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I awaken and lie still in bed as the first rays of consciousness take hold of me. As per my custom, I roll over for pen and paper but stop myself in midroll.
"Oops. The Serenity Prayer," I say aloud.
I resume a resting position. I promised my friend and business associate Sierra D'Asanti that I would say the prayer for at least one month before starting my day. She thought it might help me learn to relax and create a less hectic pace for myself. After three days I hadn't seen any benefits. But a promise was a promise.
"God grant me the courage," no, that's not right, "God grant me the strength," that's not it, oh, yes, I remember now. "God grant me the serenity to change," no "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," yes that's it, "to change the things I can," no, wait, "the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference." Whew. I wonder why I have so much trouble remembering such a simple prayer. Before I can answer, I fall back into my compulsive habit of picking up a pen and notebook to write the day's action plan.
Yesterday's memories stir in the background making a slow advance to the front lines of my mind. Oh yes, the president of the United States of America appointed me to head up a House Bereavement Specialists Committee. My job: Obliterate Grief. I write: Action Plan to Obliterate Grief. Step 1: Identify Grief; Step 2: Not sure.
I pause, holding my pen just how does one obliterate an emotion, especially an emotion as devastating as grief with its internal conflagrations and its untidy paroxysms of insidious indescribable pain. Are there such things as weapons of griefdestruction? I have known the devastation of grief and its arduous protracted struggle. It took me over a year to begin to confront the loss of my uncle Sam and my best friend from college, Tara Pintock. How will we as a nation survive those other losses? What can we learn from them? And more importantly, how can we grow from them? Without growth, there is only stagnation and a slow backward decline of the heart and soul.
The newspapers hit my door with a loud thud. It's 5:30 a.m. I immediately step into the hallway of the Hay-Adams Hotel to retrieve the newspaper. The headline blares: "President taps Funeral Planner Madison Banks as Grief Czar." Oy.
I glance at the article but the headlines beside it catch my immediate attention. "Nation Grieves for Darcy." The article includes a lengthy biography on Mr. Darcy and mentions the time and location for the funeral taking place the following day. Another headline reads, "Tri-States Devastated by Midwest Tornado." Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana suffer fifty billion dollars in damages from the ravaging tornado that hit the area last week. Hundreds have been killed, resulting in homelessness on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. They might as well rename the newspaper The Grief Update and Forecast.
In the last four years, America had been struck by Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Ike, Hurricane Ivan, floods, wildfires, one natural disaster after another, the effects of global warming, not to mention the continued aftermath of 9/11 and the unrelenting fear-induced threats of nuclear attacks. It was as if God or some higher power had turned us into one collective entity named Job to test our faith. If that were at all true then the article on the flip side of the front page proved that our nation was failing miserably. The headline read, "Widespread Depression Responsible for Record Low GNP." I scan the story citing record high sales of antidepressants across the country. Great. We would all become grief zombies. Even I was not immune to the cornucopia of grief that seemed to spread emotional tidal waves of suffering across the country. And I wondered where I might find refuge from its psychological pain until I recalled it was my job to create the refuge.
Another thud hits the ground outside my door. This time I retrieve the Financial Street Journal. The front page headline reads like a déjà vu. "Funeral Planner becomes Nation's Grief Czar." Oy. Again.
I need a cup of coffee. I reach for the phone to order room service when it starts to ring. I stare at it. Who else has read the paper at this hour? With trepidation, I pick up the receiver and gently close my eyes.
"Yes, I'd like to speak to the newly appointed grief czar."
"Very cute, Victor."
The sound of Victor Winston's voice still sends a thrill of curiosity and contentment down my spine, just as it did the first time I met him at Nate & Al's Deli in Beverly Hills, California, two years ago.
I remember Victor Winston eating lunch with venture capitalists Johnny Bright and Bobby Garelick. Johnny Bright teased me about being efficient while he himself failed to discern the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Victor chimed in to clarify the matter by quoting the great business management leader Peter Drucker.
With one perspicacious glance, Victor seemed to get the whole of me. His style supported me in a seamless manner. And he was still doing it to this day. I wasn't aware of how Victor's voice affected me in that moment inside Nate & Al's Deli. It wasn't until later that I recognized the impact his choice of words and his tone of voice had on me.
The next time I saw Victor, six months had passed. I was making my official business plan presentation to Johnny Bright and Bobby Garelick. Johnny and Bobby happened to invite Victor to sit in on the meeting. I was pitching Shepherd Venture Capital for a first round investment of substantial funds for Lights Out Enterprises. I explained that Lights Out Enterprises was about "celebrating a life" as opposed to "mourning a death" in terms of funeral planning, and specialized in catering to the pre-need market. "Creating Meaningful Experiences to Remember" was the tagline. Lights Out Enterprises would offer experienced design consultation, high-end digital production services, high-end talent relations and customized merchandise as "funeral favors." I had done my homework and pointed out the facts and figures reflecting a growing industry of twenty-eight billion dollars which would rise as baby boomers aged. I walked them through the various components of the business I had envisioned. Revenue generation would come from consultations to individuals and funeral homes, customized digital life story tribute films and personalized branded merchandise.
Victor remained silent during my entire ninety-minute pitch. Johnny and Bobby were agape at the numbers. Yet, the two of them ultimately dismissed the concept out of their own preconceived fears around death and an incorrect hunch that it might only end up as a dying trend.
When Johnny and Bobby left the room and I stood alone in a puddle of rejection, Victor spoke to me for the second time. Again, he used metaphors, parallelism and similes. "Keep your eye on your vision," he had said, and "I hope Lights Out sees a lot of light and knock 'em dead," underlining his words with a tone of voice that possessed a tacit, unwavering faith. In what, I wasn't sure.
It wasn't until the third time Victor spoke to me that I pinpointed my attraction to him. Six more months had passed. Once again, I stood in the lobby of Shepherd Venture Capital but this time I came better prepared. I carried with me a completed prototype; a life story video produced by Lights Out Enterprises. This was not a cookie-cutter slide show that some funeral homes had embarked upon. This was the tribute video for my beloved uncle Sam who gave me the first seed money for my business. It was a highly personalized video and it was sacred to me.
I asked the receptionist to inform Johnny Bright that I was in the lobby. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, Johnny had already stolen my business plan, quit Shepherd Venture Capital, and joined forces with my archnemesis, Derek Rogers, to launch a competing business called Tributes in a Box.
"Johnny Bright quit with no forwarding information and Bobby Garelick is out of the country on business," said the receptionist.
I stood in the lobby feeling naked and tired, and out of sheer desperation asked the receptionist if anyone was around. And then in the distance I heard Victor's voice. "I'm here," was all he said. It was in the way he said it, with his uncanny gift to create an emotional safety net along with an undeclared belief in who I was.
It turned out that Victor had taken my earlier presentation quite seriously and done a little digging on his own to verify the merit in my cause. And, well, to make a long story shorter, Victor became the sole venture capitalist to underwrite an official first-round investment for Lights Out Enterprises. Since then, he's become my fiancé and never stopped believing in the business, or in me.
"How on earth did you swing an appointment like this one?" Victor asks over the phone line, bringing me back to the present.
"I didn't swing it. I was chosen. Reluctantly, I might add. What do I know about healing a nation? I'm just an event planner in funeral clothes."
"Well, you can't let the president down. Nor the country, I might add. We're all counting on you now, Madison. No pressure or anything. But I don't have to tell you that everyone is in a state of despair. The flight attendants, teachers, the guy selling newspapers on the corner there's a terrible malaise in everyone's eyes. The quality of work is shameful, too. No one cares about anything anymore. It's as if our country has lost its sense of self and with it all of our pride."
"I know. Arthur Pintock ordered his employees to go home yesterday because they couldn't focus on their jobs." Arthur Pintock was the CEO of Pintock International, the world's leading mortgage lender, and the father of my best friend from college, Tara Pintock. It was the lack of personalization at Tara's funeral that inspired Lights Out Enterprises. Arthur Pintock became one of my first lead-generating clients. It turned out to be a life-altering experience for him. His initial tribute video woke him up to the fact that while he had developed the most powerful mortgage lending company in the world, he had undermined his personal life into a state of shambles. He set out to change his modus operandi and went on sabbatical from Pintock International to discover himself, and well, eventually he returned to his company with a fresh perspective on living a life of balance. And he joined the advisory board of The Tribute Network division of Lights Out Enterprises, convinced that its Web site could attract a niche market on the scale of YouTube as an advertiser-supported sharing site for life celebration videos. Somehow, Arthur had managed to create a fulfilling life and was even courting his former wife, Grace Pintock. The death of Tara had been the final straw in pulling their marriage apart. But he was determined to make amends and renew his marriage with Grace. I wondered how many people, including myself, would have the strength and courage to rewrite their life story, a much harder task than embarking on a whole new story.
"Have you started writing an action plan?" asks Victor.
"Yes, as a matter of fact I have notes here and there while I oversee the final plans for Mr. Darcy's funeral service. Where are you right now?"
"Austin. I've got a meeting lined up with an advertiser who might be interested in The Tribute Network."
"That's great." I jump to my feet. "When is it? With the time difference I'm sure I can hop on a plane and meet you there in time to make the presentation and"
"Stop. You're doing it again."
"Micromanaging me, Maddy I'm a big boy. I can handle it. Besides, it's a long shot because we don't have enough traffic on the site yet. But I've got other meetings in Austin so I figure it's worth a try. And besides, you already have a job. Cure a nation. Plan a funeral. How much do you think you can possibly take on?"
"But I I need to "
" to stop overscheduling so you don't have to feel a false sense of importance. Isn't that what you're supposed to be working on at your meetings, how to value yourself outside of work?"
He was right. In fact, Victor was right most of the time, which sometimes really irked me. Was I that lost in my own circuitous path that I had to always get back on track via his insights? Was I not good enough to find my own way?
I take a deep breath and pull out my sheet on Definitions of a Workaholic I found on the Internet several months ago when I thought I might have an issue.
The thought that I might have work addiction issues became apparent when Victor took me river rafting for a long weekend. Any non work-related activity made me uneasy and agitated. I was all too eager to check my BlackBerry for e-mail messages every time we stopped along the river to have lunch or camp out. When Internet connectivity became impossible I went into withdrawal, searching for any scrap of paper I could find to make notes to myself about work. When that didn't happen, I resorted to scratching ideas in the sand with a stick. I talked to Victor incessantly about the next item we needed to address to continue the expansion of Lights Out Enterprises and The Tribute Network. The clincher was when we rode the rapids and I continued to talk about business above the din of smashing waves and the moment where we nearly capsized. That's when Victor strongly suggested I seek help. I agreed to do so.
I decided defining the problem was the best way to start and found all kinds of definitions for the ailment on the Internet. I shared my secret with Sierra who sent me a copy of the Serenity Prayer with instructions to memorize it and repeat it every morning. I also printed out a schedule of gatherings in the area of Los Angeles where I live as a reminder to go to one. But so far, I just hadn't had time. I was too busy working. What a cruel and strange cycle.
I unfolded the paper with the twelve definitions on it. There they were, staring right at me: Number One:You find it hard to love and accept yourself. What if that was true? Was I working for love and acceptance? If so, then from whom? My parents? Victor? The president? No, not the country. That's too many people to get approval from.