Thursday, September 30, 2010

Language Arts Sucks, Revisited

I was just rereading Michael Chabon’s excellent book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and thinking about the circumstances that led me to read it, and my discovery of the whole mess of contemporary fiction authors that have influenced me and whose books I’ve carried in boxes from my parents’ house to my dorm rooms to my apartments. I’m lucky to have found the books I love, thanks to the people (not least my mother) who cared about literature and introduced me to authors they thought I would enjoy, and who turned out to be right. Later on, of course, there were the short story collections I went out of my way to buy, and the writing workshop syllabi that forced me to purchase contemporary fiction, and at present I’m pretty confident in my ability to find authors and stories I will enjoy, as long as I have the time to read them.

While thinking about all of this, I suddenly became enraged.

Why? Because I realized that I had taken seven years, in public middle and high school, of “Language Arts,” which was supposed to teach me how to write but also teach me how to read, and more importantly to point me in the direction of books. I learned something from those classes, I suppose, and god knows my teachers tried their best (well, most of them did), but god also knows that those classes did little to influence my love of reading. It might be accurate to say that my love of reading survived Language Arts classes, that I unaccountably love Shakespeare and 1984 despite my education. Most students don’t, and I often wonder if the way we teach literature is designed to stop students from reading.

I know I’ve written the same post before but fuck, isn’t there a way to teach through contemporary fiction that might engage students a little more than teaching them through ancient fiction? Imagine if I was taught The Fortress of Solitude in one of my AP LA classes in high school. It would have given the teacher the chance to talk about:

  • Race relations in America. I know this subject is often touched on, but the history of blacks and whites usually stops around the time of MLK. Richard Wright is wonderful, but perhaps a little dated on some subjects? (Also, not insignificantly, this book discusses race from a white [Jewish] perspective.)

  • Bullying, intimidation, how you feel when you don’t belong in a neighborhood

  • The music of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and a slew of old soul, R&B, and fuck groups like the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye. How many kids know about the tragic death of Marvin Gaye?

  • A tie-in to Dylan: The practice of Jewish performers changing their names to more “normal” ones. Why was this important? What does Jewish identity mean? Why did black performers not change their names—oh, yes, because they were given slave names by their masters. Whole discussions of the power of naming might ensue.

  • Finally, the idea of superpowers in the real world. What would you do if you had the power to fly? Would you try to fight evil? How? Would you rather be invisible or have the power to fly?

That syllabus for the book I came up with off the top of my head would be far, far, more engaging than any Language Arts class I’ve ever had. With something like Shakespeare, or even Conrad, teachers spend have their time trying to get kids to understand what the fuck they just read, if the kids bothered to read it at all and didn’t give up on the text for being too difficult. (Also, with Heart of Darkness teachers have to wrestle with the question of whether the book is outrageously racist or not.) Would it be too much to ask that teachers teaching literature let their kids know that literature is something that doesn’t just happen in the past?
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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Most Worthless Thing On The Internet, Dying Magazine Edition

Today’s most worthless thing on the internet has crossover appeal: not only is it a web page not worth visiting, it might be the least essential piece of political journalism ever published. It comes courtesy of Time magazine, which apparently decided that this obscure new political movement called the “Tea Party” deserves more media attention than it’s getting.

Back when it was one of the few available sources of national and international news, Time used to be an iconic publication—it used to matter who was on the cover. This latest cover had the image of an elephant in a tea cup (get it? Metaphors! Visual shorthand!) and the astonishingly uninteresting headline, “It’s Tea Party Time.” Now, if Time was your sole source of political news, if it dominated the market the way it used to, this might be an interesting cover. “This is intriguing,” you might say. “Tea Party? And they’re taking over the Republican Party? I must read on!”

But, obviously, no one in the world relies on Time this way. Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the news, even someone who gets all her news from The Daily Show, already knows more about the Tea Party than the Time article manages to communicate. On this subject, Time is hopelessly trailing hundreds of blogs and other print publications, but instead of trying to find a new angle on the Tea Party it rehashes events that have been covered already and spreads on a layer of vague generalities.

Among the things the article does not bother to discuss in detail are:

  • -The fractured nature of the Tea Party. There are actually many, many groups that compose the “movement,” and there are important ideological differences between them. Some are more free-market libertarian, some are conservative Christians; Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell do not have the same agenda.

  • -The money trail that leads from some “grassroots” organizations to the billionaire Koch brothers, which the New Yorker covered already. In fact, the Koches are not even mentioned in the Time piece.

  • -Glenn Beck is mentioned, but only in passing, and is lumped in with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity—which is odd because he’s widely regarded as the face of the Tea Party and just held that massive rally in Washington D.C.

  • -Most notably, the Time article only focuses on the recent crop of primaries and doesn’t acknowledge the two Tea Party candidates who have actually run against Democrats—Scott Brown, who won a Senate seat in Massachusetts at least partially because of his opponent’s incompetence, and Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd district, who lost his race thanks to Republican in-fighting.

Besides all of those omissions, which make the article instantly outdated, there’s also the problem that Time is a weekly, which meant it could keep up with the news cycle in 1923, when it was founded, but in 2010 it has no chance. Case in point: the Tea Party piece focuses a lot of attention on Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware, and even compares her to the “leader of a rebel army.” But less than a week later she’s mostly known for admitting to practicing witchcraft, speaking out against masturbation, talking about feminism in J.R.R. Tolkein, and having a shady financial past. Not coincidentally, she’s trailing by 15 points in a recent Fox News (!) poll, which is not where the leader of a rebel army wants to be. None of that is mentioned in the article, although some of those developments came to light after the article was published. (Sort of argues for the irrelevance of print media, doesn’t it?)

To recap: Time published an article about a phenomenon that was already old news, revealed nothing new about the phenomenon, contributed nothing to the conversation about the phenomenon, and may have overstated the importance of one part (O’Donnell) of that phenomenon. The best you can say about that article is that it doesn’t seem to be factually incorrect. Actually, the best thing that can be said about the article is that it reassures all of those people who don’t read Time that they’re doing the right thing.
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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Louis C.K.'s Life on Television Sucks

I just finished watching the last two episodes of Louie C.K.’s show Louie on Hulu, and I’m no longer sure that the best show on television is on AMC. Louie isn’t the funniest thing I’ve had the privilege to watch on my laptop, but it might be the most ambitious comedy program since—what? I’m trying to think here. Since Freaks and Geeks, at least, and Louie is funnier than Freaks and Geeks.

(Some spoilers in the next paragraph, if you care about that stuff. Go watch the show now!)

Louie is a hard show to describe. It’s probably doomed to unpopularity, thanks to it’s odd format—rather than having the recurring characters and 22-minute story arcs of traditional sitcoms, each episode is composed of two or three vignettes, often unrelated to one another. Or not. Some episodes are one long story. Some episodes feature Louie C.K. as a kid for nearly the entire time. Some episodes feature long stretches of Louie’s stand up, which is usually hilarious. Ricky Gervais appears in a couple of episodes, as Louie’s asshole doctor (“I wouldn’t give your face to a burn victim,” he tells Louie as the comedian lies in a hospital). Various comedians appear as themselves, and one long scene of them playing poker and discussing the use of and origin of the word “faggot” veers from obscenity to honest emotion in the space of a minute. These tonal shifts are common in Louie. In one episode he gets bullied by a violence-obsessed 18-year-old, then follows the kid home, where he discovers that the kid’s father beats him. “Don’t do that,” Louie tells the dad, only to be chased out of the house by the mother—then, in an odd turn typical of the show, the dad comes out and shares a cigarette with Louie, and the two men talk about the difficulties of parenting. In another episode, a terrifying doctor convinces a child version of Louie that he is responsible for Jesus’ death. Louie’s brother breaks down in tears at a restaurant because his mother refuses to tell him she loves him. Louie imitates a monkey having an orgasm on a comedy club stage. Louie gets alarmingly stoned, decides to buy a dog, and the dog collapses and dies as soon as he brings it home. As the van carrying the dead dog in a garbage bag pulls away, Louie’s two adorable daughters pull up in a taxi with their mother for a weekend at their dad’s.

Louie is sometimes surreal, sometimes cruelly realistic, but always concerned with the big, big issues: love, loneliness, abandonment, religion, family, and most of all impending death and how to live with it. (The opening credits have Louie walking around while an unseen chorus sings, “You’re gonna die!”) I don’t know what to compare it to in terms of depth and ambition—maybe Annie Hall?—but it’s worth looking at the comparison between Louie and another show centered around the life of a standup comic, the infinitely more commercially successful Seinfeld.

Both shows portray ordinary mundane life in exact detail. Seinfeld centers around trifles and tiny bits of social interaction that spiral out of control into bizarre webs of lies and recrimination, while Louie concerns itself with Louie’s attempts to live his day-to-day life in a worthwhile manner before he inevitably dies. The contrast between the shows is apparent most of all in the title characters’ on-stage comedy routines. Jerry Seinfeld is seemingly pretty well-adjusted, except for his fixation on the insignificant little foibles of modern life. His offstage life is equally inconsequential—he floats along, dating a string of models he would never consider marrying, let alone procreating with, and trying to avoid embarrassment more than anything. If the character of Seinfeld ever thinks about the purpose of life, he hides it well.

Louie’s standup is different. He asks questions about morality, he worries over his daughters, he talks about God and the Bible, he notes the slow decay of his body in exacting detail. In his life on the show, Louie is trying to find something to care about, and mostly finds it in his daughters, in the passing along of genetic information, life, and knowledge. Seinfeld—his character on the show, at least, and also the character of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm—never seems to care about anything, and is satisfied with that. You’re born, you grow up, you make enough money to eat out at a diner all the time, you argue with your friends about re-gifting and the placement of buttons on a shirt, you date gorgeous women, then you die, simply and without fanfare. Isn’t that a good enough summary of existence?

It isn’t for Louie, and that’s why his character is so miserable. Seinfeld was born without a soul and is fine with that, but Louie isn’t sure whether he has a soul, whether souls exist in the first place, and what you should do if you have a soul. More importantly, the answers to those questions matter to Louie, as they do to a lot of people—which is why we’ll never be as happy-go-lucky as the people on Seinfeld, or any traditional sitcom.

Intelligent people with even an ounce of self-awareness ask themselves at one time or another, “What is the purpose of my life?” On Seinfeld, a “show about nothing” the answer is: “There is no purpose, duh.” On Friends, to bring another sitcom into the mix, the answer is, “Find your soulmate in the most complicated manner possible, at which point you will be happy forever.” (This is also the message of every romantic comedy ever churned out.)

Louie, like nearly every work of art worth discussing, offers no answer, except maybe “Keep looking, there must be a purpose, because otherwise life would be awful and unbearable.” One feature of the show that slips by almost unnoticed is that religion—specifically Christianity—appears more often, and is taken more seriously, than any mainstream show since Andy Griffith. Louie is a character with not only an interior life, but a spiritual one as well. That’s not a common thing these days, and it’s nice to know that a show like Louie can exist on television.

I worry that I’ve made the show sound more serious than it actually is. Here’s the poker scene I mentioned above:
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I Have Another Blog Now

One reason my posting has been a little bit irregular as of late is that I've been setting up and writing for a new blogging project with a buddy of mine, Christopher Morris-Lent, known to the poker world as CML. It's called We Live Off Your Money and is the diary of a our lives as professional (semi-professional, in my case) online poker players. I don't write much about myself or poker on this blog, so this new blog will hopefully be an outlet for content that I wouldn't publish here. If you like my writing on Essays on Sucking, you may also enjoy We Live Off Your Money, and if you're curious about the life of online poker players, it's also worth checking out. Read more!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why Can't We Have a Robot Senate?

As election time approaches and the political junkies work themselves up into a state of almost sexual anticipation, the question everyone is asking is, will there be a bunch of new mostly wealthy, mostly white people in the Senate? Will these people succeed in the Republican party's mission to have the government to almost nothing? If Democrats can barely pass legislation with a nearly 60-40 majority, how in god's name is anything going to be accomplished if the Senate is split roughly 50-50?

If you read George Packer's New Yorker article published over a month ago, you'd know that barely anything gets accomplished in the Senate now. Senators spend a couple days a week in Washington and spend the rest of the time flying back and forth from their home states, where they fundraise, pretend to listen to constituent concerns, and occasionally fuck people they aren't married to. The groundswell of populist rage--I have no idea what that phrase means, incidentally--isn't just directed at Democrats, it's directed at Congress in general. People think that elected officials are doing a shit job, and it's hard to argue against that.

To be fair, criticism of Congress comes from both ends of the political spectrum. Right-wingers think the government is trying to take over every facet of their lives, while left-wingers think the government isn't doing enough. But everyone agrees that the people in Washington are clowns at best, and evil, homicidal clowns at worst.

The solution? Replace them all with robots.

I know you can't replace everyone with robots. The House should remain dominated by humans, at least until machines acquire the ability to feel pain and love, but the Senate would be much more efficient, and probably better supported by the populace, if they were robots. The advantages are obvious: no sex scandals, no embarrassing PR gaffs (unlike the late Ted Stevens, the robots would know the internet is not a series of tubes), and they would never make vicious attack ads. Best of all, there would be no filibustering.

In fact, if robots were the only Senators, there would be no campaigning at all. Here's how an election would work:

1. Instead of voting on candidates, voters would go into the booth and decide how they feel about a number of issues. Are you pro-gay but anti-abortion? Do you want your children to pray in school but also support cap and trade? Just check those boxes, and leave a box blank if you don't know what it's talking about--or in the great American democratic tradition, you can let your opinion be known about issues you are totally uninformed about.

2. The Senate robot for your state would be reprogrammed after the election so its views would match those of its constituents, and it would vote accordingly. If you wanted to, you could also introduce a home-state bias so the robots would try to get military bases and corporate headquarters to move to their states, just like the fallible fleshy senators do. Or leave all of that back room politicking to the humans in the House and have the Senate be a realm of pure issues.

3. That's it. The only problem with this system is that if 51 percent of people in 51 percent of the states believe something absurd and dangerous, like "We should go to war with Iran right now," the robot Senate might try to make that happen. So maybe we institute a rule that 55 Senators have to agree on something in order for it to pass. It would still allow more pieces of legislation to be passed more efficiently than the current arrangement, where you apparently need 60 out of 100 Senators to agree on something for it to become law.

The advantages are too numerous to list here, but some benefits of a robot Senate would be an extremely short legislative session (they could decide on every bill in about a minute), and best of all, people wouldn't elect candidates without knowing their positions first. In the current situation, voters elect one party to Congress because they hate the other party and are shocked and dismayed when the new party in power attempts to enact the policies it said it was going to attempt to enact. (I'm talking about the Democrats and their health care policies, in case that wasn't clear.)

What would be the downside to having a robot Senate? Can anyone think of one? Keep in mind that the House would still be human, so legislation and the amendment process would go on as usual, just not as much in the Senate. I guess the robots could suddenly acquire intelligence and force all humans into death camps, but that probably wouldn't happen. Almost definitely not.
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