Friday, February 18, 2011

Who started it?

Apologies in advance, but I’m going to spend a good chunk of today’s post talking about the work situation. Because, unbelievable as it may seem, things have managed to get a little bit worse. But I promise I will also talk a bit about television comedy, so hang in there and watch how I tie it all together!

So Wednesday morning Ms. Antisocial got in my face. Like a crazy person. (Or at the very least like an extremely socially maladapted rude person.) She wasn’t foaming at the mouth or physically menacing me or anything, but she kind of sidled into my field of vision while I was working and, when I looked up, she started speaking as if we were already mid-conversation. I mean, who does that other than people who have voices constantly yammering in their head, voices they assume other people can also hear? So yeah, no, “Hey, can I talk to you for a second?” or any other pleasantry, just: “So do you mean to tell me that you’ve never heard Normal Dude screaming at me?” To which I could only kind of stammer “Uh, what?” although of course in retrospect I wish I had had the wherewithal to retort, “Ms. A, I don’t mean to tell you anything – I’ve been studiously avoiding talking to you,” but alas. She caught me off guard, early in the morning when she and I were the only two in the workarea.

No, wait, actually, all those ideas are terrible.
Anyway, there ensued a brief but extremely awkward exchange which was admittedly a little hard for me to follow, because I dabble but am not fluent in crazy. The gist of it was this: Ms. A. was upset with me for telling our manager, and also her supervisor at the subcontracting firm she (and N.D.) works for, that I had never observed N.D. screaming at her. Which, according to Ms. A., was doubly not true because not only had I witnessed the Incident that set off all the recent unpleasantness, but I had also been “sitting right there” during an earlier horn-locking that occurred shortly after N.D. started here at the agency.

I did my best to unpack all of this on the fly and set a few things straight. First I had to inform her that I had never spoken directly with her subcontracting supervisor, and I had no idea where she got the notion that I did. Second, of course I did speak to our manager, because he called me into his office on the day things went down, and no, I didn’t use the word “scream” when relating my take on things. I didn’t say “N.D. screamed at Ms. A.” and I also didn’t say “N.D. has never screamed at Ms. A.”, although I did say that N.D. had said some inappropriate, unprofessional things. And third, no, I didn’t bring up any other incidents from months ago, because they didn’t come up …?

That was about the point where she literally held up one of her hands to cut me off and said something like “All right, that’s enough, I got my answer and someone’s been lying to me.” And turned her back on me and sat down and we haven’t spoken since. In fact, I’ve been avoiding even making eye contact with her when I enter the room or pass her in the halls. This feels wrong to me, because before any of this blew up I would at least nod at her, sometimes even smile; she mostly looked right through me or otherwise blew me off, but I took it in stride. Now, I just have no clue what to do with her so I’ve fallen back on pretending she doesn’t exist. Which, to be fair (or so I tell myself), is exactly what she’s been doing to me and N.D. and Mr. Voluble all along.

I think that’s what’s so galling about the whole situation. Ms. A. has apparently decided to portray herself as the blameless victim here. Maybe she really has such skewed perceptions of reality that she actually believes that at a polygraphable level; maybe she’s a calculating manipulator and realizes the only way to emerge from this without looking like an idiot is to full-on embrace an alternate narrative wherein she’s the innocent target of undue hostility and N.D. is the evil harasser. Either way the end result is the same: whether she’s e-mailing her HR department, meeting one-on-one with her supervisor, or talking at anyone who’ll listen, she’s trying to build a case that N.D. has a history of abusing her, utterly without cause, and the recent incident is only the latest example.

And of course (if I am capable of objectivity at this point) that is a near-total distortion on a couple of different levels. Part of it, I keep reminding myself, is semantics. Ms. A. insists on using this word “scream” like it’s some kind of shibboleth. But N.D. really, truly has never screamed at her if you go by the common understanding of the word. Has he insulted her? Said unkind things? Expressed unprofessional, impolite sentiments? Yes, yes and yes. N.D. is not totally blameless here. He has grown frustrated with her on more than one occasion, and he has sometimes let that frustration creep into his tone of voice, and sometimes spoken harshly in regrettable ways. But that’s just not screaming, so that’s a poor choice of meaningful terms on which to hang her attempts to paint him as the bully.

Hey what's with all the bunnies?
(Of course I’ve been known to do this too. I’ve had fights with people get sidetracked into semantics when I say “Stop yelling at me!” and the other person says “I’m not yelling!” And they’re right, they’re not, they’re just expressing some negative thoughts in a way that reminds me of being a little kid and getting yelled at by my own father, who did raise his voice like a champ, and so it’s my own hang-ups expressed poorly in verbal shorthand. I get that. It kind of makes me want to ask Ms. A. if she was screamed at a lot by her parents or nuns at the orphanage or something, but I suspect posing the question would do more harm than good and perhaps not be taken so well.)

At any rate, semantics aside, the more important issue here is that Ms. A. is just stone-cold rude. As I’ve outlined before, she looks through people when they make friendly eye contact, and she stays silent when people say hello to her, and she’s generally unfriendly and sometimes actively unhelpful. I was deeply annoyed when she made her bizarre accusations on Wednesday morning, for several reasons, one being the implication that if I was ever in the same room as her and N.D. having an altercation, I should remember it in detail and relate it fully when anything concerning her and N.D. came up later. Like I’m her biographer. Like I wasn’t actively trying to tune the two of them out because I was uncomfortable! Or worst of all, like she’s the only person in the world who exists and everyone else is just a supporting character there to help facilitate her narrative. But the truth is I do remember the incident to which she referred. N.D. asked her a question about some training he needed to do, which he was under the impression Ms. A. had already completed. He wasn’t sure about the process for even getting signed up for the training and making it happen; he assumed she could help him navigate the process because presumable she had already done it, since they both work for the same subcontracting firm and she has been on this contract longer. And Ms. A. simply refused to help him. Not couldn’t; wouldn’t. Not once did she say, “I’m sorry, I really don’t remember how it went” or “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to go over it right now” or anything remotely social-compact-preserving like that. I remember her repeating “You’re going to have to ask someone else, I don’t know,” over and over, like a robot, and N.D. wouldn’t back down. He modified his request for help, perhaps acknowledging that at first he might have come across as “Hey, do my job for me” and needed to pivot to “Can you please just point me in the right direction because I’m new here and kind of lost.” But Ms. A. kept right on stonewalling him – even when he called her on it! The semi-argument more or less ended with N.D. accusingly asking, “So there’s absolutely nothing at all you can tell me about what I need to do for my training?” and Ms. A. saying “Call HR, that’s what they’re for,” and N.D. sighing loudly and saying “Unbelievable!” in a clearly pissed off tone. (But, again, certainly not screaming, as it were.)

Anyway, to me that goes a long way to explaining why N.D. might have pre-existing frustrations with Ms. A. that bubbled over. And like I said at the time, you have to take into account the fact that she essentially ignores all of us on a day-to-day basis, so to constantly get the cold shoulder from someone and then get hit with a snappish demand one day, the resulting explosion should surprise no one. N.D. has of course since calmed down, it’s not like he’s making a running commentary of derogatory remarks to get a rise out of her or anything. But what he has started doing (coincidentally enough, though I’m positive they’re unrelated, right around the same day Ms. A. got all up in my face) is coming in every morning and greeting me, specifically, by name. He used to come in with a generic “Good morning” aimed at the room, and Ms. A. would be there and not say anything and I would say “good morning” back. Now he comes in and says, “Good morning, Yakov,” (NB: not my real name!) and I still say “good morning” back but I’m exquisitely aware of the fact the he’s actively excluding Ms. A. Which is kind of passive-aggressive bullshit, but she is the queen of passive-aggressive bullshit, right? She started it, and obviously she likes things quiet because she’s always silent and hates how loudly N.D. slurps his coffee and considers anyone who lets a trace of emotion into their vocal modulatings to be screaming their head off at her, so if we never ever speak to her and let her live in her little cone of silence we’re actually being SUPER-NICE. Right?

And that is not a steaming pile of juvenile rationalization at all.

My wife and I watched Community last night (of course we did) as the show continued a character arc to which it has shown surprising dedication, namely the unraveling and partial vilification of Pierce Hawthorne. For those of you who aren’t watching the show, Pierce is the character played by Chevy Chase and he is an old wealthy man going to community college mainly motivated by boredom and loneliness, and he is pompous and oblivious and selfish and difficult and honestly an interesting, complex character with many traits but ultimately the negative ones outweigh the positives. And Community (as I may have mentioned before!) is a very meta show all about deconstructing tropes and archetypes of sitcoms and Pierce is totally a sitcom archetype: the foil-within-the-group. He’s the one that nobody likes but everybody puts up with, technically classified as one of “us” when the show’s plots take on “us vs. them” structures but generally an easy source of interpersonal conflict that can generate narrative momentum. The thing is, as this second season of the show has progressed, they have gone from portraying Pierce as a mixed bag to almost entirely negative. The plot details of any given episode of Community are often just that, very specific details, so that trying to give a quick overview is difficult at best, but I’ll attempt it: early on there was an episode where Pierce discovered something other characters were enjoying, insisted on being allowed to do it himself, insisted on doing it wrong, and ruined it for everyone. (It kind of needed to be ruined, but still.) Pierce got his comeuppance, which was multiple broken bones in both legs (the “thing” he did wrong and ruined was more than, but involved, a trampoline) and for several episodes thereafter he was in a wheelchair with the entire lower half of his body in a full cast, which I point out for two reasons: one, it kept visually foregrounding a reminder of what a jerk Pierce was, even in episodes where he had minimal story-involvement; and two, it set him up to get addicted to painkillers, which has been driving the past couple of episodes. (Also, the wheelchair did facilitate a good number of legitimately funny jokes.)

Yep, that's pretty much EXACTLY what drugs are like, kids.
When Pierce finally gets out of the cast/wheelchair, one of the first things he does is ruin an anti-drug play the study group is putting on, because he is playing the part of Drugs and takes over the whole show with ad libbing. It’s actually not enough for Pierce to get all the attention on stage, which a good villain can definitely do while remaining the villain. He has to take it a step further and demands the love of the middle-schoolers watching the play, which means he has to make Drugs not just a scene-stealing villain but a one-man-show hero. And this all becomes brilliantly deranged and hilarious, a great episode, while at the same time hammering home the whole “Pierce is a selfish ruiner” idea.

Which is critical to the Dungeons & Dragons episode! (How did I not blog about this before? Simply because I wasn’t sure how to process it until there were a few more episodes after it to put it in context. You guys, I’m telling you, this show has layers, yo.) The study group becomes aware of this D&D-loving nerd who they think is on the verge of killing himself, and they decide to play D&D with him and let him be the focal point of the adventure in hopes this will pull him back from the edge. The group excludes Pierce, which by this point in my summary should be totally understandable: Pierce can’t let anyone else upstage him, Pierce is a selfish ruiner, etc. But of course Pierce finds out about the plan, is furious at being excluded, crashes the game, and almost ruins it entirely. In typical sitcom-trope fashion, what Pierce ends up doing is playing a villain within the D&D game who is a lot more hate-worthy than whatever paper nemesis would have been the adventure’s focus, and when Pierce sows the seeds of his own defeat with his arrogance, the triumph within the game is much more satisfying. In other words, everything ends up even better than if it had gone according to plan. The whole suicide plot ends up a bit of a sidenote, maybe the game helped the nerd, maybe the study group was full of themselves thinking he was so desperate he needed their help, but a happy ending either way. But in the middle of it all, when the stakes are still high and the resolution uncertain, Pierce behaves abominably, well beyond anything the character had ever shown before. He picks on the nerd and says the meanest things he can think of in an effort to simply wreck the kid, because he’s a fat nerd and because Pierce can and because Pierce is pissed about being excluded and lashing out like a drug-addicted child. And the story-within-the-story, the D&D game, has a happy ending, and the nerd actually gets a good one-up on Pierce in the real world too, but in the larger narrative of the whole show, I was left wondering how Pierce could possibly remain a part of the study group once he had crossed the line from foil-within-the-group who has both good and bad qualities to outright scumbag. Lots of sitcoms just hit a reset button at the end of every episode to preserve the status quo, but Community has always seemed to avoid that to preserve a sense of continuity (and dare-I-say realism, even in the face of storylines about literal zombies and such) and not everything gets resolved and never spoken of again every 22 minutes in the characters’ lives. (Oh by the way have I copped yet to being WAAAAAY too invested in these fictional characters’ “lives”? Because I totally am.) So how would the show handle the fallout from D&D? Ignore it, which would annoy me a lot, or run with it, which would be deeply weird for a wacky sitcom but also fascinating to me?

The Valentine’s episode last week kind of sidestepped it, which is not the same thing as ignoring it. The other characters were visibly annoyed with Pierce, who was kind of in his own little world sinking deeper into pill addiction, but mainly the other characters didn’t confront the Pierce situation directly because they all had other things to do besides studying, which would be the most likely prompt for a serious “why is this wretched, nasty guy still in our study group?” (That’s an interesting challenge for Community, inherent in its premise. On a show like Night Court you can have Dan be the foil-within-the-group and a total ass, but there’s no getting rid of him because he works there with everyone else so whaddayagonnado? A community college study group is a more or less voluntary gathering and those social structures can and do break down, in the real world.) So the show bought a little time and then had Pierce pass out in a public park in the final shot.

Which sets up last night’s episode where Pierce is hospitalized and the study group rallies around him, which I can buy because nobody wants to kick a person when he’s down. Pierce, though, uses the moment to his advantage by acting like he’s dying and giving out “final bequeaths” which not only lets him be the center of attention but also lets him continue to be a total dick (and full marks to the show for really not backing off from that portrayal of the character) because all of his bequeaths are poison pills totally intended to not just mess with everyone’s heads but cause them real suffering. The whole story walks the fine line between funny and disturbingly sad, and it starts to culminate when Jeff calls Pierce’s bluff. Pierce claims to have tracked down the father who abandoned Jeff’s family years ago and to have arranged to bring this father to the hospital to meet Jeff. Jeff freaks out but ultimately tells Pierce he is ready to meet his father, then further informs Pierce that if it all turns out to be trick he will literally beat Pierce “and it will not be fun or wacky.” Of course that’s exactly what it turns out to be: Pierce paid for enough private investigation legwork to get a lot of relevant details about Jeff’s dad, enough to sound convincing when he claimed to be able to produce the man himself. The intent, presumably, was to make Jeff squirm with internal conflict until Jeff bolted from the hospital to avoid meeting his father, which would haunt Jeff forever. But it didn’t work, and Pierce tries to impersonate Jeff’s dad by hiding in a town car with tinted windows in the hospital driveway and calling Jeff from a cell phone, but Jeff doesn’t buy it. And he pulls Pierce out of the car and …

I should mention at this point that when Jeff threatened Pierce with bodily harm I was thrilled. Overinvested in the characters and their relationships as I admittedly am, I really felt like I need to see Pierce punished once again for his maliciousness. There must be consequences! The show has been pushing all of my buttons and if I could have reached through the screen and punched Pierce Hawthorne (a fictional character!) in the throat, I totally would have.

Jeff does not, in fact, go all Hannibal Lecter on Pierce. Mostly they just yell at each other, Pierce lying on the blacktop and Jeff hovering over him being restrained by the rest of the group. Pierce ends up with a head wound requiring stitches, but it’s not 100% clear if he suffers that at Jeff’s hands being dragged out of the car, or immediately before that (Jeff, on foot, is able to catch Pierce’s car as he tries to speed away because Pierce gets in a collision with another car). The yelling, for what it’s worth, is mostly Jeff demanding to know why Pierce would orchestrate such elaborate, overtly cruel scenarios for everyone, and Pierce responding that it’s because the group is so mean to him, forgetting his birthday, excluding him from D&D, and generally treating him like a joke. And Jeff’s apt if slightly circuitous retort: “You’re not exactly disproving the theory!”

So who started it? Or does that even matter?

I’m not saying that I want to punch my co-worker Ms. A. in the throat, or punch anyone in real life (well, maybe if someone tied Dick Cheney to a chair and offered me a free shot, I’d be hard-pressed to turn that opportunity down). But non-fun, non-wacky violence aside, the parallels between my work situation and the central conflict in Community are pretty hard to ignore. This is the conundrum that I always seem to find myself in whenever I get entangled in any interpersonal conflict at all: maybe it is my fault, on some level. Maybe I started it without realizing it. Maybe everything a person has ever done which pisses me off was in direct response to something I did (again, Dick Cheney being the exception here). And it’s not as though that completely absolves the other person of any and all personal responsibility, of course not. But it does make it impossible to see things in stark black and white, with me being right and them being wrong, period. I want things to be black and white, that’s just human nature. When someone wrongs us we just want to feel indignant, and totally justified in our indignation, and super smug if we take the high road and worthy of instant acquittal if we take steps toward retribution. But life rarely, or never (probably never) works out quite that way.

So here I am, ignoring Ms. A. but feeling bad about it, knowing that every time I tell myself “but she started it!” that I can’t really assert that definitively and it would be beside the point even if I could. I’ll probably end up acknowledging her existence again, once my own weird set of hurt feelings subside, even if she won’t reciprocate, because that’s the minimally decent thing to do, and that’s what I expect of myself. It lacks a lot of the enjoyment of being vindictive, but … whaddayagonnado.

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