Heatwaves and macho spaces
Reflections on whether its at all possible to "win" the career game without playing it. And some comments on the pump.
Some intense days of a freakishly hot Berlin summer are behind us and the rats are starting to look a little bit less like life is not worth living. And I almost think Hermann has forgiven me for the baths I tried to give him hoping it would cool him down. Facetious rat analysis aside, there is something quite scary about these temperatures, knowing that each summer it’s going to get just that little bit worse.
I was googling “eco-friendly air conditioning alternatives” just to see what the nerds are coming up with for a point in time when Berlin will be as hot as Canberra (that’s apparently 50 years away). I hope they are working hard on this, because it is a Big Deal. But then there are a lot of Big Deals that the nerds must be very busy with -- they might be quite overwhelmed as it is. Maybe I should email them pictures of my sad rats as motivation.
“Breaking!” screams a tweet from The Independent. “The world is woefully unprepared for the risk of life-decimating volcanic activity,” (or something to that effect). Well. I mean, first of all. Is that Breaking News? The World is Woefully Unprepared for a lot of Things. It already shut down for two whole years over a stupid virus (as in, a stupid virus that posed a very real threat to a lot of lives, obviously), completely underestimated the threat of populism, and orange-faced presidents and a horrible gnome-faced man in the Kremlin. We underestimate a lot of things, really. It’s what we do. That, and overthink the things that don’t matter.
I don’t know. The solution is obviously to ignore all these problems and focus on small wins, like finally crossing the 50kg mark on your clean and jerk after months of going down deep and dark questioning tunnels questioning everything you ever knew about how to move a barbell swiftly from your thigh to your shoulders, and building up a back muscle infrastructure along the way.
“But why would I want to do that?” This is a question that has actually come up a lot, and one that I don’t really have an answer to. Most recently one of the older guys in my building, who wears a flap cap and compliments me on my mastery of Bach (cool!), but also seems to be a bit weirded out about how fond I am of carrying Eric around. Eric is my 15kg slam ball.
I’ve been neglecting him, lately, just as I’ve been neglecting my explosive strength (the most fun of all the strengths) and fast twitch muscles in favour of an astonishing dull hypertrophy-focused programme my training buddy wanted us to do that is supposed to make our muscles “pop!”. Is this really what I want? I have no idea. They are popping a lot as it is, according to an increasing influx of comments.
Anyway, back to flap cap man.
”Why would you want to build more muscle?” he asked. “I don’t know,” was my response. “But if anyone is giving you trouble, you know who to call”.
Maybe flap cap man doesn’t realise that resistance training dramatically offsets osteoporosis in women and has a lot of other health and longevity benefits. Should I have explained this to him? Maybe, but the truth is I find that most social interactions are improved slightly if you leave them communicating very little except that you’re a dangerous person. It makes people more polite and less likely to offer unsolicited comments about your body.
On this note, it has come to my attention that I might need a bit more help on the communication side, both professionally and personally. So I have sought guidance. Now I know that when called upon with a question that challenges me, I have a tendency to break eye contact, sigh loudly, and waffle. I can see how this might not come across well.
The thing is I never wanted to be the kind of journalist who cares more about their presentation skills than their work. That I kind of get from my father.
“Filed more memos than he did stories,” he once said of a former colleague who went on to be a hotshot lecturer. Newsrooms can be awash with them. These talkers. They talk so much and expect you to nod in awe and wonder, especially if you are female. A friend of mine stuck at a famously “boys club” newspaper struggled a lot with this. She was highly competent and couldn’t figure out why she never got promoted. It was something she complained about pretty much every time we met. For years I sat, listened, and commiserated.
Our friendship was born in a newsroom and the challenges of surviving in such macho spaces is what had united us initially (alongside my appreciation for her devilish humour). We, I suppose, “trauma bonded” over being managed by chaotic bullies. Editors who would walk up to your desk and bollock you loudly for something that was actually their fault. She would be reduced tears and I would take her out for coffee and make her promise me she wouldn’t submit and apologise.
"Hold your ground, otherwise he wins,” I’d tell her, preparing my eyes for a week of glaring in her editor’s direction, contemplating whether it would be weird if I started growling whenever he approached our desk.
She in turn helped calm me down when I’d get a similar treatment from my editor. Where she’d burst into tears, I’d stand up and shout back -- a response that won me endless adoration from the subs' desk, but which wasn’t very strategic in the face of middle management’s endless power play.
But anyway, back to why she wasn’t getting promoted (beside the obvious sexism). After listening to what might have been her 1000th rant about it, I finally spoke up.
“You know, your problem is that you’re really not good at hiding when you’re unimpressed. I kind of like it because you’re funny and I always know where I stand. But I’m guessing your boss doesn’t.”
My Texan friend -- marathon Maria -- had a similar work problem. “I just hate kissing ass,” she used to say, also complaining about never getting a promotion despite being a total workhorse. She’d then tell me that she refused to look her CEO in the eye because she disagreed with some of his strategies (and his very Texan “ass kissing” style of networking).
“You don’t have to marry the man, Maria. But it probably wouldn’t hurt your career prospects to not be openly hostile to him,” I said.
“That sounds like ass kissing to me, Sarah,” she replied flatly.
The thing about handing out career advice to friends is it’s way easier to do that apply sound judgment to your own life. Which is why sometimes you do have to suck it up and seek external advice on what it is you suck at so you can suck at it a little less.
Besides working on my presentation skills (there are now a billion videos on my computer of me explaining my work and I think it’s only the last three in which I don’t look like I want my audience to die suddenly of something horrible and painful), I’m getting coached on self-advocacy.
The thing is, so much of a good journalist’s toolbox is about advocating for others. But I’m learning gradually that so much of being able to have the time and energy to do anything well hinges on being able to advocate for yourself. (and, by extension, your rat children. Mama needs to buy them a little fan).
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A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.