#TheWizardAinttheWizard

 

They say James Brown was the hardest working man in showbiz. This one here is trying to go down as the hardest working person on The Hill.”

I knew Madame Senator’s legendary work ethic. In school I did Black History Month research papers on her. She was my main subject for Women’s History Month, too. I had seen news articles of her back in our home state at block parties and ribbon cuttings. She seemed to genuinely care about the people she represented. I do, too.

Octavia and I grabbed pastries and looked around for a table. Octavia’s Blackberry buzzed. She checked it and said Madame Senator got a request for an interview about Obama, and another request for an interview about HIV/AIDS in the Black community.

“We better get back to the office,” she said.

Back at the desk, we checked the Internet for the latest news on both interview topics to see if there were new angles needing to be discussed. Nia buzzed us and said a camera crew had arrived for an interview with Madame Senator. They were there to discuss pending contracts to a British Company that would provide parts to the corporation that operates the main trains in the U.S. That interview was on the schedule and Madame Senator was already prepared with all the background information she needed.

I followed Octavia into Madame Senator’s office to take notes during the interview. After the interview, we rushed back to the desk and Octavia continued telling me everything she thought I’d need to know.

Madame Senator has a “night pack,” which is a folder she takes home at the end of the day to take care of tasks she didn’t get to during the day. I could put media requests for the next day in her night pack, as well as drafts of press releases for upcoming events, speeches, and opening statements. I’ll need to get a log-on for the lap-top she was turning over to me and get a pass code for the BlackBerry the next day because Madame Senator was likely to call at night when she’s home working on something. I’ll need to register for orientation and ethics training for new staffers, and order business cards. Octavia gave me a list of phone numbers to contact the contracted Webmaster and the in-house Web support team, and phone numbers to call to reserve a congressional hearing room or another location on the Capitol grounds for a press conference.

At the end of the day, Sandra sashayed to each of our desks and handed out copies of Madame Senator’s updated weekly schedule showing all her meetings, legislative meetings, hearings, and planned media interviews. Every half hour of the day, every day of the week, clear through the weekend, is accounted for on the schedule. A staffer’s name is listed with each posting.

“Oh yeah, in addition to doing all the media, you’ll also handle certain issue areas,” Octavia told me. “Make sure you go over the schedule and see what you’re assigned to. If she has a meeting with a lobbyist or an organization and you’re assigned as the staffer, make sure you go to her the day before to find out what background material she wants.”

I marveled at all the pending activity. This woman does more in a day than most people do all week! I noticed that Octavia’s name was listed under a scheduled interview with a Black Entertainment Television reporter.

“What’s this interview with BET about?” I asked.

“They’re doing a documentary on the impact sub-prime lending has had on the African-American community,” she explained. “Madame Senator already issued statements on that and she’s held a couple of hearings on sub-prime lending. So, you can pull the press releases on those and ask her what else she wants. She’ll probably want you to pull the latest stats and a few editorials or columns on it to help her get her thoughts together.”

I overheard Michelle cut in on a meeting Garrett was having with a lobbyist and I couldn’t help but smile at her comment.

“Sir you need to do your homework,” Michelle told the middle-aged White man seated across from Garrett. The man fumbled through glossy folders filled with research and promotional materials for legislation he was seeking, but couldn’t answer all the questions Garrett posed. I vaguely heard something about this man’s client needing Madame Senator’s approval to pass a bill requiring all cell phones to carry an FM radio receiver.

Octavia said I also would meet with lobbyists and representatives from organizations on legislation. I will have to determine if it is legislation Madame Senator should support. If it is, I can sign her on as a co-sponsor and put a memo in her night pack explaining the details.

“Staff signs her onto bills? Does she have to approve first?” I asked, sitting in a chair next to Octavia at the computer.

“Use your own judgment. Look through the files to see where she has stood on the issue, then use your own judgment,” she said. “But you better be ready to explain all the ins and outs of why you signed her onto something. She’ll test you when you least expect it. She’s not about to be left open to some bullshit embarrassment because her staff didn’t cover all the basis.”

Staffers zipped back and forth between their desks and Madame Senator’s office. Lunch time had passed without a lunch break. The day had gone fast. It was going well, too. Then I heard Madame Senator fussing at Sandra.

“I’m not going!” I never said I would speak! I told you to tell them I would drop by! This was your error, not mine, and you damn sure better make that clear when you call her back!”

I looked up at Octavia, who was still directing me to information on the office server.

“You’ll hear a lot of that, unfortunately,” she said, shaking her head, her face tightening. “Sometimes she forgets what she tells you to do, and sometimes she thinks she told you something when she didn’t.”

 

    1. Describe a time when you had to accept that a person you considered super-human – a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, your celebrity role model, a lover, a sibling, a spouse – was as human, as vulnerable and flawed as anyone. (If you never put anyone on a pedestal explain why.)
  • Have you ever felt put on a pedestal and found yourself explaining that you’re only human?
  • What are the pros and cons of idolizing others?
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#GamePlan

 

We covered a lot of bases in the meeting. Billy gave an update on pending legislation, and said Madame Senator will be in a major battle to finally pass her signature legislation, the Pollution Irritation Mitigation Pump (P.I.M.P.) bill. This legislation would get the people of our state the same kind of air pollution reduction pump residents in every other state have.

“Billy what’s the game plan?” Michelle asked. “We know when they come at us this time, they’re coming with something different. The last time they attached new mandatory sentencing for marijuana possession to her P.I.M.P. bill and killed it. Now that they’ve introduced new mandatory sentencing as a stand-alone bill, we know her opponents will find something else to kill her P.I.M.P. bill. So, what’s the game plan?”

“She sent letters to Sen. Harry Reid already, and to Congressman Steny Hoyer and Speaker Pelosi on the House side. We’re waiting to hear back from them,” Billy said. “We doubt they’ll be able to pass the new mandatory sentencing as a stand-alone bill, but we’re keeping close tabs.”

“Okay Garrett, could you work with Billy contacting the LDs in the committees where the new mandatory sentencing amendments might come up. Make sure they give us a heads up, so we can keep Madame Senator up to date on it.”

Garrettt agreed easily.

“Billy, make sure you keep in touch with the City Council Chairman and the mayor’s office. We may need them,” Michelle said.

I looked around the room and noticed that staffers seemed to have a lot in common. Everyone was young; most were younger than me, in their mid-twenties. I was feeling like an old-head, but young enough compared to our fearless leader, the seventy-one-year-old Senator. There were photos of Madame Senator placed around her office – a photo of her with the Camille Cosby, another with her and an aging Rosa Parks, and another with her, former Essence Editor Susan Taylor, and the venerable Dr. Dorothy Height, who founded the National Council of Negro Women to groom young women for leadership. I also noticed photos of her with her two sons with her at her first swearing in twenty-two years ago. I couldn’t imagine the pain of losing both her sons in the same year. One was killed in a drive-by shooting back home, the other killed in a car accident less than a month later. My baby brother died of cancer ten years ago when he was twelve. The shock and sadness had been deep and long lasting. For years I was disconnected from my emotions. In many ways, I still am. I considered The Senator’s loss might still make her edgy at times.

  1. Describe one of your current or upcoming goals?
  2. What obstacles, set-backs, disappointments can you anticipate?
  3. What is your game plan for pushing through any obstacles to a particular goal? (Be specific about resources, beliefs, friends who may help you through.)

#UnderAttack

 

The district director, Warner, ran through the list of upcoming community events, then staffers in the District Office gave updates on the events they were planning.

The meeting was in full swing when Madame Senator came in.

“Good morning,” she said, lowering her shoulder bag onto her desk. “Somebody hand me a copy of the agenda.” She sat behind her desk and leaned back in her chair, changing out of her walking shoes into low-heeled red pumps matching her red skirt suit. I noticed we were wearing the exact same small gold button earrings, and the same colors. She reached in her desk drawer and pulled out a bag of cashews and began munching as Michelle handed her the agenda.

“So, what’s the status of the town hall meeting for my clean air bill? Why don’t I see it on this agenda?” she said, holding the page with both hands.

Michelle and Billy looked at each other puzzled.

“Senator, I don’t think you talked to anybody about wanting to do a town hall meeting on the clean air bill…” Billy began.

“I most certainly did!” The Senator insisted. “Michelle, I left you a message on your phone saying I wanted you to discuss it with staff and have details for me when I got in this morning. What do you all do in these staff meetings? We don’t have time for you to be sitting around giving reports. We’ve got to move! Warner, by twelve o’clock, I want a list of the venues available for a town hall meeting on this bill. My constituents need to know this thing is not dead and that I am still working hard to get them the same basic right to clean air as every other American.”

“Yes ma’am,” Warner said. “When do you want to have the event? This month? This Summer?”

“My Word! You all haven’t discussed this at all? I should at least have some possible dates and a list of venues…” she fussed.

“Madame Senator, I told you I did not get your m….” Michelle started.

“Don’t you dare cut me off!” she snapped. “You listen to what I have to say. Don’t you dare cut me off!”

Heads bowed, smiles faded. Sandra tried to make eye contact with Michelle, who was clearly annoyed.

“Now Warner, you get me that list ASAP. Who else is on the phone? Is Danielle here?”

“Yes ma’am,” came a voice on the phone.

“Get me a list of new experts on pollution, some folks who can bring some new perspective and new weight to the issue. You know I hate to repeat anything we’ve already done.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“What else?” she said, looking at Michelle.

“We covered everything on the agenda. We were just about to wrap things up…” Michelle said.

“Sounds to me like all you all did was talk about what’s already been done! I can’t be the only thinker in here. That’s why we have staff. You all have got to learn to use your time more wisely. Think! Use your heads! What needs to be done!”

  1. Describe a time when you felt personally/professionally under attack.
  2. How did you handle it?
  3. What did you learn?
  4. How would you handle a similar siutation better in the future?

#CausesandCommunityService

 

 

Sandra handed everyone a copy of Madame Senator’s weekly schedule, two green pages stapled. I had noticed the schedule on different colors among Octavia’s papers. I guess they’re color-coded for each day of the week. We started the staff meeting promptly at nine-thirty a.m., with staffers in the two satellite offices conferenced in on a speakerphone.

The seven of us staffers in the Hill Office sat in the plush burgundy, blue, and gold striped high-backed, armchairs around Madame Senator’s coffee table, which was decorated with a stack of books, and a glass trophy from the American Cancer Association. She had dozens of trophies from various organizations around her office, and bookcases filled with books against one wall. Her large oak desk was positioned in front of a bay window, through which you could see a highway in the distance, beyond the immediate trees and lush landscaping on the campus of the U.S. Capitol.

I was taking it all in when Sylvia’s outburst startled me.

“Boo, we’re going to miss you sooooo much!” Sylvia said out the blue, getting up and walking over to Octavia. “Give me a hug! Girl, you better not hesitate to call if you need anything. I don’t care. Anything! Boo, give me another hug. We’re gonna miss youuuuuuu.”

“Yes, we will all miss her, and we all wish you well,” Michelle said, re-directing the meeting. “Sylvia, since you got the floor, why don’t you go on and update us on Madame Senator’s bill for after-school snacks for at-risk youth.”

“Well hell! Who isn’t at risk these days!” came a flamboyant male voice through the speakerphone. “Hell, I’m at risk if you want to know the truth about it. We’re all at risk of something. Please don’t use that term to degrade our poor children. I swear. If we can’t get away from that term, what can we expect of others? At-risk, I just hate it. It’s so…”

“Thank you from the Peanut Gallery,” Michelle said. “Seriously. Sylvia, what’s the latest on that bill? Does she have all the co-sponsors she needs to move it? Ya’ll know there are a lot of kids out there who don’t have a mommy home baking cookies after school, and a lot of them only eat when they’re in school. We got more daddies in jail and mommies struggling. Call it what you want, but let’s keep our eyes on the prize. Our babies gotta eat.”

“The prize? We’re still trying to feed the problem with free soup. Oh dear. Now, there’s progress,” came another male voice through the speakerphone.

I remembered the fun I had at the community center where my mother and other Black Panthers fed the community breakfast each morning and realized my parents would be proud I could now help provide such basics on a larger scale. I drew a happy face on my note pad, then turned it into a sun.

“Ya’ll know what? We’re going to handle our business in this piece and get on with the day,” Michelle said. “I’m trying to wrap this up and get ya’ll out of here before Madame Senator comes in. She is not in a good mood today. Be warned. Sylvia, give us your report and let’s get on with it.”

Sylvia opened a folder and began explaining which community leaders she had met with and which Senators were on board. She shared statistics on hunger in various cities and said she would help draft the bill since she had all the details. Nia, the receptionist/office assistant, as perky and innocent as Patty Duke, sat on the corner of the couch, next to another phone, to answer calls that came in while we were meeting.

  1. Are you/have you been involved in community service of any kind at any time? Describe the experience. (If not, why not?)
  2. What compelled you to service?
  3. How did you feel after giving?
  4. Tell why you would or would not do it again.

#WorkLifeBalance

 

Of course, I’m going to miss having an office to myself.  My desk here is one of six tiny cubicles. I got comfortable in the high-backed black, executive chair, as Octavia showed me what was what and what was where where on the computer.

“The first thing you’re going to do in the mornings is go to the Morning Whip’s schedule to see what’s on the floor.  Anytime Madame Senator has a bill in committee, even if it’s a subcommittee, she’ll want you to do a press release,” Octavia said.  “Even if they’re only marking up her bill, and even if it’s the same bill she’s been introducing, and re-introducing every year since she’s been here, she’ll want you to do a press release. ” The LD probably will tell you a day or two in advance, but sometimes things get so hectic, they might miss it, and you don’t want to be caught unaware.”

“L.D.?” I asked, as she stood over me, pointing at the computer screen, motioning me to scroll down to the “Daily Whip,” a schedule of the bills Senators will debate.

“Legislative Director,” she said. “Billy is the L.D. He’s here, but he went downstairs to get breakfast. Billy’s usually here by eight, but the office doesn’t open officially until nine. You’ll like Billy. You’ll like everybody here, pretty much,” she said. Without digressing, she continued showing me what else I needed to know.

“Once you see what’s on the Floor Agenda for the day, go to Madame Senator’s web site and see what she has already said about that issue and print those previous press releases out for her. Pull up her web site, so I can show you where the major pieces are because they don’t always come up in a keyword search,” she said.

I typed in the web site address as she continued to instruct, rapid-fire, jumping from the list she held to reminders that occurred to her as she spoke.

“I better write this stuff down,” I said, opening desk drawers in search of a notepad.

“Oh, while, we’re at it, let me show you where the supplies are.”

I got up and followed her to a tiny office space crammed with a desk, a printer, and shelves of disorganized old and new ink pens, folders, notepads, and boxes of paper clips.

I scribbled, “Check The Daily Whip,” on a note pad as we walked back to my desk. “The Daily Whip” is sent from the office of the “Whip,” the Congress member elected by his colleagues to “whip” folks into shape.

“A Black guy’s the Whip?” I said, proudly remembering much hoopla made about Congressman John Clyburn’s becoming the first Black Majority Whip. Octavia shook her head.

“That’s on the House side,” she said.  “Baby steps.  Two flies in the buttermilk are about all this side can handle. Now, the House side, that’s another story.  We finally got a little pull over there.”

I nodded, staring at the screen.  I told her I wrote an article about the CBC last year.  “Congressional Black Caucus members chairing four of the main committees,” I said. “About to have a Black president, too. I’m going to volunteer over at the DNC…”

She said I wouldn’t have time for that.

“This right here is not a job, it’s a way of life,” she said.

  • Describe a time (a year, or a period in your life) where you spent most of your time on your career. Did your relationships with family and friends suffer?
  • Were your professional accomplishments worth the sacrifices to your personal relationships? Explain your answer. (For instance, I lost my husband but I helped find a cure for cancer.)
  • Describe your work-life balance, or one you would be happy with. (For instance, your balance is grinding eight hours a day, five days a week, then spending evenings and weekends with your family; or it may be grinding round-the-clock nine months of the year, vacationing with your family for three month; or it may be an understanding you have that you will grind for 30 years in your career, then retire from full-time grinding and work projects at your leisure.)
  • What is your plan for a better work-life balance? (If you are happy with the balance you have, could you better communicate this to your family and friends who may need a better understanding?

 

#CrisisRecovery

 

January 2010

It crashed.  Just like that, it crashed.  Now I see why you never would ride the subway, why you never did trust “them new-fangled things,” as you put it.  But I am glad you were there to help me out of it, especially since there was no warning, no hint, not the slightest indication that we were in trouble.

As usual, there was a line at all the fare card machines.  As usual, we got bottlenecked at the gate.  The platform was crowded, as usual, but everyone was civil. I blended into the crowd of mostly government workers, dressed in coats, weighed down with briefcases or large purses with folders stuffed inside.  I got on, found a seat and, as usual, plugged in my iPod.  Come to think of it, there was static, unusual static, in my iPod. That seemed weird because iPod’s don’t get static.  G-Ma was that you tinkering with my iPod, making it skip between songs to keep me from dozing off as I usually do o the subway?

I’m glad you were there.  I’m glad you are here.

“Break the window Ruqiyah.” You were loud and clear through all the screams and desperate gasps for last breaths. I heard the screech and the metal crunching – and your voice.  “Break the window Ruqiyah. Kick the glass. Get out.” You always were calm even in the midst of madness.

I didn’t think I could break a window so thick and tight, but you convinced me.  “Kick through the window and go.”  It worked.  I shattered a window. Your voice was diamond hard, crystal clear.

“Save yourself Ruqiyah.”

But that was confusing coming from you.  When you were alive, it was never about just me.  It was never about one person.  Even when I was eight and you taught me how to play Chinese Checkers instead of regular Checkers, which we played at school, you would say, “Ruqiyah Charity Paige, as you go through this life, you’ve got to get ahead not just by yourself, and not just for yourself.” That was the first thing that came to mind when I saw all the other people trapped in the wreck today. It would have taken just a few minutes to help the woman trying to pull her baby through the window opening.  Maybe I couldn’t help the old man mangled in his wheelchair underneath so much rubble, but it would’ve taken just a minute to reach out and pull the young man who was already halfway through.  But your instruction was clear.

“Save yourself,” you said. I heard you. Not like a loud voice booming down from the clouds, not even a still small voice on the inside. It was a simple knowing, an awareness. Now what?  You seemed to be walking beside me as I made my way home.  I must’ve looked crazy – coat ripped and disheveled, hair a frazzled mess, clutching my purse as if my life depended on it. I thought about a lot of things you taught me.  I thought about some of our last conversations before you died.  I remembered you telling me you hoped I would learn one lesson, and learn it soon, in order to be better and do better. You said this one lesson would help me on my job and help me know exactly when it was time to leave.  All those self-help, pop-psychology books I’ve been reading the past fifteen years were useful and fun, but life really was simple, you said.

Was it just a coincidence that each traffic light turned green as I reached the curb?  You knew I was too dazed to stop for a red light, right? G-Ma, why didn’t you reach me before the wreck?  Couldn’t you foresee that the collision was going to happen? Why didn’t you just give me a sign, some warning to take a different train? I’m glad you knew to get my attention through the iPod. I didn’t know you knew about iPods, since that’s one of the things I never got around to teaching you to work. There was a lot we didn’t get to talk about. I wanted to talk to you about the major changes you saw in your 90 years to get a grip on the dizzying changes in my own life. Everything is changing, and changing in the blink of an eye. One minute we’re riding the train. Next thing you know, “Boom!” Smoke, fire, and people screaming for their life. G-Ma, that could’ve been my arms and legs scattered across the field.

I’m sitting in my living room in the dark now.  No TV.  No jazz from the cable station.  Nothing.  I don’t want to see or hear anything.  I need silence. I lit the cinnamon candles. I’ve got the bottle of pineapple rum and a can of Diet Coke on the coffee table. But my hands are still shaking.  I don’t want to get Coke all over the couch and carpet.  Maybe the flicker of the log in the fireplace will me settle down some.  I can usually watch those flames licking the air and forget about things, but I don’t know if I can forget seeing all those body parts at the wreck.

It was awful.  Just like that.  Sc-reeeeeeech, boom, boom, BAM! The stench of heated plastic and burning rubber everywhere.  I still can’t shake the images of the crumpled train cars and the smoke. Bodies blown across the field.  Injured people crawling out of the heap of wreckage. I can’t shake the pictures.  How can a train crash without warning?  I ride it everyday? Nobody could tell it was about to breakdown? I don’t know how many people died, but from the looks of it, a whole lot of families are going to be devastated.

G-Ma, I’m sorry I got too busy to visit you.  The job has been calling my cell since I left the office.  The chief of staff left a few messages saying Madame Senator is trying to reach me.  She probably is just trying to size up the situation. She needs to spin a message to the media to protect the train company since it’s one of her biggest campaign donors.

Victoria’s been calling and leaving messages, too. My sister Trish left a message, too. She heard the news all the way back in my hometown.

“Qi-Qi, I hope to hell you wasn’t on the train that crashed, but if you was, you bout to get pay-aid.  Hey, don’t leave the scene.  If you’re still there, get as close as you can to the crash and lay down on the ground like you cain’t move. Girl, you ‘bout to get paid!  Haaaaaaaay!” she said.  “Use your camera phone and get some pictures to prove you was there, and get somebody else to get some pictures of you stretched out. Lay your ass on the ground and play half dead till the police get there. Hell, even if you wasn’t on the train, you ride it everyday.  Just take your ass to the hospital and say you got injured on that train that crashed.  You deserve to get paid, girl. Girl this is your time.  Like Joel Osteen says.  This is our time. Get paid girl. Let me know you okay.   Call me.”

Chris is coming over even though I told him I’d rather be alone. I need time to think about what I want to do next.

God must’ve had a reason for sparing my life, right? G-Ma, I know I’m lucky to be alive. I’m going to take a few days to think about where I’ve been and how I want to go on from here. My hands are still trembling. I can hear you humming, “we’ll understand it all by and by.” I’ll figure this one out myself.

 

  • Who do you call in your moment of crisis?
  • Describe your last crisis and explain your first prayers/calls?
  • Would you repeat your actions in the next crisis? If you can respond better, tell how. If you’re satisfied with your armor and plan of action, explain why.