Art Wars

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away…

Oops. Wrong opening.

Once upon a time, er, in Palo Alto, California, there was an arts non-profit organization. It was, although flawed, a good and exciting place. It had potential. It was going places. (Metaphorically speaking, although there was a certain possibility of physical expansion as well.)

Except …

Then it wasn’t. There were (unfounded) allegations of bad faith, backhanded deals and outright fraud. Good and honorable people were slandered, their work belittled. A coterie of people undertook to make what once was a wonderful place to work a battlefield.

So we quit. That’s right, WE. Most of the board of directors (leaving a few for a transition period) and the ENTIRE junior staff (all five of us, including the weekend receptionist) resigned on January 9. It was enough to make the pages of the Palo Alto Daily News (which had provided ongoing – albeit incomplete and biased – coverage of the controversy). Because, let’s face it, a wholesale staff resignation says something about an organization. And not anything really good, either.

The Executive Director, a.k.a., the boss I would walk over hot coals for, did not leave. I can say that I am not the only one who is worried about her.

As for me, two emergency rooms visits in one week with disorientation and heart palpitations, followed by overnight admissions to determine that I had had neither a heart attack nor a stroke, made me consider that just possibly this was not a good situation for me to be in. That, and developing stress-related hypertension.

Several of us have talked about how “someone should write a book about all of this.” So someone should – and from the staff viewpoint – but although the truth is a defense in libel actions I don’t have the extraneous cash just lying around to fork out for attorneys. To tell the truth, I am a tad nervous about this post, although I have tried to make it as milquetoast as possible and with nothing that is not verifiable from already published sources.

I still mourn, a bit: I had a job doing work I enjoyed for a boss I adored with coworkers I very much liked and respected. How many times do you hit that trifecta?

But as rough as the past three months have been, I would not have traded this experience for the world. It has given me a confidence that I previous lacked. I had been out of the paid workforce for a long time – and I now know that I can survive, even thrive there. (Before things headed south starting in late September but really going to hell in a hand-basket in late November, I was doing quite well, thank you.)

I learned that I have skills people value: I write well. I am not afraid of computers. (I became the office registration/membership sysadmin by virtue of saying “I can figure out how to do that,” rather than “No, I don’t know how to do that.”) I have a sense of humor. I have the capacity to be civil to almost anyone under trying circumstances – I almost never raised my voice at a customer, member or instructor (and God knows, some of them deserved it), even though I occasionally had to walk away without speaking. Once, when I was wondering aloud why I got so much less crap thrown my way than younger staff members (I was the oldest weekday staffer by probably fifteen years, other than the ED), an instructor told me that it was that I exuded an “air of competence.” (Either that, or word got around about that law business. I was asked about it a couple of times. Although I don’t refer to myself as a lawyer, and certainly don’t use it to intimidate people, in this case I’m not going to quibble.)

I’m flexible. I am willing to do what needs being done – the words “that’s not in my job description’ were never uttered to refuse a task, although they were sometimes used to point out that I needed to be allowed more time to work on my primary goals. My boss referred to me as the office “Utility Infielder.” It’s a title I held with pride: I wanted it on my business cards. (My actual title was “Education and Development Coordinator,” which is much more boring.)

But I also learned what stresses me out: people. Those interactions I mentioned above? Hypertension city. Even routine interpersonal interactions were, by the end of the day, exhausting. I like my coworkers a great deal, and I was fine dealing with them, but the general public, or the membership, or even the instructors? Tough. I dreaded just calling instructors. (With two or three exceptions.) At the end of the day, I would go home and just want to hide. My family hated this: I was so peopled-out from work I could barely stand to be around them, as much as I love them.

I am an introvert of the first order. People often don’t see this, because I can be a chatty and friendly introvert, but I am an introvert nonetheless. And I can force myself to do customer service, and do it well, but over time it takes a toll. (I have decided not to pursue a job that at least two people have recommended to me precisely because it would require a high level of interpersonal interaction, even though I know I could do a very good job.)

So this has been a learning experience. And I have come through it bloodied but unbowed. My blood pressure is a bit lower, which pleases my doctor. (Dr. W: “What did we say you should do for the blood pressure, other than quitting your job?”) My sense of humor is intact. I have had no lasting ill effects. My major concern is that a prospective employer will see that my last job was of a short duration (under nine months) and be scared off. All they would have to do is talk to my references, though, and it would be clear that it wasn’t my work that was at issue. (Do you think it would be tacky to attach the PA Daily News article announcing the board and staff resignations to my resume? Yeah, probably.)

I’ll still be around the organization a little bit: one of the instructors (one of those who wears a white hat, metaphorically) talked me into taking a watercolor class. Although taking classes was a benefit accorded to employees, I was always too frazzled to actually take advantage of it while I was there: it was always “next quarter, I’ll get around to taking….” watercolor, or printmaking, or stone carving, but I never did. I am tremendously excited: I expect I will be rather mediocre, but that’s okay. It’s going to be fun, anyway.

And there is a possibility I may do contract work for the organization in the future (I have a skill and experience set they need), but the circumstances will be very different. They need me. Hopefully, they are smart enough to realize this. If not, oh well. It’s their loss.

And now I have at least some time to write, so you may be seeing more of me in this space. After all, there’s so much to write about…. The upcoming Olympics in China, why I hope the Giants win the Super Bowl, the funniest things my kids say, squirrels and popcorn machines, shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings.

Oh, and yeah, isn’t there some sort of political thing going on, as well?

No matter. I’m still here.

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