Saturday, February 24, 2007

Free Hugs

On Thursday night I was walking home from work downtown when I saw a woman on the corner of Washington and State holding up a Free Hugs sign. I'd already seen the original Free Hugs video on YouTube, so I had a little shot of happiness at seeing somebody out in Chicago doing the same and prepared to step hastily by and get to my train.

But as I passed by and saw her hugging people, my step faltered, and I wanted to turn back.

I really wanted a hug.

Here was this person offering some bit of comfort without requesting anything in return, without obligation, without any power-crazy or twisted ulterior motives (that's the idea, anyway). You don't see that a lot. You don't get unconditional comfort or affection all that often.

It made me wonder if this is what the appeal of prostitution is, that you can pay someone to pretend to care about you for an hour. The difference, in this case, of course, is that Free Hugs are given without the need to receive anything in turn. I'm not shaking hands or giving out blow jobs because I can't pay my rent. It's done out of pure compassion as opposed to desperation/material gain.

And man, did I want to turn around and go back, to the point where I started crying there in the street, because I couldn't believe that it was possible for anyone to give me something without desperately needing something back, without taking something away from me, and I was so, so tired; after the year or two I've had, I felt like I had nothing to give to anyone, and I couldn't turn back and receive that hug because I didn't have anything to give her in return.

So I cried on the way home on the train, and I thought about a world full of free hugs, of compassion without obligation, of being able to give of yourself without fear of having someone try and take it all away.

I would like to live in a world like that, or even a world where I believed that was possible.

One of the best heroines I've come across in a really long time is Nausicaa of comic book fame. She's strong and compassionate and will fight if she needs to, but prefers negotiation and the showing of love and compassion over brute force if possible. I loved the idea that that heroine could exist. The idea of nonviolence and universal love as a means of changing the world is what draws me to stories of people like Ghandi or Jesus or even MLK. I want to believe that love can change the world. I write about bloody, violent, mean people who fight hate with hate; they're the sort of monsters created by societies that use hate against hate, that keep order through strength and submission.

That is not the world I want to live in, and it's not the world I want to believe in. I write about it because it fascinates me, and because I hope that someday, if I can understand it, I can find an alternative to it, one that I really believe in. I don't buy the idea that all we need to do is stand in a circle and put flowers in our hair and dance around saying "I believe in fairies!" (what about health care? Who's going to make insulin? Who's going to do the laundry and build the houses and make great medical breakthroughs if we're all standing around in a circle all day patting each other on the back?), but I know that there's an alternative to all this blood and anger and hate.

Sometimes I feel that what I do with a lot of my writing is take all of the anger and hate and violence that I've absorbed from the world and try and excise it through writing. Otherwise I just turn it inward, and it seethes inside of me and treies to claw itself out, and it chews me to pieces. I'm tired of being full of self-loathing.

I want to be able to let good things in, to appreciate all that good stuff, all those free hugs, without the desperate fear that by letting those things in, by releasing all the fear and anger, I'll become weak and vulnerable.

The only way to learn how to fly is to let everything go. I know that, but the fear of falling, the fear of falling... that's the worst fear of all.


The Secret Lives of Secretaries (Blowjob Edition)

As much as I downplayed my former job as being that of a "glorified admin," I realize now that I was not really an admin and I definitely wasn't a secretary or a receptionist, even though I did cover the phones sometimes when the receptionist was away at lunch. No, the bullshit of job titles aside, I was definitely a project assistant. I was treated like a human being. My boss brought me coffee and I went out to lunch with the guys on occasion.

I was not a secretary.

The strange, exhausting thing about being a secretary is that you have to be nice to everybody and pretend that you like them and that they're all smarter than you because they make gobs and gobs of money (if the guy upstairs is making $238 million, I can only guess what all these VPs are making. His executive assistants alone are all making six figures). I don't mind presenting a pleasant front to company guests - they send all of the guests up to us first, and most of them haven't done anything really inane and I only see them once or twice, so you know, I can cut them a lot of slack and be helpful. Afterall, I recognize that that's my job.

The kicker is when you have to be uber pleasant to regulars who aren't pleasant, who do and say stupid things, don't clean up after themselves, and have expectations that you must be pleasant under all circumstances. I have yet to run into particularly nasty individuals - most people are very good about avoiding being assholes - but there are slick assumptions under some very polite requests, and I try not to let it get to me. This is a temp job, after all. This isn't my life, it's just my rent check.

Nell had her 30-day review with our supervisor, who is more than a little unstable, and was told that she needed to be more "professional." She needed to smile more, because so long as she had a smile on her face, all her words would come out pleasant! (seriously) She needed to make sure that whoever she spoke with had the last word. She was not to argue with anyone, whether they were executives or admins or project managers.

It is, indeed, our job to be nice to people. To make them feel good about themselves.

So I make small talk with everyone. I look up from my book or my writing and smile at everyone. I pretend pleasantness, but I don't take any of it seriously and I don't care if anyone complains about me having my nose in a book. There are a million jobs just like this one.

And after a couple of months of this, you start to get to know a lot of people; you deal with a lot of people, and some of them you do come to genuinely like, of course, but it occurred to me yesterday as I stepped off the elevator after work and one of the marketing guys said hello and wished me goodnight, that there's a far better reason for the "powerful guys marry secretaries and stewardesses" stereotype that Maureen Dowd was nattering on about last year than "all men are just whiny assholes who want mothers."

The people in these positions as secretaries, receptionists, admins, assistants, are primarily women, and as women who fill these positions, they're required to be nice to *everybody.* You have to smile and make small talk with everybody who comes in the door, and you know, outside of work, smiling and making small talk with strangers is often seen as flirting (I'm reminded of when Wal-Mart moved into the German market and had to discontinue its policy of having Wal-Mart employees smile at customers, because men read this as an invitation, and the women were getting hit on and harassed at an alarming rate).

And though there are certainly people I genuinely like, I can see a lot of people who would construe the pleasant niceness I must give to everyone as actual pleasure at seeing them. You can be chatty with secretaries and admins. They *have* to be nice to you. The kicker is that a LOT of people just assume that we're genuinely this way and not doing it as a part of our job. Those are the clueless people who assume that we'd make great helpmeets at home in addition to at work.

There are certainly far hotter women in this company that those of us at the reception desk, but they're not required to be quite as nice, and yes, being in a far more high powered position than, say, secretaries, hitting on them and being rejected would probably be more humiliating than hitting on a secretary and having her pleasantly laugh it off.

The secretaries and the admins are pleasant people you interact with everyday who aren't in competition with you over your job. They're nice, safe, cozy people, and when roles like these become so commonplace as to be invisible, I guess you just assume that that's who they really are in real life. And sure, maybe a lot of them are. But it doesn't always work that way, and being a part of the underworld of secretaries and admins, I'm also in a position where I'll see the brutal side of all the admins, too, who refuse flower deliveries from admirers and make faces at puerile requests from execs.

A group of guys walked through the reception area the other day, and one of them said, "Have my girl talk to your girl." The hierarchy is a funny thing, perhaps not so much that it exists but that the people at the top have the privilege of not even bothering to notice that it's there, and there's a whole other soap opera among their admins and assistants going on, a whole nother power play underneath theirs. But there's really no reason for them to care: we're all just pleasant people who cater their meetings and clean up after them, and so long as our power struggles are for jobs they don't want, they're not important enough to notice.

What's important is that we're pleasant, and always put a smile our faces, so that everybody can pretend we're happy to see them.