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Telling Secrets

faith, fatherhood, and culture

Yes, Oh Histrionic One

Saturday, July 03, 2010


"Those f***ing people don't know what the f*** they're doing!" says my boss, her stress and vexation preceding her physical presence like a cold front as she rounds the corner into the office. "We're sending a crew to cover this event in Detroit in a week, and the f***ing organizers haven't even written a f***ing press release yet! What the f***?!"

I suppose she is my boss. I was never properly informed. The man in whose office I am sitting is the one who hired me, along with the organization's executive director. But, I've discovered that here only partial information is shared, positions flex and bend with need, and egos bear the weight of the organization, if not the actual building in which they reside. I'm not thrilled that she's probably my new boss. She is a strong, Puerto Rican personality powerhouse. I am the mild-mannered alter-ego who's superpowers have become flabby and forgotten--not Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne...more like Dan Dreiberg, the "Nite Owl" in Watchmen.

"If I was in charge," she continues, "I would have done it completely different." My "real" boss and I nod in understanding and agreement--things would indeed have been different. "Well, our ED is putting all his eggs in this f***ing basket, so we need to do their work for them. So, Caleb, what I want you to do is buzz about this event all over the internet. Everyone has to know about it. It's got to be the year's biggest f***ing event. Everyone needs to buzz about it. THEN we can boast about being the only media network there to cover it--so you can buzz about that next week. Okay?"

The facts are these: I work for a small, ten person progressive media organization. I interviewed for a part-time position and ended up signing a contract for four hours a day ("Don't go over four hours!" my "real" boss told me). Clearly what she wants requires a lot more than what she actually has me for. But I can tell by that hard glint in her eye that she expects more of my pie than what I signed up to share, and that's a confrontation I do not anticipate with relish.

After a few more self-satisfying ego props and many more "colorful metaphors," she departs from the room. The air hesitates for an instant before filling the vacuum she leaves. My "real" boss and I look at each other.

"Wow," I say.

"Yeah," he says. "Histrionics all day every day. Just stay out of the way, don't bring your ego with you, and do good work."

Sage advice.

I have the hardest time working with personalities like hers--that kind of egostokes my id, the part of me that immediately wants to destroy things, only all that comes out is rebellious thoughts, throwing a fit at my wife, and acting out in passive-aggressive ways. My "real" boss, a 40-year veteran of the media biz with a persona that reminds me of a wizened and gray Jimmy Olsen, discovered this secret of dealing with histrionic higher-ups without losing his dignity or his job.

In fact, he has befriended our whirlwind colleague--he likes and respects her, and she him. Neither requires the other to change.

Sounds like loving your neighbor, doesn't it?

So that's what I tried to do. I gave her a break in my mind, did my best to help, gave as much time as I could, and quietly refused to do more than what was okay for my family. Of course, this consistent refusal to give her more sparked the confrontation I feared. But the confrontation did not proceed as I feared it would.

During the week of the event, my boss gave speeches in our staff meetings about all of us being responsible, doing our part to put in obscene amounts of hours, blah blah. Then, after each lecture, she looked at me and asked if I could work that night. I said no each time. "Oh," she said, annoyed. I began to wonder if I would remain employed by the end of the week.

Half way through the week, my boss pokes her head into my office to check on my progress. I lean back in my chair and say things are going great. She's in the mood to talk and somehow we get on the topic of parenting.

"Have you heard of Love and Logic?" she asks.

"Definitely," I say. "That's what we try to use, but with mixed results because we don't really stick to it. My wife and I were just thinking about diving back in now that our kids are getting older."

"Oh yeah? I've used it with my kid since he was a baby. He's ten now and it really works with him. Especially when it comes to getting his homework done. It's all about choices, you know, and I really have to reign myself in so that I don't react so emotionally to his attitude. My flying off the handle is rarely constructive, as I'm sure you've seen around here."

I blinked in surprise. "My kids don't respond well either when I act like an ogre. It just makes them crazier. We had some knock-down drag-out fights with my boy about getting his school work done last year and I don't think those times made him feel so thrilled about homeschooling."

"Oh, you homeschool? That is so cool! I'd do it if I could, but I can't."

"Well, we'll see how it goes this year. My twins are starting Kindergarten, so we'll be homeschooling three at the same time."

"You have twins? Oh my God! How many kids do you have?"

"Four, all told."

"Well, no wonder you kept saying you couldn't work late. S***! All you had to say was you were homeschooling four kids and I would have said, 'F***, man, stay at home! Let me bring you some cake!'"

And so, it turns out she not only values family, she is also as generous of spirit as she is histrionic. She knows her flaws and refers to them self-deprecatingly while using them to her advantage when she needs to. And with this conversation we have come that much closer to the kind of relationship and understanding that she and Jimmy Olsen have.

I also discovered that my self-defensiveness and assumptions about hard-ass, take-no-prisoners female bosses were sabotaging what promises to be a great working relationship, and there is a lot I can to learn from her.

That day, I felt a little like Dan Dreiberg when he finally gets over himself, puts hisNite Owl suit back on, hops into Archie, and breaks Rorschach out of prison.

A little.

But without the histrionics.

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