The first time I met the Executive Director for a company I worked for, she unnerved the hell out of me--and still does, if I'm being perfectly candid.
The first time I met S (initials used to protect...well, me), it was in my group interview. It was a small office, and yet for some reason, the leadership saw fit to split my group round into two interviews where I was basically asked the same questions and had to keep myself from getting more and more self-conscious giving the same answers, all because (I learned later), it was thought that being interviewed by 10 people once was less preferable that being interviewed by 5 people twice. It might even have been S's idea. But I digress...
When I met S in my first group interview, I was immediately off-put by the fact that her face would go absolutely blank and expressionless when she was not the one talking. And when she was talking, the inflection of her voice was that of a very poised, Type A woman...who might go postal at any moment. It was... too poised, too put together, too done up. The type of manner that makes one wonder what one might be repressing. And for someone like me, who tends to be pretty porous with regards to the emotions of other people, getting hit over the head by sublimated feelings while simultaneously trying to give a good interview and win a job was quite the experience.
S would ask me a question, and then as I answered and attempted to keep good eye contact (to show confidence and empowerment, like all the interview books said), I had to make the most concerted effort to keep words in complete sentences coming out of my mouth, as the back part of my brain flailed around, wondering why she was not giving me any sort of reflective listening noises to indicate what she thought of my answer.
I mentioned this to a friend of mine after the interview was over, and she immediately pointed out that S probably had some (in my mind, intense) business training, the philosophy of which is to do everything you can to veil your true thoughts, ideas, and intentions from the person in front of them.
Personally, I'd find that to be exhausting, both to perform and to be on the receiving end of. I prefer a bit more holistic living in my day-to-day. We all have emotions, don't we?
Suffice to say, working there was an interesting time. But, I do look on the bright side--at least she's not the Executive Director at my first full time job out of college who somehow ended up at lunch with a coworker and me, and managed to work into conversation the "wild oat-sowing" he did in his youth during his first years as an executive in Milwaukee. Ah, the heady lives of the young. But that's a story for another time...
My Pal Joe
This is totally logical, of course, but the more people I’ve met in life the easier it’s become to get a read on them quickly. It’s very easy to recognize the people I know I’m going to get along with, and the ones I instantly know I won’t. There are always exceptions and always people who defy classification, but for the most part, I can pick up pretty quickly if someone “gets me” or doesn’t.
The example I’m going to write about revolves around one of those instances when I completely misread a situation. In 2010, I was living in DC, but I knew that I would be moving back to Los Angeles, and was fairly aggressively applying for nonprofit jobs in Southern California.
I honestly don’t even remember sending an application to the Milken Institute. But one day at work, I received an email asking to set up a phone interview. Wires were crossed in my brain, and I thought of “Milken” as the prep school for awkward, brainy kids up on Mulholland Drive.
Fifteen minutes before the phone interview, I happened to be talking to my dad who works in finance, and I mentioned that I had to get off the phone, because I had a phone call with Milken. My dad asked if it was the Milken Institute, and I glanced at the email and said “oh, yes.”
He was the one who told me that it was an economic policy think tank, and that they were kind of a big deal. I did some quick Googling to prepare for the interview, which was with their “Director of Database Information and Marketing.” A man named Joe.
I spoke to Joe for about a half hour, and it was one of the worst phone interviews I’ve ever had. He was dismissive and uninterested—I figured he was some high-finance guy, who couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to my answers.
No one was more shocked than I was when I found out they wanted me to come in for an in-person interview when I was next in Los Angeles. A couple weeks later, I was out visiting for Labor Day Weekend, and flew in early on Friday, so I could come in to meet the team at their offices in Santa Monica. I was still perplexed as to why they wanted me to come in, but I figured: why not?
As soon as I met Joe in person, I realized how wrong I had been. Far from a stuffed shirt finance type, Joe had come to Milken following a stint running the Virgin Megastore at the Sunset 5 mall. In his spare time, he fronted a rock band, wrote jokes for his stand-up comedian friends, and was less like an economist than pretty much anyone I’d ever met.
We spent the rest of the interview talking comedy and music and only briefly touched on the work of the Institute. He hadn’t asked me any follow-up questions on the phone, because all my answers were spot on. He ended up hiring me, and we shared an office for one of the most fun, ridiculous working years of my life (a topic for another day’s story). I left the Institute a year later, but we’ve stayed close, and in March, I’ll be going to his wedding.
Why this first impression has stuck with me is that I can’t remember another instance in my adult life when I was so wrong about someone. The reason I’ve come up with is that we met over the phone. Fundamentally, human beings are not that far on the evolutionary scale from non-verbal creatures, and I really think we glean a lot more from just looking at faces and gestures than we do from words.
Also, Joe—the rock star economic data guy—certainly defies classification.
Who is THAT?
My mom started a new life when I went off to college. After being married to my father, and having years of retail experience on her own, she decided to take what she knew about design and retail and open a gift shop in a hotel in California. She had been a stay at home mom with me for most of my life, but I am an only child, and I think the idea of tennis and bridge for the remainder of her days was more than she could handle.
The hotel was large, over 350 rooms, overlooking San Francisco Bay. I had been working as a substitute teacher when she opened her store and spent a good deal of time over the summer helping her pick inventory and so forth. The store opened right before Thanksgiving, but it wasn't until right after the holiday that I was able to come up and see the finished product.
I was really proud of her efforts - the store looked fantastic, with local trinkets and nicer home-decor kinds of items, as well as the obligatory newspapers and candy (it was a hotel, after all!) I took a Saturday to spend up with her and had agreed to help her with a policies manual and some HR stuff.
When lunchtime came around, we opted for the cheap route since it was okay for us to eat in the staff cafeteria. Why spend money when you can eat food, prepared by the same chefs, for free? So we walked through the bowels of the hotel, grabbed our trays and sat down to eat.
Then he walked in.
Tall, dark hair, in a dark suit with a white shirt and a shocking yellow tie. He was smiling and friendly and greeted everyone by name. He got a bowl of soup, made a sandwich and went off to eat by himself, just he and the newspaper.
Rarely in my life have I been rendered speechless. Those who know me and know how much I love to talk are shocked to their core that I may find myself at a loss for words. All I could do was smack my mother's arm and mumble, "Who is THAT??" She turned in his general direction, but could not find the person I meant. "That one - over there, with the dark suit.. who is HE??" She had no idea. An Adonis had just descended from heaven but she had no idea who he was? "Well, find out for me, will you?"
Less than two years after seeing that man in the cafeteria, I walked down the aisle to agree to spend a lifetime with him. We both have changed, more than we might have imagined, but that first impression sure was a good one.
Shadow of a Man
Me? Making a distinct first impression on another person? I don't think that eve happened or not that I was told about.
First impressions others have made on me? Well, pretty much everyone I've run across has made a distinct and often a memorable first impression on me, but that's not saying much. I don't think I'm all that hard to impress. Every classroom I've entered, every job I've taken, every social situation I've been in has presented me with a wide variety of new people, and I like to think I noticed them all.
It's the least I could do.
Did the woman I was later to marry make a great first impression? Yes, she did, but to be fair, I later married her. Was I impressed with many of my teachers at whose feet I sat and studied and who I looked up to? Again, yes, but I've been so universally impressed with people that my interest in them has been pretty much diluted through overuse.
But, if you want to hear of someone, I was once struck speechless by a movie star I saw sitting all alone in front of a tent at the Los Angeles Festival of Books back when it was held where it should always be held: UCLA
I was burdened by an armful of books and walking up and down the rows of boots, wending my way through the crowds who were all, mostly, similarly burdened. There were stalls featuring every variety of book imaginable, and I was like a kid in a candy store in spite of having visited this particular candy store every year for a few years running.
Then, I saw him.
I recognized him at once from years of having seen him on TV, and he smiled in return. There, striking in what I can only consider an inhuman concentration of male beauty, sat Dennis Weaver.
It's said that film agents can recognize at once a face that the camera will love, a presence that stands out from the crowd. My oldest sister once worked at our local movie theater and once they were having a debut or something and she came home from work and couldn't shut up for days about how handsome Cary Grant was.
It was the same thing with me and Mr. Weaver. He looked rugged, cowboyish, masculine, and because of that smile, incredibly human, friendly, and approachable. We spoke for a few moments, or he spoke while I stammered, and while he'd never been a favorite of mine or anyone I'd ever given a second thought about, just his physical presence, his appearance, the charm and ease and humanity he radiated, if caught on film, could make him a star.
And, I guess it was. And he was.
I am Paul McCartney
My friend Rocky and I are dressed up, heading to a party on Capital Hill at the house of his friend’s friend. In the backyard not many people are there and we don’t know anyone.
A young woman approaches me saying I look like Paul McCartney. Rocky says, “That’s right, he is Paul McCartney.” And when she looks back at me I smile and say, in my fake British accent, “Yes, I’m Paul.” The sudden change of expression on her face overwhelms me as I realize she actually believes I am Paul McCartney. This is when I should have said I was joking. But I was so taken with how taken she was, that I just kept nodding as she showered me with praise, telling me how much she loved my songs and The Beatles. Her outpouring of affection mesmerized me. I had another chance to confess, but almost right away she started introducing me as Paul McCartney to her friends. And some of them buy it too and start the same type of gushing.
Now I am looking for Rocky and realizing this has gone too far and we need to leave. Rocky sees it coming too –a voice in the room telling someone “that’s not Paul McCartney.” We head quickly for the street, and I see the women I tricked coming after me, red-faced and cursing. Rocky and I hesitate; should we stop and apologize. No, he says, and we run like hell.
Once Is Enough
If I ever made a distinct first impression on anyone, I would like to know. Except for once while I was getting on a shuttle to New York from D.C., back when there was such thing ($35 round trip!), and Ted Kennedy stared at me for a few seconds longer than was proper (maybe because he thought I was somebody else; I stared back too because I couldn't believe how blue this guy's eyes were, and then I recognized him and by then we both looked away).
But the first impression I most remember happened in a tiny bar 31 years ago in San Diego. It was so tiny that it was part of a strip mall. I had gone there to hear a singer I knew from my days at Arizona State University. She belted out songs in such a way that I thought other women should just stop even trying to sing. She was touring with some cowboy singer I'd never heard of.
I ran into her in the bathroom before the show and gushed: "I used to follow you around in Tempe and Phoenix. I love your singing!" She said, "You ain't heard nothin'."
She was right. That was the beginning of my love affair from afar with Lyle Lovett and his large band. (Lyle Lovett and His Large Band is the name of his third album, in fact.) That musician has since played in much larger settings, but that night, he played his intoxicating big city jazz and blues and multilayered lyrics for maybe 40 or 50 of us in a tiny space. Six or seven musicians backed him up, spilling over the tiny stage into the bar. Francine Reed, the singer I loved, belted them out. She was right: I hadn't heard anything till then.
As I recall from Daniel Levitin in "This Is Your Brain on Music," music hits all sections of the brain at once, does something to transform your mind, change you.
That night, the music, the lyrics, Lovett's quirky words...everything. That first impression has stayed with me through the years. I saw him in concert once a year, at least, for many years, but nothing could re-create the synthesis of magic that happens in the unexpected encounter of genius musicians in a hole-in-the-wall bar.
I walked into the YMCA , where I'd been a member for more than a year, and had to ask where the yoga class was. There wasn't enough space, apparently, for simultaneous group exercise classes in the fitness area, so the yoga classes were held in the multipurpose room, away from the locker rooms, through the lobby, and toward the administrative offices. It looked like a multipurpose room with fake wood flooring and vertical blinds and a screen that could retract into the ceiling.
I got a mat our of a closet. It was grotty and stinky.
I was wearing, I am certain, a pair of shorts that could easily be mistaken for men's swim trunks. They were blue with some kind of tropical pattern. And a t-shirt.
The teacher wooshed in, sized up the room, and said, "Anybody here for the first time?" I gave a little wave, as if she wouldn't have noticed this clearly non-yogi in print shorts.
The rest of the class is sort of a blur. My head was sort of a blur at the time. I'd taken a leave from work because I'd gotten so anxious and sleepless that I was starting to feel like I couldn't function. When I started to think about ways to make it so I didn't have to function any more, I told my boss I was going to quit my job. She told me to take a leave. A psychiatrist told me to take some pills. And take a yoga class.
The pills helped. The yoga changed my life. I had no idea what I was doing that first day, no idea where my body was in space, no ability to discern left from right. I could not touch my toes.
The teacher, she was a force. Her eyes were everywhere. No cheating, Mr. Man. Bend that knee. Hey Mommy, don't cheat yourself. No crippled arms. Straighten those elbows. Everyone seemed to have a nickname. After the class, people went up to the teacher and asked her questions -- how to fix this or that, what she thought of this tea or that teacher. People want a lot from this woman, I thought.
I came back on Thursday. And Monday. And Thursday. And so it went. I got my own nickname. I got her to remember my real name. That was 13 years ago.
She is still a force.