Seventy years of corporate life: What we learned

The friends, 1987

I talked recently with a friend, S., about the years when we worked at some of the world's best-known corporations: Did we make a difference? What did we learn from thirty-some years each of us spent in that environment? 

Between us, we racked up over ten thousand meetings and one toxic boss each, countless projects, re-orgs and teams. S. attended a staff retreat that ignited a forbidden romance (you were not permitted to fraternize with colleagues, even if both were single), a love that endures to this day.

A short list:

1. Virtue is not always its own reward, but hard work is.
Neither of us ducked when the scut work was assigned. If that sounds self-congratulatory, it is—and now we look back with satisfaction. Both of us came from Depression-era parents who instilled the value of "a day's work for a day's pay".

We also conceded that, for at least the first twenty-five years, we were spared the insistent buzz of an e-mail just when we'd settled down to sleep.  

2. You want unflagging fairness? Work for yourself.
S. was fired for no reason anyone could specifically uncover, and over the protests of many executives, by an unstable woman who had falsified her own credentials, which S. discovered later.

I was accused of inappropriate conduct because I (single) offered my guestroom for an overnight stay to a visiting (married) male colleague after his credit card was declined at his hotel when he tried to extend his stay. Nothing happened to me, except the classic "note in the file", which I found when I ascended to my (female) boss's job.

These incidents were the exception, for which we feel lucky. The managers we appreciate to this day  were those who challenged us to grow, celebrated our successes, and discussed our shortcomings candidly and privately.

3. Cynicism capsizes effectiveness.

Though we laughed at "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams' strips, we believe the heart comes to work with the brain, and if the heart is cynical, it's unlikely you can get much done. 

Those who chafed at the structure and took shots at the leadership at every opportunity usually left before they were asked to lead. "It's one thing to 'drink the Kool-Aid' ", a VP told me when I was promoted to management, "but now you'll be expected to mix the stuff.'"

3. The larger the corporation, the more potential for bad behaviour
Large organizations try to instill a cohesive culture, but sometimes the noble "Mission and Values" statement was the opposite of actual conduct; as my pal Marshall said of his company, "If you turn around too fast, you'll get stabbed in the back."

At the same time, over forty years we saw marked positive change in equal opportunity employment, wage parity, and the handling of harassment and safety issues.

We both think age discrimination has grown even worse. If you can access the New York Times' archive, a chilling article by Patricia Cohen on current unemployment rates for US women over 50 validates our hunch. Reading the over 1200 comments put faces to those numbers, and made me weep.

4. Size diminishes human contact
We worked for Canadian subsidiaries of multinationals, and by the mid-1990s experienced ever-more-remote management. We noticed that when teams were dispersed across the world, we could no longer chat with an executive to learn her thinking behind a certain decision.

When she occasionally turned up on site, she was booked into back-to-back meetings, so the informal mentoring that built business acumen decreased.

Some meetings brought out crackling collaborative energy, but video conferences, which took over the corporate world one grinding, debate-repressing slide presentation at a time, were not those.

5. The suits with the silk bow blouses were a mistake!
In the '80s, we both wore skirt suits; I, in the financial sector, even bought the silk bow that was supposed to parallel the man's suit. You still see the suits in our financial districts, but the dippy ties are mercifully historic artifacts. (I can't believe I found this photo, that is exactly one of my mine!)

We reminisced about how thirty years brought the relief of business casual, yet even with that freedom, we dreaded events where poolside socializing meant swimsuits.

"Mad Men"'s Joanie Holloway tartly observed, "You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl." We amended that to, "Or like you're going to a bar." But at the same time, we tried to stake out tiny corners of individuality. Mine was the statement earring. S. walked into her boss's office sporting her fresh broomstick perm; he asked if she'd been electrocuted.

By the time we retired, we saw wider acceptance of diversity, not only in attire, but in all aspects of identity. S. said she knew times had changed when her entire office (over 600 persons) closed for the day to attend the memorial service for a colleague who had died from AIDS.

There is, however, far less job security today, ever more contract and part-time work, and continuing erosion of the boundary of personal time. My first corporate boss, who represented the best of 1970s paternalism, would stop by my office if I was there a half-hour past closing, to ask, "What's wrong?" "Go home!", he would say, and mean it.

In forty years, we moved from a corporate Medieval Period (secretaries, no computers, ashtrays at desks) to the Modern, a history with bumps between eras, and differences among the corporations. I'll never forget the day an actuary appeared in my office hauling the first Apple Macintosh (128k, wow!), and practically hurled it at me. "Take it!", he commanded, "The damn thing doesn't do numbers."

The corporation remains a particular world, one that many young adults enter without thinking about whether they're suited to it. Often the attraction is the same reason Willie Sutton supplied when asked why he robbed banks—"That's where the money is".

S. and I became friends in our mid-twenties, when we had social service jobs, and figured, we can count our pennies forever in this sector or move into corporate life (though she had a stint in government, too). Well, we didn't get rich—but we earned some solid satisfaction from our work. We remember many colleagues with respect and gratitude.

But neither of us is certain we would do it again.

Of love and pearls: Chantal's dive

Reader Chantal invited me to tea to see her pearls; I could hardly wait for the day.

The sub-zero afternoon was brightened by her warm greeting. I immediately liked this ebullient brunette—and not only for her passion for pearls.

Chantal and her partner spend half the year on their sailboat; their 2015-2016 destination was French Polynesia. Chantal's eighty-four year old mother learned to use GPS, Skype and other applications to track their progress. She had one request, that Chantal bring her a single Tahitian pearl.

Near the end of their stay, still pearl-less, the couple met owners of a pearl farm in the Gambier Islands. The Sichoix family were about to harvest their oysters from a lagoon near the coral-reef island of Tarauru Roa. When they heard of Chantal's mother's wish, they graciously invited Chantal and her partner to join their first day's harvest.

Chantal, an experienced diver, was invited to pull her treasure up from water so clear that, as she said, "You see your hand in the water, without even noticing water is there".

At this stage in the culturing process, the oysters rest secured in wire baskets at about three meters below the surface. She took a deep breath to free-dive down. Chantal descended to the baskets, but lifting them was beyond her breath capacity. She surfaced for help, but how many women can say they first saw their pearl in the lagoon?

At left, Erick Sichoix and Chantal open the big black-lipped oysters; after years of work and patience, farmers can expect about half the yield will contain a pearl. At upper right, the oysters in their wire crates, and bottom right, Erick points out the sac in which the pearl has matured.

An array of the Sichoix's fancy-coloured Tahitians on the half-shell, showing their magnificent hues:

She selected the perfect pearl for her mother, and had it made into an elegant pendant at Flamme en rose, the Montréal boutique of jewellers Michèle Côte and Audrée Michaud.

Chantal also returned with Tahitian keshis, the all-nacre, nuggety pearls. She said, "I had this piece of white coral, like a sculpture, and I always loved its form. I thought of doing something with this shape."

She took that coral (below, left) and the keshis to renowned jeweller Janis Kerman, who created a silver cuff that evokes a pearl-studded reef.

Below, the bracelet in process, with each pearl finding its place in the 'reef':

The finished bracelet: the shot at left shows the original white coral inspiration; at right, Janis Kerman's photo, which shows how the keshis flash rose, teal and aubergine overtones:

That bracelet is Chantal's signature; she also wears a simply-set pair of luscious drops that Janis made at the same time.

And so, a Valentine in the many hues of love: a woman's voyage with l'amour de sa vie; a daughter's promise fulfilled from the heart, and friends' kindness and generosity. As a bonus: those glowing pearls, to remind her of all she truly treasures.

For local inquiries about Sichoix pearls, please send me an e-mail.

Retirement: The revision of your identity

Last evening a friend came for dinner; Sophie retired as of January 1st. Though she beamed when she made the announcement, after a glass of wine, she asked me, "What do you do?"

My activity report probably sounded prosaic: some writing, a good deal of reading, walking, the gym, housekeeping, seeing friends and family. The occasional exhibit or concert, the eternal French classes. I recently learned how to make lipstick.

I could see that she thought, That's it? If one's work life has included a front-row pew at the Shrine of Productivity, if one's performance has been measured by deals or bonuses or awards, suddenly there is neither the focus of goals nor the glow of achieving them. Sophie had gone, from one day to the next, from intense, draining work to leisure, and the shift had caught her by surprise.

A productive person who retires thinks she should replace work with other engrossing activities, from Day One. She forgets that at twenty or twenty-five she was sorting out her work preferences. That's when she learned she is happiest working in a team, or hates offices, or is more entrepreneurial than she thought. She may have chosen an occupation, only to find years of training only confirm what she had hoped to ignore: she's just not engaged by law, or the family business, or teaching biology.

Forty years later, we don't permit ourselves that re-assessment when we leave work. Some become anxious, some stick with jobs they don't enjoy because they wonder what else to do. (And some like their work so much that they simply sidestep the whole concept.)

There's concern about boredom. As I used to tell my sons when they were around nine and would sometimes whine, "I'm bored", "If you're bored, it's because you are boring."

At sixty-plus, no one is going to spread Legos on the floor for you; you have to go out and sample things. You can still learn practically anything, from programming to t'ai chi, and you'll be the better for it—but you have to go back to being a beginner. I always wanted to know how to string pearls and I have yards of bloodstained thread to prove that it is harder than it looks.

And it takes time to shed the deep wiring of being the one who Gets It Done. I still have a visceral sense of tension on Sunday evenings, as if my nervous system is still gearing up for the week; I dream about my work—not quite nightmares, but the level below, where things are not going well and it is my fault.

It is only in the past year, after five years of retirement, that my brain is starting to realize, You don't have that stress anymore.

So I recognized that slightly stunned look Sophie had, that tentative sense of excitement mixed with  honest worry. Love and work, we have long been told, are the cornerstones of life. Without work of the paid-employment sort, the identity wobbles, the ego starts to question self-worth and competence.

I haven't left all aspects of my work identity behind. My professional writing background morphed into blogging. When I worked part time for six months of last year, I saw that I had a lot more "general" left in me than "grunt". I tried to take orders graciously and present ideas as "suggestions", which Le Duc predicted that would be out of character, and he was right. You can take the woman out of the corner office, but...

There is no one left to lead but myself, no one to whom I must answer, and no one telling me how valuable I am to the enterprise. I don't miss that validation, but realize I am responsible for finding meaning, and that is what is dawning on Sophie.

So, back to the mindset at twenty: What calls? What could I be?

Perhaps it is finally making a better habitat for her beloved birds, perhaps it is organizing self-care classes for women in shelters (Sophie was an aesthetician), perhaps it's attending every interesting lecture at the Blue Met Literary Festival, after years of only being able to get to one.

You carry your work history into retirement, and some of hums away in the background. But an interesting thing happened to me in December: I lost decades of work I'd stored digitally, due to a Bermuda Triangle of IT issues. At first I panicked and considered expensive data recovery services, but then I realized, It's the past. One of my colleagues marvelled at my equanimity. "The sand covers your footprints pretty fast", I replied.

And as long as I can keep making new footprints, on new paths, there is no regret.

Pearl renos supreme: Janis Kerman

Janis Kerman in her studio
Today, the Passage's windows are beautifully dressed thanks to a star in the jewellery firmament, Janis Kerman.

Any Janis Kerman piece is a treasure, but of particular delight to me is how she restyles pearls, transforming a simple strand into an intriguing and deeply personal piece. A Kerman pearl piece doesn't 'wear you', it is you.

She invited me to visit her studio, thanks to an introduction from a Montréalaise, Chantal, who has commissioned a pearl project.

Though I have admired Janis's work since the early 1980s, when she spread a trove of necklaces and earrings on her studio table, my heart lept. J'etais toujours boulversée.

Before my eyes was was her artist's statement, "It's not the symmetry, it's the balance". Delivering that aphorism takes an exacting yet audacious stance, an assured eye joined by mastery of the art.

A Kerman commission work begins with a sketch; she describes the starting point: "My client came with a full "bag of stuff" and I created a double strand with elements in sterling silver and 18k gold. We used angelskin coral, carved jade, ruby, citrine, grey moonstone, blue topaz and padparasha sapphires. The two strands can be connected by using tongue clasps so that she can wear it as one long strand."

Photo courtesy Janis Kerman

The finished necklace is a 'memory book' that, as she says, "could be worn with a t-shirt, as well as more dressed up things":

Photo courtesy Janis Kerman
There is no such thing as obsolete when your older pieces meet Janis Kerman. Suppose you have a tangle of chains and charms you haven't worn since you gave up shoulderpads, and your mother's cameo brooch.

Janis's elegant rope used her client's pearls and charms; gems include amethyst, citrine, ruby, blue sapphire, diamond and a cameo:  

Photo courtesy Janis Kerman

Or Tahitians! Janis says, "This client supplied her gorgeous cultured Tahitian graduated strand and stones that she collected over time. It was fun to incorporate the jade she received as a child from her parents, the rubies and other gold charms that held much sentimental value."  

Photo courtesy Janis Kerman

Should you wish a piece with new pearls, she has an enticing selection. Below, Janis shows a recent pair of earrings:

Freshwater pearl and sterling silver earrings

Janis works with clients throughout North America. Via Skype or similar apps, you can discuss your wishes. Conscious of budgets, she advises, "Start with the clasp; you can add other elements later." And that clasp will be striking and special.

Visit her web site to see more of her work, and check the gallery list for North American galleries, many of whom have their own sites.

Montréalers, mark your calendar for her show, "Reminiscence: 45 Years of Creating Contemporary Jewellery" at the Canadian Guild of Crafts, April  27-May 28, 2017. Or plan a visit, the city is thawed out by then and you'll have a terrific time!

I was so enchanted after my visit that I couldn't fall asleep—instead of sheep, I counted the unworn pieces that, once touched by Janis, could have a splendid new life.

Dressing like a grown-up: Vanessa Friedman's rules

Last October, Vanessa Friedman wrote an article in the New York Times, "How to Dress Like an Adult". In the pre-US election storm of press, I missed it, but in the holiday lull, I read, "...what it means to dress like a grown-up has become ever more complicated. Just because your legs are good enough, your stomach flat enough, your imagination wild enough, your self-image strong enough—does not mean you should."

Friedman's counsel will evoke two responses: One group will think, Good for her. Enough with the ironic, or infantilizing offerings.

The second camp will say, Nobody puts granny in the corner. If I want to wear lamé leggings as bottoms when I visit my gerontologist, that's my right.

She goes on to list three "golden rules of grown-up garb":

1. Do not distract
Friedman  says, "You want people to think about what you say, not what your clothes say."  Why put six dangly charms on the handle of a bag?

When I see a certain contingent of older women in outfits louder than a Daft Punk concert, I wonder what they hope to distract from.  I don't enjoy it, but there's room for everybody.

The refusal of distraction need not equal dull. I find this woman wears a perfect mix of individuality and discretion: the clothes are absolutely classic but the skirt is a stunner:

Photo: Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist

2. Think of your clothes as costume: Friedman says, "Figure out your chosen part, and dress for the part."

I browsed a chic department store with a visiting friend. "I am trying to figure out who I am before I buy any more clothes", she said. The business-casual wardrobe that Mary Pat rolled into retirement had begun to wear out, and she was now choosing from scratch.

At one point she'd thought she'd lose some weight and wear "cute Parasuco jeans", but you know how that ends up. I suggested she try what's worked for me: play a mental movie, or jot down what you're doing in a typical week or two. That's 'your part'.  In other words, observe what you do and you'll see who you are.

Then ask yourself if you have those clothes, or if they go on your shopping list. At this point, if your imagination has stalled or your list does not, in Marie Kondo's useful term, "spark joy", build an idea board and consult stellar blogs such as The Vivienne Files to build your eye.

Also figure out what you want to spend. In an ideal world my closet is filled by Stella McCartney, in real life, Muriel Dombret.

When Mary Pat tried the "mind movie" technique, her life required a three-season dress for a number of upcoming occasions, a "classy cardigan" to replace the work jackets, and deep-blue jeans. Mary Pat knows her palette: reds in the burgundy to raspberry spectrum, navy, grey.

She found a dress by Black Halo, whose collection includes designs by Janie Bryant, the former costume designer for Mad Men. For example, the Jackie O dress mercifully does not end at the upper thigh, and Pacific Blue is gentler than black:

She donated the last remaining business jackets, and bought a longline cardigan, by Pure:

The jeans, after many try-ons, turned out to be Levis 414  relaxed straight legs, with no "cute" details, and cut for a woman's body.

Enabled Assisted by me, and with a gift certificate to spend, she bought a scarf by Front Row Society that works with all the above. She can't wear wool against her skin; this is a viscose/modal blend.

She also realized that the black sneaker-style shoes she bought the instant she didn't have to work sparked only mild depression. She needs wide shoes, and was thrilled to find Rockport's Cobb Hill Genevieve bootie, blissfully walkable, with an extra cushioned insole for arch support, and more contemporary than the sneakers:

3. "Learn to iron."

Women over 50 are permitted an eye-roll here, but Friedman has a subtler point: "Well-kept clothes suggest clothes that are valued, which suggests clothes that have been earned, which suggests independence."

Friedman is addressing young adults, but this pertain to 'young elders', too. Once out of the workplace's scrutiny, we can let our shoeshine fade, our sweaters pill because we haven't bothered to get out that little comb thingy.

It's work to take care of a wardrobe, and even to shop for it, another reason to pare down.

Friedman's article took me back to our sons' early adolescent years, when it seemed impossible to convince them to put on a clean shirt for dinners at a good restaurant or friends' homes. Their reflexive response was,"Doesn't matter".

Nature resolved the problem; when girls started to notice them, they started to care. When one of them borrowed Le Duc's copy of "Dressing The Man" by Alan Flusser, we knew he'd grown out of grunge.

As we age, we can fall into thinking, Nobody Will Notice, or swing to the opposite pole: Dammit, I'm Going to Make Them Notice. The former leads to that whiff of neglect, the latter to a getup and possible attention from street photographers.

Comfortable things that please you, suit your personality and life: you may have figured that out for forty or more years of working life, and now have that task again.

So we too are well-served by Friedman's rules—and if you don't like playing by rules, just change the word to "ideas": three ideas about how to accommodate this stage of life.

The pearl that went round the world

Last fall, our friend, J. wished to give pearls to his wife, B., at Christmas, and asked me for a little help. He has a great eye, and was completely attuned to what would suit her, but needed pointers toward good sources. My kind of fun!

B. is a multi-disciplinary artist who wears a beautiful collection of family heirlooms, vintage treasures, and Mexican silver found on their travels. I had never seen her in pearls. J. headed briskly into the territory of colour, from greys to lavenders, and made astute evaluations; all I had to do was supply links and offer a few comments about quality.

And I also suggested that instead of a strand, J. might consider a piece of jewellery that uses one or a few stunning pearls.

I showed him the work of London Jeweller Malcolm Morris, who made the ethereal tiaras for the film "Shakespeare in Love" and the miniseries "The 10th Kingdom".

Photo: Malcolm

J. admired Morris' assured aesthetic and thought his designs reflected B.'s style. J. chose the Nyx pendant necklace, and I too saw it as "her".

A version on the web site with prehenite and sterling silver:


J. commissioned the necklace in oxidized silver, labradorite and pearl. Mr. Morris uses pretty freshwaters, but J. wanted something special. We chose a fine 13mm x18mm silver-green Tahitian drop with aqua overtones from Ehret Design Gallery and off it flew, from Arizona to London. Malcolm Morris thought it beautiful, and went to work.

There is a leap of faith in any commission, especially when you have never seen an artist's work in person—but we had trust, and Mr. Morris was in touch often.

When I received the box (so she wouldn't suspect), I peeked to check, but did not lift the necklace from its velvet box; the first touch would be hers.  But I glimpsed the detailed silversmithing, the flashing labradorites, the glowing pearl.

Some days later, I was able to admire it on B., and it was everything her beloved anticipated, framed by her beauty and personality.

A special thank you to the wonderful Malcolm Morris, whose work keeps calling me back. You can see more of his designs on his Instagram feed, where he is the gingerjeweller.

Tracking Personal Spending: 2016 Report

Early each year, I analyze whether the clothing and accessories I bought the previous year returned good value.

Beginning in the Great Recession of 2008, I  recorded every penny I spent, which revealed that I was a fritterer, an impulse buyer, a stockpiler who had more clothing than a costume supply house.

Because I had more discretionary income then, I also paid less attention to cost. Recently, I overheard a conversation between two older women whom I passed on the street: "$120 for a t-shirt? What happened?" I realized that in addition to the well-known Princess Dollars (buy item on sale, subtract sale price from full price, then award yourself the difference to spend) women my age think in Gran Dollars: we not only remember when a soft, 100% cotton tee cost $35, we remember when it had set-in sleeves and was made in North America.

My desire for quality (which relates to value) means ever-escalating expense, and that therefore means I am buying less.


Tedious trews

Three pairs of work-appropriate trousers I bought late last winter were barely worn, nor will they be, because I was sacked in August, when the owner changed the qualifications for the part-time job.

My mood when I entered the women's chain store after work last February should have alerted me: tired, rushed, not wanting to dig out something for the next morning—a guarantee for lacklustre results. They fit, require no thought to wear, launder well, but were dispiriting.

Lesson: Work clothes need to spark joy, too. Though I like deep blue denim, the navy poly trousers were stiff and did not breathe. The grey wool made me feel like a security guard; the black were interchangeable with a dozen other pairs I've owned over the last twenty-five years. Donated.

Moth-magnet moccasins

L.L. Bean sheepskin slippers are moths. These are wonderful house shoes if you don't have pest issues, but I had to replace the sheepskin with washable plush. Since they cost nearly $100 given the currency exchange, not a good buy. Binned.

The (obvious) lesson: We cannot keep woollens out, at least for now. We laundered all knits, then froze them on the balcony (thanks to Montréal winters, a natural deep-freeze) and bought more snap-lid storage boxes. We found moths incubating in an old down duvet and an Ikea woolen Christmas ornament. (Making progress; no new moths in the traps or sighted for a month.)

Unthrifty find 

At the same thrift were I found an impeccable black velvet blazer, I bought a peach top with a taupe velvet trim, very pretty. But pale peach is not my colour, no matter that it was new. Given to a friend, out $7.

Lesson that experienced thrifters know by heart: it may be great, but if not perfect on you, pass it up.


Playful pearls

While walking through the Toronto Outdoor Art Show last summer, I saw these wild peacock-dyed 12mm Chinese freshwaters. The price was reasonable (about $200) and I liked the handmade silver clasp. (Note to pearl buyers: "Dyed" is the forthright, accurate term; many vendors use "finished with a special process", "enhanced" or "organically-treated". Those words mean dyed.)

These are as obviously dyed as a pink poodle, and should be worn in the same frivolous spirit. They pick up neutrals when it is dark by 4:30 p.m.

Lesson: I have the minimalist thing more or less in hand except for pearls.

Grrrl power

Then, there's that new-to-me leopard-print velours coat. Do you sense a theme here? Someone needed a pick-me-up. So much spotty style for $70!

Lesson: I hardly ever buy "fun" clothes but when I do, secondhand is the way to go.

Puffer: Northern necessity

Here's the other solid star, actually a replacement item: a knee-length khaki down-filled puffer, road-tested against -25C windchill. And washable! (Worn with an eight-year-old Eric Bompard milles pattes scarf, a discontinued style, in cumin, a bronzy green.)

 Lesson: We have minus zero temps for months here, no excuse needed!

Another good buy from 2016: a long black skirt from Muriel Dombret, bought during end of summer sale so not worn much, but it will return good value and pleasure in 2017.

2016 Grade: B

Even though 2016 was a record low for purchases, what I bought was not wholly well-chosen. Back in 2009, I got a D and vowed, among other reforms, to buy fewer and finer.  The fewer has been easy, but the finer harder than I thought—those damn Gran Dollars—though by now overpriced clothes seem absurd, rather than covetable.

I wish I'd bought one pair of less-generic trousers, even if they cost more. And—I did not need three. (If Christine is reading, she will laugh, remembering my shock over the price of her  teal velvet Italian pair, but she knew. The cost equalled that of my three, but hers was the smarter buy.)

Mrs B. at her 90th birthday party last winter
I'll keep tracking and assessing so that I might reach ninety (a goal in itself) like Joan Burstein, in her beautiful yet comfortable party dress.

The words of 1940s designer Vera Maxwell continue to guide me: "Clothes should be beautiful, adaptable, and sound."

And where were those words when I bought the trousers? Maybe I need them stamped on my wallet!