The hidden message

Try as I might, I struggle to hide my emotions. I have dimples and I blush like nobody’s business. My cheeks give everything away.

At this morning’s monthly videoconference, a beloved colleague hailed me via instant message. It lightened my mood considerably. “I SEE YOUR DIMPLES!” she wrote.

We were both onscreen with about 39 other people. I’m sure no one else was looking at me except her. But I still tried to keep a poker face. No dice.

I abhor videoconferencing. I don’t usually look at people, and I have to force myself to scroll down to hide my own picture-in-picture. Otherwise, I can’t pay attention. Compulsive narcissism, you might call it.

“Don’t hold your head that way, Jabba,” I scolded myself. Ugh. Not flattering. I picked up my fluffy white cat and put him between me and the camera. Then I realized, “Better not; he’ll just distract people from the wonders of PowerPoint. I’ll adjust my scarf. There, that’s better. Neck problem, gone.”

Finally, we got to the good stuff. My grandboss gave us all the lowdown on a personality profiling framework I’ve been interested in since forever, called The Enneagram. It was the one thing that got me through the lowest points of being a fish out of water on my old team.

Being overlooked is often a source of a deep sadness in Nines, a sadness that they scarcely ever give voice to.

I’m not overlooked these days. My buddies notice my dimples, say hello, and make me feel loved and like my contributions matter. No more hiding.


The empty vessel

As a researcher, I’m trying to get better at losing myself.

I see my job as creating open space for other people’s words and stories. I do this by bringing as little of myself as possible into the interactions I have with interviewees.

It’s not like I say nothing; quite the converse. I practice active listening. I aim to provide well-timed, brief, and contextual prompts, so that those I’m speaking to can figure out what it is they have to say.

As I examine my motivations, it’s hard to distinguish. Do I employ manipulation, or is it allowing? Am I getting people to open up? Or am I trying to get people to like me? Trust me?

When I talk about the weather, mention my upbringing in Southern California, sprinkle anecdotes of my dad the Dodgers and Lakers fan, I’m not being indulgent. I’m trying to find common ground, to remind the person on the other side that I’m a real person. Not a cipher.

But this time we spend together is about them, not me. We’re there to focus on what they’re saying. I’m proud when I can tie things they mention earlier to things they’re exploring later. I wish I could always be this present and engaged in my primary relationship, in my daughterhood, sisterhood, and in my friendships.

But practicing at being better in my job sometimes does spill over into real life.

I’m struggling right now with a complicated family relationship. My brother and his ex-wife are filling out financial aid applications for their daughter Maya. It’s stirring up the old, bad days between them. It’s bringing up, for me, the ways in which I’ve helped, not helped, meddled, run away, and put my head into the sand. 

For me, it’s bringing up the ways I failed to appreciate and forgive my father. The hurt I nursed for many years after he missed a key deadline with my paperwork. I had to go to work while attending classes from my sophomore year forward, and had to borrow money for school after a blissful, debt-free, work-free freshman year.

This turn of events made me stronger, more organized, and focused. I cut back on partying and took a hard look at how it affected my grades, which in turn affected my qualifications for a full-ride scholarship — just as much as my dad’s missed deadline did.

Each action, word, choice — even each inaction — affects the flow of our inter-relatedness with one another. There are things I could say to my brother, my sister-in-law, and my niece. There are things I shouldn’t say. I don’t always know the proper boundaries to set. 

I aim to be an empty vessel, letting people think what they will of me. Or not at all. I can’t control how I’m perceived. Only what I say and do.

In this case, saying as little as possible is the best. Doing and giving is what’s required.


A tight spot

I put down the phone and pulled the car keys out of my purse. “Dave!” I shouted through the bathroom door. “Mom told them you’re her attorney, and that you’re coming over there to sort things out.”

“I’ll be right there!” Dave shouted back. “I cannot wait. You know I love Sonia.”

“Yeah,” I muttered. The bathroom faucet was running, so he couldn’t hear me. “You want her wrapped around your little finger so she’ll put in a good word for you. I told you, I am not marrying you. Ever.”

He came out and ran his hands through his too-long, too-thin hair. “I love helping people out of tight spots. And I love it when my otherwise useless and obscure expertise makes me appear intimidating. She didn’t tell them I practice commercial real estate law, right?”

“They’re so stupid, they’d probably find that intimidating. This is a real estate problem, anyway.”

“True enough,” he nodded.

We drove up to the city and parked in my favorite 24-hour garage in the Tendernob. On the way over, we rehearsed what he was going to say.

“Ok, so first I’ll tell them that he—she—is not named on the lease.” Dave announced.

“He. Technically.” I corrected.

“I just love this! It’s so fun! It’s just so fucking San Francisco!”

“Fun for who?” I rolled my eyes. “It’s not your mother who’s being locked out of her own bedroom because Barbie McGee, née Carlos Martinez, is turning tricks in there.”

“Well, maybe Barbie could sublet from Sonia. Isn’t she going back to see your dad every weekend nowadays?”

“No, she—he—cannot fucking sublet from my mom! Who knows where… ‘all that’ has even been?”

“She could demand a cut of her/his earnings!”

“We are not going to make my mom Barbie’s pimp, ok? We are—you are—going to scare Barbie away with your silver-tongued command of obscure legalese!”

“Okay, okay. Fine. I’m just looking out for you, baby. That’s what this brainiac Jew will do for you day in, day out. I’m just saying.”

“Save your advocacy for the assholes trying to screw my mom over. We’re almost there.” I ran up the last flight of stairs and thrust the door open.

“Hi Trace!” my mom squeaked, a full octave higher than her normal voice. She was sitting on the couch next to her weekend bag. She had that look on her face, the one I knew so well. She was pretending to play nice.

Dave came in behind me, hugged my mom, and nodded menacingly at her roommate Darrin. That little twink. Shifty and shambolic as ever. He was standing in the way of my mom’s bedroom door. “B-Barbie’s almost ready,” he mumble-stuttered. “Aren’t you, sweetie? Right?” He sounded frantic. “Trace’s boyfriend Dave is here.”

“I’m coming!” trilled Barbie, as she moved furniture around, or roller skated or something. Who knew what freakish perversions her johns were into? Ugh.

She came out in a kimono and extended her hand out limply to us, like a dowager countess in a tedious receiving line. Darrin made hurried introductions. I remained standing near the door, while Dave took Barbie’s hand and looked at her manicure. He was quivering with excitement. His first transvestite prostitute. Life down in Encino was so boring compared to this. I elbowed him in the ribs.

“So. It’s, um, Sonia’s assertion that you are not on the lease. And that you are bringing… ‘guests’ into her bedroom.”

“Oh no, darling,” Barbie replied. “I sleep alone. And only when Miss Sonia is away for the weekend. Darrin said it would be ok. He said she was hardly ever here anymore.”

“Sleeping is not what we’re talking about,” I blurted out.

“Trace, I got this,” Dave smiled and winked at me. “Barbie. Barbara?”


“You’re not on the lease, and Sonia does not give her permission for you to use her bedroom while she’s gone, while she’s here, or ever. Do you understand?”

“Well, of course, darling, if Miss Sonia doesn’t want me to stay here, I won’t. You have my word.”

“Barbie, I’m going to need more than your word. I’m going to need both you and Darrin to vacate these premises. You, now. Darrin, by the end of the month.”

“You can’t make me do anything!” Darrin put his hands on his hips. But I noticed he was no longer standing near my mom’s door.

“Actually,” Dave moved in for the kill, “California residential leasing code 6429, amended in the year 1994 in San Francisco County, states that subletting rooms to individuals not listed on the lease instantly invalidates the tenant-landlord agreement. And California penal code 647(b)—“

“I am well aware,” Barbie cut in. “Darrin, will you carry my bird cage?”

They went into my mother’s bedroom and began to make shuffling and sliding noises. “What the fuck?” I gave Dave a meaningful glare.

“We’re good,” he nodded. “That is—Sonia, if you are good?” She was.

Barbie and Darrin started bringing random things out of my mom’s room and putting them in the narrow hallway. Within a week, Darrin moved out too, and another young, gay friend of hers moved in. Names got changed on the lease. Everything was legal and official.

I may not have given Dave an acceptance to his proposal, but I did, through my mom’s misadventures in the big city, give him one of the best stories of his entire life.