Months beforehand, the invitation went out that my employer was celebrating its 20th anniversary on my current coast, on my birthday. I hadn’t been to a work meeting in 7 years. I hadn’t worked for money in 7 years. And in many ways, I had disappeared from who I thought I truly was for the same period of time, doubling down on motherhood while disintegrating in extreme suburbia to the point that only the most abrasive language and volume remained.
This last workplace had meant much more than a paycheck. It was a place where I felt I actually had belonged, had fit. That it wasn’t congruous to where I grew up or went to school only made it more treasured. And seven years without it, in another environment that was not a fit, contributed to a sense of deep, deep sadness.
So, I decided (after insisting to my spouse that he had to go) to attend. The event was on my birthday – and thanks to the spouse, I got to leave a day early. I’d arrive 2F and leave 30. And in between I’d ask about my cake. Incessantly.
As a comm person who did front of house as well as behind the scenes, I knew the importance of self-presentation, an even scarier proposition of science and dark arts than Halloween requires as a woman in that role. But 7 years out of the game meant bigger gaps, less context. I went to Zara to find things that made me feel confident and that I thought were cool. If I thought so, it wouldn’t matter what anyone else thought. I got some hair help, as I had come to the conclusion that I would like to have it, not that I was horrible without it. I thought about who I would like to see – many many people, in fact. I thought about mistakes I made with some of those people (where I behaved badly, in particular) and how I would try to make amends. I touched base with (mostly) my female colleagues, knowing they’d be busy, but letting them know I would appreciate any stolen moments they had to catch up on life. Their lives, mine too.
It was probably the longest I ever took to pack in some time. Proper armor is serious business, not just for comm, but in the 75/25 “you are what you look like/you are what you say” world that women occupy. It would come into the room before I did, and I had goals for it. Look directed, approachable, focused, warm. Those adjectives were not so far from my deliberate arrayment choices as a working woman, but now I had to be more deliberate – the place I find myself these days is not that place. In the library at the school bookfair, my last stop before the airport, the really nice moms and teachers did double takes at my double down. I said, “Yeah, I clean up real nice.”
At no point did I think I had to read up on the latest news from WGs. HTML 5 work, the only news I saw regularly, was finishing – it had hardly started at W3C when I was leaving, and I had my own not-public views on it at the time. I knew enough that there had been many organizational changes, and there was no point in trying to track them all as had been my responsibility when I was onduty. Instead, I trusted that I would still remember how to do my usual – pay attention and ask questions. (It worked beyond what I expected – more on that later.)
At the airport, in lady clothes with a tiny suitcase and bag, and only a smartphone for tech gadgetry, I felt almost part of the world again. I can go through a TSA line in my sleep, even with kids. To be unaccompanied was even easier. The female agents complimented my clothing, and I shared my sources. I headed to Butter for a record-fast waterless mani. (Usually, there is nothing on my hands but small cuts, dirt, food specks and wrinkles.) Got a cup at Vita, because Terminal C is for West Coast corridor traffic, and the coffee must be good. I got the last available seat on the plane – a middle seat in the last row – and had both of my travel neighbors attempt conversation. (Yes, both male, one much older. You guys are so easy to read, Vegas won’t bother to have a line on you.)
So, the mechanisms and interactions were very similar to the olden days. The adrenaline, which I hadn’t felt in some time, also came back. I was finishing NYT crosswords on the iPhone in 15 mins or less. All of them. I hadn’t ruined my stockings yet. There was something different, made by 7 years of absence/different purpose, but I had a sense of it being there next to me, as opposed to being in front of me. Not good, but better than the usual.
Clip-clapping, tickity-tacking to the taxiline (the shoes I was wearing had come out of retirement, and the heel caps had popped off, with nary a cobbler in sight), I got into a raggedy one and headed through the low dry landscape of SJC and the environs. The b&b was on the other side of Santa Clara, but was more than fine enough. I had my own entry, and a clawfoot tub. More importantly, the quiet. Soon enough, I was spending my second 20 on cabfare, and headed to the conference hotel, waiting for my former teammates to slowly peel off the AC dinner.