I wish I was a forgetting and forgiving kind of person. I’m soft, loving, and open (sometimes more than is comfortable or necessary). But once crossed, I sit on that. I don’t hold grudges but I don’t forget. I try to forgive but without the ability to forget, I don’t completely forgive.
When she reported me to the newspaper owner, and the owner came to me, I was flabbergasted. She alleged that I made the office a hostile workplace with repeated salacious talk and racy jokes. The problem was that she was right. I was a loudmouthed sharp-tongued, rough-talking man whose voice floated over the cubicles and stuffed the office with all kinds of vulgarity and jokes that, when I look back now, weren’t that funny.
Recent discussion of locker room talk makes me think of my own actions. I have no way to judge just how much I joked with my friends over the telephone in that office or how bad the talk might have been. I remember it as low-level anger and frustrations at the manly elites I had to deal with at City Hall, the state capitol, and the various senators and representatives we had to call for stories. They were a wicked lot, the kind that pal around with other people in power and make jibes at women and minorities.
I’d repeat their transgressions over the phone. One time, I know, I said something about twirling Patty LaBelle’s undies on my index finger. I didn’t make it up. I took it from a subject I had interviewed. Taken out of context, the line is reprehensible. But even in context, it should not have been said in any situation. That I uttered it, no matter the context, makes me blush today with shame. But there was a larger story and I was repeating something said to me. I ought to have let it go but I didn’t. For some reason, I had to say it out loud. I did. I went on with my business and didn’t think of it until I got pulled into the newspaper owner’s office.
There’s within me a desperate need to be liked, noticed, and adulated. For this reason, I used to say things just to get attention. Getting pulled into the office made me aware that others could hear what I said beyond the walls of my cubicle. I don’t know why I thought I had complete privacy in those confines. The office was small, crowded, and when I kicked back in my chair after that meeting in the office, I realized how much I could hear others. If I could hear them, I thought, then they should hear me, as loud and resonant as I know my voice to be.
Chagrined and embarrassed, I became conscious, for the first time, that I was immature and naïve, just learning the ways of the adult world. I could not yet make out what it meant to be professional and was still mouthing off whenever I felt it necessary.
I’m fortunate that the woman reported the behavior. It was a wake-up moment for me. It made me think about just how much farther I had to go. I wish it had gone differently. The woman who reported me could have said, hey, look, I can hear everything you say. It would have stopped. But she didn’t need to. The way sexual harassment laws work, the harassed need not confront the harasser. In fact, it’s only proper that they don’t. They only have to report the behavior to higher authority, a supervisor or other boss-like figure, and then that boss or supervisor take care of the problem.
And, of course, the boss was going to move on the complaint. The last thing he wanted to deal with is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on a sexual harassment charge.
I have to give the woman credit. When the newspaper changed hands, she became the new boss. She didn’t fire me or reprimand me for anything. She was very adult. But, that said, she screwed me all the same. The corporation had a man who would come in from the Denver office every couple of months to oversee how the transition was going. He huddled in her office paging through recent issues of the paper. I didn’t like the guy, which is saying a lot because I try to find something in everyone to like. He was a lackey who made sure he had lackeys.
One day, the woman called me into her office and told me what a great job I was doing, that I was finally getting the hang of what the new paper owners wanted. Then, the lackey came to town and stayed in her office all day. The following morning, she called me into her office again and told me what a bad job I was doing. It was night and day. I reminded her what she said just a couple of days before. But she brushed that off and told me I had to get my act together.
I never did get my act together. I am just not a corporate kind of guy. The kind of journalism that they wanted I could write in my sleep. There was no challenge to it. I remember writing a piece that took a while to research. When the article wound up in the paper, it appeared without any of the research, just the sensational details about the subject. She had taken my piece and made it say something wildly different than the story I wrote.
The antagonism rose as the weeks went by. I started looking for other jobs. At one point, she called me into her office. One of her friends at another paper had sent her the resume I had sent to them. She asked me if I was looking for another job, the resume in front of her. What do you think? I said. And what kind of professional sends you a resume that I sent to them in confidence?
Whatever it is, I just want you to know I have my eye on you.
I didn’t care. After a few weeks, I found another job. It was the end of my career in journalism. Sadly, I never had a job as good as the one I had before the corporation bought the paper.
And I can forgive the woman’s reporting me for sexual harassment. It was good for me, a painful but fruitful lesson in professionalism. I’m well aware now of what’s “appropriate” and “inappropriate.” I cringe sometimes when I think of the words that passed my lips in my cubicle. But I welcomed that lesson after the first sting.
But I can’t forget her behavior as my boss. She threw her lot in with bald careerists who did nothing for the advance of the journalist’s profession. That hurts. I resent still being forced out of the one great job I had in my life to that time. I have forgiven her purposeful embarrassment of me. But I still can’t forget it. I wish I could.
I run into her every couple of years. She treats me like I have no meaning, no worth, nothing to talk about. Her problem. My problem is that I still let it bother me.
I write a lot about sobering up and what a child I was when I quit drinking. I mean, you don’t check out of life at the age of 11 and enter again at 27 knowing much about how to be an adult. The process of growing up took years. In many ways, I’m still at that work.
It’s because of my past that I don’t feel it’s a great attribute to say what’s on your mind without first considering other people and the damage what you say might do. To put it another way, words have consequences and I have to take responsibility for the consequences, whether I meant them or not.