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


Writing, at least for the past month+, has involved intensive research and writing on the subject of Ebola, or more specifically, Ebola in West Africa.  I know more about Ebola than I ever wanted to know.  It is one of those subjects that exposes everything wrong with our media.

First of all, the general tenor of the media reporting has had a distinct flavor of “those uneducated, backwards brown people.”  Do any reading at all, and you’d think that the “traditional burial practices” involve rolling around with the dead person, propping them up in the corner and sitting on their lap like Santa Clause.  Here are your traditional burial practices:  wash the body, have a funeral to which the entire community is invited and at which family and friends are likely to touch the deceased, and bury the body.

What of this is so different than the way we bury people here?  Okay, so we farm out the washing to the mortuary, where they suck out all of the fluids and replace them with chemicals, then paint up the body so it approximates life.  Then we have funerals, and I’ve been to several.  People touch the body here and kiss the forehead here too.  And then the body is buried.  If my mom had died of Ebola, I would have caught it.  I touched her as she was laying in the hospital, I touched her after she died.  The problem isn’t cultural nuances, it is that someone who dies of Ebola is more contagious after they’ve died, so any contact at all is a risk for transmission.  Yet and still, the bodies must be buried.

Second, you’d think that pervasive ignorance was to blame for the magnitude of the spread of this Ebola outbreak.  No mention of abject, grinding poverty.  No discussion of corrupt governments, the legacy of civil war, not enough doctors, health clinics with too little staff, no supplies…  Nope, those backwards brown people.

And then, if that wasn’t enough, the narrative about how the western world – the “international community” – intervened with education, contact tracing, safe burials, and proper care protocols, and saved the day.  Clearly, money made a huge difference.  Money, supplies, doctors, etc.  And yes, education was required.  All of that required resources…  Ebola had never been seen in West Africa before.  But West Africans did a hell of a lot to save themselves too.  And the idea that learning was a problem doesn’t hold water, because the same report that hints at ignorance and intractability also points out that stigma and fear of Ebola lead to healthcare workers being ostracized and threatened with violence.

Get into the story and it’s fair to say that Ebola in West Africa was a clusterfuck of epic proportions, and will continue to be felt for a long time.  Ebola is terrifying, but what about the fact that kids who didn’t get vaccinated because the whole system fell apart over Ebola are now at risk for dying for measles at a rate equal to the number of Ebola deaths?  Yeah.  Bet the media isn’t going to have histrionics about *that.*

So yes.  I know more about Ebola than I ever wanted to know.  And I’m incredibly grateful that I haven’t had to watch anyone I love die of it.  And the Ebola orphans make me want to quit everything and just go hug children in Africa.  And I hate how stupidly, structurally colonial and racist the media is.

That is all.


What You Wish For

These grand thoughts seem to happen fairly regularly in the shower…  Seriously, before the invention of the shower, where did people go to have their grand thoughts?  It is entirely foofy, but I want to believe water is some superconductor between a body and the Universe.  I was standing there in the dark and I realized that I am the thing I wanted to be when I grew up.

It doesn’t look like what I thought it would look like.  At sixteen, I saw myself standing on a cliff in a black skirt on a walk with four dogs after a long day writing and teaching.  It doesn’t look like that.  There aren’t many cliffs in DC and I don’t wear black Stevie Nicks skirts to work most days.  My teaching duties are more “other duties as assigned” than they are classroom with chalk.

But I am a writer.  I write books, though that doesn’t pay me nearly enough to survive on.  I write reports – I’m currently up to my eyes in Ebloa, which I will wax eloquently about later.  And I only have one dog.  It isn’t the way I thought it would be – these things never are, but it *is* what I wished for.  After a fashion.  I’m incredibly lucky…  loads of people are still looking for where they belong, or making intolerable compromises.  There are things I don’t like about my work – I don’t like it when the experts come in and muck up the flow and rhythm of my paragraphs.  There is nothing about technical or scientific writing that says it can’t have a flow or that every sentence must start with “the.”  And I get frustrated when I can’t fix it because the expert on Ebola trumps the (more-or-less) expert on words.

So no, it isn’t perfect.  But perfect would be boring – we all need something to squawk about.  Still, it’s kinda sorta what I wished for…

What You Wish For


I don’t know what to tell people.

How were your holidays?

Um.  Not that great.

Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

What happened?

My mom died.

Like not everyone needs to know this, I understand.  But I also just don’t have much in me for polite conversations.  I want to be left alone with what happened.  I don’t do well at small talk under the best of circumstances, but now small talk seems particularly burdensome.  Don’t these people know that I’m in the middle of something?

Of course they don’t.

Someone at work suggested we go out for a drink.  I said no.  My mom died.  I don’t want to do anything.  Maybe not ever.


The People Problem

You think your job is widgets.  It isn’t.

Your job is people.  Somewhere along the way, maybe when we stopped growing our own potatoes (and even then, there was family to manage), the output stopped being 100% of the point.  Not that output doesn’t matter.  Not that you don’t touch widgets.  But I’m willing to bet that for 99% of people, their daily work isn’t taken up in units moved from the inbox to the outbox.

Nope.  The bulk of your day is spent in people, nurturing relationships, building influence, listening, talking, arguing, managing feelings, going around so-and-so…  Because work is a social enterprise.  It is the primary social enterprise, given the death of small communities and the waning influence of churches.  It’s where we talk to people, it’s where we express ourselves.  It is the venue that excuses our runway walk through the world with this pair of shoes instead of that, this haircut, this beard, this dress, all of which say to people “this is who I am.”

Let’s face it, you don’t worry about all of that when you work from home, you don’t have to tell the dog who you are.  He can figure that out by sticking his nose in your butt.

Economies are changing.  Everything is changing.  From an input/output perspective measured in widgets, our system for working is super inefficient – because of the people.  People are the problem.  At least from one perspective.

From another perspective, we need our work.  Even the jobs we hate, and not just for the paycheck. We need our work because we are social animals.  We need the connection and it is harder and harder to find elsewhere.

To our detriment.

The People Problem

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