Today money isn’t the mother’s milk of politics; it is their politics.

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

Advertisements

Arbitrary Arbitrators

My dad told me I’d enjoy college; that one day there I’d look around and realize that I – by far – was not the smartest person in the room. He was right; I enjoyed that as an undergraduate, and learned so much from learning with people far brighter than I am. But as a graduate student it’s been much harder to enjoy the sense the I lag far behind my classmates.

In graduate school I’ve had teachers suggest I consider leaving my academic program; reflecting doubts I’ve had. Professors have told me I wasn’t suited to the work; I don’t fit the mold. I’ve failed so many exams that you’d think I did it for fun. It’s hard not to take the comments and poor grades personally, since I’m the one earning them with my performance. But the truth is that while my professors’ statements hurt, their grading should not. Every single professor – so far – has awarded me a passing grade. Sometimes it’s the lowest possible passing grade, but that doesn’t hold me back. As they say, actions speak louder than words. Even though the words sting.

 

IMG_20170521_174415

Message that greeted me outside school. Perhaps they shouldn’t give the students chalk during finals week.

Words, on the other hand, also show that how grades are earned can vary on the day. One of my professors assigned each of us to a group of five, and then had those groups both write a paper together and present it as a team. Since it was a group presentation, all of the comments were supposed to address the full group. However, the professor made an exception for me, writing; “Hannah’s presentation was very powerful. She came across as very well prepared and confident. Really grabbed our attention. Very convincing.” This is the same teacher who felt that our paper – heavily edited by yours truly – was “very lively, but at times it seemed a bit overly expressive given the subject matter of the paper.” Same verve, different grade.

So, maybe I can’t win. But I can accept my grades with good grace. While a bad grade may make me feel stupid, it does not mean that I am; it just means that I’m surrounded by people who know more than me.

Chicago Charms

“Chicago has two season: winter and construction,” I was warned. What no one gave me was advice on what to do once I got there. So, like a Chicagoan shoveling out the snow, I made my own way – in both seasons.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boat tour: Lovely views of the city and surrounding traffic without having to be in any of it. Plus, there are some boat rides that provide architectural tours. Or ones that take you to an unfamiliar neighborhood for free and leave you there, like the kind I took. It seemed like the unfolding plot of a horror film where you get kidnapped and wind up enslaved to a drug cartel. So I used the unexpected docking as an opportunity to find a post office so my family could know my last location. Turns out that it’s easy to find a post office, and get an elevated train out from wherever the boat may drop you.

img_20140818_155444668

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Chicago anymore

img_20140818_171514848

But the zip code says we are

The El: Public transportation that works for most of the public. Unless you want to
gamble
.
img_20160131_162601649_hdr

Art Institute of Chicago: It’s got Monet’s lilies for the old-schoolers and edgy modern art for the new. For those who don’t care, it’s also where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off filmed a few scenes. So if you prefer, skip the museum and watch that instead.

img_20140820_153435436

Museum of Science and Industry: They let you watch baby chicks hatch and form your own tornado. Take the family, spend the day.

img_20140819_170343478.jpg
Howard Washington Library:
 There are cannons. A 3D printer. Seven floors of books. Librarians who allow people to hide in the stacks till closing. The place is so big I wouldn’t be surprised if it also fit a few coffee shops and maybe an airport hanger. There’s basically everything you’d need to run a small city except people who live there full-time; I’m happy to volunteer myself to make Chicago the first city to have a self-sustaining community living in its library.

 

img_20140819_141303839-1

WBEZ: Chicago’s NPR station is on a pier. If that was intended to deter sightseers, it doesn’t work. Requests for a tour of active recording studios and a place of business were met with incredible goodwill and cheer. That friendliness that held strong even when I showed up on the wrong date for my tour. Their programming is awesome, they let me hang out with a statue of Studs Terkel, and someone even gave us the inside scoop on the Chicago news-agency softball league. Ask them about it, but don’t mention me.

img_20170305_231241.jpgBusy Beaver Button Museum: Yet another place of business that will let you in to disturb the hardworking men and women of Chicago, turning serious professionals into amateur tour guides. It’s a working button business with an immense collection of slogan buttons. They couldn’t be more gracious about visitors unless they worked at WBEZ. You can see Abraham Lincoln’s campaign button and about a thousand others. Remember the Reading Radicals! button from your childhood? It’s there. Along with the sorts of pithy phrases, pathos, and poetry you didn’t think could fit onto a button.

Chicago Federal Reserve: There are armed men everywhere, so it’s best if you take the opportunities provided to learn about the millions of dollars surrounding you rather than trying to steal them. Also, it’s free – so basically you make bank by just showing up.

Lake Michigan: It comes with a small beach and there’s probably boating somewhere. Sometimes its toxic, but the city puts up helpful signs. No signs? No toxicity!

img_20140818_124452029-1

They told me there was a Bean. Instead, I found a garden. Next trip, someone bring a map.

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.

IMG_20170509_181956244_HDR

 

*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