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We Are a Part of the Vindication

I’m bursting with pride over the latest accolade granted to my honorary big sister. She has persevered and persisted, making music on her terms, from her unique perspective, with her unique voice. My belief in her has remained unfailing for 32 years, even in the face of naysayers and some plain old nasty people. I and the rest of the “kids” have drawn emotional sustenance from her work.

On Thursday morning, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced Janet Jackson as one of seven new inductees in its Class of 2019. This is wonderful news for Janet, her fans and her supporters.

Lest we forget, though, Janet was eligible for induction in 2007. Madonna, the best reference point among past inductees, was eligible the following year, 2008, and was immediately inducted.

Curious that it took this long for Janet. Why were the RRHOF nominating committees for 2007 through 2015 (and 2018) so reluctant to nominate her? Why were the voters in 2016 and 2017, when she was nominated, so reluctant to induct her?

As it turns out, Janet has always been a bit of a low-key pariah in the “serious” music industry. It has been well-documented that Janet’s blacklisting after the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show derailed her career. This year, it was further revealed how dramatic and vindictive that blacklisting actually was, almost singularly engineered by Les Moonves (https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/janet-jackson-s-rock-roll-hall-fame-induction-years-overdue-ncna948101). But that’s only half of the story.

“…she fixates on the sight of lips, waists, and various organs. And who can blame her? Given her family, she’s probably unaccustomed to seeing authentic body parts… For all her newfound sophistication, Jackson still sounds tentative. She still sounds like a young woman from a male-dominated family who is searching for her identity and voice. Mostly, though, janet. sounds like a mess — period. C+”

–David Browne, Entertainment Weekly (May 21, 1993 issue) https://ew.com/article/1993/05/21/janet/

In the above mess (period) of a review, Mr. Browne appears to indict Janet Jackson on account of the fact that he can’t tear himself away from gossip about her family long enough to evaluate her music on its own merits. There’s also some thinly veiled sexism and myopia on display here. A woman who laid the foundation for her record-breaking career by recording Control, wherein she clearly stakes out and establishes her identity, is here depicted as a weak-willed ingenue who still just can’t quite get this whole “being a confident musical artist” thing right, even after two multi-platinum albums, the most successful debut concert tour in history, and 13 top ten pop hits.

Of course, there’s no revenge like success. This C+ album went on to become one of the iconic records of the 1990s. “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which Browne describes as “bland” in this same review, topped the pop and R&B charts for most of the summer of 1993.

But Browne was not an outlier. Janet has dealt with a torrent of insults, poor reviews, and insinuations throughout her career, all carrying the clear subtext that a beautiful young woman from a famous musical family couldn’t possibly have anything important to add to the musical landscape. When she rose to popularity in the 1980s, the battle lines were clearly drawn: she couldn’t belt like Whitney, she couldn’t provoke like Madonna, she couldn’t dance like Michael–ultimately, to many, she was a cute sideshow, riding on MJ’s coattails. To the extent that she was deemed to have released something that was relevant or artistic, credit generally filtered down to her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and often bypassed her.

When she bared her soul, the critics bared their fangs:

“Unfortunately, Rope’s second half is weighed down by sappy ballads. It reaches its nadir on the galling poor-little-rich-girl interlude “Sad.” “There’s nothing more depressing,” intones a sober Jackson, “than having everything and still feeling sad.” Pared down, The Velvet Rope would have brushed up against brilliance. Still, it’s a testimonial to the record’s merits that it’s ultimately stronger than Jackson’s sense of self-importance.”

–Ernest Hardy, Rolling Stone (October 30, 1997 issue) https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/the-velvet-rope-195286/

Again, a male critic bristles at Janet’s apparently misguided attempts to explore identity issues. Again, her fame is used against her as a weapon. It’s somehow “galling” to this critic that Janet recognizes her material good fortune but can’t shake her blues. It appears to be in her artistic best interest to pretend one or the other doesn’t exist.

With more than a decade’s hindsight, however, the editors of Rolling Stone ranked The Velvet Rope #259 in its list of The Greatest Albums of All Time.

More pervasive than attacks on her artistry, though, have been attacks on her voice. Through the years, Janet has had to navigate (and to her credit, completely ignore) these swipes. Critics have creatively insulted her voice for 30+ years. Browne’s review above calls it “thin as a clothesline.” Fans of louder singers have been even more cruel. Even her fellow artists have gotten a piece of the action. A couple of years ago, Elton John vented to Rolling Stone about Janet’s alleged lip-syncing at her live shows.

(For the record, if Janet is lip-syncing at her live shows, she should absolutely fire whoever is recording her vocals ahead of time. All that breathing and all those missing lyrics–they could do a much better job. I’ve attended 12 shows over the past 25 years, and she’s not lip-syncing. Elton is likely just upset that she out-sang him when he invited her to do a duet with him for the Aida album.)

Janet, for her part, is not about to get nodes on her vocal cords straining trying to prove to anyone what she brings to the table as a singer. She has no qualms about shutting up for the better part of a record (“‘Got Til It’s Gone”) or not singing at all. Even to her detriment, she has always prioritized the end product over vocal stunts to prove herself a worthy singer.

This approach to vocals ended up revolutionizing pop music. “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” in 1986, were among the first non-hip-hop tracks to rely on rhythm over melody in a lead vocal. With different marketing, Janet could have easily been billed as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, six years before Mary J. Blige claimed that mantle.

Starting with Rhythm Nation, she spent countless hours in the studio, laying down multiple vocal tracks, harmonizing with herself to create lush soundscapes of dozens of Janets. She has experimented with all manner of vocal delivery, from chanting to cooing, whispering to yelling, sneering to crying.

She also has range. When they weren’t able to get Prince in the studio to duet with her on “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” Janet shrugged and sang both parts, without changing the male part at all. Her vocal experimentation has been fearless, yet has flown almost entirely under the radar. The existing paradigm held that female singers were simply supposed to stand under a spotlight, sound pretty, and showboat. She broke that paradigm.

Male vocalists like Elton John and Bob Dylan have been pardoned for years for their croaky, imperfect timbres, under the pretext that such singing was part of their unique artistic expression. Janet has a pristine tone and a unique style, just not the volume or the proclivity for extended arpeggios that is highly valued for female vocalists. She’s often been dismissed out-of-hand because she doesn’t sing that way.

It’s simplistic to judge the artistic merit of music by how loud it is. What’s important is the feeling that it evokes in the listener. Janet’s thoughtful approach to her projects, from Control in 1986 to Unbreakable in 2015, has always kept this ideal in mind.

It’s unclear whether the RRHOF voters made those kinds of distinctions when selecting Janet. But it’s clear she could not have sold millions or records or held the adoration and loyalty of her fans without that understanding. And the impact she has had on our lives is part of what the voters were to consider when they made their selections. Further, the fact that she could have the impact she did, doing things the way she did them, further influenced other artists who came after her.

When I listen to a Janet album, I’m not just hearing someone singing. I’m experiencing someone being. With Janet’s induction in the RRHOF, both her legacy and that part of me that feels her art have been vindicated.

From Me to You

Hi, I’d like to re-introduce myself. My name is Micah, and I seem to have misplaced my blog. I left it here about a year ago. Have you seen it?

Oh, wait. Here it is. Can you watch it for me briefly? I’ll be right back.

Unfriendly Fire

I got into one of my infrequent yet regular Facebook arguments this past week.

As per usual, I dip into these discussions purposely and only when something “clicks.” Usually, the click comes when one of my good-natured, earnest, and liberal Facebook friends posts a bit of pointed social or political commentary, but nothing too directly confrontational. The fighters can defend themselves; I don’t think it’s either correct or productive to promote a quick demise for all conservatives or sterilization for Trump supporters, and anyone with that much venom is apparently equipped to fight their fight.

This particular case involves a dear high school friend and a meme she shared making the point that it isn’t “efficient” for companies to not pay their employees a living wage—it’s cheap, inhumane, and incredibly inefficient when the government must step in to provide that missing support.

My dear friend has two other dear friends that I either don’t know or don’t remember. They must be dear friends to her, because they harangue her with snippy, ridiculing, almost condescending Facebook counter-arguments, almost every time she posts something; and she hasn’t blocked them yet.

Well, why am I telling you (my vast blog audience) all of this? I guess this is the public version of those inner conversations one has when reliving conflicts, usually with two main objectives:  (1) confirming one’s righteousness and (2) giving all of the clever or inappropriate comebacks that either didn’t present themselves at the moment or would have sent the argument into a new level of nastiness that absolutely would not have been productive.

On the first count, of course I do believe that I am correct on several counts. A living wage does matter. Companies have responsibilities to all of their stakeholders—whether owners, shareholders, the community they serve and operate in, the employees, or the government. Some are mandated, and some are just common sense. Ultimately, if your business is doing more harm than good, then you are dampening the macro economy. You may not feel the crunch from your harm next week or even next year, but harming people, harming animals, harming the environment, and harming the community—all of these things will circle back on your business at some point.

But what of the counter-arguments I was presented with? Was I too dismissive of them? Well, you judge. I was told (with all the condescension appropriate for a deluded socialist such as me) that the market determines wages and that people are responsible for getting jobs that demand a wage that is sufficient for their economic needs.

Having not had the luxury of being a deluded socialist in real life, I have more than lived this advice. I worked at an ice cream shop out of college, making around seven bucks an hour.  By fits and starts, I pushed my hourly wage up to around $13 an hour by the time I started my professional career as an accountant, 11 years out of college. I racked up $45K in credit card debt in the meantime, coming dangerously close to bankruptcy, and found that the only way for me to almost comfortably support myself was by working two jobs.

Going back to school to get my accounting degree cost me more than $35K, and I just barely managed to pay for the small part of tuition that wasn’t rolled into the loans. I studied online while working over 60 hours per week.

Things have eased considerably for me since beginning my professional career. But it was a huge uphill battle for me to get that foothold. Some conservatives like the two I wrangled with this past week would hold my story up as a paradigm demonstrating the nonsense of companies worrying about a living wage. Some jobs just aren’t meant to sustain a person—you move on to one that does—it’s as simple as that.

Except—not simple. Not at all. I made it happen for myself, and I am exceptionally proud of my accomplishments. But I just barely made it happen. I had just barely enough money, enough credit, enough resources, enough lucky breaks, enough connections at the right time, enough people willing to take a chance on me to make the pieces come together the way they did. So I feel lucky.

Oh, and a couple other things. I am a white male. I have no children. I have no other family members to support—no elderly parents or grandparents, no disabled brothers or sisters, no mooching cousins. I have no health issues. For those years I struggled below or at the level of the living wage, I could contribute 100% of my sparse income to my food, rent, and utilities (and credit card minimums). Plus I had an unexpected roommate for about three years during my most dire straits, and that extra few hundred dollars a month in rent saved me. That, and spending $20 a week on groceries. (Yes, it can be done.)

Oh, and one more thing. I’m smart and educated. Not everyone has the aptitude or the opportunity to gain the credentials needed to land a big chunk of those available living wage jobs. I graduated as valedictorian of the best public school in the state of Tennessee, then graduated from arguably the best college in the entire southeastern United States.

Yet and still, I bounced around at a handful of practically entry-level jobs for a decade after graduating college.  And just to clarify, this circumstance was not due to poor job performance or lack of planning. I went into each job understanding that some level of advancement was available to me. And it’s entirely possible I would be chugging along as a mailroom manager or an ice cream shop manager these many years later, making an OK salary, if I hadn’t gone back to school. However, I stayed at the ice cream shop for over seven years, and it just wasn’t happening for me.

Please tell me again how anyone can just decide they want a better-paying job and then execute. I’m dying to know how that works. The level of privilege that presents in that statement is staggering, and that’s what really lit a fire under me in this Facebook discussion.

So, in the course of my explanation of why I think I’m right, I think I covered some of the snappy comebacks that I withheld during the actual discussion, as well. Besides, name-calling, even in absentia, is not productive. So I think I will forego covering here all the names I wanted to call these two guys.

I think they revealed themselves sufficiently in their viewpoints, and more importantly, in the arrogant way they expressed those viewpoints. They called themselves the names that I won’t.

I’m not sure if I did any good or opened any minds by engaging in the discussion. At the very least, I hope I let these guys know that an alternative viewpoint can be well considered. And that they can’t run roughshod over my friend, a single mother of three who no doubt felt the sting of judgment in their comments.

I also hope by extending the discussion into this post that some other folks who are on either side of such an online thread gain some insight about how they behave and present themselves when discussing political issues. People take these things seriously because they take them personally, so it always helps to understand and honor that personal connection.

Don’t Forget Where You Came From… Unless You Can’t Remember – Part ONE

On the way to work this morning, I was reflecting on how far I’d come. No, not the block or so I had walked from the house at that point. That was not very far at all.

How far I had come in life. And I like to be quite self-congratulatory.

My dad’s side of the family were literal hillbillies: tobacco-growing, possum-consuming, Tennessee hill dwellers who lived in shacks on the side of Haydenburg Ridge at the foothills of the Appalachians. My father had dreams beyond the ridge, and was a voracious reader. He left high school, joined the Army, got himself stationed in Arkansas and then Alaska, then moved back to Tennessee, where he was drawn to the relative big-city life of Nashville. After years working odd jobs and preaching on the side, he retreated to the country again in response to my birth. As a God-fearing minister, he knew that he owed me a childhood away from the sinful life of the big city.

My mom’s family was from one county over in rural middle Tennessee. They were more townfolk than my dad’s family, but her dad was also a farmer. I have no clue what anyone else on either side of my mom’s family did. My mom met my father when she was about 17, and she was 19 when they married. As far as I can tell, she spent her life chasing behind my father while he chased his whims. She was smarter than she gave herself credit for, and way more grounded than my father, but because of her perceived duty as a wife, she ended up living in a state of reaction to him. I say all this to explain why I have no idea what she wanted to be or do.

What I just told you is 90 percent of what I know about my “heritage.” It’s just enough to make the knowing joke I make when people try to guess my background. Because of my chosen friends, my chosen family, and my chosen interests (and apparently a good deal of squinting), I have variously been identified as Italian, Latin, Middle Eastern, or even “mixed,” despite what I perceive as a rather Northern European countenance and an objectively verifiable melanin deficiency. I typically set folks straight by saying I’m half-hillbilly and half-redneck. In other words, the very opposite of the euphemistic “ethnic” designation.

So I’m really only proud of my background as a marker for how far I’ve come since then. I have two college degrees, one from Emory, the other in business administration. I’m a CPA, a city slicker of over a quarter century since moving to Atlanta after high school. I own two homes, I take economical but “real” vacations at least twice a year, and have traveled to London, New York, all around the Caribbean… and to Minneapolis!

And perhaps most importantly, I’ve severed almost all ideological connections to the place I was raised. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal living in the oldest historically black neighborhood in Atlanta with my partner. His name is Hasahn… and he gets stopped by TSA every single time we fly out of Hartsfield. I am the living, breathing nightmare of the majority of my former classmates at Macon County Middle School–but of course, I could have cleared that hurdle by admitting that I voted for Hillary for president… twice.

But enough about me…

 

Telleth Me Why This Sounds Holy

I try not to be anti-religion, because a majority of my friends keep religion in their lives in some capacity, and for some it’s a central part of their lives. But the whole idea is troublesome to me.

And what’s worse: the connection I have to my friends’ religion is, if anything, more troublesome than the idea of religion itself.

That connection is language. How some folks communicate their faith frequently makes it impossible for me to take them seriously. And that makes me feel like a jerk: my friends share their most spiritually intimate thoughts, and my unfiltered response is to make fun of them. So I want to take a step inward to understand myself, and a step outward to understand what sometimes make these expressions of piety disturbing.

I’m a word geek. The jury is still out on whether I’m a good writer, and my vocabulary is only a little above average. What I think I’m good at, though, is understanding the way words fit together to create meaning. That dynamic is what I geek out about.

It’s also what I nitpick about in my evaluation of the language I encounter on a daily basis. I find myself screaming in my head at the incongruous email conventions of my coworkers. “Please kindly reply with the requested information.” Say what? How in holy hell does “kindly” even make sense with that sentence? You’ve made a very dry, clinical information request, but you want me to supply it to you in a humane, considerate way?

I can see that’s a different essay for another day.

But when it comes to religion, that outrage just exponentiates. So it’s a function of my word geekiness on one hand. But, to be candid, it’s also the bottled-up fury of the repressive Church of Christ upbringing I endured as a child. Then, I thought every adult was wise, but now I look back on the cast of characters that inhabited the church buildings of my youth and see very little but ignorance, peer pressure, and social cliques.

And all of it was couched in holy-sounding language that many didn’t believe and many others didn’t even understand. So when I see that language echoed in social media posts, I bristle.

So, if you ever engage me in a religious discussion and use the word “thee,” what you have in fact accomplished is a double-whammy of activating the syntax police officer in my head and triggering the PTSD from not being able to turn on my Magnus organ in Gamaliel, Kentucky on a Sunday because my parents were worried that the churchgoers across the street might think we were trying to add instrumental music to God’s day, which is mentioned NO WHERE IN THE BIBLE and therefore can be considered sinful.

Yes, I’m serious.

So, OK, now you know about me. Now let me tell you about religion and language.

I’m not a theology scholar, but the armchair guide to Western civilization has as one of its short stubby, legs this idea that knowledge is power. And that, as a convenient way to both save resources by not investing in its citizenry and to keep it under its thumb, the various Christian churches (notably the Catholic Church but most all the others, as well) did not promote literacy and made people reliant on the “scholarship” and reading skills of their religious leaders, who essentially read sacred texts to them, then interpreted them.

And I am aware of the way this translates directly into the way most people consume religion today. Even the most devout Christians do little more than attend Sunday services, where they listen to the professional religious dude (or, thankfully and finally, gal) tell them how they’re supposed to feel about the things that God told them to do in the Bible, and then read the Bible in a mostly pedestrian way throughout the week in between services. There’s only so much demand for full-time religious dudes–the rest of us have to live in the secular world and make it function. That leaves us at the mercy of the religious dudes.

Literacy and language are integral to the way we think about religion. So, to me, it’s more than a cosmetic faux pas when someone lapses into 16th century English when conveying their religious viewpoints. It signifies a thoughtless, cosmetic approach to religion.

It’s beyond the scope of my analytical powers right now to dissect all of the problems with how people talk about religion. But here are a few of my personal pet peeves.

  • Archaic or obtuse language. People use King James language because they’re used to the King James biblical translation, which from what I hear is a great translation, but itself needs translating after 400 years of language evolution. When it’s strictly a matter of comfort, I don’t mind people quoting verses the way they learned them when they were in Sunday school. But when language is used as a weapon, and it often is, it loses all quaintness and becomes reprehensible. By making concepts and rules more distant from everyday language and everyday experiences, people seek to confer divine status on their own words and promote problematic ideas with flowery or hard-to-understand language.
  • Advancing one’s beliefs as truths in mixed environments. Your telling me what Jesus said, what God rewards, or what afterlife experience your favorite loved one is experiencing seems benign enough, but I believe that is because we’ve been incubated in a religious bubble in the U.S. If I just blurted out what my Wiccan* deity has in store for all humankind, you’d be at a loss and I would seem presumptuous for putting that proclamation out there in the world. Muslims in particular have to be particularly guarded about what they proclaim in non-Muslim forums like social media. The ease with which Christians make self-assured statements about spiritual “truths” makes me uneasy.
  • Discretion-shaming. And for double insult, a lot of Christians will double-down on their “truth-telling” by either directly or indirectly calling out their fellow Christians for being ashamed of their God or their religion. These folks should actually be applauded for having the decency to not assume the entire world is Christian and to tailor their interfaith communications accordingly. This conceit is the impetus behind the phantom “War on Christmas.” Under the guise of “witnessing,” many are  sending the message, “My beliefs are genuine and truthful, and yours, if they are different, are not.” And for those whose intent in “witnessing” is not malicious, there’s often an element of fear that I see in their actions–that if they’re not loud and obnoxious enough in their self-centered approach to religion, they may end up going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks.
  • “Witnessing” actually brings me to my last pet peeve, which is similar to my first pet peeve, but a little different. There are archaic terms, and then there are nebulous terms that are current, just poorly defined and understood. They’re the equivalent of corporate buzzwords, full of potential but ultimately empty with overuse and misappropriation. Praise. Testify. Bless. Heck, sometimes “Love” even falls in with this crowd. They become empty symbols of something presumably more profound. Ask your average churchgoer to explain the mechanics or value of these actions, or their origins in any formal religious teaching, and my guess is that you’ll get back some blank stares.

And this brings me back full-circle to what may be one of my largest misgivings about religion the way it is leveraged today. Religion serves the practical purpose of making people feel good about themselves, their lives, and more broadly, their existence. To the extent that people seek to deceive themselves or others in the service of this process of making themselves feel good, my antennae go up.

And to the extent that language is used as a tool of this deception, my antennae go up even more. Because words are my friends, and I don’t want them drafted in the service of deception.

 

 

* I’m not Wiccan, by the way. It’s sort of my go-to pagan religion that a Christian would take issue with.

How to Bare One’s Soul Without Showing One’s Ass

If you mine back into my earlier blog posts, you will find Bouncing Baby Blogger Micah broaching some dangerous personal territory: allegations of emotional abuse, TMI disclosures, and questionable editorial judgement.

It is no fun for the other parties involved when they see themselves depicted in an unflattering or downright nasty light. I tried to be fair, and I tried to find places where I was also at fault, but I know that I have a persistent self-righteous streak. In print, this comes across as, “Look at how fair and objective I’m being, but really he’s awful.” Such posts also come off as passive-aggressive when you know that your reading audience is largely limited to people who know the exact identity of this unnamed bad guy.

In my defense, I started a blog to indulge the idea of having a potentially worldwide readership. Anyone in the world could type in ten characters on their browser and have access to my words. It’s a thrilling conceit. But in the real world, anonymity is harder to come by. They knew who I was talking about.

So I laid off those types of personal posts to keep peace in my relationships.

But I’m tired of that. I want to speak my mind. I don’t just think about the news cycle and politics and the common good. And I can only comment so much about pop culture. How do I proceed? How do I bare my soul without… well, you read the title of the post.

I’m blessed to have a partner who, as a general rule, doesn’t mind what I do or say. He regards me as a totally autonomous human, and he is self-possessed enough not to feel lessened by anything others say about him. If I were to get into confessional mode, he would be the most exposed. I assert this only because of the closeness of our relationship–these confessions could be good, bad, or indifferent and simply embarrassing.

Still, it’s bad business to discuss one’s personal issues on a blog when you haven’t articulated them to the affected party. And believe me, something would come tumbling off my keyboard and onto the internet that I hadn’t hashed out with him–there’s no stopping that without some deliberate effort. And my other friends–they are more sensitive and would not appreciate my oversharing their lives, even “anonymously.”

I don’t expect to resolve this issue in a blog post. But I do appreciate you all brainstorming with me.

Maybe this is the jump-off point for my career as a novelist! I could channel all my relationship anxieties into a fictional character and then spend the entire book tour downplaying the autobiographical elements of my novel and their connection to this stray blog post I just happened to write before I started work on my novel.

Maybe I start a totally anonymous blog elsewhere where I expose my innermost secrets. Then my readership could be absolutely zero, since I would have no way to promote it without attaching it to my bankable personality. Or I could call the site Deep Dark Secrets of My Life… Acted Out by Cute Kitties who Misspell Words. (I Can Haz Long-Term Relationship?!)

Nope… I think I should continue to post as myself and post my real-life concerns. If there’s something personal that I’m itching to post, I will vet it with anyone mentioned in the post.

*Sigh* I guess that’s the only responsible thing to do, even though it violates my lifelong policy of just putting words down on paper and not doing any additional legwork.

Chalk it up to my growth as  a writer in 2018.

 

 

At the Mercy of Experts

Without making direct reference to the turmoil in the executive branch of the US government, the whole situation in Washington makes for an interesting (if terrifying) experimental control for one of our baseline assumptions about the functioning of government, business, and society.

Does having experts in charge of things really lead to a better result?

Examining my own professional career, I have always made it a point to make myself an expert in whatever job I find myself. “Expert” would have seemed like a presumptuous word for the younger me, but after several entry-level jobs and over a decade as a trained business professional, I now realize that expert-level performance is simply what I have always recognized as learning my job.

When you spend even 20 hours a week doing the same thing, it behooves you to invest some effort in understanding what you’re doing–that standard has always existed as a given to me. Even now, after *incoherent mumbling* years in the workforce, it still shocks me when I see manifestations of the opposite standard. (Namely, “I’m only here to fill space and do what I’m instructed to do and not one thing more.”)

In some ways, I have more respect for slackers who explicitly don’t care whether the job is done than for people whose version of responsibility is to maintain a short-sighted checklist of duties that will keep them from getting fired. At least the slacker’s philosophy  is internally consistent. Maintaining the self-righteous air of “I’m doing my job”–and its dangerous corollary, “that’s not my job”–while not comprehending the import or context of your job, says to me that you’re only interested in checking the boxes, punching the clock, and going home. That’s not meaningful job ownership.

You can be useful in some work environments while checking the boxes. If you don’t poke your head out of the checkbox, however, you won’t be able to confirm whether that is the case.

So goes my philosophy of work. But have I made my various workplaces over the years better places to work? Have I made them more profitable? Have I made the world any better by being an expert?

Does the world work better with experts in charge?

On its face, this is a nonsensical question. An expert, by definition, is someone who understands how to do something better than someone who is not an expert. If you’re not adding value, you lose your expert label.

Looking just a little deeper into the definition of “expert,” you’ll find the disconnect that Republicans and anti-establishment types love to exploit.

(I did not want to inject politics into this discussion, but the irony of Republicans presenting as “anti-establishment” at this upside-down point in history is too delicious to not note in a parenthetical comment.)

I can be an accounting expert and walk into the door of your company and give you a bunch of expert accounting opinions that will sink your business. Also, I can be an expert in a highly speculative field, and I can just be wrong, even with all my expertise. Investment advisors would fall into this category.

So the two holes in the airtight loop of hiring experts to do jobs they’re experts at doing are: (1) experts’ guesses are no more likely to be right then anyone else’s; and (2) all expertise is not transferable, and some expertise is more transferable than others. I think it’s plausible to explain the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in these two points. Any attempt at a rational explanation of said election clearly has to revolve around the dismissal of expertise as a criterion for performing a job.

What of these two objections? The first is somewhat legitimate, and we can play battling statistics all day to defend or reject the ability of experts to predict the future. I’ll presume a concession–experts can’t reliably tell you what’s going to happen.

The second is pure evasion. If you want to undermine someone’s credibility,  under this argument, simply relabel their expertise as incompatible with the actual job at hand.

Going back to my personalized example, a business owner should not be operating his business based on out-of-context accounting guidance, and an expert accountant would not give unqualified advice that could sink a business he has not taken time to understand. Both parties compromise their expert status by allowing such an event to happen in the first place. An expert knows her place, and hiring experts know what experts to hire for which jobs. This is all built into the system of experts, if I may coin a concept.

The only nagging issue is that no one is an absolute expert. That poor business owner I walked in and bankrupted may have been an otherwise fully qualified expert with a weakness in his understanding of the exact role of an accountant.

Taken together, the only real issue with experts is that they aren’t perfect. The undermining of experts is usually the result of a double-standard. The standard for experts is, “You’re an expert; why did you make a mistake?” The standard for non-experts is, “Look, you got something accomplished! Who needs experts?” Such reasoning makes a 10% success rate for a non-expert superior to a 90% success rate for an expert.

And while experts can’t predict the future, they do know how to respond to unpredicted outcomes. Apart from ladies who wear headscarves and gaze into crystal balls, no one’s exclusive job is to tell you what’s going to happen in the future.

Not unsurprisingly, my conclusion is that the tautology holds. Hiring experts who know the most about how to do their jobs results in better outcomes.

As for me, I do not feel compelled to bore you by rationalizing my value to my current or former employers. I will instead rely on the preponderance of expert research that confirms the value of employees like me, doing what we do well. And a lot of anecdotal evidence that would bore you further.

It’s not really fun for either of us for me to try to prove a tautology. It’s even less fun to entertain toxic ideas that have been given credence by a bend-over-backwards approach to understanding and explaining what’s happened in the public sphere over the past couple of years.

But that’s just me. I’m no expert.

Hapless New Year

It’s a new dawn / It’s a new day / It’s a new life / For me / And I’m feeling good

–Newley and Bricusse (I didn’t know that, either), popularized by Nina Simone

 

What happens when your New Year’s resolution ruminations backfire? In the process of assessing progress on your major life initiatives, what happens when you end up dwelling on what you haven’t done? The places where the needle hasn’t budged? And even worse, the places where you don’t even feel like you have control of whether the needle budges in the first place?

When I say “your,” of course, I mean “my.” Today and yesterday, as I first considered my options for 2018, I kept my resolutions focused, simple, and understated.

Then I started thinking. That was the beginning of the end.

As I’ve related to numerous friends over the past couple of weeks while nursing a foot injury, I am a hopeless hypochondriac. That mindset spills over into non-medical concerns on a regular basis. Less is wrong with my life than I fear, but any frustrations I feel devolve into a morass of total perceived dysfunction.

But, as Ms. Harmon would say (inside reference for my high school friends), I need some more concrete imagery. Like, Micah, what is the damn problem? How exactly do you feel unfulfilled or unsuccessful?

OK, fine. I want to be more organized. It’s a big psychological deal for me. But my life has gotten so complex over the past few years. I have a partner, an extended family, a large, functioning residence with loads of critters, a professional license, a demanding job, and I still want time to write, read, learn, reflect, and enjoy the things I have accomplished.

And I still want to veg out and watch Food Network, House Hunters, and Golden Girls reruns. And keep up with current pop culture.

I could keep going. But you get the idea. Time is scarce to even begin to organize, much less become organized and stay organized.

And organization is just one of my concerns. There are others. And I’m at that annoying point in my relationship where everything I decide impacts my partner and vice versa. I want to believe I can fix everything alone, because that’s the way I have gotten ahead in the past.

But I need him. And I may need others. Maybe even the critters can help.

Resolutions are almost unquestioningly instituted as solitary endeavors of self-improvement. But every other day of the year, we ask for assistance with our needs. Even if it’s something as simple as “please pass the potatoes,” we organically and socially rely on the courtesies of others to grease the wheels that make our lives run.

That’s possibly the awareness I need to stop my head pounding against the wall. As much as I recoil at the thought of needing assistance to fix “my stuff,” I may need to re-evaluate the ownership of both the stuff and the effort to fix it.

Happy New Year, and how about we keep an eye toward helping each other toward our collective goals? We could call it Twenty Aid-Teen.

Or not, if you think that’s too cutesy.

 

 

Sophistry as Conservative Bluster – A Primer

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Sophistry – n. a method of argument that is seemingly plausible though actually invalid and misleading
–Collins English Dictionary

Initially, I was quite upset with the above statement blaring in my Facebook feed. And I was upset that it was making me upset. Was it that one of my few social media relationships with family and friends from the rural area where I grew up was being frayed yet again by partisan politics? Partly.

Was it that the statement was smug and self-satisfied? Partly.

As I crafted and discarded response after response to the maddening meme, the whole thing came into focus more clearly. There was a slimy residue of intellectual dishonesty that coated the whole thing. There was no one thing to be upset over–there were actually a multitude of issues here that are bubbling right beneath the calm veneer of the statement. And I wanted to yell at all of them.

First and most significantly, the assertion is based on a false premise that even a fairly thoughtful conservative would be tempted to gobble down indiscriminately. Why, yes, it would in fact be ignorant to blame an inert statue for problems we face in the world today! But… let’s find someone, anyone, who stated that our social problems are the result of Confederate statues. I’ll wait here while you look for someone who said that.

Any rabid liberal worth his or her salt would recite to you a litany of causes for the social issues we face today: systemic racism, the Reagan-incited extinction of the middle-class wage earner, the prison-for-profit system, unfettered corporate lobbying and corporate welfare, insufficient support for at-risk populations, housing discrimination, lack of investment in education and infrastructure, and so on. But statues–probably not on anyone’s list.

So Mr. Nichols’ argument is over before proceeding past the first word. No one “blamed” any statues for anything other than being insensitive. They are not the source of our problems, but they are, I would acknowledge, a side effect of our problems.

(Incidentally, since there’s no value in treating side effects, I will be confiscating Mr. Nichols’ Tylenol pain reliever, Kleenex tissue, and cough syrup the next time he gets a cold. Obviously, by wiping his nose, he’s blaming the mucus for making him sick. Leave that snot exactly where it is!)

The second issue with the statement is how oblivious it is to the implications of arguing irrelevance. If the statues are SO old and SO irrelevant, the argument goes, how could they possibly have any impact on us today? Well, fair enough, but wouldn’t the same argument apply to those claiming that the statues hold historical and cultural value? Such impotent, useless slabs of cheap metal in the shape of soldiers and horses could just as easily be recycled for scrap metal. But something tells me the bandwagon for this argument makes a U-turn when discussing the living relevance of the statues for Southerners. Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways. They’re either old and irrelevant for everyone or they’re not.

Finally, the kicker: “…only highlights the ignorance among us.” This is either ingenious or disingenuous, and I can’t really decide which. It is the point of the post, its only true reason for existing. It’s the cherry on top of the sophistry sundae Mr. Nichols has served up for us. After the fictitious premise builds, expressed with a tone of knowledgeable detachment, it is separated from its conclusion by a thoughtful-looking ellipsis (…), and then concludes with an oh-alas! sigh of resignation at what the state of polite political discourse has come to. “Among us” is a bit of rhetorical genius–it’s a wonderful way to sound non-partisan while really saying only one thing: “Liberals are stupid.” (Or “People who don’t agree with me are stupid.”)

This statement is not part of a real, meaningful dialogue. It’s a soliloquy of hopelessly circular reasoning, where someone contorts a reasonable position (“Confederate statues on public display in shared spaces may be insensitive to certain people and we should consider taking them down”) into an unreasonable position (“We’re going to solve our social problems by taking down some old statues”) and then shaking his reasonable, conservative head at how misguided this position (the one he made up out of thin air, that no one is arguing) is.

The real hat trick here is that the only real ignorance that is being put on display is that of the people who buy this argument in the first place. Nice try, Mr. Nichols, but the ignorance among us, in this instance, is pretty heavily concentrated on your side, and good thing, too, or no one would be sharing your post.

2017 Recap

I figure Labor Day is as good a time as any to get back to my labor of love.

I now re-imagine this blog as more about me than about my readers. Sorry, guys, but if you want to come along for the ride, then 1) welcome; and 2) hang on.

I’ve dawdled along the past few years putting something out here in the blogosphere when something significantly kindled my desire to communicate. That method resulted in spottiness and large gaps of time. And it didn’t encourage the massive following I fantasized about.

So, for now anyway, this is more a journal than anything else. That way I can work on any cohesive written works offline and out of the glare and pressure of the oh-crap-that’s-out-there-now-for-the-world-to-see immediacy that happens when you’re publishing and polishing and editing all at the same time.

I think back to a really early blog post, where I was in super-confessional mode. I exposed the relationship I was in at the time as abusive, or at the very least heavily inferred that it was abusive. I wanted to work without a filter, because what good is heavily filtered writing? I’ve always been careful not to call out folks by name, because I am not in the business of shaming anyone or ruining anyone’s life… but at the same time, it placed my now-ex in an unenviable position of having to defend publicly exposed actions that were easily attributable to him, for anyone who knew either of us personally.

Although I am not going to swear that I will never make personal statements about the people in my life, I may take the route of relegating those statements to personal drafts rather than throwing them up here defiantly.

It’s also very passive-aggressive to air my dirty laundry here. With a virtual zero readership, I can call people out “on the internet,” feel better, and have a public record of my grievance. Meanwhile, I have still been effectively writing to myself.

So, having said all that, let me catch you (me) up on the broad outlines of the year so far. It has been eventful on a personal and on a worldwide front. While I have been wringing my hands along with everyone else over the inept and inert Trump administration, Hurricane Harvey, the neo-Nazis and such in Virginia, and North Korea, life goes on.

In January, I tried to emerge from my year-end funk (and it was a significant funk–my partner was sick during the majority of the last week of the year, dampening my Christmas and New Year’s spirit, and I was still reeling from the presidential election) by turning over a new leaf, most significantly on the diet and exercise front. I began a new, limited-carb diet plan of my own making, started cooking my own meals for the week on Sunday, and modified my gym routine so that I could be consistent and quick, going during lunch instead of venturing down the street for frequent fast-food outings.

I also recommitted myself to reading. To my credit, I’ve read more this year than I have in recent memory, but I have also fallen far short of my initial goals. I think I’ve read five or six books. Truly, it was one of those all-in New Years’ deals (“I resolve to fix EVERYTHING about my life!”), but the diet was the part that stuck.

In February, our basement flooded–twice–and the recovery, repairs, and insurance hassles that brought would preoccupy me for two months. About the same time, our cat Beaker passed away rather suddenly, only three days after we noticed that he was looking frail. I was crushed and inconsolable for some days.

Meanwhile, we were consumed with year-end close (accounting stuff) at my job, so I was expected to be on full alert to handle all the associated issues. I routinely worked weekends at home.

March was no fun as we dealt with all the stuff that happened in February. In April, we capitalized on the foresight we had a couple of months earlier to book a cruise to tide us over (no pun intended) until our super-duper-deluxe cruise in September. We really needed that cruise, and it was low-key one of the best cruises of the seven we’ve been on at this point. Unfortunately, it ended with chemical burns in a whirlpool (as documented in a prior post expose).

At that point, things started looking up, and it’s been a great summer (SO FAR–despite what the advertising world would have you believe, summer ends at the end of September, not the middle of August). In May we flew to Chicago to see Hasahn’s sister Isis graduate from Columbia College (yay!); it was a terrific three-day jaunt through the city. I can’t wait to go back.

At the end of June, I attended my first “in-law” family reunion as part of a three-day trip to Charleston. Just like the Chicago trip, it was quick, it was fun, and it was a welcome break.

July was the month that we hosted two sets of families: first, our roommate/friend Damon’s family descended en masse for one weekend, then, my good friend Anna’s family (six strong, including four kids) came over the next weekend. It was exhausting but rewarding. I am very much about quiet time at home, so such arrangements are a challenge for me, but I persevered.

August saw a trip to Nashville to observe the eclipse and visit with my stepmom. Color us three-for-three in the successful quick weekend trip department. For the first time ever, we stayed in a motel instead of with my stepmom, and it made such a difference. Having the quality time during the day with her and some away time to do what we wanted (even if that just meant sleep) at night and early morning was a perfect balance. I think we all benefitted.

Unfortunately, when we returned, my elder and remaining cat Midnight was in bad shape. She had been getting thinner and was having more trouble keeping food down, but now she was weak and staggering. We took her to the vet the next morning. A couple of days later, we had a diagnosis: cancer. We brought her home on a Thursday, pampered her and loved her as much as we could over the weekend, then took her back to the vet on Monday to be euthanized. Those three days she was back home were heart-wrenching.

That was a week ago, and I’m much better now. In a too-convenient bit of timing, we also went to Nashville to pick up a new kitten from my stepmom. Little Evander will never take Midnight’s place, but at least he is filling that empty physical spot and providing his own unique charms to the household. I know he’s making the transition easier.

And now it’s Labor Day. I have my sights set on getting things right with my writing and my own routines, in addition to staying on top of my work in preparation for a week-and-a-half vacation planned for the very end of the month.

I have slacked a bit with my diet, but apparently the momentum of my hard work the first three months of the year has continued to positively affect my metabolism. I started the year at 188 pounds. The heaviest I weighed myself over the past year was 190 and my default weight for the past few years has been about 185. Prior to our April cruise, I bottomed out at 163; I have been much less strict since all the traveling began, but have stuck to my routine of preparing my own meals and not egregiously eating fast food every day, and I have settled in to a new default weight of about 170. My clothes still seem to fit the same as they did at 163, so I like to tell myself that I’ve added muscle mass from my quick lunch gym outings. Probably not true.

So that’s what’s up with me. I won’t apologize for the lack of focus, because, LIKE I SAID, this is about me now, not you. Hoping to gather material for some future blog posts.

Thanks for reading, if you made it this far.