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Night Shift

In Essays on February 2, 2013 at 6:30 am

By Kate Gace Walton

533519_442390829157731_1473669611_nNote: I’m editing two new essays this week. While those are in the works, here’s some light reading: a transcript of the true-life tale I told recently at the Bainbridge Island Story Slam. 

Kate_Gace_WaltonWhen I was 24, I had a job writing speeches for a packaged meats executive.

I took the job because when you are 24 you believe that writing about the packaged meats industry could easily lead to writing for The New Yorker. 
The trajectory looks smooth. Inevitable, really.

In other words, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The problem was: I had no idea what I was doing. Writing about the packaged meats industry might sound absurdand indeed it wasbut when you know very little about packaged meats and even less about industry, it can also seem quite difficult.

It took me ages to write these speeches and for one in particular, I ended up staying at the office overnight to meet a morning deadline. During the night, I got really tired, and I felt the need to rest for a few minutes. I had a tiny office, so I lay down under my desk, on my back, my feet sticking out à la the Wicked Witch of the West.

While I was lying there, the security guard was doing his rounds of the floor. When he saw me, apparently his professional instincts just abandoned him entirely, because he started…screaming. Screaming his big, bald head off. Terrified by this big, bald head 
screaming at me from my doorway, I screamed back. 
It was like that scene when ET and 7-year-old Drew Barrymore meet for the first time: a bizarrely long episode of high-pitched, mutual screaming.

Until that night, the security guard and I had hardly spoken. 
But after that—perhaps because we had revealed to each other how fundamentally unfit we were to perform our respective jobs—we became friends.

Things That Go Bump: Notes from a Night Ranger

In Essays on November 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm

By K.T. Garner

A juvenile black bear looks out from the shelter of trees at the row of campsites. His nose twitches as he catches the aroma of cooking hamburgers on the breeze, and he walks closer, his head tossing from side to side to pinpoint the exact campsite from which this delectable odor is emanating. Ah, yes, he thinks. Site 18. He broke into their cooler yesterday. Such generous humans, to leave food out like that.

He hesitates behind the tent. The humans are there, but he has learned that they pose little threat, so he proceeds. The humans make high-pitched sounds and back away from the sizzling hamburgers on the fire. Excellent, the bear thinks. Medium rare, just the way he likes them.

This was usually the place where I came in. I held the title of “Night Ranger,” which is not to be confused with an actual police officer. Basically, I was an outdoor security guard.

The “outdoor” part of that job description was the main reason I applied for it. I had spent years sitting behind a desk answering phones, and I was determined to find a job that would allow me to work outside. Ever since I was a child, I have loved immersing myself in nature and observing it. I’d go on camping trips every summer and run wild through the woods. Even at home, I would spend nearly all of my free time outdoors. In college, I volunteered as a student trail guide for the Outdoor Recreation Club and went camping and hiking every weekend I could. So when I got the opportunity to be paid to be outside, I took it.

Which is not to say that this job came naturally to me. Trying to get people to comply with rules and regulations was not one of my innate skills. Although I was in uniform and I did my best to convince the patrons of my campground that I was the ultimate authority, most people weren’t too impressed when I showed up on their site at night, asking them to please stop singing “The Joker” and informing them that, incidentally, two in the morning is not an appropriate time to play bongo drums.

However, people were usually pretty impressed when I showed up in response to a report of a bear at a campsite. Little did the campers know when they rented a spot in our campground that they would get dinner and a show. The bear handling procedure that I developed after careful study and by trial and error was to leap out of my vehicle and launch myself after the animal. As I bounded into the forest shouting nonsense, I even got applause once or twice.

The bears were actually the easy part of my job. On a typical weekend, my two partners and I were in charge of over a thousand people. Our job, which I half-seriously referred to as “underpaid babysitting,” included patrolling the campground on foot at night and ensuring that no one was breaking the law or campground policies, and if they were, that they would be brought to justice.

That was the idea, anyway.

The reality was quite different. During my time as a Night Ranger, I met wonderful people whose love of nature matched my own, but I was also called every derogatory name in existence and a few that were specially made up for the occasion by irate, mostly inebriated patrons. I witnessed behavior that made me ashamed of my species: lying, stealing, domestic abuse… The terrible things that human beings do to one another are magnified when there are so many people in one place.

I realized early on that I had to put on an act. Most people were not intimidated by someone in my position, so I had to figure out how to shape my body language and tone to convey authority. Week after week, the same issues arose, and I became adept at picking out the people who were destined to become my “problem children” for the duration of their stay. I had to move beyond my comfort zone and become the “bad guy.” I had to put myself into situations where I would be mocked, screamed at, and cursed. And then there was the paperwork.

However, working the night shift also gave me opportunities that I never would have imagined before I got the job. I learned how to do sound police work; I learned to think like a cop. I had been terrified of the dark for many years before working as a Night Ranger. Now I know I can patrol alone in the darkness; I spent many nights walking under stars bright enough to light my way. I saw wildlife that I had never seen before, such as owls and flying squirrels. I developed a new, deep-seated sense of confidence, and I overcame my fears of confrontation with other people. And because of my experience with this job, I gained a career goal: to become a Forest Ranger, which is essentially a police officer in a wilderness setting.

Forest Rangers are each assigned a specific area that they patrol. They handle all of the wildfires, searches and rescues, and trail maintenance; they also carry out public education activities and address any illegal activities that take place within their area. They are sworn law enforcement officers who carry sidearms after taking a civil service exam and going through a six-month academy. I know that I would never have considered such a career path for myself had it not been for the Night Ranger job.

Being a Night Ranger wasn’t easy. However, it revealed to me my weaknesses and gave me new strengths. It helped prepare me to go into law enforcement, and it laid the foundation of confidence upon which I can build a career.

Besides, after spending years chasing bears through the woods, everything else just seems easier.

Photo provided by K.T. Garner.

Contest #6: Oops!

In Contests on July 14, 2015 at 8:30 pm


The_ScreamThe Prompt
Describe a moment on the job, real or imagined, when you realized you made a mistake. A terrible, terrible mistake.

Deadline
Midnight PST on August 15, 2015

The Prize
$200 for the winner, to be announced on August 22, 2015. The winning entry, and perhaps some other entries, will be published here on Work Stew.

Eligibility and Word Count
Only entries that have not been published elsewhere are eligible. Word limit: 600 words, max.

How to Submit
Email your entry to kate@workstew.com. You will receive a confirmation email within 24 hours of sending in your entry.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Work Stew in the News…Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 5.30.04 PM

“Random Acts of Business,” the essay I wrote to launch Work Stew back in 2011, was re-published in The Huffington Post. It’s located in a section called ‘The Third Metric,’ which focuses on “redefining success beyond money and power.”

nprAlso, Ashley Gross of KPLU (Seattle’s NPR station) talked to me about why I started the site, why I keep at it, and what I’ve learned.

Many Work Stew contributors came along for the ride: photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it).

Devo founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, former corporate lawyer Kevin McHargue, and carpenter Samantha Cole all made appearances in the accompanying print piece.

Stewing on Stage: A Brief Story Slam Round-Up

july2013-slam-web1I love swapping stories here at Work Stew. I think of it as a virtual water cooler where someone is always around with a tale to tell.

But there’s also something to be said for telling a story live—on stage, with no notes, to a crowd of people whose faces you can see.

I’ve done that three times now, at the Bainbridge Island Story Slam, and it’s really, really fun. If your community is currently slam-free, perhaps you should get one going? Feel free to reach out via Facebook or email (kate@workstew.com) and I’ll explain the logistics, which are gloriously simple.

In the meantime, for a taste of the tales you might hear at such an event, here’s my latest. The theme was ‘Dating: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’—but, as you’ll see, my story has a small connection to work as well.

My other slam tales, which focused more centrally on work, were about the summer job I had at Yellowstone National Park and my most memorable night shift.

Contest #5: Go Time

In Contests on April 15, 2015 at 9:30 pm

The Prompt
Describe a moment on the job, real or imagined, when you knew you had to make a change.

292099197_75dd0bbb8e_oLink to photo credit.

Prompt credit: thank you to two Work Stew readers, Stephanie Kaye Turner and Elisabeth Robson, whose Facebook suggestions helped shape this prompt.

Deadline
Midnight PST on May 15, 2015

The Prize
$200 for the winner, to be announced on May 22, 2015. The winning entry, and perhaps some other entries, will be published here on Work Stew.

Eligibility and Word Count
Only entries that have not been published elsewhere are eligible. Word limit: 600 words, max.

How to Submit
Email your entry to kate@workstew.com. You will receive a confirmation email within 24 hours of sending in your entry.

Work Stew in the News…Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 5.30.04 PM

“Random Acts of Business,” the essay I wrote to launch Work Stew back in 2011, was re-published in The Huffington Post. It’s located in a section called ‘The Third Metric,’ which focuses on “redefining success beyond money and power.”

nprAlso, Ashley Gross of KPLU (Seattle’s NPR station) talked to me about why I started the site, why I keep at it, and what I’ve learned.

Many Work Stew contributors came along for the ride: photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it).

Devo founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, former corporate lawyer Kevin McHargue, and carpenter Samantha Cole all made appearances in the accompanying print piece.

cof2014smaller-1Work Stew went to the woods: I was honored to present at Islandwood’s tenth annual Circle of Friends event, where Cheryl Strayed, best-selling author of WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, served as the keynote speaker.

My session, which wrapped up a weekend-long retreat, focused on writing as a tool for personal development. In my talk, I got to highlight the essays of several Work Stew contributors. Thank you, as always, for letting me share your stories.

Stewing on Stage: A Brief Story Slam Round-Up

july2013-slam-web1I love swapping stories here at Work Stew. I think of it as a virtual water cooler where someone is always around with a tale to tell.

But there’s also something to be said for telling a story live—on stage, with no notes, to a crowd of people whose faces you can see.

I’ve done that three times now, at the Bainbridge Island Story Slam, and it’s really, really fun. If your community is currently slam-free, perhaps you should get one going? Feel free to reach out via Facebook or email (kate@workstew.com) and I’ll explain the logistics, which are gloriously simple.

In the meantime, for a taste of the tales you might hear at such an event, here’s my latest. The theme was ‘Dating: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’—but, as you’ll see, my story has a small connection to work as well.

My other slam tales, which focused more centrally on work, were about the summer job I had at Yellowstone National Park and my most memorable night shift.

New Writing Contest

In Contests on February 7, 2015 at 2:01 pm

10940451_937630669588085_5739336515317359852_nThe Prompt
Describe a moment on the job, real or imagined, when the work at hand suddenly took on new meaning.

The Prize
$200 for the winner, whom I will select and announce on March 1, 2015. The winning entry, and perhaps some other entries, will be published here on Work Stew.

Eligibility and Word Count
Only entries that have not been published elsewhere are eligible. Word limit: 600 words, max.

Deadline
Midnight PST on February 28, 2015

How to Submit
Email your entry to kate@workstew.com. You will receive a confirmation email within 24 hours of sending in your entry.

Work Stew in the News…Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 5.30.04 PM

“Random Acts of Business,” the essay I wrote to launch Work Stew back in 2011, was re-published in The Huffington Post. It’s located in a section called ‘The Third Metric,’ which focuses on “redefining success beyond money and power.”

nprAlso, Ashley Gross of KPLU (Seattle’s NPR station) talked to me about why I started the site, why I keep at it, and what I’ve learned.

Many Work Stew contributors came along for the ride: photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it).

Devo founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, former corporate lawyer Kevin McHargue, and carpenter Samantha Cole all made appearances in the accompanying print piece.

cof2014smaller-1Work Stew went to the woods: I was honored to present at Islandwood’s tenth annual Circle of Friends event, where Cheryl Strayed, best-selling author of WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, served as the keynote speaker.

My session, which wrapped up a weekend-long retreat, focused on writing as a tool for personal development. In my talk, I got to highlight the essays of several Work Stew contributors. Thank you, as always, for letting me share your stories.

Stewing on Stage: A Brief Story Slam Round-Up

july2013-slam-web1I love swapping stories here at Work Stew. I think of it as a virtual water cooler where someone is always around with a tale to tell.

But there’s also something to be said for telling a story live—on stage, with no notes, to a crowd of people whose faces you can see.

I’ve done that three times now, at the Bainbridge Island Story Slam, and it’s really, really fun. If your community is currently slam-free, perhaps you should get one going? Feel free to reach out via Facebook or email (kate@workstew.com) and I’ll explain the logistics, which are gloriously simple.

In the meantime, for a taste of the tales you might hear at such an event, here’s my latest. The theme was ‘Dating: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’—but, as you’ll see, my story has a small connection to work as well.

My other slam tales, which focused more centrally on work, were about the summer job I had at Yellowstone National Park and my most memorable night shift.

We Have a Winner

In Contests on January 1, 2015 at 11:21 am

10407224_907813289236490_8618266065103811022_nCongratulations to Jill Murray, winner of the latest Work Stew writing contest. The rules were simple: a short tale (600 words max) about a work holiday party, real or imagined.

I enjoyed all the entries: Paul Cohen and Kerry E.B. Black spun engaging stories of love lost and found. Randy Austin entertained with his signature creativity and wry sense of humor. Both Nina Slotkin Fortmeyer and MFC Feeley managed to sneak in surprise endings—no small feat with so few words to use. Non-fiction contributors Julie Davies and Rebecca Kerr gave us good glimpses into their long-ago lives. J. Alper captured what fellow competitor Michael T. Heath so aptly called the prowling of “the corporate savanna” and Mr. Heath himself, in addition to taking the time to offer thoughtful critiques of other entries, contributed a fine character sketch of his own.

Several of these were particularly strong contenders, and I recognize that another judge might easily have gone in a different direction. I myself have wavered between three or four, but in the end I chose Ms. Murray’s: I loved the fluid way in which her story unfolded, the three distinct characters, the pitch-perfect dialogue. Congratulations, Ms. Murray, and thank you again to all who played.

Nothing But Meat
By Jill Murray

“Are you a lesbian?” my boss Dee asked sharply, quick black eyes searching my face.

I set down the poster I was presenting. “Should I be?”

“Well that’s what Kevin’s telling everyone. I didn’t think it sounded right. Didn’t you just break up with someone?”

“Yeah, because he was a bad boyfriend, not because I’m into girls now. Who is Kevin?”

“Well that explains it,” she said, turning her attention back to the poster. “I’m not a fan of this font.”

“I’ll change it… explains what?”

She wheeled her chair out from behind her desk and leaned in confidentially.

“Kevin. From the Christmas Party. He’s probably upset that you don’t remember him, and that’s why he’s telling everyone you’re a lesbian. That and you danced with those girls.”

“Women, and you were one of them!” Wheelchair be damned, Dee could dance circles around all of us. “I thought we were a posse.”

“Well it’s none of my business. I just thought I’d check with you.”

I closed my eyes and the party came rushing back: Me in teal stretch velour, the dress mercifully playing up the positive aspects of my post-break-up weight gain. Dee wheeling up to me, a snow queen from the tips of her frosted bangs to the toes of her white pumps. She introduced me to Kevin as I searched for vegetarian hors d’oeuvres.

“You’re vegetarian?” he asked. “What a coincidence! I’m on the Atkins diet. I eat nothing but meat!”

Dee wheeled away and I watched my lifeline disappear into the crowd as Kevin regaled me with tales of fatty creatures recently ingested. I nodded politely as he told me what he hated most about vegetarians. “It’s that they won’t shut up about it. Blah blah blah who cares? I don’t care what you ate for breakfast.”

When he at last took a breath, I excused myself to the sanctuary of the ladies room. I found Dee there, innocently lacquering her daggered lashes with another layer of black mascara. “Isn’t Kevin great?” she asked. I wheeled her to dinner.

I ate my pasta with red sauce without commenting on it, and drank white wine as conservatively as a young woman at an office party is counselled to do. YMCA came over the speakers, signalling an open dancefloor.

Kevin lurched up to me, breath thick with the stale remains of the open bar, a bulb from the Christmas tree dangling from each ear. “Wanna dance?” he asked, throwing a log of an arm over my shoulders. My stomach lurched with a mix of revulsion at his breath, and envy at his freedom—to drink, let go, lurch, lean, and still do his job without comment on Monday. “It’s nothing to do with his work.”

“No thank you,” I said, ducking out as he brought his face too close to mine.

“That Kevin?” I asked. Dee wheeled back to her monitor, avoiding my eyes.

“He’s a programmer,” she shrugged. “They’re just like that. Bad social skills. You’re sure you won’t give him a chance? Great guy. Really nice.”

 

Work Stew in the News…Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 5.30.04 PM

“Random Acts of Business,” the essay I wrote to launch Work Stew back in 2011, was re-published in The Huffington Post. It’s located in a section called ‘The Third Metric,’ which focuses on “redefining success beyond money and power.”

nprAlso, Ashley Gross of KPLU (Seattle’s NPR station) talked to me about why I started the site, why I keep at it, and what I’ve learned.

Many Work Stew contributors came along for the ride: photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it).

Devo founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, former corporate lawyer Kevin McHargue, and carpenter Samantha Cole all made appearances in the accompanying print piece.

cof2014smaller-1Work Stew went to the woods: I was honored to present at Islandwood’s tenth annual Circle of Friends event, where Cheryl Strayed, best-selling author of WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, served as the keynote speaker.

My session, which wrapped up a weekend-long retreat, focused on writing as a tool for personal development. In my talk, I got to highlight the essays of several Work Stew contributors. Thank you, as always, for letting me share your stories.

Stewing on Stage: A Brief Story Slam Round-Up

july2013-slam-web1I love swapping stories here at Work Stew. I think of it as a virtual water cooler where someone is always around with a tale to tell.

But there’s also something to be said for telling a story live—on stage, with no notes, to a crowd of people whose faces you can see.

I’ve done that three times now, at the Bainbridge Island Story Slam, and it’s really, really fun. If your community is currently slam-free, perhaps you should get one going? Feel free to reach out via Facebook or email (kate@workstew.com) and I’ll explain the logistics, which are gloriously simple.

In the meantime, for a taste of the tales you might hear at such an event, here’s my latest. The theme was ‘Dating: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’—but, as you’ll see, my story has a small connection to work as well.

My other slam tales, which focused more centrally on work, were about the summer job I had at Yellowstone National Park and my most memorable night shift.

The Stew in the News

In Notes on November 1, 2014 at 11:24 am

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 5.30.04 PM

“Random Acts of Business,” the essay I wrote to launch Work Stew back in 2011, was re-published in The Huffington Post. It’s located in a section called ‘The Third Metric,’ which focuses on “redefining success beyond money and power.”

nprAlso, Ashley Gross of KPLU (Seattle’s NPR station) talked to me about why I started the site, why I keep at it, and what I’ve learned.

Many Work Stew contributors came along for the ride: photographer Meg Heimovics Kumin and flight attendant-turned-gorilla caretaker John Safkow were featured in the radio version of the story (click the blue ‘listen’ button to hear it).

Devo founder Gerald Casale, python hunter Ruben Ramirez, high-rise window washer David Schmidt, lice remover Lisa Weisberg, former corporate lawyer Kevin McHargue, and carpenter Samantha Cole all made appearances in the accompanying print piece.

cof2014smaller-1Work Stew went to the woods: I was honored to present at Islandwood’s tenth annual Circle of Friends event, where Cheryl Strayed, best-selling author of WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, served as the keynote speaker.

My session, which wrapped up a weekend-long retreat, focused on writing as a tool for personal development. In my talk, I got to highlight the essays of several Work Stew contributors. Thank you, as always, for letting me share your stories.

Stewing on Stage: A Brief Story Slam Round-Up

july2013-slam-web1I love swapping stories here at Work Stew. I think of it as a virtual water cooler where someone is always around with a tale to tell.

But there’s also something to be said for telling a story live—on stage, with no notes, to a crowd of people whose faces you can see.

I’ve done that three times now, at the Bainbridge Island Story Slam, and it’s really, really fun. If your community is currently slam-free, perhaps you should get one going? Feel free to reach out via Facebook or email (kate@workstew.com) and I’ll explain the logistics, which are gloriously simple.

In the meantime, for a taste of the tales you might hear at such an event, here’s my latest. The theme was ‘Dating: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’—but, as you’ll see, my story has a small connection to work as well.

My other slam tales, which focused more centrally on work, were about the summer job I had at Yellowstone National Park and my most memorable night shift.

Are Toes Taboo at Work?

In Essays on September 25, 2014 at 6:32 am

By Jean Kim

Jean KimA pair of sandals derailed my academic career.

At least, that’s where it started. And to me, something so trivial represents the not-so-trivial burdens of women trying to succeed in the workplace.

Despite a fairly conservative upbringing, I never realized that a bit of toe was considered risqué in the professional world.

Having been raised by an at-home mother, I didn’t have many female workplace role models while growing up. During my student years, I would gaze in admiration at some female physicians, the ones who managed to look smart, unflappable, and unmistakably feminine at the same time. The statuesque middle-aged ER attending who stood tall in the midst of chaos, with long bare legs in a trim pencil skirt and stylish heels. The caring family practice physician-mentor in her white coat, accented by hip cowboy boots and glittering, tribal earrings. These women had a certain look: polished, glamorous but also open, warm, and wise. It was a balancing act I admired and aspired to pull off myself: expressing your femininity but still being tough and smart.

I grew up as a classic nerdy girl, who put studies first, fashion a very distant second (or tenth rather). I had thick glasses, braces, over-permed hair, and, as one high school summer camp roommate cruelly put it, “wore fourth grade T-shirts with shorts down to her knees.” On some level I even feared fashion as a beacon of female vapidity, sexuality, flirtiness, and popularity–an array of qualities that felt far from my experience. I dressed like a tomboy during college in Connecticut, in baggy plaid shirts, jeans, and chunky black shoes.

When I went to medical school in Virginia, I realized after meeting my glamorous family practice mentor that I was a budding professional, someone to rely on for my knowledge, my poise. And like it or not, appearance was part of the picture; I needed to project a certain image to my patients. I also found in time that I just plain enjoyed fashion as stress relief, an artistic hobby, and a way to connect to others through what I call “fashion socializing,” i.e. the exchange of fashion-related comments and compliments. I concluded that I could still enjoy brains with my Balenciaga, intellect with my Issey Miyake.

I moved to New York City for my residency training program. Manhattan was a great playground to continue my professional and personal style development. When I myself became an attending physician and head of a team, I felt that it was time to rock some divaliciousness with fitted suits, colorful skirts, and shoes shoes shoes.

I would still wear scrubs during dreary overnight shifts and clunky clogs or sneakers if bodily fluid spatter or needles were a potential concern; but on the unit during morning rounds, walking around with my team in tow and interviewing people, I enjoyed the chance to project my dream vision of female authority. Patients responded favorably; I even had one tell me she was upset that I wasn’t her doctor, simply because “you dress cute.”

I was promoted to a Unit Chief position at a venerable hospital just outside the city in wealthy Westchester County. I was excited to be running an all-female unit, with nearly all-female staff. I was ready to be a beautiful, strong Glamazon leader. But there were unforeseen challenges ahead. I was replacing a beloved older female leader who had departed abruptly, leaving a loyal team behind. Coming on board, I felt less like a Glamazon and more like the meek second wife in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the one who would never earn the respect of the uptight housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Early on, one summery day, a female co-worker said, “You are wearing open-toed shoes.” I was wearing a pair of dressy sandals. I didn’t think much of it. I’d worn similar shoes many times before at my previous job—peep-toes, espadrilles, wedges, etc.—and received the usual happy compliments. They weren’t flip-flops or Birkenstocks. They were fab.

The next day, someone slipped a copy of the hospital’s dress code under my office door. The passage about not wearing open-toed shoes was highlighted for me in green.

Really? Despite all my years of education, despite being the Unit Chief, despite being on point about medication interactions and suicide risks and various other major matters, I was being chided for my shoes?

I truly didn’t understand what was wrong about open-toed shoes for women in a professional environment, as long as they were dressy and formal. Especially in the summer. With a dazzling pedicure.

Then I looked online and realized that there were several places that considered open-toed shoes taboo for professional women. Even recently, a February 2014 article in The New York Times noted that “those who work inside the Beltway abide by one of the strictest dress codes in the country.” People have been asked to leave the House floor “for offenses as minor as open-toed shoes.” Even less restrictive arenas than Congress mention this standard. An About.com article on business casual dress codes mentions the open-toed shoe taboo, which also crops up at law firms and in corporate settings.

This rule surprised me. It reminded me of the scandalousness of women first showing their ankles back in the Edwardian era…over a hundred years ago. The insistence on closed toes even smacked of the old Chinese beauty standard of women binding their feet into immobile crushed stumps. Was a little toe really so provocative, so distracting in the workplace? Was it a sign of loucheness in women, a frippery better suited for the beach than the boardroom?

My confidence in my ability to lead wavered from that point on. If I could get in trouble for my shoes, what about everything else? My voice, my hair, my clothes, let alone my clinical judgment or my decisions involving patients’ lives? There was no similarly trifling way to undermine a male leader’s authority.

Chastened, I wore nothing but ballet flats for the next few years. Being a young, soft-spoken Asian-American woman, I felt no one naturally respected me as a leader. The shoe incident only deepened this insecurity. It was enormously deflating to find that I could still at this stage be the oddball, scolded or mocked for my appearance. From that point on, my confidence continued to sink, and I had a very stressful tenure. I felt like a teacher getting overrun by a temperamental classroom, and no one would settle down unless I yelled. Then, they would just think I was crazy.

After a few more miserable years, I quit the world of academic medicine and switched jobs. Gingerly, I began to wear some dressy sandals again (ironically, at a military clinic—but I was allowed to as a civilian). One of my patients asked where to buy my newest shoes and got them for his wife. Female soldiers gave a knowing wink as if to share what they wore out of uniform.

Recently, I informally polled some friends about open-toed shoes for women in the workplace and found an interesting and clear generational divide; Gen Y and Millennial women seemed fairly clueless about the rule, and even indifferent. (“Why not wear dressy sandals in the summer? But not with panty hose, please.”) Older women, many of whom had long been working at law firms, businesses, and clinics, had been brought in line with the closed-toe rule. Interestingly, I could not find any guys who felt that open-toed shoes were inappropriate.

The open-toed shoe standard does not seem to be a majority view, but is still endorsed by a sizeable number. A survey done in 2012 by the Adecco Group, a global staffing company covering multiple industries, noted that 35% of the 1,010 respondents thought open-toed shoes were inappropriate in the workplace (as opposed to 76% who thought flip-flops were inappropriate).

I wonder why this standard has to exist at all. I could not find any evidence of where the taboo originated. Probably, like Eve from Adam’s rib, female professional garb evolved from the standard male garb: neat necklines instead of ties, skirts instead of slacks, closed-toe shoes like male loafers. And as these norms have evolved, I can see why there are workplace guidelines addressing chests and hemlines (although the hullabaloo over Hillary Clinton’s once showing a little cleavage was ridiculous). But why toes? I thought the raciness of feet was more the purview of fetishists, and not some mainstream distraction.

Is it really a problem that women have this little bit of freedom, that they can indulge in a wider variety of footgear than leather loafers? (Sadly, I can think of no fashionable equivalent of the dressy sandal for men. Paging Johnny Weir to prove me wrong!) Equal playing field means equally dull feet?

Or is it more that the message of leisure and casualness signals a threat to workplace values? That fashion is a form of female dilettantism, an invitation to not be taken seriously?

In truth, fashion can be powerful. I have found it a valuable therapeutic and professional tool in my job as psychiatrist. I’ve elicited fascinating comments and conversations from patients, both male and female, who would otherwise fear me or see me as little more than a closed-off nun. (Footwear reactions provide a cornucopia of Freudian data.) Fashion can bond people, can communicate in uplifting, confidence-boosting ways, and can bring beauty into drab corners. Perhaps this feminine touch is still too much of a threat to male-dominated corporate culture. And many women are too quick to judge one another for challenging the status quo.

Whatever the reason for the taboo, I say this: it’s time to get rid of this outdated standard for professional women, and take a small, open-toed step in the right direction.

Jean Kim is currently working as a psychiatrist and writer in Washington, D.C. and will soon be receiving her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She has written for numerous publications, and she has served on the psychiatry faculty at Mount Sinai and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. She earned her M.D. from the Medical College of Virginia-VCU and her B.A. in English from Yale University. 

Story Slam: Round Three!

In Essays on February 13, 2014 at 1:50 pm

By Kate Gace Walton

1899901_454179711375004_1955187553_nNote: Here’s my latest shot at story-telling from the stage. This time the theme was ‘Dating: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’—but, as you’ll see, my story has a small connection to work as well. My other slam tales, which focused more centrally on work, were about the summer job I had at Yellowstone National Park and my most memorable night shift.

Dating has always seemed like kind of a long shot to me—the idea that two people might go from being perfect strangers to one day maybe even agreeing on how to load the dishwasher. Long shot, right?

So for the first part of my adult life, I essentially avoided dating completely by falling for my best friend from college. We were together for 13 years, and things were fine except that he was Chinese-American, and his parents noticed—pretty quickly actually—that I was not. When we decided to get married, after warming them up to the idea for more than a decade, it was too sudden.

They objected, so we hatched a plan: The Grand Gesture. WE would pick up from our beloved Brooklyn and MOVE to Taiwan, where they lived. THEY would then think their son was so great that his poor taste in women would be overlooked. What we didn’t anticipate was that my moving seven thousand miles closer would just make me seem that much taller, and that much whiter.

It soon became clear that a marriage would cause misery all ’round. We split up and, even though I had a job in Taipei, I was sorely tempted to go running home to New York.

But that seemed a shame. After all, Asia’s a biggish place with a longish history—even in my devastated condition, I could imagine that there was more to the region than weeping into my bubble tea. So I asked my company for a transfer to Hong Kong, and I promised myself that I’d stay there for at least one year. I allowed that on Day 365, it would be fine to go home.

The flight from Taipei to Hong Kong sticks in my memory. There I was, towards the back of the plane, teary still but at least the dry heaving that some of you will remember from your worst break-ups had more or less stopped.

A group of teenage girls boarded the flight, and one of them had a gigantic stuffed Snoopy. Gigantic. Probably about four feet tall.

The girls took their seats, and Snoopy’s owner held him on her lap, but when the flight attendant made the rounds, she said that Snoopy was too big for a lap. The flight attendant picked him up and handed him over, asking that I put Snoopy in the empty seat next to me.

And on her next pass, the flight attendant had another request: “That dog needs to be secured.”

And it was at exactly THAT MOMENT—when I was reaching across a GIANT STUFFED SNOOPY to BUCKLE HIM into his airplane seat—that I hear, “Hello, Kate!” and I look up to find standing in the aisle one of the most senior executives at my company, who has taken it upon himself to leave Business Class and visit Coach to welcome the newest member of the Hong Kong office. He’d probably heard of me as the American who had “suffered something of a personal setback”…evidently a setback that now caused me to travel in the company of giant stuffed animals that HAVE THEIR OWN SEATS. I know what he was thinking as he walked back to his champagne and almonds: “She better be good.”

Well, I don’t know how good I was…but what I DO know is that Hong Kong was very good to me. I stayed for a year, and on Day 365 I was happy, so I stayed for another…and another…and somewhere in there I went on the best date of my life, with a guy from Missoula, Montana of all places. Talk about long shots: the odds of meeting a nice guy from Montana when you’re living in Hong Kong were about two in 7 million. And the guy from Billings? He wasn’t even that nice.

But the one from Missoula? He was so great I brought him home. We’ve been married for seven years now, and we’re VERY close to a compromise on the dishwasher.

Entry #17 (2013)

In on August 13, 2013 at 6:49 am

“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.

Life Behind the Counter

Dear Outsiders,

From the outside looking in, my job probably appears to be a pretty easy gig. I’m employed as a cashier at a local general store that sells everything from milk to motor oil. The customers that frequent the store fall under no certain categories. In a typical shift, it is not unusual for me to see businessmen, college students, and “ladies of the night” all show up for the same two for $1 special on shampoo. Life behind the checkout counter can certainly get interesting, but it’s not easy or glamorous in any way, shape, or form. In this letter, I will reveal the hidden trials and tribulations that I endure at my job on a daily basis. It is my hope that you gain insight on what it’s really like to work in retail. Maybe I will even inspire you to think twice before throwing a hissy fit over your expired 25 cents off coupon being unacceptable!

MORNING- (8am-12pm) The store doesn’t open until 8:00am, but I have to be there 30 minutes early each morning to help clean up from the night before. Although it’s usually 2 or 3 employees closing the store every night, there is never enough time to clean up from a chaotic day. As upper management put it, “The store closes at 10:00pm. It needs to be cleaned, vacated, and locked up by 10:30pm.” Okay, sounds simple enough if you don’t consider the fact that at 9:55pm we still have a store full of people to check out, mountains of merchandise that have to go back on the shelves, and not to mention 3 cash registers that need to be counted down. The only way we get to leave at 10:30pm is if we leave the store in a complete mess and come in early the next morning to fix everything, which is exactly what we do. So, arriving at work each morning, I can expect to sweep, mop, dust, and re-stock merchandise, all before I check out my first customer, who is usually waiting outside of the store 15 minutes before we open. When I’m finally at the cash register, I plaster on the smile that I am forced to maintain for my entire 8-hour shift. I try my best to make the customers feel welcome and appreciated as I scan their coffee and donuts just to get bombarded with the snide question: “How are you so smiley early this morning?” In my mind, I think of the fact that I actually drove past my workplace twice before deciding to suck it up and go in. Also, I remember that I almost called in sick today to get a day off since I haven’t had one in 2 weeks. A part of me wants to tell the customer that I smile to keep from crying, but I simply reply, “It’s all a part of the job.” My day has officially begun.

AFTERNOON- (12pm-4pm) By now, I have been cursed out, called everything but my name, and even threatened all because of enforcing simple store policies that are displayed on the front door and at the checkout counter. For example, we only allow returns on unopened merchandise seven days after the purchase date. For some reason, customers tend to think that “unopened” means opened, yet re-taped, re-stapled, or re-glued. No, I’m sorry. It doesn’t work like that. In addition, there is a “no eating or drinking” policy in the store. There are about ten signs hanging in nearly every aisle to remind you of this. So, when I see you munching on a bag of chips that you haven’t paid for, do you really think I’m just going to turn my head the other way? Really?

NIGHT- (4pm-10pm) The night shift is by far the busiest shift. People who work 9 to 5’s are stopping by already in bad moods and taking it out on the helpless cashiers. Screaming toddlers accompany their moms, who are preoccupied with trying to find the most affordable, yet healthy frozen dinners. Thieves come in big groups, heading straight to the back of the store to rob us blind. They know we are too busy up front with checkout lines curved around aisles to give them a second thought. Merchandise is pulled from the shelves and littered onto the middle of the floor. Food is opened and “sampled”. Spills are everywhere as unruly children run wild and a few conniving customers will purposely fall down in hopes of getting a big legal settlement. By 10:30pm, I am literally running to my car, re-evaluating my whole life!

Sincerely,

A disgruntled 24-year-old retail employee

P.S. This letter is only a brief overview of a typical day at my job. Often, things can get much worse…

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