Strapped in Front of MTV by Deb Gail

We were broke: our car stalling more often than it started, my husband’s tuition and textbook bills outpacing my teacher’s salary. So I marched into WNNE-TV, the local NBC affiliate in the ramshackle building behind the old Holiday Inn in White River Junction, Vermont, and told them I wanted to be an anchor. I’d been studying the local anchors for weeks and I thought, how hard could it be? Someone does your hair and make-up and you keep your head very still as you read some cue cards? I pictured myself landing the coveted evening gig, becoming a local celebrity and working my way up to bigger and better markets. Not only would I dig us out of debt, I would make us rich and famous. I would be the next Jane Pauley.

I didn’t exactly say all that when I marched in. I casually mentioned that I’d worked in Television in NYC (although I didn’t explain that my job mostly consisted of answering phones and fetching coffee or that I’d been fired for imitating my boss). I told them I’d studied method acting at the Stella Adler Acting studio, been a stand-up comic, an English major, that I’d dabbled in journalism (again not going into great detail). Just giving them enough information so they could see that I could surely read the news in front of a camera.

They weren’t as impressed with my credentials as I’d hoped and didn’t offer me the anchor job. Instead they sent me in to meet the VP of Sales who offered me a job selling air time (double my teacher’s salary, if I made my monthly quota, plus a car allowance and a business expense account). How could I say no?

I hated cold calls. But I told myself I wasn’t actually selling anything. I was helping local merchants position themselves in the market place. And it worked. When I created the Movable Feast campaign and sold it to the Hanover Restaurant Association, I thought, now I have finally figured out how to marry the worlds of commerce and creativity.

My boss gave me more clients and a bigger territory and not only was I meeting my monthly sales quota, I was earning quarterly bonuses and we bought a new car and paid off our credit card debt and also bought our first house (from one of my Realtor clients who gave me an unbelievable insider’s price). I hate to admit it, but I liked making money, taking the little hubby out to eat at the end of his school week, wearing high heels, treating clients to lunch and handing out business cards, going out on Friday nights with the boys to the run-down Holiday Inn lounge after our sales meeting. The discomfort of the cracked vinyl chairs digging into our backs and the smell of the old, moldy carpet fading in direct proportion to the number of cheap drinks and chicken wings we consumed. I liked that this world was so different than the medical school world I’d been thrust into with my husband, the parties where once people found out I wasn’t in medical or law school, the conversation stopped.

The people at WNNE were real people: The cute, dyslexic Italian guy who was a little overweight and always wore cowboy boots and when I told him about the med students, he asked me, “but do they know how to dance?” and pulled me on the sticky dance floor. The sweet, black sheep son of a business tycoon who after a few drinks would divulge exactly how his father destroyed his self-esteem. The middle-aged, divorced secretary who had dated every available guy within a 20 mile radius and loved sharing the intimate details. And the VP who was so proud and supportive of his wife, “an up and coming artist,” that he was always asking people if she could sketch them.

By the following year I was pregnant and since they’d never had a younger woman in a sales executive position, they didn’t have a maternity leave policy. They gave me three weeks. It didn’t sound like much, but I figured if I wanted to “have it all,” this was the kind of thing I would have to learn how to handle. I couldn’t imagine putting my three-week old in day-care or handing her over to a stranger, so my husband manipulated his semester so he could study and watch the baby while I worked.

Every morning I would wake early and nurse my daughter and rush into the office and pretend to make a few phone calls and then tell them I had “meetings” and rush home and nurse some more and rush back to the office and shuffle some papers around my desk and then head back out for more “meetings” and nurse and call into the office from home to wrap up my day. This went on for a couple of months and even though every time I left my daughter I felt like a limb was being severed and my milk leaked and I was always on the verge of tears, I would have soldiered on, since it would be a good six months before my husband would graduate and even then, his intern’s salary wouldn’t cover our living expenses and school debts that would be due.

Then one day, when I rushed home for my morning “meeting,” a little earlier than usual, I found my daughter strapped in her swing, inches away from Janet Jackson gyrating to “The Pleasure Principle,” in an MTV daze, and my whole world came crashing down. How could my husband have left her unattended and why had I assumed he’d know what to do, I wondered, as I picked up the phone and called the VP and told him I quit. He didn’t beg me to stay. I’m sure it was just a matter of time before they discovered my charade. I hadn’t had a new sale in months. All he said was that his wife had been wanting him to ask me if she could sketch me nursing the baby, in the nude. I declined even after he said they’d pay me a commission on the sales of the prints, and we went straight back into debt and stayed there for more than a decade.

Writing this down, I see that MTV moment was a pivotal turning point in my life, when I realized I wasn’t going to “have it all,” and I made the choice to do the very thing that (I have since warned my daughters) shifted the power in my marriage (possibly irrevocably). And while I think I would have figured out how to juggle work outside the home, eventually, I still have a recurrent dream of ME strapped in a chair in front of MTV and my boss walks in and asks me why I haven’t met my sales quota for the month.

Our daughter is a teen-ager now, and coincidentally, she has a beautiful voice and perfect pitch, and whenever I bring up this story to my husband, he says, “I’m the one who introduced her to music.”

14 Replies to “Strapped in Front of MTV by Deb Gail”

  1. Gail, it’s just impossible to have it all, isn’t it? Something’s got to give.

    Great post—brings to mind the years I spent on the road as a sales rep in Vermont and New Hampshire. I wasn’t good at it, hated it, and should probably go write a book or something! ; )

  2. Do you remember how sort of creepy those baby swings are? The kid gets in a daze like they’re stoned. I got to a point where I fetl like that baby swing of ours should have come with FDA warnings or something…
    Having it all only happens in pharmaceuticals commercials, doesn’t it?
    You made the right choice, even though it comes with enormous sacrifices. But now’s your time

  3. You made me laugh about those swings, Jenny. And thanks for saying it’s my time now. I think you’re right (although it doesn’t always feel that way).

  4. Gail, I really loved this. (You were fired for imitating your boss? Hysterical…) And the people at WNNE sound fantastic! I hope you’re writing about them someday…;) I can’t wait to read more of your stories!

  5. As always, a thought-provoking, evocative post, Gail.
    In Canada we are very civilized–we get a year of paid maternity leave, if we have a regular, full-time job, that is. Of course, as a freelancer (writer/pilates teacher), it was an unpaid maternity leave for me. Now I am back writing, with 20 hours a week of childcare, but it’s still like having two full time jobs. Not easy! Especially not easy when (like today) the baby girl wakes at 5:30 am and all I want to do is sleep during my alloted writing hours. But even if we could afford it, I don’t want my child in full time daycare yet–I want to be with her.
    These says we have Baby Einstein DVDs that make us feel better when we are forced to stick a little one in front of the TV and at my house we have two Baby Sign Language DVDs. We try to only let her watch them once or twice a week, but sometimes you have to send an email or make food and it seems to be the only way. And she has learned all the songs and many of the signs, so it can’t be all terrible.
    Someday I hope to get some semblance of balance but in the meantime “having it all” is a truly exhausting experience!

  6. Jess: Thanks for saying that! I haven’t written about the WNNE people until this post and there were others I didn’t mention like the head of production who walked around mumbling, “I’m not myself today,” every day for as long as I worked there.

    Danielle: Yes, I know that about Canada. You’re lucky. It sounds like you’re much closer to “having it all” than most! Good for you!!

  7. Gail, you’re about the best storyteller I know. Sucked me right in. I expect you’ll have another essay collection out in fall 2009, The Power Shift?

    Before I had children, I expected to continue working full-time and have more children. My first day back to work after maternity leave I realized women can have it all, just not all at once. I quit soon after that; the scales have been tipped ever since.

  8. Echoing Amy — along with my previous comments –, you must be a born storyteller, Gail. Every bit of description, feeling and thought flows so naturally that you always leave me wanting more. Hmm, guess that’s somewhat like the desire of having it all, so I’ll be patient and look forward to next Monday. For every thing there is a season…

  9. Amy and Larramie, THANK YOU!! It’s so wonderful to have such great people like you to share my stories with… You’ve made my day!!!

  10. Great comment by Amy – you can have it all, just not all at once. I found the same thing when my kids were born – it was impossible to feel like a good mother AND work full time. I remember feeling like I was parking them on a shelf, so to speak, until I got home at night. I also remember cursing women’s libbers who set women on this “leave your babies” path. If I’d had a mother or mother-in-law around to help, I could have handled leaving the kids each day, but daycare…I hated leaving the boys there. Eventually I quit and we just cut back financially (and went into debt!).

  11. Thanks Lisa! You’re too kind.

    Yes, Tish, I think Amy is right but even with my children mostly grown, I feel the tug when I’m really engrossed in my work.

  12. Gail, couldn’t help thinking of the call letters of the station as the phonetic version of WHINE. Or maybe whinny….like a horse. Sorry.
    Back to your story. The mother of my children (and, for quite awhile my wife before she decided to be someone else’s wife) did much the same after our first child was born. I would expect a father to pull the old “swing in front of the set” gig; in those days the swings were not battery-operated, but the wind-up mechanism would keep them rocking for a good while…

    the punch line at the end is classic Gail. However, I’m not sure if the power shifted to hubby as much as you think it did…no matter what he says! After all, he’s pretty devoted, isn’t he?

    Can’t wait to see your book in print!



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