Thursday, August 20, 2009

Black Cloud People

As I was standing in my backyard two nights ago looking over the clean out pipe leading from the house to our septic field, watching it overflow into our yard, having just come back from unsuccessfully spending an hour looking for my dog who slipped out the front door that my daughter had left open, I thought to myself, "Okay, it's official. I am a Black Cloud Person. Serves me right. It's karma coming back at me." What do I mean by that? Well, I'll tell 'ya. I coined the phrase some years ago to describe certain individuals who wouldn't have any luck at all if they didn't have bad luck, and they have it in spades. Hard breaks just seem to follow them around, like a little black cloud always hanging over their head.

The definitive Black Cloud Person worked for us several years ago. She was the one I made up the term to describe, although I've known others since. She worked as a clerk in our accounting department, which over the years employed a few people in her classification mainly because, I theorize, our Controller had a soft spot for people who had lived hard lives. She related to people who had struggled in life, because she had herself struggled early on. The difference, however, in a Black Cloud Person as I define them and someone who has seen tragedy is what they do with those experiences. As with my friend Linda, whom you may recall recently passed away, and her best friend Francine, you can overcome your struggles and rise above them or you can roll around in your sorrow, feel sorry for yourself, expect others to feel sorry for you too and, I had concluded, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. My theory of Black Clouders is that as long as they kept expecting bad things to happen, they would. With the ultimate Black Cloud personality, I suspected they secretly came to rely on a constant torrent of bad experiences because it kept people's attention and sympathy on them, more or less like a mild form of Munchhausen's. So it was with this poor woman, whom I have been pondering over the last couple of days. I cannot even recall all the calamitous events in her life, but they were never in short supply. Her reaction to whatever Crisis Du Jour she was experiencing was always just shy of over the top. Sometimes, actually, it was officially over the top. She was particularly dramatic once when she was diagnosed as having a potential melanoma on her face. I don't want to discount the seriousness of a situation like that, but she went up and down the halls of the office wailing about it, telling everyone in gasping tears what was happening, but refusing to go home. The entire office was in an uproar. Still new to the role of supervising people, I allowed it to go on, which I never would do at this point. Now I think I have the skill set to distract something like that from the workplace and still allow the person their dignity, but it took a while to learn. I also learned when to cut it off and just make someone go home for the day, which is very, very quickly. Turns out the spot was benign, she had it removed and her excuse for self pity went away. You could actually see the disappointment on her face. After that, I kept an eye on her. She didn't call in sick that often, although she often professed she was. If she called in sick she of course didn't get paid, but more to my theory, she lost her audience. She literally leapt from one bad situation to the next. Her car broke down, she couldn't pay her bills, some drama about her ex-, something would be wrong with her kids, her house, whatever. Never, ever did she run out of things to whine about, and whining, not to be unduly cruel, is really how she verbalized it. And she was very verbal. I began to suspect that her constant string of bad luck was more or less in her control. I thought that if only she would buck up, square her shoulders, announce that enough was enough, she could work her way out of her mess and turn her life around, but convincing her of that seemed a lost cause. A marginal employee at best, she would be so distracted by her life that she would often make mistakes. For me, the end of the tolerance I had for her was when she sent out incorrect statements to more than a handful of individuals, causing me to write each one a letter explaining they were not, in fact, delinquent. The damage both to the company's reputation and my workload was significant for a time, and I lost most of my sympathy for her after that. The thing about the best of the Black Clouders is that they have survival down to a science. I believe that class of individual knows, somewhere down inside, that they are always skating on thin ice, and know how to hang on for dear life. And, as clear as it eventually became to her that she wasn't Employee of the Month, she wasn't about to leave without a shove. Problem is, and generally has been with the others like her I've known since, is that she really is a sweet person. Disliking her, despite all my long list of her faults, was really not that easy. Which, of course, is part of the syndrome. No one is sympathetic to a horrible person. Everyone is sympathetic to an essentially nice guy going through hard times. She drew my name for Secret Santa one year and showered me with gift after gift, very carefully selecting them to fit my personality. It was embarrassing actually, she overdid it to such an extent. Worrying that being the boss caused her to in part over do it, I never participated again, which made me sad because that was the only part of the holidays I really looked forward to. But, her gift giving motivation notwithstanding, she was a sweet woman overall and she was kind to others in her way. Trying to force her hand and get her to move on was a miserable occupation for us. Eventually we prevailed, and she's taken her sideshow on to somewhere else, but I judge all subsequent sad sackers against her measure. She set the bar. I hope life is kinder to her these days. Sadly, I fear that it probably is not.

So, now I am like her? Has this long, hard year of constant blows been brought on somehow by myself and my actions? Did decisions I make, things I did, or more likely, not do cause the people I love to suffer and therefore, me to suffer along with them? Do I need the drama and just not realize it? Or, am I being visited with all these plagues like Egypt because I have always held people like the poor unfortunate accounting clerk in mild contempt? Maybe I was wrong about her, and she didn't actually have any control over her situation and her reaction to it? I pondered all these things, bent over the teeming, overflowing pipe full of raw sewage, but answered none of them. All I knew for sure was that this past year reminded me of my current plumbing situation, it was full of shit.


  1. No, you are not a black cloud person. The fact that you even ask that question shows you are not. Black cloud people don't think they are black cloud people. If you had left the door open, yes. You didn't. The septic tank overflowed because house maintenance is a little low on the priority list for you and Greg right now. But since I am your friend, I will do the obligatory "look at the bright-side" goes: you may have some home maintenance that needs taking care of but you have a home. Your dog may have gone for his own walk but at least he is healthy and well enough to feel like it. These are small things that may or may not be related to a karmic debt for a stolen parking space, not refilling the paper in the copy machine, or keeping the personalized labels without making a donation, but at least you have the intelligence, talent and skill to write about it in an interesting and engaging fashion. :)

  2. Thanks, Val. And, by the way, I always keep the mailing labels, but only rarely make a donation - my confession for the day.