writing to know, knowing thru being, being for writing... this is me, writing about the one thing i know, which is myself... and even that is sometimes a mystery...

Monday, June 12, 2006

there's no i in team (but there are two in idiot)

what began as a simple internship-related journal entry for my honors program, soon became an introverted exploration of the reasoning behind my passive aggression, and the pains of self-doubt.

(i don't normally do this, but i ask you to please read this! i don't normally put a lot of time and care into my posts, but this one was actually carefully written, as a swan song to the first episode of my chicago stay.)


I had a moment of agonizing doubt regarding the proper form of action the other day, in a meeting between my supervisor Nancy and Georgia, the graphic designer she had hired to formulate the layout for the next issue of the magazine. This meeting was intended for the two of them to compare notes and share ideas and finalize plans for the remaining steps in the process of readying the issue for publication.

They were discussing matters of artistic vision; Nancy was worried about how she wanted to present the pictures for an article we had written together, about scientists and researchers at the museum and the books they had written. She was not sure how she wanted the article to break down, and how to photograph the authors and their books. She was also concerned about the cost of the photographs; if she needed to get new ones taken, she would have to hire a free lance photographer to do it. Georgia was taking Nancy's ideas into her own, and I could imagine her frantically trying to piece fragments together to form some sort of cohesive project.

I sat there listening closely, noting how Nancy and Georgia were each expressing their concerns and priorities and how they were communicating their independent visions for the project. I watched as they got the stack of books out and began laying them out on the table, discussing possible "poses" for the books, and debating the merits of having another photo shoot.

The possibilities for the photo layout were as follows: 1) a picture of each individual book, "for a 3D effect," as Georgia said, which would be more aesthetically pleasing than a flat scan of the cover, paired with an archived picture of the author; 2) a "group shot" of the books, and individual photos of the authors; or 3) group shots of the books and the authors.

While they were discussing the pros and cons of each alternative, I was looking through the photo samples and looking at the covers of the books, thinking about the one option they had failed to consider: a picture of each author with his/her book. I considered how expensive this might be, and how this might have prevented them from even mentioning it as an option, but I believed it would not only solve the aesthetic problem (Georgia seemed worried about the look of the pictures), but the layout problem as well (this would allow the reader to pair the author with the book much easier, and would allow for each picture to accompany the article-piece written about it, which would resolve Nancy's concerns with layout). It would also be easier for the reader, perhaps even more engaging, as they would immediately see which author had written each book, and then read about it in the accompanying article. In psychology classes, I have learned that what's "best" is often what cuts down on "cognitive load," or what makes things the least tedious and complicated for the reader to interpret. Plus, I thought the idea of photographing a stack of books was a bit tacky. And if they were going to spend the money to get new photographs taken anyway, and deal with the formatting issues on top of that, I thought this made the most sense, aesthetically and economically.

As I listened to them planning the photographic layout, I debated chiming in. My experiences in jobs such as these is that someone in my position usually has very little leverage and clout to offer her opinion and be considered seriously. I'm aware that most people do not expect a lot of insight from an intern, especially one as young as myself. In my work at the Field so far, I've been pleasantly surprised by the kinds of tasks Nancy has charged me with: interviews with researchers and curators, article layout, even writing, and editing. But never has she trusted me to make any final decisions for the magazine, and some of my editing advice, despite its being stylistically correct or pleasing, was often overlooked or discarded ("for cost considerations," is what Nancy tells me).

Power and place in the decision hierarchy have always mystified me. When people learn of my disappointment and dislike for menial tasks, they are often surprised and slightly amused. "You're an intern," they say, "What did you expect?!" I never know how to respond to these kinds of reactions. I have always thought myself capable of learning and mastering even the most difficult tasks, even coming to enjoy them. That others can't respect this, or even understand it, is frustrating to me.

What's more, this has led to self-doubt. Instead of being the straightforward and confident individual I am at school, in the workplace, it seems I have lost my finesse. I never know when it is my place to make a suggestion. But worse, I never know when it is my right to do so. I usually prefer thinking outside of office politics boundaries, ignoring details related to title and class. I like to think we're all people and we're all working toward a common goal. What does it matter if an intern or anyone else has something to contribute? Shouldn't they appreciate the fact that someone, regardless of professional standing, is pointing out an oversight? Aren't we all part of a team? "There's no I in Team," right? And if they liked my suggestion, that might open the door for more chances in the future to contribute my opinions.

But then again, chiming in when my opinion was not called for has gotten me into trouble before. I didn't want Nancy or Georgia to think I was overstepping my bounds, that I, with my high school degree and minimal experience, was trying to tell two professionals how to best go about their jobs, while delaying the progress of their meeting. It would have been professional humiliation, and a mortifying moment for me, not to mention my suggestion would have most likely been disregarded, along with my thorough and careful edits to the annual report.

So while they troubled themselves with the final decisions on the article's design, I sat in my chair, troubled by my own dilemma: do I risk sounding presumptuous, or do I swallow the agony of silence? Do I continue feeling stupid, so that they don't have to?

Paralyzing self-doubt seems to be the theme of my Chicago experience so far. Not only must I encounter this monster in the workplace, but in the home as well, as I continue to passive-aggressively address issues with my housemates.

One of my fellow residents is a 20-something architect from Pakistan, who makes it clear to me from the beginning that he doesn't want me living here. "My parents are paying for my schooling," he explains, "If they find out a girl is living with me, they are going to be very upset." I recall the numerous times his girlfriend has stayed over, and the nights I've been kept awake by their loud conversations in his bedroom, and find it hard to believe.

I convince myself that avoiding thinking about it will cause the problem to go away. I think that the less I am seen or heard, the less aware they will be of my presence. Perhaps, they will even forget I live here at all. So I skirt the issue as much as possible. I restrict myself from engaging in any behavior that will remind me (or them) of this uncomfortable situation. I take up new hobbies: yoga, filming, and re-learning French (I soon begin speaking to myself in encrypted combinations of French, Chinese, and polemic). I quietly retreat to the pleasures of reading and writing, and have become quite prolific, having finished reading four novels and writing several short essays and poems of my own in a mere three weeks. I find I enjoy the process more the farther I am from the house, so I read and write while sitting in the lobby outside, or in my room, with the lights turned low and the door closed. I explore the nooks and corners of the city and spend the majority of the daylight hours in the park, or in some tourist-crowded landmark. I am more familiar with the city in three weeks' time than most native Chicagoans are in a lifetime. I lurk around the house, slipping out in the mornings and returning as late as possible, to avoid having to speak or share the kitchen with them when I return. It's like a never-ending game of hide and seek. And they've triple-teamed me.

For the most part, they humor me and go about their own business, allowing me to go about mine. We are a house of four strangers, each with our own dreams and passions, all of which we keep to ourselves.

Occasionally I venture into the kitchen or into the living room. One of the artists is watching a Spanish movie I have always wanted to see. I ask to join and he offers me a side of the couch. We watch in silence, except for occasional moments of stifled laughter. We talk afterward. We find we have a lot in common, but I wouldn't call it shared interests. You have to connect with someone for that. There has to be some sense of investment in the person. A sense of continuation, of the moment extending to future episodes of interaction. But we're too stubborn and afraid for that. This interaction is an obligation to circumstance: "we're stuck here so let's make the best of it, OK?"

When the sink and tub won't drain from months' worth of hair being stuck in the pipes, I go to the architect and inform him of the problem. He gives me a knowing laugh and promises he'll take care of it soon. Days later, the sink and tub are still stopped up, and what's more, there's no toilet paper left in the entire house, and he's left for a week's vacation.

I mutter mean things under my breath, but grab my purse and tennis shoes, and begin walking to the nearest Walgreen's. I come back with a pack of toilet paper and an economy size bottle of Drano. I roll up my sleeves and silently tend to the problem.

Two treatments of Drano and ten hours later, the sink and tub work again, but I am overcome with anger. My roommates seem to be amusing themselves by inconveniencing me and making my entire experience miserable. They want me to suffer for intruding into their world. They will slowly drive me from here, while I simultaneously try to win their favor by doing maintenance jobs and grocery runs around the house. We're stubborn.

When I do my laundry and fail to hear the buzzer when it's finished drying, I go downstairs to find it scattered all over the dirty floor, mixed in with kitchen grease and mud from the last night's storms. I glance over to find my roommate shamefully tuck his head into his chest, while his girlfriend tries to slip unnoticed into the next room. I frown and bend to pick my clothes off the floor, stuffing them into a laundry bag as swiftly as I can manage before escaping his abrasive company.

In my solitude, I unpack the clothes, some still wet, and toss them onto the bed, reciting diatribes and evocations I've stocked inside since this whole thing began. "You have no right to treat me like you do, I've paid my rent and I've done my share to live here, I am no less deserving of respect or decency than anyone else." Or, "If I had somewhere else to go, believe me, I would leave, because this place smells and you are horrible people, and I wouldn't want to stay here any longer than I have to, it's dirty and disgusting and I'm sick of having to avoid all three of you and your girlfriends, there just aren't enough places to run to in this tiny hole!"

I practice delivering these well mulled-over speeches, as I imagine walking right up to all three of them, and their girlfriends, and finally letting them know what I think. Letting them know how from the start, I had wished I could befriend them. How I regretted that we had to meet under these circumstances. How all I wanted was to be able to talk to them as equals and peers. Or, how I wanted the best for all of them, even if it meant I had to move, or that we had to be enemies. And how I hope that the architect and his girlfriend will be allowed to marry, despite what I suspect will be his parents' wishes to the contrary.

The words that go unspoken are the ones that destroy me, wearing me down and wearing me thin. I have lost weight from failing to eat; I find it hard to leave my room when I hear voices or movement in the kitchen. I've even become a morning person, learning that I can mope around the house unencumbered in the early morning hours, when the roommates are still asleep in their beds with their girlfriends. And the sun in the mornings shines off the city and welcomes me to the day, inviting me to escape this oppression in its warmth.

Yes, the words that go unspoken are the hardest to force forward. Like tiny mines, each of them explosive and thorny to the touch, I know that speaking these words will be the trigger that activates a messy aftermath. But were it better to be openly discontent and unburden my struggles on others? Or were it better to swallow the agony of silence?


As I pack my bags and ready myself for the move, I regret my fear of being heard. In feeling too much for others, I have failed to act for my self. My whole life, I have battled my instinctual desire to avoid burdening others with my troubles, a result, perhaps of my upbringing. I have continually struggled to escape the confines of this cell, only to meet my self at every wall. These chains are self-imposed, and composed of blood and bones. My wishes, contained in a body and a cage of wishes and fears. Recent experience has been nothing but a reinforcement of the past.

How can the silence end, if I do not allow the healing to begin?

Change requires speaking: Careful articulation and delicate disregard in the service of acknowledged existence. Opening old wounds to let the salve pour over and into it.

One should never resign to silence for the sake of a more comfortable and convenient existence. Life is about abrasive contact; the rubbing against is just what we need to start the fires that permit us to survive.


  • At 11:39 AM, June 13, 2006, Blogger brian said…

    Afternoon Steph,

    To borrow a phrase from you.

    I honor you for having the strength to write this down and I know you don't want a lecture or a fix-it plan. You know what you need to do to be a person happy with her core. This is about you, only you, and what it is that the inner you wants. I spent eight years in a cave, there is nothing in this post I havn't experienced, (except being female), but you get the point.

    You are not your name, your body, your mind, your soul. You are a being who should take, yes, take respect. It is your right.

  • At 9:53 PM, June 13, 2006, Blogger Ogbuefi Stephi said…

    thanks for understanding brian., 8 years in a cave?

    what was that like?

    i felt like i spent my whole time in a cave, it was that cold and isolating...

  • At 9:38 AM, June 14, 2006, Blogger brian said…

    Sorry, didn't mean a physical cave, but a dark cave of depression. I blogged about it in my "Shadow Boxing" trilogy, in the sidebar under "Must Reads".

    What I am trying to say, is that if you would like a friend to talk to about being an intern, corporate life, in general, just stuff, I am available.

    BTW, new post today, and Friday's post I would like you to participate.

  • At 8:58 PM, June 14, 2006, Blogger Ogbuefi Stephi said…

    oh, haha, metaphors...

    cool, yeah, i'd like to "participate." but how do you mean?

    thanks for being a friend brian.

  • At 2:20 AM, June 16, 2006, Blogger Ray "Raedien" Devine said…

    You know who you talked about wondering if you had the clout, even the right, to say anything.
    That's how I feel talking to you.

    Because I've spent my entire life in situations very similer to the ones you've just described here.
    So what can I say aside from that which you've already come too?

    Do what you must Stephanie. It is all you can do.

    It was very well written, although I feel a few parts detracted from the professional aspect I found incredibly engaging, the emotional tradeoff was well worth it in the end.

    I'm interested to read the other things you've written in the time of your life, if you would be willing to post them/are comfortable with other reading/commenting on them.


    P.S. It really was excellent and I'm sorry my response is not nearly as well thought out or contains anywhere near the amount of effort/energy so clearly portrayed in your post.

  • At 6:10 PM, June 16, 2006, Blogger Ogbuefi Stephi said…


    thank you so much. those were very kind and sweet things to say.

    though i wonder what you meant when you said certain parts detracted from the professional aspects... (oh, you mean the hateful words part? yeah, good point...)

    no worries, i never let them know how i felt.

    tho i suspect i should.

    but in a way, this post was an achievement of that which i could never do in real life. thus the purpose of my blog, "to achieve the freedom" of another existence and personality.

    thanks, and i will try to find other things to post soon...


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