The Half-Light

"Office At Night" Edward Hopper, 1940  Oil on Canvas
“Office At Night” Edward Hopper, 1940 Oil on Canvas

For the most part my boss has an even temper, regardless of how he warns me otherwise.

During my second month here we discussed his temper, which he claimed was “bad.”

“I can get pretty pissed off,” he said, but I was skeptical. I didn’t mean to challenge him, and even now, I don’t, but I must have had a tiny smirk on my face. By the time of his confession, I had made coffee without coffee, executed dozens of scheduling errors, scratched the bottom of his luxury sedan (this I did on my first day), and given him poorly researched directions to various locales, causing him sometimes to drive twice the necessary distance.

Once a driver I arranged picked him up late and he fumed in the car, sending me an email with an exclamation point: “I will be very late. I am not so happy right now!” I imagined him seething as most of his emails lacked punctuation. I thought to respond that I had given the driver the correct time, but that it was out of my control if the driver was a lazy turd, but after tinkering with the email for ten minutes and failing to find a balance between sounding whiny and just plain bitchy, decided it was better to remain silent and give him the impression that I was, somehow, sorry. So sorry that I didn’t know what to say. That evening he wrote again, “All went well,” he began, and gave me some instructions for the following morning.

It was, I think, his very particular method of apology.

I do not delude myself that my boss cannot berate me. That is, after all, the unspoken agreement when I said, “I accept,” to the offer the Company presented. The job description was deliberately vague on certain points: “Must be willing to assist other executives with various tasks,” and unwaveringly specific upon others: “Must be willing to be on call 24/7.” But I agreed hoping there was the understanding that I was but human, working for other humans, whom I hoped would understand the very human need to have my own life. And now, more than half a year in, I cannot complain.

But to have your own opinions? Well, you’re welcome to have those, but please, voice them sparingly, if at all. This is perhaps the most important lesson I have learned: some people’s opinions matter more than others. Mine, unfortunately, do not belong in the former group.

We were discussing portraits – my boss’s, to be exact, and he disliked the one I had sent to some non-profit to display at an upcoming awards ceremony in which he was to be honored.

“Why do you dislike it?” I asked, dreading the hassle of having to hunt down other portraits. I braced myself for the reason I thought he would provide, that he thought he looked old or fat (he looked neither), or that it was a bad angle (I doubt men care about things like this), but was mildly surprised when he said, “I don’t like the light.”

A friend had taken the photo for him, and I liked this friend, who had suggested before that he would be happy to do another portrait session, free of charge.

I studied the photo, bending down to my boss’s eye level, and observed how his face was lit. It was slightly shadowed, not too bright or dim. I felt the light highlighted his best features. Sharp eyes, a powerful nose and deeply creased jowls people tend to associate with men of stature.

“What’s wrong with the light?”

My boss pointed at his photographed face, “The photographer is not a professional. He doesn’t know about lighting, so the photograph, it doesn’t look like me.”

I wrinkled my brow and pursed my lips, an immediate physical response when I disagree and which, without fail, puts whomever I disagree with on the defensive. I must control this reaction, or do away with it altogether. My boss sensed the frown and looked at me, then proceeded to explain.

“Look at the way the light falls here,” he traced his hand down his left jowl, slightly darker as the light came slightly from the right, “and look at the light here,” now he pointed to the right. “The lighting is uneven. A professional photographer would light the photo in a totally different way.”

Perhaps it was the force with which I spoke, but I couldn’t believe what he was saying and that he expected me to agree. “Boss,” I said, “That’s ridiculous. That’s your personal opinion about the photographer, and has nothing to do with whether the photographer is professional or not. If being a professional photographer meant that you had to adhere to one style of lighting, then what’s the point have calling them artists?”

“You don’t understand,” he said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I wish then that at least he sounded flustered, but he didn’t. He was adamant. “I don’t want to argue with you.” he said, waving me away, “You don’t know shit about photography. Go and study the art before you want to have an intellectual conversation about it.”

I was stunned. Had it been a hopeless, cornered man’s last defense, I could have understood – but what confounded me most was how sure he was. There was not a quiver to his voice, nary a hint of hesitance in his entire bearing. His word was law and I was merely a bumpkin assistant who knew nothing about art and who stupidly, felt it was her place to assert her opinion where it did not matter.

I left his office, not so much stalking out as slowly walking out with uncertain steps, trying hard to control my anger. I went back to my desk and started to type away (at this blog entry, then at a smattering of blithe colleagues needing something or other, all clueless that the bumpkin’s assistant’s towering intellect and ego had been sorely bruised) and then in a fit of indignation, began to rehearse what I would say to him. I could not let him get away with such rudeness! Such an abuse of power! Such tyranny! How dare he curse at me! How dare he insult my intelligence! Did he not know I had spent some time studying art, that I was quite interested in photography and studied it in my own way, from the finest sources? WHO WAS HE TO TELL ME OTHERWISE?!?

I would show him. I thought of a million things to say and a million ways to say it. That I was entitled to my opinion that he had no right to talk to me like that, that I DID know something about photography thank you very much and at this point I could rattle off a dozen of the world’s most famous portraitists, none of whom he would know because he did not read Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and LIFE and Time and Vanity Fair and National Geographic and a slew of other renowned publications that I subscribe and consume by the ream each month. Richard Avedon? Terry Richardson? Annie Leibovitz? Bruce Weber? Mario Testino? Most importantly, I wanted to point out, that it was moot to say that someone did not know “shit” about art merely because her opinion diverged from his, because, didn’t he see, oh paradoxical self-proclaimed creative-thinker, that was the whole point of art?

I could be calm about this, I said, but even as I rehearsed my tirade I could feel my bottom lip quivering. I was working myself up so that I knew, if I were to step inside and open my mouth, I would instead start to cry. It is a terrible affliction many young women have, and it has no place in the workplace. But how would I get my point across? I wanted not recognition of my taste in photography but an apology. I wanted my boss to apologize to me.

Then Toyota called. Earlier that day I had brought the company van in for a service appointment and it was now time to pick the car up. Was I available to come now? I sighed heavily, knowing that if I waited any longer to make my point, it would be digging up old bones. But what could I do? People needed to use the van.

I popped my head into his office and said, careful not to sound sullen, “I’m going to pick up the van.”

He looked up briefly. Our eyes met. Perhaps I could not scrub the sullen fury from my pupils, but if he sensed it, he did not show it. He nodded, “Okay.”

A nice man from Toyota came to pick me up and he did not complain about his day, so I did not complain about mine. We exchanged pleasantries and had one of those short, sweet conversations you have with strangers you click with. In another life you might have been friends.

I drove the van back to the office, parked it, and as I stepped on the emergency brake, knew that I would not say anything to my boss. I had nothing to say. What was the point? An argument between two people was not so unlike art. The truth might be there, beneath the paint, between the shadows and the light, but either party could cling for all eternity to their respective visions (one of my boss’s favorite words). In this case, the truth was that he was perfectly free to say I didn’t know shit about photography, and I was perfectly free to retort. But he was also free to say, “You and your mouth are more trouble than you’re worth. I didn’t hire you to contradict me. Please go.”

I went back to my desk and got back to work. Ten minutes later, my boss came out and stopped in front of my desk, something he rarely does. I expected him to continue on, to visit someone else’s office or to go downstairs, but he merely paused. I sensed some hesitation, but I stopped what I was doing and looked up and smiled, a genuine smile. After all, I did rather like the man.

“When you have time,” he said, “Can you help me write something?”

I arched an eyebrow then quickly brought it back down – an expression for myself but not for him. When I have time? Of course I have time. I was his assistant wasn’t I? But it was not the time to think petty thoughts. My boss needed me and though he did not have to, he had just, in a very particular and subtle way, apologized to me. Perhaps to the best of his ability.

“I’ll come in right now,” I said.

“When you have time,” he said again and went back to his desk.

I stood up, gathering my notebook and pen and prepared to walk in, but not before looking at him for a moment through the glass. I did know what others saw when they walked past that glass, or what the assistants who came before me saw when they stood where I now stood. But what millions of impressions and projections could be cast upon one man! I smiled, knowing that at the very least and to both our benefit, I could stand as confidently by my opinion as he could by his of good art.

His office was bathed in the warm glow of the afternoon sunlight, which did not touch him directly, but bounced to and fro from the long blinds that hung above his windows. I thought of a recent photograph I had taken in Chicago, to which I applied a filter to achieve a similar result – to soften the sharp edges of the city and make warm the cold concrete and steel of the architecture. I could clearly see the very lines upon his face which we discussed just an hour ago. The man and his image were far from angelic and yet there was something soft about him. He was not a tyrant. He was my boss, a middle aged entrepreneur slumped low in his ergonomic chair, the seat of a small but growing consumer electronics empire.

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