Part 22. Up From Assholery
No doubt that when some of my old friends and co-workers heard where I had the cancer, they thought it couldn’t be in a more appropriate place.
I remember something Nicole told me not long before we moved from Florida to Massachusetts. It was a Friday afternoon and we were on the way home in the car, kids yelling at each other in the back seat. I was behind the wheel, pontificating as usual. I was focused on the way some of my faculty members were responding – or, rather, not responding to a memo I’d sent about office hours. I was chairman of the journalism department at the University of Florida.
“I mean, is that too much to ask? To schedule office-hours at more student-friendly times? How come no one takes time for students?”
The cacophony inside the car continued. A teen-age girl and three boys, 8 and under make a monumental amount of noise.
“I ask questions and they don’t answer,” I said. “It pisses me off.”
“Well, maybe they’re avoiding you because you’re kind of an asshole,” my beloved life partner said.
“Well, you can be. I’m not saying they don’t deserve an asshole as a boss. Hell, some of those people would drive me batshit crazy, and I’m sweet and lovable. But you aren’t helping the problem by being a dick.”
That shut me up. Had no effect on the kids, however. The boys were still screaming at twelve decibels and Savannah was trying to control them, yelling louder than they were.
I didn’t become defensive. Nicole offered a cursory apology and when I didn’t answer, she probably thought I was mad at her. She probably thought I was an asshole.
I was thinking: maybe I am.
If I was, it was unintentional. I thought I was an okay guy, but I had to admit I can be terse. I spent my whole life being terse. Working for newspapers, you learn to write tight. My mantra is borrowed from George Orwell: “Never use a long word when a short word will do.”
My life — my writing — was a series of math problems: How can I say what I want to say with less. I applied the theory of the Max Weber motion studies to communication. He wrote of economizing movements. I thought of economizing words.
My desire to be terse led to me being misunderstood. I tried to use the minimum, but I came across as distant, cold, aloof. I didn’t think I was that way, but when Nicole said I seemed like an asshole, I realized it didn’t matter if I was or was not an asshole. Perception is reality.
I began to re-examine my relationships with my colleagues. In academia, faculty members love to send emails. I’d get up at six in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and then page through my emails. I wondered if my faculty ever slept. I’d check the time-stamps at the top:
SENT 1:55 a.m.
SENT 3:24 a.m.
They’d send me these long screeds – people who wouldn’t consider coming to me in the office to talk to me and take care of business face to face – and I got some sort of perverse pleasure in giving them a pithy reply.
When I sorted through the ten-to-twelve-paragraph manifesto, it came down to a simple yes or no question. So I would type a one-word response.
“Yes.” Sometimes, “No.”
A dick move, I admit in retrospect.
But I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. It just came off that way.
This revelation about my assholery came at a convenient time. I was offered the same job – journalism department chairman – at Boston University. The dean there, Tom Fiedler, was a longtime acquaintance in Florida, where he worked at the Miami Herald for thirty-five years, the last several years as executive editor. The Boston faculty was comprised of talented professionals who’d transitioned to become excellent classroom teachers.
I could tell that Boston University was different when I came for the job interview. It was not a traditional faculty. They all had impressive professional resumes. A couple had law degrees. But I was coming from a university where we weren’t allowed to hire anyone without a doctorate.
As I grew fond of saying about the Boston journalism faculty, “We only have one asshole with a Ph.D.,” I’d say. “Me.”
It was such a change of cultures. Back at Florida, the dean wanted all faculty members to attend the May commencement. One hour, one day a year. When attendance was poor, she announced she would dock their pay for non-attendance. It still didn’t help attendance. Faculty members got their undies in a bunch and went to the faculty union.
Again, so different at Boston. As chairman, I was the one who got to stand on the stage and shake the hands and say some final words to the students as they got their diplomas. At my first northern commencement, I nearly got shoved out of the way as my colleagues – not perfect attendance, but damn close – all want to congratulate and hug our students as they cross the stage.
Then came the move from Gainesville, Florida, to Boston. It was such a sharp break, moving from one school to the other. I thought, “Perhaps this is the time for me to address this asshole thing.”
Again, I never thought I was an asshole, but I probably came off like one. I just didn’t realize it. When I looked in the mirror, I saw an overweight, hirsute, friendly guy with a crooked smile. Apparently, I was the only one who saw that guy.
So when I started at Boston University, I decided to be the anti-asshole. Rather than dealing with people by email, I began trying to get off my fat ass and talk face-to-face. That seemed to work.
But it wasn’t just a job thing. I decided that I needed to talk to people.
Florida, despite being in the South, wasn’t really a warm and hospitable place. Most of the people there were from elsewhere. Meanwhile, Boston, which I figured would be cold in all senses of the word to new arrivals, was the friendliest place I’d ever lived.
Once in Boston, I began talking to strangers. I’d never lived in a city with an extensive public-transit system. I learned immediately that riding the subway offered many opportunities daily for kindness:
- A woman gets on a full subway car and I stand and offer my seat.
- A minimum-wager makes change for me when I buy my morning cola at the train station and I not only say thank you, but also add, “I hope you enjoy the rest of the day.” It’s so nice to see a smile spread across her face.
- I pick up a shredded chicken taco at the drive-thru. “Your nails look fantastic,” I tell the cashier. She blushes her thank you.
This stuff wasn’t hard. It wasn’t like I was going out of my way. I just said or did a little something nice and was paid back by eyes full of thank yous.
I got a lot more flies with sugar. I soon realized it took less effort to be nice than to be crabby.
I knew that I could appear to be hyper busy sometimes – and I was busy – but I don’t perform surgery in the office. Used to be, when someone showed up in my office in Florida, I’d give them maybe half of my attention, while I continued pecking away at the infernal keyboard or doing some other task.
That’s another thing I changed in Boston. Now, I’d get up to greet whoever walked in, asking them to pull up a chair.
I became an effusive and convivial son of a bitch. Turns out, I liked the new me.
I continued with the small talk with strangers. I discovered how easy it was to be kind to people, to compliment them, to ask them about what they did, to simply try to connect with someone new.
At work, rather than just ending emails with the conclusion of the task at hand, I began adding a “take care” or a “thanks for being in touch.” Little added touches like that in conversation – a simple “so good to see you” – changed the whole texture of the conversation preceding it. Suddenly, it had been something meaningful. I didn’t give off that I’m-too-busy vibe.
Gone were terse yes or no replies. I now began emails with a peppy greeting — Hi, Amanda — and concluded with best wishes.
I look at all of us as works in progress and so even though I was closing in on 60, I thought it wasn’t too late to change. And I did.
So now, when I’m no longer an asshole, I get hit right in the asshole.
That’s a good one, God. You’re a riot.