Lunch with the competition

LUNCH. A fashionable New York restaurant. The maitre d' recognizes my hostess, greets her by name, and shows us to our table. I'm impressed. I'm also nervous. I am having lunch with ``the Competition,'' Brooke. Seven years earlier we had both been single, energetic, creative career women on our way up the ladder in broadcasting . . . co-associate producers of a daily live television show in Chicago but eager to be producers, executive producers, or program directors.

As I sit across the pale pink linen-covered table from Brooke, I realize I have become more like one of the viewers of that now-distant show -- the mother of two, doing volunteer work, clipping recipes from newspapers, and aerobicizing twice a week at the Y.

Five promotions and one cross-country move later, she had gone from associate producer of that show to program director of a network-owned television station in New York City.

I am nervous because I'm not sure what to expect from this lunch with my old rival. After all, she went on to become what I thought I would become. Could I have done the job, after all? Would she be envious of my motherhood, my freedom from the endless hours of compulsive work? Would we be able to step into each other's shoes to really understand what was going on in each other's lives? Had we changed? Did it matter?

Seven years earlier our career paths seemed destined to run similar courses. Jobs would come and go while we made the predestined progression to ``the top.'' And, without saying much about it, I guess we both figured that marriage and children would somehow fit neatly into the package.

Memories are racing through my mind as I watch Brooke peruse the menu. Those were magical times. Getting up while it was still dark to get a 9 a.m. show on the air five days a week was just part of the thrill. Sometimes it was a breeze. All the guests would show up on time and be witty, insightful, and charming on the air. Other times I considered a career in banking. After all, a teller doesn't have to worry about filling 60 minutes of air time when a blizzard prevents her first guest's plane from land ing, or a celebrity forgets to answer a hotel wake-up call, or a three-year-old Elvis impersonator refuses to ``impersonate'' when the camera is on.

Those were the days when 6 p.m. would find us still behind our desks, feet up, sorting out the day with humor, trying to figure out new bosses, or laughing at our own inability to book the next morning's show.

In my memory this fleeting moment in both our careers seems to have lasted forever. In reality, it was only a few months. But it gave us enough time to develop a wonderful camaraderie and an even better rivalry. I loved what I was doing and had confidence in my work. So did Brooke.

Our strengths and weaknesses complemented each other. She was always able to see the big picture -- how the show was going, whether we should rearrange guests, what the next question to the guest should be. I never saw any of that, because I was always too busy making sure the guests had their refreshments, the hosts their notes, or the crew their laughs. I didn't realize any of this till much later. I was the detail person who wanted to please people. She was after the end product and expected people

to carry their weight.

Time came to move ahead. Brooke and I both made a pitch for a boss's job. Brooke got it.

I was crushed. But I survived. And soon after I became a producer, too. First, of my own show, then of my own child. After all, I had been married two years earlier.

By the time I returned to work from my six-month maternity leave, Brooke had gone on to become the executive producer at the television station in charge of all the producers. She was now my boss. And our paths moved further apart.

There would be no more feet-on-the-desk, 6 p.m. laugh sessions. I was home with a little one by then. As much as I loved my new family, for fleeting moments I missed my old family at work. I would never be the same again.

Brooke was busier now, too. She had her own office. You had to make appointments to see her. And eventually, she would be critiquing my shows.

Actually, that never happened because, in the nick of time, my husband was transferred to Los Angeles. I was spared. Spared the critiques and spared working through this point in our relationship.

Then Brooke, too, got married, and, like me, soon after left town for a promotion to the other coast . . . only it was her promotion, not her husband's. He followed as I had followed.

Lunch arrives.

I am wondering why I have been agonizing so much over so little. She's talking about her husband. I'm talking about mine.

She has shown me her office. I have shown her pictures of the kids.

She isn't asking if I miss work. I'm not asking if she is planning kids.

She is thriving in this, her fifth promotion. I am thriving, too.

As we emerge from the restaurant into the warm autumn sunlight, I feel renewed contentment with the path I have chosen. I am the same person now as the associate producer Brooke had remembered. I have the same skills. I am just using them differently.

Brooke, too, is the same woman I had remembered. And the skills she had seven years ago are the same ones helping her compete as a program director today.

Our daily experiences keep us moving down our own ever-changing paths. Since that lunch 18 months ago, I have cut back on my volunteer work, no longer clip recipes, and have started a part-time career at home.

Brooke, I hear, has just had a baby. Where do you suppose our paths will lead us now? Perhaps they're about to cross. In any event, I think another lunch is in order. This time in Los Angeles. And maybe this time the maitre d' will recognize me.

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