I need some teaching advice!

Friends, I've run into a teaching conundrum.

Whenever I cover the riots of 2034, my students have trouble understanding what motivated so many human citizens to descend on Washington. The whole thing, to them, seems silly. Why would human Americans violently protest the inclusion of corporate Americans? To them it just seems mean-spirited and backwards. They didn't experience the days of barbarous anti-corporate bigotry. They've never known a world without Senator Home Depot or Chief Justice Buffalo Wild Wings.

I try to explain it first in political terms (forgive the summary, but I'm wondering if I'm taking a wrong step in what I'm covering, even. Let me know if you see something fishy!). I'm basically just telling the story we all know, that it goes back to 2020, when a storm of Democratic scandal gave the Republican party solid majorities in both houses of Congress and a fresh start in the White House. First among their accomplishments was the 2021 Corporate Rights and Personhood Act, which solidified and extended hard-fought corporate civil rights that until then had only been granted by the courts. By 2022, the Supreme Court had a 7-2 pro-corporate/corporaphobic split, with Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor routinely penning discouraged dissents brimming with anti-corporate bigotry. The challenges to the new law were quickly dismissed by the Roberts Court, in a decision that opened a door few had until then considered; in an aside, Samuel Alito asked, seemingly rhetorically, why a corporate citizen should not enjoy every benefit of American birthright, such as the ability to hold elected office. 

The students are with me, so far, I think. I mean, I don't expect them to remember the names, but there's nothing complicated about the basic political history. They have more trouble with the court history, though, and that might be my fault as legal arguments aren't really my area of expertise. Anything wrong with what I'm presenting? I basically say:

Corporate-rights champions, seeking to remove the yoke at the necks of beleaguered American corporations, saw in Alito's language an invitation to create the test case, and knowing they'd be stopped, attempted to run Consolidated Cardboard Works, a hardworking American success story headquartered in Tulsa, for an open House seat. The Oklahoma Secretary of State refused to add CCW to the ballot, saying elected office could only be held by a human citizen of the United States.

(My students have no patience for the intricacies of our court system, so I skip the early rulings and appeals, and go to the end). The dispute over CCW's candidacy ended up with the Supreme Court, which ruled in Consolidated Cardboard Works v. State of Oklahoma that (recognizing the already-established rights of personhood due to any corporation) an American-headquartered corporation comprised of a majority of American citizens was deprived of its citizenship rights if it was denied access to the ballot. Provided it had been incorporated at least 25 years earlier, the Court ruled that an American corporate person such as Consolidated Cardboard Works meets the requirements for the House. Naturally, the ruling applies to any other elected office.

Some of the students get upset that I appear to be making rationalizations for equal rights, when it should just be manifestly the fact that corporations are people to. It seems that my making the argument in some way suggests that the equality made real by the Court is somehow contingent, and that upsets some of the more principled students. I explain that I do not personally rely on Samuel Alito's logic to find Pepsico equal to myself, but that a study of history is important for seeing how future struggles might be won. 

Inevitably, here, a student suggests that equality hasn't been achieved, and as evidence, points out that we've still never had a corporate American President. This is where the class almost inevitably breaks down. I'm wary of getting into the identity politics, and I'm not sure I believe the arguments that it's because it takes time for a historically-brutalized population like corporations to build a political base. Part of me wants to say that while we have equality on paper, we haven't yet achieved it culturally, that there are still strong vestiges of anti-corporate bias at work throughout our society, and that the students themselves likely harbor some human-centric instincts they wouldn't be proud to have exposed. But, they're only in the seventh grade! It seems a bit heavy a burden to lay on them. 

What I've been doing is pointing out that Goldman Sachs is polling really well among Republicans in New Hampshire, and Yahoo! is a respectable fourth in the Democratic polling (with surprisingly little name recognition). Maybe next year is the year. I'm not going to share my politics with them (I adore AT&T, ever since its brave stance on college sports deregulation). 

So, I turn to you: anybody got any good classroom activities on this? Holograms I can load up? Anybody ever bring in a corporate guest speaker to address the issue of anti-corporate bigotry head-on?

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OK, Let's Talk About Gun Rights

So, yesterday, I wrote about wanting to take a turn towards comedy that's about something. It just so happens that I did exactly that at last night's Fine Line Comedy "Swiftly Tilting" show in Jamaica Plain. For the show, I wrote something new, taking on something tough: guns.

I felt it went very well. I won't preface it anymore except to say that I tried to read it completely straight, and only broke into a laugh when Hannah Foell holler/whimpered "noooo..." at one point.


OK, Let's Talk About Gun Rights

Thank you for coming here today. Before we begin, I want to acknowledge that there’s a lot of anger and frustration in the room. Passions are running high these past few days. I share a lot of those emotions with you all, and I’d like—if we could—to maintain some order and civility.

Since the alleged shooting at Pinecrest Elementary on Monday, there’s been an awful lot of speculation in the media, much of it greatly amplified by misinformation and partisan noise. We’ve seen calls for increased gun regulation, more attention to mental health care, and to a lesser, though quite vocal extent, concern about government overreach.

In the immediate aftermath of such an alleged event, with cable news saying things like “40 dead” or “child massacre,” people tend to vote with their gut, not their reason. We shouldn’t be making policy under such circumstances. The first few years after such an event are better spent cooling off, not acting rashly.

But we can’t change reality. People want to talk now. They demand it. So we should talk. But if we’re going to talk, we need to look at the situation comprehensively, and not just replay that clip of the children hiding in the cafeteria walk-in refrigerator. That’d be like setting energy policy while showing footage of polar bears scrambling up the sides of collapsing glaciers, or of Al Qaeda on the march. There’s just no there there, right?

So yes, let’s talk about gun rights! Please, settle down! Settle down. We’re going to have to address this sooner or later.

As you know, our organization has been taking the lead on developing innovative legislation on gun rights, and we’ve seen some real progress in several states. Look to Florida, Indiana, Texas, Kansas, and Arizona. Stand Your Ground laws were a good first step! They gave gun owners greater legal clarity about the actions they could take to use their guns to protect their guns. In these progressive states, a citizen who fears for the safety his gun may use that gun to drop an anti-Second-Amendment attacker.

But that, in our eyes, is not enough. Gun rights exist on a slippery slope. It’s great that those with a conceal carry permit are able to protect their guns’ rights, but until such time as guns are able to fire themselves, the vast majority of legal guns can have their rights violated at any moment. Gun opponents like to play identity politics. OK: I defy them to find a more defenseless and despised American population than America’s guns.

Critics of liberty challenge the idea that guns need protection, but I remind them of the indisputable historical evidence. The Second Amendment clearly states the necessity of guns for the establishment of militias, and militias were the cornerstone of American safety and security. No militias, no security. No guns, no militias. These guns are Constitutionally REQUIRED, every bit as fundamental  as our courts and Congress. To not defend them would be equivalent to letting a foreign army seize the White House.

Further, our Founders enshrined gun rights in the Second Amendment, immediately following  protections for speech, press, religion, and assembly. The Founders described gun rights before almost any others, signalling a priority. Could it be that gun rights trump our freedom from quartering soldiers? From self-incrimination? From unreasonable search and seizure? Surely the answer is yes, for it is by the use of our protected guns that we ensure no soldier sleeps on our sofabeds.

These rights, though, they are under assault. Not only are we told they must be restrained by safeties and locks, we are told they must not be handled by even reformed and repentant criminals or worse, by the mentally ill—regardless of the documented therapeutic benefits of riflery.

And now, we are now told that the police will buy back guns from the general public, that we will all be safer with these guns “off the streets.” OFF THE STREETS. Oh, you know how this goes. “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a Socialist.” While I admit I’d have a hard time shedding a tear for a Socialist taken before his time, I would speak for that Socialist because I believe in the Constitution, and also I know that the Socialist is a human shield standing between a tyrannical regime and my gun. When they come for our guns, there better be someone here to speak for those guns.

But. The BUYBACKS. Let’s talk about this program the police like, these “buybacks.” The buybacks are always trotted out in moments like this, a program that seems so inoffensive. No, these buybacks are deeply offensive, a crime against the Constitution, and should be our focal point going forward.

Let’s start with the word “buyback,” because it lies three ways. Three lies in only seven letters! First, the “buy,” as if this represents some sort of free market, and not a government power grab. There is no market at work here - this is an intrusion of the police state, offering you a nonnegotiable gift card in exchange for your Constitutional liberties.

Then there’s the “back,” as if the state sold you this weapon in the first place. The state does not sell you your gun! That the state fails to recognize its dependence on your weapon, that it would seek to take that weapon away, is a symptom of a sick state, one willing itself to ruin.

And last, the failure of the word “buyback” to describe the real program. A program’s name should make clear its real objective, and buyback suggests that this is a program to in some way facilitate the circulation of guns in the economy. But, no! These guns are not purchased for responsible use, distributed to those in need of guns, those who could care for these guns and give these guns the freedom they deserve. No, monstrously, these guns are DESTROYED.

Yes.

The horrible truth of our state is that they are collecting these guns for destruction.

It is another Holocaust, guns taken for “public safety,” and then, when nobody is looking… INFERNO.

The masses, they are distracted with a shooting, a petty crime, and meanwhile, they are missing an intolerable crime that is happening in our names.

So now, we want to talk about gun rights, and they shout us down, tell us about where the bullets have recently gone, and I say, “WE WILL NOT SPEAK OF BULLETS UNTIL SOMEBODY SPEAKS FOR OUR GUNS.” The guns, they cannot speak for themselves, and so we must.

Following on the examples of Arizona, North Carolina, Indiana, and Kansas, state legislatures must take up the issue of these genocidal “buyback” problems and FORBID FOREVER the destruction of any weapon. If we cannot defend the defenders of our liberty, we are already lost as a nation.

I urge you, call your representatives, your talk radio stations, and your newspaper columnists. Tweet a thousand times on the hashtag #speak4guns. Do not let us lose an existential battle to those PR-savvy savages who cry “school shooting” to distract our fellow citizens from the crime that is being committed against our precious guns every single day.

Thank you, Americans. I will now take questions.


If you're interested in the pre-sausage, this whole thing is based on real legislation

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Serious Comedy

For reasons that may soon become clear, I've spent a decent amount of time in my last three scripts lately (There Is No Good NewsDumber Faster, and Eating My Garbage), and I've confirmed something I've been saying for awhile: the shows accidentally formed a thematic arc, becoming a de facto trilogy. They charted a course of growing skepticism, a refutation of certainty. (And they were funny. Really.)

I've known for awhile that I can't continue in that vein. The next step would be nihilistic, which would be dishonest. I have been working toward the next show, and have some inkling of how it's taking shape, but I've never been right before, so I'm assuming by the end of the year, it'll be something else entirely. But I think it has to reflect some certainty.

The other night, I was reading a George Scialabba essay cheerily titled "Only Death" (from a quote in the book he's reviewing), and his opening paragraph hit me:

"Man was created a rebel," Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor admonished the silent Christ in his prison cell, "and how can rebels be happy?" The burden of freedom, the responsibility of finding—or creating—one's own purpose and meaning without the guidance of authoritative inherited creeds and values, is too heavy for all but a few. The rest of us cannot endure for long the tensions of uncertainty. We must, at some point, stop questioning, quiet our doubts, turn away from moral and metaphysical inquiry and toward life. Untrammeled skepticism ends in paralysis.

My wife walked in and asked what I was reading, and I told her. I then said, in complete sincerity: "I think the next show has to be about the limits of skepticism."

She, of course, laughed at me and said, "OF COURSE IT DOES" in history's most sarcastic tone. This was the correct response. That was a dopey thing to say about a comedy, and I need to be kept in check.

What I have in mind is to continue focusing on making these things funny end-to-end, but I want to start making them more constructive. Despite the large amount of my opinions that have been loaded into those three hours—all these hints about where I stand—there's hardly a whisper about what I actually do believe. Part of that is just a consequence of what I wanted to do with those shows, and where I was intellectually and comedically.

But another part of it was fear. I don't like conflict. An attack on certainty appeals to everybody who isn't a fanatic. But a solid claim, a moral stake, even one delivered as comedy, is divisive. Clearly, I've looked audiences in the eye and said things many of them didn't agree with, but it was always a joke along the way to saying, "We're all in this together, and we're all idiots." To state and stick to a real claim about how we ought to live, that's a different thing. But it's the thing I'm setting myself to.*

But don't worry. I'll continue to swear plenty, and we'll have completely unintimidating conversations about body hair foibles, medical misdiagnoses, and my inability to navigate even the simplest social situations without embarrassment. I think that's our implicit contractual agreement when you sit for my shows, and I wouldn't violate that agreement. 

 

* I recently saw Mike Birbiglia, and was going to cite him here, but I see the joke isn't online anywhere, and don't want to be the one to ruin a punchline in his current show. Go see him, listen to the "peanut allergy" bit, hear the conclusion, and say, "Oooooh. Yes, I see why David wanted to include that, but I'm glad he didn't, because it would have reduced my enjoyment of Mike Birbiglia's (very good, hilarious, highly recommended) show."

 

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My son hurls only the finest literature

Four-and-a-half years into parenting (still a rookie!), I regularly grapple with a fundamental thing: my complete powerlessness over almost everything my children do.

This has come into focus for me over the past few weeks because of my son's new hobby: he's a year and a half old, and his favorite thing in the world is to climb up onto the couch beside the bookshelf, and one-by-one, pluck my books from the shelf and hurl them around the room.

No exaggeration, my response is INSTANT RAGE. I hate seeing my books thrown. Jackets are torn, pages are smushed and folded, covers crinkled, spines contorted. I see the books, and I look up, and he's staring right at me, laughing and smiling so big, and I yell, "NOOOO! NO NO NO NO NO!" and I run over and pick him up and carry him away. I could carry him to the moon, and he'd amble his way back, climb onto the couch, and resume throwing books, looking right at me as he does it.

There are a few ways to understand this. First is the easy one: he's torturing me for his own pleasure. My child is a sadist. Fortunately, that seems unlikely. He's a pretty nice kid.

Second: He likes climbing, he likes throwing, and he likes my attention, and this combines all three. My instant rage is what perpetuates this, not because he likes the rage, but because it makes me drop whatever I'm doing and pick him up. Maaaaaybe.

Third: It's just a phase. At one-and-a-half, he's only slightly more than a wild animal. He's not committed to civilization yet, and as he picks up more of what it means to be human, he'll cut it out. There is not a single thing I can do to accelerate this. Ahhh, that seems right.

It could be any of these, or something else like "testing boundaries" or "extreme illiteracy" ("Mr. Mogolov, if you'd just observed the clear warning signs he exhibited at 18 months, we could have taken steps, but now, at 15 years old, we're sorry to say that your son is so illiterate he actually blurs texts around him to make them less readable to others"). Because there are reasons, I should be able to alter my reaction accordingly. I should be able to just chill out, or take practical steps.

For example, I could force myself to not respond with rage. I could look at his big smile, and put on my own big smile and say, "Is that fun? Is that fun? Here, let's go have fun in the yard," and I could scoop him up, just like I do when angry, but carry him to play with shovels in the dirt. Unless sadism is the explanation, that should make him happy, and—bonus—wouldn't train him to associate his happiness with my rage. 

And I'm going to try to do exactly that. But notice, it's nothing to do with what he's doing. All I can control is my reaction. I can't do anything—short of gating off the room or never setting him down—to keep him from destroying my books. I can reorganize the shelves to put my favorites out of reach, but that won't change his behavior. All I can do is change myself, bite my lip, try to model better behavior, and wait.

I hate this. I want to fix things, to change things, to control things. I'm a parent. Isn't that supposed to come with control? Hell no, it doesn't. My wife and I can't get our four-year-old to stay in bed at night. We can't get our son to not wear oatmeal as a hat. And forget shoes: both kids cast off shoes like cats shake off water. We're less rulers of their world than indentured servants who have to keep them alive.

I'm should just be grateful he hasn't discovered joy in hurling e-books.

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The All Star Game

I love baseball.

I'm pretty hesitant to declare myself for anything, but I'm unambiguously, unembarrassedly, pro-baseball. My team is the Royals. My fantasy team is the Army of Bunters. I was a quasi-bandwagon Red Sox fan for awhile, something I've written about before and will dig for a link to later (Short version, I moved to Boston with Nomar, got to see Pedro be the best ever, and naturally got super, legitimately excited from 1999-2005. Then I remembered I'm a Royals fan. There's some future post about religion in this parenthetical). Sometimes I start mlb.tv and just watch whatever's on. Padres/Diamondbacks, Reds/Brewers, whatever. Something about baseball massages the right part of my brain.

But it's All Star week, and I don't care about baseball. The Home Run Derby is the single most boring thing I've ever seen. I saw 45 seconds of it last night, and it was the spiritual equivalent of touching absolute zero. My brain cells stopped moving. I might have been clinically dead.

The All Star Game itself used to be something I kind of enjoyed, but then Bud Selig made the winner of the All Star Game the home team for the World Series, and my commitment to a world of decency and intelligence was tested and prevailed. I had to expel the All Star Game from my world, because making the winning league the home team for the World Series is an indecent act of moronic impulse (and history is on my side on this). Because Bud Selig couldn't ride out a media cycle in 2002, we've had twelve years of stupid, and counting. May his successor find the strength of will and bedrock intelligence to undo this as his first act.

That said, I love the All Star roster. I love the voting. I love the whole premise and history of it. If  baseball would undo Selig's stupid imposition of consequence onto a day that should have none, I'd love it. It's like an early bizarro-world Cooperstown. Looking back at All Star rosters is to see mostly a Who's Who of stars alongside a small Who's Who of "Who?" Occasionally, there's a poignant or fun goodbye, like Ripken tearing it up. Tonight, Jeter.

 I hear it's also Selig's goodbye. Eh. OK.

My favorite thing about the All Star break is its end. Baseball, in its boring, steady relentlessness, punctuated by a Yasiel Puig outfield miracle or an Aroldis Chapman vicious strikeout, is so much better than baseball reconfigured for excitement. The All Star break is an American Idol finalist standing next to Freddy Mercury. SIT DOWN, ALL STAR GAME. FREDDY'S GOT THIS.

 

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Zucchini: the Art Garfunkel of vegetables

Nobody's favorite vegetable is zucchini. 

People like it fine. Some really great dishes rely on it. It's exactly the right flavor to make other flavors shine. With the right cooking methods and seasoning, it can be almost delicious.

My CSA delivered a ton of zucchini and summer squash the past two weeks, and opening that box was like opening a birthday present that's almost what you wanted. "Thanks. I guess Marshalls had these on sale, huh?" If Marshalls had a produce section, it would be full of zucchini.

Art Garfunkel is a zucchini. There's nothing wrong with him. He's a vital part in one dish that many people love, and I guess he's fine on his own, but nobody's got him as their desert island pick. Nobody comes home from a rough day, determined to block out the world, and puts on their Art Garfunkel album.

Nobody ever stress-ate their way through a tray of zucchini. 

Zucchini is one of the only things that comes out of a deep fryer and still looks just OK.

Once, a student told me he roasted a zucchini for dinner. I thought, "Maybe that's the secret!" I roasted the zucchini. It was OK. I think I ate a second dinner later.

Zucchini bread is the least versatile bread.

The only reason the internet is full of 5-star recipes of zucchini gratin is the "gratin" part. You can substitute cardboard wafers for the zucchini, and it'd only knock the dish down to 4 stars.

Zucchini arrives at the same time as strawberries. Poor zucchini. That's like going through school alphabetically seated beside a beautiful genius who doesn't know your name. 

Zucchini. I've got so much of it.

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Eating My Garbage: a postmortem

This past week, I unexpectedly performed Eating My Garbage in a Cape Cod living room for a small audience of theater people. I'm thrilled to have gotten the opportunity. It was a strange hour. Three weeks since last running the show, and having set no expectations for myself, the performance was loose, far from the script, nervous, fun, and strange. Because it was mid-afternoon in a sunlit room, I had unprecedented eye contact and audience feedback. It went well. It made me want to do the show a thousand more times, twelve audience members at a time.

However, it was probably the final performance. Given the opportunity, I'd gladly stage the show again if it doesn't mean taking on a production role (seriously, get in touch if you want to see it). I love the show, and think it could have a much longer, richer life than I've given it. My thoughts on actively pursuing that are complicated, though. 

For the work that went into it, performing it only seventeen times seems a ludicrous thing. If I were a smart, ambitious person, I'd want to take this show around for a year, push it into the ears and eyes of every person I come across. That's what successful people do, I gather: they're persistent. 

It may work for others, but I'm not sure persistence with a particular show is the best course for me right now. As much as I'd love for more people to see Eating My Garbage, I just can't make it my focus. The show is ready on short notice if I'm invited somewhere, but I'm not going to be knocking on doors with it. 

WHY? WHY WOULD I MAKE SUCH A BAD DECISION?

1. Negative reason—Producing it again in Boston would be financially irresponsible and personally draining. This is an expensive city for staging theater. Booking, promoting, and producing a show is costly, time-consuming, and exhausting, even when you've got really good people helping you. I don't do this for money, but I can't ignore financial reality. I have thoughts on alternative ways of approaching this next time, and I'll get to that below.

2. Neutral reason—There are alternative ways to get the show into the world: script; audio; video. Video is unlikely, given the expense of producing it well. Script is a certainty (an early version is already available at Indie Theater Now, and another option will arrive soonish). Audio, maybe. Whatever conclusion I come to, though, it's a certainty: Eating My Garbage will be available in some way, regardless of whether I appear onstage performing it.

3. Positive reason—My brain is already firmly attached to the next three projects. I'm working on a bunch of stuff I want to focus on, and I can't spare the effort.

SO, THEN. WHAT DID I LEARN FROM EATING MY GARBAGE?

Oh, so much.

1. My friend Ryan (get every album) has on several occasions told me to take my shows to grocery store aisles and parks and such. I'm not quite on board with that, but I think I now see the wisdom in what he's saying: asking people to come into a theater or club to see something unusual is a big request. I'm not famous. There's no good single word for what I do. It's hard to get out, to commit to doing something, unless somebody makes it easy or makes it nearly a guarantee that it'll be worthwhile.

What have I done that would make a stranger commit to coming out to a show? Very, very little. I'm not saying this to be self-effacing, or to solicit pity. I'm very proud of what I've accomplished, and I'm enormously grateful for the opportunities I've been given by those who've seen my shows and invited me to do something.

But honestly, to grow an audience, I can't pop up every 18-to-24 months with an hour-long show and expect people to gamble their night and their ticket money on it. That's foolish. I know that's foolish, because I WOULDN'T SHOW UP

So, lesson #1: Give people a reason to show up, and make it easier for them to do it.

2. There are an awful lot of people who want me to succeed at this. 

I know how hard it is to convince people to take a chance on something, to vouch for something. I'm astounded at how often people turn up with friends, or send word of the show to friends in other cities when I'm coming. It seems like an easy thing, but I know it's not. How much of what you see or hear do you recommend to others? You put your credibility on the line when you recommend something. Recommendations have made a huge difference for me. I sometimes ask people to help me get the word out, and I'm grateful when people come through. I can't repay them by giving their friends a crappy show. 

All of the growth I've seen in audience has been from word-of-mouth. I'd love for an avalanche of good press to bring me huge new audiences, and I got some GREAT reviews that will help next time, but realistically, next time I'm back with a show like this, I'll be calling on recommendations from friends and supporters. If the press comes, that's fantastic, but it's not a sensible way to plan. I want the next thing to surpass the expectations of those who have them, not of those who've never heard of me.

So, lesson #2: Rely on friends and supporters, but only when you'll do right by them.

3. I need to stop trying to fit myself into an existing order or method. Renting a theater and producing a show like I'm a theater company is a goofy thing to do. Trying to position my shows as standup will only irritate the audience that does show up. 

There is certainly precedent for what I do. Spalding Gray, Mike Daisey, and Mike Birbiglia come up in 50% of reviews because in various ways, the comparisons are apt (though I need to do a lot of work to earn those comparisons more fully). It's absolutely conceivable that in a future world, I'm produced in theaters by people who know what the hell they're doing, just as those three have been.

But that's just a possible future. It's not an immediate one. Theaters are under tremendous economic pressures, and I am not an obvious answer for those pressures. I can't credibly ask them to take a chance on me. I have almost zero profile as a working artist, and I need to bring more to them than a good script: there are a TON of good scripts out there.

I think I want to launch the next show entirely in living rooms, bars, and online. I need to combine lessons 1 and 2 productively: meet the audience I have and the audience I want in a way that asks the least of them and delivers something they want to recommend. I'm not going to build a reputation for good work by being the 15th-most popular show on a given weekend in Boston. I need to just do my own thing as well as I can for whatever audience I can reach, and stop trying to package it as professional theater.

So, lesson #3: Stop thinking of it as theater. Theater isn't helping the show, and the show isn't helping the theater. 

WHAT'S NEXT?

I've learned my lesson about over-promising. I'll just say this. I'm collaborating on a musical. It's looking good. I'm working on another solo show. It's looking good, if very preliminary. Work on the book continues at a good pace. I hope to publish some small pieces this year. I have a plan for using the last three shows' scripts in a fun way.

In the meantime, I want to keep guesting on friends' shows, working with others on new ideas, blogging, getting better with video, and generally spending more of my hours writing and performing, and doing more of it in public. I don't expect anything major to hit a stage in 2014, but I expect to be very, very busy, and sharing a lot of progress along the way.

When the time comes, I may start asking about your living rooms. Maybe run the vacuum sometime before then?

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A list of things that I could have - for some reason - gotten worked up about at some point, but can't be bothered anymore

  • Most styles of hats
  • The Yankees
  • Jeff Foxworthy
  • People like me walking into art museums and talking about art as if we know what we're looking at
  • Andy Capp 
  • Rush
  • Barenaked Ladies (the band)
  • Bad improv
  • Mr. Holland's Opus
  • Football
  • Arianna Huffington having the nerve to sell a how-to book on blogging
  • The Olympics (and nationalism, more generally)
  • Most economists

Things that still make me irate:

  • People slowly walking shoulder-to-shoulder on narrow or busy sidewalks
  • Rush Limbaugh
  • Other people having expectations

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Let's talk about writing tools

Wednesday morning, I was sitting with another writer-performer type, a man in his 50s. I am in my 30s. We both had laptops. I mentioned that mine was borrowed, that I'd realized a few days before this writers' retreat that I didn't own one anymore. He was stunned I didn't own a laptop. Then I told him that I do a lot of my writing on my phone. He was double-stunned. He said, "Now, that's generational."

I'm sure he's right, but I'm an unlikely example of "what the kids are doing." The main reason I don't have a laptop is not because the phone meets my needs. Far from it. I don't have a laptop because I still primarily use and prefer a desktop computer, and for some work still prefer writing longhand. It just happens, fortunately, that I'm also very comfortable typing with my thumbs, which means I can write a first draft anywhere. As a result, I do a lot of writing on my phone on the train. Last year, I figure I probably wrote 30-50,000 words on my phone. While there are times I do think it would be handy to have a laptop, it would never be my primary tool; I get by with the other stuff (though a cheap Chromebook seems a likely next step).

We began talking about writing tools. I was thinking at the time that I must chose my tools based on what I'm trying to achieve. For brainstorming large projects or writing fiction, I often get out a paper notebook and pen, sometimes start at the computer, but never go to the phone. On the other hand, for something I think is a blog post, I almost always use my phone or computer. When I have a joke I want to write down, I almost always write it as an email to myself or a note in Evernote; it's been years since I was looking for a scrap of paper or through a notebook for a joke.

But then I realized I'm wrong. The tool isn't based on the task: the tool is based on the moment. I write with whatever's convenient, and the correlation between tool and task has more to do with when I approach the tasks. I don't turn my brain to long work if I don't have the time for it, and if I have the time, I set myself up with a notebook or sit at the computer. Ideas for quick things and jokes might occur anywhere, so I grab the phone. Now, the app I choose or software on the computer depends on the project, of course. Am I working collaboratively with people? Google Docs. Drafting a blog post? The blogging app, the site itself, or Evernote? A joke? Email or Evernote. Large project like a book? Scrivener, probably. 

It's quite possible that some of this is generational: my comfort switching platforms and applications might be a factor of my age. Maybe the tools just became usable around the time I had something I wanted to say on a regular basis. On the other side of the equation, 20 years from now, I'll likely be set into a particular way of being productive, and less inclined to mess with it by bringing in whatever becomes the successor to the smartphone. The generational aspect may be not just about openness to technology, but about strength of habit. 

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Celebrity scandals TMZ refused to cover

I had dinner with former TMZ producer Scott Scuggs, who told me that his time with the site and TV show was marked by constant editorial debates about "how far is too far." By way of example, he told me of the following items TMZ didn't cover, either because they were too small, too personal, or just because they made the reporters uncomfortable.

  • Brad Pitt has a false leg.
  • In 2011, Justin Beiber is reported to have smuggled three stolen fifteenth-century Cambodian statuettes into Canada. Seized by customs, the statuettes were discovered to have been hollowed out and filled with clippings of racy lingerie ads.
  • The entire Arquette family are slavers.
  • Katy Perry refuses to step foot in New Mexico, as there's a warrant out for her arrest on what the prosecutor refers to as "best intention" arson charges. She's said to have willfully left a campfire burning so the next campers could make s'mores upon arrival.
  • Morgan Freeman lives a double life, operating a custom rubber-stamp shop in Cherry Hill, New Jersey as Allen Morgan. They also sell wind chimes.
  • In 2010, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are rumored to have thrown away several trays of perfectly good sushi after learning that the sushi chef had previously worked for Billy Bob Thornton. Asked why, Will Smith reportedly said, "That man is tainted."
  • Cher dumped as many as twelve heavily-mutilated bodies in a fountain on Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade.
  • Neil Sedaka made a deal with a shaman, and at the age of 60, his soul passed into another Neil, Neil Patrick Harris. The soul occupying the body of Sedaka is 34 years younger, and pissed off.
  • Reese Witherspoon reportedly forgot how to read.
  • Zach Braff ran over 48 fans of a Motorhead cover band when he got distracted behind the wheel. He's said to have been pouring a cup of tea from an heirloom tea set.

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Vacation Lane

I'm currently on Cape Cod, and on the drive out, I passed a road called Vacation Lane. I immediately thought, "What if one of those houses is just where somebody lives? What would it be like to grow up on Vacation Lane?" I realize I know people who grew up in vacation destinations from Guam to Martha's Vineyard, but I've never thought about what it means to live in an essentially one-season town, where your day-to-day life is everybody else's escape, where your neighbors are rarely there and have an entirely different existence you only see glimmers of. Your town, a perfect destination, sucks as a place to live: it's a part-time ghost town. The schools, infrastructure, and financial decisions driven largely by the needs of the part-timers.

It'd be a fabulous setting for something.

I didn't get to investigate the real Vacation Lane, and I'm glad of it. The reality would have been disappointing. There are probably only rental properties, or it ends with a fabulous library and performing arts center, either of which would be the envy of any non-tourist town. 

I have a strong urge to be factual, when what I ought to be is truthful (this is something I've been thinking about a lot, as I'm at a writer's retreat, working on a project rooted in fact that will not in the end be factual, but must present a compelling truth). If I'm going to imagine a place called Vacation Lane, it doesn't matter what any actual Vacation Lane is like. It doesn't matter if its residents like, hate, or remain ignorant of my version of the truth. Would it matter more if I knew them? Maybe. Maybe. Then there's a loyalty factor, but in this particular instance, it's mild.

So, Vacation Lane. I probably won't get around to doing anything with it. Run with it, if you like. 

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Programming note

I promised to blog every day in July. I'm currently at a writers' retreat, which you'd think would be the place from which to make good on such a pledge. Irony! It's easier to do such a thing in your normal environment. I'm moving the goalposts: I will post for every day in July, but  not necessarily on each day. And no, this one doesn't count.

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Memories of Hyrule

I don't talk about video games very much, so it usually surprises people to find out that I play them (a lot). I don't talk about it much for three main reasons: 

  1. Despite my love of certain games and my friendship with many very smart people who play video games, I and many others have internalized the idea that it's a childish activity, largely owing to the fact that it was what we did as children. 
  2. A large swath of the gamer community is social blight (not all of it! Not by any means!), and to be an active member of games conversations risks bringing a lot of sadistic, self-important dickbags into your social media world. I follow interesting games people on Twitter, but I generally don't engage.
  3. Like going to the gym, where I won't take classes, I just don't experience gaming as a social thing. Despite Microsoft's insistence that Xbox is "better with friends," I've never even touched the social elements. I try to avoid Apple's Game Center as much as possible. For me, gaming and exercise both have a strong "alone time" component (although there are exceptions: I'd host Mario Kart parties). I play games to retreat from reality, for the most part. It's like reading a book.

The reason I bring it up now is that I read an article called "The merits of studying video games and the effects they have on our brains" this morning. In short, it's about research into "Game Transfer Phenomena" (GTP), the experience some gamers have of seeing elements of their games in real life (for example, seeing falling Tetris pieces while driving, or seeing an injury meter appear in the corner of your vision after stubbing a toe). GTP is fascinating, and though I've not experienced it directly, I find it totally believable.

Over the past few years, I've been reading a lot about both video games and neuroscience, thinking I'm going to do some writing about each. The GTP experiences people report fit in with a lot of what we know about how the brain operates. It's no surprise to me that the experience of injury in the real world would prompt the brain to imagine a realistic artifact it associates so closely with injury from thousands of hours of playing first-person shooters. It's easy to imagine how one might see Tetris pieces while driving down a multilane road filled with cars and differently-shaped gaps. Research into these experiences could reveal something about cognition, memory, and sensory experience more generally, so as the headline suggests, the research isn't frivolous in the slightest (and while I don't believe research has to be applicable, or even potentially useful in other fields to be worthwhile, I think this research could be the latter, if not the former).

Me, age 9, securing a piece of the Triforce.

Me, age 9, securing a piece of the Triforce.

If I experienced GTP, I'd be frightened. It would probably make me reconsider playing games. But in thinking about it, I realize there's a fuzzy line here. I've not seen GTP, but playing video games has definitely altered my brain in some ways. Elements of the Fallout games appear in my dreams with some regularity. I have memories of Final Fantasy VII, The Legend of Zelda, Red Dead Redemption, and Metroid that are nearly as vivid as any other memories I have. When searching for a metaphor, I'm just as likely to seize on something experienced in a video game as in a book. So my favorite games have set down deep roots in my brain. Where's the line between it having some cognitive effect and it being neurological malware? To me, GTP is on the other side of that line, but how far over? 

The one thing that does trouble me about the strength and fondness of my game memories is that though they were legitimate experiences, they were all designed experiences. Currently, even the most open games do have their limits; your freedom is limited to the affordances of the game. You have agency (which I believe is the reason the memories are stronger than those from reading or watching movies), but the agency you have is constrained. There's an argument to be made that much of real life is similarly constrained, that design and control are everywhere, but I don't believe that argument. The choices available to you without a controller in your hand are always vast in comparison, and the sensory feedback is of course much richer and more varied in the real world (no odor has yet triggered a video game memory or metaphor). Your interaction with the real world is simply not so heavily mediated and circumscribed. Your real world memories are yours and yours alone. Your video game memories might be unique, but they're probably not. That's weird.

To me, though, it's more weird that you share authorship of them with the designers of the game. I'm not troubled by that with a novel or a movie, where the compact with the author is fairly straightforward. With a game, though, you accomplish what the character accomplishes. You feel pride and victory in a real way, but it's in almost every situation a thinly-veiled puzzle with a designed solution. Imagine having such rich memories of solving a particular crossword puzzle. That level of pride and excitement seems goofy. The emotional investment in that sometimes troubles me. But not often. Because it's fun. 

None of this makes me worry about playing games, or makes me wish I remembered the games less vividly (why would you wish to dampen any memory that wasn't awful?). It doesn't make me wish I had no interest in games, or make me ashamed of them. There's no more shame in loving video games than in loving poetry. Loving poetry doesn't make you a better person than loving video games. I've met equally terrible people in the literary community and the video game community (one example: literary misogyny and creepiness is almost as omnipresent as game community misogyny and creepiness). I do believe you learn more from grappling with Shakespeare than with Donkey Kong, but Donkey Kong's got its merits, too. And the vast majority of the reading people do isn't Shakespeare, it's Danielle Steele and Dan Brown. If Dan Brown isn't sub-Kong, nothing is.

So, if you, like me, are a quasi-closeted gamer, don't worry about it. Just look around on the train. It's what adults do now.* But if you start to see angry birds flinging into your train, set the phone down. Get some help. 

 

 


* A post for another time: I hardly play games on my phone anymore, and almost never on the train, which is my reading time, and often my writing time. But I don't look down on those who do. I just want them to tell me if a particular game is really great. I'll check it out.

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Book Report - I Like You, By Amy Sedaris

For awhile now, I've been kicking around and idea called "Book Report" - the idea is that someone will hand me a book, and exactly 24 hours later, I take the stage to deliver a 30-minute "book report" on it. Of course, there's no way I've read the book entirely, but I'd BS my way through it, bring in personal stories, and make some wild guesses. I may still do that. I think it'd be fun.

But I also wanted to try a different version of the idea, one that takes no prep, less time, and requires no stage. Just get the book, start a camera, run it 30 minutes, and edit it down to a single video Book Report. The idea of actually reading the book is completely out the window. I'm seeing the book for the first time as I'm assessing it. 

Thursday, I asked Facebook for recommendations. One was I Like You - Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris. I adore Amy Sedaris, but had never looked at the book.

Consider this video a proof-of-concept for the idea. I'd love to develop the format further, refine the style, learn some better shooting and editing skills, and so on. I'll definitely speak more slowly and set up the background of the shot a bit better. But all things considered, I'm happy with the result of throwing myself into it with no plan and no skills.

Let me know if you have ideas for improving the concept or books you'd like me to cover.

 

 

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Antonin Scalia's Fantasy Docket

Weekly Standard profile of Antonin Scalia included a surprisingly candid revelation: Scalia writes dozens of decisions each weekend, fantasizing about cases he wishes were brought before the Court. His vast library of what he calls "future decisions" present a nearly comprehensive view of Scalia's utopian society. Highlights include:

  • Milton v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses a case about school prayer to disallow collective bargaining by teachers' unions, and also to limit school cafeteria fries to the curly variety.
  • Rodriguez v. Tarrant County Sheriff: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses a case about Miranda rights to invalidate most legal immigration, establishing new doctrine of "Firsties."
  • Mulligan v. ChemFree Pest Services: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses a case about medical liabilities to establish the New Testament as a part of common law, most notably citing Paul v Corinthians to make effeminate behavior grounds for loss of federal employment benefits.
  • Paulson v. Jimmy John's: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses a case about discrimination in restaurant service to establish anti-sodomy laws at the federal level, and makes it the jurisdiction of the FBI to spot-check suspect anuses. 
  • Ollivander v. Kentucky Fried Chicken: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses a tort dispute to declare unconstitutional the Departments of Education, Energy, and Interior, to literally demolish all Federal Reserve buildings, and re-establish the gold standard.
  • Perkins v. Perkins: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses an interstate alimony dispute to retroactively disestablish NATO.
  • Lexington v. Goldman Sachs: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses a case about the limits of fiduciary duties to limit legal abortions to those performed by his personal doctor on behalf of those he's given written permission.
  • Calhoun v. Milwaukee Bucks: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses an employment discrimination case to reverse 50 years of environmental protections, controversially penning the decision in the blood of an endangered spotted owl.
  • Garner v. Affleck: Writing for a unanimous court, Scalia uses a dispute over remote control privileges in a marriage as a basis for requiring all video game companies to only make games that are in accord with principles established in papal encyclicals and the fifth season of 24.
  • Scalia v. Buffalo Wild Wings: Writing for himself alone, Scalia gets some wings delivered to his house.

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Otter

[This post has been sitting in draft mode FOREVER. But I looked it over and realized it's 1000x better than the garbage I published earlier and then reverted to draft mode.]

healthy otter
healthy otter

A few months back, my wife purchased a small windup otter: The otter was a stocking stuffer for her friend Heidi.

Heidi never got the otter because our daughter found the otter and fell in love with it.

Tonight, the otter broke:

unhealthy otter
unhealthy otter

My daughter went to bed crying, in anguish over the state of her beloved otter. We will attempt to perform surgery, fusing the tail to the small motorized tailbone with a very tiny amount of microscopically-targeted superglue.

I am not optimistic about the operation we must soon conduct. We are not surgeons. We are not veterinarians. We are but foolish, misguided parents, who hope to stave off all future disappointment by fixing one plastic otter tail.

When I was very five years old, I bought a large windup dog at a garage sale. Well, my parents bought it, upon my pleading. I took it home. I wound it. I wound it again and again. It walked. It made a whirring noise. It was awesome.

The night I bought it, my parents threw a party. A guest brought her unpleasant and unattractive child. He wound the dog. He overwound the dog. The dog broke. A plastic component inside the dog could not withstand the pressure of overwinding. Though I had only known the dog a day, I knew its limits, could sense its tension when being wound, and knew when to stop it. This other small child, unpleasant and unattractive, could not. He broke the dog. I cried. I cried and cried and carried my broken windup dog to my mom, and she left her party and her friends (and being a parent now, I know what it takes just to have friends, no less to have them over) and took me to the laundry room and promised to try to repair the dog. I was mollified.

The dog was never repaired. The dog was unrepairable. Too this day I hate that unpleasant and unattractive child. But my mom is a star in my book.

If the otter doesn't make it through surgery, I hope she knows we tried. Also, Heidi, I'm sorry you never got your otter. It was love at first sight. Really.

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Nice vs. Kind

I've been thinking about kindness, as it's something I want to instill in my children as best as I can. Kindness seems very simple, but as I reflect on it, it's really difficult.

On the surface, kindness is just: "be nice." Or, realistically, it's generally taught as "don't be mean." 

"Not being mean" is a pretty paltry definition of kindness. What about generosity, courage, and compassion? I may go out of my way to avoid meanness, but I also go out of my way to avoid responsibility, challenge, and the hospital bedside of sick friends. My kindness is limited to what I can do remotely, on my own schedule, preferably with my wallet rather than my hands.  That's not kindness at all. 

The kindest people I know are routinely the bravest, and the most confounding. Real kindness requires the routine violation of one's own comfort. It's uncomfortable to step out of the flow of humanity to express concern for the person being ignored. It's sometimes seems difficult and time consuming and unproductive to make accommodations for others. It's easier to pretend you're not needed, or that whatever problem you've noticed doesn't need your fixing or is beyond your ability to fix. Kind people aren't even necessarily nice; you can do a lot of good for others without being the best-mannered person on your block.

I'd bet good money that if asked to describe me in one word, many people I know would say, "nice"—but I'm not sure many would say "kind," because I don't often display kindness. I display a courteous aloofness, more than anything. And knowing that kids learn far more from example than from words, it makes me want to be a little more active in trying to be kind.   

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Facebook is what ruins Facebook

I've been slowly altering my approach to Facebook recently, mostly without realizing it. I've been backing off. Commenting less. Clicking "like" less. Posting a lot less.

I still like to see what my friends are posting. The best thing about Facebook was that it gave my awesome friends and family a platform for displaying their absolute weirdness. We mock the idea of "friends" but friending people on Facebook I have no other regular contact with has actually been lovely. It's not the keeping up we'd prefer to do in an ideal world, but there is no ideal world, and keeping up at all is wonderful. Some of the much derided "old high school acquaintances" who'd have disappeared from my view without Facebook are very much in my mind at times, and for the best of reasons: they've turned into interesting adults. People and their idiosyncrasies are what's made Facebook really good for me for the past seven years or so.

But I'm seeing less of that. My feed, more and more, is articles from clickbait factories that appear in my feed because somebody I know liked the site (sometimes not even the content, but the site). Sometimes I click on the bait, and usually I'm embarrassed for myself. And so I make a point of not clicking the next one, two, or ten. This is embarrassing, too. I'm an adult. I shouldn't have to make an effort to not click on a story about a pop star I hardly know about, or about the travails of a drunk state representative on the other side of the country. That a piece of me wants to click it suggests that I've lost control of my interests. That I'm even looking at a site that so regularly pushes me this crap is embarrassing. It isn't what I signed up for. It isn't what I want. I don't deny my interest in the salacious clickbait, but I'd prefer to stifle that interest, not fuel it. Facebook is designed to fuel it, to increase my engagement with the site, not with my friends.

This isn't an "I'm leaving Facebook" post. I like the things I've always liked. I like to know how you're all doing. I like to see your babies and your dogs and know when your shows are (and I want to come to more of them than I get to) and what you think about the Supreme Court and what ridiculous thing happened to you on the train, and why you think I should write to my members of Congress. I like that. I even like it when I disagree with you. I like the people. It's just being buried in garbage.

And worse, the algorithms that sort you all to decide what I see and what I don't? I can't see them and adjust them. I don't know when I don't know about your engagements and breakups and concerts. Facebook is failing at the thing I want it to do most. It's like RSS died and Facebook stepped in to deliver the worst alternative: a feed of everything I'd never subscribe to, dressed up as the passions of the people I love. Ugh. 

Meanwhile, I've been tweeting more, but not a lot more. But I've been clicking more links from Twitter, following a few more people, clicking deeper into the conversations of the people I follow. I find that I'm learning more and being more engaged and happier and more creative as a result of what I find in my Twitter feed (this is not an "I love Twitter" post, either: they're probably only a growth-desperate decision or two away from screwing everything up, too).

I've found that with Twitter, I actually do control the feed. I get what I select, and by following interesting people having interesting conversations, and following the people they follow and interact with, I'm seeing the internet I want to see. I'm being reminded that the world is full of awesome, smart, funny people. I don't get what Facebook promised -- the culture of Twitter is not "see my kids, see my dog" -- but I do get a better version of what Facebook is failing at: a portal to the world beyond the strictly social. 

So I'm not quitting Facebook. I'll still post about my kids and my cat and my stupid opinions about stupid things. I'll still ask open-ended questions because I'm curious to know what my friends think about whatever's on my mind. But because of Facebook's irresponsible monkeying with the feed, I'm not sure you'll see them, just as I'm not sure I'll see yours. I'll surely know something, peripherally, about that hot convict, and about Iggy Azalea or this month's equivalent, and I'll have sponsored notices of fringe shows 3000 miles away. But I might miss that you got a great new job. That stinks. Facebook has ruined what we joined Facebook for.

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