Tina Barney, Yellow Wall

The End of an Affair

My protégé Menander left to work for the enemy. Before decamping, he put together a long list of reasons why he was leaving–most of which followed the theme of overworked and underpaid–and mailed it to senior management.

It was clear from the strident tone of the text that his theses were composed not “out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light,” nor as an overture to negotiations, but out of embittered disappointment. But they were also indirectly an accusation  of failure—mine. A failure to defend and promote his interests. A failure of mentorship.

He must have been working on his j’accuse for a long time, collecting and storing evidence of the slights he suffered and the achievements that went unrewarded.  He was always good at keeping records.

I had never seen this stridency before, or the arrogance (though I had noted his over-confidence on more than one occasion). Or the anger. It must have been there all along but I suppose he didn’t feel comfortable expressing it to me. Another problem in our relationship I had missed.

As now as I re-read his letter I have a hard time reconciling its author to the young man I had spent mentoring for the last two years. I still hear a different voice, a soft and shallow, almost adolescent tenor—though he was in his early 30s—made even more vulnerable by a minor but noticeable speech impediment of rasping, guttural r’s.

Menander looked a bit like the giant I remember from the illustrations in a book of Jack and the Beanstalk that my uncle used to read to me when I was a child—all torso and legs but with a small skull. He was well over 6 feet tall, with the trunk-like thighs and broad chest of the college sprinter he once was but with a head that seemed to belong to someone of much smaller stature. It was if his hormones had exhausted themselves in building so much bone and flesh that they could no longer percolate high enough to reach above his neck.

That was unkind. And it doesn’t feel right, even though his disloyalty hurts. I want to remember other things about him, like his winning smile and contagious enthusiasm, his devotion to his projects and yes, also his devotion to me. I genuinely liked him, and I thought he liked me, which is perhaps why his betrayal stings so much.

We had talked about his frustration about not getting the recognition he thought he deserved. My measured praise was not enough, he said. He knew that I had been his advocate in the organization but that, too, in the end, did not mean much without tangible benefits. I told him that with the economy in the deepest recession since the war and the organization obliged to start reducing its workforce, this was not a propitious time to be arguing for a raise. I thought I had convinced him. But apparently only for a while.

He must have grown impatient at waiting. He had always been impatient. He was so eager to get the answer that the closer he came to the end of a project the more careless he became. He was already prone to over-estimating his abilities; as he rushed toward the finish, he would also become more over-confident of his data and methods. He didn’t have a real feel for numbers, though he could manipulate them well enough, so that when anomalies appeared in his data they wouldn’t set off the alarm they should have. He didn’t think, “if a number looks strange, there’s usually a good reason for it, and the reason is more often not a mistake.” When he was rushed he didn’t think at all.

But he was also just as impatient with people. He believed most of his colleagues and most of our clients were dumb and undisciplined. In Menander’s world the user was the enemy at the gate, poised to sow disorder and sully the sanctity of data. Users, he said, never read instructions and when they did, they misunderstood them. He was driven to reduce the possibility of user error to as close to zero as possible, even it meant introducing new problems. The price of control is always the loss of flexibility to deal with exceptions. And the world is filled with exceptions that cannot just be willed out of existence.

Admittedly, assuming that users are cretins isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it pays to imagine the stupidest things that a user might do in your new application and then design ways to prevent it from happening or, if that’s not possible, capturing it and dealing with it before it does damage. But showing users you think they are dumb is a bad thing. Menander was unloved by his colleagues. Very unloved. He claimed that didn’t bother him. But I wonder now if Menander left in part because he was lonely.

I wonder a lot about Menander, now that’s he gone. It bothers me terribly that he left the way he did. I feel used. I had invested energy and resources in teaching him, and political capital in advocating for him. I shared with him knowledge and confidential information.  I encouraged his autonomy by assigning him projects he could be responsible for. I trusted him. I did so believing he would treat the objects of my trust with the same care that I did.

I’m not a fool. I’ve been burned enough in the past by spiteful lovers and disloyal friends –luckily not often—that I carefully choose whom I trust. Menander was not some passive object of my confidence. He worked to convince me of his loyalty.

That’s what hurts the most—the suspicion he was just pretending to believe in our future together as a team, while all along like “honest Iago” he was planning how to leverage what he was entrusted with for his own personal advantage and at the expense of my institution and colleagues. But that can’t be right. Our relationship was marked by a growing friendship and mutuality and imbued with an unmistakable sense of pleasure in working together. It can’t have been all pretense.  Seeing Menander as a scheming, theatre-playing manipulator and myself as a victim of his treachery would be painful, yes, but I would feel more stupid than hurt.

At times I want to think that he knew that his frustration with his salary and working conditions could not be resolved and rather than let it poison our relationship, decided to leave. But this is just a borrowed fantasy. Menander was not playing Sarah to my Bendrix.  He was just looking out for himself.

Realizing that he simply stopped caring for our relationship for reasons of self-interest is vastly more painful than believing he had plotted his treason. But it is the truth. He grew tired of waiting. Even if he really wasn’t worth twice the pay he was asking for, he felt he was. Maybe he isn’t even working at our competitor. “There is a time for departure, even when there is no certain place to go,” Tennessee Williams once said. Menander’s time had come and whatever we shared as mentor and protégé, or indeed as friends, must have meant very little to him now.

I hadn’t been betrayed. I’d been abandoned.


Image: Tina Barney, Yellow Wall


One response to “The End of an Affair

  1. yes, this sounds terribly hurtful – and therefore must feel so even more… [and yes, the photograph is great: as if the renaissance nobleman had jumped out of the frame and donned modern clothes, but kept his painted posture]


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