I went on holiday with M. last weekend, taking a three-tiered approach to relaxation. First, a hike then a rather fine dinner at a country inn. Next came a long, sound sleep at a tiny bed-and-breakfast, then an overnight stay at a lakeside resort, followed by a day at the spa (steambath, plunge pools, massages and enough time sprawled in a hammock under the sun to scorch a perfect outline of my bikini onto my skin). I returned home to a city heatwave feeling sweaty and relaxed and indulged, not to mention red-hot from my sunburn; but, no sunburn could take the shine off such a lovely get-away.
Awake early the next morning, I stretched and made coffee and hustled into office clothes. The weather was still glorious and I was determined to get to work as quickly as I could, so that I could finish my day and get out into the sunshine again. A little song ran lalala though my head as I switched on my computer, moved a stack papers from here to there, and wiggled in my chair. Lalala was still in my head when my boss popped into my cubicle and suggested we retire to a nearby boardroom in order to talk in private about something…something about which I could tell she was awfully uncomfortable.
A brief preamble about how I am an excellent employee, smart and friendly and efficient, ambitious, well-liked and interesting. “And, in addition to those things, it seems you are also quite a good writer,” she said, sliding a stack of papers across the table toward me. “In a way, I’m glad this has happened, because it’s given me the opportunity to check out your work, which I look forward to reading more of!” She kept one palm over the sheets of paper while she assured me that the situation was not being taken seriously, that I was not in trouble, that there was no indication or evidence that I had done anything out of line. Then, she lifted her hand and let me read.
It appears that a colleague has complained, quite formally and using the most escalated option available to her or him. Complained to my employer about my Internet posts, complained about the content of my personal blog (which is anonymous) and another (which is written under my full name, accompanied by my bio and photo for cross-reference, in case there was any doubt it is me). Complained that I slander my co-workers, that I shit-talk the people I sit amongst all day, that I paint a poor picture of what it’s like to be employed where I am, and that I must be stopped, if not consensually then by force. That unless the complainer’s demands are immediately satisfied, additional steps will be taken to cut short my career and to ensure I remain unemployable.
The weekend of relaxing and lalala were stamped out, replaced by the feeling of wanting to barf. Like my boss, I am fairly certain who is behind this complaining. We have a longstanding history of friction and I must confess on at least two occasions, this person has provoked me to the point of shouting and swearing. It’s no secret we cannot stand each other, but I believed, until this moment, that we had crafted a sort of truce. An understanding, rather than a cold war. That instead of escalating things, craftily behind each other’s backs or openly during meetings and workplace get-togethers, we were behaving like gainfully employed adults: accepting our mutual dislike, and accepting that it is solved by avoiding interaction as much as possible. The office is a large place, and there is no compelling reason for us to have anything to do with each other.
Sitting in the boardroom, I thought about the first afternoon of my weekend holiday, and the hike I took with M. We were standing at a lookout point, watching two red-faced birds cruise above a valley. They might’ve been vultures or some sort of hawk. Whatever they were, they were massive and ugly and flew with incredible grace. Mostly, I was taken with the redness of their heads. A man came up behind us, clearing his throat to announce his presence and not freak us out, then launching into a story about how the valley had really filled in since he began hiking that region thirty years ago. He drew our attention to the maples that were barely scrub in the 1970s, and the line of stubby pines that a farmer had cultivated then let run wild. Suddenly aware that our conversation was instead a monologue, he shrugged and sighed and grabbed his pack then stalked back down the trail.
Our hike intersected with this guy’s trek at least a half-dozen times, and at each encounter he behaved a little more sketchy than the last. Muttering to himself (fair enough, he’s alone in the woods and apparently chatty), not making eye contact (also ok; maybe he’s shy…but what about all that talking?), bolting past at a brisk pace and acting like we weren’t there (hmmmm…). And, each time he appeared to veer off in a direction that couldn’t possibly have led him to where we ran into him next. We joked that he was the regional killer, stalking couples through the forest and jumping them mere yards from their cars.
M. told me how I beautiful I am, and how much he’s enjoyed our three months together, then apologised for the kick he was sure to deliver to my shins before bolting to safety when the killer made his move. “It’s survival instinct, baby. You can’t blame a guy for nature!” I asked him why he was so sure that he could outrun and outwit a hermit killer who presumably knew that newly filled-in valley like the back of his hand. “That’s just it. I don’t need to outrun the killer, I just need to outrun you!” Such a gentleman.
As ridiculous a parallel as it might seem, I thought of that joke while I was mulling over the mess I was confronting at work. I could look at the complaint two ways: I could attempt to “outrun” it, or I could simply situate something else between the complaint and me. I could rush home that night and erase the specific essays fingered in the complaint. I could sweep clean everything I’d ever posted, reviewing stories for reputational tarnish: did any essay suggest I’d ever done more than my share of drinking, recount a sketchy party, lay bare some less than chaste detail of my teenaged life? Depict my bum or my pantyhose, or allude to a tryst more than twenty years ago? I could delete everything that makes me appear anything but angelic, hard-working, devoted, dedicated and nice. I could watch my step and watch my mouth and watch the subject matter and tone of everything I one day write.
Or, I could consider the facts, and let those stand behind me and the writer’s block I could feel threatening to tackle me. I work at a job where discretion and privacy considerations are paramount. We deal with sensitive information, contentious caseloads, and issues that simply cannot be written about online. I have never associated my name with my workplace and my job title, not in my blog pieces or essays. I once wrote a magazine article about the type of work I do, but published it discreetly, without revealing case details, client information, or steps taken to complete our work. I am always polite and decent to colleagues, and any issue against me is likely rooted in personal dislike rather than professional misconduct. And, hey! personal dislike is fair. If you claim you like everybody, then you are a liar. Everyone knows someone they just don’t care for; this is good, it means you are normal. My writing never shit-talks anyone, unless you’re that dude who biked past me last summer and told me something lewd regarding my ass. Dude, you are definitely trashed online (right here, in fact)! Sorry, honey, but you were begging for it.
Furthermore, the story about which the complainer did all her or his complaining…that essay was pieced together from notes six years old…and concerns a workplace I left when I was 29…all this is clear from my description of the physical terrain. My essay begins with a quote from a sign hanging in the office lunchroom, the incongruity of which was lost to my complainer. Our office? Not only no sign like that…no lunchroom.
Hurt, offended, taken aback, I could rant to incredible length about the foolishness of this approach. The person who threatened and attacked me knows my full name, workplace contact information, job title, and manager’s name, and yet they complained anonymously. If they’re so upset, why not approach me directly, and see where things go? I am willing to give the person the benefit of the doubt that she (or he) simply misunderstood my writing and sincerely believes I write mean things on the Internet. The person presumably devoted a considerable amount of time to reviewing my work and finding fault with me, with my stories, with my life. This is the part I don’t understand, despite understanding a lot about myself and about human nature and human compulsion. It’s fine to not like me, but why place enough value upon your own dislike that you are compelled to cause me trouble? Would you high-five yourself that night, if you’d succeeded in having me fired? Would you score bonus points if losing my job ultimately rendered me homeless? Does getting me in shit make you cool?
When I was small and my brother and I argued (which was often), one of us would end things by declaring, “Ok, I am never talking to you again! Forever! Totally ignoring you! Starting in five four three two one…NOW!” And, since that game quickly grew dull, we’d periodically check in, reminding each other, “I’m still not talking to you. Ever. In case you’re wondering. This is just intermission. Back to ignoring, staring in three seconds…” I feel like this is what happened at work this week.
During my weekend get-away I learned not to lie out in midday sunshine wearing only a tiny swimsuit and insufficient sunscreen. I learned I’ve gained twenty pounds since my physical in January, and that it probably came from a daily latté and croissant. I learned about three gorgeous hiking trails located less than three hours from the city, and would like to learn the name of the red-faced birds that flew over the valley but so far, this is something I haven’t learned. I learned about M. and he learned about me, and I think we like the new things we know. I stayed in towns without familiar names, and dined at restaurants without well-known chefs. I ate delicious things and slept between tasty white sheets and took in simple scenery.
I’ve been pining for this break for ages. It’s called “getting away from it all”. It’s called relief from overthinking, overtalking, overplanning, overtending and being overly focused. Everything about the weekend was so simple it seemed fancy. I really love that word. Fancy. My friend G. named his dog “Fancy” and I think it’s the best pet name of all. “Fancy” is just plain eating, walking, living, sleeping; establishing room to breathe, which is the mission both M. and I assigned ourselves as we pulled away from the curb Friday morning. And, I am determined to not allow a complaint over which I have no control smoosh me back into the slumped and frustrated posture I used to assume at my desk. It’s a tough one, much tougher than the “you are assigned to make breathing room” goal from last week. But, here I am, making sense of today by frosting it and folding it neatly and putting it away. Just like my blog headline declares.
No one at the office is supposed to know that I know about the complaint. Perhaps writing this blog post means that I am made up of less “clever” and more “fucking stupid” than I like to believe, but there you go. I tell stories. Nice ones, silly ones, boring ones, fun ones, nostalgic ones. But never ones that are mean, crass or defamatory. Surely even my complainer knows this.