Sunday, July 14, 2013

#695: My Worst Moment.... a newspaper reporter had nothing to do with reporting. Way more to do with interpersonal communication & overwork & stress.
This post is for you Out There who've somehow gotten the impression that I'm A Nice Guy. I'm not. Or at least I sometimes wasn't back in my reporting days. It's also offered as an extreme example of what stress & overwork can lead to. Here's what happened....
It's mid-May 1999 at the world's smallest weekly newspaper, somewhere on the Washington coast. After pulling together another stress-filled issue, the Editor -- let's call her Judith -- calls the four-member writing&layout staff together for a Friday planning meeting. Where she drops the bomb that the annual Tourism Special Edition -- a 24-page advertising-filled tourist brochure -- is due MONDAY, on top of the usual work required for the next normal issue of the paper.
Then she drops another bomb: Myself, the Sports Editor & the Layout chief (who is my wife, who worked for 6 stress-filled months at the paper with me) are going to pull the Tourism Edition together while The Editor spends her weekend across the state in Spokane. She's going to write and do NOTHING for the Tourism Issue.
And she just leaves it there. The meeting breaks up. & I'm furious.
Because this continues a pattern The Editor has had since she came aboard 8 months earlier. She does only what she wants, dumps all the work on everybody else, blames other people for her mistakes, and spreads stress like a plague carrier. When the paper is delivered to the printers late, she blames everybody else for her short-sightedness -- when the front page is usually waiting for her writing & layout work to get finished before it can be delivered.
Over the last 6 months I've been doing more & more writing. At the worst point I'm covering 4 nighttime meetings per week, then coming back into the office at 9 a.m., writing my ass off. I'm on salary so I collect no Overtime. I hardly ever see my kids. About the only time I see my wife is when we bump into each other in the office. & Judith keeps piling on the work. Every time she calls my name from inside her walled-in cubicle my stomach locks up in knots because I know it means More Work.
We've had words before. The last time was when she asked me to do a hatchet job on an overworked city employee -- a guy who was hired to do all the stuff the Mayor and City Engineer couldn't get to. "He just smells wrong," she said. "There's got to be something there." This guy had never hurt anyone as far as I knew. There was no reason for us to go after him. I told her to write the hatchet job herself. She never wrote it, of course. Because there was nothing there to write.
This time around I'm so angry that I'm shaking.
"Can we talk about this?" I ask gently.
"No!" she said, slamming stuff into her travel bag. "I'm outta here. I need a break."
"Yeah, but you're leaving all the work for us."
"I'm allowed a break. I'm going to Spokane."
"That's nothing new," I said. "You take EVERY weekend off. While we clean up behind you."
"You guys can handle it."
"You're counting on that to be true," I said, and I start following her around the office as she gathers stuff to put in her bag. "You always dump all the work on us so you can have the weekend off."
"I do not," she said.
"You DO," I said. My voice is getting louder. "You never do your share, you always leave the work for everyone else. When is enough enough? Where do you draw the line at?"
"Mind your own business," she said. "I'm leaving!"
She goes into the back room to grab her coffee cup. I follow her. By now I'm yelling. I'm full of anger because I know I'm right. This has been coming on for a long time.
"This IS my business!" I yell into her face. "When does it STOP?! How much work do you think you can dump on people before they freak out?! We're ALL overworked! We're ALL burned out! When do WE get to go to Spokane?!"
"Shut UP!"
"NO!" I yelled. "You don't GET it! You dump work on everybody! You do NOTHING! All you do is create stress! You don't know what the F you're doing!"
"Get the F away from me!" she yells.
"NO! Run away to Spokane! Who CARES?! Don't F'ing come back! WHO CARES?! YOU don't! Get the F outta here! We'll cover for you! We always DO!"
"Get the F away from me!" she repeats, this time lower, angrier. I have her backed into a corner as we yell into each other's faces. All the rest of the newspaper's employees are out front in the main office where I'm sure our voices are echoing. Our Publisher is upstairs, directly above us, and can hear every word. And no one is interrupting.
She makes a break for it and heads for the front office.
"You're F'ing NUTS!" she yells. "I'm F'ing outta here! Who CARES if you do the work?! It's YOUR F'ing JOB! Don't do it and you're FIRED! See ya!"
I scream gibberish at her as she runs out the office door. Something about how I hope she crashes and burns and ends up dead in a ditch. Something like that. I walk back to my desk and collapse.
So much for professionalism. I'm still shaking. It's VERY quiet in the office. I expect my Publisher to come downstairs and fire me. It doesn't happen.
Over the next half-hour or so, 3 or 4 of my co-workers swing by my cubicle and say thanks for putting The Editor in her place. They've wanted to say all that stuff for a long time.
"Sure," I tell them. "Next time YOU do it."
The Sports Editor, my wife & I pull together the Tourism Issue over the weekend. We recycle a lot of info from the year before. None of us get paid any overtime for the 12-hour days we put in writing, photographing, updating and laying-out the issue. But that's nothing new, and the package gets done on time. It's one of the last things my wife does for the paper -- 6 months later she decides to divorce me.
The Editor returns Monday morning, & checks to see that the Tourism Issue got done. I cringe in my chair wondering what she'll say to me, but instead she goes upstairs to see The Publisher. They talk for an hour behind closed doors. Then she comes back downstairs, goes into her cubicle, grabs her things, and leaves.
It's quiet in the office for a minute or two. Then our Receptionist says "Uh ... I think Judith just Left."
She didn't even tell the Publisher she was quitting. Later that afternoon, he offers the Editor's job to me. I've told him No twice before, but this time I think I couldn't possibly do a worse job than Judith. So I say Yes.
And immediately Judith gets her revenge from beyond the grave, so to speak.
Immediately I start doing 50-hour work weeks, or more. I continue writing my ass off. The stress is actually less because I'm in charge, but the same amount of writing I was doing as a reporter is still there.
The first issue comes off pretty well. A local alternative highschool holds a rather modest and secretive graduation ceremony -- bassist Krist Novoselic of Nirvana is the surprise guest speaker. One of the girl grads pauses to pose for me right after getting her diploma, and it makes a beautiful front-page picture.
After that it gets tougher. Much tougher. My wife takes the kids and a friend and goes off to Canada for a week. I still don't realize my marriage is in serious trouble. I still think Life Is Good as I approach 40. I even take a week off to celebrate my 40th birthday....
And when I come back to work after my first vacation in three years, by 9 a.m. I'm hyperventilating, and soon after I'm lying on my back on the floor, gasping for breath like a fish....

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