Smart Rules: Canaries and Alligators

The trouble with everything costs something is that you can only experience one set of consequences: the decision tree branches, you pick one or the other, and the not-chosen branch dies quietly.  Schrodinger’s Cat, once examined, is either one or the other.  You don’t get to play both out.

I have a supervisor.  My supervisor finds me disrespectful.  I find him intellectually incurious, and therefore limited as a manager of people.  You have to be interested in perspectives other than your own to manage effectively.  His response to my perceived disrespect has been distinctly bullyish.  I spoke up for myself.  And here we arrive at the rule for being smart for the day:

Don’t write a check with your alligator mouth that is going to break your canary ass.

I’m not saying that’s where I am.  Everything costs something: speaking up in your own defense is expensive.  Keeping quiet comes with its own expenses, and the truth is that, more often than not, the person who makes a problem known becomes the problem child and not the person who caused the problem.  Speaking up makes people uncomfortable.  Everyone would rather you do the safe thing, the comfortable thing, and talk bad about the schmuck, wreak havoc with everyone’s morale, complain bitterly and quietly, and then find another job.  The clean answer, the direct answer, raising your hand and saying no, this isn’t going to go down like this…

Both options have their costs.  The one is up front and immediate.  The other is a bit like paying by credit card.  Sure, you think that paying a little bit over time is easier on your finances, but one day you wake up like most Americans with $15,000 on the Visa and 22% APR, wondering how you could have ever been so stupid and what on earth you have to show for the debt.

There is no clear answer here.  In my case, Schrodinger’s Cat is dead and I don’t know how things would have played out if I hadn’t stood up to the bully, because I did, and now I’m the problem child.

Everything costs something.  There are times when that is both a certainty and a comfort.  I would have been paying for this anyway… at least that’s what I tell myself.  Besides.  I’m not sure I was constitutionally capable of keeping my mouth shut.  So there is that to consider as well.

Canaries and alligators.  Make sure your back end matches your front end before you assert yourself.  That’s all.

Smart Rules: Canaries and Alligators

The Living Dead

My sisters and I have a pact: drastic intervention is authorized if we ever sound like we’re turning into our mother.

So far, it’s just little things.  My eldest sister over uses the word moment.  I’m having a hard time coming up with an example, but when she does it, I cringe a little.  Because mom *really* overused moment.

I’ve heard my middle sister use “whatever whatever” before.  This is verbal DNA transferred directly from my mom, who got it from Mrs. B.

Hopefully, I’ve avoided the verbal tics.  I’m sensitive because I had an ex with the weirdest verbal tic I’ve ever come across.  He’d add “for going” or “for actual going” or “for actual going through” to the conversation and he didn’t know he did it.  I pointed it out, he denied, I started pointing it out every time he did it… he’d deny he’d just said it, but it’s the only time I remember him laughing without bitterness.  He broke the habit.  Eventually. Since then, I’ve tried to maintain awareness and avoid picking up the tics myself.

But never fear, she lives in me in other ways.  Wasting water, for example.  Nothing makes me crazier than letting water run with no purpose.  Fine.  If you’re trying to get the water to run hot.  Leaving it running while you’re brushing your teeth and not using it?  Maddening.

Okay, so I can take a kind of virtuous pride in that one.  Because really, who is justified in just running water because you can.  This next one, however…  it was gross on her and it is gross on me: fishing stuff out of my teeth with little awareness I am doing it.  Seriously.  I gotta fix that because it’s repulsive.

So far, we’ve managed to avoid the big issues.  Inability to see appropriate boundaries or respect them.  Selective memory about our failures.  A marked preference for appearances over reality.  Failure to take ownership.

We’re on the lookout, though.

The Living Dead


The to-do list is full of tasks that are irrefutably final, yet I’m waiting for it to hit me.

I want to say that I did my crying while she was still alive.

There wasn’t a serious break-down standing in the room with her body.  Not saying it was tear-free to tell her mother that she was gone, but full-on break-down?  No.  And there was plenty of finality to be had in looking at her, touching her.

Picking up her ashes was fine as well.  Another item on the list of things that needed to be done.  No sense of catastrophe holding the five lb box that is left over when a body is burned at high temperatures.

Resolving her house is next on the list of things to do.  Aside from my all-consuming rage at having had someone else touch her stuff, I think I’m probably going to be the most pragmatic of the three of us.

Maybe this is my mother in me.  She loved her lists of things to do.  I tend not to write them down, but I go over an internal to-do list over and over again.  Wrap up the house.  Drive home.  Get here in time to do one more week at work.  And then a complete blank.  I have no idea what comes after that, but once it was clear that Mom was terminal, the list materialized:  See her through her passing.  Arrange to have her body cremated so we could separate the immediacy of the physical decay from the time we need to make the memorial happen.   Spend Christmas somewhere else.  Pick up her ashes and the pile of death certificates.  Welcome 2015.

Done, done, done, done, done.

The house, the drive, making it home for one more week of work, and then …

Mom died when she got to the end of her to-do list.  I don’t think it will be so dramatic for me.  But it occurs to me that I should watch out.  Once all the contingencies are taken care of, once the list is clear, then what?



It’s my favorite holiday.  Maybe it has something to do with the introduction Peter S. Beagle wrote to The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle.  He talks about his appreciation for shape-shifters and actors and how that informs his writing.  (Go easy on me, I’m paraphrasing here.)  There’s something about the weather – chilly enough for layers – and the food (mulled cider!) and the leaves falling and the earlier evenings…  it is the first real celebration of being cozy.  Plus adults can get away with playing with their identities in a way that are typically out of reach.  At least if you aren’t heavily into cosplay.

But the holiday is also one of the glossed-over connections to the connections between western culture and its pre-Christian roots.

It is also a Christian construct.

I see a connection between the macabre celebration of the crucifixion of Christ (all that eating of his body and drinking of his blood) and Halloween.  We celebrate our fears on Halloween, trying them on and turning them inside out to make them safe.

To the Celtic progenitors of Western Culture, Halloween ended the old year.  So in that way, it was a celebration of the cycle of life, the past year dying on one night, only to be reborn the next morning.  Throw in some Roman conquers and the Catholic mission to turn the known world Christian, and the new year became the celebration of the dead saints (All Hallows Day) and the night before like Christmas Eve is to Christmas.*

Mix together the Christian weirdness about celebrating death; the human fear of death; regional traditions surrounding the day, each connected backwards in their own way to primitive cultural roots; generalized anxiety about change and social structure; rising and falling interest in mysticism; horror movies; dissatisfaction; longing for the opportunity to play… and you get Halloween in its current incarnation.  A mess of traditions blended together and appropriated in service of playing out our anxieties and bridging the gap between modern life and dirt.

Halloween is a dirty holiday.  It smells of decay and dirt; it smells of candy-laden loam.  Yum.

Ratwell and I were talking about costumes I could pull off in short order for some last-minute invitations to Halloween parties.  I threw out the option of dressing up as an ebola-stricken nurse.  He was horrified.  Lest anyone else also be horrified, let me add the disclaimer that it was an idea I wasn’t wedded to.  It popped into my head along with The Black Widow (because who doesn’t love black boots and a badass) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

This led us to a discussion about how the general population might see Halloween, what appropriations are acceptable and why, and why we dress up like we do.  I think Halloween serves a social function, allowing us to play with those things we fear the most.

Take the sexy <insert identity here> trope that so many women fall into.  If, as a society, we’re still nervous about women’s sexuality and insulting a woman’s sexual choices is still enough to discredit a woman entirely, it makes sense that women dress up as the thing they fear the most: a woman who puts her body on display deliberately, with confidence, with a sense of play, and simply because they can.

In this context, the Ebola Nurse costume is a legitimate choice: here is a common fear that the news is cramming down our throats.  Taking on that fear, owning it, playing with it is a way to disarm the fear.  Nothing deflates fear faster than play and humor.

Ratwell objected because, for a family with direct experience with ebola, drunken people carousing with a clumsy pastiche of a horrible illness, the whole thing might be painful.  “You wouldn’t dress up like a cancer patient, or an AIDS patient,” he says to me.

But why not?  Is it in bad taste?  I can see why it would be, and things like taste don’t need to submit to logic.

We uniformly agree that black-face and appropriations of racial minorities and stereotypes is (at the very least) in bad taste.  I saw somewhere in the news that a mock lynching scene was taken down by the authorities in Kentucky.   (You can google it, but don’t be surprised if it makes you sick to your stomach.)  I wouldn’t argue for the legitimacy for either of these activities fitting under the umbrella of re-appropriating our fears.  First, lynching is a blanket threat.  While it would be universally condemned, it is unfortunately still plausible that a lynching would take place in the US.  There is a direct link between Emmitt Till and Trayvon Martin.  There just is.  It isn’t funny, and it isn’t taking the fangs out of a cultural fear by mocking it.  Those fangs are still out and if that is a surprise to you, then you haven’t been paying attention.

(Digression: Mel Brooks managed to send up racism in Blazing Saddles in a way that feels like an authentic use of humor to turn a miserable aspect of culture inside out.  It’s been done elsewhere, but I can’t think of an acceptable scene satirizing lynching anywhere.  Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.)

In the end, we were left with the conclusion that most people aren’t thinking about the philosophical or psychological underpinnings of their costume choices.  The boundaries of good taste are inconsistently applied: it is acceptable to appropriate the identity of a witch, even given the long history of witchcraft accusations being a weapon against women and burning at the stake.  It is acceptable to dress up as a drag queen, but it isn’t acceptable to dress up in the stereotype of a different race.  You can get away with pandemics and illnesses that are long-distant: a victim of the Plague would be acceptable, but a modern AIDS patient would not.

Halloween is a mess.

I don’t want to be misunderstood as arguing for equal opportunity offensiveness.  I do, however, find the shifting ground of taste fascinating.  Intellectually, I think it is dangerous to identify a subject as one that just can’t be discussed.  But socially, I’m okay with the idea that there are some things that just aren’t done, nor should they be.  Not even for Halloween.  Not even as a send up of our fears.

Personally, I’m wearing my devil’s horns and a Friday-appropriate outfit: I’m the devils’ dutiful daughter.  Unless you’re a die-hard Christian and uncomfortable with the whole concept of Halloween, I’m pretty sure I’m about as unoffensive as it gets.  Until I open my mouth that is.

* Here’s better reading on the history of Halloween.


We had a pandemic in 1918 – H1N1, then known as the Spanish Flu.  Between 3 and 5% of the population died, most of them healthy young adults.  The healthiest people died because they had the best immune systems.  It wasn’t the virus that got them, it was the full-on counterattack mounted by their immune systems that did them in.  Let’s look at that again:

The virus didn’t kill them, their body’s reaction to the virus killed them.

Kind of like how it isn’t the feeling that’s the problem, it’s your feeling about the feeling.

Just sayin’.

And before someone smarter than me starts explaining to me that this isn’t a universal lesson about viruses, and some viruses really are the problem and will kill you.  I get that.  The analogy still holds.  No one is saying to ignore the issues in your life.  Serious stuff is still serious, and requires the feeling and then some kind of decision about what you’re going to do to change your circumstances.  But we all have the feeling, then the feeling about the feeling.  The trouble is stopping there.

The feeling is the virus.  The feeling about the feeling is your immune system trying to excise that feeling.  Ideally, if you quit with the feeling about the feeling, accept the original feeling as it is, listen to the thing it is trying to tell you, and then use that information to come to some kind of a measured response that takes into account your values and purpose and addresses the thing the feeling showed up to tell you…  you’re in a better place than if you just get stuck between the feeling and the feeling about the feeling.


How to be a Nicer Person

Or how to stop being an asshole.

I keep thinking that it can’t be that hard not to be an asshole.  There has been a lot of stuff coming up about bullies and trolls on the various and assorted social media sites.  I’m lucky, in a way, because I have such a small (and generally like-minded) following that no one has ever been nasty to me in an online forum.  But I read about it happening to other people and for every death threat delivered in a comments section, I have the same thought: when did this become okay?  And how hard is it to just not be an asshole?  Clearly, it’s harder than I think it should be.

Step one: Recognizing if you’re an asshole.

If you have ever threatened someone’s life or physical safety or that of his/her family over an idea, a belief, a game, an opinion, a TV show, a tweet, an article, a religion…  Okay, let’s start again.  If you’ve ever threatened someone’s life, physical well-being, or that of their family (to include pets) you are an asshole.  The only possible exception is if you threaten (or cause real bodily harm to) someone who is in the act of harming you or someone else.  For example, the guy in Texas who beat the assailant of his child to death…  he is not an asshole.  If you are in the military fighting a war, you are not an asshole.  These are the only exceptions.

Losing your shit over things you are guilty of is another good sign.  Road rage over someone not using their blinkers when they change lanes, when you also don’t use your blinkers?  You might be an asshole.

If the only socializing you do consists of tearing other people down, you are probably an asshole.  If you are mean to people you don’t know just because you can get away with it, you are probably an asshole.   If you think someone reacting to offensive language by becoming offended is their problem, you are probably an asshole.

I’m sure I could come up with other symptoms, but that covers quite a bit of territory.

Step Two: Deciding you don’t actually want to spend the rest of your life being an asshole because, let’s face it, the world just doesn’t need any more schmucks.

Are you happy?  Do you have meaningful friends?  Do you have lasting relationships with members of the sex you are attracted to?  Do you feel an incipient longing to create something that lasts instead of just tearing everything down indiscriminately?  It may be time to recognize that you’d like to become a constructive human being.

Step Three: Developing compassion.

Oddly enough, this starts with your relationship with you.  Go easy on yourself.  Stop saying such horrible things about yourself when you make a mistake.  Take a deep breath.  Recognize that you are fighting a hard battle, and credit yourself for making it this far.  Then expand that circle of compassion outward a little.  That guy that just cut you off in traffic.  Probably doing the best he can with what he’s got.  The lady who can’t make up her mind in Starbucks: fighting a difficult battle and doing what she can to make it through.  That person you’ve never met on the internet with an opinion you disagree with.  Probably just wants to make the world a better place to the best of his ability.  Go easy on yourself.  Go easy on other people.

Step Four: Take nothing personally.

See, 99.999% of what other people do isn’t about you, it’s about them.  Unfortunately, this means 99.999% of what you do isn’t because so and so said thus and such.  Taking nothing personally goes hand in hand with taking absolute responsibility for yourself and your words.  No one can make you mad.  No one can make you anything.  You choose your reaction.  We’re all trying to make it through with a collection of challenges and difficulties that are uniquely our own.  We’re all generally so absorbed in our own concerns, we have a hard time seeing other people.  That goes for you too.  Notice it in yourself when you’re getting ready to fly off the handle.  Notice it in people who you disagree with.   Their feelings and how they handle them tell you about who they are, not who you are.  Your feelings and how you manage them tells the world who you are and says nothing about the person you are blaming for your reaction.

Step Five: If you would be mad if someone said it to your mother, don’t say it to anyone else.

I’m pretty sure that doesn’t need further explanation.

Step Six: find something you’d like to build, something that makes the world a better, safer place, and focus on that.

If you don’t like people, do something for animals.  Whatever it is, find a constructive place for your energy, something that benefits someone or something other than yourself.



That’s it.  Practice a little every day and eventually, you too can become a nicer person.  Just start with the no death threats thing, because the fact that someone has to say that out loud is just sad.


How to be a Nicer Person