Op-Ed: When Work Feels Like Anything But

Sherry McGuinn

Like a gift that keeps on giving.


Currently, I am self-employed. What does that mean, exactly?

It means I don’t have a job. This is my job. Writing on this platform and others, and screenwriting. And, taking care of my husband, our home, and our cats.

My career was that of an advertising and marketing writer. For nearly thirty years, I wrote a constant stream of well-paying content for demanding clients.

I dealt with ego-maniacal co-workers and supervisors. And I loved it. For a while.

In 2000, when my husband and I moved to a western suburb of Chicago, I was still working in the city, at a Michigan Avenue ad agency and abhorred my commute. It was an all-day/everyday affair: Commuting, working, commuting. A bus to the Amtrack train which, after an hour-long ride, took me to the “Loop” and yet another bus or, if I preferred, a two-mile walk.

Those of you who have seemingly endless commutes to your jobs know how draining this is.

And then, in January 2001, I was part of a mass layoff at my agency and it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened, albeit, I didn’t realize it at the time.

For a couple of years, I struggled while taking on any freelance gig I could get. Some were one-offs and others, thankfully, lasted months. Then, in 2005, I received a call from the head of Human Resources at a privately-owned marketing agency in the suburb of West Chicago, which was about thirty minutes from where we lived. Twenty if you gunned it.

I had never heard of the place although I later read in Crain’s Chicago Business that they were one of the top direct marketing agencies in the country.

My husband shuttled me over to the agency for my interview because I am directionally challenged and can’t find my ass with both hands. (Did we have phone GPS apps then? I can’t remember!)

When we pulled into the long, circular driveway, my heart sank.

“Looks like a sperm bank,” he said.

And my husband was right. A sprawling, one-story, unassuming-looking building with dark, tinted windows and a sign you could barely see from the busy road leading onto the property.

This was nothing like the companies I was used to. And the area itself was big on…nothing. A lot of small, industrial parks and not much else. (I later discovered that there was a strip mall with several stores, including a Target not too far away. Yippee!)

At the end of the day, it didn’t matter a damn what the place looked like. I needed a job. What’s more, they had approached me, which is nearly always a good thing.

I was interviewed by three people. The HR wonk and two executive creative directors. I rocked it. When I need to be, I’m great on my feet, and, in a room.

Upon leaving, I was shown the general vicinity in which I’d be matriculating. A cube farm! This was a new wrinkle, indeed, for someone who’d had her own office for years. That’s not being snobbish as I’d earned that particular perk. Thirty years is a hell of a long time to hone one’s craft.

Again, I needed the job and I accepted, gratefully.

So. What do you do when everything you expected turns out to be nothing like you expected?

That’s what ultimately ensued when I began what turned out to be a long stint at Aspen Marketing.

I had the time of my life.

It turns out that sitting in a cube surrounded by a raucous group of “creatives” who loved to laugh, was more like a party than a job. Oh, we worked and worked hard, but Aspen was unlike any marketing or advertising agency I’d ever worked at.

Because it wasn’t a sweatshop. For the first time, I was able to bounce at 5 pm if I’d met my deadlines. And I always did.

Also, and this is a biggie, many of the people I’d be working with were my age…and older! I felt like I’d found the holy grail! Later, I decided this was a suburban thing as the downtown agencies were like catnip for younger, less-experienced copywriters and art directors.

Quickly, I formed a core group of friends, and our circle soon expanded. Being a gregarious sort, I’m adept at bringing people together, and nowhere did this attribute serve me better than at Aspen Marketing Services.

For example, I initiated “Let’s Lunch” Thursdays, where I’d send an email inviting everyone in the creative department — and beyond — to meet at a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint in a strip mall near work. These lunches were a great success and so much fun. And, my coworkers and I left there warmed by the glow of camaraderie and cheap wine. (Which helped with the “creative process.”)

We also met frequently for cocktails after work at a road-house-type tavern and restaurant five minutes from the office. On balmy summer evenings, we’d hang on the patio and talk and laugh for hours.

Incredibly, to me, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I bounced out of bed in the morning, eager to get to work and sit my butt in my cube!

Then, a new staffer came on board and the shit got even better. He was Executive Vice President/Creative Director and it turned out that we had screenwriting in common. Immediately, we clicked and I became one of his favored peeps there. When he got the green light to expand the office by building into the warehouse, he showed me the floor plan and gave me the first pick of space. I chose a corner by the exit and our new cubes were enormous.

I was in workplace heaven. An oxymoron, perhaps, but it was real. For a while.

Along with one of my best buds who was my art director partner (images for her, words for me), I started a band. I sang lead, she played rhythm guitar and we enlisted the help of a few co-workers who were also musicians. This was something that I never imagined myself doing and it was, at least for me, life-changing, in that it was like realizing an adolescent dream of becoming Joan Jett.

Our band, dubbed “2Drink Minimum,” or “2DM,” for the fact that our company’s niche was direct marketing, played at parties that we put on for our co-workers. For some reason, our employer was deficient in the whole holiday party thing, so we figured we‘d do it ourselves. And we did it up, right.

It began with an on-site Halloween party. Our band was to be the “Spawn of the Mamas and the Papas.” My bud handmade our costumes, which consisted of long, flowing caftans, much like the group wore while performing at Woodstock.

One of our bandmates, Bill, a guy in his 50s who was battling Parkinson’s Disease, was done up exactly like John Phillips, fuzzy hat and all.

We had a dress rehearsal one night after hours. Cocktails may have been involved. My brain is a bit fuzzy where that’s concerned.

Our costumes were dead on, and we were cracking up, yet the pièce de resistance was when Bill modeled his getup. I was already feeling the stirrings of a full bladder and, as usual, had waited too long before seeking relief.

The sight of Bill, who was tall and lean, like Phillips himself, in his caftan and hat, pushed me over the edge, so, I clamped my knees together as hard as I could and crab-walked to the john. Everyone was still laughing at Bill so I don’t think they noticed, they goodness.

Bill. Now there’s a story all its own. He was a smart, talented guy who never let Parkinson’s get in the way of his having a good time. He’d pull out his guitar every afternoon and serenade the rest of us cube-dwellers.

Touchingly, everyone looked out for him. Occasionally, when his tremors became uncontrollable, we’d have to duck and cover because, at 6'2", if he came lurching into your cube, you were in trouble.

Now and then, we’d hear a loud CRASH and instinctively knew that it was “just Bill.”

Bill’s cube was right on the other side of mine. One day, I walked in for a chat and he was asleep, head lolling back and seemingly dreaming his musical dreams.

Eventually, Bill had to enter a facility. I haven’t spoken to him in years. That is on me.

After getting our sea legs on-site, “2DM” gradually moved to a couple of area bars where co-workers hung out. I like to believe that an outrageous time was had by all, bandmates and party-goers, alike. Oh, some of our rehearsals got a little heated, but, at the end of the day, everyone worked out their differences and pulled it together.

Memories. So many good ones of that time in my life. And what a blessing they are.

As time went on, some of Aspen’s major players shifted during multiple "re-orgs,” and new senior management was put into place. At that juncture, the honeymoon started to sour. I could not stand my new supervisor, an over-her-head, world-class, faker, who talked her way into a job she neither understood, nor deserved.

Also, this individual was someone who worked at the same Chicago agency I had, many years prior. So, like a fungus that never goes away — there she was! Again!

She was especially adept at smooching the collective butt of our lazy account team, a “grandfathered in” group who were adept in their own right — at losing business.

Very soon, life at work was no longer the Dickensian, Fezziwig-led utopia it once was. And then the unimaginable happened: We were sold to a huge, data-driven, marketing behemoth.

In 2018, I was laid off over the phone. End of story. But really, it ended well before then as, after going corporate, our work culture was never the same.

I was naive to expect otherwise because nothing remains the same, does it? Not our jobs. Not our relationships. Not our lives. And often, rolling with the punches is the best we can hope for.

After getting laid off, I mourned the loss of my job for a long time. Too long, because in truth, it ended well before they actually cut me loose. There’s a lesson there, somewhere. I hope it helps you, should you find yourself in a similar situation.

And so we move on, as the adventure continues.

© Sherry McGuinn, 2022. All Rights Reserved.

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My goal is to educate, entertain, make you laugh, and above all, make you think. I will be running the gamut as far as my articles go because I have a restless mind and I allow it to ramble where and when it wants. I hope you enjoy what I'm looking forward to sharing with you. If so, I'd love for you to follow me. Thanks for reading.

Chicago, IL

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