About a dozen years ago, I discovered what I wanted most in life. The lightning bolt struck from my television set. I was watching Woman of the Year, an old Hepburn-Tracy movie about a woman newspaper columnist who falls in love with a brash sportswriter. But I fell in love with that columnist's assistant, Gerald. He screened her calls, kept her calendar, carried her coat, drove her around the city, even listened in on her telephone interviews and took notes. She only lifted her manicured fingers to write her column and to accept the award for which the film is named. I wanted my own Gerald. I wanted to, when the Spanish ambassador phoned, call out, "Gerald, get on the line and take down every word!"
That was when I was single. I need a Gerald now even more. I'm married with one child (eight) and two step children (16 and 19). My husband and I both work. My daughter is on a basketball team, takes guitar lessons and jazz dance, participates in chess club and robotics class. We have a house in Vermont that's half dismantled by renovation. We have a house in Hamilton, Texas, that's been under contract for a number of months. We have a town house near Austin, where we live during the school year because I'm getting a graduate degree nearby. In other words, I live the typical, overscheduled, hard-to-manage American life. My brain is so overstuffed with the undone, I've been known to prepay for gas and drive off without pumping.
Every day I want to do more than I possibly can, and, often, the things I don't get done simply complicate my life even more. I forget appointments. I lose hours searching for keys, files, notes, books. I have addresses and phone numbers in several address books: one electronic, one in the back of my 2005 daily planner, one in my old Filofax, one in an old Day-Timer, more on a wedding-invitation list (and I got married eight years ago). There are more addresses on envelopes from last year's Christmas cards, even more in a stack of business cards. A directory of students in my graduate program has been misplaced. Every time I call my dentist, I look up the number in the phone book. I do have my psychiatrist's number memorized. But I've been so busy, I haven't had time to call him.
Thus overwhelmed, I often retreat into the myth of Gerald, his business suit stronger than Achilles's armor, his manner efficient and forbearing, his arm always ready for my coat. Gerald would simplify my life. He'd call my dentist for me. He'd remind me of appointments and make sure I pump my gas. He'd handle the pile of miscellaneous jobs that hovers over my head like the sword of Damocles.
Suddenly, though, Gerald the idea turned into personal assistant, the reality. I tried outsourcing my life to a few different Gerald types - and let's just say I didn't pull it off with Katharine Hepburn's grace, at least at first. But now that I've had my taste of Gerald, my life will never be complete without it.
WHERE ART THOU?
Gerald proved an elusive commodity. But once I finally knew the vaunted Gerald was on the way, I felt the need to prepare. My behavior was akin to that of a pregnant woman just before birth: I cleaned out my closet, made lists, shopped, researched.
I thought I was ready.
Temporary Nanny Manager
Rate: $15 an hour, including agency fee
Found: Mom's Best Friend (a household-help agency)
Before dispatching Linsay to my employ, the owner of MBF Agency tells me I'm a typical client: new to the Austin area, in need of temporary help, so busy I'd have to sacrifice time with my family to have a clean, well-run household (needless to say, my house is neither clean nor well run, except for the hour after my housekeeper leaves each week). "I just saw a poll of women CEOs, and they said the secret to their success is outsourcing household functions," says the owner, Kathy Dupuy. "We're seeing the same thing." As CEO of my self-employment, I'm expecting productivity that Alan Greenspan would be proud of.
Waiting for Linsay the next morning, I burn four pieces of toast before I get one out on time. Smoke fills my kitchen and floats into the living room. I turn the vent on high and go over Linsay's list of things to do. I think I'm ready. She'll start with the laundry and move on to wrapping some overdue gifts.
Once she's at work, though, I see I'll need to buy some supplies for her other tasks. So I go to the hardware store, the best one-stop-shopping spot in my small town. An hour later, I'm back at the house, and Linsay, finished with the laundry, is now sorting through my daughter's art stuff. I sit at my desk. I'm going to work now.
But, checking my Master Outsourcing List, I see I need filing supplies for tomorrow's organizational binge. I drive off toward the nearest Office Depot, about 45 minutes away.
Three hours later, with a trunkful of office supplies and one less overdue DVD in my car, I walk into my house muttering my to-do list under my breath. Linsay either doesn't notice or takes for granted that I'm crazy. She's wrapped a bunch of packages for shipping; organized my CDs and DVDs; made appointments with the carpet cleaner, family doctor, and dentist; and unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher. Next on her list: Take magazines and catalogs to the recycling center. I gather those catalogs and magazines, write out directions to my daughter's school and to the post office, and send her off. My plan: Spend the quiet time writing. Instead, I use 40 minutes to clean out the drawers in my sideboard and distribute the Barbie shoes, pot holders, screwdrivers, photographs, Legos, and crayons to their proper homes.
Now, finally, seven hours after Linsay arrived, I'm writing this. I give myself an F for outsourcing today. I spent more time getting ready to delegate than I did doing actual work. Every messy surface or drawer distracted me. Would I get better at it if Linsay worked for me regularly? I rationalize my poor performance this way: If I had regular help, no directions to school or post office would be necessary. To-dos wouldn't stack up. My helper would know me and the house, so she'd know which jobs to tackle.
Now I'm looking out the window every 30 seconds to see if Linsay's back with my daughter.
Did Katharine Hepburn and Gerald go through an awkward, unproductive getting-to-know-you period? Maybe she forgot to tell him to carry her coat to the car or took her own notes for five minutes before remembering she'd hired help. Maybe burning toast filled her kitchen with smoke too.
Somehow I doubt it.