Canvas writer Greg Bruce tries really hard to be an a***hole for a week.
As my train was rolling into Britomart, just before 8am one recent Monday, the man in the window seat next to me stood up. My impulse was to get up and let him out, but I forced myself not to move until the train came to a complete stop.
I can't emphasise enough what a difficult decision this was. He was stranded, crammed in there next to the window, delayed on his day's journey by as much as four seconds. I felt my heart speed up and my stomach sink. I felt terrible. Every part of me screamed, "Stand up, a***hole!"
That was the only bad thing I did on Monday.
I like to think my editor gave me this assignment because I'm a nice guy - or at least because I'm inoffensive. I hate the thought of offending someone. If I get into a disagreement with a person, even someone obviously morally defunct, I can feel bad about it for years afterwards.
I apologise constantly and to everyone. I apologise to people for my preschool children, even when they haven't done anything especially wrong, and then I feel terrible, because my children shouldn't have my neuroses imposed on them.
What makes someone an a***hole? On Shortland Street, it's always so obvious, but research into workplace bullying in the United States has found that roughly 50 per cent of people say they've been the subject of bullying or have witnessed it first-hand, while only about 0.5 per cent say they have bullied.
"A**hole" is a word I use reasonably often in my writing. My editor always changes the spelling to "a***hole". Because she is in charge, the version you are reading will almost certainly use "a***hole" but I guarantee in the original draft I will have written "a**hole".
Who's the a***hole in this situation? Me for being obstinate or her for using artificial workplace power dynamics to get her way? Does it differ depending on who you ask?
On Tuesday morning, the woman next to me on the train got off at Newmarket. After letting her out, I sat back down and put my bag on the newly empty seat. There were no more stops before our arrival at Britomart and nobody else was waiting to sit, but that wasn't the point. People who put their bag on empty seats are telling the world something very specific about themselves.
That morning, at the electronic turnstiles at Britomart, it suddenly struck me that a real a***hole would hold everybody up by not bothering to get out his Hop card until he reached the front of the queue. I didn't have the courage to do it, but thought is the precursor to action.
I arrived at work, as usual, well before my colleagues. Several months ago my editor, who sits opposite me, pointed out that if the blind isn't down on the window next to me, the morning sun shines straight into her eyes. When she'd told me that, I had immediately set a recurring reminder on my Outlook calendar, synced with my phone calendar, to close it at 8am every weekday. I've made it my first act on arrival at work every morning since.
But on that Tuesday, when my phone vibrated and I saw the familiar imperative, "Blind down", I looked at it and thought, "Not today," then I went around and raised all the surrounding blinds. I then raised the seat of her chair as high as it would go.
She came in not long after and sat down. She didn't comment about the chair. She looked into the blinding sun and politely asked if I could lower the blind, which I did, apologising for not having done so earlier.
I changed the height of another colleague's chair too but she didn't come in that day.
My first big planned action for the week was for 10am that day at the weekly meeting in which editors and journalists gather to come up with story ideas for the weekend newspapers. My plan was to turn up 10 minutes late, throw open the door and say, "Sorry I'm late, I really couldn't be bothered this morning."
Just before the meeting, I told my editor about the plan, both to motivate me to go through with it and as insurance against disciplinary action. "Good idea, but I wouldn't say 'sorry'," she told me. That thought had never occurred to me.
She left for the meeting on time and I remained at my desk, where I felt a steady rise in my pulse and general level of terror.
At 10.10am I left my desk and strode through the office, taking deep, deliberate breaths or hyperventilating. As I got closer to the meeting room, I felt my legs weakening and I knew the only way to overcome my body's physical rebellion was to maintain a high level of energy. Any physical expression of weakness would mean certain failure.
I threw open the door. One of the senior reporters was in the middle of saying something important-sounding regarding the election. Nobody looked up. It would have been incredibly rude of me to speak in that moment. The words I had been repeating all morning locked in my throat. There was a spare chair at the end of the room. I walked towards it. There was no gap in the conversation. I sat down silently.
A few minutes later, I received a text message from my editor, sitting just a few seats away. It read: "My story where I try and fail to be an arsehole for a week..."
About an hour after the meeting finished, I inadvertently touched my armpit and found it soaking wet.
I had set two ground rules for the week: I wouldn't s*** in my own nest and I wouldn't do anything that would make anybody's day worse. When I told people about the rules, they generally thought the first was sound, but the second was ridiculous - impossible for a story in which the idea is to be an a***hole.
I didn't care though. If I was going to do this story, I was going to do it my way. If I don't have baseline morals that hold firm in the face of low-rent, psycho-social stunt journalism, then what do I have?
Having said that, one of my colleagues arrived at work on Thursday, after several days of me adjusting her chair and exclaimed, loudly and surprisingly angrily, "Who the f*** keeps doing this?"
Another colleague asked, "Doing what?"
"Altering my chair when I come in!" she said.
I kept my head down.
"It's lower, and the back's been adjusted," she went on. Her anger was so intense that I realised immediately that I had hugely underestimated the significance of seating to her well-being.
"I don't know how to put it back," she said, her rage growing. "It's really f***ing annoying, actually." She practically spat the "f***ing", and the "actually" came down like a guillotine on my self-image.
"There must be people using our desks," she said. By this point, she was sitting in the chair, swiping at the multitude of levers under the seat pan, futilely trying to return it to its original position. "Uh! See!" she said. "It's all wrong!"
She spent a couple of minutes trying to fix it. Someone went over to help. I sank down ever lower in my chair. The whole thing had blown up so far beyond what I had expected and had severely broken my ground rules. I felt bad and naughty for what I'd done and terrified that she might realise it had been me.
Then the moment passed, the fury died away, the excitement was over. It was just a chair, after all.
Half an hour later, I overheard her say, "I'm just watching the YouTube tutorial. These don't look like our chairs." Two hours later, she said, "Does anyone else around here need their chair looked at?"
I kept my head down.
On arriving at work much earlier than all my colleagues the following morning, I went straight over to her desk and found a handwritten sign on her keyboard reading, "Please don't adjust chair. Thank you."
I paused. The requirements of good story-telling demanded that I act, but my basic humanity suggested I stand down. I stood there for a while thinking about it. I was on the verge of reaching for the cluster of levers beneath the seat pan, but then something inside me said, "No more." Instead, I just wheeled her chair to a nearby desk.
On Friday, I printed out an A4 sign reading "Do not use until further notice" and stuck it on the closed lid of the toilet in my favourite cubicle and left it there all day, giving myself free and unfettered access and guaranteed all-day cleanliness.
I also printed out and attached a "reserved" sign to a heavily used meeting area near my desk and wrote underneath, in black permanent marker, "until 11.05am", then later I crossed that out and updated it to 12.15pm.
I invited my wife and my two younger children, aged 2 and 6 months, to come into the office in the morning. There was nothing obnoxious about that - my kids are adorable - but they made a mess in the meeting area and I just left it there, although given that the area was reserved exclusively for me, who was I really affecting?
I took my family to a cafe across the road from the office. Within a few seconds of my wife ordering coffees and a scone, I went up to ask the staff about why our order was taking so long.
If we had been waiting 20 minutes, I would still have found this difficult, so I went with the support crew of my son and daughter. When I reached the counter, I was met by a team of four staff, all of whom were making goo-goo eyes at my beautiful children, and I just couldn't do it. The words stuck in my throat.
There was a long pause while I tried to figure out what else to say. "We," I began, indicating my 2-year-old with my thumb and rolling my eyes slightly, "Just wanted to come and ask where 'our' fluffy was."
I couldn't believe that I was throwing my daughter under the bus like this. She didn't understand the betrayal, or at least I assumed she didn't, but that wasn't the point, morally, was it?
One of the staff looked at her and said, "We'll bring it over as soon as it's ready, sweetheart, okay?" Clara looked up at me, befuddled. I tried to avoid eye contact.
When we finished at the cafe, I took my coffee cup out of its saucer, along with its napkin, and threw them haphazardly on the table, and then I took several sugar sachets out of their serving bowl and scattered them around a bit.
At 11.40am on Friday, I sent the following email to Michael Boggs, the chief executive of NZME, the company I work for, who goes by the nickname Boggsy, and who I have never before had any interaction with:
"Hi Boggys, I still cannot for love nor money find a fork in the kitchen between the hours of midday and 2pm (weekdays). Let's have a quick catch-up this afternoon and get this sorted once and for all. The time for "Band-aid"-style solutions is now past. G."
I sent it from Outlook with an attached meeting request, blocking out two hours in meeting room 1B02 from 2pm that afternoon. And then I waited.
A year or so ago, this magazine published an article in which the writer wrote: "I often feel that the work I do around the house is the work of an invisible person. How else could my husband consistently leave his underwear tucked behind the bathroom door?"
That was a classic example, I thought, of a writer showing rather than telling - in this
case showing the fact that her husband is an a***hole. But then my wife read the story and said, "You know I pick your undies up off the floor all the time too?"
I conceded that this might happen occasionally, but told her I was usually very good at putting my undies in the wash. No, she assured me, she picked them up almost every day. I felt angry because she was using showing to tell me something about myself that I knew to be untrue.
More recently, my wife said to me just before dinner one night, "What's it like to come home every night and just have dinner appear magically on the table?"
I know a relationship grenade when I see one, and I knew to immediately push the heaviest compliment I could find on that one, but the truth was that I had never really thought much about it.
My obvious lack of appreciation for the dinners she prepared every night while our three preschoolers screamed at her about irrelevancies was another soiled pair of undies on the floor of our relationship.
Three or so months ago, on the first Sunday of the America's Cup final, I lay in bed on my side, facing away from my wife and the cot containing our baby son, Casper, and I watched the racing on my phone with my headphones in.
Later in the day, I mentioned something to my wife about the excitement of it all.
"You weren't watching the America's Cup this morning though, were you?" she said.
"Yep, I was," I said.
"So you thought you'd watch America's Cup and not deal with Casper?"
"I thought about it," I said, "but I figured I was watching the America's Cup."
"Thanks for that," she said.
"You only had to put his dummy in once," I said.
"No," she said. "I put it in three times and then brought him into bed with me."
"Oh," I said.
To me, and I assumed, to my wife, this had been a funny exchange, but we discussed it again recently and she said that my conclusion was not accurate. She described the whole thing as "rude".
Might there be other such acts or non-acts of mine that she hasn't mentioned, that I have probably forgotten or never registered in the first place but which she may have been subconsciously storing away? How many of them would need to be gathered before the collective actions would warrant the application of a negative label to the perpetrator?
Fifty per cent of people have experienced bullying in the workplace, 0.5 per cent of people say they've done the bullying. In terms of explaining who we are as a species, isn't this one of the most telling statistics you've ever heard?
My two-hour fork meeting request with the CEO was declined. He was away on annual leave. His PA suggested a more appropriate person for me to get in touch with, but I didn't want to waste his time.
She added, probably because she is nice, that she also has problems finding cutlery in the kitchen at lunchtimes. Her problem, she said, was spoons. She added a smiley face.
At work the following Monday, at 12.10pm, I went into the kitchen to make my lunch - it was leftover curry with rice from the dinner I probably hadn't sufficiently appreciated the night before.
There were heaps of spoons in the kitchen but not a single fork.
My colleague never found out who adjusted her chair.
THINGS I WANTED TO DO BUT COULDN'T
• Throw screwed up paper at the back of someone's head while they were doing an interview.
• Put Post-it notes on other journalists' backs: "Bad at grammar", "Can't spell", "No scoops".
• Spread junk from my desk on to desks of colleagues.
• Eat something from the office fridge that didn't belong to me.
• Fart in the kitchen.
• Call the Spark sales team and have them talk me through every one of their plans, then just as they're wrapping up, yell, "Vodafone's better!" and hang up.
• Find a Trade Me ad that said "No time wasters", then submit lots of annoying questions.
• Go to a fancy clothes shop and take a whole armful of clothes into the changing room, then walk straight back out without trying any of them on.
• When a shop assistant asks: "How's your day going," reply with: "Can we not do chit-chat?"
• Use the toilet.
• Wear dirty shoes.
• Tell the agent the house isn't up to much.
• Fart in the lounge.
• Give the agent a ridiculous lowball offer, adding, "Take it or leave it."
• Tell a friend they look really tired.
• Cut to the front of a queue. Fart.