Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

15 November 2013

A Story About Dishes

I was my parents' first kid. This is a tough role: they were nervous and wanted to raise me well, and they filled me with all the things they learned to fear, in adulthood and in immigration. My success became first-priority; my capacity to think before acting, crucial.

In short, they wanted perfection. It was an impossible mission, one I could never fulfil, but I don't blame them for that. They thought it was the best way to keep me floating, like a cork in an uncertain world.

When they left me home alone, I memorised words from the dictionary. In the car with my dad, we listened to success tapes. I was put in Gifted and Talented programmes, taught music, and I learned to fold laundry like an employee at the Gap.

But there's one night that stays with me. It comes to me sometimes in exchanges with clients, or when watching superiors deal with assistants or interns. The night is this one:

I was doing the dishes. The dishes were porcelain and we'd had roast chicken, an especially oily meal. I'd been at the washing so long that there was almost no hot water left, making de-greasing long and tricky.

My dad came up behind me, picked up a just-washed plate lying in the rinser, and held it up. "This isn't even close to clean," he said. "Couldn't you tell? Can't you feel it with your fingers?!"

My dad is a big and powerful guy. He could look at you wrong and you'd shrink a foot. But when he yells, it's something out of hell.

He went on like that: What the hell is wrong with you? Don't you think? Are you lazy? Do you think you're the only one living here?

The shouting got louder. My mother came into the kitchen and folded her arms, watching silently. My hands started to shake, and I tried very hard to focus on the dishes. I scrubbed harder, and stared at the white of the porcelain until it blurred.

My dad kept yelling. And in one of those terrible betrayals that your body sometimes makes when it buckles before your mind does, I dropped a dish.

The yelling got worse. He hit me with his go-to rebuke: "Stop screwing up! Only people who don't think screw up. Stop it! Can't you think?!"

I dropped another dish. Then another. It was like a really loud waterfall. Tears rolled down my cheeks; the yelling didn't stop, and the pile of smashed porcelain at my feet got bigger and bigger. I started to have weird thoughts: think of all the elephant statues somebody could make with those. They'd look so sad, white elephants stitched together like quilts. They'd be greasy. The moment felt surreal; I started to slip out of myself, and still I kept dropping the goddamn dishes.

Finally my mother said, "You're killing her concentration. Stop yelling."

My dad stopped, took one last hot breath, and walked away. Eventually I stopped dropping dishes, but the fear that rose in me in that moment has never left.

I live in perpetual fear of making mistakes: disappointing people when I don't mean to, failing to think far enough ahead or consider all the variables involved. I'm working on this, because I know that I get really tense and freak out everyone around me, but it's work I have to redo every day. Mistakes always suck, but even small ones are hard; I repeat them in my mind for days, weeks, sometimes years.

Sometimes people treat employees like my dad treated me that night. I don't know what they're seeking to achieve when they do. Experience, and that moment in the kitchen, taught me it's ineffective and even traumatising; it doesn't improve the job people do later on, and it certainly doesn't improve matters in the moment. Whenever it happens, and however much I know it's not about me, I still can't help thinking: did I fail to do enough? Is something wrong with me? Am I a broken human who sucks at life? And even if those thoughts (or variants thereof) look productive, they aren't. They sit there, eating me inside like cancerous bits, erecting thick walls that slowly start closing in on whatever other — potentially creative, potentially useful — thoughts are left.

When I manage people I put myself in their place before addressing a disciplinary issue. I try not to make them feel worse than the situation calls for; I try to be kind. And I try, very hard, not to expect perfection. People fuck up. They fuck up worse when you put them on eggshells and make them question their roles, their careers, their very existence in the universe.

Don't do this to people.