A Nicer Person

I refer to this woman at work as “The Millstone.” Maybe it should have been the Albatross. I’m not sure what ancient code I violated, but I’m pretty sure I’m being punished. How much invective, vitriol, and vituperation should I accept, really, when I’m fairly certain I’ve done nothing wrong.

I’ve been Trying (yes, with a capital letter, I’m that Earnest about the whole thing) to be a Nicer Person, and the Millstone is the inspiration. Not because I think I deserve her denunciations, because I don’t. They aren’t, even, usually about me. She’s angry at someone else, but she can’t yell at them, so she yells at me instead. It’s terrible fun. I think she thinks it means we’re “friends.” Really it means that when I hear her clopping down the hall in her sandals, I want to leap from behind my desk and shut my office door. Or at the very least ask, “What now?” with a withering glare. Instead I rearrange my face into blank pleasantness and answer every comment with a noncommittal, “Uh-huh.” Yes, I’m pretty sure I’m headed to sainthood.

So why Nicer? If I’m already so terribly nice? I never understood the expression, “Wherever you go, there you are,” until I met this woman. She could win the lottery tomorrow (come on, fingers crossed, big money!) and she still wouldn’t be happy. She couldn’t be: She doesn’t know how. She’s the victim of everyone and everything she can’t control (read: the entire universe), and the least little thing sends her into an infuriated panic, about how awful and monstrous every damn thing is, every last person.

I recognize a tiny sliver (read: a generous slice) of myself in her need for control, in her constant feeling as though she never has any. There’s a paradox there, a paradox I am learning to understand, from the Millstone, who, it turns out, is a terribly motivational teacher.

The Shit Stick

Today has been a DAY, my people. Not the good kind. The first day back from vacation kind. The kind where you want to cry, bang your head against your desk, tell your coworkers to go f*** themselves, and quit. That kind of day.

I must be doing something wrong. Well, I am doing something wrong, in that I’m caring what other people think of me. I’ve heard it said that we shouldn’t care what people think of us, but I don’t quite understand that, to be honest. That’s one step above my enlightenment abilities. I need people to think well of me, don’t I? My boss, for instance? My clients? If they don’t, I can’t quite figure how I would be employed. Which, in spite of how I started this post, is somewhat necessary. I guess what I need to wrap my head around is that I don’t need people to like me. And that I don’t always have to do everything correctly, 100% correctly, all the time. Because that’s impossible, and will make you crazy. I try to sing that song, when I feel myself getting crazy: “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”

You really can’t please everyone. Everyone comes in with different wants, expectations, desired outcomes … and if you have a spine, or a pair, or whichever anatomical metaphor you prefer, you are going to make someone unhappy.

I guess what I’m trying to do is walk my way around this thought, the thought that “I don’t need to care what other people think of me.” What do people mean, when they say this? That you should be who you are, in spite of other people, their judgments, etc.? But don’t we have to conform, a little? I wear a suit when required, because people expect it. Of course, I’m also the kind of person who doesn’t mind wearing a suit — if I were, I’d need other employ. But certainly I think people should be who they are — I don’t want homosexuals, for instance, feeling like they have to be straight. That’s probably a bad example, but maybe you follow me a little.

But I do feel, all the time, like I’m supposed to be somebody else. Louder, more obnoxious, more unpleasant, more talkative … Generally (to be quite, quite honest) I feel like I should be a man. I haven’t figured out how to be a man, though, and I don’t actually mind being a woman — I just feel like I would be more successful and people would take me more seriously if I were taller, louder, with a deeper voice and a penis. And probably testicles. Although who’s going to check my pants, so, really.

I’m not really getting at the meat of my question, which was, how do you not care what other people think, but care enough to conform enough to be successful? All I know is, today, I was doing something wrong. I got handed the shitty end of the stick and I took it, and I don’t know why I did. I got mad at myself for taking it. I wanted to throw it against a wall and scream, “This is somebody else’s shit, not mine! And I’m not cleaning it up!” but I didn’t. Okay, I did, a little, but there’s no doubt in my mind that when I get in tomorrow, that shit will still be on my wall, and my boss will be in my office, pointing it out and telling me to clean up my shit.

That’s all, really. That’s all I’ve got. Someday I’ll learn to be a better person. But in the mean time, I’ve got shit to clean.

The Millstone

I’ve been trying to give up complaining for a while now. Man, is that ever hard. I never noticed how much of my day-to-day chit-chat at work centered around bitching, until I tried to stop doing it. I once had a friend who tried to give up swearing, and when I pointed out he had just said, “sh**,” responded, “Well, fu**.” It’s kind of like that.

I started my bitch-fast because I noticed how drained and unhappy the constant complaining made me. Or should I say, I had given up complaining — not intentionally, just as a byproduct of not having coworkers or bosses to complain about (unemployment did have its perks). I was happy, and grateful, for things like food and shelter and puppy dogs. But here I am, working full-time again, feeling like Bambi after his mother gets shot, wide-eyed and horrified by the never-ending stream of complaint coming from my coworkers.

It’s impossible to be happy and continually complain, I’ve decided. It just is. You can’t constantly be identifying everything wrong with everything in your life and then turn around and feel great about it. It just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if nothing is wrong with your life. You just walk around feeling drained, and annoyed, and despairing. Or I do, at any rate. Somehow through my years of un- and under- employment I had rediscovered the inherent joy of not hating everything.

Of course there’s a villain in this story, the co-worker who can’t open her mouth without invective leaking out of it. I decided she wouldn’t be happy until I was dead and she was sucking the marrow from my bones. She wants everything from me, and she’s not content just to complain to me, at me, she wants my agreement, my complicity that everything is terrible, RIGHT?! Every time she says that word I picture it just like that, capital letters, question mark, exclamation point. I feel that exclamation point, right between my eyes.

Did I just complain about my co-worker? Well, fu**.

A Great Man

The other day one of the admins said to her boss, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” She meant it as a compliment to herself, but it just made me want to pick up a pencil and stab myself in the eye with it. If the woman’s so great, why is she standing behind some man?

But I don’t feel like a rant today—that kind of rage takes more energy than I can muster first thing in the morning. I have been thinking about women and leadership lately, as I try to take on more responsibility at work. Mainly I think for me it comes down to learning how to do it and then making it a habit. You know, the habit of making the decisions, of accepting that I can’t be perfect, can’t try to be perfect and still have the necessary forcefulness to have people respect my decisions. Also the habit of being the one in front, so to speak. (Get it? In front, not behind—har har.) Women do seem to be conditioned to stand in the shadows. I feel like I can pinpoint the year when I learned that girls don’t take charge, learned it from other little girls. I don’t know where they had learned it from, and honestly I wonder. Their fathers? I didn’t have one, at least not one that was around. Their mothers? I can’t remember mine ever correcting my behavior as unfeminine. But that’s certainly what girls did.

It was fifth grade, for me, when I tried to take charge of the girls in my class—lead, if you will. I get a bit squirmy just thinking about it, even now. Who did I think I was? That’s certainly what the other girls thought. “Who do you think you are?” Girls collaborate, create consensus, and no one is above anyone else, no one leads, there is only, sort of, a first among equals. It’s all become a hazy memory of sitting in one of the wooden cubbyholes on the playground, feeling as though I’d let my girls, my group, my clique, down. I didn’t want to be thought mean. There was some disagreement … I can’t even remember, have absolutely no recollection, what it was about. But the other little girls called me mean. And I knew girls were supposed to be sweet, were supposed to be nice, were not supposed to be stuck-up and full of themselves.

I was a naturally shy child, but I was smart, and I knew what I was. Not the prettiest, which girls were encouraged to be. I wanted to be pretty, to have long blond hair and a pretty round face, instead of brown hair and brown eyes and the face I had—long, thin, cheekbones where the other girls still had plump faces—a horse face. Not the fastest, because I hated sports. Not the sweetest, because, let’s face it, smart and sweet don’t usually go together. Not the funniest, though I tried. But the smartest. I felt, for a long set of years between the beginning of puberty and say, 22, that I wasn’t girly enough. I couldn’t be girly enough, because even though I wanted to be, it never fit. I didn’t care about boys, or what they thought of me, but I felt as though I should, and it only confused me. Boys were almost all stupid and immature and knew no more about anything than I did, but we were supposed to defer to them, so I did. I loved clothes, but not girly clothes—I liked jeans and boots and sweaters and blazers. You should see the dress I picked out for my confirmation at 13. My best friend wore a pink and lavender floral dress with a lace bib and a ruffled hem. I wore a navy and white shirt dress with navy and white spectator heels. My sister’s friend later borrowed the ensemble for a job interview.

I’m taking this trip down memory lane just trying to understand what happened, why I gave up on that early sense of “take charge” for a life in the shadows, a position behind that hypothetical, theoretical, “great man.” I think I felt like everyone expected me to fit into this mold that no part of me fit in, and the only thing I could think was to just disappear. I can’t be that girl, but I can give up that belief in myself, I can carve it out of me, that self-confidence, and hand it over. I can believe that you know how I should be, and that I’m less of a person because I can’t be. Neither a great man, nor a great woman.

I worry about my niece, now that she’s getting closer to puberty, to that age, to a realization that there is a way girls are “supposed” to act, and that it doesn’t always conform to who she is. She’s prettier than I was, and blond, but she’s also whip-smart, likes comfortable clothes, no fuss, and is a natural-born leader. I worry she’s about to be gutted, as I was, made to pay the price I paid for not being a proper girl—her self-confidence. And I hate for her to think she’s anything less than amazing, just by being herself. I can already catch a glimpse of the woman she’ll one day be—a great woman, I hope, one who doesn’t want to stand in anyone’s shadow.

Dirt

We have a new coworker, dry as dirt, dry as bone meal, dry as the Santa Ana winds. Not good dry, not funny dry, but dry—voice a monotone worthy of emergency weather radio, choice of conversation so far yogurt and the weather. After two minutes in her company I start to think about cutting my toenails, washing base boards, counting grains of sand, about putting grains of sand into my eyes and making tiny pearls. Eye pearls, I’ll call them. I might go blind, but I’ll be rich. Wait, did she stop talking? Is she done? Thank God!

I heard recently that boredom is good for you, that somehow it leads to increased creativity. I don’t know if that’s true. If I get bored I get tired and anxious, as it usually means I’m stuck somewhere, like prison. Or jury duty, or the DMV, or work when I’m not busy. Boredom, apparently, goes hand in hand with bureaucracy in my experience. If I’m home, I’m never bored, so, to me, boredom always comes with an arbitrary physical restriction. I once had a temp job so boring—start over, I’ve had quite a few temp jobs that were so boring. In my boredom, I have: made sculptures out of paperclips and rubber bands; written short stories; fallen asleep; read books; played solitaire … and still I can’t recommend it as a creative experience.

Macabre

His office is terrifying. The first deer’s head is positioned to look out the door, its head turned as if startled, its blank black eyes staring into you. A turkey fans its tail feathers by the end table. The boar with its six-inch tusks seems to peer around the desk, half-hidden by the blue recycle bin. Behind him, a bobcat plays with a bird. Another deer’s head, this trophy waiting to be hung, rests sideways on the couch, as if awaiting the shrink. “My whole world is gone,” he might say. “Also, my body.”

There’s probably more but I can’t take it all in, the incongruity of this dead menagerie in his office. I almost expect to see Snow White, waxen and stiff, posed in a corner, a bird on each finger. What sort of man does this? What is he trying to tell his employees, decorating his office with the animals he’s killed? Is he trying to flaunt his masculinity, his cunning, his wealth? God knows this freak show wasn’t cheap. I don’t linger outside that door, won’t let those dead eyes keep watching me. I even hold my breath when I pass, expecting the smell of decay and formaldehyde to curl out the door in a swirling green vapor, as if it were the laboratory of a mad scientist. The whole thing seems mad to me, creepy, disturbing, the product of an unstable mind. Of course, he is the boss.

Working

So here’s what I did today: nothing. No, I’m serious. Sure, I went to work, and I sat there all day, but mostly I played solitaire and tried to look busy, as if Jesus were coming. I asked a couple of questions; got up and walked quickly down the hall, file in hand, as though attending to something urgent; spread file folder and papers over one half of my desk, shuffling through them occasionally. I call them my “props.” Seriously.

I know, I sound like that character from the Dilbert cartoons, who always has some complicated excuse as to why he can’t do anything anyone asks him to do—i.e. why he can’t work, because he is, ostensibly, working. But that is not why I am not working. I have asked for work—repeatedly, over the course of several months. I also worried, for months, that I would get laid off because I very clearly had nothing to do. But now I’ve given up asking and, for the most part, worrying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some papers to shuffle through.