Big fish, really tiny pond.

I volunteer as the treasurer for an association here in the So of Fr whose 400-strong membership is overwhelmingly retired and financially comfortable, more or less equal parts French, Dutch and British, with a sprinkling of Germans, Belgians and Scandinavians, plus two Canadians. I’ve been a member for the last ten years, and been involved on the periphery for most of that time, mostly because my now-husband was once the president and is still the webmaster and general go-to person.

When he woke me up one morning about two years saying that he’d come up with a really good idea, I thought he had a tropical holiday in mind. He needed one, since he’d just spent about 10,000 hours writing a computer programme that could handle all of the administration, registration for activities and payments for membership fees and organised trips that our club offers to its members. He came up with this little project on his own, and set to work writing code, even though he’d never done anything like it before. Eventually, he finished it and made his little presentation to the board, who embraced and implemented it almost immediately.

But he had also sweated a lot over the development of a companion accounting function to go with the programme, and wasn’t sure that any would-be treasurer with a true accounting background would be happy to leave Excel tables behind. So his idea was to sweetly suggest that I, a total nabob where numbers are concerned, should volunteer to replace the retiring treasurer, thereby ensuring that his labours on that score would not go to waste.

After swallowing my disappointment about the non-holiday, I said I’d think about, did think about it, and said yes. I’d seen it coming, anyway, and couldn’t bear to squash his eagerness. I called the president and told him I’d volunteer for the job. He snorted with laughter (not kidding), caught himself, apologised, and explained, lamely, that he’d just never thought of me as having a head for figures. I know my way around an Excel table, I lied, knowing full well I’d never have to use one. I got the job.

That was two years ago, and after a difficult apprenticeship, things are going smoothly now. The presentation I gave at the AGM last year was preceded by a Conte de Fée – a fairy tale – that I wrote about my initiation into the world of accounting, but which was also a play on words, since ‘conte’ sounds just like ‘comptes’, which is ‘accounts’ in French. I think I was the first treasurer in the history of the association who didn’t bore everybody to death with the annual report.

But anyway. The real point of this little story is that being on the board of an association means having to work with other people. This is not my forte, either. I would never describe myself as a team player unless in a desperate attempt to get a job I wasn’t suited for. I tend to be a lone wolf who doesn’t willingly take direction, is slow to compromise, and doesn’t know what inclusive means. I don’t poll other people for their opinions, don’t seek advice and as a result tend to spend a bit of time regretting some of my decisions and actions. I am also impulsive and adrenalin-driven, with a tendency for fight rather than flight. I also think everybody’s wrong except me. In short, I’m potentially really lousy at working in a group.

The treasurer’s position carries a bit of weight, fortunately, and people tend to believe that whoever has the job is up to it. My track record is good on that score, and most of the feedback I get is positive. However, I’ve got a reputation for speaking my mind, and in the last month I fear that has cost me two friendships. The first case involved a discussion between me and the president about a member who organises concert and ballet outings. She’s done this for nearly 10 years, and for most of that time has been in violation of one of the fundamental rules of the association, which is Thou Shalt Not Reap Personal Financial Benefit. As a result of the business our club brings to one of the regular venues, she’s been offered free tickets. Instead of attributing the value of these tickets to the association, she’s been taking them for herself and her friends. She got away with it for a long time because various treasurers didn’t notice or if they did, thought it was fine. I didn’t think it was fine, and said so. The 14-member committee agreed with me, rewrote the rules a little tighter, and reminded everybody, including this person, that such benefit was a no-go.

Christmas ballet season approached, and I become aware that the ballet company had once again offered free tickets. I sent a little reminder about the rules to the organiser, not before double-checking with the president that he had my back (he most assuredly did, unquote). Her response was to call him up, plead seniority, ill health, good will, and the fact that nobody ever stopped her before. His response was to renege on his support of the rules, and me.

I admit to a long-time dislike of this organiser. I have seen her modus operandi at close hand for years, and am not the only one who finds her personal intercourse to be unpleasant to the point of aggressiveness. She is, in my view, a manipulator who can switch from breathtaking rudeness to to sweetness and light in a nanosecond, when it suits her. I used to feel sorry for her; she lost a child to a drug overdose, and has been widowed for years, but there’ve been too many occasions when I and my personal computer programmer were the target of her rudeness, and she has lost my sympathy.

I asked for a meeting of the board to discuss the issue. In preparation, I wrote a timeline of the process that had started with the auditor’s red flag about freebies, the subsequent committee decision, the president’s assurance of support, the reminder, and the about face. I was seriously pissed off, although most of that was directed at the woman who felt she should be an exception to the rules. Despite all the negative aspects of my personality, of whom a very few are listed above, I am a rule-follower, in the main. Most rules exist for sensible reasons, and I don’t question those, although I don’t fall in with ones I consider ridiculous, such as always having to eat lunch at 1 o’clock. Or having to eat lunch at all.

The meeting turned tense. I laid out my case, reading from notes. I have to use notes because the meetings are conducted in French and I can’t always afford to speak off the cuff in my second language. The president was alternatively tired and combative, and with varying degrees of conviction, the rest of us were lined up against him. He flared at one point, calling me Madame le Procureur, a reference to my chronological timeline and, no doubt, my lawyerly delivery. I was firm, calm, and not a little influenced by my incomprehension of his change of tack. I could understand that he felt under attack and tried to lighten the mood several times, and thought I’d succeeded. In the end, he stunned us all by resigning. If we were not willing to let a long-time volunteer get away with her freebies, then he didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We weren’t nice.

Did I come down too hard? I don’t think so. A rule for one is a rule for all, in such an organisation. I know that I can be intimidating, mostly due to my height and my manner of speaking. But I don’t think I was overbearing or unfair. Did I let my personal feelings about this woman colour my reaction to the situation? Absolutely yes. I was like a dog with a bone; no way did I want her to worm her way out of a resolution that the entire committee had agreed upon, and that I felt was morally correct.

I would have loved to be able to impose my values on the guy. I would have loved not to have to consult him at all before I reminded the volunteer of the no-benefits policy. I would love, in a general sense, to be able to sweep any opposition to my ideas and methods off the table. I would love it if everybody recognised how right I am. But I’ve had to turn myself into a team player, and it’s not always been a comfortable road.

In actual fact, I’m not really that thick. I know I’m not always right. I know enough to hold back when others have their say, and to really try to listen. My fight response would work super well in a dark alley, but in a boardroom it’s not always productive, and damn, it’s hard to keep it on a leash.

I’m now in the uncomfortable position of having ‘won’, as the remaining board members have sent a firmly worded letter to the offending organiser, but having quite probably lost a friend in the process. The president is the guy who, as a municipal official, married us. He’s funny and generous, but I don’t know how forgiving he is. He’s had a month to lick his wounds and maybe forget how mad he was at me, and in a few days I’ll drop a hand-written letter in his mailbox. We’ll see.

But before that, I have to deal with another situation where the divide between friend and colleague got really blurry, and if I don’t handle it well, I’ll definitely have lost another relationship.

Sigh. To be continued.


13 thoughts on “Big fish, really tiny pond.

  1. Whoever told you working on a committee was easy told you a lie.
    You have just confirmed me in my absolute conviction never ever to serve on any committee ever again, even if if it’s called a board. The less important and petty, the fiercer the in-fighting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I quite like it when you describe yourself–it creates even greater credibility for you as reporter/author of these events since you are willing to detail your own faults. This makes you ever-so-appealing to readers! (I mean, as if we weren’t already fans…)

    I can’t tell you how much respect I have for you being a rules-follower and for not rolling over into acceptance or complacency on these violations, even if it means you ruffled feathers and perhaps lost friendships. There’s a way in which I can’t see these people as genuine friends, if their actions and views here are indicative of their characters.

    All that said, no matter how clear you have been in your convictions, I suspect your stomach has hurt at times and that this hasn’t been emotionally easy. Right there, that you continue to chase The Right Path in the face of tough interpersonal moments, increases my respect for you even more.

    What an utter delight to read your writing again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jocelyn, you’ve gotta stop – my halo hurts! But really, it’s lovely to have you in my corner and I thank you for your kind words.
      I identify with people who are candid about their faults, even if such honesty can be (can It? Yup) self-serving. But here, I’ve got no agenda – unless it’s to whip up some admiration for being willing to do this stuff (board work) despite being totally unsuitable for it. It’s good to step outside yourself, though, and I’ve learned an absolute ton over the last two years. And it’s improved my French no end!!!

      The press was not a close personal friend, but the mutual affection was palpable. I hope he’ll come around, and I hope not to continue losing sleep over this. I didn’t worry this much about my teenagers!!!


  3. You’re so bloody hard on yourself! You did the right thing. You take your role as treasurer seriously, and fight now you’re reminding me so much of your cousin (my husband). He too has lately become the treasurer of his organisation, and he’s swept away the loose and ‘iffy’ cobwebs left behind by previous treasurers. The only difference is that he doesn’t second-guess himself – it’s ‘too bad, so sad, and if you don’t like it you can …expletive deleted…’
    So my dear Deborah the Just, please, if it helps, think of your dear cousin and his blue language, his confidence in his convictions, and the big hug he’d give you if you were here.
    I agree with Jocelyn – the people who so quickly abandon the good ship ‘Same Rules for Everyone’ don’t sound like true friends.
    Also: Keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I redirect the last line to you, Kath. I know what you’re up against in your life right now, and I can imagine that you have little inclination to relive it in writing about it, but. Just but.

      Laughed at the mental image of Dave in a committee meeting! Yeah, he’s got self-assurance in spades. Maybe he could shovel the excess my way? There’s a gender issue in here, too, and as you know, women are generally more concerned with how they’re viewed by others. I try to shed that, and just be a straight shooter. So what if people think I’m a ball-buster and wonder how on earth my shorter husband copes??


  4. Oh, it is GOOD to read you again. And I stand with Friko: I will never join a committee ever ever in what remains of my life, if I can help it. “Winning” is an awkward thing, most often it feels like losing, though what you may have lost (in this case a “friend” so-called) is less important that what you have retained: your integrity. Rock on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you so much, ds!!! I didn’t expect to see you here, but it’s becoming a bit like old home week, and I love it! Thanks also for the encouragement – believe me, it’s come in handy. 🙂


  5. My girl, you did the right thing, and don’t let anyone tell you differently! Obviously, the lady in question has used her difficulties in life to get her own way, ad nauseum. I seriously hate it when people use sympathy for personal gain. And the former president will come around, or he won’t. The loss will be his in not having you for a friend anymore.

    You and I are so much alike it’s scary. I’m the same type personality, just ask David. I’m always right, and just want people to stay out of my way so I can get the job done. I know you are angsting about this situation, and I’m sorry that it’s tearing you up, but it brought a smile to my face, because I can just see you in there fighting battles, taking charge, tilting at windmills.

    David is on the board of our county’s United Way organization, and is also the treasurer. He’s had to fight a couple of battles, but for the most part they listen to him, and back him up. He seems to enjoy having somewhere to go since his retirement.

    It’s so good to have you to read again. xoxo


  6. Why am I not surprised by this latest revelation from you??? Mind you, I did already have a pretty good idea about that aspect of you :), and it only makes me like you more. I don’t do well with friends who are pushovers, and in that horrid schoolyardy kind of way, it tends to ramp up my own tendencies. Know what I mean? Anyway, all this support is much appreciated, and I did keep you in my head as I went to meet the person from Situation #2, which I will probably write about shortly. I’m finally learning not to feel guilty about everything that goes wrong.

    I think that Volunteer Woman is a bit like those trendy sociopathic CEOs. She doesn’t actually bring up her human losses, but she’s always on about her health probs. I hate disliking people – it just feels wrong, like I’m wrong – but that doesn’t stop me from doing in now and then.

    Hugs, sistah.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. How good to read you. You are a writer and you carry me along, so much so that I find myself agreeing with you and totally on your side and marching in your band. And then, perhaps because I am contrary, perhaps because I always want to see if I can think myself somewhere else, I wonder if the whole thing was worth the candle. I am not very comfortable with absolutes. That is probably why I was so taken with your writing in Charlie hebdo. We would find ourselves on the same rather blurry page there I think. But this I am less sure about. Kindness, is that not more important than being right? Maybe kindness is not on the committee.


  8. I’m sorry, Elizabeth – I didn’t see this comment until tonight. It had been directed to spam, for some reason.
    Yes, you’ve definitely got a point about kindness, and I guess that’s the lens through which some of the other committee members viewed this woman’s actions. What interfered with my being kind was having been at the receiving end of her rudeness for some years, and having witnessed that state she prodded my normally serene husband into, by virtue of her sharp tongue. The others on the committee were able to look at the situation without the dislike that I feel for her, and perhaps they made the right decision. I still believe that a rule for one is a rule for all, unless there’s a good reason to make an exception, and for that I could be accused of being inflexible. I laughed at your expression ‘worth the candle ‘ – it’s a good one that I would do well to remember.
    Thanks for your kind words as well. It’s good to be back.


  9. Having personal experience of “Life in France”, I’d assume much of his reaction was Knee-jerk to the fact that you are a woman and spoke up, in a “Foreign Way”. That’s a very deep-seated bias. The freeloader probably had more guile.


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