Saturday, May 14, 2011

In which I get to walk out of a living slam book session in a snit

After I had been a Peace Corps volunteer for a year, the director of my agency, Pilar, said we were going to do a review of the previous year. Great idea! It's always good to look back at what you did and whether it worked or not and then decide what adjustments, if any, to make to your strategy.

I was the business advisor to a group of Mapuche women in southern Chile. This group of 135 women had a small store where they sold the traditional Mapuche textiles that they had woven by hand.

My assignment was to make them profitable, which was not so easy as I had no authority whatsoever to make my four co-workers at the store do what needed to be done, like not accepting any rug or blanket unaccompanied by a purchase order or not accepting any product not meeting a minimal quality standard. Or not continuing to extend credit to the women (for buying yarn and dye) when they never paid us back. Which would be bad enough under normal circumstances but is even worse in a period of inflation and when your IADB stipend is denominated in dollars and the dollar is losing against the peso. Little things like that.

It wasn't that my co-workers didn't want the agency to be profitable, but when you get paid whether your store is profitable or not - we were funded by a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank and that money paid the rent and my co-workers' salaries - it's not so necessary to make the tough decisions. Why make women cry - women who desperately need the money from their rugs and blankets - if you get paid whether you reject their product or not?

Let me digress right now and tell you that one of the most satisfying moments of my life was a few months ago when Maria, my counterpart at the agency, found me on facebook and told me that I was right and she was wrong and that she should have listened to me.

We are talking about something that happened 16 years ago. I had told her repeatedly that Pilar, the director, needed to do things differently for the agency to succeed and that I would help Maria prepare the documentation to show Pilar what had to happen and why. But Maria always resisted and I eventually dropped it. She resisted because she was the one who had to stay at the agency and she was the one whose living depended on this job. I was dabbling. I was there for two years and gone. I had no skin in the game, other than an interest in adventure and building my resume. But for Maria, this was all real. She did not want to challenge the status quo. It was safer that way.

That said, I was right and Maria was wrong. She told me that after I left, Pilar destroyed the agency and it was all because of the things I said. I took no satisfaction from knowing that the agency had ceased to exist - I would rather have been wrong - but still. My opponent. Vanquished. Ha.

So Pilar called a review meeting. I prepared some notes - analyses of sales and operations and things that had worked and what we could try in the next year. I was ready. I was ready. Oh we were going to do great things.

Pilar pulled chairs into a circle. She sat. My three other co-workers sat. Our three unpaid college interns (my idea) sat.

Pilar started.

Gold Digger, she asked. What do you think you could do better next year?

I pulled out my notes and started to talk. We need to do this and that and tha-

She interrupted me. Here's what Gold Digger did last year that I didn't like, she said to the others.

What?! This is not a review!

She turned to me and glared. I don't like the way you got upset when I sat at your desk.

The incident to which she referred was actually multiple incidents. Pilar had her own desk. She had her own office. But she didn't like it in there. She liked the having of her own office because she liked the trappings of power, which also included having our receptionist place all her calls for her, even though she maintained that her Struggle was against the Patriarchy and Western Imperialism and Hegemony. She struggled against all power except her own.

She didn't like to be alone, though, so would hang out in the office that Maria and I shared.

I do not like sharing an office. I like power as much as the next person, but even more than power, I like solitude so I can get some damn work done.

But Pilar wanted to be where the action was and that was in our office, which was also where the computer resided, which meant the three interns were there as well, as the use of the computer for their school projects was one of the few job perks we could offer.

Several times, I returned from lunch to find Pilar sitting at my desk. In my chair.

For those of us who do not struggle against Western Imperialism and Hegemony every day and for whom the concept of property rights is as mother's milk and who would never ever sit uninvited in a colleague's chair, we know what a major breach of office etiquette this was.

I have never ever ever sat in a colleague's chair at work. Until this point, no colleague had ever sat in mine. In the movies, when they want to show someone being totally disrespected, they show the disrespecter sitting in the disrespected's chair.

The first few times, I merely asked Pilar to get up.

She was never in a hurry to move.

The last time, I came back from the little corner bakery where I would time my visits for when the rolls came out of the oven, saw her sitting there, and snapped, Pilar, get out of my chair. Now.

She got all pissy with me.

I suggested that if she did not like being in her office that she and I could arrange a trade.

She did not like that idea. But she didn't sit at my desk anymore. Clearly, though, she harbored a grudge about my reaction to her desk usurping because she brought it up in the review.

I thought we were going to talk about how to make this place run better, I said.

Pilar glared at me again. I also don't like the way you take everybody's stuff off your desk, she said.

Again, a property rights dispute. I would come into the office and find Maria's purse on my desk. And the interns' purses and books on my desk. At first, I would politely ask them all to remove their personal items from my desk.

Then I got not so nice. At first, I just carefully removed everyone's stuff and put it on the floor. Then I started putting my purse on Maria's desk but she didn't care. After all, she had room: her purse was on my desk. Then I lost patience and one day just swept my arm across my desk and knocked everything off.

I know. I was a bitch. I should have tried to Understand our Cultural Differences and Tolerated and Celebrated Our Diversity.

But I dare you. I dare all of you to remain calm when someone else is 1. sitting in your chair, 2. putting her purse on your desk and 3. eating your porridge.

Pilar turned to the others. What do you want Gold Digger to change about herself? she asked them.

The beauty of being a Peace Corps volunteer is that you are a volunteer. It's very hard to get kicked out of the Peace Corps. I think you might have to murder someone. Or you have to insist on performing The Vagina Monologues despite your country director's warning not to do so. It's all fine and dandy to bring Awareness to the Downtrodden, but if you tick off 1. your boss and 2. your very conservative Muslim host country in the process, you will not last long.

Oh - and if you ride a motorcycle, you're gone. Even with a helmet. Or maybe you just can't ride a motorcycle without a helmet. It's been a while so my memory, she is not so sharp. Peace Corps made that rule when they realized that the number one cause of death for Peace Corps volunteers was motorcycle accidents.

If, however, you are just rude or insensitive or stoned on nutmeg all the time - oh yes I know of which I speak because I have Peace Corps friends everywhere - or just don't do your job, you will be tolerated.

I was rude to Pilar but in my defense, she started it. Seriously. Turning the review session into a living slam book? This was a self-criticism session. I might as well have been in China or Cuba. Comrades! I have sinned against you and the Party! Communism 101.

I didn't have to take that. I had accomplished enough in my first year - increased revenues and profits dramatically - that I could rest on my resume laurels.

I stood. I'm not staying for this, I said. When you guys are ready to discuss how to improve this agency and make more money for our socias [the dirt-floor, outhouse in the back, subsistence farming poor Mapuche ladies], let me know. Until then, I have real work to do.

And I walked out in a snit.

Oh it felt good. Almost as good as knocking the crap off my desk.

Have you ever walked out in a snit?

I don't recommend doing it if you have to have a job, which, as most of us are not heiresses, do, but maybe try it in a volunteer position. It feels very very good to say Take this slam book session and shove it.

It feels even better to find out, 16 years later, that you were right. About everything.