Getting Snuck Up On

When I was a kid, my family went on a trip from the Twin Cities of Minnesota to the Black Hills of South Dakota. When we got there, we stopped in Deadwood, at the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead. They told us he never sat with his back to the door. Until. That. Day.

So I’m currently working in a modern-day saloon, aka a startup with an open-office layout. I had never worked in an open office before, and from a distance it looked really social and energetic. And it is… but it also feels dangerous.

Here’s my office setup: I sit in a tiny room with two other people, facing a wall, with my back exposed both to them, and to anyone who walks in. The good: I really like my two officemates, who are both kind, smart, hilarious people. The bad: I feel vulnerable all the time, because while I’m facing the wall, something in my brain keeps warning me that anyone could sneak up behind me at any moment. Over-and-over-and-over.


There are plenty of articles out there about how the open-office layout phenomenon, which is supposed to be great for collaboration and cost-savings, is actually pretty terrible for concentration and feelings of well-being

I understand why my office is currently set up the way it is, and I’m sure things will change over time as the company grows. I’m not writing just to vent about it. I’m writing this because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the physicality of the fight-or-flight feeling I have while trying to work in this situation. It’s definitely more in my body than in my mind.

The weird thing is feeling like this even though coworkers rarely come up behind me. Obviously they aren’t trying to jump out and scare me. I just can’t shake the physical fear that they MIGHT. I can feel it across my back and in my shoulders, like my body is constantly warning me that I am incorrectly positioned in the room and need to turn around.

I’ve had conversations with other coworkers about this, and I’ve been surprised by how strongly we feel the same sensation. I understand the protective biological origin, but I really wish I could turn it off somehow! If you work in an open office, or you sit facing a wall, do you feel it too? How do you deal with it, other than trying to find other places to sit?


Why not a list

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the idea of writing about just one thing, so instead I’m going to list 5 things I’ve been thinking about this week.

1. Flan. I know how to make Brazilian flan, which is called pudim.


But the way I learned is not as thick and creamy as I want it to be. I tried a new recipe (4 eggs instead of 3) last Sunday, that I didn’t like. And as I type this, I have my next experiment (3 eggs + 1 egg yolk) in the oven. The #1 reason to make flan? The caramel sauce. Did you know that if you dump a cup of sugar into a hot pan and stir, it will liquify? So fun.

I want to try making Vietnamese flan next, because whatever they’re doing over at Le Viet is killer. Recipes, anyone?

[update: burned the hell out of it. Onto flan #3!]

2. Catalina Estrada. I first found out about the Colombian designer Catalina Estrada from one of those Paulo Coelho planners that are all over the place. I love her use of bright colors, flowers, leaves, and animals.


It’s like grown-up Lisa Frank. She designed one of Shakira’s perfume bottles (major points in my book). But the big news this week is that I was looking for a new comforter and found out that Catalina Estrada now designs bedding. OMGGG. But I can’t figure out where to buy it.


Somebody help me. I actually don’t own one single Catalina Estrada dress, either. What am I even doing with my life.

3. Mindy Kaling on entitlement. My voracious-reader friend Alexis lent me Mindy Kaling’s second book after carefully removing the dust jacket per the Alexis Lending Library Rules. The best part is at the very end, where Mindy says that confidence is entitlement. And entitlement isn’t actually a bad thing, it’s “simply the belief that you deserve something.” And then she follows that up “how do you know you deserve something?” The answer is hard work, which is pretty much always the answer to everything. I like this because it’s the first time I’ve ever heard the word “entitlement” coupled with the idea of the person actually deserving the thing they feel entitled to.

4. Sweet dumpling squash. Is not at Whole Foods. And I am sad. Does anybody know where to find some?


I used to sell it at Gardens of Eagan in Minnesota, together with the very lovely delicata variety. If you want to read a lush and epic farm story, check out Turn Here Sweet Corn by Atina Diffley, who taught me everything I know about selling squash (and thumping watermelons, and feeling for worms in corn instead of ripping the husk off like a total barbarian).

5. Agates. Yesterday I was walking around John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge with my friends Lauren and Bergs, and we saw some really cool mushrooms, egrets on egrets on egrets, and a turtle chasing another turtle underwater. As we walked, I found myself constantly scanning the gravel trail for agates, which is something I used to do as a kid in Minnesota. Raw agates look like this:


But if you polish them up, they look like this:


I used to find them and bust them open with a hammer to see what pretty crystals I might find inside. I still get excited just thinking about it. Hammers + potential surprises = fun times.

That’s my list. Things that got scrapped: Anjelica Huston’s wild and crazy life story, the Uber driver that told me all about his blackout motorcycle trip to Alaska (he knows it happened, though, because he has pictures), and this really beautiful song.


Yesterday at work, a coworker posted an article in our company-wide Slack channel on why constant complaining is toxic in the workplace.

Basically the article (which I’m sure was posted with good intentions) says that complaining is pointlessly negative and you should either take action to solve a problem, or if you don’t have the agency to do that, you should shut up about it and put on a happy face.

So… allow me to complain. 🙂

I get how sometimes complaining can feel pointlessly negative, because I’ve known people who are persistently negative despite the circumstances: Got a free cupcake? It’s too dry. See a cute puppy? It probably has fleas. People like this who refuse to see the good in anything tempt me to turn on a deranged Mary Poppins spoonful-of-sugar attitude specifically to annoy them to pieces.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, bitches.

But let’s talk about work, since that’s what the article is about. Depending on your role at work, there are a lot of things you may not have the power to change. So you change what you can, vent about the rest with your work-spouse (this is necessary for survival, not toxic), and then move on if it gets to be too much.

The thing that annoyed me about this article is that it doesn’t acknowledge who benefits most when you adopt a “smile and persevere” attitude: those in a in a position of power over you. The idea that you as an individual should just change your attitude to better adapt to the existing system has been used since forever to shut people up and prevent change (aka: “lean in and you’ll rise up the corporate ladder”, “don’t laugh so loud and you won’t get kicked off the Napa Valley wine train”, “be more respectful to police and they won’t kill you”).

One of the first things that popped into my head when I started my complainery about this article was Liberation Theology, a movement that started in the 1950s in Latin America, when people within the Catholic Church started to rebel against the idea that the poor should suffer while on earth and be content to wait for their reward in heaven.

In Catholic school, we watched lots of movies on the subject, mostly focused on the activist priests and nuns who were murdered in Central America during the 1980s. The footage was pretty graphic. I still vividly remember seeing the re-enacted murder of Oscar Romero while saying mass, and the real footage of the bodies of Jean Donovan and her three fellow nuns being pulled out of a shallow grave.

[That combined with all the mid-90s partial-birth abortion movies and my mom’s Stephen King storytelling around the campfire explains a lot, right?]

Anyway, what I’m trying to get to is that the main reason the article on complaining irked me is that somebody’s ALWAYS saying there’s a reward in store if we just wait quietly and patiently and follow all the rules and stop complaining. Or that if we’re unhappy, it’s our own personal issue and we should fix our face.

What do you think? What did I miss? I would love to hear other perspectives on complaining, social change, musicals, Catholic school movie selections, etc.

Making Faces

I just started watching this Danish TV series, Rita, which is about a 42-year-old teacher who does not give one single f*ck about what anybody thinks. Not the kids, not the other teachers, not the principal, not her own children, not her mom… nobody. You can see it right on her face. All. The. Time.


She screws up a lot. In the last episode I watched, she told her teenaged gay son that the bullying he was suffering was not really a big deal because being gay isn’t a big deal, and he should just get in on the joke to diffuse it. It was painful to see the hurt in his eyes meeting the nonchalance in hers.

But her DGAF approach to life also leads to great things. Once she subversively gave this boy chocolate cake to hand out to his classmates after his parents tried to ban sugar from the school, so he wouldn’t be friendless (which is what happens when you hand out sad tofu brownies). And once she didn’t have a bandaid so she stuck a maxi-pad on this girl’s hand. Also, she spontaneously threw away her entire creepy troll collection (I like throwing things away1).

She communicates constantly without saying a word, and the deliciousness of her face-tivities makes me want to make more faces too. Which, if you know me, you know is maybe not the number one thing I should be trying to do. I have a pretty excitable face. Which I wouldn’t know about except for the fact that you’re all constantly pointing it out. It usually makes me self-conscious, like this piece of me is just uncontrollable and it’s telling all my secrets, all the time.

I spend a lot of time admiring people who can keep a straight face. It completely fascinates me. Think of the power they have!

But the other end of the spectrum, where Rita lives, is also powerful. She reminds me a lot of my very first face-making role model, the great Murphy Brown.


Murphy’s faces were epic, and I lived for each and every time she lasered her eyes at someone and said exactly what she was thinking. I was like yes yes yes, just go ahead and say it. Tell Corky! Tell Frank!

My kid-brain didn’t really get the dynamics of the FYI newsroom (I was under 10 while this show was on TV), but I did 100% understand the pain of biting my tongue when someone was driving me crazy. And Murphy Brown never had to do that! Her mouth got her into trouble a lot, but it was always funny – like when she so wanted to guest-conduct an orchestra that she fell for Olivia Newton-John’s tricks (I wouldn’t have been able to resist either. I get you, Murphy.)

It’s hard to find episodes of Murphy Brown to watch now – it’s not available anywhere [sad face]. But I really wish I could, because one thing people keep telling Rita is that her behavior is “childish” and I’m curious to see whether people said the same thing to Murphy [outraged face]. I can’t imagine a male protagonist being called childish in a professional setting under any circumstances, really.

The other issue is that assertive women like Murphy and Rita get labeled aggressive or bitchy, in situations where a guy would be admired for speaking up and taking a stand. And just imagine the compounded stereotypes if the Murphy Brown or Rita characters were played by Asian or Black or Latina women. Would Dan Quayle’s comments (he said Murphy was “ignoring the importance of fathers by birthing a child alone”) have been different if she weren’t White? When are we having a Murphy Brown discussion group?? Also, somebody else please start watching Rita so we can talk about that too.

Cue the credits.

1. Once I threw a mop off my second-floor balcony into the dumpster. Also I threw an entire ruined cake out the door. Both felt amazing.

Did you just say bayg?

Just yesterday, a few hours into spending time with a new friend, she stopped me mid-sentence with a big smile and said: “did you just say BAYG?! Are you from the Midwest?”

It still takes me off guard when people notice my accent because it took me so long to figure out that I had one.

When I was in kindergarten in Minnesota, I got in my first argument with a teacher over that very same word. We were learning how to sound out words, and this involved figuring out the difference between “short a” and “long a”.

Short a
“Sad Sam ate some bad ham”

Long a
“Kay and Jay wait to buy bait.”

I had this down. Could totally hear the difference, no problem. Except when the teacher came around to check my work, she informed me that I misidentified the following words as long a sounds, when they were really short a:


I’m sure I made an epic face at the teacher when she tried to tell me I was wrong. Could this woman not hear the same thing I heard? I was like “listen: BAAAYYYYYG. It’s a long a.” And she was like “no, it’s “baaaahhhg” pronouncing the word in a funny, snooty-sounding way that I’d never heard before. She sounded like a jerk.

I was so frustrated I almost cried. I knew I wasn’t wrong. Why was she pretending not to hear what we were all saying?

The feeling of defiance faded, and I gave up, figuring it was something I personally would just never understand. I don’t remember asking any other kids, or my parents, if they heard the same thing. I figured it was just a problem with me. Which, even though this is a silly example, is a little bit profound at the same time. An authority figure told me something that didn’t resonate with my own truth, and I got mad about it. But then I accepted it, because I wanted approval.

I totally forgot about this kindergarten frustration until I moved to Massachusetts for college and people started repeating the word after I said it, like “BAYG?! that’s so cute! hahaha.” Suddenly it all came together: Oh. It’s an accent. I have a Minnesota accent. That’s a thing. So accents don’t just belong to people from Texas or Paris or India or Jamaica. Mind = blown. I had the same experience when someone told me about the blog Stuff White People Like. Like oh wait, this experience I grew up thinking was universal/default is actually reflective of a group identity.

There’s a whole lot more to say about all of this. Like privilege in accents (I certainly don’t face workplace discrimination for mine) and white identity, and other things I did in kindergarten. I’m sure I’ll get into it more in other posts. But for now, this is it.

A stick in the eye

I named this blog “a stick in the eye” because there’s a common saying in the Midwest (I’m from Minnesota) that goes “it’s better than a stick in the eye.” Example: “I got my tax refund and it was way lower than I expected. Oh well, it’s better than a stick in the eye.” In other words, it’s not great. But it definitely could be worse!

That said, I care about a lot of different social justice issues, and I would never in a million years say “well, it could always be worse” to someone fighting injustice. Or to someone in a bad relationship, a bad job, etc. We have to have standards, and always be fighting for better. But, since I struggle with perfectionism in writing, for now the goal is to just remember that a stick in my eye (or yours) would definitely be worse than this.