A Reputation For..?

A friend recently commented that Lady M and I are both warm, friendly and laid back individuals, but he could also imagine that when needed we wouldn’t be. Its not the most backhanded compliment I’ve ever received, but it has struck a chord this week.

In short succession I’ve heard how mere mention of me has ended arguments and raised disclosures of honest fear from people who have barely met me. I have obviously left the menacing stillness switch on without realising it.

On the one hand, there’s a certain ego-fuelling satisfaction in hearing that mere mention of my name has silenced dissent, but it isn’t something that easily meshes with my own self image, or the working brand that I had hoped I project with people outside a personal context.

I think – from conversations with colleagues recently – that my quiet calm, dry humour, and reserve are being interpreted as harsh judgement of everything that I see. Given how I am not shy about calling out unhelpful behaviours or speech, I can see how this might have a chilling effect on some, but I’m not convinced that this is necessarily a bad thing.

When I was working on the shopfloor, so to speak, I had a lot more freedom to speak my mind on things, but this is not always a luxury that I can appropriately exercise now that I am managing people. 

Confidentiality plays a much larger part in the sort of information that now comes my way about people and situations in the workplace, and I temper my conversations accordingly without resorting to cryptic allusions. Perhaps this is adding to the impression that I am somehow silently judging people (well, more than usual anyway).

I may have mixed emotions about the reported reputation, but I won’t deny it is also a useful tool in the box as I work on different sites. I can allow myself the luxury of being friendly, but I am still their manager; so when I have to deal with the more unpleasant side of the job having that degree of emotional separation is invaluable.

We’ll see how this evolves. I hope the consensus migrates to one of respect rather than fear. Most people seem to be there already thankfully. I’m trying to stop fights, not look for new ones.

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Things Lady M Says: Pain Management Edition

I am constantly both in awe of and moderately frustrated by Lady M’s pain threshold and how she talks about it. Being a strong soul, she endures life threatening injuries with aplomb, migraines with mild annoyance, and the ongoing nerve storm of her fibromyalgia with hot water bottles, swearing, and threats of physical violence against anyone touching her.

I may be slightly exaggerating about the latter. 

What this does result in is a situation where she is in so much ongoing pain that she tends to downplay how she reports it. You can imagine the complications this causes when she’s dealing with medical professionals.

A recent case of this came when her back muscles spasmed in one of our body balance classes. A paramedic was called as the class finished around us, and I had to remind Lady M to not use “The Jo Scale”. Instead she was to pretend to be a regular person. The number she was quoting on the 1-10 pain scale immediately jumped from a 3 to an 8.

Fortunately it turned out ‘merely’ to be a muscle spasm hitting her sciatic nerve rather than the prolapsed discs in her spine that she had a few years ago (did we mention those before?). 

In conversation this morning, Lady M said that the pain hadn’t been so bad, it was just that she couldn’t move one of her legs and that had been the worst of it. I asked why she couldn’t move her leg, and she promptly responded: “because of the pain.”

Being half asleep, I asked if that didn’t mean that it had actually been the pain that was so bad, but again she reiterated that no, it was her being unable to move her leg. “Because of the pain” I added in helpfully.

By the time we’d gone round the circular conversation the third or fourth time, we were giggling with the silliness of it, but Lady M insisted I just wasn’t getting it. I was countering this with the argument that this was precisely why she had such difficulty getting doctors to take her seriously.

Many of Lady M’s worst disruptions come from her invisible illnesses. Between mental health, migraines and her newly diagnosed neurological condition, it can feel a wonder that she can get up in the morning. 

Being unable to move her leg or sustaining physical injury, is far easier to explain and demonstrate to a third party, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that this what Lady M has fixed on as a memory of the event. It becomes easier to relate the difficulties of the moment to other people with a symptom they can relate to rather than just a blanket “it hurts”. 

While most people are empathic enough to understand the concept, it somehow becomes more real if there’s something to point to. It’s something we both find ourselves frustrated by, even between ourselves – so don’t feel bad if you have difficulty understanding someone’s situation. It’s, dare I say, normal…

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First Week Done

I got thrown in at the deep end with the new job this week. I took over the biggest library in our neck of the woods with no handover, no sets of instructions, and the person I should technically have been shadowing away on holiday.

So of course I rose to the challenge and swept all before me. What other option was there?

The boilers may have broken, and some members of staff suddenly had horrendous personal situations to deal with. We may have had alcoholics hiding their stashes of Stella Artois in the shelving, and children letting off fireworks just outside the front door. We may even have had tired and cynical staff made to smile and volunteer to go the extra mile to keep the library running smoothly.

I only felt bored once. Must be the intellectual challenges of resource management and problem solving; operating in a very different way to how I have been the last four years.

It still feels a little odd to have people just do what they’re told without having to convince them or argue the toss. I’m not sure I like that, but that’s probably me being contrary and wary of people who don’t ask questions.

Let’s see what next week brings

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Little Bright Moments

Among all the oddities and turmoils, something that will always brighten my day is sight or sound of friends having moments of success. There’s something about hearing unalloyed joy in someone’s voice when they talk about a new job despite its demands, or seeing the sparkle in someone’s eye when they talk about a new discovery that just can’t be equalled.

Best of all is hearing someone who is recovering from injury or illness. It doesn’t matter if it’s an improvement in the process of healing from physical injury, or just someone having a good day in their fight against a chronic condition.

All these moments of brightness are worth cherishing, especially when in contrast to whatever else is or has been happening in their or my lives. Recognising and celebrating these bright moments is important, both for them and for me. It reminds us all that there actually is brightness.

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Unveiling Imminent

I don’t officially start the new job until Monday, when I have an induction/official branding or something at Egham library in the afternoon. In the meantime I’ve been asked to interrupt my week off with a staff meeting at Ashford tomorrow so they can be officially be told they’ll be some of my minions. Straight after that is a meeting of all the managers in the cluster to do an end of month handover and discussion of issues.

Even though I know and have worked with everyone who is going to be present at both meetings, I can’t help but feel a degree of trepidation. The new job is suddenly feeling a little more real as opposed to a nebulous theoretical situation.

I shall of course approach the whole thing with my trademarked laconic sarcasm and attention to awkward detail – which are after all important parts of why they hired me in the first place.

I think the disquiet is merely a reflection of changing team dynamics. The people at the first meeting are largely people who will have worked with me as a peer, and who must now make the adjustment to officially having me be one of their managers. The second meeting is full of managers who have largely treated me as an almost equal but still a subordinate, but must now work with me as a peer. 

Essentially they will be my new team after nearly four years of working with the team at Sunbury. They’re not the only ones needing to adjust their expectations. I will also be needing to make those mental adaptations in turn, and I’m curious to find out where the new challenges on the interpersonal front will be.

It’s a different set of intellectual and social muscles that are about to come into play, so perhaps likening this wariness to that of approaching a new physio routine sight unseen is more accurate.

It’ll be fine. What’s the worst that could happen?

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Writing Lines

I remember writing lines as a punishment at school. It didn’t happen very often, mostly because I got very good at staying within the text of the rules if not the spirit, and by not getting caught on those occasions where I decided I knew better. My counsellor would be among the first to point out that I’ve never met a rule that didn’t make me want to dig my heels in. The flip side as many will agree is that I rarely meet a barrier I don’t want to push against.

What was fascinating to me at school was how the punishment was often subverted by those undergoing it. Sometimes the punishment would be what most would understand by representations in media as varied as The Simpsons and Harry Potter. Most people think of lines as variants on “I will not tell lies”, or “I will not sell bridges to gullible Americans” – repetition as punishment in the hope the message will sink in.

At our school it was often more incentive. We had to check out pages of special blue paper with exactly 25 lines on each side from our House Master. We then had to fill those lines with at least seven words a line, copying from a text. I imagine at least some of you can already see where this went.

The most passive aggressive response to this punishment was to draw out a 7×25 grid on each side and fill those boxes. Sometimes we would just copy a text, other times we would do it in reverse, or vertically. 

For those teachers and prefects who didn’t bother reading the results we got more inventive. There was a fad for putting in random words, and then for making patterns, like writing in a spiral. Then some bright spark noticed that no one ever specified what text had to be copied, so all bets were off. Hedgerows and older siblings’ bedrooms were searched for copies of Penthouse and the like (ah the joys of pre-internet Britain), and stories and articles duly remixed in patterns on the page.

Did the punishments ever stick? What do you think? Lines were designed to waste our time, and were treated with contempt accordingly. Perhaps this explains a bit more about my approach to rules: that they are there to make you at least think for a moment about consequences before you break them good and hard.

It’s all about personal responsibility you see, owning the consequences of what you do and recognising what drives your responses to situations. 

Those line writing exercises may have slid off my back like water from the proverbial duck, but at the same time the reverse of them as a repetitive mental exercise can be a useful tool. 

When I’m thinking over things that have got under my skin and I’ve worked out why I’m letting stupid things irritate me, it can be a useful exercise to set myself some mental lines as a corrective. Instead of telling myself “I will not rewire the physics lab bench supplies”, or “I will not set fire to the bin”, I instead set my own boundaries like: “I will not be an entitled jerk when someone doesn’t message straight back”

What lines should you be writing for yourself?

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The King of All The Emotions

The redoubtable Lady P recently made a pledge on relatively open social media that she would say three nice things about anyone she knew who Liked her post. You can, I’m sure, imagine the tidal wave of hands in the air this provoked, and she has since said it was one of the more emotionally draining things she’s done in a while.

Even though we’re not as close as we used to be, we’re still on as good terms as conditions and schedules have allowed, and so I thought I’d stir the pot a little.

The responses I got included being The King of Salt, and also of “every other emotion” – which I have to admit bemused me a little as a turn of phrase.

The first part, is not particularly contentious; anyone who knows me has encountered the habitual sarcasm and acidic observations that season my interactions with the world. The second part I wasn’t so sure about, so I made sure to ask about it when we met up a day or two later for a rare coffee catch-up.

Her qualification of the remark was interesting, and sparked thought. On the one hand, she said, I was unafraid to experience and demonstrate all the emotions that I feel. On the flip side, when I need to I can cut them off and not be hostage to them.

Now, I struggle with anxiety and the after effects of trauma on a regular basis, and we are heading into a particularly difficult time of year for me. 

This perception of being able to cut them off and function initially evoked quite a defensive reaction in me. It’s not how I habitually identify my behaviours, especially when I’ve enjoyed a few evenings of night terrors and shallow restless sleep.

I wondered briefly if this was some kind of dig at me, but then considered the source and context. Lady P also fights a number of demons. Some of them are quite similar to mine. More to the point, it was genuinely meant as a compliment.

For me, there is a distinction between feeling and expressing emotional responses. I have joked about being an analogue of Samuel Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. I do sometimes feel that I am actually several drinks behind most people’s natural state – a kind of anti-sober state he called ‘knurd’. 

This almost certainly explains many of my doodles and sketches, let alone stories. 

I may not express my emotions in emergencies or under stress, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. I’ve just had to learn to act anyway. It’s a coping strategy that generally helps, especially when I’m at saturation point. 

While preparing for the recent job interview, a good friend remarked that they’d never pegged me as nervous. In addition, several others gave practical advice based on their careers in various Services. They all helped underline the value of feeling the fear but preparing, practising and executing the plan anyway. In other words, what I do works.

Her admiration of my ability to function when I might otherwise be overwhelmed by emotional responses to situations is partly fuelled by her own struggles. So, for such a relatively simple statement, there’s a ton of meanings that I have neither the time, inclination, or right to publicly explore; but they are appreciated as much for how they help me reflect on my behaviours and expectations – and that’s never a bad thing.

The other vital part of this is that it’s been a reminder that it’s very easy to fall into the toxic masculinity trap of seeing emotions and emotional expression as some form of weakness. I hope those who know me wouldn’t recognise that in me.

So, King of All The Emotions? Yeah, I’ll take that Lady P. Maybe we’ll talk more about it some time, hopefully this time not in the pouring rain.

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