Masters in Machiavelli

My graduate school teachers say group projects are where we learn to work with others in a collaborative, innovative environment. In actuality, group projects are where Machiavelli learned to conquer weaker-willed foes. The Prince is gone, the CEO lives – and he’s got all sorts of ticks up his sleeve. Here are the ones I’ve witnessed:

Hard ball: To play hardball you have to hold all the cards. If you’re holding all the cards, why are playing a game? Name your price and get on with it.

Charm: Sure, it’s important to know your audience in order to charm them into complacency. But more important: your silence. Silent enthusiastic agreement is a bridge builder. Say too much and you can set someone off. Silent? You might be thought wiser than you are. May that be the worst thing to happen to you.

Phantom: People don’t like you? Not a problem. Have someone they like talk to them. Even better, explain that a number of people have been suggesting – not you of course, you’d never think to question them – and you want to know how we, as a group, can best incorporate those suggestions. Best to try this one on a day when the sole beloved member of your group is absent.

Planting the seed: The people don’t hate you, yet. Play on their good graces, and make them think your idea was dreamed up by them. Phrase your idea as a question, and when they repeat it, jump on it as though you’d never thought of it. To seal the deal: praise their insight.

Prompt: Skip the planting and go straight to harvesting. Start the conversation by saying that you want to follow up on the group’s earlier idea. Who is going to deny having an idea once you’ve professed how its brilliance won you over – and would they be able to weight in on how you think it could maybe be expanded?

No alternatives: If you can all agree there’s a problem, you’re halfway there. Tell them there are a finite number of solutions, and propose truly horrendous ideas with no redeeming value. Remember, zero redeeming value, because people will fall on a weak idea like it’s a saving grace. Then, make the last option the only palatable one.

Booster club: If there’s a group project and you need a certain number of votes to go your way, cheer the influencers in inconsequential things. “Your hair looks amazing!” “Where did you get that coat? It’s divine.” “You led the last meeting with such a sense of command and insight, could you do so again?” When it’s go time, you’ve already made it clear that the two, or more, of  you are on the same team. You’re halfway there before you start. All that remains is to present your idea as building on something they’ve implicitly agreed to.

Scored earth: Tear down everyone else’s plans by any means necessary. It’s messy and potentially bridge burning. Do so only if the alternative is French occupation of invaded Russia.

Everyone but Me

Everyone is graduating. Except those people who already graduated. Oh, and me: still slogging through school.

My mind knows that there are other people still in school, I just find it hard to believe. There must be toddlers just starting on their academic career, high schoolers eager for college and even more for their senior year, and people I pass in my school’s hallways who have years to go before they earn their degree.

But I’m in my senior seminar. In the fall, every other person in that room will head out to work in the morning and home at night. They will not stop at school on their back. Instead, they’ll leave the office, go straight home, put on pjs, and fall asleep. Or maybe they’ll cook themselves a hot dinner. Or – possibly only the craziest among us – will leave their offices, drop their worries, and go out on the town. They’ll see a show! Get dinner with friends! Run through a sprinkler!

Meanwhile, come fall, I’ll go to work and will leave only to head back to school. I’ll have another semester of cold dinners – the kind that I cook on Sunday and hope aren’t rotten by Thursday. I’ll do all my errands on the way too, from, or at, work. Weekends, and any free nights, will be dedicated to homework and projects, and on those few precious weeks when I don’t have something due, grocery shopping.

One day, with god’s help, I’ll have those things again. Till then, run through a sprinkler for me.*

 

*I’m not actually a sprinkler-runner, but I’m happy to encourage fancy-free behavior if that’s your thing.

 

Keep Ya Head Up: Choices

My first performance evaluation came as a surprise. I’d been gainfully employed for years before I had one, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be the most positive version of a conversation I’ve had many times since.

“You come off as somewhat…” my boss paused before completing his thought. The rest of my performance review had exceeded my expectations, but he had said that there were some additional notes he wanted to share as well. “…somewhat aggressive.”

I blinked. He gave examples. I nodded.

“Ok,” I said, digesting this news. “How do we solve it?”

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good. I know that I can give you an assignment and trust that you’ll get it done. You won’t drop it just because other people aren’t interested in working on it.”

I waited.

“But I want to make sure you’re aware. It can be helpful, but it isn’t always necessary. So you should decide when to be, and when not to be, quite so forceful.”

The Battle for the WPA is Won

Technically, my browbeating USPS workers started with the Great Depression. To battle the Great Depression, the government flooded the economy by any means necessary. That included paying artists to make everything from cookbooks to vacation posters. What a legacy.

When I found out that USPS was releasing a set of WPA stamps, I had to have them. I saw the sign before the release, and demanded, politely, the release date from my postal worker. I went to the post officer a week later to make sure they hadn’t been released early. They hadn’t.

Between one thing and another, it took me two months to get back. When I did, my cashier claimed that he didn’t have any WPA stamps. I calmly suggested he check, and watched while he hunted down his supervisor. He returned to inform me that his office didn’t have any. In a small and sad I voice, I asked if he could check every cashier’s window, just in case. He did.* Then he had to tell me that there was not a single WPA stamp in his post office. I thanked him, accepting that I’d lost the battle. But I did not believe I had lost the war.

I held my head high and went to another post office. The same sad, sad scene repeated itself. The cashier suggested I just accept that there were no more WPA stamps, but I could buy the nice new flower bouquets or slap-happy cinco del mayo ones. Thanks, but no thanks. She thought I walked away in defeat. But I had one more trick up my sleeve.

“Excuse me?” I inquired back at her window a moment later.

She raised her eyebrows at me.

“There’s a set in the display case. Of WPA stamps. I’ll take them,” I said sincerely, as though she’d suggested it herself.

She raised her eyebrows again, and told me I’d need to get an employee to open the case for me. The employee I dragooned into helping me asked for a ruler, since the small opening in the display case was as far from the stamps as could be. I gave him a newspaper. He gave me a look, and with some considerable effort, got out the stamps. Pretty pleased, he stood with me as I made my purchase, telling me about the WPA murals on the walls surrounding us. We agreed they were good, and I told him it was probably because the artist was from Pittsburgh. I pointed him to the plaque which explained the art’s history, which he appreciated. Sadly though, I couldn’t tell him if the artists’s family was still in the Steel City.

Thus, with perseverance and persuasion, did the WPA thrive. Also, that’s how I got my stamps.

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*USPS workers fall over themselves for pleasant customers. Their days are hell, so if you don’t yell at them – and give something resembling a smile – they’ll spend the entire day helping you.

…That’s how we make an appeal to what is right and decent, and without anger. I did it for the framers of the Constitution, who intended that we would treat each other in a civil way. We call each other gentlemen to avoid being cantankerous. And no one person, Democrat or Republican, should ever call law enforcement on a colleague.

– Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Hall of Congress

NYC Error 404: Not Found

There are exceptions to every rule. The rule of New York City – that you can get anything, at any time, anywhere – is no exception. You can get a shark on the subway, a watch at the shoe repair, or a diamond in the rough. But you can’t get a decent bank, doctor, or hair dresser for love or money. That’s why city slickers have an ingenuity all their own.

You can get free checking – but only at banks with fewer than a dozen ATMs in a 10-mile radius. You can get free ATMs – but your savings account interest rate is approaching zero. You can use online checking – unless your employer refuses to use them for direct deposit. Solution: open accounts with multiple banks.

You can get wonderful medical specialists – but your PCP won’t return your calls. Your doctor might return your calls, but they won’t see you for a second longer than five minutes. Your doctor might be willing to see you for more than five minutes, but their tremors are so bad that a nurse has to write out their medical instructions for them. Solution: switch doctors every year.

You can get a haircut, but it’ll cost you $35 – before tip. You can get a cheap haircut but the hair dresser will give you a style all their own. You can get a moderately-priced haircut, but the hairdresser will laugh at you. You can get an expensive haircut, but you may not be able to eat that week. Solution: cut your own hair.

Every city has its limits, but the inventiveness of its people knows no bounds.

Out first job as Democrats must be not to do any more harm. True, we have to remain vigilant in getting rid of programs that don’t work. But as Democrats, we have to be prepared to truly believe that education is not just a headache we’re stuck with. In my opinion education and health care are national investments, as important to our national security as nuclear bombs, planes and armed forces.

-Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

The Memoir I Won’t Be Writing

Special Correspondent Perel is convinced that one day I will write a memoir. She’s also convinced that I’d have a captive audience. I won’t. But since I wouldn’t want to disappoint, I’ve composed some chapter titles for her to enjoy instead.

 

Title

You Didn’t Want Me to Say That Out Loud?

Chapters

On my Hometown: Forged in the Valley of Steel

On Growing Up: Rhetorical questions aren’t my forte

On Dating: It’s not as though I’d mind if I never saw him again

On Career: Nowhere pays as much as here for what I’m doing

On Leaning In and/or On Food: I bought their loyalty with snacks

On Confidence: Sometimes people need to be threatened

On Friendship: I have 5 clown noses, and 1 person who could put them to good use

On Travel: You love me. I love you, goats, and ancient printing presses

On Raising Children: If they can get the WD40, they probably know what to do with it

Power of Peace

I learned lots of things in college. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned is that my dad has theories with which no one else agrees. It’s the one lesson I remember from my international economics professor, a small man who wouldn’t tell us from which member of the former Soviet Union he hailed  – though he preferred speaking with students in Russian about his daughter to discussing the implications of steel tariffs. One day, he asked us which country had the strongest military in the world. My hand shot up before the question was out of the teacher’s mouth, forcing him to call on me.

“Switzerland,” I said with a brisk nod, and went back to eating my dinner.

“Oh – no,” the teacher said, confused. “Switzerland?”

“Yes,” I clarified.

“No,” he said, looking around for more raised hands.

“It is,” I insisted. “When was the last time they fought a war?”

“That’s not the measure of a strong military,” was my teacher’s answer.

“It is,” I explained gently, having taught this by my dad and sure of his reasoning. “It’s armed with 21st century weaponry and they serve mandatory military service. Would you go to war with Switzerland? No. No one would go to war with them because the fighting force would be awesome – and crushing. Because no one goes to war against them they automatically win. It’s the power of deterrence, if you like.”

“That’s ridiculous,” my teacher informed the class. “The strongest military is the one that fights.”

We shook our heads in sorrow at each other’s stupidity. The answer he wanted: United States of America.

 

Let Freedom Ring

We greet July 4th with “Happy Independence Day,” and meet the New Year with “Seasons Greetings”. But even Hallmark hasn’t found a way to standardize a greeting for Martin Luther King Jr Day. However, a day celebrating the legacy of the civil rights movement – our right speak truth to power, to recognize our strength in numbers, and validate the humanity in each other – deserves a greeting of its own. A proposal: “Let freedom ring!”.

On King Day we ring in not just the freedom of civil rights, but the freedom seized by peace rather than armed force. In school we only learned about Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. The violent wing of the same movement was left out of our elementary school celebrations as well as our high school curriculum.

But side-by-side to the non-violent movement, there was an equal and opposite rise in violence trying to win the same rights for marginalized Americans. In the 1960s, many in America feared that African-Americans would overthrow the government and establish their own nation through a racial war that would  rip the country limb from limb. At the time, that idea was not unbelievable – Philadelphia rioted, Chicago burned, and armed Black Panthers policed the streets of California. And at the same time, there was a peaceful March on Washington.

People agitating for freedom had to choose between the attraction of violence with its visible consequences or the abuse heaped on the peaceful protesters – from those who supported their aims as well as those who opposed them. Despite the ease of violence, many Americans – beaten down physically, economically, and emotionally – believed that goodness resided in the hearts of their oppressors. So, they refused to lift a hand against them. Instead of setting fires, they sat at segregated lunchcounters. Rather than resist the police they registered voters – facing arrest and beatings in the process. In the end, Dr. King and those who believed in peaceful protest, rather than his violent counterparts, were credited with the creation of the Civil Rights Bill and the more equal society it helped form.

Today we recognize that mass movements have the power to shape history – to bend its arc toward freedom or to tyranny. Yet movements, at their heart, are nothing but one person acting on their belief – together with others acting on the same belief. Our celebration of King Day is not just one of the civil rights we have, but also the belief in peace and human dignity which procured those rights. Today is dedicated to how we act in face of adversity, the way in which we turn back injustice and establish freedom. Let freedom ring!