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Why William Gibson’s _The Gernsback Continuum_ was right

I empathize. Empathy is my core character trait. I strive to identify with people, to speak their language, to understand their ideals. Sometimes people react by leveling with me, by telling me that I’m wise beyond my years or that I’m easy to talk to, that I have an honesty not often seen in this world. Other times, most times, it gets me labeled as arrogant. People ask me who I think I am to act like I know their story, like it might be something comprehendable, comprehensible. I don’t know them or where they came from except insofar as they’ve told me, it’s true. And still I try to empathize, and even with those who pull away, even those who insult me to keep their fair distance, I try to understand.

Why do I hold empathy in such high esteem if it causes me more problems than simply letting people alone? I honestly believe that empathy makes one see the world more honestly and brings one closer to “the truth of things.” This drive empowers my writing, drives my editing, and supports nearly single-handedly my lifestyle and my worldview. To me, in ways immeasurable yet definable, empathy is everything.

This blog is my brainchild; it carries the most true expression of me outside of myself even in this experimental infancy. And nothing will explain me to you so well as explaining the connection between empathy and a frustration that stems from a failure to communicate how deeply the author understands the individual, especially when the audience isn’t aware that the work is the author’s attempt at understanding their audience. However, these frustrations generally inspire better and more honed arguments and writing, which is what I want to attract.

I want to create a steam-valve for authors who, like me, have spent their lives under the burden of miscommunication and misunderstandings. Empathy is something that gets far too little sympathy in this world. I don’t want to publish or to create a safe-haven; I want to vent frustrations that are similar to the ones I’ve carried with me all my life as a burden, when it should be anything else. For us, writing is catharsis, is release, but never is it a lightening of the load.

With that purpose in mind, let me introduce you to James Gregory.

**

I have a pointless story to tell you. I used to tell it to get people to go to Austin with me. It didn’t ever really work. People seemed to want to go to Dallas because Dallas was supposed to be a conservative city, unlike Austin. It’s an incorrect distinction.

Dallas is a really liberal city. They put up the veneer of a right wing dullard just so that people feel safe. It’s real liberalism at work. You know the classless society by making everyone equal; everyone in Dallas is equal by their lack of having any discernable differences.

The buildings are made of only the newest and cheapest of last year’s space aged materials and wrapped in glass so that all you see is a reflection. If you live in Dallas, you are probably older than most of the glass boxes we pass off as architecture. They are tall and that’s the only defining feature. They build tall to dwarf you. You’re insignificance in palatable next to an unnecessarily tall building with an army of suited creeps coming out of it.

He's talking Dallas. I'm showing New York. Make sense? Yeah, it does.

He's talking Dallas. I'm showing New York. Make sense? Yeah, it does.

Austin on the other hand talks a liberal game but really they can’t have real liberalism happen to them. Classes are heavily apparent in Austin. You got the trannies, the queens, emo kids, punks, hardcore kids, mall core, UT students, rich kids, poor kids, hot girls, skanks, virgins, fat chick skanks, redheads, and so many more. You can even move between them. At one point, I was probably mistaken for a high school emo kid. A bad hair cut was to blame. I’d probably be able to fit in pretty well as a UT student or given the right clothes a rich kid, queen, hardcore kid, or whatever. It’s much too democratic to be a one class society there.

I went to Austin to go see a movie a few years back. Election 2 was not playing in Dallas; it was foreign and involved gangsters. I drove four hours to Austin listening to Rilo Kiley ’cuz I think Jenny Lewis is hot. But I think all redheads are hot.

I got to Austin and we had time to kill before the movie. We went to go watch Slaughter House 5 while we waited. It was not the best movie, but I hadn’t expected much since the book wasn’t so good, either. America has a strong science fiction tradition with Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. We show our bad taste by holding up Vonnegut and Asimov as good examples.

The movie thankfully ended after two and a half hours. I got hungry. The paramount movie theater/play house is right by 6th Street in Austin, the fun part. In Austin, though, you see the gorgeous downtown buildings and can’t help noticing they put Dallas to shame. We wanted to get some pizza at one of those crappy places that sell less than stellar pizza. that still manages to taste amazing after you get a few in you.

We walked down the street and ran into Leslie the Tranny. Leslie is down there all the time. He has a head like Grizzly Adams. His body resembles a Frankenstein of Pamela Anderson with a steroid induced Larry King. I will never hold it against my friend for giggling. But the giggling was why Leslie started following us. He was frighteningly quiet outside of the other giggles he was eliciting due to a combination of stealthy sneakers and the loud and proud bikini. Thankfully, he ran into a hot woman and began to talk to her. It was at that point that I realized that even me and Leslie have something we agreed on. She was not a red head, though. Dark black hair is almost as good.

The pizza was not the best looking thing either me or my friend had seen so food was still not happening. Also, we suddenly realized we needed to get all the way across town to see the other movie. The movie I drove four hours to see. We started walking back to the car, back across 6th. But we’re being followed by a bunch of cute naughty school girls. A few of them were Asian, and I have to say wonder why they would play into their own stereotype. Probably, college kids trying to make dad Dad mad, or they were going to one of the many self declared modeling agencies around Austin.

All this is happening as I’m walking in front of a massage parlor with an ATM out front. The name of the business is Midnight Cowboys Massage Parlor. No, I did not make that up. I also see something named along the lines of Heavy Metal Pizza and half expect there to be a dungeon master in there with the way it looks from the outside. It probably had good pizza.

About as non-corporate as you get

About as non-corporate as you get

Eventually, we got across town, found a Chipotle, and saw the movie, which was amazing. Johnnie To is one of the best directors in the world, and thankfully I live in a country where you can see his movies.

The movie could’ve gotten him killed. It’s about the Chinese government’s involvement in the triads, the Hong Kong mafia. He had debuted the movie in France so that the Chinese censors couldn’t take all the flavor out of the movie. (They have a tendency to destroy the original footage of things they don’t like.)

We had a great time at the movie. When that one dude got turned into dog food, my friend said we had a winner. Afterwards we went to get snacks, since Austin has great food. Unfortunately, we didn’t go to some glorious hole in the wall but to a place my friend called the Shady Shell. It was appropriately named since it was a shady looking Shell gas station with a drug deal going on out front. Reason for the Shady Shell experience was for me to meet my clone, who turned out to be gay with too much make up and in possession of a crack nail that I could only label impressive. My clone was ready to be swept off it’s feet by once it noticed me, only I wasn’t willing. I think we parted on good terms, and I’ve certainly glimpsed the Andy Warhol version of myself.

The night went on. We watched another movie where Pierce Brosnan armed with a knife flew out of a dead horse screaming like a girl. It was fun and funny. I’m not making that one up either. Name of the movie is Seraphim Falls.

The next morning I woke up, said good bye to my friend, and drove back to Dallas. I listened to the same CD again. I kept thinking how hot redheads are.

Our country is becoming Dallas when it used to be Austin. We’ve always had a strong anti-democracy streak thanks to farmers and Southern landed-gentry types. The current problem began around FDR when he declared war on the free economy, which if anything is the ultimate freedom of a shark pit.

He was determined to make the nation controllable. He made a system where everyone answered to him. His pet project was communes that were made out of only white people that all had the same house. A few of these blights still stand in the south.

We’ve never recovered from it. You see a few gasps here and there at the sort of fun we used to have in this country. We had Woodstock. We had Orson Welles. Russ Meyer cranked out movies in the 60s and gang banging people into the theaters with promises of topless women. Drive ins showed movies with names like Kiss Me Deadly, which is an amazing movie (go see it!), and Mondo Topless (not so much).

Obama wants to make us more like Dallas. His plans always encompass everyone. He wants us all to be accountable only to him. He seems determined to make us a place where the old and established rule with an iron fist and any sort of freedom must be squelched in favor of the bland, Godless whole.

House of God, meet tower of phallus.

House of God, meet tower of phallus.

You won’t be able to drive four hours to see a movie because your gas will be too high to pay for cause they will have to tax gas to pay for the deficit that will be through the roof on universal healthcare. You will not get a single foreign movie because tariffs are soon going to have to come into play to keep corporations from leaving America in favor of out sourcing. Places like heavy metal pizza, Midnight Cowboys, the paramount theater, and the Shady Shell will go away to be replaced with faux European-style concrete blocks staffed with angry, entitled middle agers.

Everyone complains about the Me mentality of people. The problem is that we don’t have a Me mentality. We have a childish one. People elected Obama because he said he would be their daddy. No one likes living with their parents, trust me on that. The Me mentality produces movies like Election 2, 500 Days of Summer, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. It makes books like Brideshead Revisited and Pale Fire. It makes pizza like Heavy Metal Pizza. Obama’s universal this and that is an attack on the individual. It’s an attack on Me, and, as Austin proves time and time again, Me is the one you’d rather spend time with.

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Author: James Gregory

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Criticism, Features, Guest author, Humanistic, Statement of purpose, Writing

Garden Part Two: Concerning man and beast, God and man

I used to go to this unused farm up in Allen, TX with Kalli. It took about fifteen minutes to drive there from my home, and when we’d arrive I’d let her out of the car and we’d walk down the tree-lined dirt road towards those untended fields. I never did find out the story about how a farm fell into being just a dog park, but a golf course and suburban neighborhood had grown up around it, which always made me suspect that the farmer was waiting for some development company to offer him a price perhaps a little better than fair. While he waited, the fields grew stiff yellow grass and wild flowers and weeds, and trees stood blocking out the houses and the golf course and the roads. Other off-leash dogs and their walkers gave the only evidence that I hadn’t actually left civilization behind.

I wonder whether walking in Allen with Kalli would be like walking with God in the garden. Out in nature, commands nearly cease to exist. Kalli chases field mice and jack rabbits, and I do not worry for her. I take pleasure in the puppy-like qualities she hasn’t outgrown, the smile that so plainly lights up her face when she looks back at me: she’s always fifty feet ahead, just fifty, and she occasionally looks back to make sure that I’m following her or that she’s preemptively following me. If I change directions, she’ll run past me fifty feet, look back, and smile.

Sign of the times

Sign of the times

How different would life be if  Charismatics and other emotive religions could actually fulfill the promises of spiritual awareness with God, if I could know that God was looking after me like so many claim to know it? But I can’t prove that he is; that’s the great trial of faith, to believe that he’s looking even in the absence of proof. But their universal and bland rhetoric states that you can feel it, that you can know for sure beyond the trials of faith; how different would life be if that were the case?

Therefore, how can I help but be happy that she feels so thrilled at these little and simple joys? The best days for her are those when we go out into the field together, and I can tell just by her acknowledgment and constant awareness of my presence that the experience wouldn’t be the same without me. The field wouldn’t bring her so much pleasure if I weren’t there to share it with her.

I have thoughts about leaving civilization, and they’re so tempting since—to an extent—civilization can actually be left behind. Would I more actively pursue happiness if I were to leave my thoughts and the thoughts of men behind in order to participate in this daily happiness with Kalli, or would her elation wear off or my happiness at her elation? I took her out to Allen often enough when I lived nearby, and the pleasure of it never wore off. I can’t imagine it ever waning.

Or am I talking more about hermitude than of abandonment? Could I forget Socrates? Assuming so, would I want to leave my doubt behind? Would I abandon my spiritual resignation?

What would it be like to walk in the garden with God, to always know he’s there, to turn my head every few feet just to make sure that he’s with me, that he hasn’t turned in a different direction, to give chase once I found he had? If my relation to Kalli would be like God’s relation to me, could I sustain that pure, simple happiness that she has in my presence towards God and His presence? Do I really need to leave the city and go into nature to pursue God in this way? Would such simple happiness really require me to stop being me, to sacrifice my self the way in which Kalli has never had to sacrifice her dogness for me?

If the story is true and the knowledge of philosophy came into man after his nature was made, then yes, I suppose I would have to sacrifice the unnatural part in order to participate in walking with God in the garden. But Christ only talks of nullifying the curses laid on us, of freeing us from the burden and yoke of sin. What Christian would say that by becoming like Christ he has lost the knowledge of good and evil but rather gained the ability to always pick good over evil? Would even Christ have said that he knew neither good nor evil but only the will of the Father, as opposed to saying that the will of the Father is good but his actions without the will of the Father are bad, thereby admitting a knowledge of good and evil? But, of course, my phrases give away my opinion on such beliefs, If the story is true and What Christian would say.

A new way to view an rusted triumvirate

A new way to view an rusted triumvirate

I would like to participate in a relationship with God in such a way as Kalli participates in a relationship with me, but the truth denies me: man has the ability to abstract, which separates him from other animals in general and inspires doubt; I abstract, therefore I doubt. Obviously I have said that my dog is rational, a creature which can be taught and cared for, so I do not define man as a rational animal, rational being what distinguishes him from other animals. Rather, man is an abstracting animal, and I would set forth that even if the story of the fall is true, man had in him the ability to abstract before the apple, which led to doubt, which led to a distance from God, which led to the eating.

Could I sustain the happiness of walking with God in the garden as Kalli can sustain her happiness with me? Could I sustain my happiness with her the way it’s claimed, without proof, that God sustains his happiness with me? I don’t know, but in truth I don’t believe so.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Criticism, Philosophy/Theology

Garden Part One: Kallion, my dog, my child, my love

My first two-parter, now with picture goodness! I’ll post the second section on Thursday. Thanks for the feedback, the shares, and the views. 🙂 Also, just because you CAN post anonymously doesn’t mean you SHOULD. ;-p

**

I have a dog. Some readers will wonder what breed she is, what her attitude, etc. Others will stiffen slightly, remembering the times they brushed against the wall rather than letting that animal sniff their pleats. Still others will shrug: he has a dog, so what?

I got my dog in college. She had been abandoned in Waco, TX and picked up by the SPCA. She arrived in her cage six hours before the first time I saw her. Her youth and her timidity appealed to me, as did her size. Fifty-two pounds and six months old, the white Husky and German Shepherd mutt backed away from me and my friends in the little play pen. Her color was pure except for the freckles on her nose, and her left ear flopped while the right one stood erect.

I crouched, and her brown eyes looked back into my blues, and I wondered why she was so afraid. Had her previous owners beaten her, teaching her to fear humans? Had she been abandoned, left to struggle for survival still so young? Did she suffer from simple social anxiety, nervous of newcomers and new situations, both of which surrounded her in that moment?

Slowly she came to me. She nuzzled her freckled head under my right hand, and I felt her damp nose against my skin, a wetness I would come to know personally over the subsequent years. She trusted me so quickly, which contrasted so starkly with her fear. Her legs trembled underneath her. But she didn’t whimper, didn’t make a sound.

Photo 159

Her sweetness as I’m writing this post

I couldn’t take her home that day. The SPCA has a policy that animals have to stay with them at least three days, and they had to spay her besides. The day of her operation, I waited in the anteroom, really just little Texas shack attached to a series of tiny monastic cells that a little statue of Saint Francis watched over. The brown wood-panelled walls and dirty linoleum tile muted what light made it through the soft linen curtains, amplifying my worry.

I felt anxious and worried. The procedure had run late, or maybe just the vet performing it, and my legs hopped up and down uncontrollably. I wanted her to be out of that place; I wanted her with me. Already I wanted to protect her from the pain of the world even though, indirectly, I was the one who had put her on the table.

Does understanding these emotions really require a dog person? Do cat persons understand what I went through? Can I ask for a little empathy from parents to picture a little puppy as a little child, afraid and frightened and alone, vulnerable without your care? Or is everyone with me, shaking with me in that stuffy little room?

I already saw myself as her protector, as the one assigned to allow her to experience the world without taking more damage than necessary. I already loved her in some small way, but not as a thing to pet and feed and walk on occasion; rather, I loved her as if I were a parent. No, there is a little abstraction here; I loved her as a guardian. I am not a father and cannot describe the differences (if any exist) between how I feel towards Kalli and how a father might feel towards his child. I love her; I want her with me all of the time. I want to do what’s best for her, and I want to protect her from the harm in this world without sheltering her from the world as it really exists. How do you balance those desires, to protect her and to give her free reign?

I'm chill, daddio. Promise.

I'm chill, daddio. Promise.

The second I got her inside the industrial loft I lived in, she puked a yellow liquid all over my roommate’s green decorative carpet. We had laid it under the Ikea living room table, about five feet from the front door and in between the two off-white cloth couches, and Kalli lurched for it, begging for anything not cement so that the liquid would drain into it. I laughed, but my roommate didn’t react as smoothly.

I called the vet the same day and asked about her health, but they said that she was just reacting to the anesthetic. Days went by: Kalli continued to vomit, and I began to lose confidence in the SPCA’s vet. Kalli wouldn’t eat at all, either. When I spoke with the SPCA again, they suggested that she was just having a hard time adjusting to her new environment and that I should spend more time with her or leave her alone so she can get settled, whichever.

I stayed with her for four days straight. She slept in my bed with me, cuddled inside my fetal abdominal curve or behind the bend of my knees. I researched several tricks to get her to eat: microwaving the food or mixing it with beef broth. Neither worked. I became frustrated with her when she turned away after sniffing the food, yelling out my whys and why nots with violent hand gestures before sinking back in to resignation that for some reason I wasn’t going to be able to keep my dog alive. She continued to waste away.

After ten days I took her to another vet, convinced that the SPCA had pegged her symptoms wrong. The PetsMart (Banfield) vet took simple stool test and basic blood work, which revealed that Kalli suffered from intestinal worms and stomach parasites, respectively. A shot took care of most of her symptoms within hours; the vet recommended that I feed her bread and baby food for the first few days to get her digestive system on track. She began to eat, and I nearly cried. For the curious, she preferred squash baby food, and to this day bread remains one of her favorite treats.

Kalli in Cambridge, MA circa 2006

Kalli in Cambridge, MA circa 2006

Once she fully recovered, I hardly ever had her on a leash. Those of you not from Texas may feel tempted to think of it by its cliché, open ranges and big trucks and cowboy hats, but I lived in busy college-student filled apartment complex and let her out off the leash. I took her out at two in the morning when no one else was around (Baylor is a fairly boring school, after all) and taught her that curbs were boundaries and that I meant it when I said “Come here.”

I had to teach her how to negotiate stairways because she was so afraid of steps; the first time I walked up a small set of five that I normally bypassed, she looked at me from the bottom as if to say, “Good for you, but I’m not following.” I spent thirty minutes to get her up those little steps. I took the time and taught her what she needed to know. I also learned about her, such as when to trust that she’d listen to me and when to take tangible control (Squirrels and rabbits are a dangers, especially since I’ll let her chase them in parks but not in suburbs.).

Did she learn to obey my commands because I gave them frugally and only with reason? I never hit her to make a lesson sink in, and I never gave her treats—she only ate bread aside from her normal food, and I offered that freely, not as a reward. Therefore, I had no positive and no negative feedback to give her aside from my affection and admonition, neither of which really have affect unless you admit that maybe the ways in which people describe dogs’ emotions aren’t just personification. Did she learn to obey my commands because she loved me, perhaps because she was aware that I had taken care of her during her sickness or because I spent time with her as a family member might, as a friend might, as a pack member might? I’d guess the answer lies in that emotional milieu somewhere, but maybe that’s just me.

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Author: Greg Freed

This post won the WOOF contest from PlotDog Press on July 24, 2009.

Other winner:
Zorlone – After Thought – A poem of regret.
Dragon Blogger – Sweet Songs of Youth – Poem about childhood love and innocence.
Jennifer M Scott – Among Lilac – A poem of decisions.

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Writing

Controlling passion

This blog post is complete but is also part of a larger article. Your reactions in the comments will decide how quickly I move on to part 2.

Also, I’m still looking for user submissions for the creative part of this blog. Message me with a real story from your life as brief or as full as you’d like, and I’ll make a fiction story out of it.

**

Look into your lovers eyes, those great orbs in whose depths passion has stirred and whose force has partaken in the greatest moments of your life. Her life is crumbling: run your fingers through her hair and tell her it will be alright. She’s put on weight, and her fear of her mother’s harsh criticism has driven her hysterical: call to her lightly, put your hand on her stomach, and tell her that your opinion is the one that matters and that she looks good to you. Look into those eyes and lie. We convince ourselves of the necessity: sometimes such lies are necessary, sometimes little white lies help instead of hurt.
A girl looked at me once, halfway a woman but not quite and me not yet a man, she looked deep into my eyes, placed her hand on mine in the darkness of her Chevy Malibu, and requested of me, “Promise me you’ll never make me cry.” That’s one of those opportunities we men see at the start of nearly every relationship. You listen to her cry about lost loves and what bastards they all were, and then she turns to you and asks you not to treat her like they treated her, to love her where they failed. You don’t know yet whether you can succeed in this task or not—the relationship is young, unformed, and you are inexperienced with her quirks and she with yours. All you know is that you can make her happy if you agree to this demand, and she may leave you if you refuse.

For better or worse, I refused. I told her that I don’t make promises I can’t keep. Thus started the next three torrential years of my life with Christina, artsy Christina, parasitic flower whose maintenance killed me and whose beauty would made me glad to die in such service.

Perhaps six months went by before she asked me her next favor. Christina and I were driving around doing errands in that little blue Chevy of hers when she asked me to promise that I would never cheat on her. Promise me, nineteen year old boy, that for the rest of your life (for I thought our relationship might just last that long) you will never love a woman other than me. She didn’t even make the promise specifically carnal; she asked me to never love another woman.

We know what to do in this situation. We know that the aesthetically correct response is to blindly say, “Yes, honey. You’re my girlfriend, I love you, and I would never cheat on you.” But I’m a man of principle, and I had already refused her once on the grounds that I don’t make promises I can’t make in good faith. I knew that I could not fulfill this one, and I declined; I said I would not promise it, and I didn’t.

I’m not asking today why Christina asked for such a token: I’ve heard her request from multiple sources and have answered it the same way every time. My response is the issue at hand. I’ve also heard the enough responses to my argument to call some standard or cliché. Let me deal with a few superstitions:

1) Fidelity is not a matter assumed virtue can resist. While traveling, I once found myself surrounded by four muggers. I wrestled in high school and trained lightly in several martial arts throughout my life; perhaps I could have fought back. But in a strange country, I let the mugging occur without resistance; I put my hands up in the air and let them slide my wallet out of my back pocket. Several friends, especially those currently in the armed forces, have said that they would have fought back. Others said I acted rightly by potentially negotiating my wallet for my life; perhaps one of them had a knife, or maybe four to one is a bad enough ratio for a deadly beating. Either out of fear or self-knowledge, I knew that I didn’t possess the ability to fight off my attackers. Others assure themselves in the abstract that they have the means at their disposal to resist such wrongs. Only fortune may provide them with an opportunity to back up their boasts.

2) Sexual acts are not always motivated by desire. Just as with any other human action—in fact, sex is rather notorious for this particular aspect, but people seem to forget its complexity when talking about infidelity—sex involves multiple and often warring emotions, including but not limited to confusion, daring, fear, and repression. When I got out of an asexual relationship last November, I traveled and found an opportunity to have sex with someone I didn’t desire at all, one of my sister’s close friends, and we did. Even in hindsight I can’t really say why; some have said that alcohol was a factor, others that sexual frustration from the prior relationship surely played a part, but neither correctly constitute my frame of mind in that moment. My sister was sleeping in the next room; perhaps voyeurism was the feather that broke my hesitation.Perhaps not; a confusing mist obscures the whole situation. I remember thinking as the scene was building, “I can stop this.” The scene was so fragile that just making an impolite or awkward comment, or perhaps just the no when she asked if she could climb into my bed so politely, would’ve made her retreat. But I didn’t, and we did, and there’s no clear-cut issue at hand except that desire itself had little to do with my part in the story.

3) I am not weak-willed. Friends and girlfriends often ask in relation to this refusal of mine whether I can imagine a situation in which I would cheat on them. Though I’m a fairly creative person, I cannot, never can. Just as much as any middle-class American, I hold fidelity as one of my primary values and assumptions in a relationship, especially once the relationship is official. Just as I can act on the principle of refusing to make promises I can’t keep in the face of adversity, I must suppose that I could hold to the principle of fidelity in the face of desire.

Point three, of course, goes back to the two previous superstitions: A situation wouldn’t necessarily spawn from my desire, and even though I feel confident at a distance saying that I wouldn’t act when confronted with my own passion, I know neither what pressures will appear during the confrontation of another’s passion nor how I might react. I do know, however, a great many men choose infidelity when given the chance and then are at a loss for how to explain their choice. I’m also aware that these other men’s decisions are not a matter of financial or political class; infidelity occurs in middle and lower class alike, in Republican and Democrat alike. This information gives me pause, and I wonder how anyone goes along with the promise in the face of such widespread and misunderstood failure except by ignoring the question and simply responding “Yes” because we know that’s the right answer.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Criticism, Humanistic

Youth in the workplace

An issue that’s close to home was revisited by my girlfriend Ashley the other day. We’ve both worked in offices where our youth made us stand out from the rest of the work force. It reminds me of one of my favorite analogies of the workplace: A corporation is like a tree full of monkeys: the monkeys at the top look down and see a bunch smiling faces, and the monkeys on the bottom look up and see a bunch of assholes. What the analogy doesn’t say is that monkeys are known to throw feces at each other, and in my experience, the whole treeful will aim for the lowest monkey most of the time.

Pressures run high in small business environments, especially new offices under seasoned overhead and low-budget not-for-profits. Directors feel the need to cut corners in order to make the book as black as possible, and one of the easiest corners to cut is to hire a novice to fill an insubstantial role. At first, the young and bushy-tailed worker looks for all the world like an anime schoolgirl who just had all her dreams fulfilled: wide and wet eyed, and jubilant.

One error continually recurs in all-to-common for us young-professionals situation: the pressure stored up in the older coworkers suddenly has a pinhole through which it finds release, and no one has the time or initiative to provide protection for the weakest link in the team.

Take Ashley’s situation, for example. One week she’s sick and isn’t in the office; the next week she’s in Florida. Her boss has agreed heartily to both absences, having been aware far in advance of the trip to Florida and nearly commanding that Ashley stay home when she was sick. During her absence, one of her coworkers places a piece of inter-departmental mail on a shelf above Ashley’s desk with no note specifying what type of mail it is or what department it needs to go to. Upon Ashley’s return, the coworker asks why the mail hadn’t been delivered yet and berates Ashley for not being vigilant about her workplace.

It could’ve ended there, but Ashley complained about her coworker’s rudeness to her boss. At first, her boss presented a mail-drop solution that the coworker could’ve used to specify that her parcel was inter-office mail without having had to speak to Ashley directly. No communication took place with the coworker to reach a better communication solution.

That also could’ve been the end of the situation. But Ashley’s boss has a lot on her plate this week and so is also under pressure. Later in the week, long after the situation had been at least partly resolved, Ashley’s boss pulled her into the office and told her that complaining about how a coworker treats you is unprofessional. She also went on to talk about how Ashley was obviously “losing enthusiasm for her job” and that she hoped and knew that one day soon the duties of an administrative assistant would just “click” (as if an administrative assistant’s responsibilities are so heavy that they’re not just a matter of training).

Take into account that Ashley’s boss made no specific complaints about Ashley’s work, schedule, or attitude. When Ashley asked for a specific criticism so that she could make an effort to improve her boss’s opinion of her, her boss said that she didn’t have any specific complaints.

Now let’s make a move I’ve made before and compare workplace politics to relationships. If a guy or girl you’re dating and comes up to you saying, “Things just aren’t working out. It’s not really anything specific, I’m just not into it,” what’s your response? Fucking bullshit! Why? Because if there is no specific complaint, then there’s no complaint at all. The person is just hurting you; you know it, they know it. The symptoms of using obviously poor communications to wound are undeniable.

Second is the fact that Ashley’s boss is a social worker with over twenty years experience under her belt. I’ve met the woman: she knows how to talk. Talking is her job, and you can be sure if only by her years of professional experience that she knows that in order to properly communicate to fix a problem, specifics need to be mentioned and addressed. If she’s aware of that, why doesn’t she mention specifics when Ashley asks for them? Simple: they don’t exist. Ashley’s boss is using an unprotected workplace peon to relieve her stress.

It’s not uncommon, and one of the main reasons corporations employ human resources, aside from taking the responsibility of paperwork away from people whose jobs lay in other areas, is to handle poor office communications, to act as mediators in disagreements in order to make a workplace more amenable. A harsh reality comes sharply into focus for a young employee at this point: you’re easily replaced, and HR doesn’t give a fuck about you.

When in a directly parallel situation, I complained to my boss about the way a coworker was treating me. My coworker was in her early thirties and in charge of a large data-entry project worth a lot of money to the company. I, on the other hand, was a young copyeditor who had foolishly drained my workpool and, when eagerly looking to help around the office, had been placed on the data-entry project as my coworkers’s working subordinate. Therefore, my boss told me to can it and get back to work; it’s unprofessional to complain about mistreatment in the workplace.

I knuckled under this coworker for months. She made me and several others on the data entry project cry through her sheer abuse, and yet nothing could be done to get around it. The business was small and had no real HR program, and my only real boss told me to suck it up. When I asked my parents for advice, they told me to look for a new job and in the meantime suck it up. So I did. I sucked good and hard until I was purple in the face, until the sound of her boot heels thumping down the thinly-carpeted wood floor gave me heartburn.

In the meantime, my coworker complained to my boss about me, about my work ethic, about how slowly I worked and how many errors I inputted into her system. I had no defense against these complaints when my boss pulled me into her office to talk about it. Then my boss had me sign a sheet of paper that told me if my coworker’s opinion of my work didn’t improve in thirty days, she would fire me. I asked my parents what to do again, and my father told me to take notes about the amount of work I was doing versus the other employees and the harsh and unprofessional feedback my coworker was giving to me and others. I took notes.

After two weeks my boss pulled me in to tell me that my coworker’s opinion of me hadn’t improved and that she was preparing to fire me. This time I fought; I pulled in all of my notes about my hours, my productivity, my coworker’s rudeness. My sense of injustice had become so inflamed that I was sure my boss would finally move me to a different project, would finally confront my coworker about her inhumanity. Lolz: doesn’t that prove how young I was then?

My boss told me to go back to my desk and to prepare myself for what was coming in two weeks. I did, thanking my fucking lucky stars that they would finally fire me and force me to move on. Like Strong Bad says, “Oh, that’s it! I am so totally not going to quit this job but complain about it a little bit more!”

The off-site seasoned overhead found it prudent to fire my boss in the midst of all this and hire a replacement in a less-powerful role. My coworker immediately complained to this new boss about me, putting me again on thin ice. However, the paper stating that my old boss was going to fire me got magically lost in the sudden turnover. My new boss pulled me into her office and asked me about my coworker’s complaints. I told her that they were totally untrue and that I had documentation showing that my her were unfounded. My boss laughed at the documentation and had no interest in seeing it, of course. Still, Mom and Dad, it would’ve been a good idea if the dynamic hadn’t stunk so thoroughly of abuse.

I told my new boss that I would prove myself if she would just put me on a different project, which she did. The move didn’t improve my situation with that coworker at all, but it did make my job measurably better. When I completed my work on the new project, my boss took me under her wing to help her organize all of my old boss’s notes and to database freelance editors’ resumes and even contact some. I almost began to like that job again.

One day after she had been there about three months, my new boss pulled me into her office at the end of a workday to tell me the following: “I know that your coworker’s complaints about you are unfounded. I’ve been watching you like a hawk ever since I got here, and you’ve worked like a dog on that other project and for me. But now you’re doing the work of an administrative assistant, not a copyeditor, and we’re paying you to be a copyeditor. We’ve decided to terminate your position: I have to let you go.”

And that was that. It didn’t matter that I had thwarted my coworker’s complaints about my work ethic; it didn’t matter that I was so efficient at my job that they couldn’t keep me in work. All that mattered was that I was young and dispensable. After months of suffering under that coworker and months of reproving myself to the office, it ended.

I see in Ashley’s position exactly what I saw in mine, a young professional with no umbrella to protect him(/her) from the abuse of stressed out coworkers. Sometimes (Is it just sometimes? Usually?) people will shit on you if they can get away with it. They think it makes them feel better; you can’t do anything to get even (except maybe set their lawn on fire).

So to all the older coworkers and bosses out there who pick on the young worker in the office because you can, this post is a big fuck you. To all the workers who are considering taking a job where they know that their coworkers will be older than them but still think that age shouldn’t be an issue, it is; don’t take that job. To every young worker who is now in the position and suddenly realizing that there is no protection for themselves from this shitstorm, you have two choices: knuckle under and deal with it, or stand up for yourself. Either way, it’s likely you’ll be fired, and best to leave with your head high than covered in corporate-monkey feces.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Criticism, Workplace