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Everything was round. Oval, more like. Oval-backed chairs, oval phones, oval video monitors, oval desks arranged in clusters. This was clearly no place for cubicles. The vast room's white outer walls curved smoothly up toward a single giant skylight. Never before had the hulking building, a converted cupcake factory, seemed to rise so close to the sun.
Somewhere in the glossy plasma below, Lola Somerville was taking her books out of boxes and trying to align them along the curve of an oval shelf—smaller books on the tapered ends, bigger ones in the middle. "Alphabetizing is so twentieth century," she tried to tell herself, silently missing the nice square milk crates back in her home office.
Her former home office.
Today was Lola's first day at Ovum, Inc.
Ovum, Inc. was where everyone and her sister (and, therefore, everyone and his brother) wanted to work. Ovum's programming and "content," on television and on the web, was for women—real women. Ovum promised the spirit and edge of smart, funny women's 'zines such as Ms. Thing and Rack, but with the benefit of resources such as money.
Yeah. Lola was sure she'd done the right thing.
Lola yanked her emergency scrunchie from her wrist and twirled her bra-strap-length hair into a bun. Rotini-twisty and marmalade-orange, her hair was the envy of the "mousy" legions. Even strangers told her so. "No no no," Lola would always reply, "I'd kill to have, like, normal, dealable hair!" but she was totally lying. Lola could pass for Nicole Kidman if she were two feet taller and had a different face—so her hair, she felt, made up for the fact that otherwise, one might describe her as "the hot girl's approachable friend." Skin the color of the crayon they used to call "flesh," roundish cheeks, mocha eyes, vestigial freckles. Lola loved to wear pink and orange and other colors forbidden to redheads, which was, her mother suspected, why she was still single.
Though she'd made a name for herself on the Internet, Lola had only provisional geek qualifications. Two years earlier, she had launched her first website with one hand on the keyboard and the other holding open the book Hooray for HTML! She'd originally conceived the website as a homegrown defense against the global domination plan of Dr. E. Ron Wilson, kabillionaire czar of the Men are Pigs, Women are Nuts self-help empire: bestselling books, CDs, classes, intimate apparel, a chain of Pigs, Nuts, 'n' Beans cafes, you name it—even a line of GPS-equipped automobiles ("So Nuts won't noodge Pigs about asking for directions!").
As it turned out, DrERonWilsonSucks.com had held Lola's creative interest for about three days. Then, it had occurred to her, why not kill with cluefulness? A longtime magazine writer, reporter, feminist, and fan of guys, Lola had figured she could offer a balanced, inclusive point of view with an advice column of her own. She didn't need an advanced degree—after all, that mean Dr. Ruthless on the radio, her degree was actually in geography, and Lola, girl reporter, had exposed the fact that E. Ron had earned his Ph.D. (in "Speech") from the shady online degree provider ResumePadding.com. Solid research, common sense, ethical and socio-political principles, a general disdain for tacky behavior and some server space—that's all I need, Lola had thought, to establish a voice and make a name for myself. Right?
Right. AskLola.com had grown big fast, big enough for Lola to earn a little ad revenue and hire overqualified Kat to deal with tech stuff, and then overqualified Ted to help sort letters and research answers. But not big enough for a "workplace" other than Lola's crates and countertops, and the futon she used to flip into a couch when Kat and Ted clocked in. So when Ovum, Inc. had offered to buy her site—and, Lola insisted, her staff—the heady mix of flattery and salary was tough to resist.
The business plan: AskLola.com—as Ovum's own and only relationships "brand"—would have a direct link from Ovuminc.com's high-traffic hub. Kat would oversee the technical process of shifting to Ovum's server, but the only visible change on the site would be the words "Ovum, Inc. presents Ask Lola" along the tippy-top title. That, plus all the bells and whistles the team would finally have the technological and financial resources to add. And Lola herself would appear on Ovum television as their in-house relationships expert.
Lola had also been granted a modest number of stock options, which, after Ovum's knockout IPO, would help her (an only child) repay her loans from Bank of Dad and lift her to a whole new level of New York City takeout.
Fortune, validation, a soapbox: excellent incentives. But the most powerful pull of all, really, was Ovum itself. Lola wouldn't have sold her baby to just anyone nice with a checkbook. But Ovum! Ovum got it. Lola had actually worried a bit that alignment with such a woman-y place might alienate the male fans of her expressly co-ed website. She'd quickly seen, however, that Ovum wasn't that kind of woman-y—neither lavender-scripty Woe Girl, nor glittery vacant Go Girl! It was the kind of woman-y Lola had been waiting for: mainstream, inclusive, smart, cool and well-financed. Finally. Finally, the really good guys don't have to be "alternative." Here, AskLola.com—and possibly Lola herself—could grow really, really big and strong.
"What on earth is the catch?" Lola asked herself for the billionth time. The answer suddenly hit her.
These fucking round shelves.
* * *
"Yo. Time for orientation, only I don't think they call it that." Kat, one of the few women on the planet allowed to wear a skirt over pants, snapped back the cover on her Power Puff Girls watch and walked toward Lola's desk.
"C'mon Ted, let's head over." Lola nodded toward a group of employees assembling around an oval conference table.
Ted adjusted his framed Cincinnati Reds 1975 World Series pennant and glanced at his new haircut in the muddled reflection. With an amiable grin and cheeks round as Ding-Dongs, he looked like the young Little League coach the kids loved and could walk all over. He followed Kat and Lola into the office's swirling nucleus.
People hurried all around, moving, joining and separating like molecules under a microscope. Trip-hop music pulsed faintly from somewhere. Cameras roamed about; although each show had its home base, the whole Ovum office was one big TV set. (This design concept was called "A womb with a view of one's own.") Maybe that was why everyone looked so damn good. For whatever reason, Ovum's employees were already known to be walking proof that people, particularly women, could be both smart and hot.
"You know," Ted said, "I pretty much see this orientation—"
"I heard we're not supposed to call it 'orientation,'" Kat wagged her finger. She had a smile that went up higher on the right and spiky dark hair with streaks that changed color with her mood—her racing stripes, Ted called them.
"Why not?" Lola asked.
"Guess we'll find out," Kat said.
Ted went on. "Anyway, this…meeting, this whole company actually, I see it as some sort of evil bakery. With me standing outside, nose against the glass, looking at all these women I can't have."
"Dude. Enough with the 'she's out of my league' number," said Kat.
"No, I mean because Lola will kick my ass."
"Me and what stepladder?" asked Lola. She was nearly a foot shorter than Ted, even when his Red Sox cap matted down his unbrushably dense dark-blond hair.
Ted was referring to AskLola.com's official position on—that is, against—flings at the office. Sure, the economy was booming the way it had been right before Lola had graduated college. (Right after, she'd had to wait out the slump waiting tables in nursing shoes.) Still, who wanted to worry if the person they'd gone home with the night before would respect them in the morning meeting? So, no random hookups with co-workers and certainly not with superiors. Lola would, however, green light serious—and decorous—workplace courtship. Hey, that's where you spend your time, and at least you know your crush has a job.
As they walked, however, Lola was too distracted to reassure Ted. There were far too many other things going on around her. Someone's robot cat was chasing a pink ball. The blender at the juice bar hummed; Lola smelled beets. Wait, wasn't that an Indigo Girl?
"They're playing on Chyck with a Y today," said Ted, referring to Ovum's flagship news/talk TV show. The song "Closer to Fine" was a standard on the CD mixes he made for heartbroken friend-girls with whom he was secretly in love.
"'Y' as in chromosome, as in 'See, relax, we like men,'" Kat explained.
"Right," said Lola, having heard nothing. The group reached the Tube, Ovum's dining/hangout area.
"Shiitake, fontina, or fiddlehead?"
A guy in jeans, an apron, and a toque was talking to Lola.
"I'm sorry, what?" asked Lola.
"Omelets to order for the new folks," Mr. Toque explained.
"Oh, my. Okay, um, everything? Thanks."
"Sure. Just egg whites, or whole?"
"Oh. Whole, please. You can even give me other people's yolks. Hate to waste," Lola said, turning to follow Kat's walleyed gaze toward the coffee urn. Oh boy. Peet's coffee. The best ever—this side of the Tiber, anyway. Normally you can't even get it in New York.
And in the middle of the conference table? A giant box of Krispy Kremes.
Yeah. Lola was sure she'd done the right thing.
"Here, I'll get some Peet's for us," offered Kat. "Lo?"
"Yeah, thanks," Lola said.
"And how do you take your coffee?" asked Kat, gamely feeding Ted a straight line.
"Like my men."
Lola rolled her eyes. Too easy! "You're fired," she said.
"Sorry!" said Ted. "Haven't had my coffee yet."
Lola took an oval seat and glanced around the table. The group was mostly women, mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, diverse and attractive in a totally approachable, non-Condé-Nast sort of way. A thick silver packet adorned with a hologram of the Ovum logo lay at each place.
A few seats to her left, Lola recognized the trademark frumpery of Gilda Perez, the tack-sharp gender-issues columnist from Frisson.com for whom Ovum had created a head writer/producer job on Chyck with a Y. With no makeup, hair-colored hair, reading glasses, plain beige crewneck, she looked fantastic. Not because she'd made a successful, labored attempt to be anti-chic, but because she truly just didn't give a shit.
Gilda's hiring was one thing among many that reassured Lola about Ovum's intentions. So was the fact that Ovum had tapped Tammy Abedon—New York's wittiest and most charming female comic—for Chyck's plum host spot, even though she was not thin. Lola adored Tammy and thought she represented everything good and right and hilarious. She had chatted with her at various goody-bag parties and now hoped, high-school-giddy, that now the two of them would get to be actual friends.
"Welcome to Ovum, everyone!" Taking her place at the head of the oval table was Angela Chan, yet another ace-in-the-hole hire for Ovum. Black jeans, spiky boots, orange wrap, dark hair cropped close in a look that on anyone less formidable would have been called gamine or pixie. Angela Chan had been the media director at Planned Parenthood and a reporter in places like Bosnia. (It was she who'd shown the world that systematic cruelty to women was a military strategy, not just a fact of war.) She had worked in the White House at some point. Now she was VP of programming, if Lola recalled correctly. Apparently Angela also played bass and dabbled in extreme snowboarding. She'd been on the cover of Time when it broke the news that lesbians were in.
"Basically, we're just here to say hello and tell you how happy we are to have you with us," said Angela with a genuine smile. "I guess other companies would call this an 'orientation,' but we find that term patronizing. We just haven't had time to think of another name for it. Anyway, we hired you because you're smart, you're visionaries; we don't need to tell you where you are, what to do, or where you are going."
Angela laughed and tilted her head as she took a sip of her Peet's. "We're not the kind of network that thinks it needs to spell out for women how a 401k plan works."
Lola made a mental note to find out how a 401k plan worked.
"Main thing is," Angela went on, "we're really glad you're here. We're really glad we're all here to do this important—and fun—work for women and the people who love them. And when we're done at this brief meeting, please remember to take advantage of our 'podular' furniture system—the desks roll around so that you can interface with everyone around you."
Lola peeked down. Sure enough, the conference oval was on wheels. So was the coffee hutch.
"I also bring warm greetings—and immense regrets—from our founder and CEO, Madeleine "Maddy" North. She wishes she could welcome you herself, but she's meeting with the UN right now to see how Ovum can aid international efforts to support sustainable farming for female heads of households." Angela glanced at her watch. "Okay, gotta run. Any specific questions, I'll be glad to take them offline."
Offline? We're online?
"Cheers!" Angela was gone in a flash of pashmina.
Lynn Harris is the co-creator of advice website Breakupgirl.net, a frequent contributor to Glamour, Salon, and The New York Observer, and an mb instructor. This is excerpted from Miss Media, by Lynn Harris. Copyright © 2004 by Lynn Harris and published by iUniverse, Inc. Excerpted with the permission of the author. You can buy Miss Media at Amazon.com.