The Fire Next Time

Part of my mission civilisatrice with the young Dinos is teaching them about privilege. White privilege, male privilege, class privilege, ableist privilege – they has it. We have it, minus the male part for Mouse and me, and it is our bounden duty to name it honestly and not treat it as the natural order of things or a reflection of any merit on our parts.

I try to fill the holes in my knowledge of history, philosophy, religion, and literature so I’m working from a more complete perspective than the canon I grew up with gave me. Most of my reading to this end winds up being whatever the “new books” section of the Alexandria City Library yields in the way of books about the history of social and economic policies in the US and books on African-American history, culture, and literary traditions. Luckily the library has been celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Alexandria Library Sit-In, so it’s been Black History Month all year and the pickings are rich. A few weeks ago, I found Negroes and The Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms and Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. My haul from Thursday night included The Other Blacklist: The African-American Cultural Left of the 1950’s by Mary Helen Washington.

(Long-time paleontologists will know that I have been moving steadily toward the left of the political spectrum over the last couple of decades.  I started out as a mainstream liberal with some libertarian/populist tendencies, so I was already left of center to begin with. I do not discuss my political party affiliation online, but I do feel comfortable saying that I consider the two major political parties in the US interchangeable and almost equally conservative in their platforms. Anything with “cultural left” in the title is like catnip for me.)

Reader, The Other Blacklist has an academic feel to it, with lots of citations and thesis statements. It is not a speedy read. But it made my brain explode. Until Professor Washington explicitly linked Cold War anti-communist political philosophy (self-reliance, salvation by individual works, and refusal to recognize systemic bias or systems of oppression as anything other than individual psychological aberrations) with the FBI’s well-known surveillance and harassment of civil rights activists, it never dawned on me that our current political landscape is dominated by that same philosophy. I was reminded of an Alternet article about how the self-help industry thrives in a cultural climate where individuals have ever fewer guarantees of their rights while corporations are treated as persons.

Remember the 1990’s when we talked about how Yugoslavia exploded into civil war because their strong central government and relative consumer freedoms weren’t accompanied by actual self-determination or free speech? I feel kind of sick now.



You Are Here

“Self-esteem” was a big deal in education during my formative years. The rhetoric surrounding self-esteem was right up there with Striving For Excellence and Just Say No on my list of reasons for holding adults in intellectual contempt. The problem with emphasizing self-esteem over self-awareness is best expressed in the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The less people know, the more they assume that they know.

My biggest beef with books about “leadership” is the presupposition that readers know where they fit in their organizations and which leadership skills and techniques are appropriate relative to their position in the hierarchy. I get a lot of inspiration out of online leadership literature (leadiature?) from this guy, for example. A typical post offers ideas for generating urgency. There’s something people at any professional level  can get out these insights, to be sure, but do you trust everyone in your organization to decide if and when it is appropriate to burn bridges? I’d love to see a couple of listicles from him on figuring out whether you’re applying the right leadership skill set for your actual place in the organization. This week GovExec ran a couple of good pieces about understanding what your boss wants and leading change from somewhere other than the top.

Dino Spouse and I watched the first two episodes of “World Wars” last night and tonight as I was blogging and reading leadiature. We met young Hitler, young Churchill, young Roosevelt and so on at the outset of World War I and watched them evolve. The on-screen experts more or less mirror the demographics of said world leaders. It’s not bad television, especially when leavened with Dino Spouse cracking wise about the intended audience for the program (“Is it for 12 year-olds?”) and my feminist grumbling (“I just found out that you can’t be an authority on World War I without a penis!”) I’m curious to see how much examination the series gives to the personal leadership styles of its Great Man subjects.  I’m also wondering how much I can admire the charms of the actor playing young Hitler without it being weird.


Alexandria Stuff

The new Global Food on North Beauregard Street (where the Giant was) is – so far – clean and packed with an impressive international array of produce, spices, beauty and health products, and snacks. Big Russian Soul shout-out for the outstanding selection of Euro-food and Middle Eastern options in addition to the usual mix of Asian and Hispanic goodies. It’s good to have a local alternative to Russian Gourmet for some of the basics.

Some jackass stole my daughter’s bike on Saturday. She was playing with a friend near Holmes Run Stream and had left her bike up closer to the playground. Remarkably, the police came to our house to take a report within 30 minutes of me calling to report the theft, and they actually recovered the bike within three hours. It was pretty impressive. Is this typical for Alexandria City Police? Gosh, I hope so. The bike needed some minor repairs, but it was back in working order by evening. We bought her a bike lock.

It’s lovely that swimming pool season is here, but the only outdoor city pool within walking distance of my home is the one at Ewald Park. It doesn’t look like that pool has been open since 2010 or so. Harrumph. Good thing my kids all still have friends who live in apartment complexes with pools or belong to private pools.

Anger, Now With Less Stupid

Mad love to the Government Executive online venue,, for great content. My only complaint is that I hate hate hate online video and audio podcasts. Maybe this is one the subtle differences between me as a Gen X early adopter of information technology and a proper digital native. If I wanted to hear or watch things, I would turn on the radio or the TV. I want still pictures and text out of my internet experience, by gum. When I find out that the headline I’ve clicked on is trying to direct me to watch or listen to content without offering me a transcript instead, I turn up my nose and click away.

What broke my resistance to multimedia content was the promise of a discussion of how managers can use their anger effectively in the workplace without being stupid. This is a topic near and dear to my heart since I have only seen one or two leaders manage to channel their wrath productively over the course of my government career. “Why Leaders Need to Learn How To Get Angry Without Being Stupid” was the headline that got me to listen to Scott Eblin interview Harry Evans, co-author of Step Up: Lead In Six Moments That Matter. In case you are likewise podcast-averse, the upshot of their conversation was that there are “moments” in any organization that make or break leaders, and a big one is what leaders do when they are angry. Controlling anger is critical, but using it effectively can serve as a catalyst for growth and improvement. To avoid doing dumb things with anger, Evans advises three things:

  1. Admit that you’re angry. You lose credibility if you lie.
  2. If others fail to share your anger, don’t take it as a sign that they don’t care enough to be angry. Lobbing accusations about others not caring is a sure way of making people defensive. Instead, explain what makes you angry in a way that invites others to share in your passion.
  3. Direct feelings toward ideas or actions, not toward other people

This sounds pretty smart. Worth listening to people talk on my computer, even.

Life and Death in the Animal Kingdom

The cat died a couple of days ago.  She had pretty much stopped eating as we went into the preceding weekend and no longer wanted to be petted. We would find her just sitting in front of her litter box or in front of her water bowl as if she just couldn’t remember why she had been headed toward them or just didn’t have enough energy to go any further. I asked the vet (Dr. Cohen at Alexandria Animal Hospital on Duke Street) to euthanize her Tuesday morning. She died peacefully while I stroked her head.

Dino Spouse and Mouse have mostly stopped tearing up at the thought of the cat. Mostly. They took it the hardest. Me, I’m still sort of peevish and efficient, which is apparently how I grieve as an adult.

Podrostok loved the cat. He was sad. TeenBot, who is allergic to all animals and plants, claimed that he was not. Neither of them seemed too upset on the day of. But they both had the sulks yesterday, and last night they busted out into full-on fisticuffs over pretty much nothing. The final casualties (between their fight and related rage attacks on inanimate objects) were two sections of drywall, one vanity mirror, two pairs of glasses, one set of sliced-up knuckles, and Mommy’s lumbar spine (after bodily separating the bull elephants from each other twice and threatening to summon the police before I finally managed to get them into separate rooms). Dino Spouse got home about 20 minutes afterward, as Mouse and I were cleaning up blood splatter while TeenBot dressed his wounds and Podrostok hid in his room. It was truly a crappy night for everyone.

I really hope they learn other ways of coping with grief before they reach adulthood.  They will certainly learn a lot about drywall repair and handling broken glass, at this rate.

(Poor Mouse. Between being scared out of her 11 year-old mind by her brothers’ performance last night and then reading the latest Time article about rape on college campuses, she’s  had way more consciousness-raising about violence than she can stand.

(Maybe I should have refrained from laying on the “attacks on inanimate objects will escalate into physical violence against people, do not tolerate this behavior if you’re in a relationship” speech to my girl as we were sweeping up glass off the floor. After all, the boys’ wrath was directed at each other, and she wasn’t even in the same part of the house as they were while they were fighting. But it seemed like a teachable moment.)

Death and the Saber-Toothed Tiger

Our house cat appears to be nearing death. She’s 20 years old. The vet says it’s congestive heart failure. She has been responding to the medication they sent home with us last week, but that’s only to the extent that she actually digests it.* The long-term prognosis is not particularly long-term. According to the Internet, she’s roughly 97 years old in terms of a human lifespan. Average survival time after diagnosis of congestive heart failure in cats is allegedly 180 days or so, but that figure includes diagnoses in cats of all ages.

I haven’t had any direct experience of death when it comes to people I’m close to. I’ve lost older relatives who seemed to have lived lengthy and complete lives (the definition of “older” being relative to my own age, of course – 62 seemed like 92 to me when I was 18, while now 70 seems like just barely a full life span). My reaction to their deaths was muted, which is a delicate way of saying that I did not grieve. Indeed, my predominating reaction to the first deaths I remember was irritation at others for being so emotional about the whole thing. This was in my teens (14-18). I am still not sure whether to attribute that to my self-diagnosed Asperger’s or chalk it up to the other possibility, equally likely, that I am a (now better-socialized) sociopath.

It’s different now. I’m still matter-of-fact and low-affect about death, but now I get sad about it and/or sentimental about the deceased. This is either a sign that I have matured or evidence that I have gotten better at feigning normal emotions. In either event, I know enough now to dread the loss of loved ones, ptu ptu ptu. I even occasionally remember that “matter-of-fact” and “low-affect” don’t necessarily scan well to people in the throes of grief. I strive to keep this in mind now as I model grief to my spawn and, in particular, as I confer with Dino Spouse about end-of-cat-life decisions. It will come as no surprise to the paleontologists among you that Dino Spouse and I have diametrically opposing approaches to grief.

*Dosing cats with pills is a skill I learned from my ex-husband and his parents, who bred Himalayans for sale and show. Maybe it’s easier to make cats with messed-up airways actually swallow the pills. Our cat is not one of them. She can hold those things in her mouth for way longer than I would have thought possible, then she spits them out after we stop looking. She will eat pills in her wet food, but only when she feels like eating at all. I am adjusting my technique accordingly.