On Shapeshifting

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On Shapeshifting:
cost/benefit and peril

In 1976, I got divorced, left the Digger community I had lived and worked among, abandoned my life in Aspen Colorado, and took my girls home to southern Ohio where my mother lived.

Those condensed facts hold volumes of history. We often laugh at how every quarter of a year held an intense chapter of living during our twenties, one of the humorous aspects of aging together with a group of cohorts.

For those of you who don’t know, “Digger” was the name people who lived in the Haight-Ashbury in the mid-60’s called ourselves. Digger meant a host of wildly intangible things like being anarchists and leaderless, but it also meant some very specific approaches to the practicalities of life: free food was not only served in the parks but was also delivered from the produce markets to certain households of people living in community.

Together with being from Buffalo NY, famous for its spicy chicken wings, living in the Haight-Ashbury gave me my lifelong fondness for the architecture of a plate of wings. The airlines wouldn’t send them into the air–that would have been in such poor taste!–thus squid at 25 cents a pound from Chinatown and wings formed an important part of my daily diet. Habits like these don’t die easily.

At Digger Free stores, people could find clothing for themselves and their children or simply a costume for the next Human Be-In. Of immense value was the Free Clinic where an actual MD could diagnose and prescribe medicine for an unfortunate case of the clap or a child’s croup.

Although a ceremonial Death of the Digger held as a parade down the middle of the streets marked a watershed, other key events like the National Guard’s occupation of the Haight-Ashbury and Time Magazine’s discovery of the new lifestyle–call it hippy, Digger, flower child, biker, or countercultural, it wasn’t homogenized–the end of living in the Haight Ashbury had arrived.

The leaders of this leaderless group restyled themselves as The Free Family and either moved out of the Haight into farflung communes…or took to house trucks visiting settled communes and reporting their progress to the entire network of folks living the countercultural life.

And what did that mean? We learned to do the essential things for ourselves. Had our babies at home. Grew our own food. Continued to view the world through a lens of political analysis. Learned herbal medicine. Through a lot of painful trial and error, we began to mature. I recall a moment when I went to bed with my then-husband on my thirtieth birthday and he STILL hadn’t discovered that I had a clitoris. We would be married today in spite of the drugs and alcohol, philandering, and sexism–all ubiquitous among activist groups in the Sixties–if he hadn’t also been violent. Violence at home I could not abide for either my two daughters or myself, and so, in debt from having to hire three lawyers in three states to defend my right to shared custody, I took stock of my prospects from the safe house of my mother’s home.

I did a hard analysis of what talents I had at 33 to build a career that would support the girls as a single mom. I came up with only one: I was a writer.

Meditating on beginning a career straight out of my countercultural life, I realized I had nurtured a longstanding attraction to shapeshifting.

The life of a shapeshifter was spelled out in a book I had read while living in the Haight Ashbury. A shapeshifter, more than a simple quick-change artist, could walk into any group she pleased and subvert or defend it, without anyone really noticing. A shapeshifter could be invisible even while present. A natural saboteur/life actor, I realized then that the most important goal in my life–aside from being a good mother and sharpening my skills as a writer–was to explore the chemical industry and see if I could discover how to pull the plug.

Through some tenuous family connections, I got an interview with an established regional advertising agency. When the owner asked me how much I wanted, I said I thought I would need $1000/month to live. Before I could say “after tax dollars”, he hired me at $12,000/year, condemning me and the girls to a life of poverty before I even started. I was on the “fast track” only because I said so.

I worked at Alberto Culver in Chicago for a year, home of products based on chemicals. Think FDS, Feminine Deodorant Spray. Hair products that only changed their positioning rather than the product formulation. Last year’s Thicker Fuller Hair became this year’s Shiny Hair. Static Guard. Artificial Sweeteners like saccharine. A colleague said, “A year at Alberto Culver is worth ten years anywhere else.” I took the measure of the Enemy; they all played golf together every Wednesday afternoon, had drinks at the Water Tower after work. I couldn’t complain, much; in one year, they gave me my first real packaged goods experience, the gold standard in product management.

When I finally landed a job in the food industry, working as a product manager in the heart of my family’s western New York homeland with Welch Foods, in their soft drinks department, I felt like a pig in a wallow. “If you wanted to live in western New York where your family is, why didn’t you just call us and ask for a job, instead of making us pay a headhunter’s fee,” my bosses exclaimed in frustration when they discovered that I had landed on my feet in my own homeland.

I had the privilege of introducing the first 10% juice soft drink to the market. I should have been forewarned when–after spending a small fortune with Landor Package design, developing advertising to introduce the product, and investing in groundbreaking product development–top management cancelled our 10% juice product for fear of bringing down the wrath of the FDA. ‘Let some others introduce this product; being the first brings down fire from the FDA, attention we don’t want,’ they said. They gave me high marks for classic product management in bringing the first 10% Juice Drink to the brink of introduction, then turned their attention to a situation in Texas, a big market, where soft drinks had been banned from schools. Two weeks later, they fired me.

While my bosses were on the road, the product development team called me down to test the drink that management was planning on putting in vending machines in Texas schools. These product development guys were my fans and allies; I couldn’t figure out why marketing treated them like natural enemies. We stood in a circle, tasting cups in hand and sipped. I couldn’t hide my expression; the product was pure chemicals. We all nodded. What could I say? I agreed to send around a memo saying that the product would be ruinous for the Welch brand.

When my bosses returned, I was called into their office on April Fools Day, 1980, and given the sack. No appeal. “You’ve been warned,” the chief executive told me when I went in to say goodbye. I had been? Warned of what? They had sniffed me out.

Being fired was inarguably one of the worst times of my life.
There would be no court of appeal for the first woman executive Welch had ever hired.
I would be treated just like a man, they had asserted.
I had failed to see the flaw in that line of reasoning at the time.
Other companies hiring their first women promised to protect them from the male majority with mediators and mentors.

No one in Chautauqua County had heard of whistleblowing at that time. It was widely assumed that–since the corporation had not given a reason for firing me–it had to be for sexual misconduct. The corporate wives were the worst. Oddly, I had been chaste as a priest during this tenure in the corporate world (yes we can all smile at that simile now.) But it was painful. The corporate lawyer told me that if I blew the whistle, I would never work in the industry again.

I lay on my couch for a month or more, grieving.
Until my hash settled, my younger daughter would go to live with her father in the New Jersey suburbs. my older daughter, who had been to three high schools while I was on the fast track, got a scholarship to a boarding school north of New York City on the Hudson.
My family life was over, just like that.

My heart was broken but I was too young to know that it’s precisely this kind of event that can signal the most creative part of your career. By now, just four years out of Aspen and my divorce, I had the start of a career.

And so I took myself to New York City where, on a bulletin board in the e.s.t. office–remember Werner Ehrhard and est?) I saw an ad for a senior position at a market research firm run by two women Carol Hyatt and June Esserman. Thus began the most fascinating part of my career as a shapeshifter. The means of operating as “who I was” rather than having to dissemble was handed to me.

It was during this period of time, on a warm Saint Patrick’s Day on Madison and 48th in New York City, that two Digger friends, Peter Berg who had just founded the bioregional organization Planet Drum and George Tukel, one of the earliest applications specialists of GPS (global positioning systems) to environmental planning, paid a visit to my office.

Berg and Tukel put their feet up on my desk, lit a joint and held forth, swinging beer bottles, declaiming, as co-workers slid by my door staring in with fascination. The fumes of the corned beef and cabbage I had brought in for the office party color the scene with their fragrance in retrospect. The sound of bands playing in the St. Paddy’s Day Parade, cymbals and tubas, drift in the window.

I was almost all the way out now, like a snail and her soft horns. June Esserman, former partner of Daniel Yankelovitch, decided she wanted to focus on segmentation systems to sell to the big consumer goods companies. She brought in SRI from Stanford who wanted to introduce their Values and Lifestyle System to the corporate world. I had cut my teeth in graduate school on multivariate analysis and–closeted data jock as well as shapeshifter–loved what I heard from the SRI group.

Our generation, the academics told us, had spawned a new value system, one qualitatively different from our parents. SRI had the data to prove to the corporations that this market–now only 20% of the market–was destined to grow and prosper, equalling their parents’ buying power inside of a decade. My SRI colleagues boldly lit up joints after lunch in fancy New York restaurants while I seriously considered risking bolder behavior, not being such a little chickenshit, the byproduct of a lifetime of shapeshifting.

But first the corporate new product development teams of the packaged goods giants
-Coke, GM, General Foods, Polaroid–had to understand a few things about this new market and I had been chosen to deliver the message and sign them up. The “Inner-Directed” SRI dubbed us, as opposed to our parents, the Outer Directed. We–this new market opportunity–were skeptical of the big corporations, with good reason. We didn’t buy their claims, scrutinized labels. Wanted natural products, no harmful chemicals.

So we put SRI’s algorithm together with a company’s product usage data and other demographic information and voila!–a powerhouse that drove dramatic changes on every supermarket aisle. That was the late 80’s and the 90’s. We take that world for granted today.

After, I was asked to do a private study on the longevity of the claim “natural.” I called two dozen heads of product development at the big fragrance and flavor companies.
The findings? No one could see an end to the “natural” trend. It looked big, possibly endless.

Later, I was asked to do a study for a group who were building a fermentation machine, which would take stock like whey and turn it into any chemical under the sun. Calcium propionate, the preservative to “retard spoilage” could be listed on the bread package as “whey.”

Just short of 40, I fell in love and married for the third and final time in my life.
After bucking my parents wish that I marry a doctor or at least a prominent man,
running from that ignominious fate, insisting on my rights to determine my own destiny by dropping out and doing my own thing in the 60’s and 70’s, I fell in love with a song-and-dance man in the 80’s…who also happened to be a doctor.

I folded up my marketing consultancy when we moved to the country, three hours from New York City, on the NY/PA border, on the Susquehanna River, just south of the Finger Lakes. As we moved into the recession of 1989-90, I realized it was time to begin my career as a creative writer, something I had always known I would do.

It was gradually dawning on me that I could give up my shapeshifting and be myself again.

I got rid of all my business clothing except for one black suit, held in reserve for meetings with bankers and mortgage brokers. Twenty five years later, I have never worn it once. Now I could dress as an artist, be a writer again. Colors, head scarves, pants under dresses–these all came out of the baskets. Like a muscle that had been unused for a long time, I began flexing my creativity as a writer. My mother-in-law offered to pay for my MFA at the avant-garde Bennington College.

I fought the MFA like a wild mustang but I recognized–even if ruefully–that I simply didn’t write well enough to write the kinds of books I read and respected. Thus they pruned and even espaliered me, to carry the metaphor further. I went to work on a trilogy of novels with female protagonists, an exploration of the nineteenth century inspired by hero Milan Kundera, who observed that our culture had left critical values behind in the past, “in that vast cemetery of forgetting” which could be retrieved, rehydrated, reinhabited. Hadn’t we found ourselves at the end of the Petroleum Age, with a world that had been entirely shaped by Petroleum including the chemicals that were killing us and our planet?

How did we leave behind our guilds, our lifestyles that had us feeding and clothing ourselves in harmony with our watershed? Why couldn’t we have listened to our own prophets who asked us to consider stopping short, to consciously halt at the sustainable rather than flinging ourselves headlong at the illusion of progress, the pact with technology, with petroleum and all that has spun out of it? How did we wed ourselves to the factory and the soul-killing mass production line, turn away from the trolley and embrace the private automobile? Turn away from friendship with the native people whose homelands we invaded, out of greed disguised as high-mindedness, progress the natural course of history?

It was slowly dawning on me that writing was not going to be enough; I had to keep my hand in social action, community organizing, that I had started in graduate school with Johnson’s War on Poverty, classic Saul Alinsky.

Somehow, miraculously, I had earned a karmic reprieve after decades as a single mom. My husband’s salary meant that I could devote my days and nights to working on my novels and community organizing in the not-for-profit and foundation worlds. My need to make a living for my daughters and myself had built me a career and an enviable resume, together with some results I could be justifiably proud of. I had not only supported my children as a single mom but I had also helped transform whole categories of consumer goods into healthier more natural products on the shelf.

But shapeshifting exacts payment. Just as collecting welfare checks and grifting in my countercultural life exacted a price–we were coopted from our revolutionary goals and it took me a long time to get my finances into the black–so too had my years hiding out in the corporate world presented a bill that had to be paid. The shadow begins to color the substance.

Although taking LSD had made me aware of chemicals and how they were invading our body tissue, my years both in the corporate world and as a high-paid consultant to the corporate powers-that-be did NOT afford me any insights into how to disentangle food, beverages and chemicals. I was beginning to conclude that only consumer education and enlightenment could begin to redress what Rachel Carson had brought to our attention with Silent Spring, then Karen Silkwood’s death following Marie Curie’s death from radiation, and finally the revelations of the Love Canal. Our waterways, air, soil and flesh were colonized by chemicals.

My decade in the foundation world showed us GMO’s early enough that we were able to call for the application of the precautionary principle before it was too late. But it was already too late: All the power behind the Ford Foundation and their ilk could not slow the dissemination of GMO’s long enough to be tested. Nothing was to stop that juggernaut, just as nothing will stop the development of any market that can produce billions of dollars, be it natural gas, fast fashion, drones…

We are a gullible, fearful and perhaps gluttonous people. Easily manipulated.

Is this what made me think I had to disguise myself to infiltrate the corporate world, the straight world, the corridors of power? Fear for my own survival if I were discovered?
I WAS discovered and survived it, narrowly. I had found that working as a high paid consultant to say the unpopular thing, the thing no insider could say without offending the corporate culture, was a powerful place to be and to make a difference.

But the question remains: During my decade and a half of shapeshifting had I been co opted, bought? Had I sold out? During my years in disguise, working inside the Belly of the Beast, hiding who I really am and what I really thought, did the habit become ingrained?

In fact it did: I am not terribly forthcoming about myself. Perhaps a natural reserve; more likely the need for camophlage, the instinct for survival by becoming invisible. Particularly now that I am an elder woman, I find that I have to be re-introduced to certain men–those who discount elder women–every time I meet them. For this reason, I enjoy the company of matrilineal tribal people, most tribes in the east, because in their eyes, I hold the highest position in culture, being both a woman and an elder.

A Digger girlfriend, Phyllis Wilner, sent me this benediction, this permission slip to be the person that I am (for no one else can be that person with my unique voice) by Dorothy Sayers:
“Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman,
but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”

And so, did I sell out in my years of shapeshifting? Apparently not. I am still here thinking and writing and questioning and feeling fellowship with my fallible fellow inmates. At last, at long last, I am out of the closet as who I am, willing to speak up, to live my life out loud, to speak my truth.

Though it took me all my life to get here, I am grateful to be free.