Thursday, September 27, 2018

Hot Head v. Cool Head : Who Really Prevails?

I'm among those who did not tune in to the Kavanaugh hearing today, because I've had enough. Of everything. And all these old white men. But I see from all of your posts and tweets that the "honorable" (that's laughable) judge had himself a little mantrum today, is that right? This reporting has been countered by a great deal of "...and they say women are too emotional" memes and wisecracks. It is on this point that I wish to write today; this fantasy fairy-tale that men tell each other about women being "too emotional" for leadership. My experience doesn't bear that out, like, at all. Here is a brief look into just one of my experiences navigating the frail male psyche. You know what, people? Far more often it is we women taking care of business while men are freaking out. Fact. This story is about things that happened in my workplace some years back, and about the male emotions I had to navigate on a daily basis. Most of this, I've kept silent about, until now. - md


Women in male-dominated fields deeply appreciate good "male allies." These days the term used often is "woke men." It's pretty simple: if nobody in the group ever makes anything about gender, then nobody has to get all wrapped up in bullshit. The subject simply never comes up. Imagine that, a workplace where we can simply work side-by-side, everyone listening to everyone else. When it's like that, we get so much more done. Many of my male colleagues were friendly, hard-working, smart and professional. I tend get along with everyone, and I really appreciated all those cool guys with families and dogs and interests and hobbies. We had things to talk about, we were a team. Our all-male sales team, for example, were really cool, and always professional, excellent people and colleagues. 

And then there are the others.

The Frail Male At Work

I worked for, and with, a whole bunch of emotionally frail and insecure men. They worked hard. But professionally they were a disaster. Emotionally, they were underdeveloped. I found myself having to navigate a gang who were sarcastic, dismissive, superior, taunting, good-time party boys who didn't seem to do anything other than drink and work. They didn't know how to work with women, not even a little bit. These are the kind of men who act like they own every place they walk into. And these became the men that the boss eventually came to prefer, bringing together an all-male inner circle that passively and actively closed ranks. For the invited inner circle, work lives extended into social gatherings with some regularity. They would get together over drinks. Lots of drinks. No one else was invited. They developed in-jokes. Important, lasting decisions were made, company roadmaps changed only within the confines of their circle.  

Because the line between this alcohol-fueled camaraderie and our workplace had been obliterated, the boss stopped listening to anyone other than those men. He changed, after years of working side by side with me on a somewhat professional basis, he had gravitated towards his ilk like moth to flame. Having all these alpha men around, he had found his squad. Morale outside the circle fell apart. The rest of us, even the "good male allies," couldn't tell the boss anything anymore. Fully ousted, some of us would say "Did you try telling him with a beer in your hand?" We were only half joking. Gallows humor, I suppose. It took a few years, but gradually, with the boss seeming to have found the all-male element that he liked better, the workplace culture changed. He hired more and more of the same kind of men. He inserted some of them as management, some of them as partners (above me) and that's when everything went wrong.

Toxic Dynamics

We were only all together a few times a year, on trips to trade shows where a group of around sixty of us worked the company booth. The Vegas trips were the worst. They went out every night. They drank thousands of dollars' worth of expense reports. More than a few times, one or more of these guys would not even make it to the booth the next day. Just not show up to work because of partying too hard. I'd overhear that one of them didn't come back to the room at all, I'd hear that another was "found on the floor in the bathroom." Celebrating their lack of self control was normal to them. Tales of their escapades were told, and everybody would get a big laugh. It is inconceivable to me that such a person could keep his job, but there you have it: the wide, vast leeway given to men. I can only imagine what would have happened if a woman acted that way in a work setting.

Consider the group dynamics of all these white men, half over the age of forty. Think of these swaggering men drinking, driving around, trading stories and one-upping each other with locker room style jokes. Now imagine being the lone woman in the mix. What do I say when they openly make comments about women's looks, including the contractors with whom we were working side-by-side during the trade show? Do I ignore or do I engage? What should I do when they announce they're going to strip clubs that night? Am I supposed to hope they invite me or pray to God they fucking don't? And how should I act during breakfast the day after where the in-jokes prevailed?

Eventually I just stopped meeting up with them outside of work hours. That either helped or didn't, depending on how you look at it.

Profiles in Misogyny

One time, the lot of us had been put up at a very nice accommodation that, it turned out, was only nice on the surface. It was actually a dump, run by a shady organization, and staying at that place caused total disruption in our work week and annoyed all of us a great deal. There were malfunctioning key cards, dirty rooms, no hot water, no cold water, parking problems, some of our people were hassled by security, and so forth. Staying at that place was a nightmare, so tensions were high. 

That nightmare week all came to a head one evening when a bunch of us returned after working all day to find that our rooms had been entered, our things moved around and riffled through by someone unknown. Worse, some of the rooms had been padlocked due to some lawsuit between the rental agency and the condo association, so my people couldn't even get inside their rooms. Phone calls to the rental agency went unanswered. One of my guys had a pre-dawn flight, and here we stand with all his things padlocked inside his room. This was supposed to be dinner time, and instead of going to dinner we all stood wondering what to do next. Everybody was trying to think of something. We called the police, and then we waited. 

Me and the three boss men stood in a circle discussing the situation. 

Boss #3 said something to the effect of "Well this is weird, isn't it, I don't know how to react to someone being in my room then locking me out of it." 

Boss #2 said something sensible in response to that comment, but I don't remember what he said by way of consensus.

And then I agreed and added, "I don't know how safe I feel sleeping here tonight." That's when Boss #1 whirled on me, red-faced, mouth a rictus of hate. He practically spat the words, "MICHELLE, YOU'RE MAKING IT WORSE!" People stopped and looked. There was a moment of stunned silence. Because three adults had just spoken, in the same conversational tone, about the same topic. No reaction until I spoke, unleashing some seething rage. He went on, "WE ALL JUST WANT TO GO HAVE A NICE DINNER AND YOU SAY SOMETHING LIKE THAT?!" 

I was embarrassed in the moment, but humiliated for the greater impact of this kind of targeting. The boss was cultivating a dynamic where it was acceptable to belittle, dismiss and yell at me in particular. He was reveling in his newfound role as an outwardly hostile misogynist with no control over his emotions. The few women in the mix bore the brunt of his rage. We would consult each other about the problem. We used to say "He holds it all in until he sees the nearest woman."

Big Man, Little Man

I knew that he was a hothead way before all this male-dominated toxicity was introduced into the workplace dynamic. Early on, several of his former employees took me aside to warn me. Sensing my resolve, one of them, on his way out the door, said plainly, "You can't change him."

The first incident happened about a month after I started. One day, at the peak of a particularly foul mood, he let out a bellow, furious over something (I thought maybe some cables were tangled, he hates that). And with that bellow, he swept his arm across his desk, sending everything on it crashing to the floor in a jumbled heap. Laptop, phone, all of it. He stormed out and I cleaned up the mess wordlessly. We never spoke of it. Years later I found out that he had lost an envelope containing two thousand dollars in cash that day. His wife told me about it during a work party. I got the sense that she'd been holding onto it, that is still bothered her. She told it from her perspective in a roundabout way, saying that she'd been annoyed with him over it, and she said she'd told him it wasn't fair to me. This all took a moment to process. "Fair...to me?" Imagine my surprise when she told me that he'd assumed I'd stolen the cash.

Imagine me sticking with this guy for so many years, full knowledge that I worked for a boss whose idea for handling a tricky situation was a full day stomping, muttering, slamming-things-around. What kind of man doesn't simply say that he'd lost some money and ask for help finding it.

For the record, I've never stolen anything in my life.

"I Don't Want To Answer Any Questions"

I knew that he was wired differently on my first day. With just the two of us there in the small office where we started out, he asked me to ship something overnight. I asked, "Do you use UPS or Fed Ex for shipping?" Pretty basic piece of knowledge one might wish to share with the person you'd hired just yesterday. He said, "I don't want to answer any questions." Our desks faced each other. First day on the job, face to face with a person acting as though I wasn't there at all.

For some reason I didn't just stand up and walk the hell out of that place. What I did was say to myself, "this guy needs major help." 

So I helped. That day I called local carriers and asked them all if this company had an account. Turned out it was Fed Ex. Next day, I set up UPS instead. Then I set up a proper international freight carrier and ordered the necessary loading dock supplies. After that, I set up a global logistics system, back office administration, developed the first CRM (Filemaker, y'all). We grew the company. We figured out billing and accounts, warranty returns and an HR policy. We picked a phone system and a health care plan. First we hired one person. Then two more. We doubled that in three years, then doubled that again the next year. We moved to a bigger space. Whatever needed doing, we both did. We cultivated relationships with dealers, vendors and customers, we made endless pots of coffee, we answered the phone, we ran out to Staples for supplies. We worked around the clock. "I go home when you go home," I would say in those days. 

Mistaking Motion for Action

He'd come running in with a full head of steam telling me about the latest thing that was on fire. Before I could even open my mouth, he would yell "I'M SERIOUS, MICHELLE!" This happened a lot. I knew his thinking; to someone so kinetic, he thought that I was not reacting. "I know you're serious," I would reply, reaching for the phone to start working on an actual solution. I don't see the point of panic. Taking control of the situation, rather than running around like my ass was on fire, was then and always will be, my mode. "What would he do," I wondered, "if one of these times I jumped up and started yelling, too." Isn't that a thing parents try with toddlers, where they'll get down on the floor and mimic the kid's tantrum? 

He often confused people and then would become angry at them for not understanding, so I interpreted him for the others. "Give him two choices and the price, that's it," I counseled, knowing that too many details overwhelm him. And something I'd been told by a former employee, I would dutifully pass along: "Whenever he says 'Somehow or other we need to...'" I told people, "that means he wants you to do whatever it is. Today. "

He liked to call everything a "crisis." I think I heard the word "crisis" more than real crisis workers. I can't even speculate about the number of times he would call me in the morning when I was en route to the office saying "All hell is breaking loose!" When I'd arrive, no hell was ever, in fact, breaking loose. Just the usual fires to put out. I learned that "all hell is breaking loose!" might mean "where do we keep the stamps?" or "we are out of coffee"or "I forgot my anniversary" or "there is no way we're going to make this release date."  

The Nearest Woman

By nature I'm a calm person, and I was always a hard worker, a dedicated problem-solver. I rarely raise my voice. Freaking out is not now, and has never been, my style. I resolve issues without becoming part of the issue myself, and when you have clients in crisis and people to engage, freaking out helps no one. But what to do when the boss thrives on chaos and confusion? When he considers not-freaking-out a major flaw, that in itself becomes an issue. A whirlwind of chaos does not solve problems. Motion is not the same thing as action. He would regularly go on rage-walks around the office. He'd stomp, swear, throw things, yell at the nearest woman even if she didn't have anything to do with the problem he was having. Even in the later years when there were two additional women, the person upon whom he would direct his emotional outbursts was mostly me.

One afternoon he came tearing into the office of another co-worker, where I was holding a small meeting. We could hear him coming, because he was screaming my name. He was looking for me. He burst in, saying "THIS ISN'T WORKING!" What wasn't working was this: at 9am he had sent an email to the Tech Support address that reached 34 people...all men...but not one of them had replied. I guess he'd waited all day and it was now 4pm. While the situation was unfortunate, the person who needed to know about "this isn't working" was the Tech Support Manager (a man) whose office he'd run past while coming to find me to yell at instead. Someone should have been held responsible, but apparently the wrongdoing wasn't on the part of any of those men. He needed to find me in order to unleash the rage he felt towards them. 

I'm definitely leaving out many, many other examples when this man, and other emotionally underdeveloped men he brought on board, behaved similarly. This was clearly a situation that I should have left, but I gritted my teeth and worked through the misogyny and I stayed at this company. That would turn out to be a very bad decision, but at the time, I had not yet realized the extent of the mental stress, nor could I foresee what would happen several years later as a result of remaining in such a toxic place for so many years. It got bad, then worse, then impossible.
 
Sometimes It Was Funny

One time we heard someone say, by way of greeting him in the morning, "Hi!" and his answer was a terse, "What's good about it" and then he slammed his office door. Get that? You see, he had become so emotionally worked up over something that he arrived at work ready to be mean to the first person who spoke. Maybe he rehearsed it on the way in, and since he expected a "good morning," he went with his rehearsed mean-ass retort. Comedy gold.


 "Hi!" 
"What's good about it."


Another time, I was ordered to pretend to go along with a terrible plan (the worst kind, one that would waste time AND money) because one of the men had thought of it, and the boss said that it was very important that I make sure to "stroke his ego." Um...no, I'm not going to stroke anything. Nothing will I stroke. Another time, one of them walked all the way back to the office from the grocery store (about a five minute walk) to ask me where the grocery store keeps the bags of peanuts still in their shells. I had no idea, but..."...Produce section, maybe?" not even bothering with why ask me rather than someone who actually works at the grocery store. Another time, another one of these guys called me from the airport in the middle of the night sobbing because his luggage had been lost. These are grown men.
 
Boiled Frog Syndrome 

Without even thinking about it, I had let myself become the buffer for the boss' unchecked emotional fits. I had learned to hear from his silence what he wanted, and I had developed ways to "manage" him so as to minimize the impact on the others. I shock-absorbed him, putting myself between his emotional, reactionary behavior and our dealers, end users, sales staff and other employees. "Don't send whatever email you're typing," I would say quietly, passing through with the mail and noticing that he was furiously banging on the keyboard with his face veins bulging. "You can't fire him, not without first telling him that you're unhappy with his code and giving him two weeks to improve," I had to say about one of the developers he grew enraged about, someone he was about to fire on the spot for something that poor developer didn't even know was an issue yet. I would go get him some lunch and put it on his desk, because he was always on a diet and skipping meals, which made him lightheaded and grumpy. Or I would bring some kind of good chocolate (he was an 80% and higher dark chocolate kind of guy) when I could tell his afternoon mood was looking like it might turn foul. Another check in the "plus" column for God's gift of chocolate. It isn't so much because I wanted to bring him chocolate. It was because we were always on deadlines and I needed him working, not ranting. That's the thing: when he was focused, he was brilliant. The rest...well, sometimes there wasn't enough chocolate.

The situation escalated in the final three to four years. The heat turned up, but I continued to focus on the good, nose to grindstone trying to do the best job possible. So focused, I let myself become the fabled frog who gets boiled alive because the water temperature gets increased by degrees. All those years, I never realized just how serious of a toll this was taking on my mental health. Not until later. Far too late. This experience broke me, in fact I've never been the same since. I shattered. I fell apart. And it wasn't because I was ever emotionally frail. It was because I'd had to be twice as strong, constantly, for years on end, to compensate for these men melting down all the time. 

I Am Not Your Mother

The boss split his time between being angered by my steady demeanor, and acting grudgingly grateful that I was organized, and that one of us could handle a "crisis" without falling apart. I put out fires daily, both real and imagined. His moods, I took all in stride. On his emotional roller coaster, I was resilient. I was "fine with it." Until I wasn't.

Not only was I one of the few women at all, but the only woman considered a "senior" staffer. My title, however, did nothing to alleviate the more asshole-ish of the guys from treating me like some sort of den mother on those trade show trips, rather than as a colleague and professional. I organized and ran the whole shebang. For a job well done, I didn't get handshakes and claps on the back; I got "thanks for looking after us." Most didn't fully grasp my seniority and thought my job was "looking after" the men, seeing to their comfort and needs. None of the men who knew better ever uttered a word to combat that view of my role, and the shitty way the boss talked to me in their presence sure didn't help. How, after all my hard work, do you think that feels?  

Near the end, the situation had begun to escalate and it all got to be too much for me. After my resolve had begun to break down, as I found it increasingly harder to withstand the constant buffeting of all this male sturm und drang on a daily basis, I did sit down with him in a series of meetings. He knew that I was unhappy. He agreed to talk about it. He let me tell my grievances. About the misogyny. The yelling. The obvious lack of respect. The "thanks for looking after us" kind of comments and shitty behavior when we all got together at the trade shows. "It comes from the top," I appealed during one such meeting. "The guys all look to you to see how you treat me." I tried everything to reach him, because we had worked side by side for so many years before all these others came on board. Before the dynamic seemed to change in favor of a male-oriented one that felt uncomfortable, unfair and fraught. 

I Am Not Your Wife

During one meeting he tried to tell me that I had done a poor job of making him understand how toxic the work environment had become. He went on to specify that his wife is a very loud woman, and that she screams at him all the time, so I should, too, if I wanted to be heard. That's how he capitulated that perhaps he was flawed, but not because he ignored, talked over, or yelled at women. Rather, he claimed he acted that way because he was used to being screamed at by his wife and so anything less than full-throated bellowing was lost on him. 

I informed him that I did not plan on acting like he's describing his wife as acting, at work or anywhere else.

Being told that I should act like his wife was more than unsettling, so for the next meeting (as it turns out, the final one of these meetings) I brought a witness. I asked one of the "good" male allies to please come in with me, and he did so. During that last meeting, I did become tearful, emotional, and louder than usual. And guess what? Boss inquired after my mental health, framing my fraught state and tears in such a way that...well, let's not mince words. This goddamn fool suggested that I was the one who was unreasonable and emotionally unstable, and that perhaps it would be a good idea if I sought the help of a psychiatrist.

Good Women Don't Matter To Bad Men

He fired me early on a Friday morning after I came back strong against another one of his misogynist rants over email. I was gone before anyone else arrived at the office, and he and I have not spoken since. 

Lord knows what he told everyone about that morning. What, for that matter, has he told himself? I heard that my sudden termination sent shock waves around the company. I'm sure partially because I'd been his right hand person since the early days back when it was just the two of us, and partially because the others, women as well as "woke men," were well aware of everything that had been going on. I also know that more than half the staff left within 18 months of my firing. Most of these men sent me genuine, heartfelt notes with messages of well-wishes. "I'm a free man!" one said. Another wrote, "I was always hoping for your sake that you would quit, glad for mine that you didn't, because you really made the whole experience a lot better, but I knew it wasn't healthy for you." Another wrote, "I feel a bit gutted I wasted 10 years on it all." There were others, men and women. The departed told shocking anecdotes about the giant me-sized hole that had been left, and how impossibly toxic the place had become without my steady hand. Cold comfort, as my life had fallen into shards by then. I am still picking up the pieces.

Men, specifically white men, are granted infinite freedom to act out on every impulse. They are socialized to feel entitled to indulging their every whim without consequence. They don't see themselves as emotionally fragile lunatics when they rant and rave like Kavanaugh did today. They protect each other. As women, if we say nothing at all, we're later told we should have. When we do say something, our method, tone, time and place are picked apart. If we press on and continue to say something, we become a problem that needs to be dealt with, in my case, fired. A woman expressing any sort of emotion at all? Forget about it, she's hysterical and needs to see a psychiatrist.

But yeah, please, let's keep talking about the emotional frailty of women.∎

Related: I Love My Job

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Lawrence "Street Fight Grampa" O'Donnell

Sometimes Lawrence O'Donnell could stand to slow the liberal roll, don't you think? 

Yeah, you read that right, this is me. No, I haven't been kidnapped. I'm not blogging at gunpoint, although now that I say that, in Trump's America, why can't that be true. Well it's not, not right now. We can work out a code phrase or something later. This is real. 

The whole point of being liberal is you've got to be able to say when your guy is also acting as much a whole donkey as the Trumpy Trumpletons of Trumpville. And I gotta call out Lawrence O'Donnell tonight. 

Look, the president is a gargantuan buffoon, a thieving, conniving carnival barker who thinks he really is the King of America, which means to him that he's better than Barack Obama AND Howard Stern. Trump is delusional. He is a thoroughly ridiculous person. This farce of a president is Putin's useful idiot, or Putin's puppet as Hillary Clinton told us in the simplest possible language. Trump is the worst person in the world. The literal worst.

But everything the government does can't be a scandal. When you trump up a simple thing-that-happened-today so it sounds like an epic OMG, you sound just like the Trumpiest Trumper in Trumpland. And man, does Lawrence O'Donnell torture the language so as to make a new piece of information sound ten times worse than it is! He's ranting and rolling tonight, too. 

He just intoned that the Republicans "have been keeping it a secret all day for some unfathomable reason," regarding the specialty lawyer they're hiring to question Dr. Ford.

Okay, two things. First, I actually think bringing in a ringer is a good idea for all involved and secondly, a practical note: you cannot announce a thing like that until all the forms are finished/proofed/processed. Dude, you know this, you worked there. You can't even announce where you're having your birthday party until the deposit clears, why are you making this into such a big deal that they didn't release the lawyer's name until tonight? Considering the circus currently camped in DC town, I think they announced Rachel Mitchell's name the minute they could announce it, and IMO their one-day was a lightning-fast turnaround.This is the government.

Here's how that story should have gone: "Tonight  the Judiciary Committee announced the name of the lawyer hired to question Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. It's Rachel Mitchell..." and then do the bio thing on Rachel Mitchell. That's it, that's all you needed tonight.

What Else Could They Do Realistically

You know what? The fact stands stark and high on the landscape: that the Republicans haven't seated a woman on the Judiciary Committee in the (hundred years? Two?) that it's been in existence. You would think after 1991 and the Anita Hill fiasco, but no. They can't risk that same spectacle again. They know that, we know it, and they know we know. So bringing in a ringer is a good idea for them, but I'd like to see whether or not this works for Dr. Blasey Ford and for us, too. I think it will work out. But we don't know yet, so making THIS the story is foolhardy. This lawyer is not the story right now. She may become the story next week.

Looking too hard for scandal is a Fox News move, you guys. And now here's Lawrence O'Donnell  asking about how they'll work out the payroll. 

Dude, what. An HR admin question? 

Well, Lawrence, the payroll issue is undoubtedly part of what they were processing today, which is what you could have reported. I would wager it's a leave-of-absence from where she is, a whole bunch of forms required to make that happen, then the contracts and whatnot for the Judiciary Committee gig, are you really couching this paperwork as a big huge story? What in the name of Zeus' butthole does the payroll transaction have to do with anything. 

I can't believe he went after payroll with a glint in his eye like when a dog sees a steak.

In rock and theatre, bringing in a ringer happens all the time. When the performance "thing" is coming up fast and things aren't going well, you all concede that your group or troupe lacks the chops to pull off the "thing" and so you bring in a ringer. 

Of all things to focus on right now. Settle down, gramps.∎

Friday, September 21, 2018

I Believe Christine Blasey-Ford

In high school, I had a good friend invite me to come babysit with her. Unbeknownst to me, she had also invited two older boys. I knew these guys (small town) but we weren't on a first name basis. Before long, my friend went into another room with one of them, leaving me alone with the other guy. Sitting far apart, he and I made uncomfortable small talk within earshot of what was clearly wildly enjoyable sex. My free-spirited friend was sexually active, but I was not and had no plans to be quite yet, but there was a palpable feeling that this guy was expecting sex too.

That was 32 years ago. I can still tell you everything about the old house, how far back from the road it was, the way the room was decorated, how it smelled, the sounds I heard, the vintage top I was wearing, the plaid shirt he was wearing, his scuffed sneakers. And I can also tell you about the phone call I made to my mom to say COME AND GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE.

To be clear, this guy did not touch me. Then my dad quickly came to get me, no questions asked. I was safe. Even so...the situation was still fraught, because I had not asked, nor expected, to be in it, and during a time like that, senses are heightened and details are cast into memory.

32 years later I know exactly who that boy was. I can still see his face, his shirt, his sneakers, and I can still see the Frisbee he was holding and spinning idly as we sat there. It was blue and white.

I got out of the situation, but I remember every detail.

Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford barely made it out of the situation. If you don't think she remembers, then you really just don't get it at all. Like, at all.∎

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Currently Reading

Forged: Writing in the Name of God
it was amazing
tagged: currently-reading

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