Thursday, December 4, 2003

Control Queen

It was rough going there for a while. I came very, terribly, dangerously close to a nervous breakdown over this whole carpet thing.

The prepping process took way longer than I expected, in fact I was in the office Monday night until ten p.m. clearing off my desk and moving things into the storage room. I might have finished earlier if I hadn't had that enormous print job to do, or if the phone hadn't kept ringing, or if I didn't keep my desk such a sty all the time. I also might have finished earlier if my coworkers and boss had started on the cleaning process earlier in the day, if we hadn't spent over an hour idling away in a staff meeting to go over the calendar, and other little activities we didn't really need to do. As a result I was here by myself for five hours, laboring away like a stevedore, resenting myself and my coworkers and boss and everyone in a five-mile radius of me (physical labor of any kind always sparks my resentment engines).

The next morning I had to drive around the district distributing the newsletters I'd printed. I had miscalculated the weather again, I'd expected cold and rainy and it turned out temperate and humid, and distributing flyers is hot work anyway, so I had to change into my gym clothes (I loathe humidity). Making matters worse, our box-stuffer at one of the campuses was out sick, so I had to stuff the mailboxes in the most disorganized campus in the district (where there are actually four separate mailrooms).

When I got into the office, my two coworkers were huddled up in the box-crowded tiny kitchen, checking email on the laptop and taking turns answering the one remaining phone and chatting about this, that, and the other. What they were mainly chatting about was painting the walls after the carpets were installed... I think I talked about this before, but I loathe painting, I can't stand doing it or having it done near me, the smell of fresh paint makes me terribly sick, and then there's that whole change thing. And not only were JB and BB talking about painting, they wanted to paint the office turquoise. Turquoise!?!

I'm afraid I overreacted. Now, I still firmly believe that turquoise, no matter how pale, in a basement office with little light and not very large rooms would make it look like we were working at the bottom of a swimming pool. So I stated my dislike of colored walls, how they made rooms look smaller, how I've lived most of my life in houses with off-white walls and have great difficulty dealing with any color darker than blanched almond on any wall; I don't think it was overdramatic, either, to point out that, if any painting happened in this office, I would leave and not return until the smell was completely gone.

But just making my views plain wasn't enough... I also got very very angry about the whole thing. The upheaval of the carpets was bad enough without threatening me with the additional prolongation of upheaval that painting would entail. It was cruel to even suggest such a thing to me. Let's also remember that I got very little sleep on Sunday night, and then worked eleven hours on Monday, getting very little sleep that night as well; not to mention the humidity and the morning spent shoving newsletters into little mailboxes and driving all over hell and half of China... I was tired, hot, and irritated when they sprang this on me.

But then I started thinking, thinking that this ridiculous turquoise business was just another example of how my coworkers had been railroading me. I started thinking about how I hadn't been given any choice about what color of carpet we'd get, they just brought back a single sample and told me that was what we were getting. I had specifically requested that the carpet not have a pattern in it, just plain or randomly dappled, but when I thought the sample they'd brought looked a little busy, they brushed aside my objection, saying that it wouldn't show when it was all over the floor; nevertheless the carpet has a distinct zig-zagging quality that makes me dizzy when I look at it, and it's about three tones darker than I thought it would be. I thought about how they'd pushed to have the carpet installed as soon as the carpeters could arrange it, instead of arranging the installation for a time when I wasn't already terribly busy. I thought about how hard I'd had to work and how late I'd stayed the night before, five hours after they went larking off at quitting-time.

I thought about all of these things, and was very angry and very hurt and very depressed... on top of the tired, hot, and irritated... and on top of everything else I was feeling over the upheaval of my environment.

Then the boss showed up, and everything spiraled out of control. He learned from the landlord that our office's neighborhood was scheduled for Bulky Waste Pick-up next week, and was suddenly elated... he seemed to think that Oakland Scavenger Company gives out prizes for the largest and most expensive-looking Bulky Waste piles, and was intent on throwing away everything for which he personally had no use. He decided to throw away a perfectly good conference table and twelve chairs that he didn't even know existed until he started moving things out of his closet, and which took up very little space in said closet as the table was folded up and the chairs stacked in a single two-foot-square column. Then he started talking about throwing out the comfortable wicker armchairs that are dotted around the office, and then the large silk houseplants that I particularly like, and then had the temerity to start pointing out my own personal possessions as excellent candidates for Bulky Waste.

To make matters worse, with each of these decisions he asked me whether or not the thing should be thrown out, but when I told him we shouldn't throw whatever it was away, providing a long list of excellent reasons (I am genetically programmed for packratting, and simply can't bear to throw away something that is useful and isn't in the way and doesn't smell bad), he just looked at me for a moment and then said he was throwing it out anyway. I had to take the silk plants home with me to save them from the trash, and said I'd take the wicker chairs if he threw them out... and I told him that if he so much as lays a finger on my Lionel train ceramic bank that my Grandmother gave me for Christmas two years ago, or anything else of mine, I will kill him. Slowly and painfully.

Basically, I felt undervalued, unloved, disregarded, and deeply, deeply angry. I felt that people were treating my feelings as if they were of absolutely no importance to anyone besides myself. And I felt that I couldn't say anything about it, I didn't trust my own feelings; I couldn't communicate at the time what, exactly, was making me angry or how, exactly, I felt... so it all just boiled up inside of me.

One of the things that I've learned in sobriety is to not act on my anger while I'm angry. You can make huge mistakes and hurt other people's feelings... and then find out later that the anger was over a minor miscommunication, or that you were really angry at yourself but were projecting your anger onto others, or that the thing you were angry about was an utter triviality magnified into a major offense by your own neuroses and personality issues. And I've always had difficulty expressing my emotions, anyway, being naturally reticent as well as being brought up to believe I had no right to feelings of my own (it's all part of my WASP mystique).

So I bubbled and boiled and fumed, so much that I couldn't keep it all inside. My boss and coworkers noticed my upset, of course, and I'm sure they tried to be conciliatory... though since they couldn't have possibly guessed why I was so upset, they didn't know what to conciliate. When I got home, Grandmother noticed I was terribly upset and, in a rare moment of insight, avoided irritating me further by asking what was wrong. Then, when I went to my AA meeting that night, it was even more obvious that I was upset, and people did ask me what was wrong and listened patiently while I ranted and worked through my feelings (in private conversations, not at meeting-level, of course).

It felt good to lance the boil of my feelings somewhat, and good to talk about things not related to my anger or my office later on when a bunch of us went out for coffee. I was able to get a little distance from the issue, and later that night was able to pray and meditate myself into understanding my coworkers' point of view.

For example, I didn't really care about the carpet in the first place... the old carpet, that is. I didn't care that it was stained, I don't notice things like that; I observe them, of course, I could have told you exactly where there were stains and could have given a good shot at guessing what caused the stains, but the stains didn't bother me. They didn't draw my eye, they didn't disgust me. They were just there. And I said so, on a number of occasions: it would therefore be very easy for my coworkers to extrapolate from such statements that I wouldn't care what the new carpet looked like, either. How would they know that random stains fly under my radar but that tiny patterns arrest my eye and make me dizzy?

Other problems lay in personality differences. Like the fact that JB loves painting. The sound of a paint-can being opened fills her with happiness; the smell of paint drying on a wall fills her with utter blissful satisfaction; the act of applying a different color of fresh paint to a wall is better than shopping, better perhaps than sex. It is therefore natural that her desire to paint would outweigh, in her mind, my desire to avoid paint at all costs. It's hard to believe, when you love something that much, that someone else could hate it. You start telling yourself that the other guy doesn't really hate it, he must be exaggerating, how could anyone hate something so wonderful?

Basically, as I prayed and meditated on the topic, my anger and upset became right-sized. It shrank to an anger that I could express easily and without rancor, it devolved to its bases and allowed me to see my own part in it. Yes, I could be angry about the timing, and could say so; yes, I could be upset by the pattern, and could say so; yes, I am allowed to be thrown off balance by the upheaval and the throwing-away and the changes, that is my personality, and I can communicate those feelings. There was nothing I could do about those things, because they were already done and unchangeable. Furthermore, I can be absolutely adamant that my office not be painted turquoise and that if anything does get painted it will have to happen on my vacation or else I will take a vacation, and there is nothing wrong with me stating that intention fairly and reasonably and calmly.

When I arrived back in the office on Wednesday morning, things started turning around. For one, the upheaval was over with, it was all just a matter of putting things back. For another, my anger was communicable and easy, I was able to say to BB that I don't like this pattern in the carpet, I'll have to get used to it, but I don't like it; I was able to tell my boss that I can't stand throwing things away, and that I would simply bring back anything he threw out that I wanted; I was able to tell JB that all this upheaval had left me in an emotionally precarious place and that I was very uncomfortable and very unhappy. Simple, calm, smiling, "this is how I feel," no expectations and no demands.

Later on, at the end of the day, after I'd gotten my computer put back together and some other things settled down, and after JB and BB had gone for the day, I did something that I didn't expect would make me feel better but which did, in fact, make me feel much better: I went into their office and moved everything around.

Now, I didn't do this out of spite. I had thought, since their phones and computers and bulletin boards and other stuff hadn't been put back into place, that this would be a great time to see if we could find a better arrangement for their office. The office had sort of evolved half-assedly over the years, there was no plan or design, and it wasn't terribly convenient. I was going to just measure their furniture and the room and do a computer simulation in my 3D Home Designer, but I didn't have my tape-measure... so I just shoved the desks and tables around in various formations to see what we could do with the furniture we had. But the idea of JB and BB coming back in the morning and finding their environment all at sixes and sevens, with their things all askew and their spaces rendered inaccessible, made me feel all better. It was so delightful, so relieving, so simply deliciously fun.

Of course, I put everything back the way it had been... more or less: the place had evolved over so long a time that we couldn't actually make everything fit back the way it had been before the carpeters moved it, there were nuances and gradations of spacing that couldn't be recreated no matter what I did. But I put it back as best I could and went home feeling ever so much better.

I was in control, you see. I had power over our environment. My generic "upset" over the upheaval was really just the loss of power overy my environment. The anger and depression were based in powerlessness... and I don't do powerlessness very well. I don't feel it necessary to control other people (though I do wish they'd do what I want, or just get out of the way and do nothing at all, instead of doing what I don't want), and I don't feel it necessary to control events (which nobody can do, no matter how smart and powerful they think they are)... but I can control my physical environment, and when I lose that control I get very scared. And when I get scared, I automatically get angry.

But to return to the story, when I came in today with this new knowledge that having control over my environment was all I wanted, things went swimmingly well. I made a few suggestions to JB and BB about ways their office could be arranged, things I'd thought of the night before when I was pushing their desks hither and thither, but which would require them to rethink their spaces in a rather revolutionary manner. Like having only one desk for both computers and for sitting at, instead of a sitting-at-desk and a separate but adjacent computer-desk; and like having their desks face-to-face in the center of the room, instead of on opposite walls facing in different directions.

And much to my surprise, they embraced this revolutionary approach with enthusiasm. So I spent a good deal of today arranging the other room, coming up with solutions and ideas as we went along, as well as putting their computers and phones and things back together. The result is beautiful, it has much better flow and uses space more efficiently. I even managed to solve some old phone-line issues so that now all four workstations can be online at the same time! (which will become completely irrelevant when we switch to an intranet, but the sense of accomplishment is nevertheless huge).

I also, today, got my stuff back on my desk and arranged the way I want it, solving other longstanding problems that I never fixed before because it would take a complete upheaval of everything at my workstation (which I would not have enjoyed, and in fact did not enjoy). Also the shelves and other areas of the central office that had long been bothering me and which I can now reorganize however I like. I'll let my boss arrange his office as he thinks best when he gets back next week. But that's the best part of this new carpet: it's low-pile industrial, and the furniture slides across it like butter on a teflon griddle, where the old carpet was loose-napped and over an inch thick and heavily padded, so everything sank right into the surface and stayed there.

The upheaval is done, and we are now reaping the rewards of upheaval: the ability to put things where we want them instead of where they were, a blank slate on which to act out our most revolutionary ideas, an opportunity to make our office the best possible working-environment for us.

And now I'm as happy as a pig in shit. I'm as happy today as I was upset Tuesday. Because now I've got control. I'm don't have to be in charge, I really want to work within the confines of other people's needs; but I have a say in my environment and good ideas to share. I like that.

Best of all, I've gotten some great ideas that can be put into practice in my own room. And a feeling of accomplishment that can motivate me to actually do the things I'm thinking about in my room.

Besides, now I have to find somewhere to put a full-sized silk ficus, a huge silk Kentia palm, and the most adorable little silk tulip tree. And maybe some wicker chairs, too.

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