Chapter 33: Sinking

Empty room in a Manhattan apartment

(This is chapter 33 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

The exit scene had gone all wrong. After a desolate night at the Hotel Pennsylvania I crashed with my sister Sharon, her husband Jeff and their two young kids Matthew and Rachel on 100th Street in the Upper West Side for a few days.

I took the subway back to Queens several times in these first few days to talk to Meg and the kids and try to re-establish some control as our world became slowly unhinged. I was very worried about the consequences of what I’d done, and how the kids were dealing with it.

Abigail and Daniel seemed to believe me when I told them that nothing important in their lives would change, that this would turn out okay. But Elizabeth was very angry at me, and could not understand what I was doing. I guess in a way she was speaking for her mother. I later learned that it’s common in divorcing families for the oldest child to have the hardest transition. My own parents divorced when I was eight, and I remember my older brother Gary being more upset than I was at the time.

But as I strained to see my next steps clearly during these crisis days, I also felt myself sinking into depths of unexpected anger. I guess my marriage had felt oppressive to me, because I was suddenly remembering everyone and everything that had ever made me feel oppressed, and it was all coming up to the surface. I was in a rush to liberate myself from something, but I wasn’t sure any longer exactly what I was doing, and my steps didn’t feel right.

It’s funny that before I’d left the marriage, I always thought I’d feel unburdened, carefree, at this moment. Now, somehow, carefree was the opposite of how I felt.

I decided to get an apartment right away, because I couldn’t go on camping out on Sharon’s couch, and I needed to prove to myself and everybody else who wasn’t sure what I was doing that I was serious about this, that I had really walked away for good.

I decided to find an apartment in Manhattan’s theater district, because Elizabeth had just started 9th grade at an exciting new public school in that neighborhood, the High School of Professional Performing Arts. I thought it would help patch things up between us if I found a place near her school so she could use it as a convenient second home during the day.

I had to spend a chunk of my dot-com money finding an emergency apartment in midtown Manhattan. I ended up paying $2150 a month for a little box near the intersection of 47th Street, 7th Avenue and Broadway. The Palace Theater was my next door neighbor. The fifth floor apartment was grimy and dark and you could hear drunks and psychos out the window late at night. I liked the place a lot.

But I don’t think I felt good for a single moment during the couple of months following the end of my marriage. It made things worse when Elizabeth announced that she didn’t like her new school very much, and wasn’t sure she was going to stay. Meanwhile, my job was turning weird and I felt completely detached from all the drama going on there.

Every part of the company was adjusting to our new status as a market leader and a Wall Street powerhouse, and the emotional level within the middle management circles was always intense. My boss Alexandra was a stern and self-assured marketing executive, so I was surprised when I started noticing her voice taking on a shaky, frustrated tone at department meetings. It got worse each day: her polished veneer had begun to slip, and she began muttering darkly about “changing priorities” and vague “problems” when we talked about our projects. She was also, I noticed, suddenly being excluded from top-level management meetings. What was going on?

Another executive filled me in: Alexandra had fallen out of favor with top management, and now she was getting “the squeeze”. They were excluding her from meetings and planning to take away her management responsibilities. iVIllage didn’t like to fire people, my friend told me, so instead they made unwanted employees feel so humiliated and neglected that they’d resign. Just a day after I heard this, our Human Resources manager Donna Introcaso dropped by and announced that our team was being reorganized. I would now be reporting to Michael Rose, a young guy who’d just become the Vice-President of Business Development. Alexandra’s desk was cleared a few days later; I never found out exactly how she’d left.

This was a surprise I didn’t like. I had worked with Michael Rose, a charmingly callow and fast-talking young man with gel in his spiked hair and a vaguely upper class Ivy League background. He was actually a funny and likable guy, but I could not see him in any way as a boss. He certainly lacked gravitas, though he did seem fairly sharp.

I was working on two projects, and they both confused the hell out of me. The first was Email. Our iVillage Email Service had a few hundred thousand active users, and according to our visitor reports email was the “stickiest” application on our site — that is, a user with an iVillage email address was most likely to return frequently on a regular basis. So, I was supposed to come up with a plan for bringing in more email users. It was the kind of challenge I might have enjoyed if I weren’t going through a painful divorce at the moment, but as it was I simply couldn’t think of anything brilliant, though I tried.

Other people also tried to come up with brilliant ideas to sign up new email members, and I had to work hard to kill some terrible suggestions. IVillage had very active message boards — they were the best part of the site, in my opinion — and new users were required to enter a valid email address to register for the boards. Somebody proposed that new registrants should have to have iVillage email addresses to sign up for the boards — this would supposedly increase our traffic because more people would sign up for email addresses and become regular email users.

I thought this was an absolutely horrible idea, because it would make it harder for new members to use the message boards. I met our head of community, a dignified woman named Susan Hahn, who strongly expressed the same concern to me, and with her help I managed to kill this bad idea. But, I knew, I wasn’t going to make it at iVillage just by killing bad ideas — I had to think up some good ones to prove my worth.

My other, bigger project was FamilyPoint, the company we had acquired. I now had a second employee on my team, Neil Whitley, a nice young guy with a business degree who seemed perplexed by the emotionally charged working atmosphere at iVillage. He filled me in on how FamilyPoint’s “clubs” worked — members would invite other members via private email, they would share photos and notes and build family trees — and we began working together to plan a new iVillage community format, “Clubs”, which would encompass not just family groups but parenting communities, medical communities, entertainment communities and any other applications we could think of. It was our job to figure out how to define this new offering.

In fact these invitation-based “clubs” were an early hint of what would years later become known as social networking, and Neil and I were both excited by the possibilities. However, neither of us knew how to put together a proposal. I was the one in charge, and I managed to create a 36-slide Powerpoint presentation with lots of good graphics and quotes and a few jokes, but after I reviewed it with Michael Rose two weeks before our presentation date he didn’t seem impressed.

It was too much fluff, he said — it contained no substantial business information. He explained that I needed to run the numbers, estimate the costs, project the profits. Pictures and flowcharts were only half the job. I had to show how iVillage Clubs would make money, and exactly how much money they would make on which sections of the site, and how many quarters would it take till they’d turn a profit? What were the risk factors? How would we monitor success?

I had to admit that these were damn good questions.

Neil and I went back to work, attempting to answer the questions Michael asked. I called some meetings and attempted various kinds of research in the two weeks building up to the mid-October date when our presentation before Chief Operating Officer Allison Abraham and the rest of the management team was due.

We did the presentation and it was a bomb. I knew I blew it even before I began. I had come up with numbers and Excel spreadsheets and financial projections and quarterly breakdowns, but I was clearly shaky in my command of the business side, and I couldn’t answer any of the follow-up questions. The presentation went so badly that my friends on the management team didn’t even bother lying to me about it. “That’s okay,” Rich Caccapollo said afterward. “You’ll get better at this.”

Michael Rose asked “Are you upset?” and we talked for about five minutes. I was told to spend another two weeks on a new version of the document — though I wouldn’t have a chance at another presentation — and I threw myself back back into the work.

I don’t think there was any other time in my life when going to work every day felt so unreal, when I felt so disconnected from those who surrounded me every day. The problem was, even as I sat there trying to grapple with the crisis over iVillage Clubs, I was really thinking about the crisis with my kids and my broken-up marriage.

I went to more and more meetings, met with salespeople, shuffled papers around, read industry newsletters, tried to pretend I knew what I was doing in this stupid job. On a personal level, I did some tentative dating, and quickly discovered that I was not in the right frame of mind to do any dating. I tried to focus on keeping my head above water and improving my performance at work.

Then one morning in early November Michael called me into his office. It was the most shocking meeting I’ve ever had in my life. He told me to have a seat and read me a letter.

November 8, 1999

TO: Marc Stein
FROM: Michael Rose
CC: Donna Introcaso

Dear Marc,

Over the last two months we have had several discussions about your performance, and your goals and objectives in the department. I have been trying to work with you to resolve many of the performance issues we have discussed and I do not feel that we are making sufficient progress. I believe the first step we need to take is to remove your management responsibilities immediately in order to allow you to focus on developing certain skills which are necessary to be a manager and leader in this organization. The bottom line is that we need a leader in the services group who has both creative and analytic skills, as well as intuition and a vision of the future to take us to the next level. It does not seem that you possess all of the necessary skills needed to be in this position at iVillage.

Some of the skills you need to improve on are:

* Organization Skills — When you come to meetings you should have back-up and all the information asked of you at hand. During the Clubs process you were unable to find documentation or lists which you should have had and/or were asked to create. In addition, we now have learned that bills have not been paid and you never brought this up to anyone. We cannot find invoices and you did not understand the contracts or their terms.

* Presentation Skills — When you meet with people you need to present your ideas and not just say them. You should always create documents which are easily read, understood and concise. Up until the very end of the Clubs process items seemed scattered and there was never a comparison of features across sites and components.

* Leadership Skills — In order to lead a group of people you must engage them, show them you are an expert in what you are talking about and ask them for help when needed. With the Clubs project people were not engaged, you did not seek them out for their opinion and you could not answer many questions about the space and the competitors. Having this information in your head and not telling anyone does not build confidence. You need to be able to build confidence in a team.

* Communication Skills — You need to be able to express yourself and your opinions orally and on paper. You need to be able to convince sr. management of your recommendations. You need to be able to influence non-direct reports, and you need to provide your reports with direction, guidance and support.

* Analytic Skills — You do not need to be an analyst, but you need to be able to understand models, budgets and contract terms if you are to be in charge of them.

* Being Proactive — We need people to proactively look at new solutions and stay on top of the industry. We need someone to recommend new strategies and directions and this has not been demonstrated over the past few months.

Marc, in order for you to be successful at iVillage you need to work on these skills so that we can all help each other meet our goals and objectives. It is important that we see improvement over the next 30 days in these areas. I will be meeting with you once a week on Friday’s at 3:30 to help you and discuss your progress.

I managed to sneak out of the office and go directly home, because I was stunned senseless and couldn’t possibly speak. I’d never been so insulted in my life, and I’d been truly taken by surprise. I guess I thought I’d built up enough good will since joining the company to keep me from this kind of treatment. I thought my charm would get me through.

I was, I sadly realized, about to face “the squeeze”.

And, to make it worse, the $800,000 in stock options I hoped to vest in over four years would disappear if I faded away, like Alexandra had. But I didn’t know what to do next.

I stumbled back to my seedy apartment, the lights of Times Square blinking through my window, tried to collect my thoughts. I couldn’t understand how I had let myself screw up so badly. And I didn’t know how to fight back against the humiliation I’d now have to face.

And my family … my children were miles away, and I couldn’t remember why this had been a good idea.

I’d been warned about hitting bottom. It took me exactly two months to sink like a rock.

24 Responses

  1. Levi, this is a GREAT piece.
    Levi, this is a GREAT piece. I think its considerable impact comes from your description of your feelings rather than the specifics of your job.

    What you describe is what I’ve heard over the years about dozens of companies from creative people who’ve tried hard to work in them and fit in. I think it’s par for the course. We should never work in corporate america – leave it to the yuppie Michaels and Donnas.

    If I’d gotten a letter like that I’d still be trying to get over it.

    So, what happens next?

  2. [Never commented here
    [Never commented here before]
    I agree with Dan and look forward to the next chapter.

  3. My hands started getting
    My hands started getting clammy when I got to the part of the letter. God, I hate ‘business speak’, and this piece reminds me of how I’ve never fit in with the business world and its own language and obtuse way of doing things.

    Unfortunately, I’m still (amazingly) in the business world, stealthily avoiding inane meetings, busy work, giving presentations etc. Somehow, I’m surving, yet I secretly hope to get fired because I hate it so much. Yet I’m shackled to the ever necessary paycheck!

    I think I’m going to sneak out of the office this afternoon and go see Inglorious Basterds, or maybe I’ll take the ferry into the city and walk around for no reason… just to get away. Like you, Levi, I tend to use up all my sick and vacation days just to get out of the office!

    I look forward to finding out what happens next.

  4. Stevadore – When I got to the
    Stevadore – When I got to the letter I foolishly thought, why is this asshole reading a letter for “Marc Stein” to Levi? Is Levi going to replace Marc? Then I realized that Marc *is* Levi and my stomach sank.

    Yes, the paycheck is the reason for everything. Be born rich or marry rich. (I did neither….)

  5. Everybody, while the
    Everybody, while the corporate world was giving Levi “the business,” Literary Kicks was saving my life, figuratively at least, maybe even literally. That’s something that didn’t make it into the evaluation letter.

  6. Bill – Yuppie managers
    Bill – Yuppie managers understand LitKicks and the arts in general to the same extent that my cat understands nuclear physics.

  7. Thanks a lot for the
    Thanks a lot for the encouragement, everybody. I bet some of you could tell this was a tough chapter to put out there, so I really appreciate the pats on the back.

  8. Admittedly, this is the time
    Admittedly, this is the time of year I get very, very hard on my students. But that’s only because they’re damn talented; it has nothing — nothing — to do with how hard they’ve worked. Sometimes they scream and pull their hair out and throw their manuscripts at me, but this is the work they’re putting into the public context: meaning under an editor’s long and fuckugly nose.

    That said. I need to communicate to the people here who love you and love what they’re reading: YOU ARE NOT DOING HIM ANY FAVORS.

    If this was on my desk, and I got to paragraph three, I would put it down, and go on to the next manuscript.

    The word GUESS. You are NOT guessing.

    You know.

    The pats on the back are NOT helping you. They are hindering you.

    You KNOW how competitive it is out there. You are NOT writing this for yourself or I would not be reading it. It’s in the public domain. It’s on the Internet.

    If I didn’t LIKE you, and I do, I would say: who is this guy kidding.

    SINK LIKE A ROCK is a cliche.

    You deserve better. This work deserves better. And I as the reader deserve better.

    You are writing about a LIFE. Not email.

    I happen to know editors are reading this.

    There is NO SUCH THING as a first draft if New York editors are reading this.

    This is about you as a WRITER because you have chosen to put it front and center. And beyond that — and this is what is going to wrinkle the noses on their ugly faces: you are putting the sacred PROCESS in the public domain. They HATE the Internet. Do not kid yourself. They HATE it.

    So you have this big strike against you from page one.

    The SAD part of this is that it could compete. But it would take a lot of work.

    I am not being mean to you. In fact, I’m being nice to you because they are going to read these comments and humph. Stuffy old ninnies that they are. Age has nothing to do with what they are. They’re editors and they’re MEAN. Meaner than I am.

    Because they will dismiss you out of hand at the first tough nut. Because they can. It’s what they DO. You know that. That voice in your gut knows that.

    If you are writing this for pats on the back, I fail to see why such a talented writer would put this into the domain of the New York publishing literary world (if you think they don’t read this site, you’re just wrong) and fall back into the land of pats on the back — they’re going to dismiss you out of hand and they will say to their snide and arrogant selves: you see, writing on the Internet is about as good as we thought it would be — he’s doing it for himself. Then they will humph again, the old failures. They are ALL failed writers.

    Just like me.

    Let’s be real here.

    Or we would be writing for a living.

    I am teaching and I have NO illusions. Not one.

    If there was ANY way I could get them to read word one of anything I wrote, I would jump all over it and hump it like a rabid, drooling, foaming at the mouth three-legged homeless dog-in-heat. Are you kidding me. Literary Kicks is an OPPORTUNITY.

    But they have dismissed me, and it’s over for me. I’m done. A has been. They will never read me again, and it doesn’t matter what I write. I don’t come to it with the audience and the numbers James Fry does. So I failed and there it is.

    But YOU HAVE THIS. W-H-Y are you wasting it. You are front and center of Literary Kicks because you created it. It is YOUR baby. It counts.


    Because it’s fucking shrewd and you have an audience. Literary Kicks has GRAVITAS. Even among the bitches of the New York world of books.

    Frankly, I wouldn’t BOTHER with anyone else. Period. You, I’ll bother with.

    Stop wasting my time, writer.

    And beyond that, stop wasting the GRAVITAS you have sweat over which is Literary Kicks.

    Damn. You could have them by the BALLS.

    WHY are you throwing that away with cliches.

    With “I guess.”

    There are a thousand other places just like that.

    I’m not saying this isn’t good.

    I’m saying if you LISTEN to your friends patting you on the back you are out of your mind because you created a kick ass website the New York literary Mafia READ.

    I don’t get it.

    You are insulting my intelligence. By saying: I bet some of you know this was a tough chapter…”

    I already KNOW that.

    And YOU know they are going to take a work that is fundamentally wrapped around the Internet, and they are going to slash and burn it with their literary BENT. They are going to crucify you.

    They do not CARE how hard writing is. They KNOW that.

    They say: We publish things.

    No, they don’t. They spend most of their time and energy NOT publishing things.

    And this would be one.

    Stop seeing me as just another member of the audience. I am John Q Public and I come here because I AM NOT JUST ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE.

    Publishing on the Internet is PUBLISHING. It CAN reach not only those high standards — it can surpass them. WHY are you publishing something they will not take seriously. They are going to say: he’s not taking writing and publishing (meaning “us”) seriously.

    Start getting real. WRITERS are reading this. And some of them are saying: It’s too bad he’s wasting this opportunity to engage us.

    And then they say: NEXT.

    This process sucks. The vile competition that publishing has evolved into SUCKS COCK.

    Why are you wasting the position you have carved out — front and center with Literary Kicks — with such tenacity. I don’t have much TIME in my LIFE. So when I come here, I want you to knock my socks off. I take that precious thing I work like a raving-bitch-lunatic to have — TIME — and I come here when I can. And so are they. I hate them. I hate everything about them. But this is like the manuscript they take home in their briefcase to read because they CARE. I despise them but they CARE. Why are you wasting that when they are going to put the manuscript back into the briefcase. “So much for him and publishing on the Internet.”

    The snobbery is nauseating out there. But it’s real. It doesn’t MATTER what your friends say. What matters is that you are wasting the gravitas of Literary Kicks.

    The sound you are hearing is my head pounding itself another hole in my wall. — Tim Barrus, Paris

  9. Tim, you make some really
    Tim, you make some really good points here. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I would not have liked you as a teacher. But NOW, I would consider myself very fortunate to benefit from your knowledge and drive.

    I think Levi is a good writer. Maybe his memoir needs a couple of rewrites, maybe it doesn’t. But to me, the writing is organized and coherent and the subject matter is interesting (interest is subjective, of course), which is a foundation one can build on.

    And I must respectfully disagree with your comment, “…it’s over for me. I’m done. A has been. They will never read me again…”

    Well, people are reading THIS, aren’t they?

    Nobody can stop us.

  10. Tim, you’re right that
    Tim, you’re right that “sinking like a rock” is a cliche. I plead guilty, and I hate cliches too, though every once in a while you’ve got to just let one drop.

    Here’s the truth: writing one chapter a week of this thing is a very hard pace to keep up, and that’s why the writing is sometimes not perfect. Yeah, I believe in revision (though I also believe in “first thought best thought”, and I think both approaches to writing are essential). Do you know how hard it is to write a chapter a week, while I’m also busy with my (pretty hectic) life, working at my job, being a husband and a parent, AND running this blog? So, sometimes I slip.

    Also, I’m sorry to say … I agree that some “New York editors” are reading this, but I’m not too optimistic about the book getting picked up by a major publisher. You know why? Because it doesn’t have any zombies, that’s why.

  11. Hey bro, I like what Tim had
    Hey bro, I like what Tim had to say. Your memoir deserves to be nothing less than a masterpiece. That’s the you I know. You’ve been spending your life getting ready for your destiny. Some of your destiny has happened and the rest is coming. Don’t stop now.

  12. I don’t think this will ever
    I don’t think this will ever be published as a book and I still think it’s the best writing on the site.

    This was terrific. Tim is right about some cliches, but I didn’t read this as a writing professor or as someone trained in legal argument to spot every flaw (not always an advantage as a writing teacher, and papers take forever to grade) but as I read the Internet or a magazine in the dentist’s office or the newspaper.

    I think it’s best not to write this with a book even in the back of your mind. Unless you put some vampires in.

    Frankly, I’ve pretty much given up reading litblogs and come here only for your memoir, which to me is compelling and fascinating.

  13. Tim — somehow it never
    Tim — somehow it never occurred to me that Levi was writing this for any audience other than LitKicks. If he is, I think it’s fine. If not, I agree with you that it needs a lot of work. I read it more as Levi talking to me than as a book. I make my living as a writer and editor and can be a major pain in the ass myself where warranted but, reading and writing here, my editor’s hat is off. It’s relaxing.

    Also I don’t know if it has a large enough audience for a NY publisher to pick up.

    And it’s vampires you need in the book. Furthermore, you need to have been sexually abused as a kid and itching to tell all. OK: Marc finds out that Michael Rose is the leader of a coven and his therapist recovers memories of his being abused by a winged creature with fangs and an attitude — see, I’ll have you on the NYT list in a flash!

  14. This period in the author’s
    This period in the author’s life seems excruciating…

    I assume you got from point A to point B and things have gotten better. There is a great reality boom of the sailboat hitting one on the head to use a metaphor. Wow! The author is caught in a vise and has to extricate himself. You don’t have to get all “Prince Valiant” and have surreal vampires and so on. Just being able to cope and find another job would be a victory, even a “demotion” back to techie, temporarily, to make ends and child support meet… I Can’t wait until the next episode. Yep, there sure is plenty of office politics in the corporate world. There is an urgency to one’s reality-based writing which the chapter brings out in me. Hey, life is like a tire swing with its ups and downs. All of us need to wait for the upswing during times like these that the chapter brings out. Whew!

  15. You know, I do want to see
    You know, I do want to see this work published as a “book” (whatever that word means anymore) … however I do not think it’s likely that this will happen through one of the “New York” publishers (as Tim Barrus might insinuatingly call them). I don’t see Random House or Doubleday or Simon and Schuster in this memoir’s future. But I would like to place it with a tech-savvy indie, or maybe I’ll find a way to distribute it myself. I’m not giving this much thought at this point, anyway.

    If that does happen — yes, the work will need some tightening up, and maybe by then I’ll have thought of a better phrase than “sinking like a rock”. What I have been able to do, though, is keep the story truthful. Sometimes a guy just sinks like a rock.

  16. Sometimes cliches play, If it
    Sometimes cliches play, If it gets the message across, who cares if it’s been said before. Sinking like a rock, makes things a little more familiar like those old shoes you keep putting on and refuse to throw away. (wait is that cliche?)

    Anyway I think the writings cool, thanks for the sharing of it.

    Maybe Tim can write a companion reader to the memoirs now that’s something uncliche. Gravitas!!!!!! I think he liked your word.

  17. I enjoyed Michael Wolff’s
    I enjoyed Michael Wolff’s Burn Rate, another “tech-savvy” book about the internet boom. It had some suspensful and/or emotional moments, but I don’t recall a particularly sublime prose style – the events themselves, and how they effected the writer and others, gave the book its appeal.

  18. I really don’t get the
    I really don’t get the “cliche” nit-picking. Please check out Cliche Finder ( over 2,000 of them.

    If we all try to eliminate cliches from our writing, there would be very little writing being done.

  19. A cliche can sometimes be a
    A cliche can sometimes be a writing tool. When people say that cliches are bad, what they should really say is, overuse of cliches are bad, and some cliches are worse than others.

    Tim, in your comment, you said that this time of year, sometimes your students “scream and pull their hair out and throw their manuscripts at me.”

    “Pull out their hair” is a cliche, but (a) I know you weren’t presenting your comment as a text to be considered for publication in a book, and (b)it wasn’t a bad use of the cliche, because it got the point across quickly and with few words.

    None of this takes away from your challenge to excellence! I respect and appreciate your presence on the internet. If I ever take a class under you, I will try to have thick skin.

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