The Milk Bath

At the moment there is a bare wall in my boss’s office, featuring only small empty sockets of where various nails and screws had been. The framed magazine and newspaper clippings in which he has been featured and that once hung on the wall are now lying patiently on the carpet, waiting to be rearranged and rehung.

A few weeks ago my boss showed me a light that had gone out in his bathroom.

“Fix it,” he said.

Simple enough.We emerged from the dim bathroom and he turned, as though just noticing something on the wall. He pointed at a gap between two large framed features of him in local business papers, “When I am away on vacation, I want you to close the gaps. I don’t like these gaps.”

I raised an eyebrow, “You don’t want gaps between the frames?”

“No.”

“But wouldn’t that look…bad?”

He paused to look at me, clearly thinking that I had crossed some sort of line. He was the visionary, the arbiter of taste around these parts – what was I doing, wasting my breath giving him my opinion on how he wanted his photos hung in his office?

“It won’t look bad,” he said..

“I think it looks better with gaps.”

“That’s not how I want it,” he said simply, “I don’t like the gaps. Rearrange it.”

Our conversations often go like that. He says something – the statement or request remarkable in its simplicity and utterly overwhelming (at least for me) in what it takes to bring it to fruition. I stared at the dozens of heavy frames – all different sizes and felt exhausted just thinking about it. It wasn’t like a hard math problem – just the energy it took to tackle something that would bring no one any enjoyment (my boss hardly looks at the wall) – I didn’t have it. I have a habit too, of staring at him blankly while I try and process the information – my mind is spinning, but uselessly: I spend the first ten seconds thinking, “Oh Lord, how does he expect me to do that?”

Doing well at a job, I have come to learn, comes down to two things: attitude and willingness. You don’t need brains – they are quite nice to have, but they don’t mean anything if you aren’t willing.

My boss said this to me during my first month here, raising two fingers and said, “You can be smart, that is great. But you have to be willing. If you are not willing, you are useless to me.” And at the time I thought, “Good thing I am willing.”

Well, things change.

I could be petty and petulant and all around unprofessional, blaming my dissatisfaction upon the requirements of the position, but it wouldn’t be painting the whole picture. I did for a long while complain about just those things (and on certain nights depending on the drive home, I still do): the many hours I spent on the road running strange, frivolous errands; the ear bending phone calls with his wife, who though generous and appreciative, also wields a rather grating voice with a thick accent; and of course the million of tasks ranging large to small that have to be done around the office because he likes things just so. It’s no different, I’m sure, than what other EAs endure and probably a lot less, judging from tales I’ve heard from other EAs, but all of it together – each grain of sand adds up like at the base of an hour glass until one day you look up and think, “My god my time is up.”

At another time of my life I might have approached it all with gusto, but that time has passed. Or perhaps that life has passed. I have more than just one caretaker’s bone in my body, but it is not meant to be applied to things that I care little for. I am quick to take care of my boss’s immediate needs: hunger, thirst, a headache – but beyond – the pruning of his work and social calendar – I haven’t the right tools for all that, nor do I care to hunt around the shed for them.

I have grown out of this position in spirit while the position has outgrown me in its physicality. It needs someone hardier, sharper – a stainless steel scalpel of sorts, one that is not afraid to cut right down to the bone of things, smiling or not, and get the man what he needs when he needs it. She must be more organized, more efficient and, I’ve come to realize, more ruthless. She can be kind, but at a price – because kindness is often accompanied by softness…the inability to say no, which I think, an EA must never ever succumb to. Most importantly, it’s best she possess an obstinacy to match my boss’s. I know him well enough to know now that he won’t say it outright: “I need you to be more comfortable with bossing me around,” but his molding, masked as “mentoring,” is not exactly getting him the results he had hoped for.

Some people have said to me,”Don’t take it personally,” when I lamented that my boss was somehow displeased with me, and I agreed with them at first. Why would I take it personally? It was just a job…nothing to do with me as a person.

But a good EA – a good employee of anyone, I think, would and should take it personally. If you don’t take the criticism personally, you disengage your core values from the work – if that has already happened and you are okay with it…then you are not doing what you should be doing.

So I take it personally.

I take it personally when my boss asks me why I’m not thinking. My response is, “I am thinking…just not the way you would hope.” I take it personally when my boss points out that I’ve forgotten yet another task, of course I take it personally! It is a personal shortcoming, specific to me as a person, and it affects my work as a professional. I take it personally when my boss asks me to be more professional at the office because it’s a criticism of my personality, which is not so professional. Some people flourish in these types of environments, and if not flourish, at least live quite comfortably. The rules, the hierarchies, the status quo of each corporate bubble, even the fluorescent lights blend together in a warm milk bath designed to soften and soothe. Don’t believe me? Argue with those who like their jobs: security is soothing.

The pressure is there of course, and sometimes the milk sours or the bubble bursts or worse, kicks you out into the cold, but for the most part, you’ll know you belong if you feel….differently from how I feel.

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