The Quantum of Worst

Last night I was part of an IRL reading for the first time since before Covid. I read with Big Words, Etc., a series that has definitely become my reading home over the last several years. It was wonderful to see Stacey and Jess, the hosts, and to see some of the Big Words regulars.

I gave a few readings on zoom during the height of the pandemic, and all of them were great. It was nice to be able to be in the space with other writers and share my work. Being in person is something else entirely, of course. Getting to interact with the audience is one of my favorite things about reading. I’m always super nervous (“terrified” is a more accurate descriptor) , and getting to laugh with the audience helps so much. And there was plenty of that last night, which made me super happy.

Add to that, a full moon, the discovery of a nice bar, hanging out with Red Emma, the sipping of a jalapeno-spiced mezcal drink, and getting to listen to stunning writing by and give farewell hugs to the wonderful Aimee Herman, and it was a pretty perfect night!

Big Words always has a theme, and last night’s theme was “The Worst Job Ever.” There was such a range of pieces to fit that subject! Here’s the piece I wrote to share:

The Quantum of Worst

I worked for small-time criminals the summer after my first year of college. Technically, they ran an import-export company, but their business was theft. They took merchandise from wholesalers, claimed never to have received it, then sold it. They took payments for merchandise and never shipped the goods. One of my jobs was to organize their file rooms … the one for lawsuits against them and the one for their counter suits.

What makes a job the worst job? I’ve been working more than 40 years. And some of those jobs have sucked dramatically. Some, in spite of their awfulness, also had aspects that were good or funny or nurturing in some way. What is the right equation of crap to equal “the worst”?

Those long-ago bosses — Jack and Charlie — weren’t just crooks. When we met, Charlie asked what college I went to … and then told me how many women from my college he’d had acrobatic, porn-star sex with, wondering if Sarah Lawrence girls had changed since his day. 

(I suspect they hadn’t changed, that no one at Sarah Lawrence or anywhere else would ever have been having any kind of sex with Charlie.)

My first morning, I got an office tour, a can of Lysol, and instructions to spray my desk, chair and phone every time I returned to my space. My coworker explained that Jack and Charlie used any unattended desk, saying: “You don’t want to touch things after Jack.” When I met Jack, I understood. He was visibly filthy, his odor preceding him into the room. I doubt Lysol fully eliminated the problem of him. And Lysol couldn’t do anything about the trail of dandruff Charlie left wherever he went. Both men were loud, sloppy eaters, coughing, laughing, and spitting into our phones as they ate. For a Virgo misophone whose primary trigger is eating noises, this was maybe enough to make this job the worst.

But it was a summer job. And I left after only a month. A few short weeks, and I walked out with a trove of crazy stories I’ve told for years. So was that really the worst? Shouldn’t the worst job be the worst for a better reason? Shouldn’t it be in my chosen field, make me question my career choice or become wary and bitter?

I’ve never worked in a more physically repugnant place, but morally repugnant? Yes. I have. That seems far worse. 

Jack and Charlie eventually went to prison. They stored volatile chemicals in a Bronx basement, creating a health hazard for the residents, and couldn’t counter-sue their way out of it. It was a fitting result for two entirely-terrible people.

Thinking about my crappy jobs and my good jobs that turned crappy … I realize I’ve been lucky. There’s been real crap — I was sexually harassed at one job, regularly discriminated against at another, ugly-fired from another — but I was able to grow and move forward. And, if not, I was able to pay my bills and sustain myself until I found something better.

 “Worst” is about pieces, moments, rather than whole situations. Yes, Jack and Charlie were a whole situation, but otherwise, I have been lucky, have found myself in safe environments, working with people who felt like family, doing work that pleased me … or all of that at once.

So I’m realizing that the critical element in the equation of “worst” … is me, that I can be the force multiplier that sends everything tumbling into the depths.

In my last job I worked with an unashamedly horrible woman. She wasn’t my boss but was central to my work. 

In a discussion about the use of new funding, she listened to the pitch for a job program for young people leaving the criminal justice system, rolled her eyes, and launched into a scathing take-down of the proposal, ending with: “We’re making jobs for little criminals now? We can’t make programs for good kids?” Even at my big age, I was naive enough to be stunned. But this is my worst-of-the-worst because of me. Force-multiplier me.

This happened after the ugly-firing. For the first time, I knew how disposable I was, how easily I could find myself in jeopardy. I had just repaid the borrowed money that floated me across the gap between severance and my new job. I knew how much I couldn’t afford to be out on my ass. That woman had that power, and that knowledge cowed me, showed me I could be made to silence myself when my voice was needed. 

Any version of me before and after that moment would have called that shit out. Wounded, vulnerable me felt fear and chose self-preservation. And while I could understand that choice, it made me sick. I’d spent years teaching the exact young people she was disparaging, championing them at every opportunity, but I didn’t stand up for them.

And there it is: not a question about my career choice, but about whether I had a right to the space I occupied. How did I merit a seat at that table if I couldn’t be who my students would have needed me to be, who I needed me to be? 

Jack and Charlie stole everything, stole at every opportunity. They were despicable and disgusting. But working for them couldn’t be my worst job. They didn’t mean anything. I laughed at them for the caricatures they were and walked away when I’d had enough. Nothing they did could have made me change or swallow who I was. But that “little criminals” moment. My silence in that moment stole me from myself, made me a person I didn’t like. 

There are plenty of jobs where the determination of best and worst wouldn’t come down to my actions alone. But I haven’t worked those jobs. My cushy employment life puts the onus on me. Today, two years into what I think of as my dream job, all this worst-job thinking clarifies for me how much the truth or not of how dreamy this job will be for me is mine to create. I like having that power. I hope I use it well.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Grading on the Curve

My no-longer-so-new job is the largest job I’ve ever had. It’s a job I wanted for several years before the opportunity to apply for it came along. I had some ideas about what the job would include, the kinds of work I’d be doing. And I figured there’d be a world of other things I hadn’t imagined. And I knew I’d have a lot to learn.

Right on all counts. Even the familiar things and the things I figured would be part of the job have presented plenty of mountains to climb in the need-to-learn category. I’ve spent the last 18 months on a learning curve with a broader, more sweeping arc than anything I’ve ever taken on.

All that learning, all that needing to learn, has made lots of room for La Impostora to stride in and get all up in my business. (If you are new to this page, La Impostora is my pet name for and personification of impostor syndrome. She and I have a long and unpleasant history.) And she has been riding shotgun with me since the day I accepted this job.

There is a large piece of my job that has been particularly difficult for me. It involves: 1) learning and understanding two sets of rules, 2) overlaying those rules on some moving parts that tend to move in completely non-complementary ways, 3) fitting the whole swirling chaos into a governing system the logic of which I am only made aware of when a) catastrophe is about to strike or b) catastrophe has already been precipitated by me. This piece of my job impacts every other piece of my job. This is where La Impostora comes to play.

This part of the work stresses me out and calls up all my doubts and fears, so of course it’s La Impostora’s favorite place to be. She has done a great job of reminding me of all the ways I don’t understand this critical piece of my job and how I am more likely to burn everything to the ground before actually learning how to do one part of it even passably well. (You can see why La Impostora is not exactly my favorite imaginary friend.)

This week, however, I tackled this aspect of my job in a way that bordered on capable. Because sometimes I can see La Impostora coming and I can shunt her off into a side room and bar the door. I can remember all the things I came into this job knowing and all the things I’ve learned since I got here. I can actually work through messy problems and find solutions and make disparate pieces function as parts of a whole. This week has surprised and pleased me by being full of moments like that, most particularly in this one super-stressful aspect of the work. I didn’t see it coming at the start of the week, and wouldn’t have guessed that it would keep up for the whole week, but here we are.

I have so much to learn in this job (I mean, SO MUCH), and not everything this week went swimmingly. But it always feels good to be able to turn down La Impostora’s loud, resonant voice, to be able to listen to my own voice. It feels good to see that I have been learning all this time, that I’m moving further in and farther up … that I’m on a curve, not a hamster wheel.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Missing My Work Family

I started my “new” job in the summer of 2019. I was still very much at the beginning of my aggressive learning curve when Covid came calling. When we got the email announcing the make-this-happen-practically-overnight transition to remote learning, my boss called me and said, “Welcome to your first crisis!”

My first crisis. Phew! Now I’m just over 18 months into this job, and a year of my work has been done in my house. All this time I would have spent working and hanging out with my team, seeing them every day, learning who they are and what they’re like. Instead, I’ve been in my room, seeing them occasionally in Brady Bunch boxes. It’s just so odd, not at all the way I know how to get familiar with people.

We’ve made it work, of course. Zoom and email have had to do the work seeing one another day in and day out would have done. In some ways, the changes brought on by quarantine have given me more contact with some people. My boss, for one. She and I work in different locations. We saw each other often in The Before Times, but quarantine has upped our communication dramatically, accelerated our relationship. Same with the large “outer tier” of folks I work with, people I might exchange emails or phone calls with but only see once a month. For the first semester of lockdown, we saw each other at least once a week, which gave them a chance to learn more about who I am and how I am different from the person they’d worked with before I arrived.

I’ve gotten to see a few folks in person during lockdown. I spent a morning working with my boss a few months ago. One coworker lives practically around the corner from me. It took us until summer, howeer, to realize we could meet up from time to time and go walk in the park together instead of meeting on zoom. Another coworker lives close to the office, and we met up for a walk along the river during one of my plant-watering trips. Each of those meetups has been excellent, so nice to have in-person conversations with people, so nice to be wholly present, not just a face on a screen.

Spending the day in my office today reminded me — as it does every time I go to the office — how much I miss the people I work with. Our office suite is a ghost town, so resoundingly empty. And, as we close in on a year since we all went home, I wonder how long it will be before we get to be face to face again. The work is getting done. Of course. But I want more.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Long Day’s Journey into … Tears

Had my first crying-on-the-job moment at the new job today. I guess that’s one of the perks of working from home, right? No one had to see it. I could click my camera off during the zoom meeting and just focus on keeping my voice together. And then when we were done, I could just put my head in my hands and sob for a few minutes.

… Not too many minutes, though, because I knew my boss would call to make sure I was okay, and I needed to have a normal, not-sniffly, not-weepy voice for that convo.

Sigh.

Not the first time I’ve realized that my stock-up plan for sheltering in place was deeply flawed in that it didn’t include any wine.


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Be it ever so humble …

I enjoy being with other people … some of the time. I like groups, I like gatherings, I even occasionally like a crowd (it’s rare, but it happens).

All that is true. But what’s even more true is that I might actually have been born for social distancing, born to self-isolate. I responded to my job’s work-from-home email the way extroverts might respond to a party invitation.

I keep reading posts from people who are freaking out at all their alone time, tearing their hair at the prospect of having to stay in their homes. I feel for them. Their distress is real, is palpable. I feel for them, but I don’t feel them.

I have always loved being home alone. My cozy nest of an apartment — even though no apartment of mine has ever been super cozy or nest-like — is where I always want to be. I am incredibly good at staying home for days at a time and never feeling the need to be out and about, never wishing I had a houseful of folks to keep me busy, give me company. So this enforced home time is feeling a little like heavenly.

Yes, I have to work while I’m home. This is telecommuting, not a staycation. Still, it’s a complete pleasure to do what I need to do from the comfort of my bed or the seat of my exercise bike.

I was productive today. At times, I felt a little crazed trying to keep up with the flood of emails and the volume of calls — our move-everything-online plan launches on Thursday — but mostly it was a productive day. I missed my plants, wondered how they’re doing with their self-watering bulbs. I learned some annoying things about remote access to my work computer and realized how spoiled I am by the internet speed I enjoy in my office. Still, it was a productive day. And it was nice, when I was feeling annoyed or overwhelmed, to be able to lean back and see the adorable calendar Fox gave me for Christmas or to reach over and pet one of my cats.

One thing I didn’t do today was stick to the little sketch of a schedule I’d made. And maybe that sounds like I did a little work and then watched hair videos, but no. I had the opposite problem: I didn’t take any of the breaks I’d written into my schedule. Not one. That’s not a good way to work, and I’ll be looking to change that tomorrow. All work and no play … sucks.

 

So self-isolation is feeling okay. You know, today. We’ll gauge how I feel being closed up indoors when this lockdown has been going on a while, right? Let’s see how happy a hermit I am in a couple of weeks!

Wishing us all well, friends. Wishing us all well.


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot