Wednesday, August 26, 2009

People I Am Not.

All I can ever be to you
Is the darkness that we knew
And this regret I got accustomed to
-- Amy Winehouse

I was at the gym today, feeling pretty low about my day and myself, when this song came on. It hit me: Hey, now there's a person who knows feeling crummy. At least I'm not Amy Winehouse.

I started to feel better already, moseying to the steam room and contemplating all the ways I am not like Amy Winehouse, at least on the surface. "This works!" I thought to myself. "Who else am I glad not to be? Mark Sanford. Yes! I may be feeling a bit disheartened at work today, or pretty far down on the real estate totem pole for someone my age, or a bit socially adrift right now, but I am not Mark Sanford, and that's a reason to walk around feeling grateful."

I made a little mental list of people I'm glad I'm not. Maybe you have your own list. Feel free to share it here.

Amy Winehouse

Gov. Mark Sanford

This person

Courtney Love

Rick Pitino

The great thing about being human is that no matter how badly you've screwed up, chances are there's someone out there who has screwed up even worse than you have. If you're Courtney Love, it's arguable that you might console yourself by thinking about Amy Winehouse. Rick Pitino might think of Steve McNair. George W. Bush might think of Hitler. We've all messed up pretty seriously at one time or another.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


How much professional disdain can you accommodate before it overflows and poisons the personal, and vice versa?

How hard do you try to comprehend a person's motives before you simply write off the individual as a bunghole, even though surely s/he has loved ones who could ably rebut this conclusion, excuse my pun, and might even say that you are the one who is the bunghole? Is it healthier to try to understand/forgive, or to decide that bh is bh and take a persona non grata stance?

Once someone has crossed the line in terms of your own acceptable rules of conduct, how do you deal with that person going forward?

These questions have always been difficult for me, and they have run particularly deep over the last few weeks.

Once, many years ago, I made an edit to a column because it was slanderous. The columnist, with whom I'd been very friendly up until then, screamed at me over the phone after finding out. I stood my ground. The columnist went to my boss. My boss backed me up. More screaming. I've never been talked to like that before by a colleague, and haven't since. It shook me, and shook my estimation of that person.

After a couple of days, all was forgotten -- on the columnist's end. But for me, that relationship was effectively over, and I avoided all but the necessary interactions.

Before the tirade, the columnist had offered to help me get connections outside my company and had already helped me secure one job interview. It would have behooved me to let bygones be bygones and continue to use this person for contacts, but I couldn't ask for any more help from someone who, I felt, had betrayed me.

Similarly, it took me several years to get over a relative's behavior toward my father in the wake of his mother's death and disagreements over her estate. I had to see this relative at holidays, and it took some energy to actively avoid her, to signal that she had done wrong, and that I had not forgotten it.

You see, I've been a grudge-holder for a good part of my life. The grudge is a symbol of principle, of justice, of righteousness, of self-preservation: One so concretely circumscribed by her sense of right and wrong is stronger, less permeable. Debilitating struggles with sympathy or grey areas are averted. Interlopers are swiftly judged and excommunicated.

My brother, unlike me, greeted the offending relative as he always would have. He had no chill in his voice. As far as he was concerned, the shadow was between her and my father. He could never understand why he should get worked up about something that had nothing to do with him. I used to judge this, too. Where was his sense of loyalty? Where was his sense of outrage?

But my father, too, forgave her over time, and I was left with my own righteousness on behalf of no one, slowly sapping my energy during family gatherings even though the original point had been lost. Eventually I had to just forgive and resume normal relations. I did not forget. But the contrast with my brother made me wonder: When is a grudge worth nothing more than the pain it inflicts on its owner?

I'll never be able to adopt my brother's easy approach to things, but I've come to a place of forgiving faster and forgetting sometimes. I come to it only as a white-flag surrender, not as an act of strength. I can no longer grant grudges to everyone. I simply don't have the emotional capital. Only the real bastards can earn it. The rest can languish in the emotional dustbin.

Music: "Running"


Music: "Float On"

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Points of Contention: Copy Challenge.

Dispute 1

The Usage: The use of "troop" as a singular to describe a soldier.
The Correction: An editor let me know that he changed my headline because I referred to a single soldier as a troop. I was confused: Hadn't I seen this all over the place? I searched around. Well.... sort of. CNN, for example, had a headline that referred to "50 troops wounded." So wouldn't that mean troop is being applied to soldiers as individuals, and therefore is interchangeable with "soldier"? I appealed to a former boss of mine whose opinion I trusted (subject line: Help me Obi Wan).
The verdict: He replied, "Troops is a plural term, never singular. The derivation is from World War I (or earlier) and Troupers, which became Troopers, with the plural shortened to troops. But we don’t use Trooper as a singular anymore. Soldier is always better (unless it’s a Marine, which gets capitalized)." I was wrong.

Dispute No. 2
The Usage: Geico, in reference to the insurance company.
The Correction: "Isn't GEICO all caps?" I said during a review. "I don't think so," the writer said. "I think it is," I said. "I can check, but I'm pretty sure it isn't," she said.
The verdict: GEICO technically stands for the Government Employees Insurance Company. It's an acronym and the company uses all caps for it all over their Web site. I was right. (Pretty small victory compared to the gaffe above.)

Also, Uncomfortable Moments is 4 years old this weekend. It's hard to believe that the first post went up that recently. It feels like longer.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Everlasting Cringe.

This Uncomfortable Moment began at 1:48 p.m. EST today. I have uncontrollably relived it in the hours since, and will continue to do so. I submit it here for a) your enjoyment and b) my expiation.

On my team at work, a lot of links to stories get sent around as pitches for things we might want to feature. Today someone sent around a link to a story about a company that offers "birthday boot camps" for kids.

The article featured a picture of a little girl straining to do a push-up in the sun. It also mentioned sweating and jumping jacks. For a birthday party.

I don't usually chime in on stories, but this one amused me and I decided to send around my snarky take on it. We have about 16 people on the team in total, and being relatively new, I haven't really gotten to chat with anyone or joke around very much. I miss having that and was in a good mood, so I replied to all:

"As a kid, would you be psyched to be invited to this party? To me it sounds about as fun as an All-Vegetable Theme Party or a Litter Clean-Up Bash."

I was pretty pleased with myself. Pathetic as it may be, I have secured most of my friendships (and possibly most of my employment) in life by making people laugh. Particularly in a work setting, I can be withdrawn and awkward. Amusing people is a wildly effective way to compensate for this. I discovered that in elementary school, when a little thing like creating an ironic, Barbie-like mermaid character named Sandy Seaweed deflected attention from the fact that I liked to wear plaid skirts with tights when other kids were into Gloria Vanderbilt and Polo.

Two minutes after that e-mail, my world came crashing down.

Coworker reply: not that you had any way of knowing this but the woman in the piece is [sender's name redacted]'s wife, hahaha

It seems that most people on the e-mail knew this fact, except for me, which led to awkward silence all around. Offices present a unique opportunity for discomfort, with everyone in cubes communicating online. Never has so much been said while remaining unspoken. When something disrupts the fabric of the atmosphere, you can sense it: people type at a different rate, there's more giggling, the air is tenser.

I sat there red-faced and nauseous and alone, having caused one of these electrical storms with my unintentionally blatant and rude diss of a coworker's family business. Thus commenced my Hugh Grant apology tour. I wrote to the offended party directly, and then I wrote to everyone, and then I flagellated myself in an in-person meeting.

I mean honestly, what do I know? Now that I think about it, my brother got push-up handles for Christmas and my sister's kids were thrilled to drop and give him 20. Maybe kids across the country are clamoring for a Biggest Loser experience. What do I know?

Watch how people react if and when you ever make a faux pas as dumb as mine. Two people were brave enough to (gently) let me know that I had been a jackass. Two others were kind enough to let me know they sympathized. Otherwise, I was on my own.

When it comes to this particular disaster, I've done everything I can. I'm pretty sure at least one coworker now thoroughly disdains me because of this. Some insults you can't joke your way out of.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Vanity Plates.

Every morning I drive to a corporate campus in Virginia and am struck by how many vanity license plates I see in the parking garage on my walk into the office. Is it Virginia, or my company?

It takes a certain amount of wherewithal to get a vanity plate. I don't know about you, but every time I'm at the DMV, I'm just trying to get shit done. I haven't thought about what my license plate is going to look like. Then I see these plates and I'm like damnit, why don't I have a vanity plate? To me, they fall into the same category as tattoos: I'm a bit skeptical, but secretly, I wish I could be that oriented toward defining myself, that creative and self-aggrandizing with my time. Whoops, okay, I have a personal blog. I am that oriented toward defining myself, that creative and self-aggrandizing with my time.

Here are some plates that have struck me lately:

OMG WTF: Best license plate of all time.
21 FRVR: Someone stole my plate, except it would be 14 FRVR
GUI GRL: Work nerd
FX GUY: Work nerd
4 OBS: I see this car every damn day and it haunts me. There is also a sticker on the car with four stick figures, so I assume it refers to the family. But what is OBS? Are they all gynecologists??

What would your vanity plate read?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


"The way you get to know yourself is by the expressions on other people's faces, because that's the only thing that you can see, unless you carry a mirror about. But if you keep saying 'I' and they're saying 'I,' you don't get much out of it. They're not really into you, or we, or they; they're into I. That makes conversation slow."

- Gil Scott-Heron

I can hardly bear to look at the group when I speak every morning at work. It's a meeting involving anywhere from 15-20 people, and we all talk about the stories we want to feature. When my turn to talk comes, looking around only exacerbates the shaking in my voice, the redness in my face and the awkward transitions. Some days are worse than others. No days are easy.

There are reasons that I can sing in front of a group of people at a karaoke bar with alacrity, or sell an events company over the phone to a complete stranger, or talk quite forcefully and colorfully in other circumstances (work and personal), yet cannot do so in this particular meeting with this particular group. I leave those aside for now.

The main issue is that sometimes, time slows down, every word echoes, my perspective shifts outside my head, and self-consciousness nearly overwhelms me. It makes me think of a friend who struggled with a serious stutter for most of his life. He learned tricks for hiding the stutter, which made him able to tell when other people were hiding one too.

"If somebody had a stutter, even if they sound totally normal, I could tell," he said.

"Really?" I said, a little skeptical.

"Absolutely," he replied.

Then one day I was sitting in a meeting with someone my team had met with a few times. I'd heard him speak before and never noticed anything. But this particular day, as he was talking, I realized it: He was a stutterer! From that moment, I couldn't process anything he was actually saying. Only the sheer accomplishment of his perfectly easygoing speech -- the way his pauses and breaths flowed over the stutter -- stood out. I was transfixed, and hoped he couldn't tell how closely I was watching him.

So this is probably the genesis of my anxiety: I know what I pick up on when other people are talking, so I shudder to think what others notice when I am forced to subject myself to scrutiny. If I allow myself to break the frame, even for a second, and think of what is actually happening in that moment -- that people are evaluating me, however mildly, and that their faces mask thoughts no one could know -- a small breakdown begins and I may as well have a stutter (not that there's anything wrong with that; I find some stutters quite appealing) for the amount of strife that results.

"That happens to me all the time," said another person on the topic. This person speaks a ton in public, is extremely self-assured, and is the last person you would ever think turns red-faced in a meeting for no good reason. The "all the time" part of his admission was probably added for my benefit. Still, it was soothing to hear. Meetings just lend themselves to UncMos for all of us.

Gil Scott-Heron is all too correct in his comment above. This is why so many people prefer e-mail these days.

Music: Piano Concerto No. 3