She Showed Us The Way

When Ursula K. LeGuin died earlier this week, a friend of mine shared a quote of hers:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot over the past few days, but not in an analytical way. The beginning of it just keeps coming back to me, over and over again, like a song I can’t get out of my head: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

Capitalism is the water that surrounds us (“What’s water?” said the fish). It’s imbued in every decision we imagine is available to us, in every relationship we think we have. It drives our health and well being, regardless of how fit or fat we are, how dumb or how smart, how stable or insane. We live in — live within — capitalism, our bits and directives channeled and funneled within the confines of its system, the capitalist system.

LeGuin compares living within capitalism to living within the seemingly inescapable power of the divine right of kings. In both instances, men and women are subject to an almighty, a dollar or a prince.

And in both instances, LeGuin recognizes the need to escape. She sees in both the repression of our humanity, and prophesizes resistance and change.

LeGuin spent the better part of her writing life imagining an alternative to the system she found herself in. Her intelligence and her compassion caused her imagination to soar above us all, seeking out (and reporting back on) the bright spots in the futures before us.

But she was not a doe-eyed optimist. Her novels don’t shy from the darker drives of our humanity, particularly the masculine greeds for power and dominion, and she investigated the effects of those drives in the forms of her characters’ weaknesses. Her investigations provided readers with alternative ways to cope, survive, and thrive.

More than anything, LeGuin seemed (as she once called herself) “an anthropologist of the future,” and she revealed to us possible pathways for humanity, or in different times and places, the results of paths we may have once taken.

LeGuin was a master of speculative fiction. She did not write the best sentences, but her rich, sometimes four- or five-dimensional characters existed in structurally sound systematized worlds that were, through her characters’ actions and feelings, themselves going through a wholesale change.

Like all of us, LeGuin lived in capitalism. But through the art of her words, she was able to not only escape its capitalist thinking, but to bring the rest of us with her, showing us without telling us the real meaning of resistance and change. Her artform challenged us to imagine our possible futures, resist our darker drives, and transform our weaknesses to strengths.

She was an anthropologist of the future, yes; but also, a prophet of what futures might come.

We’d do well to listen.

I Get High With A Little Help From My…Politicians

The state of Vermont just became the first state in the nation where our elected representatives voted to legalize marijuana. This isn’t happening by a citizens’ referendum, as happened in California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, but by the people we elected to represent us in our State Capitol.

That’s what happens when you have a truly citizen government: you don’t need referendums to move a progressive agenda forward — you just need to do the hard work of convincing your representatives, who are, in reality, just your neighbors.

I smoke marijuana. By legalizing marijuana through the legislative process, the responsible citizens whom I call my neighbors have signaled their acceptance of my right to relax in whatever way I see fit.

I don’t smoke marijuana at work. I don’t smoke it before work. I do not go to work stoned, nor have I ever gone to work stoned. When I was a ski bum living in Utah, where my only responsibility was to yell the word “Hamburger!” down a cafeteria line to a person who had the responsibility of actually cooking the burger, even then, with essentially zero responsibilities, I still did not go to work stoned. Now that I’m a teacher who is responsible for working closely with students who have been diagnosed with a variety of  emotional and behavioral disorders, there’s no way in hell I would go to work stoned.

Marijuana does make me better at my job though. The hyper-intensity that comes from a marijuana high is not dissimilar to the intensity that comes from sitting with another human being and allowing yourself to become completely present for them.

Nor is it that different from sitting at a keyboard and trying to make yourself completely present to an absent reader, present in a way that the force of your voice cuts across space and time to be with your reader whenever and wherever they happen to find your text.

Both experiences require a sense of hyper-intensity, and marijuana allows me to exercise that particular sense.

For too long, society has asked responsible marijuana smokers to live in the shadows lest we get pigeonholed with all of the slackers and stoners whose depiction we can find in virtually every movie or show where marijuana is present.

But with this move by the Vermont legislature, my elected officials acknowledge the reality that people who go to work every day, raise kids every day, and volunteer in their community every day, can smoke marijuana and still be positive members of society.

I’m not ashamed of smoking marijuana, just as I am not ashamed of enjoying a cold beer, or watching a violent movie, or playing a violent video game, or of doing anything else that a 40-year-old person ought to be able to do.

Thank you, my fellow Vermonters, for recognizing my right to be a responsible adult.

Now if only you’d get rid of all of the “No Turn on Red” signs.

The Art of the Sentence

I start teaching a class on the Art of the Sentence next week. In practical terms, it’s a grammar class, but kids don’t get excited about “grammar class.” They might get excited about art.

But the title is more than a trick; it’s not a misnomer. The class will consider the sentence as a work of art.

Kids don’t write sentences anymore. They write phrases. They type them into textland believing only their ideas will make it across. They don’t stop to consider their words.

Tweens and teenagers think words are transparent. Words are either windows on an idea, or else they blink and flash like a fire alarm, each blink and flash screaming into their minds terms like “racist,” “misogynist,” or “homophobe,” preventing any other part of the offending idea to make it across. They don’t understand that syntax, denotation, connotation, simile, and metaphor are active elements in the communication process; they don’t realize that words and phrases matter.

Part of the reason is because, according to our current understanding of brain development, tweens and early teenagers don’t yet have the ability to cognitively care about their audience as an audience. They may care about the person on the other end of their text as a person, but they don’t yet fully understand that, as a person, that person is not them, and as such, that person must be coaxed into understanding the foreign idea that is being presented to them. The tweens and teenagers don’t realize that the other person’s sentient mind must be respected before it will allow their foreign ideas entrance.

Without that appreciation for their audience’s mind, they don’t consider whether their ideas are actually worth anything. They just assume they are.

This lack of linguistic self-criticism means they’ve never actually worked on their raw ideas, never tried to shape them into a series of communicable words and phrases, never exerted themself upon their ideas the way artists exert themselves upon their raw materials, shaping and refining them until the idea is of value to others.

The art of the sentence is, in some sense, the art of thinking.

This is not to say that one must be able to write a grammatical sentence in order to be capable of thinking, but it is to say that the art of thinking requires the ability to manipulate abstract symbols and to arrange them according to some kind of communally-based syntax.

Most of us tell ourselves and our children that what makes humans different from other animals is our gift for language, and while this is not untrue, it glosses over the fact that many animals possess some kind of communal-based language.

Researchers have even translated some of these languages into English (well, translated them in part). We know, for instance, the sound a particular species of monkey makes to communicate to its neighbors that a large predator approaches on the ground, “and so we should all climb up into the trees,” versus the sound it uses to communicate when a large predator approaches from the sky, “and so we should all climb down to the ground.” We know how to translate messages from dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, gibbons, bees, a variety of birds. Examples are endless (as is the controversy that surrounds them).

We use the presence of these languages to arrange species on the heirarchy of thinking. We look at the greater or lesser presence of this ability, this ability to process the world through an observing and intentionally reactive brain (the presence of what Kant would call judgement), and we deem the creature more or less worthy of our protection.

Stimuli enters the brain in one form and exits in another. This implies to any impartial observer that something in that brain did work upon the stimuli. Unable to see the mechanism for ourselves, we reverse engineer the changes from the original stimuli to the changed stimuli and find in it a message: “I am here, and this is my judgement.”

When we hear the monkey “screaming” in the trees, we see for ourselves how all the other monkeys look down (or up), and we note their synchronicity in the act. This cues in us the idea that an actual, decodable message must exist within that scream, a message more nuanced than “danger.” In that nuance, we discover a sentient being capable of receiving stimuli from the outside world, processing that stimuli into meaningful terms, judging those terms and refining them into as simple a code as possible, and then communicating that code using the right emotive note to signal its import to the sentient beings on the other end of the communication, a note that helps filter it through the universal field of stimuli the other monkey must be encountering and tell it in no uncertain terms, “Deal with this stimuli first!”

The art of the sentence interrogates this process, this transformation, interpretation, and judgment of reality (imaginary or not) by a sentient mind, and it explores the ways in which the judgement can be converted into meaningful stimuli to be fed into another person’s reality.

By teaching this process, by exploring its in and outs as a system, I hope to not only improve my student’s writing skills, but to improve the linguistic systems within their brains.

Later, I’ll teach them to dance in that system using poetry and puns, and open to them the slip-sliding joy of linguistic whimsy, but for now, I only want them to realize the system exists and to grow curious as to its workings.

If I can pull that off, I’ll consider this class an unqualified success.

Hot for Teaching

I am coming up on a new quarter at my high school gig and a new semester at my college gig. I recently received my finished schedules for both of them, which means I have roughly a week and a half to prepare for all of them.

Despite my desire this summer to reinvent my college-level creative writing class, once the school year got going, I found myself too busy to act on it, so the class I’ll be starting next week will probably look much the same as the one before. I may get inspired between now and then to implement some changes to my weekly lectures, but the general syllabus of the class will remain the same.

As for my high-school teaching duties, I have another section of Dungeons & Dragons this quarter, which though it takes a lot of prep, doesn’t require as much as it used to thanks to the number of times I’ve taught it now. I also have Creative Writing, which will run like a simpler version of my college course (this one will be one-on-one, just me and a fifteen-year-old student, so it won’t run — and can’t run — exactly the same as a college course designed for two dozen 20-year-old students).

I have a bunch of other classes that will require some significant prep time though. I’ve taught on similar topics in the past, but these classes really need to be designed from the bottom up if I’m to address the unique needs of this year’s crop of students.

The first new class is called Talking Politics, Religion, and Sex: The Art of Difficult Conversations. This class will meet three times a week and include five upper-level students (the youngest is fifteen; the oldest is nineteen). I’ve asked one of the older students to act as our facilitator so that she can develop and demonstrate her speaking and listening skills as per her graduation requirements. The other students and I will act as the interlocutors, sharing our understandings and opinions on various difficult topics of the day. The students will participate in the selection of the daily topics, but I will provide each week’s general theme (politics, religion, or sex, for example).

I don’t want the class to just be a bullshit session, however, so each week will also include direct instruction in the various strategies, styles, and norms that come into play when we engage in difficult conversations. This isn’t something I can pull off the top of my head. I will need to do some research if I’m to understand exactly what I need to teach and then some creative time if I’m piece it back together in a form my students will recognize. Finally, I’ll need to do some systematic thinking to understand how I can weave the direct instruction into the flow of an overwhelmingly dicussion-based class.

The second new class is Women’s Studies, with a dose of Marginalized Communities. I’ve taught a version of this before during a series of seminars on the historic waves of Feminism, but that was to a classroom full of eager philosophy students. This version needs to meets the unique needs of a single teenage boy.

I have one intention with this class: to get this teenage boy to not become a sexual assailant. As a teenage boy growing up amidst rural poverty and ignorance, he is, unfortunately, at risk. I’m creating this class solely for him, and I’m creating it as the father of a young girl, the mentor to dozens of other young girls, and the professor of over a hundred young women. I don’t do this to protect them; I do this to make their lives easier and to ensure their sexual experiences are more free from tragedy than those of their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and so on back through eternity.

We see a lot of memes about the shotgun-toting father. I’d like to see one about the story-telling teacher, the one who can engender enough empathy in his male students that they begin to value their female counterparts not just for their bodies, but for their minds and their spirits, a teacher who turns his young male charges into boys and men who can see in girls and women the same struggles and desires that they see in themselves, and realize, when they look into their faces, that they’re looking at human beings, creatures with a right to just as much liberty as them, and not one iota less. Where’s that meme, huh?

So that’s the self-righteousness that I’m bringing into the class, which is obviously not a good thing. Self-righteousness does not a good teacher make. I need to tone it down and simply meet the kid where he is at…and then gently lead him into the future with the rest of us, a future where women are truly equal, not only in their opportunities, but in their estimations.

The “dose of marginalized communities” is included in the title as a tangential topic because it’s not my motivating force, but I do understand that the lack of empathy that opens him up to being a potential sexual assailant lies at the root of not only misogyny, but also of racism and nationalism, two more ideologies that lie like a curse across this country’s future. This understanding will be like a bass line beneath all of our discussions, but the class will focus more directly on his relationship to women; that is the fault line that will shake him to his core and loosen his ideologies up for a shift on everything else. I’m still not sure how to do that though.

Another relatively big class I need to teach is Civics. This particular class includes five students ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen, and all of them were assigned to it (i.e., this is not a class they’ve asked for). I’ve taught some version of civics in a variety of contexts, including a deep dive into the Supreme Court and others into some of the agencies subsumed under the Executive branch.

But this class is a little bit different. First, I’ve yet to teach this particular combination of students, and I’m unclear as to how well they can work together, let alone my reservations as to how each of them will work (or can work) on their own. Leaving that aside, I’m also unclear as to my overall objective with the class. When the class is all said and done, what do I want them to understand and what do I want them to be able to do?

Two of my five students are eligible to vote. The other three are not far behind. When it comes time, I want all of them to be able to do that — to vote — and to do it in as informed a manner as possible. I don’t want to shape the way they think about political topics (they can vote for whatever and for whomever they like), but I do want to shape the way they think about their role in our government.

I want them to see the entire tree of our democracy, understand its main branches (including the military), and feel their own standpoint as being deep down among the roots. I want them to understand how their actions and their decisions help feed the entire tree. I want them to have a sense of civics that is less “how a bill becomes a law” than it is “how a person becomes a country.” I think that could be kind of fun.

I’m also teaching a small class to two students about The Art of the Sentence. I haven’t taught this one before, but I’d like to make it a staple of my quarterly offerings.

The majority of my high school students hate to write, and most of them have been socially promoted throughout their education, leading to a situation where not only do they hate to write, but they flat out don’t know how to.

I haven’t ever addressed this question head on. I’ve focused more on the shallowness of their thinking than on their inability to write down their thoughts (neglecting, in the process, a major contributor to the cause of their shallowness). With so many of them hating to write, I concentrate a lot on their verbal skills (hence, Dungeons & Dragons), trying to get them to ask questions when they don’t understand something and to reiterate a speaker’s points when they think they do. When I’ve forced them to write, I’ve concentrated on the way they introduce, support, and transition through their ideas, focusing my instruction on the highest levels of their argument.

I’m hoping this new class will correct my error. By reducing their focus to the sentence (rather than to, say, the paragraph or the argument), I hope to change the entire game that they’ve been taught to play, and in the process, try to engender a new joy for writing.

I don’t yet know how to do that exactly. I don’t know what example sentences to provide; how much grammatical jargon to use, and whether to teach it and insist on its use directly; how much time to spend on punctuation; when to introduce each piece of new information; how to assess for their understanding and practice; etc. But regardless of how I do it, I know I have to do it, and for that, I’m excited.

The final class on my upcoming schedule is called Technology. It’s a one-on-one class with a graduating student who simply needs a quarter-credit in Technology to graduate. Essentially, I can make the class about anything, as long as it includes technology. I have a couple of ideas: podcasting; blogging; a conceptual breakdown of the Internet, supported by technical materials…but I haven’t spoken with the student about it yet, so I don’t want to make any assumptions. The podcasting thing could be fun, but we’ll see — it’s really up to him.

That may seem like a lot to prep before January 23rd, and the truth of the matter is that it is, but each of the topics are of real interest to me, so the prep is something I’ll enjoy. I’m sometimes too busy or exhausted for it, but I know that every moment I can give to it will pay me back in spades.

I guess one word for what I do is called work, but working is easy when you truly love what you do.

How I Teach My Five-Year-Old Daughter STEM

I was playing a series of games with my daughter this morning, when she said, “Dada, do you wanna play inventions?”

She’s said something like this to me before, and it usually turns into a drawing/coloring session where she intends to draw some invention-idea that she has, but where as often as not, she forgets why we sat down to draw and instead just makes some kind of weird pattern.

I wanted to sit on the couch and watch the Bills game anyway, and we usually draw and color in front of the TV (thought usually not with it on), so yeah, why not? We still had some time to kill before the game though, so instead of just saying yes, I asked her what she wanted to invent.

Then I stopped her before she could answer. We were sitting on the floor in her recently cleaned and rearranged play room, the sun was coming in the windows, and her mother was doing something quiet upstairs. The moment felt right for an actual conversation, so before she could spit out some weird invention, I told her that inventions usually solve some kind of problem, so before she thinks of her invention, she should think of what problem she wanted to solve.

That stopped her. Her eyes looked down at the rug and her forehead crinkled, her brain trying to locate the problem for whatever invention she was just about to tell me. We were playing Connect Four at the time, so I remained quiet and let her ruminate on it while we played back and forth, then she said, “I want to be inside the TV.”

Now, like a lot of kids, my daughter loves television. If given the chance, she would sit on the couch all day and watch television. She loves other things too, but she loves TV most of all. I mean, she is our daughter.

Over the next several minutes, I tried to figure out exactly what she meant and what exactly she wanted to achieve. If I was going to help her invent something, I had to make sure I understood its real purpose.

My daughter had recently been introduced to video games. Over Christmas, while at her cousins’ house, she played Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch. Prior to that, her experience with video games was limited to relatively poorly developed children’s games on my iPad. She had no real idea that the world of video games included experiences like playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on a giant television screen. She knew console games existed (she’s watched me play various games on my XBox), but she’d never taken control of one.

I’m proud to say that she took to it rather well, and by the end of the day, she was competitive enough to go against some of the adults in the house. She hadn’t played since we returned from Chicago, but two of our friends visit with their Switch this weekend, and they had Mario Kart, so we let her play. While she didn’t win a single race, she could hold her own against the computer.

When she said she wanted to invent a machine that lets her go into the television, I wanted to figure out whether she meant she wanted to be part of a video game or be a part of a movie or TV show.

I said, “Come check this out,” and we got up and went into the living room. I brought out my laptop and showed her a commercial for the Oculus Rift, which if you don’t know, is the world’s first consumer-level virtual reality machine. We talked a little more after she watched it, and it came out that, no, she didn’t mean being in a virtual reality. She wanted to go into the TV.

I paused a moment. She couldn’t really think…

“Hey,” I said. “Go look behind the TV.” She did as I asked. After she’d looked the equipment up and down, I asked, “Do you think you could fit inside there?”

She thought for a moment, and shook her head. “No, I’d have to shrink.”

At this point, the football game was coming on, so I pulled her onto the couch with me and we cuddled under a blanket to watch the game. After a little while, I took out my iPhone, turned on the selfie camera, and held it up to her face. “Are you on TV now?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Not like that.”

“But that’s how people get on the TV. The football game isn’t inside the television. All we’re seeing on the TV is moving light.” Something moved in her face.

Months ago, my daughter and I had a long, multi-location conversation about how animation works. That conversation not only led us to creating a bunch of flip-style animations, but it also included a long diatribe about how everything on TV is just an animation, a series of moving pictures created by ever-changing colored lights, each color on and off in a pattern that tricks our brains into seeing something that isn’t there. (This same conversation contained a diatribe that  explained how the movies she watches on Netflix are really just a series of information packets sent to our house through wires over our streets and reconfigured by the television).

As we sat on the couch and I said “moving light,” I saw her mind go back to this conversation, and I continued, “Where this football game is taking place, there’s someone pointing a camera onto the football field, and that picture of the game is sent over the wires to show up here. Just like you’re not in the iPhone when you see yourself in the screen, they’re not in the television.”

She got quiet, and we went back to watching the game.

A little while later, she said, “I want to meet the people on the TV.”

Okay, I thought, we’re getting a little closer.

One of the TV shows that my daughter is obsessed with is Disney’s Descendants. You might not know about it if you don’t have a young daughter (I only assume it’s a daughter thing because the only people I’ve seen get excited about this show are daughters, and that includes daughters ranging in age from five to thirteen years old).

When I heard about the concept for the show, I thought it sounded pretty cool. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Beast and the Fairy Godmother, all of the wicked villains of the Disney universe have been confined to an island that is protected by a magical shield; essentially, they’ve been sent to a combination of Alcatraz and the island from Lord of the Flies. They’re free to do whatever they want, as long as they stay on their island (and the Fairy Godmother and the Beast have banished them there forever).

But that’s just the prologue. The real story takes place a generation later, when all of the heroes and villains you know now have children. When the son of the Beast and Belle receives the crown to the Kingdom due to some unexplained law of royal succession where a middle-aged King willingly gives up his crown to his still-coming-of-age Prince, the new King decides that the sins of the mothers and fathers shouldn’t be held against their children, and in a very moderate but still progressive manner, he allows four (and yet only four) children from the island join the rarified prep school that he and his friends attend.

I’m not going to get into the plot machinations of the story (there are two movies and several shorts, not to mention a warehouse full of merchandise and at least two full-length soundtracks), but the long and short of it is that my daughter loves it.

When she said she wanted to meet the people on the TV, I knew that the characters on Descendants were at least some of the people she wanted to meet.

At which point I told her that just like someone was holding a camera up to the football field, someone was holding a camera up while the people on Descendants did their thing. I told her that while she watched Descendants on television, the people she watched were probably on their own couches watching something else. “It’s just a video,” I said. “It’s not really happening when you watch it.”

I asked her who she wanted to meet the most, and she said, “Evie.” Evie is the daughter of the Evil Queen, the woman who wanted to poison Snow White for being too beautiful. Now in high school, Evie is a gifted fashion designer who benefits from the magic in her mother’s mirror (in this generation, the magic mirror fits comfortably in a pocket and Evie sometimes uses it to cheat on her tests).

“Okay,” I said, “But Evie isn’t Evie.” I opened up the IMDB app and showed her the page for Descendants. I clicked on the actress who plays Evie, and I said, “Look, her name is Sophia Carson. She’s been in other movies too. Look at all these pictures of her pretending to be other people when she isn’t pretending to be Evie.”

My daughter scrolled through the pictures a little bit. I know this sounds like I was destroying the wonderful illusion of Disney for my little girl, but she didn’t seem disappointed in the least. She seemed fascinated.

I showed her how to use the IMDB app, and then let her look through all the pictures of the various actors while I cuddled behind her and watched the football game.

At some point, she turned to me and asked, “So which Evie got my money?”

I didn’t expect that question.

The night before, when we had friends over and she was playing Mario Kart and being social and just having a wonderful time, we had to trick her into getting into her pajamas (doing it directly wouldn’t have been worth the hassle). We told her that we were going to have a contest, where she would go upstairs and put on her own pajamas, and we would stay downstairs and guess which pajamas she would put on. She loved the idea and went running up the stairs.

While she was up there, my wife made very rushed descriptions of the various pajamas my daughter had available to her, and then our guests and us each made a pick. To our surprise, when Nora snuck back downstairs and into the dining room, she yelled out that one of our guests had actually won (the little ninja had been downstairs long enough to hear us make our picks!).

She then ran into the next room, ransacked her own wallet, and came back with a dollar bill, which she gave to our guest. He tried to demure, but she insisted. He won, and in doing so, he earned himself a dollar. She screamed, “Wait! I need jammy pants under my nightgown!,” and she ran back upstairs for round two.

My wife again quickly described all the various pajama pants for our guests — but I didn’t need a description. I knew just which ones she would choose, and when she came downstairs, I was right. So, again, she ran into the other room, opened her wallet, and came back with another dollar (where she got two dollar bills, I have no idea).

At this point, the dollar bills became ridiculous, and we refused to accept them, but she wouldn’t hear of it. After some back and forth, we came up with a compromise. As the now rightful owners of the two dollar bills, my guest and I would donate them to one of the things she is saving up for: a trip to Disney World (months ago, her and I created a special savings account for this trip, and I told her we wouldn’t be able to go until it contained $2,000; she currently has $1.67).

She wouldn’t accept the dollar bills, but she loved the idea of us donating our money, and she quickly accepted the offer.

I took out my iPhone, opened up the special account so she could see it, and transferred $2 from my checking account into her Disney World savings account, then I put the two dollar bills in my wallet.

After confirming the transaction, she looked up at me and said, “Who do you think got it?”

“Got what?” I asked.

“The money. You sent it to Disney World. Who got it?”

(Man, I love this little girl).

“Who do you want to get it?”

She thought for a moment, and said, “Evie.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll send a text down to Disney World and make sure Evie got it.”

But now, 24 hours later, I’ve told her that the person she thinks is Evie is actually a woman named Sophia Carson. If she just sent $2 down to Disney World care of: Evie, and Evie isn’t really Evie, then which Evie got her money?

I had no answer to that question. And like a coward, I chose to pivot.

“So if Evie is just an actress,” I said, “and all the people on TV are just actors and actresses who people point a camera at while they pretend to be someone else, you don’t really need an invention to go into the TV. You just need to become an actress.”

She liked that idea. During the game’s next commercial break, I challenged her to mimic the people we watched on the screen. The commercial was that GEICO one where people  enjoy horrible things, such as having your seat chair repeatedly kicked from behind on an airline. Because of the content, her acting was actually pretty funny.

The game came back on, and we resumed cuddling on the couch.

After a few minutes, I said, “You don’t have to be an actress to be part of a story, you know. Every day of your life is a story. It can be as exciting as the things you watch on television, or it can be as boring as sitting on the couch. The choice is yours.”

If it were mine, she’d become a drum-playing astronaut.

Dave Chappelle Needed to Talk #MeToo

Dave Chappelle is getting some shit for his latest specials on Netflix, particularly his take on the revelations of widespread sexual assault and sexual harassment as a deep and ever-present reality for women in the workplace.

In his review, “Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Moment,” Jason Zinoman writes for the New York Times, “In this paradigm-shifting moment, when victims are speaking out and revealing secrets long buried, Mr. Chappelle is ignoring the historical context, the systemic barriers preventing women from speaking up about abuse or succeeding in comedy.”

In his review, “Dave Chappelle’s ‘reckless’ #MeToo and trans jokes have real after-effects,” Brian Logan writes for The Guardian, “[Chapelle] makes [a] familiar claim, which is that it’s not a comedian’s job to be right, but to be reckless… I take Chappelle’s central point, that comedy has to defend its right to go against the grain, to test the boundaries of the sayable…And yet…[s]everal of [his] jokes punch down; others rehash the idea that victims of sexual harassment should ‘man up.’ These aren’t the boundaries of the sayable: this is what reactionaries say every day…I’m not convinced Chappelle is being reckless…These are deliberate choices, made by a comic who clearly weighs his every word.”

In his review, “Dave Chappelle Is Mostly Disappointing in His New Netflix Specials,” Matt Zoller Seitz writes for Vulture, “Chappelle…seem[s] out of touch at best, stubbornly reactionary at worst, and imperiously annoyed at anyone who dares to tell him that a lot of what he says is not worth saying. [His] sentiments seemed to be punching down for no good reason, and…the material was self-aggrandizing, poorly paced, and inelegantly shaped.”

The negative reviews continue.

My wife just walked behind me while FaceTiming with her sister and said something along the lines of, “Kyle is writing a blogpost to mansplain why people shouldn’t be condemning Dave Chappelle for his latest special.”

But that’s not what I want to do. What I want to do is figure out why I enjoyed the specials so much. If so many people who probably share many of my values were upset by his comedy, I wonder why am I not.

I explored some of this a few weeks ago in a lament over Tig Notaro neglecting to discuss the #metoo movement (especially the Louie C.K. aspect of it) during a live set I attended. I concluded that piece by saying, “I want to hear [about this topic] in a stand-up format. I need to hear a long, layered, intelligent, emotional, and deeply comedic monologue on Louie’s crimes and on the way individual humans, society, and the subculture of comedy nerds ought to reckon with it.”

I also wrote I wanted to hear this monologue from Tig “more than I want to hear [it] from…Dave Chappelle.”

Well, with one of  Chappelle’s latest specials, I got to hear it from him. I’m paraphrasing to remove the comedic aspects, but he basically said, “What Louie did was wrong, but these girls have to toughen up. If seeing a dude’s dick can throw you off your dream like that, then you probably weren’t tough enough to achieve your dream in the first place.”

And that, my friends, is why, on this issue, I wasn’t looking for guidance from Dave Chappelle. I already understand Chappelle’s perspective on the issue, as I understand it from most other men’s perspectives. It’s not about that.

Unless Chappelle or Chris Rock or Bill Burr or one of the other male comedians I respect wants to address the issue from the perspective of the piece of shit who can’t control their urges enough to honor the basic decency of other human beings — unless they’re gonna take me inside Louie’s head and show me what gives him the right — then I don’t really need their thoughts on the topic.

That’s not to say I don’t want to hear how they fashion comedy around the #metoo movement. I thought Chappelle’s stuff was funny; I don’t have to agree with him or receive insight from him to find it funny. Even reactionary ideas can be funny, otherwise South Park wouldn’t still be on the air after two decades.

But I don’t expect wisdom on this particular topic to come from too many middle-aged men, the same men who came to whatever power they have through the same patriarchal system that is on trial right now.

Because I wasn’t looking for wisdom from Chappelle, I don’t much care that he didn’t deliver it on this particular topic.

What I cared about was his ability to perform a ~10-minute, detailed description of the Emmet Till murder in the middle of a COMEDY special. What I cared about was his ability to perform a ~15 minute, detailed story about the way a particular pimp manipulated and exploited his most important prostitute, and do so with very few laughs…again, in the middle of a COMEDY special.

Both of these stories shared an insight that I didn’t yet have. The first built up to a hopeful message that sometimes the worst shit has to happen for the best shit to come to fruition — Emmet Till’s senseless murder led to the Civil Rights Movement led to Barack Obama. The second story demonstrated some of the worst aspects of unchecked capitalism: in pursuit of the almighty dollar, capitalists manipulate and exploit even the most vulnerable among us; they have no shame, no sympathy, and no heart — they have only the will to exploit. And they’re in charge of the entertainment industry.

Chappelle attempts things in his comedy that few others do. He allows his audiences to sit for tens of minutes at a time without a laugh, and when he reaches the “punchline,” he sometimes allows it to be something other than funny.

Chappelle is intelligent, insightful, and artful. He doesn’t have a clear vision on every topic, but neither does anyone else.

Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

For comedians, however, he ought to have written, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must begin thy set.”

The Books I Read in 2017

Every year, I participate in the Goodreads Challenge, which is where you challenge yourself to read a certain number of books over the course of the year and then track your progress. Most years, I challenge myself to read either 25 or 30 books, and most years, I come close to achieving that goal, but for the last two years, I read 35 and 36 books respectively, so  I challenged myself to read 35 books in 2017.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t succeed. Instead, I read 21 (my lowest number since the annual challenge began in 2011). There’s no real reason for this, except maybe that some of the books I read were pretty damn long (my wife, who read Moby Dick and Gone with the Wind this year, thinks Goodreads should change it from number of books read to number of pages; she’s not wrong). But long books or not, I didn’t reach my goal. Thankfully, a new year’s begun.

Now, to the books!

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (528 pages) This non-fiction book attempts to capture nearly two-thousand years of papal history. The author, John Julius Norwich, skips a large percentage of the popes to focus on the more interesting ones, such as St. Peter (the first bishop of Rome), Innocent III (the first to put forward the principle of papal infallibility), Leo X (the first Medici pope and the man who excommunicated Martin Luther), Clement VII (the second Medici pope and Leo X’s cousin and best friend, not to mention the pope who wore the tiara when Protestantism became a separate religion, Rome was sacked by Charles V, and the Church of England broke away), Pope Joan (a legendary female pope who Norwich argues did not really exist), and others.

The subject of almost every chapter in this book could stand as a book on its own, and several chapters could have whole libraries dedicated to them. As a history of the papacy, it’s also a history of the political and economic life of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire, and Europe in general.

Because of that, some of the book is a slog, and you need a machete to cut through all of the repetitive names followed by Roman numerals, but if you give up the idea that you’re going to remember the differences between all the Leopolds, Ferdinands, Clements, and Alfonsos, the book becomes a fascinating flood of corruption, intrigue, and empire.

If you have any interest in the actual history of the Roman Catholic Church (rather than the theology), Absolute Monarchs is a great place to start (the other, of course, is A History of Christianity: The First Three-Thousand Years).

Norse Mythology (304 pages) Neil Gaiman wrote this collection of Norse mythology because, in a lot of ways, mythology comes not from the tales we tell, but from the retelling of them. Thor did not exist in Asgard, but in the magical space between the storyteller and the listener, each fireside tale in Scandinavia adding to the strength of his hammer.

Gaiman’s desire to share tales that have already been shared millions of times is to be commended,  and (as I wrote in my review on Goodreads), he “writes these familiar tales in an authentic feeling way, letting loose only in those moments when the narrative requires it, but never straying too far from his source.”

When I picked up the book, however, I was hoping for more Gaiman and less Snorri Sturluson. While I didn’t necessarily want a modern take on the tales (e.g., Gaiman’s novel American Gods), I had hoped for Gaiman to take me inside the stories to provide a new perspective. Instead, I got a remarkably faithful version of these well-told tales.

I don’t hold that against him. My desire as a reader and his desire as an author may not have matched up, but the end result was still an enjoyable read, making this book as good as any if you’re just hoping for an English version of traditional tales.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (414 pages) I wrote a piece about this book when I read it back in March. I hadn’t finished the book when I’d written it, and so I left the question that motivated the piece unanswered at the end. The author, Yuval Noah Harari, essentially argues that Homo sapiens are no different than any other biological force on the planet in that we are subject to the same laws of physics, chemistry, and biology as ants, anteaters, and single-cell parameciums.

The story of our history, then, is the story of our attempt to universalize the powers of the human animal — whether through politics, economics, or beliefs — in order to overcome the laws the universe has subjected us to.

Harari ends his book with a chapter that presages his next book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. The chapter explores humanity’s attempt to overtake natural selection with intelligent design, discussing biological engineering, cyborg engineering, and the engineering of non-organic life (i.e., Artificial Intelligence).

The end result is not exactly pessimistic, but also not exactly hopeful. As he writes in the book’s Afterword, “Despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals… We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea of what to do with all that power… Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one… Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (368 pages) I gave this non-fiction book a rating of three stars when I finished it back in April, which is probably why I barely remember reading it. I started reading the book because I wanted to understand not only economics, but also the mindset that leads to insatiable greed.

I don’t think this book satisfied either of those desires, but if it did, it certainly didn’t make a lasting impression when on me. That’s why, when writing this post, I went back to the book to rejigger my memory, and in the book’s introduction, I found this great quote from John Maynard Keynes, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men…are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

That’s why I wanted to read this book. To better understand the ideas that essentially rule our world. Maybe this book helped me (because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this year thinking about economics), but if it did, I can’t say exactly how.

The one thing I do remember about this book is how much of a bad-ass John Maynard Keynes was. I mean, the dude made his personal fortune by only dedicating a half-hour a day, while still in bed, to his own financial doings. The rest of the time, he was writing books on mathematics that impressed even Bertrand Russell, doing public service in Britain’s treasury department, socializing with Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury group, editing the Economic Journal, participating in (and then critiquing) the Treaty of Versailles, running a theatre, becoming the Director of the Bank of England, and so much more. Keynesian economics may have its detractors, but Keynes himself was pretty damn cool.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (577 pages) This non-fiction book tells not just the story of the famed Lawrence of Arabia, but also of the unheralded (and generally inexperienced) men and women who also played a huge role in the shaping of the Middle East.

I picked up this book following The Worldly Philosophers because, in reading that book, I realized just how little I knew about World War I. The only book about the Great War I’d  read previously was The Guns of August (which is fantastic, by the way), but that mostly covered the European theatre, and focused mostly on the first month of the war. I wanted to know more.

I chose Lawrence in Arabia because of the anecdote the author, Scott Anderson, shares in the introduction to the novel. Basically, Lawrence is called to the palace for what he imagines will be a consultation about the postwar borders of the Middle East, but instead, King George surprises him with a knighthood ceremony. He’d once written that his greatest ambition was to become knighted before the age of 30, and now that ambition was about to be realized. As Anderson writes, “Except Lawrence didn’t kneel. Instead, just as the ceremony got under way, he quietly informed the king that he was refusing the honor [and] under the baleful gaze of a furious Queen Mary, Colonel Lawrence turned and walked away.”

I might not have known anything about World War I, but after reading that intro, I had to know more about the bad-ass mofo who turned his back on a king.

The book was fantastic, and it reads like a novel. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (570 pages) Lawrence in Arabia did a great job of covering the Middle Eastern theatre of the war, but it didn’t do a great job of explaining what happened at the end of the war. Paris 1919 dedicates 570 pages to the subject.

I really enjoyed this book (four stars!), but I also had some issues with it. The author, Margaret MacMillan, organizes the book by geography, focusing on the story of each region. For example, the third part of the book tells how the Balkans were divided following World War I, while chapter six focuses on Russia.

This makes the individual stories of the regions easier to follow, but the jumping back and forth in linear time makes it difficult to understand all the moving parts and how they influence each other. I don’t begrudge MacMillan for the difficulties — her subject is extremely difficult to organize, and she had to make a choice somewhere — but by the end of the book, I felt she had lost some steam.

The New Testament: King James Version (~550 pages) I started reading the New Testament in concert with Absolute Monarchs, but as anyone can see who looks through my Goodreads, I tend to read a lot about Church history. Last year, for example, I read Elaine Pagels’ research on Revelations and James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty. It had been several years since I’d last read the New Testament in its entirety, so I figured I’d get on that.

Mostly, I wanted to read the books that come after the four Gospels: the book of Acts, the various letters “written” by Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude, and Revelations. Because I’d recently read an entire book on Revelations, I skipped that section in this year’s reading, but outside of that, I read them all.

And as always, I thoroughly enjoyed them. They don’t call it the Good Book for nothing.

Aftermath: Empire’s End (423 pages) The final book in Chuck Wendig‘s Aftermath trilogy, Empire’s End provides the canonical explanation of what happened to the Empire following the death of Emperor Palpatine during the Battle of Endor. The trilogy takes place between the Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, clearing up some loose ends from the original film trilogy.

I enjoyed the overall plot of Wendig’s novels, but I got pretty annoyed with his habit of writing “Interludes” that had nothing to do with the main story. At first, I found them interesting — they’re like mini-stories that take place throughout the Star Wars galaxy, and they give readers an on-the-ground experience of what it is like to live through the death of a tyrannical empire — but after a while, they just got in the way of the story of Wendig’s main characters. This was an issue with the entire trilogy, but by the third book, it was even more of a problem. We’d been with these characters for two whole books now — it’s time to leave off the Interludes and simply cut to the chase.

With that being said, if you’re a Star Wars geek like I am, these canonical books are a must read.

Max (473 pages) I came across this book in the children’s section of our local library. It’s a young-adult novel written from the perspective of a child created through the Nazis’ eugenics program.

I picked the book up because the opening chapter was written from the first-person perspective of a fetus, and frankly, I’d never come across something like that before.

The rest of the book played out well. The titular character is the epitome of Nazi eugenics, but even he comes to realize that tyranny is a malevolent force that cuts away at the sanctity of the individual. A well-done book that I’d recommend for both young and regular adults.

This Is Not A Novel (190 pages) The late David Markson is one of my favorite authors. His books, while similar in style, expand the possibilities of literature, challenging reader expectations while also delivering on the emotional promises we require from literature.

This Is Not a Novel focuses on the birth, life, and death of various artists, including the narrator, who calls himself “Writer.” The text is essentially a 190-page collection of anecdotes about artists (again, including “Writer”), but the anecdotes build up and play off each other, allowing the reader to make the kinds of connections we desire in our reading.

I picked up the book during the week my family was in Chicago, and I read it in just a couple of hours. There are no chapters to the book, and each anecdote is very short — sometimes no longer than a few words — so it’s easy to tell yourself, just one more, just one more, and next thing you know, the book is over.

If you have any interest in art and artists, definitely pick it up.

The Communist Manifesto (288 pages) As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I taught a high-school course on Communism & Socialism in 2017. To prepare for that class, I read several books and essays from the original leaders, including the grand-daddy of the texts, Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto.

I’m a big fan of this book. A lot of it is Inside Baseball type-stuff, where Marx & Engels argue with other communists and socialists about the real aims and meaning of the international movement, but you can breeze over that stuff to get to the meat of the essay.

Between the two blog posts I’ve linked to above, I’ve said pretty much all I want to say on the topic for now, but I will add that I truly believe every informed American ought to read The Communist Manifesto. Marx & Engels are both strong writers, and the ideas they present in this little book become more apropos with the growing power of the American oligarchy.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (170 pages) I picked this book up while reading several books on Communism & Socialism. I needed a break from all of the political theory, and this meditation on the meaning of life fit the bill.

The author, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, was suddenly struck by a painful illness that prevented her from getting out of bed for close to a year. In her bedridden state, a friend gave her a wild snail that they picked up from outside of her apartment. While lying in bed doing absolutely nothing, Bailey begins to meditate on the lived experience of the snail, on humanity’s need for companionship, and on life’s ability to be resilient in the face adversity.

This short book did not quite live up to my hopes for it (it reads like a poor man’s version of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), but at 170 pages, it fulfilled my need to alleviate the political anger aroused in me by Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

Lenin: A Biography (561 pages) Another book for the Communism & Socialism class, this one took me most of the summer. I started reading it in mid-July and finished it in late August.

As the bona-fide leader of the Communist revolution in Russia and the founding father of the Soviet Union, Lenin has been the subject of hundreds if not thousands of scholarly books over the past 100 years. Choosing a single book to read can be daunting. I chose Robert Service‘s biography because he is a professor of Russian history at Oxford and the author of several others books on Russia, including a biography of Stalin and a history of 20th century Russia.

I also chose the book because it was one of the first biographies to be written after Mikhail Gorbachev “unsealed” the central party’s archives and various files and meeting minutes became declassified. It also contained research from more recently acquired correspondence from and memoirs of Lenin’s family, furthering our insight into Lenin’s motives and actions.

I was not disappointed. What results is a full and complex picture of a uniquely driven and highly focused individual. We see him playing with his neighbor’s children and feel his own loss at never having children himself. We see him raging in his deathbed as Stalin proves himself to be an unworthy successor. We see him foaming at his fellow intellectuals and inspiring the actions of crowds in a square. We follow him on nighttime walks and relax with him in the countryside. We see, in a word, a man.

Socialism: Utopian & Scientific (86 pages) Like the Communist Manifesto, Socialism: Utopian & Scientific is less of a book and more of an extended essay. Written exclusively by Engels (rather than Marx & Engels), the essay breaks down the concept of socialism, looking at it through first a utopian lens and then a historical-material one, with a long section in the middle, “Dialectics,” establishing the primacy of the latter over the former.

For Engels, when Socialism evolved from Utopianism to Historical Materialism, its “task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes [the proletariat and the bourgeoisie] and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.”

In other words, Socialism is not an attempt to create the perfect society. It’s the attempt to end the original conflict between humans: economic oppression. Subsequently, the dominant mode of production (capitalism) manifests as the pure expression of that oppression, one in which the only goal is the creation of surplus value, which Marx demonstrated can only arise from the exploitation of another person’s labor.

In still other words, according to Engels (one of its founding fathers), Socialism is not a positive political program but an attempt to free the vast swath of humanity from capitalist oppression (which, it will be argued elsewhere also frees humanity from the tyranny of the State, itself a mode of capitalist defense).

For a relatively short introduction to Socialism, you could do a lot worse.

State & Revolution (116 pages) Written by Lenin, The State & Revolution is Lenin’s attempt to clarify the language and ideas of Marx and Engels to better communicate what he saw as the revolutionary requirements of Communism and Socialism, especially as it relates to the proletariat, whom he defines as the spear tip of the working class, the leadership group that is most capable of directing the workers’ revolution through and into its ultimate phase, the withering away of the state and humanity’s first real taste of freedom.

If you’re interested, I put together for my students some notes on the first few chapters. It’s basically quotes from the text, but arranged so as to provide a clearer through-line for each chapter.

Lenin is not as good a writer as Marx or Engels, but his tone and his authority definitely come through. After reading the biography of Lenin I mentioned above, I found my first in-depth experience with his writing to be enriched by my understanding of him as a man. I definitely enjoyed the experience.

On Bullshit (67 pages) A small treatise written by a Princeton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, On Bullshit has a funnier title than its content would suggest. The author attempts to analyze the difference between bullshit and lying, coming to the conclusion that while lying must have some relationship to the truth (since its function is to conceal the truth), bullshit‘s only goal is to get its audience to be impressed by the bullshitter.

Because it is generally apathetic in regards to the truth, bullshit is more dangerous than lying: lying at least acknowledges the value of the truth, but bullshit is nihilistic.

A Song of Ice & Fire (4,972 pages) Following the conclusion of the latest season of Game of Thrones, I decided to re-read George R.R. Martin’s original books: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons.

I loved these books the first time I read them over a decade ago, and I loved them even more this time around. I had forgotten how many changes the HBO series had made, how many characters left out and how many subplots left unopened or unexplored. I forgot that the HBO series was not only erasing minor characters or changing the locations and timing of various scenes, but it was radically altering Martin’s novels, to the point where the events of the past two seasons of television simply can’t develop over the next two or three books.

In other words, I’d forgotten that what I was watching on television was so far from Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire that I’d essentially forgotten A Song of Ice & Fire. I couldn’t be happier to have Martin’s vision be the last one I’ve experienced.

Now if only he could publish the next book (The Winds of Winter) before the final season of Game of Thrones can be released.


And that’s it. Those are the twenty-one books I read in 2017. All told, we’re talking roughly 10,660 pages worth of fantasy, history, philosophy, experimental literature, mythology, religion, and politics.

Not to mention way too many articles about Donald Trump.

God damn it, 2017.