Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Mother and Child Reunion (Rest in Peace, Phoebe Snow)

No I wouldn't give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day
But a mother and child reunion
Is only a motion a way . . . .

"Mother and Child Reunion," Paul Simon

I opened my different email accounts today to find three messages telling me that Phoebe Snow had passed. A close friend of mine wrote that I was the only one who could understand his grief. He was wrong. Others were grieving, too.

Despite my grief, I'm happy for Phoebe Snow's release from these earthly bonds and hope she is having a reunion with her daughter Valerie. Valerie, who had been born with severe brain damage, died in 2007 at the age of 31, and Ms. Snow had been her primary caretaker her entire life. Despite Ms. Snow's musical genius, she gave up touring and promoting her career to devote herself to her daughter. With no regrets.

I was blessed to see Phoebe Snow perform on a magical evening on August 22, 2008 at the University of California, Davis quad under the stars. This performance took place perhaps a year after Valerie had passed, if I recall correctly. There were people with signs and flowers, all professing their love for her and saying how much she had been missed. When a little girl came forward to offer her flowers, she hugged the little girl with a depth of gratitude that was palpable and visible across her face.

She explained her absence from the public and her profound loss. She seemed a bit adrift, as if she were still getting used to the loss, as if it had happened only weeks ago. And she gave her all, running the musical gamut from "Poetry Man" to "Teach Me Tonight" to Janis Joplin's "A Piece of My Heart." All with equal skill, as if it were nothing to skip from folk to jazz to rock to R & B and everything in between. Like it was nothing.

And that was the magic of Phoebe Snow. She defied categories because she could skip from one to another and perform within them with equal excellence. Her range, her mastery of different musical styles, she was just plain magical. I've always said that the best singers are those who have such a unique voice that you know them the second you hear them and who have been great students of other excellent singers as shown in their own singing style. Phoebe Snow will always rank among the best singers ever in my book. There was so much more to her than "Poetry Man." My favorite Phoebe Snow song is her remake of "Love Makes A Woman," one, because she sang it out the park, and two, because it would be prescient: I think even she would have agreed that it was her love for Valerie that made her a woman.

I'm sad for the world's loss of this magically talented woman, but I'm hopeful that a mother and child reunion between Phoebe and Valerie is only a motion away.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Having An Oprah Gail Moment, Or Outgrowing Your Circle

"Don't you ever want more?"

- "My Love," Jill Scott

If Oprah never does another thing that's meaningful in my life, her Master Class show would be enough. I watched both of her own episodes of Master Class, and two things struck me. One was the moment during her childhood when Oprah's grandmother told Oprah while washing clothes for whites and hanging them to dry something to the effect of, "Now, Oprah Gail, you pay attention to what I'm doing because someday you're going to have to do this." Oprah said that something in her soul just rebelled, and deep inside she knew, "That would not be my fate."

The second thing that struck me was Oprah's response to a conversation with her boss at a Baltimore television station when she decided to go to Chicago and do a talk show -- a talk show that would eventually become The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her boss told her she would get slaughtered, that there was no way she could hope to compete with Phil Donahue, in his own backyard, no less. She listened and acknowledged to herself that he was right, but she said to herself that even if she couldn't beat Phil, she knew that if she stayed in Baltimore, she wouldn't grow.

I call Oprah's childhood conversation with her grandmother an "Oprah Gail" moment: When someone, with the best of intentions, can't imagine a fate for you greater than what you have or what they have. Even worse -- when they can't imagine a fate for you that is commensurate with your abilities.

I've been having some Oprah Gail moments as of late, with people I know assuming that I aspire to little more than what I have or -- even worse -- that I shouldn't aspire to more. When I jokingly said to a friend that I wouldn't take a position because the employer couldn't afford to pay me the salary I'm worth, a reasonable one given my experience, the friend replied, "You don't need to make that much money." But what really gets me is that people can't imagine that I would want to do anything other than what I'm doing. It's all I can do not to shake them and say, "Given my abilities, can't you even imagine that I might want more than this?" Imagine in a way that, because of time and circumstance, Oprah's grandmother couldn't?

The second part of Oprah's Master Class that struck me, the inability to grow in one's current position, is something we don't always think about. It's easy as we grow older and risk averse to become the intellectual and spiritual equivalent of being pot bound and, like a pot bound plant, in need of a transplant to grow. My husband's pastor calls it "outgrowing your circle," and this can happen at work or in any organization you're involved in.

How do you know if you've outgrown your circle? Ask yourself:

Are you considered the go-to person in your group?

Are you expected to catch the errors of your peers because you're held to a higher performance standard than your peers?

Are you the one person who consistently brings a new perspective to problems?

Do you teach more than you learn?

When you make an error, is the error so complex that only you could catch it, but you get derided by people who can't even comprehend the error you made?

Do you have better judgment than your peers?

Do you bring more to your position than what's in your job description? For example, can you balance the books as an accounting clerk AND write a killer press release?

Are you accused of being arrogant because, more often than not, you're right and you won't back down about it?

Have you stopped speaking up because you know that, if you do, you'll have to explain, too, and you don't have the patience to teach?

Is there a mismatch between your position and your passion?

Do you bristle at being talked down to by someone in your group who outranks you and whom you consider to be less intelligent than yourself?

I have a lot of interests and, thank God, I'm still curious. I imagine far greater for myself in addition to what I have now or what others would have for me. I'm not done growing, nor do I hope to ever be.

To borrow from a Dos Equis commercial, "Stay curious, my friends."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

150th Anniversary of the Civil War -- I Call B.S.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. This date doesn't have to conjure up the antipathy of 150 years ago, but I'm sure it will because the people over whom the war was fought are in a unique position to speak their minds about it in a way they could not even 50 years ago. People like me.

I can't abide hearing historians, Civil War enthusiasts and Southerners describe this war as "the war between the states" (well, duh -- what else is a civil war?) or a war over "states' rights". It begs the question -- states' rights to do what? And that question inevitably leads back to one answer: To legalize slavery. Of my people.

For the life of me, I don't understand how fighting a war for the right to enslave other people is anything to be proud of any more than fighting a war to engage in a genocide is something to be proud of. At least some Germans have the good sense to be ashamed of their role in World War II.

Don't tell me celebrating one's ancestors who fought for the Confederacy is "heritage, not hate." It is a heritage OF hate -- people who hated my people so much that they fought for the right to enslave them. Lord knows they didn't fight for the right to enslave my people because they loved them. And this great-granddaughter of a slave is going to tell it like it is on this 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

"Heritage, not hate"? I call B.S.

There's your Happy Anniversary.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Rise, Demise (and Rise?) of Cathie Black

"One of the things I've had to work on over the years is recognizing the difference between a funny remark that's just funny, and one that's cutting. Humor is an incredibly valuable asset -- a good laugh has a positive effect in the office -- but all it takes is one ill-considered remark to set someone on edge and cast a pall on a good working relationship. If you find yourself inclined to make cutting remarks, there's probably some deeper reason behind it, and your colleagues and employees will sense that. Also, it's best to be straightforward about problems or issues you have with people, and save the humor for lighter topics."

Cathie Black, "Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)," p. 223.

Gentle readers, especially my New York readers, you will come to appreciate the irony of this if you have not already. Read on.

About two weeks ago, my husband, Black Man Not Blogging (BMNB) and I ran across a brand new library one town over from ours. We loved it -- the layout, the collection, the children's book area, all of it. We came across the used books for sale as part of th library's "Friends of the Library" fundraiser, and I was drawn to a book with a powerful and content-looking woman on the cover. It was titled, "Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)" by Cathie Black, who was president of Hearst Magazines at the time. I can't tell you how many career self-help books I've bought over the years, but I figured, hey, for a $3 donation to a good cause, I might find something of use in this book. Boy, did I ever (and not just the quote above.)

As I read this book, it was as if Ms. Black knew every mistake I'd made in my career and wrote about it. She had advice on everything from office politics to team management to negotiating a fair salary if you're a woman to having what she called a 360 degree life -- fulfilling career, marriage and family. It was so practical and so useful, I almost felt like she wrote it knowing I would read it. I said repeatedly to BMNB, "I want to give a copy of this book to every woman I know. Heck, I think men should read this book, too." I still think it is a great read, especially for the next generation of career women.

So while I was checking the New York Times online today to see when my husband's employer was going to shut down, I happened on a story about a Cathleen P. Black who had been dismissed from her position as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools. Could it be the same woman?, I thought. Nah. There have to be a gazillion Cathleen Blacks in New York City.

But no. She was one in the same.

How could a woman who wrote such a fabulous book on career and life advice geared towards women, a woman who headed a multi-million -- if not multi-billion -- dollar publishing behemoth, have crashed and burned so miserably? Here's how: She didn't heed her own advice.

I included the quote from her book above because I read that Ms. Black made some unfortunate remarks regarding parents' concerns about impending school overcrowding, asking, "Could we just have some birth control for a while? It could really help us all out alot here." I'm sure she was joking. But when she made a reference to "Sophie's Choice" when talking about the the overcrowding, she pretty much dug the grave for her tenure with the New York public schools.

I can't imagine what she was thinking. She came into the post without any background in education, no graduate degree to speak of, no constituency rooting for her and what appears to have been no experience in government. And she came from a position of privilege -- the Hearst Company -- to work for one of the most diverse and, in some cases, marginalized people in New York. If I had to guess, she came with the head of a manager when she needed to come with the heart of a servant. A little humility can go a long way when you're in government service. You don't control who is hired or fired; you have little control over job responsibilities or budgets; but you sure as hell will get the blame when you don't produce results. All you really have at your disposal to get people to achieve your objectives is your ability to humble yourself to and empower the people who are indispensable to achieving your objectives and keeping your job. She needed to submit and empower instead of lecture and belittle.

Could she have been so culturally tone deaf to realize the implications of a privileged white woman who adopted her children late in life and thanked all her nannies in her book joking about birth control with a group of what I would imagine was a racially and socio-economically diverse group of parents? Yes, I guess she could be.

Let this be a lesson to those of you in private industry who think you can enjoy equal success in government, particularly education. The private sector and government are not the same. Good, bad or indifferent, public sector employees don't have to accept your management style if it's offensive or abusive. The constituency you serve can either get rid of you or get rid of the people who hired you just because they don't like you. Relationships may be enough to get you into a prestigious public sector job, but at the end of the day, they're not enough to keep you there if you offend the people you were put there to serve or fail to produce results.

I'm not writing this to throw salt in Ms. Black's wounds. I think her book is an amazing read chock full of useful advice, one piece of which came from her former boss at Hearst, Frank Bennack:

"You can make a big mistake. And you can make a bad mistake. Just don't make a big, bad mistake. "

Basic Black at p. 264. Yes, I think Ms. Black made a big, bad mistake. Or two. But if she's half as resilient as she appeared to be in her book, I know she can come back from this if she so chooses. Although I've never met her, I'm rooting for her because if she can rise above this bump in the road of what appears to have been an illustrious career, she can again teach all the rest of us aspiring women how to overcome our mistakes, too. I'm almost twenty years younger than Ms. Black, and I know I'm not done making mistakes. I hope to learn from her how to overcome them.

I hope she reads her book again. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is a Bloody Pig's Foot Political Speech?

New York Representative Peter King was the intended recipient of a bloody pig's foot and a note that allegedly said, "Kiss my black Muslim ass." King has been leading congressional hearings about the radicalization of Islam in the United States. King is also Jewish.

Given the Supreme Court's most recent rulings on free speech, I'm wondering, is a bloody pig's foot political speech? I mean, if you can protest against gays within a thousand yards of a military funeral because you don't think gays should serve in the military, can a pig's foot sent to protest what is perceived as the persecution of Muslims be excluded from free speech, especially free political speech?

I don't think so. Now, mind you, I think those anti-gay protesters at military funerals better be careful because one person's free speech is another's fightin' words. I double-dog dare those protesters to try that mess at a black Baptist military funeral in the south. I know my Baptist southern in-laws are as comfortable with Jesus as they are with ammo and keep one in their hearts and the other close by -- I'll let you guess which. Those protesters might end up on the coroner's slab themselves if they try that at a black Baptist military funeral, and there isn't a southerner, black, white or green, who would convict their murderer. Protesting at a military funeral? In the south? Yeah, you had it coming.

And maybe so did Representative King. The pig's foot, that is. But it didn't come from a Muslim and it probably didn't come from someone black. A Muslim wouldn't have touched it and a black person, especially my older relatives, would have pickled it and served it with some collard greens and cornbread.