For a while there were numerousarticles on a phenomenon that the press labeled “quiet quitting.” (Why am I convinced that term was generated by management and not workers?) If you read these articles, there really isn’t any “quitting” involved; people are still perfectly willing to do their jobs, no matter how crappy. What they’re not willing to do is extra, unpaid work that is outside of the scope of their job. They’re not willing to do work before clocking in; they’re not willing to take on extra responsibility without being recognized for it (preferably with a promotion); they’re not willing to work extra shifts when they’re ill, and especially not feeling as if they have to be on the hook to find someone to cover their shifts when ill (that’s what you’re getting paid for, managers).
And this is being called “quiet quitting.”
When I started work in earnest after I got my degree in computer science at 22, I had been working in the service industry for 7 years. I had put myself through college with service jobs; kept myself fed and clothed with service jobs; and was acutely aware of just how many employers tried to abuse their power in squeezing more work out of you for free. (In fact, I think everyone should be required to work in—and live off the pay of—hourly service jobs for at least a year before they take on a non-service job. And anyone getting an MBA should have to put in an additional year.)
My first day on the job in high tech, one of my coworkers, as part of his training, told me, “Well, we’re scheduled to work 8 hours/day, but you’ll get lots of overtime.” And I thought, “Yeah, no way.” And then and there I came up with three rules for my work-life balance that I have stayed with to this day:
No working lunches
No trade magazines on my free time
(I think the implementation of “brown-bag lunches”, where execs schedule a talk during lunch time and strongly hint you should give up your lunchtime to attend, is yet another example of management trying to squeeze workers. My lunchtime in mine; you want my attention, you go ahead and pay me for it.)
Word, Agent Sully
Now yes, I have occasionally broken those rules in extremis. I’ve attended working lunches, mostly for political reasons (ie to make my team look good in front of an executive). I’ve read some articles in trade magazines, but almost always on company time. And while I have sometimes stayed late or worked weekends because of the press of events, it is extremely rare.
Plenty of people have told me over the last 35+ years that I was limiting myself by being so stringent; that I would get poor performance reviews, wouldn’t get promoted, wouldn’t get bonuses, etc. And that’s turned out to be nonsense; not only have I gotten raises, promotions, bonuses, and accolades, I have regularly been tagged as a top performer. I’m not saying this to brag; I’m pointing out you can have a good work-life balance and do solid work that gets appreciated.
What aggravates me with the current situation is this: Workers finally have some leverage with business, and business is whining that they’re using that power to demand a reasonable work-life balance. And I’m actually thrilled that Millennials and GenZers are fighting back against the soul-sucking demands of pushy, fascistic, out-of-control managers. That the workforce is saying, “Enough!” is nothing but healthy, in my opinion.
I want to make clear that I don’t believe all management are pushy, fascistic, and out-of-control. But far too many, especially in service jobs, absolutely are. (Read any story about Elon Musk for examples.) You have all read the stories about Amazon drivers urinating in bottles, and factory fulfillment people being monitored by the second. Or Walmart workers forced to do work off the clock. Restaurant workers made to feel guilty for not coming in and working while sick. That’s absurd. It shouldn’t be borne. And I’m glad to see fewer and fewer people are accepting it. Because you don’t have to.
So those are my three rules. What are yours? And how have they worked out for you?
I turn 60 this year. And like plenty of folks my age (and most of my friends), my body is doing its best to betray me by falling apart and attempting to cripple me with various maladies.
The first warning of this—well, “decline” is the only word that fits—was when I was 36, the same year my dad died (at only 63, of prostate cancer). I have read that many people of a physical/athletic bent experience an injury sometime in their 30s that marks the changeover from young to “guess I’m starting to get old.” For me, it was when I was skeet-shooting with my Pop (my father-in-law, this is), and I blew out a disk in my neck. The subsequent massive pain was almost unbelievable, and forced me to get the disk removed and two vertebrae clamped in place.
And consigned me to chronic neck pain for the rest of my life. Not to mention robbing me of feeling in two of my left fingers.
When your doctor tells you, “You shouldn’t lift anything heavier than a half-gallon of milk” (thought the doctor in Texas changed this to “a six pack of beer”), it gets your attention. When you ask if you can continue to ski and are told, “Well, sure, if you don’t mind risking permanent paralysis,” it focuses the mind. Yup.
And of course that accelerated in my 40s and 50s, as it tends to do. My neck is curving under the influence of gravity and my injury. I have “essential tremors”. Almost exactly two and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A year ago I had bilateral pulmonary embolisms (“blood clots in the lungs” to you, my friend). Late last year, my eye doctor notified me I have cataracts (“But not bad enough for insurance to pay for surgery,” she said helpfully). My knees have been a tragic wreck since a soccer injury at 17. And so it goes.
And you know what? Fuck it. Get busy living, or get busy dying.
It would be spectacularly easy to give in to these various maladies and setbacks and just declare defeat, as my ex seemingly has done after her stroke. But that is just not me. I hurt. I fucking ache all the time, to be perfectly frank. AND I DON’T CARE. Ima live life anyway.
I mean, of course I “care”. I see my doctors; I get scans; I take blood pressure meds, and blood thinning meds, and cholesterol meds, and god knows what else is in my pill organizer. I try to follow my doctors’ advice (which is hard, because sometimes it conflicts). I go in for regular appointments and checkups and get the tests they say I need—at least to the point where insurance and money won’t pay. I’m not stupid.
But Ima live my life, dammit.
Time of your life, eh kid?
I can’t play soccer, or ultimate frisbee, or even swim or play frisbee golf? To heck with it; I’ll learn how to dance! I can’t see my besties regularly because they are scattered all over the durn place? To heck with it; I’ll schedule regular Zoom DnD sessions with them so we can hang like we used to in college!
Yes, I’m pushing 60 (quite hard), and yes my body can’t do what it used to, and yes, I face certain physical limitations.
When I was a kid, I loved a few things that made me a profound outcast:
I cannot overemphasize just how unpopular and/or denigrated nearly all those things were when I was living my best GenX life. Comic books were particularly looked down upon, but there was plenty of opprobrium left over for Star Trek, science fiction, and what these days they call anime and in my experience was limited to Speed Racer, Astro Boy, and the like. (And yes, I had plenty of love for Warner Brothers, Rankin-Bass, Jay Ward, and others too.)
It was tolerated in children, but you were supposed to grow out of it and start reading, I dunno, Dickens and watching Shakespeare. (I like Shakespeare, too; I was a weird kid.) Comic books were very much “trash culture”, not something you read in any kind of serious way. And watching science fiction on TV? C’mon, man.
(How this attitude squared with grown adults painting their faces green or wearing giant cheese wedges on their head to cheer on men giving each other concussions for their entertainment being acceptable I’ve never fully understood, but let’s just move on.)
Through my childhood, teens, and 20s, I mostly nursed these loves quietly and at the constant risk of disdain. If a girlfriend caught me reading a Heinlein juvenile or, God save us, an X-Men comic book, or waiting on line to go see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, oof, it could bring up issues. It wasn’t manly, that’s for sure.
Luckily, I ended up at UC Santa Cruz, a veritable hothouse of weird, and frankly I fit right in. I found friends who were equally weird, who also enjoyed some or all of these things, with whom I could talk, exchange recommendations, play video games (and foosball), and yes, smoke weed and drink. (Although I was never much of a drinker, truth to tell.)
In the 70s and 80s, there was, to put it mildly, a dearth of science fiction films. Yes, Star Wars—more of a space western, or possibly a space fantasy, than actual science fiction—opened the door. But for every Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Empire Strikes Back, there were 20 films like Saturn 3 or (God save us) Moonraker. Even a wonderful film like Superman (1978) had plenty of camp, harking back to the that classic, the 1960s “Batman” TV show.
Valerie Perrine asking why she “can’t get it on with the good guys.” Seriously.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed it all and was happy to take what I could get. I could even now happily lecture you on why Saturn 3 isn’t nearly as bad as you think (Harvey Keitel!). I won’t go all the way into the tank and say Superman: The Quest for Peace was a good film, but still; when you’re in a cultural-enjoyment minority, you really do eat what’s set before you.
All this generational nostalgia is a long prelude to the main point, to wit: I am absolutely staggered that all of the stuff that I was looked-down upon for when I was younger is now a major part of the culture.
Until 1982, there were three seasons of Star Trek, a one-season run of a cartoon version, and a single, critically-panned film. (“Star Trek: The motionless picture,” Harlan Ellison famously called it.) Now there are nearly 900 episodes of TV shows spanning 44 television seasons. There are five shows in active development. There have been 13 films. One Captain of the Enterprise has received a knighthood, for cryin’ out loud! The theme song is so iconic it only needs to be used sparingly in the various properties to evoke emotion in the massive fanbase. It’s as pervasive to the culture now as Westerns were (so I’m told) in the 50s and 60s.
And of course while science fiction is still often treated as the bastard stepchild of literature (and goodness, what they do say about sub-genres like Steampunk!), there’s simply no question that big budged science fiction films are treated as Serious Art by actual living, breathing critics. Directors like Denis Villenueve, Christopher Nolan, Doug Liman, and Alex Garland have made entire careers by creating high-quality science fiction films that people treat with reverence. Films like Inception, Arrival, Live Die Repeat, and Ex Machina not only receive praise, they show the deep ideas science fiction can address, and are sometimes credited with changing people’s perceptions of what film can do.
This film was a mind-bender, and catnip to a hardcore SF fan
A similar phenomenon has happened with comic books. Frank Miller and Alan Moore pushed the bounds of what could be done with the form. (And of course they built on the work of the people so famous it would almost insult your intelligence to mention them, but I will so as to not let people think I believe comics weren’t invented until 1980 or something: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Steve Ditko, the immortal [and criminally-used] Joe Shuster and Gary Siegel, and many others from the “Golden” and “Silver” ages of comics. Too numerous to list, so I ask forgiveness from fans of, say, Mike Grell, or John Byrne, or whoever.) The outburst of creativity in the 80s was astounding.
Like science fiction, though, this didn’t necessarily lead to a wide acceptance of the medium, but it did help energize creators to take chances on comic book films. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, of course, as well as Sam Raimi’s trilogy of Spider-Man films, as well as the (sometimes messy) early X-Men films. And now of course the massive Marvel Comics Universe and the big-budget DC films, employing prestige directors like Christopher Nolan, Kenneth Branagh, and Ang Lee show that Hollywood, at least, is taking the source material seriously enough to bet millions on it.
(I could make a point at how many of these creators are GenXers, but I’ll let you look up their birthdays on your own.)
So I hope you can understand how the current culture looks to me, a person who furtively read his Spider-man and Legion of Super Hero comics furtively in his bedroom, hiding them under the bed. It’s quite a mind-bender. It truly is the Age of the Geek. And horrible capitalist wealth disparities aside, quite frankly I love it.
I started reading before I started school, and have been an avid reader ever since. I very much enjoy rereading my favorites both from childhood (eg Louisa May Alcott or Johanna Spry) and my teen and young adult years (an inordinate amount of science fiction and some fantasy). I suppose I’m not much different from a lot of habitual readers in that; it’s not unlike rewatching favorite films or TV shows. It’s just something readers do.
It is a trope that people—men in particular—get more “conservative” as they age. (The scare quotes are because the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have been so abused in the last 30-40 years, and especially the last 20, as to have lost all meaning.) I don’t think that’s the case in general, which I addressed in another post, and it is absolutely not the case with me. I have only become more and more radicalized as I’ve aged, and as a proud Banana Slug and graduate of UC Santa Cruz, I started out pretty well out on the left to begin with.
I mention this because it figures into my reactions and perceptions as I reread fiction that I loved as a kid and young adult. Like everything else in the world, fiction seems to obey Sturgeon’s Law, and 95% of it is crap, and time is the filter that helps us determine what is crap, and what is Good Stuff™. And yet even some of the Good Stuff ™is, with the passage of time, changes to the world and society, and improved knowledge of history, at best problematic, and at worst…well, pretty bad. I want to take a few posts and examine some of my favorite reads in this light. Today, it’s Sherlock Holmes.
I’ll be blunt: I love Sherlock Holmes stories. I love the pastiches, the homages, the dramatizations. Despite his height, I thought Robert Downey, Jr’s portrayal was quite faithful to the spirit of Holmes. I was a huge early supporter of Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern take in the TV show “Sherlock”. I watched quite a few episodes of the show “Elementary”, although its police procedural nature eventually got tiresome to me. I was a massive fan of Tony Shalhoub’s “Monk”. And…well, you get the picture. I love Holmes in almost all of his forms.
I love Tony Shalhoub
Recently I went back and started rereading (and listening to Stephen Fry’s excellent audiobook version) the original stories again. Aside from the four “novels”—A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear (which are all pretty short by modern novel standards)—they’re short enough to read in one quick gulp. You get through them quite rapidly, if you have a mind.
And what I’ve found is it was sometimes quite hard to reread the stories with a modern, “3rd decade of the 21st Century” eye.
The racism woven throughout the stories is, of course, appalling. Interestingly to an American reader, hardly any of this is focused on people of African descent. I don’t know enough of British Victorian history to say whether this is because there simply weren’t a lot of Black Britons in those days, or that Doyle simply didn’t see Blacks as any different, or what. Indeed, Doyle has a story that is still surprisingly racially enlightened for its day, and was probably shocking in its time: “The Yellow Face.” If you haven’t read it, I don’t want to spoil it, but it is both delightful in it’s ending, and in how Doyle pokes racists right in the eye.
What I do know about Victorian attitudes is, if you weren’t European, you were inferior.
Indians, unsurprisingly, take the worst hit. They are ungrateful for Britain bringing them “civilization” (ignoring that India has been civilized an awfully long time before Europeans came marching in); they are back-stabbers; they are superstitious; and on and on. None of this is stated baldly—according to what I’ve read, Doyle was quite broad-minded…for his era. And therein lies the rub.
Koh-I-noor diamond, ripped off from India and inserted in the literal British crown
Related is the inherent imperialism that is clear throughout (and which Downey impishly referred to in his first Holmes film; “What a busy little Empire!”). Britons were of course unapologetically imperialist during the Victorian era, and Victorian England became one of the largest empires in the history of the world by the end of Victoria’s reign. And to a modern reader, knowing what we do about colonization, slavery, cultural repression, religious persecution, and on and on, eliding all the Imperial references in the Holmes stories can be…a bit difficult.
In my view the best example of this is the Andaman Island native Tonga in Sign of the Four. The nature of the language characters use to describe Tonga makes it quite clear he’s viewed as somewhere between a wild animal and a pet. He was “venomous as a young snake”; “he was devoted to me and would do anything to serve me”; “we earned a living at this time by my exhibiting poorTonga at fairs and other such places as the Black cannibal”; etc. It’s clear Mr. Small cares for Tonga; it’s equally clear he doesn’t consider him quite human.
And of course the sexism is pretty bad. Yes, Doyle created one of the great female characters of fiction in Irene Adler, who I adore. And yet even Irene makes her way through the world by…well, to put it bluntly, marrying up. One could reasonably argue that there simply weren’t that many options for advancement during the Victorian era—”You will inherit your fortune; we cannot even earn ours,” notes Elinor Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility, only a few decades prior to the Victorians—and I would not dispute it. I will simply point out the number of women who are said to be suffering from “brain fever” and other female-specific “maladies” is enough that practically make it an epidemic.
Then there’s the classism. Even today, the classism in the UK can be problematic; in the Victorian era, it was probably at its height, and most entrenched. All of the upper class are assumed to be “gentlemen”, while all the lower class are, almost by definition, suspect and sketchy. And before someone complains yes, I am well aware that Doyle sometimes turns this presumption on its head. This doesn’t change the baseline assumption that, if you are a member of the upper class, you are trustworthy unless proven otherwise, and if you are a member of the lower, suspicion falls on you immediately. This attitude tends to drag on me after too many pages.
They had classism diagrams, FFS
It should be said that Doyle does regularly subvert this trope by having Holmes work closely with “the lower classes”; boatmen, factory workers, boxers, and most famously the street urchins “the Baker Street Irregulars”. This is definitely to Doyle’s credit. And it still doesn’t change the entrenched classism displayed in the stories.
Very much related is the absolutely appalling state of working class. There’s no minimum wage, of course; no weekends off; very little job mobility. Servants can be dismissed by the nobility immediately and on a whim, regardless of years (or even decades and, in Hound of the Baskervilles, a full century!) of loyal service. This is bad enough, but in many cases this not only deprives the servants of their livelihood, but also their home, as many live with “the master”. And several times the nobleman threatens to give them bad references, dooming them to joblessness and homelessness for heaven’s knows how long. This is…well, it’s disgusting.
(And yup, I’m well aware we have similar problems today. At least we have weekends, overtime pay, healthcare, 40 hour work weeks, no child labor…I could go on, but you get the point.)
Finally, there is a terrible tendency for Holmes and Watson (and other “experts” with whom Holmes consults) to rely on what we know today to be pseudo-science. Phrenology—ie the idea that the shape of a person’s skull, face, the bumps on their head, etc.—is in my view the worst, but there are quite a few other examples. Assuming someone is a criminal just because they have a particular shape to their face is a terrible form of prejudice. This is especially ironic given Holmes is one of the very first “scientific detectives”.
Many would argue that we have to take into account the era in which Doyle wrote. Yes, we do; but the whole point of this post is that I’m reading it in my era, and we currently don’t believe a few bumps on the skull indicate criminal intent. Indeed, this kind of toxic thinking is part of the reason policing is still so informed by prejudice.
In conclusion I want to say that yes, I still love the Holmes stories, I always will, and I will no doubt reread them in the future. Which absolutely does not preclude me from noticing their many built-in prejudices.
As is becoming all too familiar these days, a man was shot in the back and killed after being pulled over for a traffic stop. That this happens at all is disgusting; that it happens much more often to minorities is hideous.
If you go on YouTube or TikTok these days, you can find hundred at least—and probably thousands—of videos of cops bullying people and abusing their authority at traffic stops. The reason they give for a lot of their objectively fascist behavior is they don’t feel “safe” unless their subject “complies” with every request/demand. But how unsafe are they at traffic stops? Because I like to Check the math, I decided to dig into it a bit.
I’ll say right up front I always suspected this was BS. A heavily-armed cop—taser, pepper spray, gun, baton, more weapons in the cruiser—approaching a civilian from behind is in danger? Seemed unlikely. And yup, studies bear that out.
According to a 2019 study by Jordan Blair Woods, a law professor at the University of Arkansas, published in the Michigan Law Review, police officers only have a deadly encounter once per 6.5 million traffic stops. Frankly, that’s a lot safer than being, say, a lumberjack or construction worker. But I digress.
With the news of Tyre Nicholas filling the papers these days, the question that came to my mind was: How deadly are traffic stops for civilians? How does it compare to that of cops? Again, I dug into the annual fatalities figures and found that civilians have a chance of a deadly encounter at a rate of once per 206,186 stops.
That’s right; it is 32 & 1/3 times more deadly for the civilian than a cop in a traffic stop.
This puts paid to the cops’ excuse that they are protecting their own safety. The truth is, cops are actually putting the public they are under oath “to serve and protect” in more danger than yhe cops are. A lot more danger. Nearly 33 times more danger. And of course, it’s far worse if you’re a minority.
(So you cops can just STFU about how dangerous your jobs are. YOU are more dangerous to the public than we are to you.)
This is the kind of thing behind the call among progressives to “defund the police”. In their usual disingenuous way, the right has conflated this with “eliminate the police”, similar to how they regard calls for increasing legal immigration and not being total assholes to asylum seekers “open borders”. And for my part, I would agree with those who note that “defund the police” is not a very good message from a sheer public relations standpoint. Be that as it may, if you starve police departments of funds, it’s much harder for them to be out killing people, isn’t it?
So what to do? I view as inherently bogus the “a few bad apples” argument. Think about the kind of people you know who go into law enforcement. Are they the best educated, calmest, most considerate people you know? Or is more like my experience, where the high school bullies and folks with Confederate flag bumper stickers on their trucks and an appalling ignorance of history and the law make up the majority? Is this going to make a better police force? And yet, pushing for more and more and still more cops will (to continue the metaphor) scrape the bottom of the recruiting barrel. Not good.
I am an entitled straight white cis male, so in my encounters with police I have that in my court. Even so, they have been highly stressful, and the cops have regularly lied. They lied about my speed; they lied about the speed limits; they lied about whether or not they knew the ticketed amount; and on and on. They lie and bully and try to force you to “comply”, and if you don’t, come up with reasons to make the encounter worse for you. It’s a bad, bad system.
I would recommend two major changes:
First, yes, cut their funding. I would do it more surgically, by making sure they aren’t getting enough dough to militarize their departments. I do not want cops to have rocket launchers, tanks, battering rams, high-tech surveillance equipment, and other tech that really belongs with a professional military force, not with cops.
Second, I would stop this “patrolling” nonsense. “Patrolling” is just a way for cops to issue tickets, which is just a way to fund governments. This is insanity. I recommend police stay in their damn precinct houses unless called, like firefighters. Come when we call, and stop hassling tens of millions of people on the roads every year just to generate revenue.
Will this cause an increase in traffic accidents, speeding, driving while intoxicated, etc? Possibly. But I would recommend for those issues that, again, they wait until called. “I saw a man weaving all over the road; can you investigate?” Yes, I’m sure we’ll need a period of adjustment to determine what a good level of “active” policing should be. But right now there are approximately 50,000 traffic stops per day. I posit the majority of those are just cops filling their ticket quota.
(And before any police tell me “we don’t have quotas!” let me just say: Baloney. There may be no “official” quotas, nothing published, and no target numbers stated, but don’t expect me to believe for even a microsecond that your sergeants and lieutenants don’t make it absolutely clear when you’re slacking off on the ticket writing. We all know you have targets.)
I would also suggest the money currently used for equipment go to having more mental health people on staff, de-escalation experts, and so on. Stop trying to use cops to do jobs that healthcare workers should do.
In my opinion the way to de-escalate all this violence is to take police out of the equation as much as possible and use them only at need. Traffic stops turn deadly for a disproportionate number of marginalized people? Fewer traffic stops, dammit!
I have been in high tech more than half my life. In that time, I’ve noticed that there while there are many different ways to phrase things, some of them are more prone to starting arguments and name-calling than others. As I am a hothead passionate and stubborn opinionated, I had to learn—often the hard way—ways of expressing myself that don’t sound like I’m trying to pick a fight. Because to be honest, I don’t want to pick fights. I hate fights. They exhaust me. But when I get worked up on a topic—and I can get worked up about semi-colon placement—I can sound like an arrogant, self-absorbed, unhelpful, uncooperative jerk. So what to do?
Find less confrontational or emotionally-charged ways to express my opinion, that’s what! After many (many many) years, I’ve established a decent-sized library of terms, which I am now foisting on an unsuspecting world. Enjoy! Or not!
You want to say: “That sounds really stupid.” Instead try: “I’m not sure I understand.” A few things here: First, it’s very possible you didn’t understand it, and you’ll look like a right fool if you say something is stupid and it turns out you were just clueless. So it saves face for you. Second, if it really is stupid, other people now have the opportunity to chime in and express their own incredulity/lack of comprehension/skepticism/etc. If it’s a genuinely bad idea, that will quickly become apparent under extensive question. And finally, if it was stupid, it gives the speaker the opportunity to save face and not feel insulted. You’ll probably have to work with this person again, so not antagonizing them is a good idea. And besides; you might be the one to say something stupid next. Best be gracious.
You want to say: “You didn’t put that in your [document | project plan | web page | Word file | etc. ].” Instead try: “I wasn’t able to find that. Can you point me to it?” Again, this has a twofold purpose. First, you may genuinely have missed the item in the [document | project plan | web page | Word file | etc. ]; heck, it happens to me all the time. I have a bad habit of quick-reading work documents—especially project plans!—and it’s all-too-easy to miss some piece of information somewhere. Second, it again helps the author save face; they may have simply forgotten to include the item, or included it in another draft and left it out of this one, or made a mental note to put it in and forgot, or some other totally valid reason. And besides, the next person who leaves something out might be you.
You want to say: “Stop wasting our time!” Instead try: “Can we take that offline?” This is a hoary old chestnut in the high tech world, and everyone understands the subtext here: “You’re going down a conversational or topic rathole, and we just don’t have time for that in this meeting.” It prevents embarrassment while also acknowledging that, just because it’s a rathole now, it might not be under other circumstances.
You want to say: “It’s your fault not mine, you stupid twit!” Instead try: “Let’s not assign blame; let’s just try to fix the problem.” No one wants to take the blame when something goes wrong, and it’s ingrained in American culture to blame someone—anyone—else. (“Americans want to fix the blame rather than the problem.”) And it’s a waste of time. Do you really want to spend 30, 60, 90 minutes (or even days!) trying to assign blame instead of using that time to fix whatever done did break? I mean, you can, but it’s not a good use of time, pisses almost everyone off, and leaves behind enemies and hurt feelings. Yes, yes, I know; in many companies, blaming other people is a good way to get promoted. I hate those kinds of companies and tend leave them pretty quickly. Your Mileage May Vary™.
To be sure, promotions and raises are often affected when you end up blamed for some screw-up. The way to avoid that is not to shift the blame, but to be careful when in doubt to do your due diligence. Then if something blows up in your face, you’ve done the best you can. If you have competent management—and despite the complaints in the industry on this score, I’ve tended to have competent managers more often than the other sort—they will recognize you did all that could be done and not hold it against you, or recognize who really was at fault…and not hold it against you. In other words, if you do your job properly and perform due diligence, you shouldn’t have to shift blame. Nor will you have to come up with excuses; you can just state facts: “I did X, Y, and Z. Was there something I missed?”
You want to say: “I did X.” Instead try: “We did X.” While this is much more important for managers (as a manager, you actually don’t do anything, your team members do), it also applies to what we in the biz call “individual contributors” (ie worker bees). Hardly anything in high tech is done by one person, no matter how brilliant they are; it behooves you to keep that in mind. And when you give other people credit regularly, they tend to respond in kind. Further, it makes you a much more pleasant co-worker, and people will want to work on projects with you rather than avoiding them. And believe me, that is really helpful.
Yup, there are absolutely times when you did something all by your little self and deserve recognition for that fact. If you have competent management, you will usually get recognition for those things. And if you don’t, hey, go ahead and tell your manager privately. No one likes an arrogant braggart.
A side note to this: Give people credit when it’s due. Everyone loves being acknowledged for their efforts, and I have never, in my whole career, regretted complimenting someone when they’ve done something noteworthy; not as a manager or an individual contributor. Very few people not in management are paid what they deserve, and praise and recognition is a huge help in improving job satisfaction and retention rates. I mean, don’t you want to keep those folks around? Well, compliment them publicly, then! (A good rule of thumb: Praise in public; chastise in private. Far too many managers do the reverse.)
You want to say: “Well, if you had told me, then it wouldn’t be a problem now!” Instead try: “I think I missed the notification on that. Can you please tell me again?” Yes, it drives me bats when people think they’ve told me/emailed me/DM’d me something and they absolutely haven’t. Of course it does! But again, recriminations waste time and only cause bad feelings all around. Admitting the problem may have been you missing something is both gracious, and allows the other person to admit it if it were actually their fault without feeling attacked. Which smooths the road and speeds things up. And besides, let’s face it: Sometimes we do miss notifications. What does it hurt to be kind about it?
You want to say: “Shut up and let [Jennifer | Sonia | Medhi | Kat | Michelle | Francoise | insert any other female name here] finish!” Instead try: “Excuse me, I’d like to hear [female] finish her thought.”
I have written repeatedly on this blog on the built-in sexism in high tech. One of the best ways for male (especially white male) individual contributors and front-line managers to combat this (in addition to hiring more women) is to be proactive allies. If you see someone in a meeting running roughshod over one of your coworkers (and it’s almost always a female coworker that gets treated this way), don’t just sit there like a lump; speak up! But in the interests of comity and continuing to work with people, don’t stomp all over them in kind; politely note that someone else was trying to express an opinion, and give them the space to do so.
While I have focused on women in this particular instance, it also happens to other folks, notably: The neurodiverse, introverts, and historically-marginalized minorities. In the latter instance it gets trickier. For example, I worked at a company that had a very large Asia engineering contingent, and I’m sorry to say the men from India and China were absolutely horrible about letting women speak. Whether this was an outlier or part of their culture or just those particular individuals I have no way to know; I just want to note it’s not always white guys acting like mansplainin’ twits.
That’s all I got. What do you do to avoid sounding like a mansplain’ twit?
He ain’t lettin’ them grey hairs keep him from having fun!
Sometime before I turned 12, I noticed that for the most part adults were grim. They didn’t seem to have much fun, they were always frowning about something, worrying about something else, and complaining about how hard things were. Always.
These seemed like a pretty bad deal to me. They could decide to eat ice cream for dinner but would be depressed about it? Not a good trade.
They also seemed to be completely ignorant of the fact they were once kids themselves. How could the people who were now in charge of the world the same whacked kids like The Beav I saw on TV? Memory suppression? The press of events? I didn’t know, but it seemed to be universal; adults inveighing against music, games, and books…who were the same people who had been berated for their love of Elvis and dancing 15 years before. I mean, WTF?
I was validated in this opinion while reading one of my mom’s child psychology textbooks. (Imaginative title: “CHILD PSYCHOLOGY”; like that, in big block letters.) One of the authors noted that adults had “lost the ability to play”, and to correct this he and his co-researcher decided to have a worm race down the hall of their university offices. He named his worm “Ignatz”.
I decided then and there I wasn’t going to forget what it was like to be a kid. I was already a pint-sized stand-up comedian, cracking up the grownups around me with my renditions of what I’d heard on Bill Cosby, George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce records. Flip Wilson was one of my early heroes. I wasn’t going to be a grim adult yelling at my kids because they played music I didn’t like. No sir; not me.
The amazing Flip Wilson
I wrote a few months ago about my thoughts about the famous quote, “A man who has not been a socialist before 25 has no heart; if he remains one after 25 he has no head.” (Short form: Baloney.) When I hit my teens and 20s, I took it as a challenge; that wasn’t going to happen to me! (And it hasn’t.)
I’m pushing 60 now; I’ll be 59 this coming June. I’ve raised three special-needs kids. I’ve had a 35+ year career in high tech. I’m a cancer survivor; I have chronic neck pain from an injury at 35; I’ve got “common tremors” (I find the name “essential tremors” hilariously inappropriate; what could be more unessential than having your hands shake?); my autistic child still lives with me at 23; I went through (heck, am still going through) an ugly divorce from someone who, in our last few years together, grew increasingly abusive; I’m about to move for the 3rd time in the last 7 years.
But I haven’t lost my sense of fun! And dammit, I’m not about to.
Aside from supposedly becoming more conservative, there’s a lot of stuff people say you’re supposed to “outgrow” or “be too old for” when you hit late-middle age. And you know what? To heck with that.
I was reminded of this the other day while re-watching “Firefly”. Alan Tudyk’s Wash is funny, childlike in the best way, and doesn’t let his weird job, his perpetual poverty, or his sometimes-rough treatment at the hands of his crew get him down. How does he respond?
This is a man who hasn’t lost his sense of childhood
He plays with toys, that’s how! Wash is my f**king hero. (And in my head-canon, he’s still alive. Up yours, Joss Whedon!)
This attitude helped me immensely when raising my kids, especially as they were all special needs and all three sucked at cleaning their rooms. Now, it’s not that I sucked at cleaning my room; on the contrary, my room was OCD-level spotless and organized. No, it’s that I remember the pointless fights my step-mom got into with my brother. Why? Who cares? It was his room. If my kids wanted their rooms to be sties, fine; just keep it there. “No mess in the main part of the house,” was the rule, and they (for the most part) adhered to it.
It helped when they experience relationship angst; it helped me be patient when they were disappointed by the adult world intruding in on stuff they wanted (“No, we can’t go to Disneyland this summer; we just don’t have the money”); it helped when dealing with their kid-serious issues. (My daughter has made a similar vow.)
But it’s helped in more ways, especially as my body inevitably breaks down and I try hard to find fun during periods when, let’s face it, the world kinda sucks. What do I mean? Glad you asked!
Here’s an example: You’re supposed “outgrow” ska music. It’s supposedly simplistic, repetitive, and juvenile. Well, to heck with that! I enjoy ska music when I’m in the mood. I love The (English) Beat. I love The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (see them in Clueless). I even love Smashmouth, which isn’t really ska but obviously influenced by it. And for all you haters: I don’t care what you think! Rush (yes, I they’re not a ska band; quiet, I’m making a point) was denigrated and lambasted by the critical musical world for decades…and now is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, despite Jann Wenner’s hatred of metal, progressive rock, and anything recorded after (say) 1975. Like what you like!
If they’re good enough for Kim Possible, they’re good enough for me!
(Similarly, this allows me to let my kids listen to whatever it is they like, and not get all up in their collective grill. You want to listen to Pink or My Chemical Romance or Panic! At the Disco, hey, go ahead! Just use your headphones, okay? At least we both enjoy Fallout Boy.)
It’s more than just music, though; I’m talking about an attitude here. Another example is my dancing. I was an athlete; softball, disk golf, racquetball, skiing…whatever I had time for. I played soccer and fenced at the NCAA collegiate level. I wasn’t ever threatening to make the Olympic team, but I was decent. It was a big part of my life. Then I had the aforementioned neck injury, and my orthopedist said, “Sure, you can go skiing or play ultimate frisbee…if you want to risk permanent paralysis.” And that was it for high-impact-on-the-body sports.
But that spirit still lives in me. So at the suggestion of my friend Becky, I tried Lindy Hop dancing…and I love it. I also look totally ridiculous; an overweight, late-middle-aged man trying to do moves clearly designed for bodies thinner (but luckily not more flexible) than mine? How ridiculous can you get? And you know something? So what? I have fun, many of my partners seem to enjoy dancing with me. It’s my play!
But it’s not just dancing and music; it’s everything. It helps me to view the world with as much child-like wonder as I can. To notice amazing cloud-and-sun interacts; to appreciate the quite murmur of the river while sitting quietly on a rock at the park; to laugh at the absurd things people say at work (hopefully with the mute button on)—and believe me the marketing-speak stuff they sometimes come out with deserves laughter. To take a little joy in how silly my cat acts instead of constantly getting mad he likes to claw his way up my leg. To laugh with Joseph about “the Overload Restaurant” here in Austin, a restaurant that, shall we say, doesn’t skimp on lights during Christmastime. To be amused by funny noises and sounds instead of angered by them. To have a sense of play.
Mozart’s Restaurant at Christmas; did I lie?
Heck, I’d still play with LEGOs, but they only seem to make “special kits” these days, instead of just having packages of blocks of various sizes. I don’t want to build a kit; I want to build whatever my crazed imagination comes up with. (As a kid I used to take 8 2×8 bricks and see how many different ways I could permute them. A robot! A car! A plane! I don’t know what this is, but it looks cool!)
Permute! Permute! OK! (Apologies to Dr. Brommer’s)
And that’s my point here; as my body gets more creaky, and the pressures of the world push in, I often think the only thing that saves me is my sense of play. My strongly-held desire to not be totally adult about everything. Childish? Maybe. But honestly, I’d rather spend part of my time being childish, than a grim trudge to old age.
I’m not talking about the Covid pandemic, although that is, of course, absolutely horrible. And it is being used both directly and indirectly to cause the disaster I’m going to discuss. No, I’m talking about a genuine, existential threat to our country most people reading this will laugh off as hyperbolic and ridiculous:
The fascists are taking over.
You’re right to be skeptical, to laugh, to think I’m a wild-eyed hippie, or whatever other reaction you have that’s in the realm of “Doug is going overboard.” Absolutely. Here’s the thing, and there’s no getting around it: After 4 years (and one year of campaigning) that contained overt bigotry, appeals to white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, racists, and bigots of all kinds, the first Administration since the Great Depression to turn in a negative economic rating, a catastrophic reaction to a worldwide pandemic, and too many domestic and international screw-ups to list here, 74 million people still voted for Trump.
I still can’t believe these result, TBH
74 million. 35% of the adult population of the country voted for a lying, philandering, incompetent, incoherent man-baby who has said over and over he admires dictators and finds true democratic leaders weak and pathetic.
This is bad enough. It demonstrates that over a third of our country is ignorant, duped, or downright stupid enough to vote for an avowed autocrat. They have demonstrated this. I’m not making it up; it just happened in 2020. But it’s way worse.
The Republican Party used to be the party of sober, serious greedheads. They had one domestic goal: Money. For themselves and their business partners. They had one foreign policy goal: Pax Americana everywhere, even if it meant permanent war. Yes, they hid this under various BS policy statements, papers, think tanks, and media chattering heads, but that was it in a nutshell, and had been the case for over a hundred years. (Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.”) To get enough votes to win elections they would pretend to care about ordinary people, but they didn’t, really. So they faked it with things like racism, religion, and waving the bloody flag.
Republicans used to be like this guy
But at bottom there were at least some serious intellectual types—think people like William F. Buckley, Jr.—who would quote Locke and Oakeshott or Burke at you, or Sun Tzu, or von Clausewitz. They may have been contemptible Imperialist greedheads, but at least they were smart, educated, contemptible Imperialist greedheads.
That is absolutely not the case now. And that’s why we’re in so much danger.
George W. Bush was the precursor to what we have now, an Administration that flagrantly ignored “the reality-based community“. If facts were inconvenient, they simply ignored them. They went by faith. They went according to their guts, their feelz. In many ways their goals were exactly the same—i.e. they were still contemptible greedheads who wanted a Pax Americana enforced by a huge military—but now they didn’t bother trying to justify it with actual information. And their leader was an incurious, ignorant fool easy to manipulate by long-time D.C. insiders like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld. A man of enormous ego and vast insecurity who knew he would never exceed his father in anything, no matter how desperate his efforts.
But for all his failings, Bush II was “a guy you could have a beer with.” And this appealed to the blue collar folks that later would vote for Trump in their millions. The people who had felt sidelined for decades by the Civil Rights movement, who wanted to say the n-word out loud again, who wanted to sneer at the “coastal elites” publicly again. Despite being the scion of a political dynasty and a millionaire father, despite having gone to Andover and Yale, Bush II managed to portray a “just-folks”, ball-game-goin’, beer-drinkin’ persona that appealed to this group. And he just managed to squeak by twice.
All this history is just a warm up to when these folks—the nascent Trumpers, the “deplorables”, the MAGA folks—finally started to feel their oats and came out as the Tea Party in Obama’s first time. I could spend another blog post discussing the reasons behind this—hell, PhD’s are probably writing entire theses—but having their beer-drinkin’ regular guy replaced by a Harvard-educated n-word must have enraged these people no end. The coastal elites have taken over! We have to do something!
I’m not here to talk about them. I’m here to talk about their effect on the Republican Party.
Remember that Republicans—contemptible greedheads though they were—were professional, intelligent, well-educated contemptible greedheads for the most part. Richard Nixon may have been a paranoid maniac, but he served in World War II, had a law degree from Duke, and was wicked smart. The Tea Party changed that. Now, the Tea Partiers wanted to elect people like themselves. They didn’t want Eric Cantors any more; they wanted David Brats. No more professional politicians! Regular folks!
And this thing accelerated, is my point here. Until after a time, they didn’t even want David Brats; they wanted people like Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert. People who are not just not educated and intelligent, but actively and proudly ignorant and stupid, and flaunt their ignorance to their supporters. Who celebrate it. Lauren Boebert, for example, said the other day:
The Constitution is not evolving. To say that spits in the face of every single one of our founders.
Lauren Boebert, Idiot of Colorado
Your family-values politician
Apparently forgetting the Founders built in an Amendment process which, among other things, gives her as a woman the right to vote.
Trumpers—74 million strong—are now voting in actively ignorant and stupid legislators. People who literally don’t know what they’re talking about. These people are in charge of the government.
In 2020 Trump was defeated. It really wasn’t close; he lost by 7 million votes. Only in our ridiculous, non-democratic electoral college process (which ironically was created in part to keep a maniac like Trump out of office) was it remotely close. And yet Trump, in conjunction with a majority of Republican legislators in the House of Representatives, actually tried to overturn that result! I want you to stop and think about that for a moment, because it’s really very import: The sitting President of the U.S. colluded with over 100 members of the House of Representatives to overturn an election. That’s nuts, kids.
And when that didn’t work, he threw a riot on January 6th, egging his followers on in attacking the Capitol, trying to capture lawmakers. And this is where it gets truly frightening:
Cheney and Kinzinger chose to join Pelosi in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol.
Ronna McDaniel, GOP Chair
This is the chairwoman of the Republican Party, rewriting history before our eyes. This is the textbook definition of Orwellian. This is “newspeak“. This is the Republicans trying to control the past.
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
George Orwell, Nineteen eighty-four
What makes this even worse is an entire media ecosystem has been created, since the obliteration of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, that pipes unadulterated right-wing nonsense out into the world. And the people who create and disseminate this garbage are just as ignorant and stupid as the worst of the Tea Party and the politicians they have elected. The current top media figure on Fox News is Tucker Carlson, a scion of the Swansen frozen food empire who went into journalism because “they’ll take anyone”. Who was publicly humiliated by Jon Stewart on his own program, and has never held a real job in his life. But he is hardly alone in this.
When you look into the backgrounds of almost all of these right-wing media people, you’ll find a consistent story: They are nothing more than professional trolls. Matt Walsh, who has nearly 800,000 followers on Twitter and is a writer for the right-wing site The Daily Wire has no education beyond high school, no post secondary-school training, and has held no jobs other than ones exactly like that he currently has. Charlie Kirk, who gave a speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention, was plucked straight out of college and given a sinecure by a millionaire backer who created the organization Turning Point USA for him. Again, he has no other training or background, and has held nothing resembling a real job.
(Heck, Fox News now employs a man name Peter Doocy, who is the son of another Fox News “personality” name Steve Doocy, who is absolutely one of the most ignorant, foolish people I have ever seen on TV. Peter Doocy has become well-known for being regularly humiliated by Presidential Press Secretary Jen Psaki. We are now in 2nd generation stupidity on Fox News.)
Jen Psaki makes Doocy look like a fool a lot When you go through the list of these media personalities, it is all the same: They are poorly educated, ignorant, and have no experience other than being professional trolls. Their sole experience and purpose in life is to “own the libs”. And their audience laps this up. This is beyond epistemic closure; this is a vicious cycle of ignorance leading to Idiocracy.
Republicans like to talk about “what the Founders intended”. Here’s the thing: Our particular Republic was not designed as a warm-body, everyone-votes democracy. It was created by blue-sky racist misogynist oligarchs who believed that only white landholding men should have the vote, with the naive idea that these men would have the time and inclination to study the issues and vote with wisdom and forethought. It was both bigoted and marvelous at the same time, but that’s the system we have. They never planned it to include everyone.
You can see this in the institutions they created, where so many of the things our government does is based on traditions and expected behaviors rather than laws. And it is in this kind of situation where it’s so easy for bad actors to take over and wreak havoc.
I began this (rather lengthy) post by invoking the looming wave of fascism, and showing you the ways in which both the Republican Party and substantial minority of the American voting public have devolved in the last two decades. I want you to put this all together:
A Party that has devolved completely into one that is shot through with ignorant fools and poltroons
A media ecosystem that doesn’t just support but actually reinforces the party and its message
A large minority of the public that has shown its willingness to vote for these people, no matter what they do once in office
A system set up with no structural checks on those who want to destroy or modify it to their own purposes
Party leaders openly using Orwellian language
And the party has totally aligned itself with Donald Trump, a man who openly admires dictators, tried to take over our country through illegal means, and has repeatedly stated openly he wants to be an autocrat. And even if Trump dies—he is an obese septuagenarian Covid survivor with various co-morbidities—there are multiple other Republicans with exactly the same inclinations who have made it abundantly clear they would be more than happy to take up his mantle. Ron DeSantis of Florida is only the most obvious.
So yes, I am absolutely terrified we are moving headlong to fascism. And you should be, too.
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, And the Catholics hate the Protestants, And the Hindus hate the muslems, And everybody hates the Jews.
We’re all racists.
We all are. Everyone. Including me. You bet we are. I remember watching a scene in a show called “Northern Exposure” years ago where a black character name Bernard told a very conservative white character named Maurice—an ex-military man and former astronaut who was the richest man in town; a classic macho type who loved to use his money to manipulate people in the town to do his will—that he was a racist. But he startled Maurice by pointed out that he, a Black man, was racist too, because “imperialism, slavery, and genocide weren’t exclusively white institutions”:
So we’re all racists. It’s not confined to white Northern Europeans. I’ve read many times how horrible historically the Japanese have been to Koreans. How the Hutus and Tutsis consider each other subhuman. How badly Mexicans traditionally treated “Indios”. The constant fighting between Hindus and non-Hindus in India.
Racism: It’s not just for white folks. That’s just our major brand here in the U.S. because whites are the majority is all.
The issue with racism, like with the first step in dealing with substance abuse, is to admit you have a problem. Like with alcoholics, a great indicator that a person is racist is when they say they aren’t. Of course they are. We all are. We’re raised that way! To deny it means you’re (duh!) in denial.
There are of course shades. On one end of the spectrum are folks like your average progressive, who work hard to be inclusive and non-bigoted. To listen to people outside their immediate racial & cultural milieu and try to learn about other cultures. On the other end of the spectrum are overtly-bigoted yahoos who bleat about “white genocide”, ride around in trucks with Confederate flag stickers in the window, read “The Daily Stormer”, and toss Molotov cocktails at synagogues.
Most folks, of course, are in between.
I’m bringing this up because in the last five years or so there’s been an alarming increase in the amount of overt bigotry and straight white cis Christian male violence against “the other”. And that’s a serious problem we need to really do something about.
In the 1950s and 1960s, we made huge strides in overturning laws against minorities and women. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, in addition to the gay rights and women’s rights movements, really pushed things a long way towards equality in this country. We have an awfully long way to go—it was only recently that gays and lesbians could get legally married, for example—but that’s when IMO we really started making progress. Society accepted that overt bigotry was A Bad Thing™.
But just because society accept it doesn’t mean it went away. Let’s go back to my original thesis: We’re all racists. And on the spectrum of racism, you’ve got a hard core that are unrepentant, n-word-using, Confederate flag-flying, synagogue-bombing ass-clowns. How many is that? One third? I don’t know, but 74 million people voted for Trump, so it’s a lot of people. They didn’t go away, they just recognized that saying “nigger” or “kike” out loud in public was no longer acceptable. But don’t you believe for a second they didn’t think it or still want to say it.
Since the mid-60s these folks have wanted to say it. Have been aching to say it. Have believed, deep in their hearts, that [Blacks | Jews | Mexicans | Asians | what-have-you ] are inferior. Have not been allowed by the “bleeding heart lib communist socialist coastal GLBT agenda-lovers” to say what they really think.
Reagan and his cohort in the 80s recognized this. Lee Atwater even said it out loud:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.
(By the way, I find it interesting that all these supposedly God-fearing right-wingers have nothing to say about the fact that Lee Atwater, who clearly used all his intellectual gifts for evil purposes, was cut down by cancer in the prime of life. But I digress.)
So Reagan gave a speech during the 1980 campaign on “States Rights”—obvious code words at the time for segregation—at the Neshoba County Fair, about 7 miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town associated with the Civil Rights-era murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964. “I am one of you,” Reagan was calling out to the racists in coded language. And Republicans followed this up regularly afterwards. Jesse Helms did it with his “Hands” ad; George H.W. Bush with his anti-Dukakis Willie Horton Ad; and on and on.
Race-baiting at its finest
What makes things different now is that Donald Trump—a vulgar, intellectually incurious, ignorant, narcissistic man whose only goal is to outrage people and accumulate power and money—ran a Presidential campaign unlike any other in 2016. He didn’t craft his message, triangulate his answer, or craft his image; he just said what was on his mind. He didn’t appear to give a damn whether he won or lost. Whatever caused the crowd to applaud, cheer, or scream, he fed them. The more outrageous he became, the more they cheered.
And what they loved was bigotry, pure and simple.
Trump gave them permission to be bigots. Out in the open. And when he became President, they now had permission from the President of the United States to be openly bigoted. For the first time in over half a century.
Can you imagine their joy? Their relief? They could at last say what they had been thinking for decades! The President himself was giving them permission! They could tell those n-words what they thought of them! Those lazy immigrants taking their jobs! Those non-Christians! Those fags trying to brainwash their children into being trans weirdos instead of playing football like good American kids! Trump loved it when they flew big American flags with his face emblazoned on it from the back of their big trucks, and fired off guns from the truck beds while shoving campaign buses of those limp-wristed libs off the road! Yeah, sometimes he pretended to object, but they know he really loved them!
That he sneered at them in private as a bunch of dumb rubes mattered not at all because they could finally say and do what they had wanted for so long.
And what I’m saying here folks is the way to fight these people is not to pretend that we are morally superior, no matter how much we feel we are. We’re bigots, too. Look inside yourself for what you’re bigoted about, acknowledge it, accept it (like a first-step alcoholic), and work on overcoming it. And use it to make a connection with these folks.
Yes, some of them are beyond help, no question. I’m not talking about that lot. I’m talking about the Maurice’s of the world. The ones who can actually change. Be like Bernard and admit to them your own failings and try to connect. Try to pry out an admission from them. Help them to work towards an understanding. Because somewhere in their family tree is a GLBT person, or a person of mixed race, or a non-Christian, or someone who is not a straight white cis Christian man.
Because IMO connecting is the only way out of this mess.
This is not a post about why schools don’t teach. It’s also not a post about why too many of the list of “approved classics” that schools make our kids read are by Dead White Men (DWM) (though too many are). There are lots of posts about that already, and you can read those, if you like. I don’t have anything new to say on that topic. Really!
Nope. This is about why kids are so often bored out their mind by those classics, and resist reading them. Or at least, why I think so, which is a slightly different thing. And I’m going to start this here little essay by talking about the Thornton Wilder Classic “Our Town”.
Our Town, boring the living crap out of Your Author
I fucking hate “Our Town”. I can’t stand it. I despise it. It bored me to tears when I was forced to read it the first time, an it bored me out of my mind when I had to watch a production of it when I was in high school. I listened to the analysis of my AP English teachers; I understood what they were saying; I got the allusions. I’m not a stupid guy. I just fucking hated it. The question is: Why? (Yes, I’m aware some of you don’t care. You can bow out now.)
There are two reasons. Well, three. The third reason is I never bought the whole “Christian rapture” thing, so spending the entirety of the afterlife waiting around in chairs in a graveyard sounded idiotic to me. The second reason is, if I had a chance to relive the highlights of my life, are you kidding? I’d grab that in a heartbeat! I totally got Wilder’s point about memory being bittersweet, and it being tough to look back, and Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, and saw that point made again in Pixar’s Inside/Out. And you know what?
To heck with that! Sign me up!
Even in high school I could think of a half-dozen times in the past I wanted to visit. The times when my grandfather was still walking before his stroke! The time my grandmother took me to Ocean Beach Park, but I was too little to really appreciate it! Or when she took me to see the live Peter Pan at the theater in Boston! I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 and could barely remember that; I’d definitely want to relive that, feeling bittersweet about my grandma being dead or not. It’d be a gas to see her again. Or when my dad took me to my one and only live NFL game in 1972. It was so overwhelming I could barely remember it.
I’d actually like to remember this!
And believe me, as I got older, the list of memories I would be thrilled to relive got even longer. Particularly as my body started to break down and my experiences became more—ahem—adult in nature. If you get my drift. Sit in a graveyard doing nothing waiting for the rapture? For hundreds of years? Are you serious?
But that was only the second reason. The real reason, and why I think kids have trouble with lit in general, is this:
“Our Town” is a tiny town out in the sticks of New England, and I’ve spent my whole life in Suburbia.
This isn’t new, and I am far from unique. This has in fact been the case for hundreds of millions of kids going back now to the 50s. Kids who grew up in the suburbs, with dads (and now moms) commuting to work while they went to school in the suburbs. While we’re reading books about everything else.
Now yes, you want to read books in part to experience vicariously things you can’t in real life. That’s certainly one reason I read science fiction. I’m not getting a jet pack any time soon—at least not at this rate. So it’s up to Dave Stevens and The Rocketeer. It’s up to Heinlein and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel to get me to the galaxy in Andromeda. It’s up to Samuel Delany to get me on a starship powered by Illyrion, where I can plug my nervous system directly into the control systems to hunt down a Nova. I have to depend on Frank Herbert to get me to Dune. And so on. All very well.
Still waiting, engineers
But here’s the thing: Kip, the hero from Have Spacesuit, Will Travel goes to a High School that sounds a lot like the one I went to. Cliff Secord from The Rocketeer lives in L.A., in a Craftsman house. They did wild things, but these details helped anchor them in my boring, suburban world of Safeways and freeways and commutes and lockers and school buses and newspaper deliveries and TV shows and Slurpees and comic books and going to movies and whatnot.
“Our Town” had none of this. None. And that’s what I’m getting at here. The classics we’re asking kids to read have no commonality with the kids we’re forcing to read them.
Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not suggesting we take “the classics” off the table. Not at all. That is not where I’m going with this. Quite the contrary. Because I want to point out that, despite all of this, and my hate for “Our Town,” and Tale of Two Cities, and Romeo and Juliet, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and other “classics” I was forced to read, there have been plenty of others that I have not just enjoyed but loved over the years. And the question is: How? How did a cynical, late-20th-Century GenXer from the ‘burbs get into that stuff?
Context, and presentation.
Now, this isn’t going to work with everything. As I’ve probably hammered into the ground, no amount of presentation and context is going to make me love “Our Town”. But let’s look at, say, Shakespeare. I should hate Shakespeare. The plays are long. The language is difficult. The subjects are often obscure. And yet there are many Shakespeare plays I like, and some I downright love. WTF!
Context, and presentation.
The first Shakespeare play I saw was “Merry Wives of Windsor” at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 7th grade. My English class studied it ahead of time, and my teacher was great. Plus it’s a comedy. Plus we stayed afterwards, and the actors chatted with us about it. And we sat close in. And then afterwards we got to ask questions about it. Sure, it was more complex than, I dunno, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but they made it approachable. So the next time I encountered Shakespeare—”Julius Caesar”, it was—the fact that I didn’t like it much wasn’t because It Was Shakespeare™, but because, well, I didn’t like it, is all. (And I’ve found in later years I’m not much of one for tragedies in general. Not just Shakespeare; any tragedies. I couldn’t stand The Departed, for example.)
Shakespeare Santa Cruz had a genius for this, not just with Shakespeare, but with anything. The brilliance of staging Samuel Beckett’s minimalist, absurdist “Waiting for Godot” in the middle of a redwood grove simply cannot be overstated. Or changing the sexes of the parts of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Until you’ve seen Titania played by a 6’2″ black man with a powerful bass voice, you’ve never seen it.) Or “A Doll’s House” set up like a 1950’s sitcom. I didn’t always like these plays, but the staging provided the context that brought them home to me.
Just an ass…telling a fairy…he loves her
Similarly, when you consider something like Little Women, or Moby Dick, or Heart of Darkness, a little imagination can provide the context needed for a young reader to enjoy them. And I did enjoy them, because I luckily had people to provide that little extra for me; my grandmother in the case of the first, and excellent teachers in the case of the second and third. (I treated Moby Dick like a science fiction book which, to a kid in the 70s suburbs, it pretty much reads like, honestly. A whaling ship of the mid-19th Century might as well be a spaceship for all that it resembles your world of freeways, McDonald’s hamburgers, and food wrapped in cellophane.)
And this is what I’m suggesting for the readers of classics now. Provide some context. People can enjoy them. Look at how many people are watching the TV show Dickinson, when the material is injected with a little context and imagination. Or the film Sense & Sensibility. I won’t draw the obvious parallels between Emma and Clueless, because other people already have, but there are other examples. Enough to get people started. Why don’t we use them? Why do we keep dumping kids straight into these books and expect them to enjoy them and then are surprised when they act like with “Our Town”?
I’m not dumping on teachers here. I’m reaching out to everyone: Parents, Uncles, Aunts, school boards, older siblings; everyone who has access to kids. Do like my ex and I did and watch Sense & Sensibility with your kids and then give them Austen. Have them watch Clare Danes and (a very young) Leo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet and then try them on a more “standard” version. Watch the new version of West Side Story and then say, “Hey, did you know…” It’s not “cheating”; it’s being smart.
Seriously, who can resist these women?
No one has to like all the “old classics”. Especially all the old classics by DWM. But it’s a good idea to at least figure out a way to give them a try before you give up on them. Really. Because while some of them IMO really don’t translate well to our era, or our sensibilities (I’m sorry; I’m never going to be a fan of Lolita), a lot of them do.
I’m never going to like “Our Town”, though. Sorry about that.