrase to nothing less than a revolutionary statement.

I'd lately been troubled by nagging thoughts that came from a conversation I'd had with Rina comparing the writings of the great feminist sociologist Carol Gilligan to traditional Jewish sources. I had found myself thinking a lot about souls, which I was defining as one's innermost essence, that incorruptible, indescribable core that really determines who we are.

There used to be an understanding that a woman's exterior is not the goal, but rather a container for the beauty within.

That innermost aspect of a woman is the most beautiful part, the part that needs to be developed. It's something women have to reveal slowly... to be shared and discovered. There used to be some balance in the world -- an understanding that a woman's exterior is not the goal, but rather a container for the beauty within. The world seems to have lost this truth. And what was I doing? I was teaching women how to select the right fashion.

Simply put, I was playing for the wrong team.

My letter came out in flowing prose, easily, painlessly. It was a mechaya, the Yiddish word my mother always exclaimed when she flopped into a swimming pool on a hot day.

Relieved, I spun around joyfully in my chair, like a child excited on the last day of school. I briefly wondered if I should call my parents or Rina and run this by them, but I decided not to. I knew I was doing the right thing, and I wasn't going to let practical considerations -- for instance, how I was going to support myself -- interfere.

I pasted the document into a mail message, carbon-copied half of the names on my magazine's masthead and then, smiling, blind-copied half of my personal address book. I clicked "send." And then I panicked.

"You did what?!?" Marc squawked when I called him to report. "I know just what to do. You can always plead that you e-mailed impulsively. Or you can get Joan to have the secretaries delete it from the executives' mail box before they see it."

You can have the secretaries delete it from the executives' mail box before they see it.

Marc was in damage-control mode, fixing a problem that I didn't want fixed. Instead, I wanted him to understand my position and support me.

I sighed heavily. "These are great ideas, Marc. Except I don't want to un-quit. I am just a little concerned about finding another job."

After all, I had moved to Phoenix because of this TV job. What now? If I was in New York, I could find another position as an editor or writer in 10 minutes. But the Phoenix market wasn't exactly bursting at the seams with these sorts of jobs.

--"That's not the task at hand..." came Rina's disembodied voice out of nowhere in my head. "You know what you have to do..."

--Oh great, I thought, now Rina has joined my mother on my inner cranial loudspeaker system.

The phone was silent and I sensed I had reached a crossroads. I really like Marc. He's cute. Considerate. Kind. But he doesn't get what drives me. My long-term goals. The values I hold sacred. What I dream for in a perfected world.

On the other hand, I felt drawn to the comfort of having a friend.

-- But that's short-term comfort at the expense of a more important long-term goal, Rina's and my mother's voices answered in the now stereo in-head system.

"Um, Marc, uh..." I loathed how I couldn't discuss anything serious without stammering. "Um, we have to talk..."

Later that night at my apartment, baffled by my quitting, Marc argued that I was sacrificing too much to make a statement that no one really cared about.

"The thing is that I care about it, Marc," I said. "I want to live my life in a way that is meaningful to me. Maybe it's just a job, but I bear responsibility for my actions."

"Oh, Jess," he said sadly, "you're thinking too much. It really is just a job."

I sighed. "Marc, I'm 28-years-old and not getting any younger. I'm afraid that if I don't start pursing my life goals, I might wake up one day and find that I missed it. I don't want to spend a good portion of my waking life contributing to something that stands opposed to what I think is important. I mean, we only get one chance at this life, right?"

We only get one chance at this life, right?"

I took a deep breath and continued. "The long-term goals thing is an issue with my job, Marc. But it's an issue with us, too."

I rattled off some extended metaphor about how we operate in different dimensions -- me with a meta-life of searching for meaning and growth, and he living more in the now. I sheepishly added a Seinfeldian "not that there's anything wrong with that," but that we were incompatible.

After some half-hearted protests, he agreed. I think he was relieved to be spared any more of my idealist homilies.

When Marc left, I made some chamomile tea and logged onto and flipped through the resume templates on my word processor. I hadn't done this in a long while.

The phone rang and I picked it up. It was my sister Beth, now known as Beth-who-is-getting-married. She'd read the resignation I'd bcc'ed her and thought I did the right thing.

"So now you can come for an extended visit and do some job-hunting on the right coast," she said.

"Oh, I, uh..."

Beth's engagement party was in two weeks. I had planned on going for just a long weekend, using work as an excuse. Now there was no way out of it.

I did a quick mental evaluation of my life situation: I am the bridesmaid. I have no job and, well, no prospects. I just broke up with a nice guy. My sister is completely out of her normally down-to-earth mind with debates over nosegays and tablecloths. And in two weeks I will be seeing a swarm of people who still call me "Jessie" and insist that I haven't changed a bit since I was 8 years old.

An extended visit? Sounds perfect.

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