slouching towards bethlehem

Dear Uma: I have my cranky pants on right now; in full agreement with Sartre, who said, "Hell is other people.

Dear Uma:

I have my cranky pants on right now; in full agreement with Sartre, who said, “Hell is other people.”

This morning I had to go to the store to get cream for my morning cup of tea (a winter habit, the cream and honey in tea) and rather than feel annoyed that I was out of cream at home, I chose gladness.

I drove to the store grateful for my little truck that starts so easily in the winter and warms up quickly. Breathing the fresh cold air, I was conscious of how delicious it was, how fortunate I am to live in a place that has wonderful, healthy air. I waved to everyone I passed, full of a feeling of goodwill towards man. The clerk was the somewhat startled recipient of a beaming smile and a stream of chattiness as I made my purchase.

Then, coming out of the store with my carton of cream, I see my truck has been hurt. Someone ran into it hard enough to dent the passenger door to such a degree it will not open, at least it will not open from the outside. Oddly, it will open from the inside, I discovered later, by which time I was too far gone in anger to retrieve any positive feelings about it.

No explanatory note on the windshield, offering an apology and a phone number and an offer to make amends. No witnesses, though that is fair enough as there are few loiterers outside the store on a winter morning.

Then, tea on the table, I read my e-mail; there is a long message from Erica, who, last I’d heard, had started working at her dream job. She was living in Calgary, which is in Alberta and which is like Canada’s Texas in that it is oil country. There are other similarities, as you shall find as you read on.

Erica has quit her job; it is not the work that informed this decision, but the hell of other people. She is young and idealistic and I don’t know whether to applaud her integrity or mourn her commitment to her personal ethics and beliefs.

It seems she was the only woman in her department of five. The boss, and the fellow directly under him, were middle-aged, talented men who were suitably welcoming to her while at the same time managing to subtly imply they were not prepared to take her very seriously. Misogyny, she found, is endemic in Alberta.

However, a working relationship was going to be possible, she decided. That was before she met the other members of the department, the young lifters and draggers. These two were the ones who did the grunt work while hero-worshipping the two older guys. The latter simply ate it up, and played to it constantly.

Erica soon found she felt really sorry for the young men; they were uneducated, untrained, and unaware of the limitations of their jobs. They were also appallingly ignorant of the world and equally ignorant of how the workplace works. Their language was crude and rude; they were encouraged in this by the older guys, who also swore more or less constantly. The young men adopted their heroes’ attitude towards Erica, treating her with mild disdain and disregarding any directives from her. This was allowed by the bosses, a situation that got worse and worse as the young men in their sad ignorance behaved more and more inappropriately.

Erica asked for a discussion with the older guys and, although it took a week or so to achieve, they eventually sat down with her and heard her out.

What she offered was astute and what she requested was reasonable, in my mind.

She described her experiences and observations of the last month. She went on to suggest that, as older men who were highly regarded and respected by their young workers, they perhaps had a responsibility to model and teach the younger fellows ways of behavior and deportment that would serve them well, rather than encouraging them to act in ways that made them unpleasant to others and gave them an appearance of stupidity, both characteristics that would make them less employable in another workplace, as well as undesirable in any society other than the lowest.

Her bosses were first amused and then annoyed. They asked her, irritably, for details. She described the extravagantly foul language, the disrespect shown to women in the workplace conversations, the daily and blatant occurrences of work avoidance and the cavalier attitude to the job itself, both demonstrating a lack of ethics towards work. The older men enjoyed the work, but they made a point of acting as though they didn’t care, and it was this the younger men picked up – the lack of caring.

The older men were in long and happy marriages; they were never heard to say rude or mean things about their wives or their daughters, but when the younger guys told horrid stories about the women in their lives, or related crude jokes, the older men laughed and gave every indication of sharing the humour. The boss and his cohort maintained a professional attitude towards her, but it was their innate chauvinism that the young men picked up on and their treatment of her was allowed to get more and more disrespectful.

She pointed out that while the older men came to the job site tidy and appropriately dressed, the younger ones were sloppy and, often, downright smelly.

Though she didn’t say it to them, she told me the odour of these fellows was truly repugnant, seeming to suggest a life of poor nutrition, poor hygiene and a sense of despair. They were angry young men; the smell of their unnamed frustrations was released into their hair and their clothes, creating a fug of bad air.

The result of this discussion was a workplace situation that, unchanged, became abrasive and ugly for her; she is leaving. She says she has no heart for the fight; she would rather leave them to it and take herself to a more enlightened situation.

That was the missive I read while sipping my tea and feeling angry about my damaged vehicle. By the time I’d finished her letter, I was not in good shape, spiritually. Recognizing this, I picked up a book at random and went to the couch to read for awhile and escape this cruel world.

Flipping the book open, these are the words that caught my eye

“I don’t think we should prosecute anyone. No trials, no more lawyers, no more juries, no more of this reasonable doubt stuff, no judges or prisons. Abolish the whole damn thing. Just take every third person caught committing a crime, or every fifth or tenth, it doesn’t matter – and shoot them. No matter what they did. Murder, rape, robbery, burglary; doesn’t matter, just shoot them. Everyone would know the penalty. Everyone would know the risk. But no one would know if it was their turn or not. Forget about making the punishment fit the crime. We tried that and it doesn’t work.”

Jeez! On this particular day, this sounds like a perfectly good idea, not that I am suggesting whoever ran into my truck should be shot, or that Erica’s ex-colleagues should suffer the lead gift, but for the crimes mentioned – why not?

Uma, write or phone quickly and tell me why I am a bad person to be thinking this way.



Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.

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