June 6, 2011

Oprah and Me

This piece first appeared on fictionique.com.

Can’t say I’m much of an Oprah Winfrey fan. I’m rather indifferent about her show. For all but about eighteen months of her 25-year-run, I was running around in a marketing job when her show played locally at 4 p.m.

Family members who are farmers disliked her attack on Alar, a chemical used on apples which turned out to be bogus. She also had her way with the beef industry…my father has railed against her for years, and makes an awful groaning noise when her name is mentioned.

I did, however, steal something from Oprah, and I might again. She threw her own 50th birthday celebration; I won’t speculate on her motives but I wanted my own 50th to mean something, also. So I took a piece of what she did, and improved upon it.

I invited fifty of my closest friends to lunch at a frou frou girlie kind of place (back in the good old days when I worked for a Fortune 100 company with a salary and benefits). The party was dubbed Phenomenal Women, after the Maya Angelou poem of the same name. Oprah actually had Maya Angelou at her gala reading poetry…I handed out a Xerox copy.

Liveried waiters served us mimosas at my party. Guests wore feather boas and tiaras, and all the women born in 1957 were special guests.

In order to attend, my guests were requested to give $50 to our local Easter Seals chapter (a cause I support.) Due to the generosity of my friends, we raised $4500, which was used for a new piece of playground equipment for the Easter Seals therapeutic pre-school.

The second aspect of my party, aside from the fundraising, was that I honored each of my guests. I made nametags that said, for example, Marilyn, 1957. Starting with the most recent, I told each person in the room how much she meant to me and what I have gained from her. My girlfriends also wandered among displays of photographs and relics of the wonderful women in my life who came before them.

I didn’t want my party to be able people honoring me; I wanted to honor the people in my life who made me who I am. In a sense, it was a “reverse funeral.” It was a humbling and wonderful experience for me, and ranks among the top days of my life. (And my husband hosted a “man” party for the husbands and lovers, complete with disgusting bratwursts on the grill and cold beer.)

I am not sure of the details of Oprah’s 50th, other than Dr. Angelou reading poetry; but I cannot imagine it was any more fun than mine.

So now Oprah has had this big extravaganza for her show ending, and I’m thinking I should emulate and host a big “do” for the end of my corporate career, which, yes, I’ve been mourning now for two years. Just like many Americans I’m in the process of reshaping my life. What does life look like after a Fortune 100 job when all the benefits, salary, and pension goes away? (Did I mention that I had thousands of stock options that were underwater at the time of my mandatory retirement?)

I’m thinking that I could rent the back room at Archie and Clyde’s Pizza and bring in speakers just like Oprah did.

Senator Mitch McConnell from across the river should deliver an address since he has so many positive ideas on how middle class Americans should live. McConnell has stated numerous times that the Republican Party supports ordinary Americans. Ordinary if you happen to be in the top five percent of income earners.

I would also want a…erm…song and dance segment from Rep. Paul Ryan, for the group of primarily fifty-somethings. His segment title would be, “When Your Parents Can’t Afford Their Medicare Supplements, and All Your College Graduate Children Have Overwhelming Debt, No Jobs, and Moved Back into your Basement.” Yes, that’s a long title, but I think he has a lot to spin.

Oh, and each guest gets a free shirt with this written on it, “I’m fifty-four, I paid into Medicare since 1973 and all I get is this lousy T-shirt.”

No question that the Dixie Chicks would provide the music. No mimosas this time. Cash bar with beer only.

Since I’m now freelancing and working from home, I did see Oprah’s last show. She stood on the stage alone, pontificating about what she has taught us. She walked away from the stage like Jesus at the Transfiguration.

That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. Like many Americans, I didn’t walk away into a rich sunset from the job I lost. The reality for me was that I took another job, at a third of the salary, with more expensive benefits. After 11-months, my husband and I realized we would be better off if I free-lanced. The cost to maintain a sales and marketing job was more than the salary I was bringing in. So now I’m freelancing, and holding my own. Wonder where Oprah will be in two years?

I don’t resent Oprah, though I don’t understand why it’s always about her. This is where we part ways, Oprah and me.

While Oprah’s outstretched arms appeared to encircle the world, I’ll embrace my friends who have held my hands during the past two years; my own phenomenal women. Most of them are in my career situation, if not much worse. If nothing else, I will hold hands with my fifty friends from my party – many of whom have lost jobs in this Great Recession – and recognize how often we’ve buoyed each other up in these difficult economic times.

Oprah, it’s not just about you.