Archive for July, 2014

I’ve been a huge fan of comedian Jen Kirkman for years. Ever since I first heard her 2006 standup debut Self Help, I was hooked. Her immaculate timing, her wry self-deprecation, her feminist perspective. She followed it in 2011 with Hail to the Freaks, which took things to the next level. Funny and intelligent, she mixes pop culture with social politics and everything in between.

I devoured her 2013 book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, especially since it humorously attacks the view that people must have children in order to fulfill their destiny as mature adults. My wife and I decided not to have kids, and it’s refreshing to see someone so succinctly reflect our beliefs on the issue.

When I found out she started a podcast called I Seem Fun, I raced to subscribe. Every week she mixes feminist perspectives, tales of oddballs on airplanes, and reflections from her life. She moves from DMX to Kurt Cobain to Dolly Parton, from #yesallwomen to the art of writing to dealing with stress. Along the way she uses funny voices to ridicule annoying people, especially those pestering her on social media. As usual, she jokes about herself as well, like when she gets the episode number wrong. It’s a fun hour-long show and it always jumps to the top of my queue when a new episode is released. (The only other shows that do this are The Dana Gould Show and My Brother, My Brother, and Me.)

Kirkman is very friendly with her fans, and I’ve used the opportunity to communicate on several occasions. I thanked her for her feminist response to the #notallmen trend, and sent her an email (which she read on the show, and found amusing) about a time someone showed me a bad movie. When I referred to her joke about the hapless librarian in It’s a Wonderful Life as “podcast gold”, she favorited my Tweet. As silly as it may sound, it’s quite rewarding when a comedian you respect and admire so much takes the time to respond.

Why She’s Mad At Me

Without intending to, I became one of those people pestering her online. One of the characters Kirkman uses occasionally on the show is “The Corrector”, a nasally doofus who takes great pride in disputing tiny technical details. She’ll say something in passing, and then acknowledge that perhaps there’s some tiny point that a pathetic jerk might quibble with (as people often do online): “Well, technically..” (As she points out, it’s usually men who engage in this nonsense, and they often target women as part of the mansplaining phenomenon.)

A week and a half ago, on Episode 60, she started by making fun of The Corrector, since she delivered the introduction flawlessly: “Hey, I said it right! ‘Well, technically…’ I don’t even know.. That guy had nothing to say. He stopped himself.” She sounded almost sad, like she wanted The Corrector to find some small thing to complain about.

So I thought it would be funny if I played the part. I wrote a series of Tweets (yes, more than one) pointing out that “right” is an adjective, and “correctly” is the proper grammatical term in that instance. I pointed out that I am an English teacher. I tried to be intentionally obnoxious so she would realize I was only playing an annoying character, instead of my charming, gracious self. But that’s not how it came through. (Perhaps I thought she might remember me from our past interactions, but that would have been ludicrous.)

She responded angrily on Twitter: “Are you kidding me?” Many of her followers sent me angry Tweets as well, and I felt really bad for days.

Then today she released the latest episode of her podcast, which includes a special “bug off” comment to me. (I’ve provided just the relevant 60-second slice.)

Jen Kirkman to me: “Get a life”

Needless to say, this made me feel sad all over again.

Why She’s Right to Be Mad

Everything Kirkman says in that sound clip is 100% correct. It’s obnoxious when people nitpick about grammar, especially in contexts where it doesn’t matter. As I tell my students all the time, all that really matters — except when you’re trying to get a job or impress your future in-laws — is that the other person understands what you’re saying. (This is the split between prescriptive and descriptive grammar.)

People who use their knowledge to annoy other people are insufferable and pathetic. They are quick to say “I’m just joking” or use some other smug excuse, but that doesn’t change the fact that their comments are obnoxious and pointless. It’s like lame white guys rapping badly; even when you’re doing it ironically, you’re still a lame white guy rapping badly. (Learn how to spit with a flow like The Rhymenoceros and The Hiphopopotamus, and then it can become something else.)

So while I thought I was being clever and insouciant, in effect I was just being a jackass. As with other forms of harassment, intention doesn’t matter. I should have realized how irritating my comments were, and prevented myself from sending them. (I try to be extremely conscious about my gendered interactions, and I think I’ve got a good track record as a male feminist. Still, as she points out, it’s important for all of us guys to check ourselves when communicating, especially online.)

I know what I meant, but it’s irrelevant, and I respect people who call me on my nonsense. (It’s one of the things I love most about my wife.) More to the point, I shouldn’t wait for other people to point out when I’m being dumb. As I Tweeted the day after the original debacle, I should get a tattoo on my forearm that reads: “You are NOT FUNNY when you’re being pedantic about grammar.” I can’t beat myself up about this stuff, but there’s a fine line between doing that and failing to learn from my mistakes.

The Bizarre Intimacy of Social Media

When politicians first began appearing on call-in TV shows, the political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow made fun of the idea that we can feel close to the people on The Box With Colors. Facebook and Twitter have only made this phenomenon more surreal, with our favorite celebrities in such easy reach. (Kirkman points out that she’s far from the level of celebrity most people expect, but she has 139,000 followers and she appears regularly on a popular TV show.)

This proximity brings a bizarre paradox: We feel like we’re becoming friends with the people we talk to on Twitter, even though we exchange only brief slices of words in the midst of lots of other activity. I know that I shouldn’t really be hurt by Kirkman’s comments, just as I shouldn’t get filled with excitement when she likes something I say. But I am, and I do. I suppose these things are all part of the irrational complex casserole that is human emotion.

Through the video game podcast I co-host (and my own politics/economics podcast), I’ve gotten to know some people over social media, and I’m always amused when I find myself on the other end of this exchange. Sometimes people will thank me for providing something fun for them to listen to on the commute, for example. Our audience is relatively small, and we don’t get annoying stuff on social media. I can only imagine how annoying it would be — especially for women in a world where so many guys are oblivious to both their privilege and their potential to be irritating — to deal with random yahoos online all the time.

So while (of course) I’d rather not be blocked from Kirkman’s Twitter feed, I don’t blame her. If you’re reading this, Jen, please accept my apology. I thank you for calling me out on my obnoxious idiocy, and I hope we can still be friends. (Well, technically, we’ve never been friends. Dammit, I’m doing it again.)

The Worst Part of Writing

I have started the most frustrating, demoralizing, and tedious activity every writer has to endure: I have begun begging agents and publishers to promote my work.

I’m a damn good writer. I’ve been doing it for decades, and I know I’ve got skills. When I took a writing class this summer, the instructor (a nationally known writer with years of experience in the industry) said: “I can’t help you with the writing.” Fortunately she offered plenty of assistance with the publishing process, which has been a great benefit.

I can’t stand this stuff. A 2012 article by Michael Bourne explains — with an insider’s perspective — what I despise about the business of publishing:

If that sounds like I’m saying, “It’s all about who you know,” that’s because that is exactly what I’m saying. You can rail about how unfair that is, and how it makes publishing into an incestuous little club, and to a degree you would be right: a lot of very dumb books get published because somebody knew somebody. But that’s the way the machine is built, people.

He says if you want to get published “you have to immerse yourself in the literary community”. He explains his own poor results with “cold-calling” submissions to agents and publishers, and how the response rate skyrocketed after he “went to a couple writing conferences” and “met agents in person and told them about [his] book”.

Well, there’s a problem here: Those conferences cost a lot of money — money most schoolteachers don’t have. They also require lots of time, which is also in desperately short supply for someone like me. Meanwhile, spending hundreds of dollars to attend these things is no guarantee, and the chances are slim that agents I do meet will have any interests that align with my book. I hate the thought of turning myself into a sniveling self-important toady, following agents around and begging them to consider my writing.

Yesterday I got a very nice rejection email which included the sentence: “You seem like a really cool person and an amazing teacher.” It went on to explain that, given the woeful market for books today, most publishers simply will not take a chance on a first-time nobody.

In other words: It doesn’t matter how good my book is. It doesn’t matter if I’ve got important things to say to the world, or how well I can say them. It doesn’t matter how much skill I have in writing about video games and education — I’m nobody, and therefore no one cares about my writing.

Dead Prez said it best in their song “It’s Bigger than Hip Hop”:

This fake a** industry — gotta pay to get a song on the radio
Really though, DP’s gon’ let you know
It’s just a game of pimps and hoes
And it’s all ’bout who you know
Not who we are, or how we grow

 I can’t imagine my favorite writers — Nelson Algren, Stanislaw Lem, Marge Piercy — paying hundreds of dollars to shmooze with industry folk in the scant hope of scoring a few seconds of one-on-one time to bloviate about their writing. The whole thing turns my stomach.

As I’ve often said, the only alternative is for some well-connected individual to stumble upon my writing and make it a personal mission to link me with an agent or publisher. And obviously that ain’t happening, so I gotta just keep at it.


Many years ago I read a book about rap music called Signifying Rappers, which bragged about its status as the first scholarly book-length analysis of rap music. It annoyed me, it bored me, and I remember it getting certain facts wrong.

I was frustrated by every page, and I lost complete respect for the authors, two ivory-tower academics who made a big deal about how white they were and how uncomfortable they felt in the middle of their love for hip-hop.

At first I thought I would appreciate their perspective, since I grew up a nerdy white kid feeling very much like an ivory-tower egghead who could never really feel like a part of the community. But these guys wore their difference like a badge of honor, and droned endlessly about how they felt singled out for the color of their skin. (This distracted constantly from the points they were supposed to be making about the music and society.)

At one point they complained about how their tires got slashed by someone during a rap concert. They tied this incident into their racial identity for some reason, as if the perpetrator had singled them out for the property damage. Then, almost as an afterthought, they added something like: “Maybe it wasn’t just us. Turns out everyone else had their tires slashed too.”

I don’t stop reading books if I can help it, so I made it all the way through. Then I awarded it the title “Worst Book Ever Written About Hip-Hop” and threw it away.

Today I began writing a chapter about hip-hop for my new book The Six Animals. Imagine my shock and alarm when I realized that one of the authors was David Foster Wallace. Holy crap! There is no American writer for whom I have more respect. I won’t win any awards for social originality when I say it, but This Is Water changed my life and stands as one of my favorite nonfiction pieces ever written.

Have I been wrong about this book? Is it truly as terrible as I remember it? Is it possible that the great DFW wrote something so insipid and useless? Apparently the critics didn’t like it when it came out, and Wallace himself rarely spoke about it. Now, however, it’s been re-issued and celebrated by retrospective essays. I have to wonder, however, if this isn’t a case of idol worship instead of dispassionate consideration.

I need to find this book and read it again. I doubt I’ll be able to consume it objectively, but I’ll try. If nothing else, it will be a profound challenge to my brain’s capacity to reconcile extreme love for the writer and extreme hatred for my memory of the book.

Rough Night

There is a panic that comes with a middle-of-the-night phone call. It tears you violently from sleep, ripping apart both rest and calm. (One benefit to abandoning land lines, I suppose, would be the silent right-to-voicemail feature of late-night calls.)

I was having a really bizarre dream about fence repair without nails, dogs running loose, and public transport in a big city. The phone started shrieking, Diane and I both bolted awake, and immediately the dream stuff got washed aside with fears about what might possibly require such an urgent call at 4:00 AM.

Diane got to the phone first. I thought about picking up in the other room, but I figured it might be odd for whoever was on the other end. Tensed and afraid, I waited. Diane said “Hello?”. Then she said it again. She held the phone out to me. It was a robot.

Two days ago I had spent a horrible hour on the AT&T website, trying to access my bill online. (That terrible company requires some ludicrous arcane series of steps to achieve this simple goal.) At one point I asked the website to call me with a temporary password, since I had forgotten mine. The call never came, so I used another route and eventually obtained access to the site.

I guess the website never told the telephone robot, and the poor telephone robot must be so overworked and exhausted that it couldn’t call me until two days later, at 4:00 AM. Fortunately, I now have a temporary password for my AT&T online account.

I didn’t get much sleep before Tito woke me up — as he often does — at 5:00 AM by flapping his ears just outside the bedroom doorway. (Sometimes this means he wants to go out, but we’ve trained him to get back in the chair and go back to sleep, which he did this morning.) I was up until the alarm sounded at 5:45.

The next person who tells me how lucky I am because I get to sleep in during the summer is getting kicked in the neck.

Lynn Nottage > George RR Martin

If a primary purpose of combat fiction is to remind us of the horrors of war, you couldn’t pick a more disturbing setting than the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict there has killed five million people, including unspeakable terrors of rape and torture.

It is in the DRC that Lynn Nottage sets her Pulitzer-winning 2009 play Ruined. It holds nothing back from the truth of war, displaying the most inhuman moments of evil and forcing us to confront people at their worst.

But it is a play that is, by design, not pessimistic. It’s not naive or simplistic, but it avoids the trap of pessimism so common to 21st century writers, especially Game of Thrones novelist George RR Martin. (I’ve written about his pessimism before.)

Nottage traveled to the DRC and Uganda with the theatre director Kate Whoriskey. They met women and men who had experienced war in its most hideous manifestations. They saw the psychological, emotional, familial, physical, and spiritual decimation caused by the fighting. They spoke with women whose bodies, minds, and souls had been violated and torn asunder.

And still Nottage wrote a story of hope.

Whoriskey says it perfectly in her introduction to the play:

She decided […] in favor of a structure that was true to our experiences in Uganda. What struck both of us from our trip was that while there was incredible chaos in the region, this was home, and people were determined to survive and build lives here. When the media focuses attention on these areas, they often describe the violence, the poverty and the AIDS crisis. It is rare to hear the full story, the positive alongside the negative.

What was so rich about our trip is that we witnessed great beauty, strength and artistry.

[…] On a different trip to the region, Lynn spoke with a Rwandan about life after the genocide. He said to her, “We must fight to sustain the complexity.” This phrase became a mantra for creating the piece. We did not want to focus solely on the damage but also the hope. […]

Lynn has the gift and genius for looking inside moments of profound disruption, witnessing the chaos, absorbing the psychic damage, and then synthesizing a narrative that shows us we are capable of so much more.

I find no hope in Game of Thrones. I find it to be a story utterly devoid of hope, committed primarily to stylistic innovation (of which it contains plenty) and audience manipulation (which, again, it does well). The fact that Martin cares very little about reflecting the hope we humans so desperately need proves (to me, at least) that he is unwilling to fight to sustain the complexity.

As a result, we don’t get the full story.