Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Shit Gets Real
I've never really understood what it is to hate your boss until I started work at ________ LLP.
When I worked at Tower Records, I had a supervisor, Talulah, who used to give me shit for sitting on the back counter during slow periods in cash register duty, but she was okay in the end. She smoked weed competitively and took solemnly her designated charge, the R&B section; whereas I was going to college in the fall and her authority was a fucking joke to me.
Years later, when I was a school teacher, I had a principal who generally left me alone, but one day--maybe the second or third to last day of school in my last year, when the kids were doing nothing but cleaning out their desks--she had the temerity to say something to me about young Joshua Reyes. He had been pissing me off and I had kicked him out into the hallway. Well sort of kicked him out into the hallway, since we weren't actually allowed to do that; so instead I made him stand in the hallway while keeping his right hand inside the classroom. That way I knew he was there and hadn't wandered off. Unfortunately, Joshua, who I wanted to kill constantly and who I also loved like my own flesh, bone, and blood, a duality only teachers know, couldn't keep still and started doing some ADD jig out in the hallway. This caught my wandering principal's eye -- though to this day I still don't know how she managed to lift herself to the fourth floor, part of her dominion she never patrolled. She barged into my classroom and dressed me down for kicking a student out in the hallway, even though, if she weren't such a narcissistic and moronic midget, she should have known I had not technically done. I mean, his hand was still pasted against that inside wall. Come on.
By the way, I had a double class that day. I had been minding another teacher's entire homeroom. I was doing my principal a favor, so I was doubly pissed at this affront. I stared daggers at her, and when she walked away, having deployed her bile, I yanked Joshua back into the class room, sat him down at a desk in the corner, and slammed the door -- hard. The kids all hissed "Ooooooh" in unison: I had just slammed the door on my principal. They knew it. And she knew it. She turned around, came back in and summoned me into the hallway. I can't remember our conversation, but, even though I was in the wrong, even though I had slammed the door on her back, if not her face, and had disrespected her in so unquestionable a way, I held my ground. I made it clear to her, in less profane terms than I am making it here, that I thought she was an unreasonable bitch and shouldn't have dared talked that way to me in front of my kids, that the classroom is my kingdom and I would not tolerate her meddling in my jurisdiction....blah blah blah. Youthful exuberance. I told her, more or less, she deserved my outburst. To her credit, she walked away, before things got really out of hand. Before Shit Got Real. But we were on icy terms for the next week or two. We came to a detante during the summer school term. But I never apologized to her, and she never apologized to me. That fall, I went off to law school, but in the years since I have visited my old school and she has always warmly received me. Water under the bridge, I suppose.
But around the time of the incident I do remember thinking, What the fuck is she going to do? Fire me? I bust my ass for this school, and I am good at what I do. She needs me here more than I need to be here. Let her fucking try.
I think of that incident now. I think of the collected moments in my life where, muddled by stupidity's slightly better-dressed cousin self-confidence, I didn't take my superiors' shit. I think of all those moments where I believed--and I acted in accord with the belief--that my employers needed me more than I needed them, that I had no fear of getting fired.
I think of that incident because I am no longer that person.
Now I have a boss -- let us call him Sean -- who sees himself as something of a teacher, but who has no patience at all, who fulfills television's worst stereotypes of lawyers (brimming with rage, mirthless, committed to destroying his adversary no matter how inconsequential the stakes), and who constantly belittles me, questions my intelligence and work ethic, and who I am beginning to think I will never win over. Now it should be pointed out the vast majority of the things that drive Sean to the brink of Hulk-like hysteria -- a comically melodramatic shuttering of eyelids, followed by a one-handed massage of his own temples, accompanied by very loud nose-breathing -- the vast majority of these things he is fully justified in criticizing. I fuck things up. This job has been a challenge to me -- I know nothing about the industries the firm's clients hale from and I did not have remotely the same level of responsibility in my previous job as I do now. Couple these realities of my job with my generally plodding way, and you can see how disaster might strike -- how it might strike all the time. I have no problem with Sean criticizing me, or my work, but what is bizarre is that he thinks bullying me, breaking me down, is the way to make me a better lawyer.
Now I know a lot of people have had bosses from hell, and maybe I've been lucky so far in my career in that this Sean experience is a new thing for me, but that doesn't change the fact that his tendency to fly off the handle causes me anxiety, makes me nervous, and consequently leads me to make other foolish mistakes that in turn draw further ire from his being. And none of this changes the fact that it's astonishing to me -- and I would think to you -- that Sean thinks he is helping me when he talks himself down from violent outbursts in my presence.
The other day Sean told me I don't have a "killer instinct" because he didn't like a fax I had written to some opposing counsel.
The day before he expressed his displeasure with the fact that I had taken a vacation "really early in my time at _______ LLP." I was dumbfounded. I racked my brain for a response to this statement; I thought I should defend myself. What would my younger self had said to Talulah if she said this to me? To my old principal? But no response sprung to mind. I had taken a week off after four months of work, and monitored my work email while away, and made sure the one or two matters I couldn't reschedule were covered by others. I had done it by the book, and now was being told I had done something shameful. Sean's statement hung in the air, and I just stared at him. I didn't mean that moment to mean anything; I thought this was just another example of him unloading on me and me just taking it. But then something strange happened. My silence, my dumb-stricken face looking at his, were counterpoint enough. Sean must have realized how preposterous his statement was, as it hung in the air, a stale fart from his mouth. He must have realized this was a bridge too far. He stammered, "I mean vacations are good. We all need them, but, you know, work piles up..."
I kept staring for a beat or two more. Then I gathered my papers, and said matter of factly, "Thank you, Sean," and took my leave of him.
I guess there's still some fight left in these old bones, but the fights going forward are going to be the tootless, bloodless kind.