Smart Rules: Everything Costs Something

It is my grand unified theory of everything: everything costs something.  Every cost comes with a benefit, every benefit comes with a cost.  You will have to pay one way or another.  Nothing is free.  

There is no point in getting worked up about this, it is a universal law.  There is no emotional content here, it isn’t personal.  Your highs will be countered by lows.  Both bring their lessons – the darkness carves out depth, the light provides strength: you will need both to grow into who you were meant to be.  Do not rail against the costs any more than you complain about the benefits.  Find your gratitude and apply it to the fact that the joys didn’t cost you more.  Apply it to the fact that every joy provides double the strength that every sorrow requires.  

And complaining about the fact that everything costs something makes you a whiner and a twat.  Don’t be a whiner and a twat.  

Also: don’t believe anyone who offers you a benefit without a cost.  They are either lying or stupid.  

Smart Rules: Everything Costs Something


Doesn’t happen once.  It’s like that ticket stub you keep because you saw that movie with your first love and it was a perfect night and every time you see it, you think everything is possible because there was that one moment where everything fell into place and there wasn’t a single thing you’d change.   So this ticket stub.  You had the night itself and every time you find the ticket stub again, you can close your eyes and embody the memory.  There are days you go looking desperately for it because you need to remember that perfection is possible, and those are never the days that you find it.  Other times, you’re dusting around the books, you pick one up, open it, and the ticket stub flutters from the pages to the floor and you’re instantly transported to knowing that everything is possible again.

That’s enlightenment.  I think.  Unless someone has found it full-time and ever since, has never had to struggle to get themselves back into alignment with taking a deep breath.

I found it driving to work months and months after my ex husband left.  The sunlight came out of nowhere and irrational joy was mine again.  It lasted for all of 20 seconds, and it hit me.  This is the point.  Joy is the point.  Getting to the place where you can let it find you (since chasing it rarely works) and accept it without question when it comes…  This is why we’re here.  The bad stuff that happens just carves out room in our experience so we can take in more joy when it reappears.  And for 20 seconds, I was 100% at peace with everything, exactly was it was.

Of course I lost it again.  I lose it all the time.  I get wrapped up in the dumbest stuff: people in the pool who occupy a lane only to stand on one end and talk.  Can’t you see that you could just as easily stand and gossip in the part of the pool that isn’t cordoned off for laps and let someone who is serious about swimming use the lane?  And I get irritated even when I’m perfectly situated in a lane of my own.  The mere existence of this selfish oblivion, coupled with the failure of the pool management to step in and point the offenders in the right direction, is enough to upend my internal balance while I’m swimming.  And it doesn’t have shit to do with me!

Trust me.  The enlightenment thing didn’t stick.  This might be a solid argument against my claim to have experienced episodic enlightenment.  Perhaps true enlightenment is the kind of thing you only have to do once.

But I don’t think so.  Just about everything worth having must be revisited again and again.  You can’t work out once and then be done with that for the rest of your life.  You can’t commit once and be done.  Commitment is a practice that you must show up for one day at a time, and every morning, you have to make that decision all over again: you.  No one eats once and call it quits, or bathes once and call that sufficient for the rest of their life.  Any of these things that go into living…  love, health, spirituality…  they all require maintenance.  I just don’t think you get to taste enlightenment once and then you’re good forever and ever amen.  In part, because I’m pretty sure enlightenment, like a lot of the best things in life, happens in small experiences and not in the big events.

Or at least that’s been my experience.

I do realize that it is a lot to claim enlightenment, even incremental or episodic enlightenment.  I’ve been the most unenlightened person ever this week.  The pool incident is recent.  My rage dreams are recent…  Enlightenment did not show up and decide to stay.

But maybe the idea that you can be submersed in everything for brief periods of time and then struggle like mad to get back there is okay for me, and if it is okay for me than maybe it is okay for you too…  And that’s mostly what I wanted to say.  Take it how it comes, and if enlightenment comes episodically, well, that counts for something too.


Ties, Tribes, and Racism

So I commute and I think.  This morning, I was thinking about racism.

It probably started with this article on Buzzfeed.  Someone looked at attraction using a mock Tinder interface.  The most popular man and woman, based on swipes from a demographically diverse sample, were both of color.  Getting into conversations with the people in the study, the author tried to uncover the reasons for identifying that particular man and woman as swipe-able.

As it turns out, the fact that they were attractive was only part of the issue.  It was also in how they presented themselves: the setting of their picture and their respective clothing said solidly middle class.

Socially, we know we’re fundamentally tribal.  For a very long time, we needed to be able to identify who was one of us in a hurry so we could either fight them because they didn’t belong to our tribe or get back to searching for dinner or danger.  We like people who are like us.  The good news is that, at least in certain areas, we’re moving away from identifying who is “like me” based simply on the color of someone’s skin.  That is a kind of progress.

The trouble, of course, is that it makes the legacy of racism harder to address.  Because a lot of us can genuinely say that we don’t discriminate on the basis of race, mean it, stand behind it, and defend it.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate.

We’re here because our ancestors were good at making snap judgement about their environments and acting on them.  The people who truly were without discrimination didn’t make the evolutionary cut.

This discrimination that we’re all guilty of is more complex than the color of people’s skin.  Yet it disproportionately impacts people of color.  Because of our collective history (that peculiar institution, to quote a ghastly monument at Harper’s Ferry), skin color is often a short-cut to class assumptions.

I started thinking about the class thing when I lived in Scotland.  I was a volunteer with an organization that gave families in crisis a 10-day holiday in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  The volunteers and leadership were all distinctly middle class.  Our families were all receiving public assistance.  Everyone was Caucasian.  Our families didn’t get a free pass from prejudice, assumptions, scrutiny, discrimination, fewer career options, lower expectations, diminished educational achievement, etc. simply because they were white.  Culturally, the perceived path to real success was through sport or entertainment.  Everyone knew of someone who had made it out of the poorest neighborhoods of Glasgow by being a kick-ass soccer player.  All the little boys wanted to be David Beckham.  They were not aspiring engineers, finance geeks, or doctors.  For that matter, the girls weren’t planning on engineering, finance, or medicine either.

So here were the same conditions, the same limited opportunities, the same judgement, all in the absence of race.  It made me think that maybe race wasn’t the issue.

Legitimately, I’ve got to wonder what difference it makes.  There is discrimination, the discrimination impacts people of color disproportionately, why not just call it racism and be done?

The why not is because it doesn’t solve anything.  There isn’t much to talk about once the word racism enters the conversation: it naturally devolves to a back and forth of absolutes.  One party says they are not a racist, the other party says “yet I am clearly being discriminated against.”  What can you do with that?  If the only requirement is to not be a racist, one half of the situation says “done: I’m not a racist.”  And the other half of the situation says “that’s nice, but I still have to change my name to get considered for a job, so I’m not buying it.”  Everyone is telling the truth, yet nothing changes.

Can we all own the fact that we are built to discern between who is like us and who isn’t and just accept that as a neutral remnant of the brain structure that enables survival?

I’ll offer a potentially uncomfortable example from my life.  I was dating a man who was transitioning from the military to civilian life.  He wasn’t white, and he had the most god-awful taste in ties.  I say this as a white person looking at ties that clearly said “not one of us.”  How does something as simple as a tie say “not one of us”?  Color, cut, pattern…  It’s subtle and it is stupid, but I worked really hard to get those ties away from him.  Yes, it is miserably wrong that a mis-chosen tie in an interview could be the difference between a job offer and no job offer.  And it wouldn’t be because he wasn’t white, at least not directly.  It would be because his tie said “you aren’t one of us.”

All the experience in the world can’t compensate for the fact that the workplace is a social enterprise and interviewers want people like them in their tribe.

So I’ll confess:  I discriminate.  I am a discriminator.  I discriminate on things like garish hair: there was a woman in the cafeteria this morning with red and white hair.  I mean chunky streaks of bleached out highlights on top of dyed red hair.  White as white can be, but she wasn’t one of my tribe.  I wouldn’t have hired her, simply because not knowing that the hair was in bad taste makes me think I would be risking something to put her in front of a client.  I’ll be honest, her hair was a tell for class.

When it comes to class, I really do want people like me.  I come from a lower-middle class upbringing with parents who had upper-middle class values.  My earning power right now is more than what my parents made together when I was growing up.  I had an aunt that sent us shoes because my parents didn’t always have the money.  For romantic partners, I want someone who has made that journey.  In my friends too…  none of the people in my world came up with money.  We all have a solidly lower-middle class intolerance for bullshit.  But we also know how to present in the world we live in now, sort of winking and nodding at the younger versions of ourselves, the kids in high school that we were, when we didn’t care about makeup because a $6 mascara seemed super extravagant.

So is it wrong to be a discriminator?

Yes, when you are discriminating over things that people have no control over.  Skin color, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.

But when it comes to presentation?  I won’t rehash this entire argument because I’ve made it elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, the way we present ourselves to the world is deliberate.  We’re telling people we meet on the street our tribal affiliations.  You don’t get a face tattoo because you want to tell corporate america that you belong in their tribe.  You just don’t.  The brands we pick, the colors we wear, our shoes, our hair…  personal style is the visual story you tell to the world about who you are.  When you buy a Coach bag, it isn’t the bag that you’re buying.  You could get one of those at Walmart and be just fine.  You’re buying what it says about you.  Pragmatically speaking, it is impossible to get away from that.

Things like jobs are, for good or for ill, only partially about accomplishment, merit, or the requirements of the position.  They are also about tribal affiliations.  It isn’t so much that discriminating on the basis of tribal markers is wrong, but that it is subjective.  If we can be neutral and admit that we all do it, can we then be neutral and recognize when we’re doing it so we can then ask objective questions to determine if our subjective tribal assumptions are helpful, or fair, or legitimate in the context we’re in?  Does the more nuanced perspective on discrimination make it easier to counter our instincts with an approach that is more inclusive?

Ties, Tribes, and Racism

Compass Over Maps, Agile, Everything Wrong with Everything

It isn’t like I have the “right” approach.  I’m just pretty sure that most of the time, the traditional application of command and control doesn’t work.  In fact, I can’t help thinking that the notion of a “right” answer is all wrong.  The variables are too many, the unknowns growing exponentially, the way we each fit into the world so highly precise, trying to define a single path from here to there is deeply unlikely.  The traditional framework for problem solving just seems so egocentric.  Like there’s one problem and one solution and if you just sit and think about it long enough, you can figure out the “right” answer and get there.

I’ve never seen it work.  Not personally, not professionally, not in organizations.

We’ve gotten used to the the thinking that organization and process and procedure solve everything.  That if you want efficiency, if you want success, you’ve got to make it bigger, impose standardization, make it all repeatable.  It just seems like we get so stuck in thinking that there’s one way to approach the issue, this one way we’ve been using all this time, that alternates rarely get explored.

Meanwhile, it is messy.  We’re concocting organizational schemes and building boxes for everything to fit neatly in and reality looks at those boxes and hierarchies and laughs.  Then it goes and does whatever the hell it wants to.  It’s entropy, and entropy always wins.   At least when it comes to physics.  Clearly, I don’t always win.

Would it be such a disaster to admit that we don’t know?  To stop trying to turn everything into a factory?  To bow to the inevitable and pick a direction on the compass and head there instead of trying to plot out on a map every step?  How much are we missing when we’re searching for “right,” trying to make reality conform to our myopic supposed to’s, instead of interacting with what is?

Hell.  I for sure don’t know, but I don’t think that puts me at a disadvantage.  Since I don’t know, I can at least figure it out.

Compass Over Maps, Agile, Everything Wrong with Everything

Stories in the Closet

Some other time I’ll have to see if I can come up with a cogent, reasoned basis for my starting point: our lives are governed by the stories we tell.  We start with the basic building-blocks–genetics, brain structure/chemistry, parents, society, culture, language – and we come up with a story that is our identity.  No, it isn’t all choices.  You don’t chose the color of your skin or your parents propensity to read to you.  But you choose the story you tell, and that story gets told in every choice you make.  From what we read to what we put in our closets, all of these things work together to express our story about who we are – our identities.  

It is the question of appearance as a collection of choices designed to tell a story that I’d like to talk about.  Mark Cuban is in the news for talking about his prejudices when it comes to young men in hoodies and anyone with a face tattoo, but I don’t think the negative press is fair.  We’re all engaged in a social contract.  Unless you live in monkish isolation all alone in a cave next to a snow leopard in the Himalayas, you are a part of the social contract.  In any interaction, there are two people and they both bring something to the table.

Let’s get the Trayvon Martin sticking point out of the way.  At no point did Mr. Cuban say he would be justified in shooting a young man in a hoodie.  He said he would cross the street.  I don’t care what you’re wearing or how you choose to present yourself or what falls out of your mouth, no one should be shot over someone else’s prejudices.

Hoodies are a part of the sartorial lexicon for a number of cultural subgroups.  It is a choice in clothing that means something:  If you’re in Silicone Valley, the hoodie is a badge of belonging in the ranks of hackers and programmers.   In London, a hoodie was uniform for the riots in 2011. With this item of clothing, I would imagine that much depends on whether the hood is up or down.  At least in my own perception – as a hoodie-wearer when I’m not pretending to be a grown up at work – hood down is something entirely different than hood up.

We’re social creatures navigating with the evolutionary tools that kept us alive for millennia: the ability to make quick judgement about what is safe and what isn’t, an intuitive understanding of how to project invincibility like a puffer-fish under attack, and the ability to camouflage ourselves to go undetected and unpunished.    Every day, we make choices that navigate those social constructs.  We know that we will be judged by the way we present ourselves and we react accordingly.

Unless it’s cold or raining, a hood-up hoodie is functionally unnecessary, therefore  whether the hood is up or down is a choice to project a message.  It may be the equivalent of a dog with it’s hackles up – don’t mess with me, I’m bigger than you – but it is a choice that telegraphs something intentional to anyone looking at you.  To deny that is insupportable.

Mr. Cuban also pointed out facial tattoos.  Let’s be honest.  Unless you’re from a Berber (or some other) tribe  that practices facial tattooing as a part of social cohesion, you don’t get your face tattooed to tell people looking at you that you are a conformer who is deeply committed to the social construct.  You just don’t.

It is disingenuous to expect that society not react to the choices you make about how you present yourself.  You make those choices for exactly that reason: you want to send a message about who you are, the story you’ve told about yourself that you want the rest of us to buy.  The messages change – visible tattoos don’t have the same gasp factor inside the bell curve that they used to, and I think that’s a good thing – but the messages don’t go away.  As a part of the social contract, I have a responsibility to understand what is expected within the social group I’m a part of and make my choices accordingly.  It is unreasonable for me to reject the consequences of those choices as being unfair.

If I get a Kat VonD constellation tattoo around my eye, I would be telling my co-workers in the government building I’m in that I wasn’t interested in playing the game they’re playing.  Would I be fired over it?  Probably not.  Would I get the same job if I came to the interview table with that tattoo?  Probably not.  My competence level would be the same, the difference is that I’d be telling the interviewees that I was actively unwillingly to conform to the social norms of the workplace I was in.

And that’s fine, it is my right.  But I can’t send the message to the world that I’m uninterested in playing by societal norms and then be mad when the social group (family, friends, work, public transportation, these are all social spaces where people interact) doesn’t want to play with me.

I wear a lot of black.  It’s deliberate.  When I open my mouth, more often than not, I’m memorable.  I want to be able to choose the message I give and when I want to give it.  I want my clothes to be pretty unremarkable.  My hair, my eye shadow, my nail polish, my shoes, when I’m shopping I choose not just on whether or not things fit, I’m shopping for the message I want to send about myself: slightly unknowable, more interesting on the second (and closer) look than she is on the first, and self-contained.  There isn’t a lot of booty hanging out, not much by way of flashy jewelry.  And I’d be straight up full of shit if I tried to say that my closet wasn’t curated to send a specific set of messages.  For good or ill, that message is mine.  It is the story I tell to someone who’s never met me, before I even open my mouth.

It doesn’t include a facial tattoo, because I want to be able to choose when I tell someone I don’t give a shit what they think of me, I don’t want them to know that when they first see me across the street.

So I don’t have a problem with Mr. Cuban reading a message in the hood-up collection of young men walking down the street and getting out of the way.  To suggest that someone not react to the visual clues being sent by other individuals in a social group is to suggest that we can or should wipe out a million years of social evolution.  Unlikely.  I’m not saying don’t get a face tattoo.  Just don’t get one and expect to become the Director of the Office of Personnel Management.  You can’t tell a story about yourself and get mad when other people take you at your word.

When I say everything we do is in accordance with the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, clothing and grooming is included.  When we do something contrary to the story, either the story or the behavior must change.  We don’t do well out of alignment with our own stories (which is why, when looking to change yourself, it helps to start by changing your story about yourself…  either the behavior or the story has to change.  If you’re deliberate about the story, then the behavior follows).  For a good example, check out this video of a homeless man getting a makeover and see it all the way through.

I don’t know Mr. Cuban from a doorpost.  All I’m saying is I’m not buying that he’s a schmuck off of this one interview.

Stories in the Closet

The Only Constant is Change

And things are changing.

I’m guilty of finding profound changes for humanity in the works just because I’m feeling the daily effects of an old system falling apart.  It isn’t that I think I should be exempt.  As previously noted, I’m really not special.  It’s that it’s all theoretical until it happens to you.  And then you see the ground eroding under everything.  I’d like to think that there’s a plateau, a new normal, something that we can all get used to and a framework we can learn how to be in.   But I’m not sure that’s coming.  If you look at the acceleration of revolution, compare how long it took for each of our previous revolutions to make their effects felt:  Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Social Revolution, the Sexual Revolution, and the Technical Revolution.  Hell, our technology is having a new revolution every couple of years now.

We can keep up with the basics of learning the technology, but keeping pace with the implications?  I’m not sure that we’ve caught up with the emotional impact of rampant individualism (as exhibited by anonymous lives in anonymous cities with no extended family to be seen) and that’s been a reality for a long time.

The Russell Brand thing; a recent quote from someone in the CDC that the age of antibiotics is now over (see the post on risk and how our avoidance of it has created even more risk); the Government shutdown and the ongoing battle over federal spending; unemployment and the people who aren’t on the unemployment rolls anymore because they’ve given up thinking that a job is going to save them; spending the morning with TED Talks as my soundtrack; all of this (and more) is contributing to an overwhelming certainty that nothing is ever going to be the same.

This is a terrifying prospect.  That doesn’t make it a bad thing.  I just wonder what we’re all going to do as more and more of us are faced with a reality that isn’t comprised of sunshine, glitter, and rainbows.  Not that it’s been sunshine and roses since …  well, probably since 2001.  We had Enron in 2001, which wasn’t the first time a big company has let everyone down by being full of greedy, amoral arseholes; but it certainly set the stage for more of the same.  And then we had 9/11.  Between the two (at least from a house in DC) those two threads have played out again and again in the 12 years since.  Shady accounting, corporate malfeasance, a blurring of the lines between corporate profit and politicians, and a barrage of enemies that we are trying desperately to neutralize at all costs.  And your average American following words of wisdom from our second President Bush… Do your patriotic duty: shop.

It can’t go on.  Nothing is ever going to be the same and I don’t know anyone with a strong sense of 1) what the new “normal” looks like or 2) how to bride the gap from here to there.  I kind of feel like I might as well wander into the unknown as hold on to whatever it used to be.  I’ll have to make the journey one way or the other and I’m not sure it’s going to be any easier a year or ten from now.

If only I had the first clue what next looks like, I think I’d feel a lot better about this whole thing.

The Only Constant is Change

Neutrality / Ambivalence

I’ve hinted around neutrality before.  A friend in St. Louis first recommended that, when in conversation with the Universe, I might ask that my neutrality be expanded.  As a not naturally neutral kind of person, this was a brand new thought and a relief both.  Ah, blessed neutrality.  The precursor for things like understanding, clarity, observation, and acceptance.  A critical building block for things like compassion.  A requirement for choosing your reaction instead of just succumbing to your ego-centric emotional response.

Neutrality is about breathing.  The absence of expectations.  For someone who is generally anything but neutral, it’s like cold water on a blistering hot day.   It is the epitome of nirvana.

I have not been feeling much neutrality as of late.  Actually, ever since the move.  Prior to the horrible evening of watching box after box enter my roommate’s house, I was doing pretty good.  I’d been gifted with certainty and neutrality and I was riding out the attendant complications and ramifications of my choices with equanimity.

Then I moved.

Neutrality vanished.  My reasoned approach abandoned me and I said some things that I stand behind, but probably weren’t helpful at that particular juncture.   And all of that agitation and frustration and impatience stuck.

Until the past couple of weeks,  when neutrality’s cousin showed up instead.  I now have ambivalence.  While neutrality and clarity can co-exist quite happily, ambivalence and clarity want nothing to do with each other.  Ambivalence is a fan of napping.  Sleeping late, staying up late, watching stupid crap on TV, these are all the purview of ambivalence.

When compared to agitation and indigestion, ambivalence is a blessing.  Neutrality is better, at least when it comes to waking up in the morning…  But if ambivalence is all I get for the moment, I think I’ll not complain.

Neutrality / Ambivalence