Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Line in the Sand

Periodically someone whose opinion is important to me makes a comment that brings up this topic – drawing a line between self and work (not so different from the line between self and family…but that’s too long a topic for one little nightly blog).

From 1986 to 2000 I worked for an executive search firm that was obsessive, as most of the successful ones are, with client service. (One of the best ways to justify high prices, apparently.) We admin assistants usually had to take up the slack on ignored deadlines – our bosses would run out to do something they pretended was important – with a client or their personal lives, their personal lives of course being more important than ours. I remember many instances of making family or friends wait while I finished typing or proofing or copying a project to get it in that night’s Fedex, or even canceled doctor appointments when an important client or even just a prospective client (any degree of client being God in that environment) was waiting for something from us.

In our office we had a saying that the more dysfunctional admins were more successful. I don’t think we spelled it out to each other but we admins, maybe even the bosses, all had some degree of awareness that those who were children of alcoholics and/or motherless daughters, and in some sad cases women in currently abusive relationships, did “better” at putting up with the pressure to sacrifice self.

The New York office had a different cultural dynamic than our Dallas one – there the admins still worked very hard and probably made similar sacrifices but were known to utter comments like this infamous though brilliant “Enough!!!” cry:

"And why don't you stick a broom up my butt while you’re at it, then I can sweep the floor while I type!”

Even after I was no longer an admin and had transferred to a sister company that did less pricey work but still prided itself on customer service, I found myself working evenings and weekends. The overtime wasn’t specifically requested of me but I was praised as someone who “got” business needs and showed a sense of urgency and service orientation

Only after my 6 months at home in 2002 (I had volunteered for a severance package to focus on my writing) did I really pull back from the martyr end of the worker continuum. After I went back to the corporate world – in a job with yes, a client service focus since that was what I knew and had a pedigree in – I still grieved for the months at home when Sarah was both boss and employee, peer and janitor, everything. I missed the world where only Sarah made the rules, scary and imperfect as that world was (no completed novel, no paycheck, frequent questioning of my talent and my work ethic…sunny fun!, yes). That sense of loss hasn’t sunk down too far from the surface years later, but I have a strongly automatic response to the sad twinges: “You need a paycheck!” Yes, OK.

The psychotherapists of my lifetime have had varied perspectives on office pressures. One took extra pains to listen since she was developing a subspecialty as a workplace coach, my current one is experienced and compassionate enough to let me tell my story and respond as if the story is new. But another therapist, that I saw briefly in the early 1990s and think of as the Monkey Man (he was small and hairy with a twisted expression, once I spotted him on Greenville Avenue in an expensive convertible and I swear, he looked like a monkey in a clown car), was determined not to see anything positive in my attachment to my job.

Here is some good perspective on Dr. H, who by the way was recommended to me by a former therapist, a wonderful and helpful and sensitive guy, who had moved out of state – one day I waited 10 minutes past our start time for Dr. H. to come out of his office into the waiting room. (He had a solo practice with no receptionist). At which time he barked at me for not knocking. I said, I didn’t knock because your door is usually open so I thought you might still have a patient in there. He said, But this is your appointment time. Don’t you think enough of yourself to announce your arrival? (oooookkkkkaaaayyy)

Now you see, or wonder, why I kept going to him for multiple months – well…because he was so extremely challenging of my personality type that I thought I might get some good balance out of it. And when I fired him – which in the therapy world means, calling to say, “I’m not coming back,” without agreeing to come in for a goodbye session – it felt really good.

In our most memorable session, after what I admit was a l-o-n-g Sarah Monologue about a Rubik’s Cube set of international travel arrangements I had had to make for a client, covering time zones including China, and requiring me to go in early and stay in late and check messages from home (folks, this was before the Age of Email, so checking in from home was especially cumbersome), Dr. H. asked this thunderously resonant question, in reference to work-life barriers (come to think of it, I don’t think the phrase “work-life balance” had been invented yet either):

Why don't you draw a line in the sand with your boss.

My response was immediate, since I had thought about this question – even if it had not been directly asked of me – a lot and defended my choices a lot: “Well, the admins who draw that line, and stay on the side of it, are not successful in my office environment.”

His response was a monkey-like smirk.

“So....Dr. H., are you saying that it’s not possible for a well-adjusted person to be a successful admin assistant?”

In my memory, he just kept smirking at that.

I meant to mention earlier – it sounds quite dysfunctional to mention it here – really, it sounds dysfunctional anywhere I would mention it…my boss and his wife always made a point of remembering me on all holidays (including Valentine’s Day and Halloween), work anniversaries and birthdays. Think of the impact of this on a 20-something, even 30-something motherless daughter who felt lost in a family of 3 siblings and 6 stepsiblings. My boss D. and his wife felt like my family in a way. And I expected family to expect things from me. Yep. That was our office dynamic.

After Dr. H. I tried to stay with therapists who were at least willing to discuss my work dynamics – to talk through the complexities with me – without making blunt statements and donning monkey faces.

I made the big career break with the big boss D. in 2000, but I made a smaller, earlier break in 1997 when I stayed in the same office but transferred from him to supporting two junior partners. At first it was a blessed relief – the pressure of our workload and our 11 years together had gotten me to the point of literally yelling at him to get his attention – but I found that within a few months, hell maybe even just weeks, I missed working for him. It was partly the prestige – an admin’s rank is clearly determined by the rank of her boss – but I also missed the busy days, the sense of work importance, the Being Needed, with capital letters. My then-therapist, the workplace coach type, said there might be an important lesson in learning to embrace the less-busy daily reality that my new bosses generated, but I confess that idea made even less sense to me than “line in the sand.”

My old job was available because my replacement, a tough-talking Chicago native who told me proudly in the interview that she was “Not afraid to say no to people like him” (and I don’t think I imagined the dig at Southern-gal Sarah in there) had had one issue too many with D. and was ready to move on. Her story was that she questioned D.’s ethics. His version was that she had made too many major mistakes (this could have happened to anyone…but one night she parked a super-important binder of client info in an empty cardboard box without noticing the box had an old “trash” sign on it…). After I went back to D., more than one client told me that my temporarily permanent replacement did not have my customer service orientation.

For a long time this same woman was the only person I knew who had returned a shelter dog to the shelter, after having given up on him. I think I connected that with her giving up on a tough office job. Saying it was the right thing to do, but basically not being up for the challenge.

But…this July I also gave back a dog that I had earlier sworn to love. That experience changes a person’s judgment of situations, self and others.

These days I really try not to work more than 40 hours. Yes, finally, I consider myself more important than the job. (And I have guilt repercussions for that. Maybe genetic, definitely familial. More therapy is needed…)

But the job I have right now does not generally demand – at least not loudly – more than I offer. During the mega-hours-a-week years I got superlative reviews and frequent raises. And often a bonus. And annual profit sharing. That was their part of the deal. They met it.

So, what is the moral. I don’t know, and I won’t ask the Monkey Doc. But it needs more therapy…enlightened therapy. Non-simian.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chips & Drink, the perfect unbalanced meal

One of the combos that drove me toward a diet – and that I most miss, being on a diet – is having chips (pita chips, sesame sticks, anything starchy and salty) and wine for dinner. I never quench my hunger or thirst with this combo and I keep wanting more. That’s mostly in the past tense…mostly. Tonight I have had 2 (make it 3, 4) almonds, 6 (6-plus) pieces of turkey pepperoni…and “some” wine” so far. (And I still might eat a real dinner. You never know.)

In an earlier cycle of overdrinking and being overweight, 2006 version, my favorite chips were one of those snack mixes – wheat Sun Chips, little cheesy bits, I forget what else. Back then Miller Lite was my beverage. Slurp, snack, repeated a million times…again, never got full, finally got drunk, definitely got bloated from the salt. When I realized in 06 that my blood pressure was up, I stopped buying that kind of snack mix.

(That was a funny end of paragraph above, but true. I did some other good things, but not great things to improve my lifestyle. I am still on blood pressure meds. There wasn’t a nice long PS to “stopped buying that kind of snack mix.” The stopping of the buying of that particular poison was pretty much a standalone thing.)

Yes, I have had chips since – and after the beer years, the wine years came – and that food & drink combo still sounds so good when I get home from work. Is it the self-indulgence, the naughtiness? Maybe just the salt…maybe whatever feel-good chemicals come from giving into a food addiction. Or obsession, compulsion…what’s more acceptable to say, what’s more realistic. I usually say addiction because it feels right – self-critical, but right. Not very compassionate, but I don’t waste my best compassion on myself, haha.

Can I for the rest of my life blame my junk food love on my deprived childhood? And some definitions are needed – I don’t love all junk food, but the kinds I do get a deep and guilty love – something that feels illicit, almost sexual? (Maybe for a Libra food is the sexiest thing, at least consciously – LOL – we Libras have deep layers.) My childhood wasn’t deprived of food by any means – we always had plenty to eat and the cookie jar was full of homemade stuff. And we also got certain junk food items, like Oreos, Hershey bars, greasy hamburgers – for special occasions. (Mother added the cheese at home, why pay an extra 10 cents…you know there is a novella in there somewhere!) Now, what kind of message does that send, processed food being a treat!

Well, I know the message it sent me…I am a special person and I want every day to be special. (I think we know where that kind of thinking leads. Serial killers would be one end of that spectrum...)

My first real paycheck was from a summer job when I was 17. My stepmom suggested I write down everything I spent it on. In a new spiral notebook, I wrote down 3 magazines, 2 candy bars…looked at the page and thought, Uh no, this documentation thing is not for me.

And I am still paycheck-to-paycheck in 2010, still prefer to forget everything I just spent money on.

Around that same teen age, I discovered a prehistoric version of what became today’s Chips & Wine. I would get an order of fries from the Tomball Sonic, with a medium or large Coke. (I don’t think Diet Coke had even been invented yet…but I wouldn’t have ordered that because this wasn’t really a diet meal.) My theory was that since I was not getting a hamburger or hot dog, I was cutting calories. I remember feeling virtuous as I ate! I thought this combo was an advanced version of the tip my older cousin (and guru in all womanly things including the art of the diet) had said years before, “You don’t have to eat all the Thanksgiving dishes – just focus on the ones you really like.” Eureka! So I could have just dressing, beans, mashed potatoes and 2 kinds of pie at Thanksgiving. (No turkey, cranberries, salad, sweet potatoes – belatedly I see I was skipping the healthy parts. Oh well!) And at the Sonic I could have fries and a soda.

My eating life has had cycles of binging and cycles of dieting, and French fries have been woven into all of the above. I remember baking frozen French fries on a little pan and tearing dainty pieces of one slice of cheese to anoint the fries. Someone else in the room with me (some stupid man, a family friend circa the 1970s) said, You can’t eat that on a diet. He was wrong! I knew exactly how many calories I was preparing, and it wasn’t many. (And it wasn’t filling. And it didn’t have vitamins. But I was young so my body manufactured vitamins out of the humid Tomball air.)

Here I am, out of Tomball but still in the state of Texas, summer 2010. Still craving the wrong foods. Still spending my paycheck on the wrong foods! Just another cog in the state’s economic machine, I guess.

Actually, I don't feel quite so freakish during State Fair time of year...chocolate covered bacon, Krispy Kreme cheeseburgers...those and more nasty recipes are part of this year's pre-Fair hype. Why, I am relatively mainstream in my appetites!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Determined!!! to get Back to the Blog

I did update my Grateful/Grieving section a month ago – but the last blog post was TWO months ago. Really? That’s even worse than I remembered. Glad I didn’t check the date because I would have been even more down about the situation than I’ve been not knowing the date.

Have been combinations of busy, lazy, not feeling good and otherwise buried semi-alive under Dallas heat. At what point do the discomfort/inertia and the procrastination merge? Hard to say, maybe too frustrating to speculate on. But tonight I had a little zip of energy – it’s a week since my sinus-allergy explosion hit – and I am determined to blog something. Something. It won’t be perfect. But it will be sent live.

At an earlier point in the murky summer I was wanting to blog about the flip sides of Grateful & Grieving. The list at that time (June? July?) lent itself better to that. Tonight, with my updated list, I am not so vividly aware of the two sides of things. Well actually I am, because I have yin-yang notes with several entries, but I guess now I’m back to my usual personal style of putting the contrast right up there with the original statement. Immediate shades of gray, cross-hatching of black with white (like when you choose a pattern in Microsoft Excel for shading), that’s me.

Also back in the summer's murk, a friend asked a question that annoyed me at the time: "If you could change one thing, what would it be?" Gray-area Sarah doesn’t like those questions but since this was asked after a litany of my whining about everything not up to par in my life, I gave some thought to it. Actually I answered him right away, “I would wear Chucks to work.” He and others laughed, but I was serious. Every morning I grieve that I can’t start dressing by choosing my Chucks first, and when my feet get hot and tired in non-white non-cotton socks and non-canvas shoes, I grieve more.

The dress code is not within my power to change. I have tried to strategize ways that it could be, but it isn’t.

My next thought for what I would most want to change (I hate corny phrases), kind of casting about, was… “I would like to lose weight.” That surprised me a bit. I have been wanting to lose weight for years, and it has been years since any diet attempt was successful for more than 3 days.

Finally, I had a perfect storm of diet motivation. (Yes, amazingly...I should say, "Finally...amazingly...") Observing overweight others, being startled how I looked in a recent photo, realizing even my feet were getting fatter (the Chucks were tight!, and I have hundreds of size 7’s!). And my friend’s question was also important, because it somehow propelled me past the “I should” approach to dieting to a personal version of what I would gain from the journey, not just the outcome – every day would bring a greater feeling of control, I would be heading toward a goal. More corny stuff but when you come out of the perfect storm, the corn becomes a strong crop. It’s where you choose to put your efforts.
I had been unblogged for so long that when I found my spiral pad of notes, I had forgotten what was on there. Actually…that felt kind of good. Sometimes I feel too aware of my thoughts and to-dos and everything else. Being lost in this summer has been miserable but finding my way back to blogging has felt like an adventure hike – more natural than I usually am, me against the elements, not so much preplanning…not so much second-guessing or play-by-play criticism.

Another topic note on the green page: “How am I doing? Fine? Bad? How do I know?” When I hear Craig describe my state of being as “fine” to relatives who ask on the phone, I want to correct him, but to say what? The people that life assigns as your relatives are not necessarily likely to understand or want details of how you aren’t fine. And even when talking to people who I would consider to be some degree of a Sarah Intimate, I would not necessarily be so likely to give details.

Maybe the “I’m fine” comes from me after all – not from Craig – or not just from Craig – or not originally from Craig, or…

No, it’s not that simple. The inner Sarah wants an audience for her voice. She doesn’t want to be squelched. But sometimes she is too tired – too beat down – too hot – to go into details. And sometimes it feels kind of comfortable to pretend that Craig is the one who doesn’t invite questions about the state of “fine,” while Sarah hibernates with a book in another room.

"One More Chapter" by Belinda Del Pesco