I Always Wanted to Be a Princess: What I Learned from Working at a Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company

While I never in a million years would have ever admitted it and in fact have some trouble admitting it now, I always wanted to be a princess, even into adulthood when one might have thought I would have by then put away that childish thing.

Eventually–finally and at great cost–I learned that the desire need to be a princess, which is really code for the desire need to be special, or, in Seth Godin’s lexicon, the need to be picked, is a trap. Because the real problem wasn’t that the Great Big Huge Stupid World as embodied in the Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company was too dumb to figure out how perfectly princessy and perfectly special I was; it’s that I was too dumb to know that I didn’t need to be princessy and special to be okay.

A couple of years ago, I was on the phone with a friend who used to like to call me to read the sodden moldy tea leaves review the details from a previous relationship, details that would lead you to reasonably believe that the former object of his affections may actually have been a psychopath, or maybe just bipolar. Assuming my friend was a reliable narrator. Who knows. As the great philosopher Russell Brand says, “To tell you the truth,  I’m an unreliable witness of my own existence.” Aren’t we all. Unreliable or not, my friend once concluded his How She Done Him Wrong song by saying, “Hurt people hurt people.” No kidding. Hurt people hurt people, but we start out hurting ourselves. Being mean to ourselves seems like it might be an effective method of motivating our lazy, stupid, loser, lumpish selves to action. We all need a kick in the pants, someone to light a fire under our everwidenings, we need a wake-up call, no more Mr. Nice Guy, there’s a new sheriff in town.

Because deep down we know how terrible bad stupid lazy horrible rotten to the core we are, how Not Okay we are, and we want desperately to be Okay. (Or, in my case, not just Okay, but the Best Most Wonderful All Time Fabulousest. But this Bad Cop-Bad Cop game we play on ourselves is not only ineffective–who’s going to fall in line after someone who’s as mean as we are?–but, following the Law of Unintended Consequences, it produces two undesirable side effects: it turns us into liars, and it makes us sneaky. We become liars because we have to lie to escape consequences, and we become sneaky because we need to scurry out of harm’s way when we see that stick coming. Also, we are so certain that we are lazy stupid lumpish losers, so we know we don’t deserve anything, least of all what we want, which means that the only method left to us to get what we want is to sneak it. Hello, passive aggression, my old friend.

Lying is a fool’s game, whether we’re lying to escape punishment or lying to make ourselves look all princessy and perfect so we can temporarily feel like we’re Okay. Lying gives us too much to remember, for one thing, even when we’re only lying to ourselves. For another, it’s like playing whack-a-mole, because you lie about this, and then the truth pops up somewhere else and you have to go lie about that, and then and then. It’s even worse when we’re lying to ourselves, because no matter how smooth our automaticity with the daytime lying, at some point, we’re going to lay us down to sleep where, undistracted by TV, iPhones, iPads, notebooks, gaming, drinking, smoking, whatever, we have no choice but to come face to face with who we really are. We’re going to turn off the lights and then we step alone into the void. Some tiny sliver of self-awareness is bound to slide in through the chinks. We lie in bed with our eyes open, staring up at what would be the ceiling if we could see it, and in that dark night of the soul, all we can think is: I hate myself. Or maybe that’s just me.

On the surface, being sneaky seems like a good idea: if I can’t get what I want, I’ll try to make it happen and no one will be the wiser. I’ll try to get away with [whatever I want to get away with]. But being sneaky never gets us what we want. Everyone hates subterfuge. People like honesty. People don’t always like hearing the truth–the truth isn’t always a picnic, sometimes people hate the truth–but they like people who are honest a hell of a lot more than they like sneaky people or two-faced people or people who mutter, “Nothing!” when you ask them what’s wrong. I’m pretty sure this is true. Maybe it’s not. Maybe, again, it’s just me, but I much prefer an ugly truth to a beautiful lie.

I was thinking about all this because I was reminiscing about when I started working at Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company. Corporate life and me, we don’t mix. We didn’t mix then and now that I’ve been out of it for more than a dozen years, I think it’s safe to say we’d mix even less well these days, even though I do once in a while contemplate a return. One aspect of corporate life that doesn’t work so well for me is you can’t really be yourself, unless yourself is a robot attuned to lockstep rhythms. Another is that corporate life is this surreal coexistence of parallel universes: the reality you’re experiencing vs. the one you’re told you are or should be experiencing. Not just corporate life–I also felt this way when I worked for county government. Probably any monolithic entity requires conformity: The protruding nail must be hammered down!

Between the cognitive dissonance, my inability to keep my footing in both universes as they traveled farther asunder, and my struggle to be human or at least to try to be like other people or at least to try to be like my coworkers, I nearly had a nervous breakdown. Maybe I did have a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t tell what the psychiatrist really thought about it. He had the flattest affect of anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t know how to describe how hard it was for me to do what everyone else seemed able to do with no problem: to spend eight and usually more hours a day in the company of hundreds of people in that concrete bunker on the hill while trying to work out the problem of being human at the same time. My flat white panel of fake desk wrapped around three walls of a grayish beige oatmeal colored cubicle where everything was ugly, where the fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed, where you heard the constant low whirring of the copy machine until someone let the lid bang shut–and someone always did let the lid bang shut or did slam the paper drawer–where phones were always ringing, people were always talking, someone was always eating out of a crinkly bag of vending machine crap and you could hear the crinkling from five cubicles away, and the worst was that you never knew when you’d be ambushed by someone, already with his lips moving and sounds coming out before you even know he was there or when someone else’s head would pop up over the wall of the cubicle like that of a prairie dog emerging from a burrow and she would chirp, “Hey!” and whatever thought was in your head would vanish never to return. After eleven in the morning, there was always a lingering smell of burnt microwave popcorn in the air. At four in the afternoon, there were always be a few lost souls loitering at the wall of windows that faced the meadow where once in a while one might catch a glimpse of the bobcat.

The cubicles were a vast maze in the center of a cavernous space. In the beginning, I got lost. The cubicles were small; many were shared. The partitions stopped at about five feet. Even whispers could be heard from one cubicle to the next. You couldn’t make personal phone calls, especially not to make an appointment with any kind of doctor. Calls that were in themselves innocuous and normal became the subject of barely concealed ridicule, ridicule that I joined in at others’ expense, not considering that if I lived by the sword, I would die by the sword and that the mockery would come for me, too: we made fun of the woman whose cubicle was one row up from mine who loudly made a gynecological appointment, during which call she, unbelievably unconscious of her surroundings and the many pairs of attentive ears, listed her symptoms; we made fun of another who called her husband every day around three o’clock to discuss whether they would have chicken for dinner. Occasionally, after thoughtfully reviewing the pros and cons of various possible meals and recalling the details of meals past, they would decide instead to go out for pizza.

My fellow mockers and I would pass each other in the narrow corridors of the maze and greet each other with quotes from overheard conversations: “Pepperoni?” “Oh I don’t know, we had pepperoni last time.” “Well, yes, there is some itching.”

One woman wore a surgical mask all day every day. I don’t know what she was protecting herself from–dust mites?–but we called her Frita Bandita.

Another woman was a compulsive hand-washer. Her hands were raw and angry red. Sometimes we’d pretend to wring and wash our hands when telling each other a tale of woe–the vending machine was out of lemon cakes, let’s say, or there was a paper jam in the copier.

How horrible of us who sat in the seat of the scornful, yet, all evidence to the contrary, we were not any of us mean people. Now I know we must have been trying to figure out how to exist in such an inhumane environment. The mockery taught us the consequences of indiscretion, and it distanced us from the discomfort of having not even sufficient privacy to carry on the business of our lives and to maintain connections with our loved ones. Because when you cross the threshold of a corporation, you’re required to cut off all ties to the people and things in your life that make and keep you human. Sometimes I would cry on the way home, not tears of sadness, but of relief from the alienation I felt in the crowd. Along with that alienation was the pressure of being constantly observed by others, and then what brought me to my knees was the daily pain of being weighed, measured, and found wanting. Not every time but once in a while when a supervising content editor reviewed my items and returned the manuscript covered in green ink,*  I would flee to the bathroom, hide in the handicapped stall, sit on the toilet, and weep until I was a puddle of snot. Sometimes when my manager said a sudden sharp word to me, my face turned red, my heart pounded, my breath got shallow, and tears welled up in my eyes. In department meetings. No one ever said anything about these hysterical emotional reactions. To my face.

Until and except one time, when my gray-skinned, chain-smoking supervisor (she spent more time in the smoking area outside than in her own cubicle, and my co-worker, who was not burdened by a need to please authority figures, always loudly complained that her folders smelled of cigarettes after our supervisor handed them back) did stare at me for a second before she warned me that my laughter had a hysterical quality to it. Oh God.

I got on the phone–the phone belonged to a friend who had an office with a door that shut and walls that went up to if not the ceiling high enough so that passers by wouldn’t overhear unless they put their ears to the wall–with the company Employment Assistance Program (we were entitled to 10 free counseling sessions a year! because everyone experiences stress and that’s nothing to be ashamed of!) and from there landed in a psychiatrist’s office in Carmel.

The psychiatrist was a charmer: clad in a beige cashmere sweater and khakis of the same color, he was tall, thin, bespectacled, aloof, and with the aforementioned flat affect. If oatmeal were a person, this psychiatrist would have been walking talking oatmeal. After ten minutes’ clinical conversation, he looked at the clipboard that held both his scribbled notes and the questionnaire that I’d filled out and said, “It looks like you’ll be on antidepressants the rest of your life.” Then he wrote me a prescription for Prozac. (What an a–. I’ve been off the happy pills since I got pregnant with the now-sixteen-year-old twins, not counting a brief encore of a few weeks of postpartum depression.

Prozac by Anders Sandberg licensed by CC BY 2.0.

Prozac by Anders Sandberg licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Turns out I never needed happy pills in the first place, because sometimes depression isn’t a sickness to be cured; it’s a red flag alerting you that you’ve made a wrong turn and need to get back on the highway that leads to your true destination.) My manager, whom I liked to call the Nordic Blonde Goddess, was (is! but I’m talking about events from the past) a brilliant and regal woman with many, many virtues, but patience could not be counted among them. Or perhaps I stepped on her last nerve with my quivering Chihuahua-like desperation for her to give me the approval my mother never did. (We all work out our family issues in the workplace.) So I was going to be the Best of the Best, I was going to bowl over the Nordic Blonde Goddess with my genius, and she would love me forever approve of me and pin a little gold star to my chest and tell me I was her favoritest favorite ever.

Well, crap. You can guess how this worked out. The more pressure I put on myself–If my items aren’t the BEST ITEMS EVER, Mommy will hate me and then I WILL DIE–the more anxious I became, the more anxious I became, the more I criticized myself, the more I criticized myself, the more I criticized everyone I felt superior to (because I might be stupid lazy dumb and a loser, but at least I’m not as bad as him), the more I criticized everyone, the more of an insufferable know-it-all I was, being an insufferable know-it-all made me oh-so-likable, and so there you have it. What I wanted I was never going to get from the Nordic Blonde Goddess.

That is, I did get it, but it was never enough. She once said to me, “You are so smart and so funny. Your mother must be so proud of you.”

I said that no, my mother really wasn’t. (And my mother wasn’t proud of me. She wasn’t proud of me, because I had lived in sin with my husband for two years before we were lawfully wed. And also she wasn’t proud of me because in my second year of college, I had turned my back on her dream and what she called God’s plan for my life: that I study linguistics and become a Bible translator missionary. Instead, I quit linguistics because I got a C in Phonology, it was the first C I had ever gotten in my life and I was sure the universe would explode as a result, and also I quit because even though I loved linguistics, I loved literature even more and also? The divine plan of me being a missionary made me want to vomit. The only thing scarier and more horrible than me being a missionary was me telling my mother that I didn’t want to be a missionary, but somehow I mustered up the inner resources and changed my major. I studied literature and then couldn’t figure out what to do with my life, which inspired my mother to opine about God’s plan and how I would be happy if I did what God wanted me to do–that is, travel around the world to force Christianity on an unsuspecting indigenous people who had done nothing to deserve this punishment but neglect to develop a written language. Whenever she informed me that God’s will for my life was to be a Bible translator missionary, my big question was why was God telling her and not me? I didn’t buy that. I said that on the inside. I didn’t have the courage to say it to her face.)

The Nordic Blonde Goddess promoted me from associate editor to content editor to supervisor in two years. She gave me high-profile, exciting assignments and projects. She praised my writing. She took me to NYC! Not just once. Several times. We all went to the Russian Tea Room and to Broadway shows. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza in Time Square. The remote control for the TV was complicated. Once I accidentally pushed the wrong button and saw naughty nurses doing Bad Things to toes. I will never be the same. You can’t erase that image once it’s in your head. Unfortunately. But of course the Nordic Blonde Goddess was checking out when I was, and heard me explaining to the front desk clerk why my company credit card should not be charged for the porn on my bill. She thought it was hilarious. I loved her to death.

The Nordic Blonde Goddess gave me responsibilities that I marvel at now. Maybe to her it was nothing–she needed someone to do that work, and I was there. But it meant a lot to me. After I left her department in a fit of pique because I wasn’t getting promoted fast enough and I went to work one year in program management (a job that consisted of me begging people to do the jobs they got paid to do and then apologizing to our client when they did their jobs wrong), the Nordic Blonde Goddess lured me back with a promotion, a window office next to hers, a raise and a bonus, and so many kind words I can’t remember them all. I couldn’t have been more fortunate in my mentor. Working for the Nordic Blonde Goddess was like getting a graduate degree in content development. I’m so grateful to her. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know where I would be now, but I certainly wouldn’t have the solid foundation in content development that I do. She is a brilliant, brilliant woman. And funny as hell.

And yet, back then, none of it was enough. Even though the Nordic Blonde Goddess was accused of favoritism in how she treated me (and I was whispered about as a toadying suck-up–one time, a friend of mine mimicked to an appreciative gaggle how I’d run to fetch the Nordic Blonde Goddess’s coat for her at a client meeting, please note that this was someone who at the time was my friend), I always resented that I wasn’t the clear and away frontrunner Favoritest of All Favorites. I resented that the Nordic Blonde Goddess didn’t hold a public ceremony and place a jeweled crown on my head and call me Perfect Precious Princess Darling.

What more could she have done than what she did? A whole department of people worked for her. How could I have expected her to do more? But what she did was never enough, because what I was really desperate for wasn’t her approval, it was my own, and that was never gonna happen. How could I approve of myself? I hated myself.

I was sort of famous among the cubicle-dwellers for being a b—-. Just among the cubicle-dwellers; back then, I was so insignificant at Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company that no one important (besides the Blonde Nordic Goddess) knew who I was. Back then, long before I got my title of supervisor and my own little windowless office, long before I got my title of manager and my bigger window office, another editor, whose cubicle was opposite mine, requested that he be moved. Far, far from me. He said he couldn’t stand the sound of my voice. Once when he passed me in the hall, I said, “Hi, [His Name Here]” in a cheerfully arch singsong that had become my default vocal setting, and he muttered b—- under his breath. I don’t blame him. (The miracle is that he and I later became friendly. It’s a testament to his tolerance and compassion, and maybe a tiny bit to my having become a little bit more of a human and a little bit less of a b—-. Not that in those days he was always 100% a treat to be with, the truth being that he was also kind of famous for maintaining a consistent level of crankiness that earned him the title of Most Likely to Go Postal, that having been in the days of disgruntled postal workers returning armed and dangerous to wreak workplace revenge–we all have our demons, is what I’m saying).

In meetings in which we editors reviewed each other’s items, I was merciless. I was the editor who observed when someone misspelled “relevance” or when someone else wrote an item with an outlier. I had to be. My life was at stake. If I weren’t the best, Mommy the Nordic Blonde Goddess would hate me. Sometimes nowadays when an item or passage writer hints that she thinks I’m a bit of a b—–, all I wish is that she could have seen me back then, in the days when the first thing I did upon rising up in the morning was get out the whetstone and sharpen my tongue. Today, I am a cuddly angel lamb sweetie pie darling compared to that person I was nearly twenty years ago.

I was so superior, such an insufferable know-it-all. And yet, did I pull some shenanigans or what. Once I woke up and decided that I would die if I went to work and sat in a cubicle, and so I called in and lied and said my car wouldn’t start, I would work at home and then I stayed at home that day and didn’t do anything, I think I baked bread, and I probably sat in the sun on the green velvet futon and drank coffee and read Victorian novels with my cat Claudia Jellybean curled up sleeping in my lap (may she rest in peace), maybe I cried and wished I were a different person. I lied to my supervisor and said I wrote a set of items, but those imaginary items ended up being superfluous and I was off the hook, which was great, and I tucked the empty folder away in a drawer and I thought I’d gotten away with it, which was also kind of awful, because it gave the I Hate Myself Brigade more ammunition during the middle-of-the-night raids, but then it wasn’t great for real, because the next time I called in, this time I called in fake-sick, the client had rejected a set of items and my supervisor wanted to use the imaginary ones that I had supposedly written as a replacement set, and she and another editor searched my work computer for them and couldn’t find them and when they called me at home, I lied and said I didn’t know what happened to the items, I thought they were in the folder, but I knew they weren’t in the folder because it was empty because I had never written the imaginary items, huh, wow, I don’t know what happened, dang, the computer must’ve eaten them. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just have written the dang items in the first place? Why, yes, it would have been.

I look back at that person I was so many years ago and I have so much compassion for her, that spiky little anemone.

What did she know? Exactly nothing. I wish she had had someone like me to calm the waters or hold out a hand: to give her advice and to tell her everything that I had to learn the hard way, everything that I spend all of my life now holding onto so I don’t forget, because I know and have lived the consequences of forgetting:

1. You are enough. Whoever you are, whatever you are, you are enough. In the immortal words of Mary Oliver, you don’t have to be good. You are no worse than anyone else and no better than anyone else. This means you don’t have to stay in the office for 32 hours straight writing a proposal, you don’t have to give blood, you don’t have to always be the mom who gets up at 5 o’clock to bake cookies for the bake sale, you don’t have to do anything to justify your existence on the planet, you don’t have to write the BEST ITEMS EVER, you don’t have to stay in your chair at Starbucks when a homeless person sits next to you and he reeks of vinegar which you know is for the purpose of ridding oneself of lice, you don’t have to patiently nod and smile while someone bores you nigh unto death, and most of all, you don’t have to earn anyone’s approval or love except your own, and the only way to do that is to be a decent human being. Not special, not a princess, not perfect. Decent. Okay. Not horrible. And if you are horrible sometimes, as I am, as we all are, we just try to figure it out; we try to do things differently next time. We are all human.

2. Do whatever it takes to respect yourself. Don’t try to earn love or approval from anybody. Salvation is gotten by grace, through faith, not by works, lest any man should boast. But do the right thing. Keep your word. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you’re not going to do it, say no. I could have just called in sick. God knows I was probably in need of a mental health day. But no, I couldn’t admit my weakness, so instead I lied. And that wasn’t the only time. 3. Don’t lie. It’s too complicated. You won’t remember the details, and then you just look stupid and hate yourself even more than you already do. I did. Again, maybe that’s just me.

4. Don’t sneak. Be forthright. Say what you want. Accept yes. Accept no. You won’t die if someone tells you no. A dear friend used to tell me what her mother would tell her: If I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t. Don’t let your happiness depend on anything outside yourself, because that’s when you go sideways and squirrelly and send all those emails and leave all those voicemails that you end up regretting. (Um, not naming any names, that would be Me. Not so much these days, but there was a time when I abided by a self-imposed 24-hour waiting period on emails, kind of like the waiting period on buying a gun, and much for the same reason.)

5. It is impossible to make anyone do anything. It is. We go crazy when we try. Ask for what you want, then go back to #4. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. If you consistently don’t, it’s time to consider bailing off the wave from the chasing after a mother or lover or friend or job or company that never gives you what you want and seek another someone: one to whom reciprocity is not anathema. But don’t try to force cajole coax wheedle manipulate coerce anyone. Ever. It never works. It always backfires, and look who ends up with burned-off eyebrows and soot on her face.

This is everything I wish I had known: everything it’s taken me my whole life so far to learn. I’m shocked at how little this is and how many years I spent learning these basics of being human, but better late than never.

Are there any corporations or other for-profit companies that are not soulless machines that grind up humans? I don’t know.


* At Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company–and remember, this was in the days of hardcopy and folders–each department used pens of a different color ink. Content development was green, style editing was red, art (desktop publishing) was purple, proofing was light blue pencil, or so I remember. Before I knew about this color-coding system, I decided I liked purple better than green, and so I found me a purple pen–probably I stole it from the art department–and scrawled my STETs (I always stetted, unless it was an actual mistake, I wasn’t going to roll over every time a style editor said, “Boo!”) all over the place on about a million manuscripts in purple, which got the art department into all kinds of trouble for overstepping (in the hierarchy, content was king over style and art) until someone figured out that I was the dumbass who’d monkeyed with the system.

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