Unexpectedly TeenBot is home from Marine boot camp. He had an unexpected health issue pop up and was discharged to come home and deal with it. It’s treatable – he should even be eligible to enlist in the military again after six months with a medical waiver, if that’s what he wants to do. But it’s rough on him, coming home without a clear path forward just when most of his friends are heading off to college. I will say no more, since it’s not my tale to tell – but there it is.
We launched TeenBot off to his senior prom tonight. That was one of the day’s three main events and definitely the most photogenic. The other two highlights were bleaching the bejeezus out of the shower and drafting my first post as a Featured Contributor on GovLoop.
On the latter point, it has been six years or so since the last time I wrote anything for an actual publication. I hope that I will get the hang of it again quickly, seeing as how I’m supposed to produce one post each week for the next couple of months. I also hope I’ll figure out how “focus keywords” and “SEO titles” work (unless, of course, the nice editors at GovLoop wind up taking care of all that).
On the former, I will spare you the before and after pictures. My landlord’s interior maintenance is maybe not the best thing about where we live.
One of the books I downloaded during my recent convalescence was Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’ve been a fan of his work since I first encountered The Black Swan in my local library back in 2008. His books show up variously under “business,” “finance,” “systems,” and “self-help” in bookstores, but basically he’s a philosopher, complete with his own collection of aphorisms. His prose puts me in mind of Camille Paglia in her Sexual Personae days, only he’s writing/lucidly ranting about financial markets, probability, ethics, and the many wrongs of academia instead of writing/lucidly ranting about literature, aesthetics, sexuality, and the many wrongs of academia. (Paglia and Taleb are also loosely connected in my mind by their their pugnacity and their Mediterranean cultural frames of reference – his Lebanon/Phoenecia, hers the Italy of her grandparents and Greco-Roman antiquity. Also, I find myself alternately relishing their wisdom and wanting to argue with the conclusions they draw from it. But arguing with famous people on the internet when one is not famous has always struck me as a pointless activity.)
Skin in the Game (SITG) is heady stuff. Taleb’s invective is learned, literate, and fun to read. His descriptions of meals make me hungry. His excoriation of the ways that conventional wisdom fails in recognizing and responding to extremes and rare occurrences is downright invigorating. Then it occurs to me that I’ve long since forgotten how to read the equations in his books and that I bear more than a superficial resemblance to one of his Intellectual Yet Idiot foils. I deflate.
Indeed, what skin in the game can a Salary Mom (or Taleb’s latter-day Salary Man, the “Company Person”) actually have? That was the main problem that preoccupied me after I finished reading SITG. I understand the Maestro to be saying that, in purely economic terms, we People of the Paycheck are somewhere between debt peons in the counting houses of antiquity and landless vassals who give fealty to a particular House (or Constitution or a corporate mission statement) and do homage to the Sovereign or CEO in hopes that we will be rewarded with modest lands and sufficient means to educate our children for their own eventual service at Court.
So let us say I take my oath seriously* and try to make myself a better vassal by improving my understanding of Real World Risk. I read Taleb’s books and adjust my physical fitness regimen.** To my horror, I come to the conclusion that I am adding to the ultimate fragility of the U.S. Government just by showing up for work. If I consciously try to simplify processes, by David Graeber’s Iron Law of Liberalism (not in SITG, merely a connection in my brain), I will ultimately wind up creating more bureaucracy and hence more fragility. In the event that I achieve anything significant, it will likely lead to counter-productive consequences. On the other hand, if I go Bartleby and refrain from further work, I could lose my livelihood. Quit smirking, this does actually happen sometimes in federal government.
(A couple of years ago I asked Taleb on Twitter what a self-identified IYI should do to avoid causing harm. He suggested taking a relaxing job with lots of free time. That sounds like more fun than taking extended periods of sick leave every couple of years to birth children or remove/repair body parts! but I think the net impact winds up being similar.)
In SITG Taleb speaks of wolves among the dogs***, Company Persons who signal their independence from organizational mind-lock with unorthodox behavior or dress at risk of their “corridor reputations.” His examples of this tendency include temperamental geniuses whose contribution to a corporate bottom line makes them irreplaceable, people who curse a lot, and – in a separate discussion – people who do not look the part of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing (surgeons who do not look like surgeons). The idea is that these Company Werepersons put their skin in the game by inviting scrutiny or blame for their actions, having made themselves too unpleasant or just plain weird to blend in with the rest of the dogs and debt peons. In this, at least, I can see where my skin in the game is beyond just earning my keep. I am good at “plain weird.” But to what purpose if everything I touch supports an inherently counter-productive enterprise?
My father is a long-retired Salary Man who spent his career working for utility and transportation companies and trying unsuccessfully to make engineers out of his children. Early on in my professional life, he told me two things about working in a bureaucracy: first, that middle managers exist for the purpose of absorbing the resentment and fear of their subordinates and their bosses, and second, that the purpose of a bureaucracy is to prevent stupid things from making their way out of an organization and into the world. I guess that this via negativa winds up being the name of the game for the Company Person and his or her skin. So the true end of all worthwhile bureaucromancy is apophatocracy, or the attempt through selective application of institutional rules to prevent the institution from loosing bullsh*t upon the world as it performs its stated purpose. I wonder what Taleb would think.
NOTES AND DISCLAIMERS
* Have some disclaimers with that.
** Taleb’s thoughts on physical fitness (spelled out in Antifragile) are persuasive. That being said, after birthing three human kettleballs and failing to maintain core strength for years thereafter, I have no intention of deadlifting anything any time soon. Using my son’s barbels did make my time on crutches much easier, though, so I’m sticking with getting better at that.
*** I see where the wolf metaphor applies in terms of differentiating between the run of Company Persons and the rarer individuals who can hunt their own game in the wild even after years of organizational captivity. But what dog doesn’t see himself as a wolf? Howling, scowling, and marking the carpet tile are empty signals in an organization without a mandate to turn profits or a real likelihood of failure. Real wolves do not lurk the halls of such institutions, by and large. You want something done in a dog-ocracy? Find a vulture or a raccoon.
Words With Friends really doesn’t get me.
This is the kind of thing that makes Dino Spouse break out in a cold sweat every time I ask him to pick up the groceries.
It’s Easter for us Papists (and the Western-rite Orthodox, and Protestants). This year my sister and I and our families met up for a holiday lunch at Fogo de Chao downtown to celebrate. As the night deepens and the time for this week’s episode of “The Walking Dead” approaches, I feel confident in declaring victory. The conditions for a successful holiday have been met. To wit:
- No one gambles away the grocery money.
- No foodstuffs are thrown.
- No one storms out of the house in a passion.
- No one visits the ER.
- No one makes me cry.
- No one calls the police to my home.
(OK, actually I can’t claim victory if I haven’t fulfilled the religious obligation of the holiday. I am really pleased about the other stuff not going wrong and with the way the rest of the weekend went – I mean, I didn’t eat any Easter candy! I exercised! I took a machine-sewing primer at Stitch Sew Shop! We had a really pleasant afternoon with extended family! But nope.)
At the start of the week, I read an Inc column by Suzanne Lucas listing 10 things every working mom needs. It made me want to write a post in response. Only now that I am writing it do I realize that she actually published the column in May 2016. So I will have to amend my first item on my list of 10 Things Every Salary Mom Needs.
- Time to write own posts (and check the publication dates on other people’s before deciding to pen responses to them). I wish that time were something one could purchase as a Mother’s Day gift. If only I could put the rest of the world in suspended animation for a couple of hours at a time, just so as to get caught up or a little ahead of the game! It is just as well that I lack this power. I can see it degenerating quickly into me stopping the world to melt with, I don’t know, instructions for preparing digestive bitters or orthopedic shoe catalogs online. Pretty soon I would be pining for more time.
- Learn how to build Twitter threads. This thought first occurred to me from the point of view of time management – it’s probably more efficient to pop out ideas in a series of Tweets than to craft a narrative, even a listicle. In a broader view, I don’t want to forget how to chew my own food. New gadgets aren’t going to do me much good if I don’t know how to use them. It’s a short slide from not knowing how to take screenshots on my iPhone or thread tweets to forgetting how the cable remote works, then you’re the person at work who can’t remember how to use the digital sender and other people are silently fuming as they feed your 30 pages of stuff into the machine for you because it’s faster than explaining to you again how office machines work. On the day that I’m hollering down the hall asking some helpless subordinate how to get my e-mail to work again, I beg OPM to grant me immediate Discontinued Usefulness Retirement.
- Prepare for the zombie apocalypse – or retirement. For some reason I conflate these events when I imagine a future that doesn’t involve pivoting tables in Excel or crafting bureaucratic treatises. No, I’m not at all worried about the economy collapsing, why do you ask? Add retooling for a next career or taking off with the family for a week of survivalist camp to my Salary Mom wish list. I’ll pass on the electric wine bottle opener. (That Tile thing sounds like a good idea, though.)
- More labor-sharing from the other members of the household. Nothing against some of the labor-saving gadgets that Lucas lists. After almost two years with our dog, that Roomba is starting to look like a good idea. But what I really, really want is not to be the one thinking about what’s for dinner or whether the kids are doing their homework. Just because I said I could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan does not mean that I agreed to be responsible for bacon-frying in perpetuity. (The title of this post comes from these funky poems I found when searching for a still version of the famous Enjoli ads of the 70’s and 80’s. Thanks, Jenn McCreary.) The more I have introduced labor-saving doodads into the domestic equation over the years, the more I have cemented my role as the family’s all-purpose Labor-Saving Device In Chief. I am told that there are marriages where the parties consciously decide how best to share domestic responsibilities – how nice! My best results in getting better labor-sharing have come from occasional acts of sabotage (like hiding game controllers and taking the cable modem to work in my purse, or changing account passwords) and feigned obliviousness to mounting piles of laundry.
- Wash and Fold Service. The year we lived in an apartment without our own washer and dryer, I dropped our laundry off at Duke’s Lavanderia three times a week and got it back the next day washed and folded. I felt good about using a family-owned business in my area and also about having neatly folded laundry.
- More Communal Services in General. What I love about laundromats, other than the aforementioned wash-and-fold, is that you can walk in and pay to use machines that work way faster and better than the ones in most homes. Using the laundromat en famille kind of sucks, though, so I’m waiting for someone to open a combination laundromat/fitness center/sauna or laundromat/coffee shop/indoor playground. (I once saw a laundromat/bowling alley in a dream, which would be a great business for a college town.) On the food front, my sister’s family found a place where they could pay to do all their meal prep for the week in a professional kitchen. Me, I would happily subscribe to a cafeteria meal plan for my family if I could. We’d probably waste a lot less and do a better job of accommodating our divergent tastes and nutrition needs. This is one for the Salary Mom Cosmic Wish List.
- Store pick-up and delivery options. I am personally sick of Amazon trying to shove Prime down my throat. Also – not that other delivery services are necessarily better – Amazon’s labor practices have a bad reputation. Plus there’s that whole “at home” part of getting things delivered. Peapod has good physical packaging for delivering perishable groceries when no one is home, but it seems like you have to order your stuff days in advance. So far my favorite is the online order and drive-through grocery pick-up at Harris Teeter. If they would combine that with dry cleaning drop-off and pick-up, it would be grand.
- More Walking. When I lived overseas 25 years ago, my local grocery store had a set-up where you could buy what you needed and then have your purchases delivered to your home later that day. The option of walking to the store gets a lot more practical and attractive when you don’t have to reckon with carrying all your groceries home. I could really use more options for integrating basic physical motion into my day.
- More Social Interaction Offline. Make me go see my friends and extended family or invite them over instead of forever screwing around online or stewing in my own despair. It’s good to have some human contact that doesn’t involve work or domestic logistics. I will complain that I am tired or burned out, but it’s for my own good.
- Flowing Jedi Robes. Could we please agree on this as a unisex professional wardrobe option? Alternately, I would accept professional clothing constructed and marketed like men’s business wear, especially if there were some improvements like adjustable waists and darts to accommodate size fluctuation. And pockets.
One of my cousins got me hooked on Words With Friends on Thanksgiving 2016. It is not a coincidence that my blog went on life support at about the same time. Most of my blogging impulse was already being spent on Facebook and Twitter, which served a role somewhere between creative micro-outlet and slot machine yielding occasional jackpots of external validation. Playing internet scrabble with my cousin took writer’s bloc and the idea of Personal Branding completely out of the equation and left me with a perfect and almost mindless occupation to fill my evenings and weekends, one unlikely to launch family feuds or violate the Hatch Act. I have 18 matches running right this moment with five people, and it’s fun – as long as I don’t pour hours into it at a time. It’s certainly been a great time-killer while I recover from foot surgery! But when I look back at how much I wrote 10-12 years ago, I realize that the game and social media in general have sucked away a lot of time that would have been better spent almost anywhere. I don’t socialize in real life anywhere near as much as I did before I got a smart phone. Heck, I don’t even do as many side-hustle writing gigs as I did when I was blogging regularly.
I’ve been telling myself that I’m burnt out from work, but in reality I’ve short circuited myself by cycling between Hootsuite, Facebook, and Words With Friends as though coins might pour out of the USB slot on my iPhone any minute.
(I am back in the office now and back in an orthopedic boot now, two weeks after having the cast removed. I just graduated from using two crutches at all times to only needing one, and I go to physical therapy twice a week. Maybe the uptick in activity is what’s making me realize how stuck I’ve been mentally. Now if it would only help me realize that I should go to bed before midnight to have more energy by day …)