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the Christmas tantrum, the dirty elf, and other tales of holidays at work

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Over the years, readers have submitted a tremendous number of amusing stories about holidays at work. In lieu of any more posts today since it’s Thanksgiving, here are some of my favorites from the last 13 years.

1. The duet

“The organization I work for often holds its convention just a couple of weeks before Christmas, and several years ago, as part of the entertainment for the closing banquet, we had a quartet singing mostly Christmas songs. In the banquet room right next door, though, somebody was holding a very large and loud corporate Christmas party that included a very loud D.J. playing very loud music, none of it Christmassy, as far as I could tell.

And I do mean LOUD.

So this, I swear to God, is what it sounded like to those of us sitting closest to the wall that separated our sedate Christmas quartet performance from the very loud D.J. performance of ‘Brick House’ by the Commodores:
Quartet: ‘Oh, hooooooly niiiiight! The stars…’
DJ: ‘Owwww! She’s a brick…HOWWWWse, she’s mighty-mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out’
Quartet: ‘It is the niiiight of our dear savior’s…’
DJ: ‘Owwww! She’s a brick…HOWWWWWse, well put-together, everybody knows.’
Quartet: ‘A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for…’
DJ: ‘She’s a brick…HOWWWse, owwww, that lady stacked and that’s a fact…’

I love ‘Oh Holy Night,’ but come on, that was HILARIOUS.” (2019)

2. The come-hither pirate

“This wasn’t a White Elephant gift, but one a coworker who didn’t last so long gave to all the unpartnered women under 40: A studio portrait of himself, semi-80s background, with lasers, soft focus, standing, with his hand on his chin, a ‘come hither’ look, and his parrot on his shoulder.” (2018)

3. The grief poinsettia

“It was one of those lunchtime holiday parties where people sat in groups around round tables. At the center of each table was a poinsettia. The big boss/emcee announced that she realized that some in the crowd must have experienced hard times that year. She invited people to share their tales of woe, and whoever told the saddest story at each table would win the poinsettia. No one volunteered.” (2018)

4. The elf’s vice

“The dreaded Elf on a Shelf got passed around the different departments. At the end of the day, someone from the department that had it last would go to another department and pose the elf. For the most part, it was okay: cute poses with rubber duckies, a little bathroom humor (the elf pooping a Hershey’s Kiss), that sort of thing… until my department got it. He was snorting hot cocoa using a $1 bill besides a naked Barbie doll. I work in HR. The department that left it was Legal! I don’t work there anymore and I’ve banned Elf on a Shelf from my current job.” (2017)

5. The Christmas tantrum

“A woman who had worked at our office for more than twenty years pouted and threw tantrums like a child if she didn’t win a door prize at the annual Christmas dinner. Every time someone else’s name was randomly drawn, she would yell, ‘FIX!”’ or ‘CHEAT!’ or something similar. And one year, she just snatched a prize she really wanted from the table and told the person who won the prize, ‘I DESERVE this,’ and walked away with it.” (2014)

6. The flush

“It was my first holiday party at my office fresh out of undergrad, and with my hearty Irish heritage I am prone to 1) generally ferocious rosacea and 2) an especially vivid red flush after my first drink. I arrived to the party late because I’d walked form work (it was at a hotel conference room area), met with friends, and grabbed a glass of wine. Pretty much immediately after finishing the glass I got my customary alcohol flush.

One of my coworkers (the office front desk manager, so she’d been involved with the whole party, like ordering food, etc) had been drinking way too much at this point, and was already pretty drunk. We wound up in the bathroom washing our hands at the same time. ‘Oh my god, you’re so red,’ she said. I tried to play it off (‘haha yeah, this happens all the time, definitely not something I spend literal hundreds of dollars at dermatologists before I found out it was genetic’), and she goes, ‘Are you allergic to something? Are you having a reaction?’

I tried to tell her it was just my face but she lost her mind. She was positive I was allergic to something. I finally escaped but she kept finding me periodically over the span of probably the next half hour or so, and every time she got more freaked out that I was having an allergic reaction. Her reactions went from slightly worried but having too much fun to think about it to grabbing my cheeks and feeling my pulse. Finally I thought I lost her by hiding with some friends in a corner.

NOT SO. Fifteen minutes later I’m over at the table pondering which cake slice to take when this woman appears with an epi-pen clutched precariously in her fist, pulls me around by my shoulder, and tries to LIFT MY DRESS UP to get to my thigh!! I’m scrambling away, she’s too drunk (thank god) to actually be effective at stabbing me with adrenaline I DON’T NEED, and worst of all because she got me by surprise she hoisted a decent bit of my dress up and all my colleagues saw least a good portion of my cheeks, framed tastefully by the the red velvet and vanilla cake options on the dessert table behind me.

My company handled it really well – called a car for her to go home, followed up with me then and there, and had separate meetings with us on Monday, as the party was on a Friday evening. Her intentions were honestly good (if not soaked in alcohol) and given the weekend I was beginning to find it funny that I’d effectively mooned all the higher ups and they had to be professional about it, so in the end I think she just went through some sensitivity training. She was also MORTIFIED, apologized nonstop for the next week, etc. I’m no longer at that job but what an intro to the world of Corporate Christmas Parties.” (2018)

7. The Christmas carols

“At my first job out of college, I worked at a small transport-related company of about 50 employees that was privately owned by a couple … One year, Wife Owner, who fancied herself an artist and would often sing in the office (her voice wasn’t terrible but it was still really weird), decided we should make a CD of employees singing Christmas carols. Keep in mind that we did not have a bunch of moonlighting Broadway extras working there. I felt pressured to be on the CD and ended having to drive 25 miles on the weekend (unpaid) to a recording studio. I did draw the line at doing any solos and only signed up for the multi-voice songs, where I desperately tried not to stand out. Fortunately, I got accepted into grad school after that and never had to witness any further embarrassing company gifts. Apparently, the gift ploy worked in a sense, as I have run into people from the same industry who laughingly remember this company despite the fact that 10+ years later, they are no longer in business.” (2017)

8. The reply-all

“My organization hosts an annual Christmas party where staff, spouses, volunteers, and board members are all invited. We get an email sent out when tickets are available so that we know when to go ahead and get them.

A few years ago, one of the board members accidentally hit Reply All to the ticket announcement email and asked the organizer to ensure that he wasn’t seated with our volunteer firefighters, since he was stuck at their table the year before and none of them wanted to talk to him. Within a minute, someone else had hit Reply All again saying that he would be honored to be seated with those firefighters, as they’re willing to risk their lives to keep our community safe. A few other emails went flying back and forth congratulating the firefighters for their hard work, and the board member soon sent out an apology email.

To make things even more awkward, one of the people making a speech at the company Christmas party did take a few minutes to commend our volunteer firefighters. I’m sure the board member couldn’t have looked any more uncomfortable as the rest of the room toasted them.” (2018)

9. The swingers

“In my mid-20s, I worked in a fairly conservative accounting department (think government contractor engineering firm) but we had a couple of strange characters. I’d been warned about one mid-50s accounts payable lady, that she was ‘Very Social.’ She wasn’t popular in the department, but was nice enough at work, so I didn’t think anything of it.

Being the youngest and lowest rank in the department, my husband and I were seated at the ‘accounting outcasts’ table, which included Very Social and her husband. The whole party was super-swanky. Very Social and her husband were good company, complimentary, and didn’t ping ANY of my warning systems…

…right up until she learned that my husband was a welder. Then she let out a delighted squeal and asked him to build her custom steel people-sized cages, with brackets for harness hooks. She also let us know they were VERY interested in having us over try out their other “equipment” for additional Christmas Merriment.

That Christmas I learned ‘Very Social’ = Unabashedly Enthusiastic Swingers into BDSM.”

This follow-up added further details:

“We turned her down, and she was still very nice. She even hand-quilted a baby blanket for my second child.

Data entry, people cages, nipple clamps, hand-embroidered baby quilts. She was very well-rounded for an accountant.” (2019)

10. The Christmas countdown

“I once had a coworker who lodged a complaint with her manager’s manager that her manager was making her take her hours to Christmas countdown (yes hours, not days) off a whiteboard that was needed for something else. Wasn’t even like it was the week before Christmas at that point, pretty sure it was at least a month before. She was getting up and changing it a few times a day.” (2016)

11. The sex toy

“A Christmas party I was at had a Secret Santa … and one of the ‘presents’ was a huge dildo which, as most attendees were utterly plastered, was thrown around and, eventually, somehow stuck to the ceiling and wouldn’t budge despite various things being thrown at it.

Most people thought this was OK, but it wasn’t as we had not hired the venue exclusively and families with children were present. So a colleague and I got a ladder and eventually pry the thing off the 13-foot-high ceiling.

All Christmas celebrations were banned for the remainder of the eight years I was on the project.”

In response to a question about why it stuck there:

“We found out when I got to the top of the ladder. The ceiling had evidently been painted recently with gloss paint and was not fully dry. It was just tacky enough to hold the dildo (I cannot believe I am writing sentences like this :)” (2019)

12. Hanukkah balls

“I am a Jewish 26-year-old. I’ve been on the job about a year, and I moved from a large city to a smaller suburb of New York City for this job. My family is not super religious but we certainly never celebrated Christmas growing up.

My boss, a usually nice lady, has taken it upon herself to educate me about Christmas this season. She is super into the holidays, which I appreciated for Halloween, but has been declaring to the whole office how this is ‘Jane’s First Christmas’ and taking that opportunity to spend well over $500 on Christmas decorations which she has strategically placed mostly around her and my office. She has bought me my own Christmas stocking and ornament which says ‘Jane’s first Christmas’ with a date and her signature on it. She has placed red velvet bows around anything they will stick to and she has replaced our office coffee K-cups with eggnog. She has put up lights in the hallways and decked my door with some kind of tinsel that keeps sticking to my clothes and following me home.

She keeps reminding me what ornaments are and is amazed when I told her that I know the words to some Christmas songs.

She also has invited me to her home for Christmas because ‘no one should celebrate their first Christmas by themselves.’ When I mentioned something about celebrating Hanukkah instead of Christmas, she went out and bought this Hanukkah inspired contraption, which was really just eight round traditional ornaments with a light in each of them. She said they were Hanukkah balls.” (2014)

13. The strong opinions

“Our Christmas party planning (once again) ended in tears over an argument about whether body-part-shaped gummy candy was an appropriate table decoration. It was apparently Halloween candy (think bloody zombie arms and legs).

For reasons which I dare not know, there is a small contingent of people in my department who all have strong personalities, strong opinions, and no chill. Everyone hates each other, but they all must be on the various party planning committees. Our fall potluck was simultaneously ‘sports jersey,’ ‘Halloween,’ and ‘Richard Nixon’-themed because I accidentally ended up in charge and did not have the energy to veto anything.” (2016)

14. The club kid

“The year the club kid software developer INSISTED on everyone doing tequila shots, like ‘come on bro, it’s not cool if you don’t!’ — he saved his hardest pressure tactics for the CEO, who was like WTF. Same club kid tried getting down and dirty on the dance floor with a female high level exec, and then drunkenly knocked her over onto the floor.” (2016)

15. The frozen boobs

“One time I worked at a government agency where the head of HR was a reformed alcoholic who had found religion and was thus now very religious whilst also being teetotal. Every year before the party we’d get an email about how under employment law the party was an extension of the workplace and bad behaviour would not be tolerated, etc. etc. She wasn’t very well liked in the office for other reasons but no one hated her and often she didn’t come to the parties as she found them too rowdy.

The year her marriage broke up she came and got so drunk at the party she flashed her boobs over the metal railings of this rooftop bar we were at…..and because of the snow/light rain the side of one of her boobs fused to the railing (kinda like if you lick something frozen and your tongue gets stuck!). Seeing her two (female!) HR admins blowing on her boob to release it whilst shielding her modesty with scarves is a sight that will never leave me.” (2016)

the Christmas tantrum, the dirty elf, and other tales of holidays at work was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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1 day ago
a minor blessing, no 2020 office christmas parties (hopefully)
Melbourne, Australia
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I love Advent of Code

A screenshot of the Advent Calendar page from Advent of Code 2017. #21 is kicking my ass so far but I’ll get there :-)

A screenshot of the Advent Calendar page from Advent of Code 2017. #21 is kicking my ass so far but I’ll get there :-)

So, I don’t know if you noticed, but election season was pretty intense this year. I found myself obsessively reloading the New York Times or (worse) obsessively reading Twitter or (oh god) obsessively switching between the NYT and Twitter so I could experience the worst of both worlds. And that was just October. By the start of November I realised I needed to distract myself or I would actually lose my mind, so I pulled up Advent of Code and started on the 2017 problems.

I love Advent of Code. Every year, Eric Wastl creates 25 two-part programming puzzles, all connected together by a cute story about needing to save Christmas. The puzzles start easy and get trickier, sometimes needing a little research to find the right algorithm, but if you can deploy a hash map and some sort of graph traversal you’ll be able to get through most of them.

It’s super absorbing and it was perfect for helping me forget about the election for hours at a time. But the real fun is when you're doing them in December as they appear, one every day, with a community of thousands of other people solving them at the same time.

We’ve got a slack channel for #adventofcode at work, and it’s competitive but it’s still the most supportive thing you’ll see in your life. The competition comes from being able to set up local leaderboards: you get points based on how few people in your group have already solved the problem. Francis has been top of our work leaderboard for the last two years, and Polina and I raced for the #2 slot last year, to the extent that I paid for internet on a plane flight just to upload my last solution. (I still lost by an hour).

Whether people join for one puzzle or stay for the whole lot, we celebrate their successes, and even more so when they weren't previously coders. (Shoutout to Greg who started solving using advanced wizard spreadsheet-fu, got hooked, and is now writing Python and Javascript.) People swap hints and share test code and everyone is open – enthusiastic, even – about admitting what was difficult and what shortcuts they took: Santa-related puzzles don't inspire the most beautiful, production-ready code. Last year we had a retrospective afterwards where we all shared and laughed at our worst hacks. Tech is a profession fraught with status anxiety and egos, so there’s something warm and vulnerable about people coming together to show off their most terrible code. I love that.

As always I’m in awe of people like Liz who can code up elegant and efficient solutions to every problem in what seems like minutes on the actual day, often live-streamed with other people learning from her. My skills will never compete, but I finished by the first week of January in 2018 and 2019, and I’m most of the way through 2017 now.

Advent of Code 2020 starts on Tuesday. If you find it relaxing to write fun code that doesn't have a Jira ticket associated with it, I recommend it a lot. I can’t wait :-)

PS: Eric Wastl, on the off chance that you ever find your way over here, thank you very very much. 🙏

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1 day ago
Melbourne, Australia
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The Swiss Cheese Covid-19 Defense

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The Swiss cheese respiratory virus pandemic defense

The Swiss cheese model of accident causation is a framework for thinking about how to layer security measures to minimize risk and prevent failure. The idea is that when several layers of interventions, despite their weaknesses, are properly stacked up between a hazard and a potentially bad outcome, they are able to cumulatively prevent that outcome because there’s no single point of failure. During the pandemic, health care workers and public health officials have been using the Swiss cheese model to visualize how various measures can work together to help keep people safe.

Virologist Dr. Ian Mackay has visualized the Swiss cheese Covid-19 defense in a wonderful way (pictured above). Each layer of cheese represents a personal or shared intervention — like mask wearing, limiting your time indoors w/ crowds, proper ventilation, quarantine, vaccines — and the holes are imperfections. Applied together, these imperfect measures work like a filter and can vastly improve chances of success.1 He even added a “misinformation mouse” chewing through one of the cheese slices to represent how deceptive information can weaken these defenses.

Mackay has released this graphic under a Creative Commons license (free to share and adapt w/ attribution) and is available in English, German, French, Spanish, Korean, and several other languages. (via @EricTopol)

  1. It’s interesting that the Swiss cheese model is physically how masks work to stop aerosols and droplets — like layered filters and not sieves.

Tags: COVID-19   food   Ian Mackay   infoviz   science
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14 days ago
I used this model in security all the time and I find it super helpful.
Arlington, VA
5 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Pitchfork talks to Shameika Stepney, the inspiration for Fiona Apple on Fetch the Bolt Cutters

a magical story of childhood schoolmates reunited through music
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5 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
10 days ago
seattle, wa
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Wife Guy


My husband cuts my hair. It’s the first thing he did, the night I came out to him; took me into the bathroom with the clippers, put my skull in the palm of his hand and revealed me. He called me “bud” a lot, that night. He was very gentle in how he spoke to me. It was a tone I recognized from listening to him get our toddler dressed in the morning; he sounded like he was speaking to someone very dear who was trying very hard at something a little beyond them. Which, in fact, he was. 

He still cuts my hair, every few weeks, and I still feel what I felt that night; that same raw, broken-open gratitude. It is the most tangible, routine way he loves me. 

Tonight, I’m asking him if I’m losing hair. All the men in my family do, and the T seems to have decided to bomb that one area of my body into submission before providing any other results. 

“It happens to everyone eventually,” he says. “Remember to focus on the things you like.”

“I want to look ambiguous,” I say. “Bald people aren’t ambiguous. I’m not trying to transition into Stanley Tucci.” 

He nods and tilts my head with his hand, trying to get his angle. 

“Besides, it doesn’t happen to everyone. It hasn’t happened to you,” I say. “I don’t want to have less hair than you.” 

My husband, I should tell you now, has astonishing hair. It’s thick and wild and, after a few months of quarantine, it’s halfway down his back. He started to go gray in his teens, and never finished, so he just walks through life with long, flowing, black-and-white striped hair, like a character in a bad fantasy novel. 

“You do have less hair than me,” my husband says. 

“On purpose,” I say. “I still want the option to grow it back.” 

I probably won’t take that option, for the same reason that I’m still taking T even after it’s given me changes I said I didn’t want, but I still like to pretend I’m uncommitted. I tell myself I can control where this is going, that I can just stop transitioning if I want. I even stopped taking T for a few days, after I realized the hair was going. But the sadness I feel walking away is worse than the nervousness I feel going forward. It’s not that anything bad is happening. It’s just scary to say forever

I said forever about my husband, and I meant it. I also know that for some people, his mere existence — the fact that, no matter what medical procedures I undergo, no matter what name or pronouns I use, no matter how much my appearance changes, I married a cis man and stayed married after coming out — is evidence that I’m faking. Straight person, someone subtweeted me; I’ve heard strangers theorize that I’m transitioning for clout, as a grift, to get attention, to play the victim, though there are presumably ways to do all those things that don’t involve growing chest hair. The wannabe-edgy straight girl claiming queer identity for attention; it’s a stereotype I heard in the ‘90s, when I called myself bisexual, and I hear it today, when I use the terms non-binary and queer. Someone’s always on the shit end of that stick, even when the stick changes hands. 

Sometimes I wonder if it’s true — whether staying married is a sign of cowardice. Was I supposed to bust up my refuge just so I’d have battle scars? Do I need to have a second adolescence, sleep around, raise hell, to know who I am? Am I as real as I think, standing here in this bathroom, talking about male pattern baldness and being called “bud” and trading De Niro impressions because he just watched Heat, or does even he think of me as an eccentric straight girl? Does he love me, or is he humoring me? 

When do I get to stop asking these questions? Which coming-out, which medication, which surgery, which friendship, which sex act, which relationship, which instance of survived bigotry, will ever make me feel like enough? 

I always hoped to fall in love with a woman; to have a real, out in the open, long-term girlfriend. I’m surprised it never happened. “Lesbian” was my assumed outcome as a teenager, the one thing strangers thought they knew about me at a glance, though it seems clear now that they were reacting to boyishness more than anything else. I had closeted makeouts and odd half-relationships in my teens, a few awkward hookups in my twenties. Still, my right person didn’t come along, and as I got older, I felt too painfully inexperienced to try asking anyone out. In my home town, I’d belonged to a queer social circle — there weren’t many of us, so we weren’t picky — but when I moved to New York, every queer person I met was dazzlingly sophisticated and connected and aloof, and to make things worse, I had a boyfriend when I got there. To have a boyfriend and no visible history was to give up all liminality. From then on, anything I did was not growing up — it was experimentation, a word hissed between clenched teeth, an expletive uttered in stories about the straight girl who broke your heart. 

Half of falling in love is timing. I didn’t meet the right women at the right times. I can count the missed opportunities — a girl who invited me to her house and stroked my arm and repeatedly asked me to go to her church because “you can be gay there,” who I didn’t even realize was hitting on me until a friend explained it later; this astoundingly handsome rugby player, someone I used to look at less with lust than with awe that such beauty was even possible, who told all her friends she had a crush on me, though not one of her friends told me this until the day before I moved out of town — but time only moves one way. It’s a version of my life that could have happened, someone I could have been, if I’d been a little more charming, a little more outgoing, a little better at picking up signals. In the end, I wound up being who I am, with the life I have. 

Even if I had stayed in that town, with that girl, I might not have known what to do. My attraction to masculine people was always so loud and unavoidable, and I couldn’t square it with the desire to present in a masculine way myself. What I wanted didn’t look like the butch/femme couples in sex-positive discourse or the gentle womyn-love of the second wave, and it certainly didn’t look like the femme/femme couples that were all I saw in movies and TV. I had no idea how to ask for what I wanted, or how to look like someone you’d want. Books were my best allies in most things. They let me ask intimate questions without burdening anyone. But every time I went to queer literature, looking for a label or a life that might fit me, I’d derail myself on a passage like this one, from Michelle Tea’s Valencia

Laura was theoretically bisexual. She always had a boyfriend, but her friends were all dykes. 

I know that Michelle Tea is a generous mentor to younger writers, a benefactor to her community, that she’s done a million amazing things, including coming out as bisexual after writing Valencia. The fact remains that every queer woman my age read this fucking book, and every time I thought about asking one of them out, I’d have a Laura-based panic attack.

Twenty years after I first read these sentences, I can type them out word-for-word. I memorized them. I also memorized the connotations of fakery or cowardice; the implication that the boyfriend is a personal failure, a piece of baggage Laura isn’t strong enough to get rid of; Laura’s role as the loser hometown friend who’s never seen again, while the main character goes on to be a real queer in a real city; the implication, deadly if you have any social anxiety at all, that none of Laura’s dyke friends are really her friends, that Laura is a dope and a sucker, hanging out with people who whisper behind her back that she’s a fraud. 

Who would risk that? Who would be Laura, if they could help it? It was easier to stand still and decide what I wanted based on who would have me; easier to conclude that, if only straight cis men asked me out, I must be a straight cis woman. It was easier to be unsatisfied than to be a joke.

I know now that butch couples exist, and that being attracted to masculinity from masculinity is common for gay men; I might have figured things out faster if I’d started from that end of the bookshelf. I did eventually find books that answered my questions: Lou Sullivan’s diaries shook some things loose, and S. Bear Bergman writes with tenderness about his husband. There are even relevant snippets in the books I first tried. Halberstam mentions “straight butches” in Female Masculinity. There are butches married to guys in Stone Butch Blues, and Feinberg is careful to point out that “they’re still he-shes.” Then again, Halberstam deals with the straight butches for about a paragraph (you can find them at rodeos, evidently) and in Stone Butch Blues, Jess doesn’t befriend or even interact with the married butches except to tell straight people that They Are Valid. 

Valid, but not included; part of queer theory, but not invited to the queer practice. That was my situation, whether you viewed me as a not-quite-bisexual woman or a not-quite-gay man or the 40-year-old lesbian virgin or a straight girl on T. I am, in fact, all of those things, subject to all the contempt you might have for any of those types. I am also always something else. Our language about desire tends to break down around non-binary people, like our language for everything else, and perhaps it’s better to say that I am just a non-specific sexual weirdo, a strange person. An accepted synonym, for weird or strange, is queer. 

So you think you’re bi, but you only date men, you’re huffing, but I would caution you against assuming that “being with men,” for me, is a heterosexual practice. “Being with men” doesn’t always mean being with straight men. “Being with men” doesn’t always mean being with men in straight ways. I shouldn’t need to tell anyone’s secrets or spell anything out for you to believe me, but for better or worse, the way men feel about me is not the way men feel about girls. 

It was a recognition that operated covertly, in odd ways. Once, at a party, a boyfriend of mine got wasted and started boasting about how tough I was. She’s scary strong, dude, she’s just insanely strong for her size, try her. He made me arm-wrestle his guy friends to prove the point, and I did, indeed, end up beating most of them, because they were drunk and they thought it was a joke until I started winning. My boyfriend hollered and beamed with pride, knowing I could beat up the other boys on the playground. This was a very hot date for me. We didn’t have language for it, but he knew who I was. 

Men would remark on how easy I was to talk to; they’d thank me for not making them do girly shit, tell me shuddering tales about their exes’ Sex and the City DVDs or bookshelves full of Bridget Jones. If there was a magazine article on tomboys, they’d forward it to me, sometimes with little notes so I knew they were sending it, like, ironically. The mid-‘00s archetype of the Cool Girl — the girl who likes nachos and beer and whiskey, David Foster Wallace and bad action movies and blow jobs, who watches porn and tells dirty jokes and wants to fuck as often and easily as a man, and who is doing all of this, supposedly, as an act, to make straight men like her — served me well for a time. 

But if you peel back the surface of the Cool Girl, you find someone soft and feminine, a real live girl desperate for her man’s approval. If you peeled back my surface, you found someone who liked nachos. I wasn’t telling jokes or watching Speed to impress my boyfriends, I was doing it because I’m funny and Speed is an amazing film, and there are girls who like those things, yes, but as every relationship devolved into a power struggle, as every conversation became some dick-measuring contest over who was smarter or stronger or tougher or more accomplished or more talented or just more important, it became clear that the men who thought they loved me were looking for a girl who wasn’t there. I was supposed to knuckle under, once things got serious; drop the act, ride bitch, say uncle. They wanted to arm-wrestle, but they expected to win. 

It’s the Catch-22 of patriarchy; men are taught to hold women in contempt and view other men as their only worthwhile companions, but they’re also taught that it’s the worst thing in the world to be gay. The tomboy seems like a perfect solution — a way to be with a guy without, you know, being with a guy — but they eventually become repulsive and taboo to the extent that they fail to be feminine. Everything that seemed wild and exciting to these men soon looks monstrous and emasculating; when they get what they want, they never want it again. 

Then I met my husband. I don’t know why it turned out differently. He was a feminist, but most of the guys I dated called themselves that. I might have been softer and easier to live with, as I reached the end of my twenties, but he’s witnessed the worst depressions of my lifetime, too. He was the boyfriend who made me arm-wrestle his friends. That, I think, is what did it. Most guys figured out what I was, but they thought I was broken. He ran off to brag to his friends about me; he treated me, not as strange, but as unique, a source of pride. 

My husband makes the fire on a Saturday night and drags the rug out in front of it. Every decent-sized apartment in this town has a fireplace, even the cheap ones, because the winters are harsh and dark and awful and last for about nine months. People upstate come to respect the fire, as we have, for being the closest thing they have to a sun. 

In the city, a fireplace would be unthinkable unless we were rich. So it’s our luxury, building a fire on Saturday nights, putting a movie on, making out in front of the only warmth we get. I am supposedly mutilating myself, according to the TERFs out on their book tours, destroying my sexual functions and desirability. He is supposedly settling for me, proving how kind he is by not treating me like a mutant. In practice, I’m on drugs that make me want to bone 24 hours a day, and it’s not a bad gift to unwrap, ten years into a marriage. We seem to be doing okay. 

He puts on a Smashing Pumpkins concert from 1995, some video that got uploaded onto YouTube, and it turns out I still know all the words. I try to seem like I’m sarcastic, mouthing along to the bits where Billy is being a real drama llama — and God is empty, just like me!!!

“This seems very you,” he says. “No offense. I’m like a Phish guy, ‘hey, we’re all jamming along in the universe,’ and you’re like a Billy Corgan. You’re…” 

“The worst?” 

Billy Corgan is the worst. I know this. I also listened to his albums on a loop from puberty until age eighteen, and I can’t un-listen to them now.

“More intense,” he says.  

Intoxicated!! With the madness!!! I’m in love with!!! My sadness!!!! Billy yelps, worst-ly. It goes on like that, talking about shows we saw in high school, shows we saw in college, trying to figure out whether I was actually at the NIN show at Barclays — he was, I wasn’t, we decide — until we talk about what I’m currently intoxicated with madness about, which is the clerk at Wal-Mart who called me “ma’am.” 

“Do I seem like a ma’am to you?” 

He raises himself above me on one elbow, studying my face. It’s a look he’s started getting lately, a careful, searching expression. It’s like he’s working out a Magic Eye poster, letting the hidden image emerge from behind the noise. 

“I don’t know,” he says. “You have that vibe.” 

“I said ma’am,” I said.“With the m at the end. Not man.

“Oh.” He lies back down. “No, I don’t think so.” 

“I seem like a ma’am to the Wal-Mart guy,” I say. “It makes me feel like I’m fooling myself. Like I’m just some idiot in a costume.” 

“Look,” he says, “a woman is just a woman, right? And a man’s just a man. Even if you’re, like eighty percent woman and twenty percent something else, or seventy-thirty, or ninety-ten, that’s a lot more in-between than most people are. But you always seemed right in the middle to me.” 

It’s shocking to me, still, that we can talk about this. I look for fear in the Magic Eye expression. Sometimes I think I see it. But it’s not an angry fear. He’s just being careful, considering something new. The words he’s using are not the terms you’d pick up on Twitter. He doesn’t use the phrases binary woman or binary man, and he has not once assured me that I am Valid. What he says carries weight precisely because he doesn’t know the jargon. I can hear him choosing the words, by himself, for the first time. 

So the night goes on, and we talk about other things. Heat, mainly. It’s this three-hour crime movie, and he keeps trying to watch it and falling asleep. It’s good, but it has that HBO-miniseries pace, with about five different unnecessary subplots that are just there so you can say “ah, Natalie Portman’s in this.” It also has the weakness of most crime movies, which is that men get to do all the cool stuff, and women just hang out at the edges of the plot, teary and exasperated, and plead with their men to stop doing and/or solving crimes. This supposedly represents The Human Cost. The end confirms what I’ve always believed, which is that most straight men don’t want girlfriends so much as they want other straight men to hold hands with. 

Heat is the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro share the screen. The whole movie, all three hours of it, exists so we can see them square off. Neither of us has what it takes to finish Heat, tonight, so we settle for trading impressions, from their big scene, in which they speak wearily of the crimes they must do and/or solve, and The Human Cost (their girlfriends) that is incurred. I got a woman, De Niro says, and we repeat it back and forth, trying to make our voices gravellier and more Italian: I got a woman. I got a woman. Eyyyyy, I got a woman. Neither of us remarks on the joke of I got a woman, which is that — though I got a nurturing, domestic partner with waist-length hair, and he got a partner with a uterus we could make a kid in — neither of us got one. 

I’m in my office, looking for ways to wrap this essay up, and my husband is fixing a lamp in the other room. The pull chain broke when I tried to turn it on. Our toddler is watching him. She got a time out once for breaking this same pull chain — not for breaking it, but for yanking on it after we’d told her several times not to touch — and she’s delighted to realize that I, a grown-up, have done something wrong. 

“They BROKED it,” she keeps repeating. “They BROKED the LAMP.” 

“They’ve got a really forceful way of doing things,” her father says. “They’re not gentle like us.” 

Neither of them thinks I can hear. This is a mistake — everyone can hear everything in this house — but I refuse to correct them, preferring instead to let them live in my dystopian surveillance state indefinitely. 

“Time out,” the toddler says, with carceral glee. 

“No. They’re just strong,” my husband says. “That’s the thing everyone has to learn about them. They’re a very strong person.”

He hasn’t read this essay; he doesn’t remember the arm wrestling. He’s just saying it again, the way he apparently says it all the time, whether I am or am not listening. He says they when he thinks I can’t hear. The question has an answer, at least that part of it, at least for the moment. I am real in this house, and so I close the laptop and walk out into it, going out toward the warmth and the light I chose. 

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15 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
15 days ago
seattle, wa
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pretending to be Canadian, and other Machiavellian triumphs at work

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Last week, I asked about Machiavellian things you’ve seen or done at work. It turns out … there were a lot of stories. So many that I couldn’t fit my favorites in one post. Here’s part one, and part two is here.

1. The job hunting assistance

At one of my first jobs after college, the team I was on had a truly awful boss. One of my coworkers got a hold of his resume and submitted it to a bunch of recruiters. The bad boss was gone in about three months.

He ended up with a great new job, and we ended up with a great new boss.

2. Pretending to be Canadian

I pretended to be Canadian to get a day off of work.

I worked the 5 am shift in college at a local business. I could not get a day off. I could not call off sick without finding coverage. The person had to be a keyholder who could open / close the business, and willing to work at 5 am. So, that means no sick days. I worked a customer-facing front desk with no one else there. I couldn’t leave to go to the bathroom. I didn’t get breaks. I know that’s illegal, but I stayed because the schedule worked for my college classes. I requested one day off four separate times throughout the year and each day was denied. The days were not at peak times. The business had no one to cover. Well, Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. In August, I started saying “about” with a Canadian twist (abooot) – especially when I talked about Canadian Thanksgiving. My coworkers asked me what kind of food we ate for the holiday. Do Canadians celebrate with different food traditions? I told them that I didn’t know, but we serve turkey and the fixins because my a lot of my family is from the states. When I requested Canadian Thanksgiving off, it was approved. My first day off in 1 1/2 years.

I would not do that again. I was 18 at the time with no professional role models. I would handle that by discussing it with my manager.

3. The unionization help

I worked in a hospital where the nurses and maintenance engineers were union, but nobody else was. We ancillary staff were pushing a unionization effort, and every time management had an “info meeting” for all ancillary staff (ie, anti-union propaganda) a few days before photocopied fact sheets that debunked whatever they were planning on telling us would appear in the staff elevators and locker rooms, along with the most up-to-date public information about how much executives and managers were paid.

Needless to say, our unionization effort was a resounding success! Most of the hospital ancillary departments joined our union.

A few days after the results of the vote were announced, all the doctors in one of the departments announced that they were unionizing, and had already filed all the paperwork and voted, presenting *their* union to an already reeling executive team as fait accompli.

Turns out the doctors were ones posting all the stuff in the elevators and staff rooms to keep management busy dealing with our union and trying to hunt out the”‘moles” in the ancillary departments while they organized completely under the radar. (One of the main organizers for the doctors had been accidentally added to an email list for the managers working on their anti-union meetings, which is how they knew what was going to be said ahead of time in order to make the fact sheets.)

4. The boss whisperer

In my first professional job out of college, I found that my boss would randomly get upset over little things going wrong — like a vendor saying they’d be late with a delivery, a hotel not having the meeting room we wanted available on a certain date, etc. I would take these things in stride because, you know, things just happen, but when I’d tell him, he’d rant and complain and want me to fix it somehow, and it caused me a lot of stress for no real reason. One day I stumbled onto a solution: if I came to him with these situations and *I myself* acted very upset and frustrated, he would instinctively take the position that it was all no big deal and we could just roll with it. It was like magic! From then on, every time a little thing went wrong that I couldn’t fix, I would deliberately come to him with a “this is intolerable, you’ll never believe what just happened” kind of attitude, and before I knew it, he would be in the position of calming ME down with “it’s fine, don’t worry about it.” I always felt a little guilty for manipulating him this way, and I’m not sure it would’ve worked long-term (I only worked there about a year and a half), but it did make my work life a lot easier!

5. The sick days

This one is one is small potatoes compared to some but it is manipulation that worked for me. I am a very pale person and usually wear make up including lipstick. Otherwise, I look like something that was ordered and didn’t come. So some years ago, I had this boss, a nice motherly woman. Whenever I wanted an afternoon off, I’d wear a beige shirt, which washed me out, and toned down the makeup, removing the lipstick entirely. She would exclaim that I was unwell and practically force me to take off sick (paid) for the afternoon. I would say I was fine but she would insist. Worked every time.

6. The language spy

We work very closely with our hardware supplier, which is located in a different country. Most of the other company’s employees speak that country’s language (say, Klingon) natively and only rarely speak English. In meetings, they’ll debate among themselves in Klingon before giving a (usually shorter and vaguer) answer in English. One of my coworkers didn’t mention he spoke Klingon for FIVE YEARS so they’d speak freely around him. He’d go to meetings, sit there with a vague smile, and while they told us they hadn’t narrowed down the problem yet, he’d know that they were discussing which particular circuit.

7. The status window

I had a grandboss who was Very Mediocre. He deeply desired an office with windows = major status symbol. Alas, his office was in the basement and was never ever going to go any higher. Fortunately for him, he had a nice budget. Which he used to by very very very nice wall to wall, floor to ceiling drapes. Which of course were never open.

Visitors would be confused. “Aren’t we in the basement?” “Yes [long pause], yes we are.”

8. The squeak

I was in a job where my direct supervisor had less experience than me doing the same job before he went back to school, got a degree and was promoted due only to the degree. He was very condescending and snide and whenever we interact he would constantly make digs at me for not having an advanced degree. Perhaps it’s not machiavellian, but he would nit-pick at me about small things that he would let skate by for others, so one day, I got this little noisemaker and stuck it to the back of a file cabinet in his office. It would randomly make squeaks and beeps at irregular intervals. It was rather amusing to watch him have a man-baby tantrum trying to find the source of the noise.

9. The locked drawer

There was a secretary in the department where I was temping who had to know everything, and she was desperate to find out what I had in the one drawer I kept locked in my cubicle (spoiler alert – I kept my shoes there and changed into them when I had to dress for a bad weather commute).

When I went on vacation, she manufactured an emergency – a missing document, and she’d looked everywhere – EVERYWHERE – except MY locked drawer. On the strength of that claim she got facilities to unlock it so she could search.

I’d emptied it out and taken my shoes home before I left for the holiday. ;)

She had to tell me about it when I returned because everyone had seen facilities come and unlock my desk. I asked her what had happened in the matter of her incredibly important missing document, and she mumbled something and walked away.

10. The fax machine

My very first job out of university was in the IT department of pretty large company. The department was a lot of fun, think the IT crowd.

Our network admin had been there forever (and still works there 12 odd years later). He had been trying to get rid of all the fax machines for a couple of years already when I started working there, but there was still one left. A few people insisted they still needed it.

After another meeting where this one fax machine came up and being told that the fax machine could not go, he had enough. Once everyone was gone, he unplugged it.

About half a year later, he brought up the machine again. “No,” people said, “the machine cannot go. We use it quite often.” “How is it possible then,” our network admin asked, “that none of you have plugged it back in?”

And that was the day he was finally rid of the last fax machine.

pretending to be Canadian, and other Machiavellian triumphs at work was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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21 days ago
Recruiting an awful boss away is so smart!!
Melbourne, Australia
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