In New Orleans, no matter how much we grow from tech booms and film booms, championships, and top ten rankings, that small-town vibe we’re known for stays put. We are well aware of the risk we take ducking into the grocery store without makeup and we find it charming that asking “Where’d you go to high school?” is still a measure of commonality among most residents. So it should have come as no surprise to me when I learned that at a cocktail hour at which I was not present last month, my name sprang up between two people--one, a big baller, mover and shaker type, whom we’ll call Mr. Big Guy, and the other, someone with whom I had actually gone to high school, a medium-level manager looking for a career advancement.
The story goes that my friend used my name as a way to jump into a conversation with Mr. Big Guy and schmooze her way into his cozy corner, visions of future employment and pay raises dancing in her head. I barely know Mr. Big Guy, but since he was a big player in the room, my friend was desperate to find something in common with him in order to get his ear.
“Oh, yes, I know your friend,” Mr. Big Guy said of me. “We spoke last week on the phone.”
He then proceeded to retell our phone conversation to my friend and to the two or three people who squeezed into his circle. According to my friend, there was nothing noteworthy about his recounting. She wasn’t even sure why he stayed on topic about me so long until at the very end when he described my reaction to something on which he had advised me. With unabashed freedom, he portrayed me as a bitter brat not especially interested in anyone’s success but her own. Based upon his word choice and authority, if I’d have been listening in and not known me, I’d have considered me a real bitch of a woman.
My first thought was that it had to have been a joke. Was he actually on that phone call? But it wasn’t. It was quite real and I was dumbfounded because it was a complete misrepresentation of me and the conversation itself. There had been no argument, only copious “thank you’s” and many “I’m so grateful for your help” statements on my end. Where’d this guy get off?
“What’d you say?” I asked my friend.
“I said that you’re super competitive,” she said.
“What? Well, that doesn’t help any!” I said. “Did you think to say, ‘Gee, that doesn’t sound like my friend’?”
I was now exasperated. She was the one person in the huddle who actually knew me and she biffed it.
“I couldn’t. You know what my situation is,” she said meekly.
I do know her situation. Mr Big Guy with the loose tongue is not just in her industry, but a leader. Wielding power over him could damage her growth potential.
So there we were: The misrepresented and the submissive. Both prisoners of our positions.
I thought about calling him, but he would have traced it back to my friend and she would have looked like a gossiper. So that idea was out. I considered selling a short story to “The New Yorker” about him in which he gets his tongue cut out--sort of like “The Handmaid’s Tale” in reverse where the suits suffer from their outspokenness. But I don’t write dystopian fiction.
So instead, I stewed.
I often think anger can be sorted into two categories: anger from those who get to a quick boil and bubble over with rapid words splattering, and anger from others, like me, who stick to a low flame and rarely get to the level of exposure as the quick-tempered. We “stewers” just keep doing our thing, but all the while, the temperature is rising. When we do finally blow our lids, it’s ugly--packed with resentment and an uncanny number of past examples of scorn. Our memory is long. We forgive but don’t forget because we never get it completely out of our system. And while we’re not nearly as vulnerable to a bad reputation as the quick boils, we’re really no better, because stuck to the bottom of both of our pots is something ignorance ignored. While one jumps to conclusions and the other festers, we forget to ask the valuable question: Why are we so angry anyway?
While fuming, our minds stick to the surface feelings: We’re offended. We’re misunderstood. We’re hurt. But what lies beneath all that?
I certainly didn’t like my character assassination. It would be one thing if I deserved it, but the gossip was positively ludicrous. Mr. Big Guy was an outright liar, had it out for someone close to me, or he was an idiot who got me mixed up with someone else. The whole thing was absurd. But beneath the obvious layers, it’s not a smeared reputation that bothers me. No one in that circle really knew who I was, and they probably didn't care. But tugging at the root of my anger reveals something meatier. I’m angry because Mr. Big Guy could and did. He has power and I am powerless. He can misrepresent me without thinking twice because his success says so. His resume is long enough and his connections are savvy enough that he can speak on a whim. Who cares if he looks like a jerk? He has nothing to lose. Meanwhile, I’m a small-town nerd whose power reaches about as far as that of my Bevolo gas lamp. He reminded me of how little I think I have. And that pissed me off.
Anger is deceptive and divisive, but therein lies an opportunity. Knowing why we’re angry turns something petty into something useful. Getting into our feelings is messy, but there’s good stuff in there waiting to be sorted and made right again. My anger at Mr. Big Guy is because of a constant frustration with how I regard myself. I think I’m powerless and it seeps into everything I touch.
Something I said, some shrinkage in my voice, some shyness on that phone call, exposed a weakness in me. I allowed his power to stifle my authority over me. I’ve done this before so many times that I’ve stopped noticing this sad habit. He may be a jerk, but I’m the jerk’s jester because I don’t even take myself seriously enough to command my own authority over myself.
I know enough to know that I demand respect from my children and even my dogs, but when was the last time I respected myself enough to wield my power over me? It’s not success that’s the biggest player in the room. It’s respect, and it starts within. I could publish fifty New York Times best sellers, but if I think I’m weak sauce, then I probably am. I didn’t deserve a character assassination from Mr. Big Guy, but I did deserve some tough love from myself. I need to put my finger on the fire of my anger. So what if Mr. Big Guy is a big shot? He may have the upper hand in business, but I have the upper hand over me. I don’t have quite the fancy Rolodex as his business power wields, but I have power over me and it’s not for sale. Power shifts when we let it.
The chances of my running into Mr. Big Guy one day in the future are high. New Orleans is one big small town. I probably won’t say anything. But I’ll smile, knowing this is one deal he lost.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.