May 1

Consider Your Source

Let me preface this by saying, I love lots of people with divorces and bankruptcies under their belts. Some of my favorite people have been arrested and gone through rehab. Everyone makes mistakes. Lord knows I make plenty. But I know it. The following is about people who are blind to their own faults, people who screw up regularly, often hurting those around them, and then want to give other people advice.

I have two college degrees.

I’ve been married only once, for going on 20 years now.

I have two happy, healthy, well-behaved kids who love me and their father.

I have a nice house in a safe neighborhood.

I’ve never been arrested or had any charges or lawsuits brought against me, including divorce or bankruptcy.

My husband and I are saving up for our kids’ college educations as well as our own retirements.

Am I proud? Well, sure. A little. I’d say about 50% of these achievements came through hard work and thoughtful decision-making.

But I know the other 50% had nothing to do with me. It was a combination of privilege, luck, and help from other people. The fact that I was born to two college-educated, middle-class American professionals who loved each other and their children? That was luck. Because of my privilege as a white, middle-class kid whose parents had been through the university experience, I was able to breeze through school and attain my college education in four years with no debt.

The fact that I fell for a brilliant, hard-working guy who was determined to build a comfortable, loving home for his family? That was mostly luck and some help from a friend who introduced us.

The fact that I’ve never been in any legal trouble? Well, it certainly helps that my parents set great examples for me. That they provided me with everything I needed so I never felt the need to seek acceptance, confirmation, confidence or really anything else in drugs, risky relationships, or other bad choices.

The fact that we have a nice house and some solid investments? Again, help from my parents who paid for most of my college expenses. (And luck, of course. All that could disappear with another nasty financial crash.)

I had help from some good people.

I KNOW from good people.

I take advice from good people – people who know what they’re talking about because they have proven expertise and experience.

So when people with NO such expertise or positive experience give me advice, I bite my tongue. When people with a track record of terrible decision-making try to tell me what decision to make, I often do the opposite of what they’ve suggested. Interestingly, it’s the folks with a long history of failures who seem to want to offer advice most often. I suppose they have to justify all their mistakes somehow; they tell themselves that all these missteps have made them wiser. They, therefore, feel justified in sharing their acquired wisdom.

Except that many of these people often keep making bad choices.

From where I’m sitting, most of them don’t look seem to have learned anything.

I nod and smile. Walk away. I’ll stick with what I know works – thoughtful decision-making, advice from the successful people I trust.

All this to say: consider your source. Always.

Consider your source.

You wouldn’t buy a Rolex from a seedy-looking guy in a trenchcoat, right?

Don’t take medical advice from an electrician.

Don’t take legal advice from a plumber.

Don’t take ethics advice from (or vote for!) a guy with multiple bankruptcies, lawsuits, and divorces.

Consider your source.

February 13

The Problem with Sherlock (Holmes)

Since the end of the BBC’s season 3 of Sherlock, the blogosphere’s been buzzing like angry bees from one of Holmes’s hives. “Too sentimental!” “Too unrealistic!” “Sherlock’s gone soft!” “High-functioning sociopath we can deal with, but murderer?!”

True, Mom and Dad Holmes may have overstayed their welcome in season 3. Although Mr. and Mrs. Cumberbatch were adorable and quite good, perhaps Sherlock should’ve shooed them out of the season altogether when he shooed them out of 221B Baker Street. “Delayed action stabbing?” A super-fine blade slipped through a heavy-duty, military-grade, wool uniform? Stretching our credulity a bit. And so much sweetness this season with the addition Mary, the precocious little Archie in “The Sign of Three,” Christmas at the Holmes’ house. Only to have the sweetness snatched away to be replaced by the unexpected bitterness of a hero-turned-killer?! What’s going on?!

Fellow Sherlock fans, I beseech you to keep calm.

Nothing that happened this season is out of step with the rest of this magnificent series. Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss are staying true to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle and sticking with the paradigm that has made this show the closest representation of Doyle’s books ever brought to screen.

The problem of all screen adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories is one of perspective. In the novels and short stories, we perceive Holmes through the eyes and voice of John Watson. Most of the work is in the first person, with Watson playing narrator. It is brilliantly done. Without Watson as the reader’s intermediary, Sherlock Holmes would never have become the icon he is today. To his contemporary audience, Holmes would’ve been insufferable. Rude, self-absorbed, impatient, monomaniacal, at turns lazy and crazed, Holmes would hardly have appealed to most Victorians on his own.

That’s where Watson comes in. The Dr. John Watson of the books (and happily, Martin Freeman’s John Watson) saves us from being subjected to Holmes directly. Smart, brave, loyal, adventurous, Watson represents the kind of man Victorian Britons aspired to be. He’s a successful doctor and a decorated military veteran. In short, he’s a good man. Dr. Watson is admirable, and he admires Sherlock Holmes. We hear only those things about Holmes that Watson finds fascinating, and we hear those things in Watson’s voice. We see Holmes through Watson’s lens, somewhat clouded by amazement, confusion and, let’s face it, some hero-worship. But it works beautifully, and the result has been 130 years of Sherlock Holmes, flourishing and adapting to new audiences, new settings, and new media.

Which brings us to Sherlock.

Like all other screen adaptations, Sherlock has had to deal with the problem of perspective. Unlike a book, in which the narrator is responsible for what the reader sees and hears, on film, the audience gets a direct feed. Watson is still there with us, but he’s no longer standing between Holmes and us. He’s one of us, an observer; he’s lost his ability to protect Holmes for our prying eyes.

Admirably, Sherlock has not resorted to the merely 7% effective solution so many other adaptations have taken. To soften Holmes, many productions turn Watson into comic relief; he becomes a chubby, walrus-mustachioed clown. (Moffatt and Gatiss had some fun with that convention this season, giving Freeman a much-maligned and short-lived mustache worthy of Nigel Bruce.) But this tactic is unfair to Watson, Holmes, and Doyle. Watson is not a fool; he’s a doctor. He’s not clumsy or oblivious; he was a soldier. What’s more, Holmes would not suffer a fool. He has very little patience for stupid people (or normal people!), so it would be incongruous for him to want a silly man as a companion. Doyle never wrote foolishness into Watson’s character. Any comedy in the stories usually comes from Holmes’s snide remarks about silly people around them.

A few productions, most recently, those with Robert Downey Jr., have tried a different strategy – turning Holmes into comic relief himself.  Downey hams it up, using his big, brown eyes to great effect. And the movies use quite a bit of physical humor to keep Holmes from intimidating the audience too much. Of course, adding some sexual innuendo in the form of Irene Adler keeps things light as well.

Sherlock has used the Irene Adler trick too, but one of the things I love about this series is its Watson. Martin Freeman’s doctor is as close to Doyle’s doctor as I have ever seen. The character is brilliantly written and acted.

And therein lies a problem.

Without a foolish Watson, Sherlock’s Holmes is intimidating, awkward, bipolar, manipulative, even vicious. At times, Cumberbatch’s spot-on performance can be difficult for even modern TV audiences to watch. Many bloggers remarked on the painful awkwardness of “The Sign of Three,” with Holmes’s awful, rambling best man speech. Well. Yes. Of course, it was. It would be.

Without turning Watson into a buffoon, Gatiss and Moffatt have used a number of foils to tone down Sherlock’s hard edges. Irene Adler, of course, cleverly represented as a female Holmes. James Moriarty gave us a truly evil Holmes. Mycroft is “the ice man” version of Holmes. Magnusson was the amoral capitalist version of Holmes. These foils have worked well, helping the audience realize that, yes, Holmes may be a high-functioning sociopath, but by comparison with Mycroft, Moriarty and Magnusson, he’s a swell guy.

Season 3 was no less true to the formula Gatiss and Moffatt have developed to stay faithful to Doyle’s vision: Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a horribly abrasive genius; Freeman’s Watson is smart and solid. Foils were used to make Holmes appealing by comparison. Knowing their hero had to kill Magnusson at the end of the season, Gatiss and Moffatt may have overbalanced a little, but not much. Holmes’ execution of the villain is not that big a shocker. Magnusson, like Milverton in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” had to die. In Doyle’s story, Holmes watches the villain’s murder, does nothing to stop it, and prevents Watson from turning in the killer. To actually pull the trigger is not much of a stretch. So all the cute and sweet this season perhaps wasn’t necessary for modern audiences, but it was certainly true to the formula.

Even the “delayed action stabbing” is not so bad when you remember how faithful Gatiss and Moffatt are to Doyle. Yes, such a method of killing someone is unrealistic. But then, Doyle’s stories are not always steeped in real science either. Phrenology, anyone?

For those Sherlock fans who are also Sherlock Holmes fans, this season was not so problematic perhaps as for those who see the show in its own self-contained bubble. Still, those who are concerned that the show is devolving should take solace. It is being quite true to a successful formula, and it is still one of the best things on television.

Fans of the books, however, may be starting to fear that, at the rate the show is burning through Doyle’s storylines, can it really last much longer?

December 13

10 Life Lessons I Learned from Becoming a Writer

I’ve been trying to become a writer since I was in 1st grade. After 35 years, you’d think I’d have it down. But as with any career, writers learn new things every day. (Just the other day, I learned the word “cenotaph!” I’ve yet to work it into a conversation, though.)

Anyway, some lessons about writing are small: noun-verb agreement, proper pronoun usage, remembering the difference between “effect” and “affect.” (Never can get that one right, but who cares?)

But some lessons are big ones, better learned earlier than later. And of these lessons, some of them are about more than just writing; they’re about life. Here are 10 that direct not only what I put on the page, but also what comes out of my mouth on a daily basis, what I do with my time, how I set my priorities.

  1. Sticks and stones break bones; words break hearts.
  2. Don’t write angry.
  3. The Creator made them, but he gave the characters minds of their own.
  4. Always check your sources!
  5. A great work is never completed; it is only abandoned.
  6. If you need to achieve something, don’t be paralyzed by the notion that it needs to be perfect in the first pass: Do something now! Revise it later.
  7. The story is dull without a little conflict.
  8. Always remember your audience.
  9. Correcting a grammar mistake in a professional or widely distributed message is a courtesy; correcting a grammar mistake in a friend’s conversation is just bitchy.
  10. Truly important issues should not be reduced to epigrams and sound bites.
Category: Academic Intellectual Erudition | Comments Off
June 20

From Mo Willems to Thomas Pynchon with Some Pitstops Between

I read constantly. Anything. Everything.

I read for my job – academic articles, nonfiction books, textbooks, literature and lots of student papers in any and all subjects.

I read online – mostly news from the various feeds to which I subscribe: BBC, NPR, ABCNews.

I read to my children – everything from Mo Willems to Jeff Kinney to J.K. Rowling.

Occasionally, I even get to read for my own enjoyment. Between September and May, I usually collect 10-20 books I think would be entertaining. And in the summer I read as many as I can before school starts and I’m back to reading for work.

When I get to choose my own books, I love historical fiction. Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” and Glen David Gold’s “Carter Beats the Devil” were lots of fun. I also like straight history, though I prefer it on the dark side: “Sex with Kings” by Eleanor Herman (2005) was fascinating.

Comedy and satire are great for the summer as well. The amazing Carrie Fisher has written two disturbingly funny autobiographies – “Wishful Drinking” and “Shockaholic” that I highly recommend. Jon Stewart’s “America: The Book,” Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America and So Can You,” and all the late, great George Carlin’s books made me laugh out loud.

And I’m not one of those literary snobs who turns up their noses at popular fiction. I’ve read some Stephen King, some Anne Rice, and some John Grisham. And my guiltiest pleasure (don’t tell the PhD’s in my literature department!) is Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, all of which are hilarious.

Reading is my life.

So the first time, I picked up a book and simply couldn’t get through it, I felt like a failure.

The book was “The Bridges of Madison County.” A sorority sister had recommended it, let me borrow it, and she was all aglow about how wonderful it was.

I forced my way through the first chapter. It was awful. I put it away for a few days. Tried again. Still terrible. The plot was okay. The characters were mildly interesting, but the style was so overblown and romanticized, I felt like gagging. I gave up, read a synopsis of it so I could report back to my sorority sister, and returned the book to her. I don’t remember much about the story.

The experience of having to abandon a book, however, left an indelible impression. I was in my early 20’s, and I’d never given up on a book before. The very idea of doing so seemed like heresy. I’d grown up in a house full of great books, so I’d never really even considered that some books just weren’t that great.

It happened again about two years later. I was dating a guy who was really into fantasy fiction, and he was aghast that I hadn’t read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I’d read “The Hobbit,” and it had been alright, so I picked up “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

I couldn’t get through it.

It reminded me of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” which I’d had to read for a college course, full of so many characters with their own backstories and quests and missions, I needed a chart to keep them all straight. And all the characters’ names started with “A” and ended in “N.” Honestly! There are 26 letters in our alphabet, Dr. Tolkein! Couldn’t you have used some of the rest of them? And I didn’t even have any markers, any recognizable landmarks I could employ to keep all these characters, places and histories straight because it was ALL make-believe.

I got about a third of the way through before I threw the book across the room. (I think another “A—n” character had just been introduced.) The guy dumped me about two weeks later.

Then there was “The Crying of Lot 49.” I was in grad school and a little embarrassed by my ignorance of 20th-century American literature. I shamefacedly asked my advisor for some recommendations, so I could do some outside reading and catch up to my peers in my cohort. He quickly jotted down some names: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Vonnegut, and Pynchon. I powered my way through a couple of each author’s works and came to the conclusion that I was born in the wrong country. (I much prefer British fiction to American, in general.) Then I picked up Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49.”

Yuck.

I hated every character in the first half of that novel. Maybe there was a redeemable human being in the second half, but I’ll never know. I sold it in a garage sale for a quarter.
Many years later, I ran into “Twilight.” Everyone was raving about this series being the “next step from ‘Harry Potter.'” I’d loved the Harry Potters, and I did a lot of graduate work on “Dracula.” Vampires were right up my alley.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe in glittery vampires. Not that I ever got that far in the book. (I only know Meyer’s vampires glitter because Twilight film fans say so.) Nope, her writing style was what turned me off. If she’d been in one of my composition courses, I’m not sure she would even have earned a C.

And then there was “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I wanted to like this book. It’s dark. It’s mysterious. It’s weird. The guy who wrote it seems like an amazing man. But it suffers a combination of Lord of the Rings and Thomas Pynchon problems. I can’t keep the characters straight, and I don’t really care if I do. Maybe it’s the English translation, but it feels so aloof, distant, cold and well, boring. I got through three chapters. It’s been sitting there with it’s mocking bookmark for about 6 months now. I might try again.

For me, the worst sin an author can commit is to be self-absorbed, self-important, self-centered. And in different ways, each of these books is the result of that that sin. Some authors commit it through style: “I’m such an amazing writer – just look what I can do with the WORDS! Oh, you can’t follow them? Well, that’s your problem! Stupid reader.”

Some commit it through overkill: “Look at all the fantastical, complicated characters, places and mythologies I can invent! No, I will NOT provide you with any means of anchoring them and keeping them all straight. Stupid reader.”

And some, especially in post-modern American literature, commit it through character development: “I’m going to create all these broken, soulless, irreparable characters to illustrate how ruined our modern society truly is. What? You can’t identify with them? You’re not supposed to! You’re just supposed to appreciate my amazing work, and I don’t care if you don’t care what happens to the characters. If you don’t want to invest time in my brilliant output, then you’re stupid, reader.”

It’s a fine line. I’ve written novels. I don’t presume to be anywhere near Tolkein or Pynchon or Larsson. But I am an excellent reader. I know other writers who have done very similar things and done them better. Tolkein could learn a thing or thirty from J.K. Rowling. (And Meyer, read some Anne Rice, for God’s sake!)

And yet, these abandoned books haunt me. I may have to go look at “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Just one more time.

November 27

The Merry Christmas Kool-Aid

Its that time of year again.

Time for viral Facebook statuses repeating the Fox News talking point that the liberals have declared war on Christmas. Time for angry letters to the editor claiming that the writers right to freedom of religion or freedom of speech has been infringed upon, and they have somehow been stopped from wishing everyone they encounter a Merry Christmas. Oy vay.

Im only going to say this once: There is no war on Christmas.

To claim such a war exists is to betray such an ethnocentric blindness as a sane person would be ashamed to admit. If you could convert to Judaism, Islam or Buddhism for the month, youd see just how ridiculous this claim actually is. For example, off the top of your head, do you know when Hannukah is this year? I bet your Jewish friends know when Christmas is.

So the victims of this war seem to suffer from an inability to keep government, business, and religion separate. Not a surprise, since they usually want to combine the three when its convenient to them. But government really has little to do with their complaints. Sure, every year a few local governments run into opposition to a Nativity on the town square. Overall, though, governments have traditionally said and done little to address, let alone limit, expressions of Christmas spirit. The federal government, to its credit, has kept its nose out of the debates as best it can. I’ve yet to see a law anywhere to prohibit anyone from saying “Merry Christmas.”

The Fox News crowds real anger should be directed at corporations. Every year, the issues that honk off the Religious Right arise in big companies, those darlings of American conservatives. I always get a kick out of the righteous anger Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target can drum up when they ask their employees to say Happy Holidays (or when they publish ads in Spanish!) from the very same folks who claim to want nothing but free rein for these job-creators! But big companies know their customers. They know not all their customers are Christian, and no good capitalist venture wants to offend any of the people who spend American dollars in their stores! Happy holidays is not meant to limit employees right to free expression or religion; its just smart business (much like these companies decisions to open at midnight on Thanksgiving, despite the inconvenience to their employees). Hey, folks, if you want your big companies to make lots of money and be unregulated, theyre going to do whatever it takes to keep their customers content.

One of the things that really disturbs me about these war-on-christmas claims is the ignorance it reveals about Christians own religious history. Christmas is, and always has been, the greatest outreach program ever devised by the Catholic Church. True Christian conservatives, however, did not like the idea originally. When Christmas was initially established by church leaders under Emperor Constantine in 336 AD, conservative church leaders such as Origen, cried foul. To celebrate the birth of a deity smacked of Egyptian polytheism, conservatives claimed. Christmas was derided by conservative leaders as a contrived holiday, a cheap means of pandering to pagans so they would convert more docilely. More liberal Christian heads prevailed, arguing that, by celebrating Christs birth around the same time as the pagans already celebrated the solstice, the Church could make Christianity more appealing. It worked beautifully, and it will continue to work if we dont try to shove it down everyones throat.

So my fellow Christians, heres a radical idea: Think before you speak.

Say whats appropriate for your situation and audience. If youre talking to me on Christmas Day, say Merry Christmas! Please do. Ill return the sentiment whole-heartedly. But if youre a Wal-Mart greeter working on December 21st, saying Happy Hannukah to everyone isnt going to go over well. Neither should Merry Christmas simply because you dont know what every person walking through that door celebrates on that day. Ill be saying, Happy Holidays to my students when they leave campus on December 12. Not just because I know some of them are Jewish and Muslim, but also because Id like to include Christmas Eve and New Years in the equation. And if I see you and know you share my faith on December 24th or 25th, I will greet you with a very hearty Merry Christmas.

[Need more info? See Christianity Today,The Catholic Encyclopedia, The God Article, The Fat Pastor, or my previous entry on the topic.]