Note to April: Good Riddance

Don’t tell April I said this, but it was without much doubt one of the most aggravating months I’ve had in a very long time. Parts of it were good, particularly with By The Way, which has become a lot more flexible and fun now that AOL Journal entries have an expanded character limit; this lets me do a lot of more interesting stuff. And I have a few other projects that are simmering along, some of which should pop soon. I will of course keep you informed.

But other parts were less than fabulous, in no small part due to both physical and technological screw-ups. The allergy season this year has really knocked me for a loop and has caused be to become unmoored from time, space and emotional constancy, which is alas a self-defeating cycle: Being tired and cranky and off my schedule makes me work less and less effectively, which in turn makes me crankier. Repeat for about 30 days. I’m emerging out of the allergy tunnel in no small part due to finally accepting the obvious (dude, you got allergies), and cracking open a box of the over-the-counter version of Claritin and taking one of the pills a day.

The technology aspect of it is tricker. Aside from April showers bringing horribly inconvenient satellite Internet outages, I’ve come to the conclusion that e-mail is finally and completely screwed. Thanks to spam, and the resulting needed-but-capricious spam filters that have risen in their wake, I am no longer in the slightest bit confident that the mail I’m sending is getting received. or if it’s loitering in a spam box somewhere among the viruses and the ads for erection boosters and anti-depressants. Likewise I’m almost certain that people attempting to reach me are sending e-mail I’m not getting.

I guess in one sense it’s nice: “Your e-mail was in my spam filter” is now to e-mail what “I’m going into a tunnel” is to cel phones — a convenient excuse to not talk to someone. But damn it, I want to talk to people. Earlier this month it took about four tries to get a single document to one of my book editors, and even through I know he finally got that e-mail, I’m not at all sure he got the e-mail immediately after it, in which I sent him three book ideas. I want to be sure he got it but at the same time I don’t want to look unduly pathetic and neurotic. If I’m to look pathetic and neurotic, I want it to be for something I’m actually pathetic and neurotic about, not over whether a friggin’ e-mail has arrived. Curse spam for making me look more emotionally needy than I really am.

(I’m solving my problem here, incidentally, because I know this particular editor and/or his spouse read the Whatever. Yes, it’s pathetic and neurotic to do it this way, too. But what are you going to do.)

Long story short: Some geek better build me better e-mail and fast, because I literally can’t work if e-mail gets any more screwed up than it is. It’s bad enough some jerk-off wants to make money splotzing ads for bestiality photos into my e-mail box; when the consequence of doing so is that my business gets harmed because I can’t reach people through e-mail and they can’t reach me, well, that’s when I entertain notions of setting up a collection for hitmen to visit the spammers in their dank Florida doublewides. Honestly. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already.

These two factors (among others with which I won’t bore you) made April horribly frustrating; every time I felt like I had a bit of momentum going, it’s like my legs got poleaxed from under me. The good news is that I did get most of everything I needed to get done, done; the bad news is I can’t say that this was accomplished by any agency other than sheer chaotic thrashing. Earlier this month, someone sent me an e-mail asking me how I managed to find the time to do everything I do. This last month I was very much wondering that myself.

May. May shall be different, in no small part because I don’t have much choice in the matter at this point. I burned off all my margin time in April by sneezing and try to keep a satellite connection open; as a consequence May does not offer me time to dick about. I will be organized out of necessity, which is frequently the only organization I manage. But, whatever works.

This means, of course, that I now have just over four hours to screw around. I better get to it.

Aw, Go Fly a Kite!

Well, okay.

This is one of the nice things about working from home. You can take a kite break when necessary (and it is necessary).

Athena’s home because of a dental appointment today; she had to have a tooth extracted because an adult tooth was coming up in back of it. So she’s having a day of Jell-O, ice cream and distractions like this. Let’s hope she doesn’t get used to it. We don’t want her voluntarily losing any more teeth.

Athena’s Mix CD

I think that one of a parent’s more minor but nevertheless important responsibilities is to make sure his or children grow up with a love of music that doesn’t totally suck, and that while allowing for a child’s own emerging musical tastes, one can work within those tastes to present that child songs that are worth listening to. Just as one doesn’t one’s child to go to kindergarten unprepared to read and write, one also doesn’t want to send her off to school at be at the mercy of the cheesebag Nick-bands of the third graders like Play or Dream Street (actually, Dream Street is waaaay dead. Yet Play somehow survives. Terrifying), or — worst of all — the Geneva-Conventions-flaunting Kidz Bop CDs. Not my child. Not this day.

With that in mind, allow me to present the Athena Mix CD. This CD Mix features songs selected after general observation of music she already likes, a wide selection of tunage that nevertheless has some things in common. For example, she prefers cheerful to not, she prefers a driving beat to ballads, she (slightly) prefers women’s voices to men’s, and perhaps not atypically for a five year old, she prefers songs that have damn catchy choruses that she can pick up in a snap. So here’s what we have:

1. That Ain’t Bad — Ratcat: Athena shows an affinity for punky pop, so this underrated early 90s gem from an equally underrated Aussie punk band fits the bill just fine.

2. Believe — Cher: It’s got a nice beat, and you can dance to it. And if you’re going to expose your kid to a dance diva, why not the one that’s survived over four decades. A positive role model, just not in the “plastic surgery” sense.

3. Come Give Me Love — Sparkledrive: Obscure band, but insanely catchy girl-fronted pop rock.

4. The Whole of the Moon — Mandy Moore: Off of Moore’s Coverage album, on which she also covers XTC, Joe Jackson, Blondie, and Joan Armatrading, and doesn’t do a horrible job of it. Anyway, it’s doubtful Athena would dig the original version of the song, and rather more likely she would dig this version, and the song is fabulous, so why not?

5. Take a Chance on Me — Erasure: Exactly the sort bubbly pop she’ll dig, and I prefer that if she must be exposed to ABBA, why not by way of Erasure, whose bright techo-pop flavorings are already part of her musical vocabulary?

6. When I Grow Up — Garbage: Athena already likes Garbage, and I think she’ll enjoy singing along to the chorus. What fun it will be when she sings the chorus (“When I grow up, I’ll be stable”) to all her new friends at kindergarten!

7. It’s the End of the World as We Know It — REM: Like everyone else in the known universe, she’ll flub the verses and shout out the chorus.

8. All Star — Smashmouth: Old Reliable. The first song she danced to as an infant; she’d just wiggle back and forth. It was cute you might bleed from the eyeballs.

9. Why Does the Sun Shine? — They Might Be Giants: A fun song, but also scientifically correct! Well, mostly; it seems to suggest the sun undergoes a CNO fusion cycle when in fact the sun is not nearly massive enough for that, But I quibble. I’m pretty sure that Athena’s already the only kid going into her kindergarten who will be able to name most of the planets in the solar system, but I’d bet money she’s the only one that will be able to tell you that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a giant nuclear furnace, where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees.

10. Walla Walla — Offspring: Offspring is another one of Athena’s favorite bands (she digs “Why Don’t You Get a Job” and “What in the World Happened to You?”), so this is more of what we know she likes. I acknowledge Offspring is a controversial choice for a five year old (the band is not shy about profanity), but Athena is smart enough to know which words not to say and also I think it’s not a bad sign to signal to your kid that you trust her to enjoy music without worrying that she’s going to spout profanities afterwards. Be that as it may, the band’s song “Bad Habit” is not going to be on any playlist of Athena’s anytime soon. Also, of course, if Athena brings any little friends home and chooses to listen to tunage, Offspring mysteriously disappears from the playlist. This is the advantage of having all the music in the house streaming off my computer.

11. Our Lips are Sealed — Go-Gos: Do I really need to explain this choice? I didn’t think so.

12. Kid — The Pretenders: Athena adores “Stop Your Sobbing,” so I figure she’d also dig this.

13. Connection — Elastica: Short, fast, and that fast-descending bass note is going to go over really big.

14. Perfect — Fairground Attraction: One of Athena’s more surprising favorites is a version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” so I’m taking a chance that Athena will dig on this, which has a similar jazzy feel. Also, the earlier she learns to adore Edie Reader, the happier I’ll be.

15. I Want You to Want Me — Letters to Cleo: Athena really enjoys this band’s cover of “Cruel to Be Kind,” but the original Nick Lowe version not so much. I figure the same dynamic would be in play with this Cheap Trick nugget.

16. All the Small Things — Blink-182: Athena likes the band already. I thought about putting on “The Rock Show” which I know she would dig, but even with my somewhat relaxed attitude, the line “We don’t owe anyone a fucking explanation” is not one I want coming past my daughter’s lips. Not just for the F-word, but because she’s already wondering why she needs to explain herself to us, her parents. We’ll wait until she’s six.

17. Spiderwebs — No Doubt: A song we already know she likes, so I just put it on the CD. It’s the chorus, of course.

18. Adonis Blue — Voice of the Beehive: A mildly obscure 90s band, and I wonder why, since they’re so perfectly poppy it kills you. This is their best song, in my opinion.

19. Everlasting Love — U2: A last-minute addition, and I’m not entirely convinced Athena is going to enjoy it as much as the others. But if she does, it’ll certainly open up more music options; we can start reaching back to 60s pop and Motown. Not to mention, you know, Elvis.

20. Road to Nowhere — Talking Heads: Another risky choice for a five year old (perhaps “Stay Up Late” would have been a better choice), but I think she’ll like the beat, and I don’t mind exposing Athena to a little American Pop Existentialism. Better she get it from David Byrne and friends than someone shady.

Will Athena like all of these songs? Probably not — does anyone ever like all the songs someone else chooses for them? But she’ll like some of them, that’s for sure. I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to: The day Athena makes a mix for me.


They’re adding local channels to my Satellite service, which apparently means I need a second satellite dish in my yard (it has to do with the fact I have satellite Internet. It’s all very complicated). As it has become my understanding of the world that anything that can go wrong with satellite installation will go wrong, I expect to lose my satellite modem connectivity sometime in the next ten minutes. In other words, this is probably all you get today. The good news is, if everything goes well, for the first time since I moved to Ohio, I’ll be able to watch The Simpsons on broadcast TV. It’s worth the aggravation.


Well, isn’t this groovy: Go to Google, type in the word “Whatever” and then hit the “I’m feeling lucky” button. Go on, I’ll be here when you’re done.

Hello again!

Yes, for reasons passing understanding, this is the top listing for the word “Whatever” on the whole Web. This site in general has been the top draw for the word “Scalzi” for years (probably since Google first started indexing), which is entirely understandable as there’s not a whole lot of competition. But I’ve never been the Web King of an entire common pronoun (or adjective, or interjection, depending on context) before. It’s kind of a tingly feeling. I suppose it helps that forwards to a site shilling teddy bears. But I’ll take it! For as long as it lasts, anyway.

I promise to use this power only for good, or in whatever manner amuses me fitfully. One or the other. You never know.

Update: 4/28/04 — My reign of terror is over: is back on top. It was fun while it lasted.

Reader Request Week 2004 Wrapup

Well, I think that once again we’ve had a pretty successful Reader Request Week around these here parts. Credit for this, of course, goes to the Whatever readers; you guys set up the questions, I just knock them down.

Let me also take a moment to remind folks that although I designated last week as Reader Request Week, the fact is that you can send me an e-mail requesting a topic any time you like; I usually enjoy answering reader questions, and as previously mentioned, someone else suggesting a topic saves me the effort of having to think up one for myself. This is a good thing.

I’ll wrap up the week by quickly answering some of the questions I didn’t have a chance to get to this time around:

1. How does humor work? What makes things funny?

2. When you hear a conservative saying that they just don’t find liberal humorists funny, or liberals saying the same thing about conservative humorists, what do you think?

The saying is that dissecting humor is like dissecting a frog — you learn something but the subject tends to die in the process. It’s true. But since you asked: I think ultimately humor is a response things that are surprising and unexpected but won’t actually kill you. It’s your body’s way of letting you know you won’t have to run and/or fight. The same pathways are used for unexpected and surprising verbal associations (i.e., jokes and such), but I think it’s ultimately physical. Which is why we find slapstick so damn amusing. I’m sure someone can build on this from here; I’m equally sure someone else has noted this before. But in case they haven’t, this is Scalzi’s Law of Humor: What doesn’t kill me makes me laugh.

This also explains why some people don’t find people of opposing political viewpoints amusing: They see them as permanently threatening, which shuts off the humor response. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this works across the board: If you want to know what someone truly fears, find out what they don’t laugh at.

As a fourth-year about to graduate from the University of Chicago, I am curious as to how you feel about college, your college experience, the usefulness of a college education (Yes, I realize you can’t get a decent job without it, but does that need to be the case?), etc. now (x) years removed and with a daughter who’ll be a college student in another (x) years.

Interestingly, at this very moment “x” is equal in both cases: 13 years.

Yes, you need to go to college to get a decent job. Not because now you have a better set of skills, but because somewhere along the way employers decided to use a degree as a weeding process to shut the door on people without a college education. There are millions of entry-level jobs in the US whose tasks do not require anything close to the specialized knowledge of a BA, but whose listing nevertheless require them. I figure this is probably as much a commentary on the perceived value of a high school diploma as it is anything else.

I would also suggest there’s something oddly Socially Darwinian about it; the young person who can expend “energy” on costly exhibitions of fitness (i.e., the cost of college and grad school, the lost income opportunity cost of unpaid internships, etc) is perceived to be more “fit” for certain sorts of jobs than others. To put it more bluntly, I expect it’s a way to weed out people who aren’t already well off and/or resourceful enough to get through their early adult lives without any useful amount of money. If you think this is not true, ask yourself how many jobs that used to require a bachelor’s now prefer an advanced degree or some sort of significant intern experience.

Independent of this entirely cynical view of the uses of a college education, I do sincerely believe that college can be a place to “learn to learn,” but that is of course entirely up to the student. Although the friends who actually lived with me through college may disagree, I like to think that the primary thrust of my college education was to explore topics that interested me without regard to the job they would get me later (this was partly because I knew early on I wanted to be a writer and was working in it practically — through the school newspaper and other outlets — independent of my education). As I’ve mentioned over and over, doing this has been immensely helpful in my post-college career; a wide expanse of college-gained knowledge allows me to make associations other people miss, which gives me a creative and business advantage. And of course if you know how to learn to you have an advantage over the schmucks who just went to college to frat themselves out and pick up a business marketing degree on the way out the door.

Where do you think Arnold S. will go after governing California? I know he wants to be president but that’s never going to happen–hope someone’s broken the news to him by now. However, he seems very much to fashion himself a second Reagan or something like. So, where can he go after this?

I think Arnold is likely to become a Senator, don’t you? A socially moderate-to-liberal Republican who still has a core of fiscal conservatism is the kind of Republican I wish more Republicans could be, as opposed to the current bunch in the White House, who are socially sphincter-puckered and think a good fiscal policy is to drill a nice, deep hole in our children’s financial futures. I don’t imagine people will actually get around to passing an amendment to let Arnold become president, but if they did I think he’d very likely be president at some point.

Speaking of microraptors and such, how alarmed are you at the current Age of Extinction? How would you rank it alongside previous deathblows?

Well, it ain’t a comet from space, if that’s what you’re asking.

I think humans need to be mindful of their impact on animal species, primarily because we don’t well understand nature’s cycles, and it’s what you don’t know that wipes you out. And I think biodiversity is an immensely desirable thing in a planet with life. I do sometimes wonder if some of the more rabid environmentalists are under the delusion that the Earth is in stasis — that every species on the planet today is meant to survive in perpetuity. This is of course not true: Species die all the time on earth without the intervention of a comet, and new species arise. What I think would be interesting and useful to know is what is the mean rate of extinction on the planet (throwing out planetary impacts and the like, which are undoubtedly unrepresentative) and where the current extinction rate falls above or below that mean. Perhaps someone’s done it and I don’t know about it.

In a very large sense I’m not especially worried about humans wiping out life; life is tenacious and whatever humans do to screw up the planet, it’s very likely life will survive in one form or another. It’s highly debatable whether humans will be part of that bit that survives. But if evolution can make elephants, tigers, whales and humans from the tiny mammals around 65 million years ago, it’ll do just fine working with whatever’s left over.

However, if we’d still like to be around for a while longer, we should probably pull our heads out, and figure out what we’re doing.

Will the United States abandon the electoral college in favor of a popular vote for presidential elections in the next century?

No. Why would the states do anything to lessen their already diminished power vis-a-vis the national government? This is a federal system, after all. There’s supposed to be a division of power between states and the national government. If you think 37 state legislatures would ratify an amendment doing away with the college, you are, shall we say, optimistic.

What is possible is that more states will allow their electoral votes to split in order to better reflect the popular vote in that state (I believe one state does this already), but the institution of the electoral college will endure. The only thing I see that would kill the college would be if electors in the college reneged against their promise to vote for a particular candidate and chose someone else instead, thus exposing just how fundamentally not directly democratic the presidential elections system is in the United States.

I’ve been shocked to notice that there are only two references to Australia on your site. This is wrong and must be addressed straight away.

I love Australia as much as it is possible to love a country I’ve never been to and have no family ties with. It is, after all, the country that produced Strictly Ballroom. I should like to visit there (and New Zealand, although probably not on the same trip) and maybe I’ll do that once Athena’s grown big enough to tolerate a 16-hour plane flight. And no doubt Australia will be pleased to know that should I ever decide that I need to leave the US for unspecified reasons, it is in the top three of countries I would flee to (the other two being the aforementioned New Zealand, and also Belize). So good on ya, Australia!

Does Athena owe her name to a relative or was it chosen because you didn’t want her to be sitting in between 2 other “Kayla’s” every year until she graduated high school? And what about those poor misguided souls that give their children a common/popular name but change the spelling just to be different?

We chose it mostly because it was the first girl’s name the two of us could agree upon. Given my educational and cultural biases I’m pleased that it’s the name we chose. If Athena chooses to use her namesake as a role model, I would hardly be disappointed (Athena does actually know about the goddess Athena, although, at five, her comprehension of the august personage is somewhat sketchy). We weren’t specifically looking for a name that no other girl would have, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing not to have more than one kid look up when her name is called.

I don’t get the whole “change the spelling” trend; the only entity in my home whose name spelling is untraditional is Ghlaghghee the cat, and that’s mostly for my amusement; it’s not like I get upset that our vet puts “Fluffy” on her patient sheet. I think the unusual spelling thing is cheap individuality, since “Cindy,” “Syndie” and “Sindyee” will still all look up when one of their names are called. I think it shows lack of effort on the creative front.

Will things like iTunes destroy the way we used to allow songs to “grow” on us, as we tilt toward buying songs that are immediately pleasing? And will the fact that apparently the individual song is increasingly the atomic entity with respect to music distribution, will this kill the idea of the album? And what place classical music in the grand world of downloading, when the paradigm of “Hey, bands, just record your music in your basement!” doesn’t really scale to symphony orchestras?

Well, it’s not like orchestras ever fit into basements. Didn’t stop hundreds of years of symphonies from being written. And when you have the capability of being able to replicate an entire orchestra from a synth, what’s to stop some ambitious person from composing a symphonic score?

Yes, I think iTunes et al will change how we approach music, but it’ll change it back to what it was, say, in 1903, when most music was sold as songs (through sheet music). Albums are a fairly late development in terms of being the accepted basic unit of musical currency. Also, I think we’ve all always tilted toward songs — it’s why even in the era of albums bands always released singles. I’ve mentioned before that I do think the idea of an album meaning “a set number of songs determined by the physical limitations of the recording media” is going out the door, but I think musically ambitious bands will always release suites of thematically-linked songs. Would it be so bad to live in a world where Radiohead or Wilco could release album-length works and Britney and Justin simply released singles? Digital distribution allows for both.

I’ve heard that Californians as a group aren’t held in very high regard in the rest of the U.S. Have you seen much evidence of that since you left? How has your perspective on California changed since moving away? What do you miss about L.A. specifically and/or California in general? (I miss Mexican food.) What are you glad to be away from? Etc.

I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about California or being from California to my face; there is sometimes puzzlement as to why I would leave the vaunted perfect climate and such, but that’s it. I of course love California, and I don’t know that my perspective has changed too much, since whenever I go back I feel very comfortable. I am glad I don’t have to buy real estate there; I can’t even begin to imagine what my four bedroom house on five acres would cost anywhere in California where I’d want to be except to say that I know I wouldn’t be able to afford it. The thing I miss most is In-N-Out Burger. God knew what he was doing when he created the Double-Double with Grilled Onions, Animal Style.

I would be very interesting to hear your thoughts on the European Union. We’re soon going to expand again soon This time taking in a whole bunch of Former Soviet Bloc countries. I have no idea of the American perspective on “the World’s first Democratic Empire” and would very much like to know what the average intelligent American in the (Ohio) field has to say about it.

There is no American perspective on a United Europe; I suspect most Americans aren’t aware of it outside the curiosity of the Euro. And I wouldn’t count on the average American knowing much about the Euro either. This is not an indication of disregard for Europe, just that it’s so outside the realm of America’s day-to-day life as to be irrelevant. We know France. We know Germany. We know England. Can’t we get credit for that?

I’m interested to see how the whole EU thing turns out, personally. I think to some extent you’re reliving the same issues that the soon-to be US dealt with early on, when there was tension between “small” (low population) states and the larger ones. For your part you have tensions between the industrialized richer Western nations, and the less-well-off but probably more ambitious Eastern states. I also believe that (as with the US) to make the EU work you’re going to need a strong “national” government, but unlike the US you’ve got a couple millennia of existing national identities to deal with, which is going to make your life a real pain in the ass.

Also, as I understand it, your constitution is large enough to kill a yak if it were to fall on one. You can print our constitution on a single pane of newsprint — and yet, look how many lawyers we have! If I were you I’d make sure my children became lawyers. They will never go hungry with your proposed constitution.

Okay, now I have to go to work. Thanks again, everyone. Let’s do this again soon.

Quick Saturday Observation

Call me a reactionary old fool, but I don’t want to live in an America where people are punished for crank-calling the hated leader of a Communist country on live radio. There, I’ve said it.

Another thought: Anyone else think the increase in the size and frequency of FCC fines looks weirdly like the increase in traffic tickets when some tiny little town is strapped for cash? I mean, the Bush administration has plugged up so many other souces of revenue. It’s got to come from somewhere.

Censorship as a revenue center: Discuss.

Reader Request 2004 #5: Objective Newspeople

For today’s reader request, we go to Dave Schaefer:

Hi John. I’m wondering what you think about the contrast between a journalist or writer’s personal and professional work. The local student paper recently ran an article on why it was a bad idea for journalists to have personal websites or participate in online discussions. The argument was that if a journalist “published” their personal opinions on the web it would reduce their credibility for presenting issues in an unbiased manner.

Any thoughts?

Yeah, I think it’s pretty stupid.

When people talk about journalistic objectivity, people are usually conflating two pretty much separate issues: First: whether journalists have their own opinions. Second: whether the journalist can put aside her own opinions in order to present significant news in an unbiased manner.

Well, obviously, like any other human beings, journalists have their own opinions about things. And call me naive, but I also believe most journalists don’t have a problem leaving their opinions at the door when it comes to reporting facts and events. This comes from my own experience working with journalists on a daily basis. The reporters I worked with for years had their personal opinions and thoughts on things, but ask them if they were promoting a political or cultural agenda and all of them, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, would bristle. Doubting a journalist’s dedication to facts is like doubting a clergyman’s dedication to God. It’s part of the job description. You can’t do the job without it.

Yeah, but what about Jayson Blair? What about Fox News/New York Times/The Washington Times/Insert Your Favorite Slanted Media Outlet Here? Well, Jayson Blair one messed-up puppy; no matter where he was or what he was doing, he would have imploded sooner or later. As much as the blognoscenti likes to imagine our media riddled with Blairs, the fact his pattern of dissembling was exceptional. He’s not representative of the average reporter.

As for slanted media, the question to ask is not necessarily whether the editorial drift of the media outlet goes right or left, but whether the individual reporters get their facts straight. Which is to say: On the article level — the level at which reporters work — are the facts correct? Is the piece well reported? When I lived in the Washington area, I subscribed to the Washington Times as well as the Washington Post; I’m not going to pretend the Times wasn’t blatantly conservative in its story choices, but by and large I didn’t get the feeling the reporters were Republican cogs. Like most reporters, they wanted to get the story correct.

News outlets benefit from oversight; reporters can get sloppy, and the deadline, daily nature of news and the limited availability of newshole (the total amount of space for news in the paper) means that newspapers can print the story in an incomplete fashion (any reporter who’s had several inches of a story lopped off to fit the rest of the story into a tiny newshole will tell you that). But by and large, reporters make the effort to get as much of the truth out there as they can. They all do it. That’s what being a journalist is about.

(Let me slide out here a moment and note that I’m using “journalist” specifically to mean “news reporter,” and that there are a lot of other jobs in a newsroom — critics, opinion columnists and editorial writers — whose jobs are to have opinions, and who cannot be considered reporters in any useful sense, even if they do reporting as part of their gig. When I was at the newspaper, I was one of these folks, and I would never confuse what I did with reporting. Reporting’s a way tougher gig. When they told me they wanted me to do more reporting, I wimped out and left. Point is, accusing these people of having opinions is waaaay dumb.)

I don’t think most people understand that journalists have this fetish for the truth, which is why people accuse them of bias when they have personal opinions, but also get angry with reporters who are assumed to be part of some community but might be writing up a story that’s “harmful” to that community. In both cases, people don’t get that a reporters desire to get to the truth of a story can (and should) override personal opinions and associations, because most people’s jobs don’t require that of them. It’s not driven into most people’s head every workday that it’s something they need to do.

If a reporter is doing his or her job diligently, I couldn’t care less about his or her politics, race, religion, sexual identity or taste in music — nor would I care about his or her blatherings about any and all of the above online. As that’s the case, I say let them say and do whatever the hell they want.

And now, having issued that blanket statement, let me issue the absolutely critical caveat: Whatever your beat is as a reporter (or, actually in any newsroom gig), stay away from talking about that outside of your work capacity, and for God’s sake don’t work for those you cover. When I was a film critic, if I were ever to have consulted for film companies, I should have been fired. If I’m a political reporter covering a national campaign, I can’t be working for one of the parties. Financial columnists shouldn’t invest in the companies they cover; they should stick to index funds (as, frankly, should most of us). And reporters should always disclose conflicts. This is something I think most people who’ve ever spent time in a newsroom should do reflexively. I mean, I’m not a reporter, especially here, but every time I make mention of AOL (which is not often), I automatically note I’m on their payroll. If these things are done, by and large I think everything will work out reasonably well.

Media outlets, of course, are overcautious and will prefer to have their writers withdraw from public life in all ways. When I was a film critic, I went to City Hall to support a friend of mine whose nightclub was having some problems with the city. When I spoke in support of my friend, the first thing I did was note that I was there as an individual and in no way representing either the newspaper or the company which owned the paper. Then I said my piece and left. When I got into the newspaper, my managing editor called me in and told me I shouldn’t have done that. Well, clearly, I think that’s dumb. The nightclub had nothing to do with my beat, and the owner was my friend. I think I did the right thing, and I don’t suppose I’d have a problem doing it again. I understand my editor’s issue, but he was overreactive.

If I got another full-time newspaper or magazine gig, I doubt that I’d give up the Whatever, although I would stop writing about things relating to my beat (If I got a full-fledged column I would probably stop writing the Whatever because what I do here I’d do there). But I wouldn’t stop having opinions the moment I joined a newspaper, and I don’t see much value in pretending that I did.

Racist Backtracking at its Finest

I thought I’d elevate this out of the Unassimilated Hispanic Menace comment thread, mostly because I find it amusing to watch racists wriggle. Be warned there’s some bad language coming up.

Let me first note that by and large, the comments in the thread there have been interesting and thoughtful, as is par for the course for the Whatever readers and commentors. But occasionally someone likes to come by and be a feculent, draining asshole. Meet “Mark,” who came over by way of Drudge Retort, which had posted a cropped picture of Athena as part of a link back to the entry. Mark felt compelled to come over to say:

“Cute little wetback girl. I wonder if she’ll grow up to do donkey shows like her whore mother.”

To which I responded:

“Probably not, Mark. She’s not your sister.

Further note to the folks who wish to display their flagrant and abject racist stupidity: Try to have a little more creativity about it, please? If you’re going to be a flagrant racist asshole, you need to stand out from all the other flagrant racist assholes out there. Try to exhibit a little style. I know, it’ll be difficult, given the general inability of your neurons to fire on a regular pattern. But do make the effort, why don’t you. ”

Mark then backtracked:

“Sorry. Didn’t realize she was your daughter. My apologies.

I’m outta here! Best wishes!”

This implied he was leaving, so I was content to leave it alone. But it appears he did in fact not leave, because when Phillip J. Birmingham made the cogent comment:

“Yeah, because it’s okay to spew vile insults about little girls if you don’t know anybody they’re related to, right?”

The presumed-disappeared Mark responded with:

“Depends what race they are.”

To which I responded:

“Try the human race, Mark.”

Which apparently prompted the following backtrack from Mark:

“Well, race isn’t so much a factor than is culture. Some cultures raise children that are destined to be criminals. The black culture in the U.S. for example. It’s a culture that embraces failure as success and sees success as failure. It’s really not genetic that this will happen. It’s a cultural problem that is embraced by the colored folks here in the U.S.

To succeed in life is to be labeled an ‘Uncle Tom’ or as ‘giving into whitey.’ When a black is successful, he/she ‘loses’ his race and is labeled a sellout (e.g., Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, C. Rice, etc.) It’s a shame that blacks are so racist against their own race.

So, no. I am not a racist.”

I responded:

“Otherwise known as the ‘there’s black people, and then there’s n—ers’ argument, which in my experience is usually offered by people who want to find a plausible way to try to dodge their racism, and usually aren’t fooling anyone with it.

I agree that’s there’s a cultural strata that tends to look down on its members doing better, but in my experience it has far less (indeed, near to nothing) to do with race and quite a lot to do with economics and education; in other words, poor and willfully ignorant people of all colors, creeds and nationalities will strike out at others doing better, even within their demographics. White trash don’t much cotton to their own puttin’ on airs, either, and I say that as a former recipient of tubs of government cheese.

So, yeah, Mark, you still smell like a racist to me. Of course, you tipped your hand the moment you called my daughter a wetback and my wife a whore. I hope you’ll understand I find it very unconvincing for you to try to backtrack from that. ”

Which earns a denial, a backtrack and a second denial, because Mark’s all about value:

“I never called your daughter a wetback nor your wife a whore. Well, if I did, it was unintentional for your daughter’s picture was posted on a Communist website for all the world to see earlier.

Still, I’m not a racist. I am black.”

Which kind of got me going:

“Well, no. You intentionally called my daughter a wetback and my wife a whore, and you intentionally came to my site from another site to do so. You just didn’t realize they were my wife and daughter. Since it’s very clear in the essay that she is my daughter (all those parts where I call her “my daughter” are a dead giveaway), and yet you say you didn’t know that fact, this suggests very strongly that you didn’t read the article, so your only reason to come to my site was that you get some undefined pleasure out of calling little girls racist names wherever you can, regardless of context.

I appreciate that you wouldn’t have called my daughter a wetback and my wife a whore to my face, had you known they were my wife and daughter, nevertheless less you did call my daughter a wetback and my wife a whore. So now I know what you think of my family. Thanks for that information.”

As for the ‘Still, I’m not a racist. I am black” bit, I say:

“Uh-huh. Because it’s not racist to go out of your way to visit someone’s website to call a little girl in a picture a ‘wetback’ if you’re black.”

At which point I closed the thread, because I felt like having the last word there (I can do that, it’s my site) and because I’m elevating the comments here, since they paint such a lovely picture of Mark that I just felt I had to share.

Here’s a helpful note to racists: Please don’t bother trying to pretend you’re not. It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for you, because you’re not fooling anyone. And it’s embarrassing for us. Being in front of someone who is obviously racist and declares that they’re not is like being with a child who has a mouth full of jellybeans yet swears he hasn’t touched the jellybean jar. They’re just so fumblingly stupid and false you hardly know what to say. In the case of Mark, let’s review: Man travels to a Web site he’s never visited before to type a racial slur (and a sexist slur, to boot) about a picture there. But, he’s not a racist. Honestly, I couldn’t be more embarrassed for this fellow. It’s just sad.

It’s not like I want racists puttering around the site — I dislike people who dislike other people purely on genetic grounds, and I encourage them to play in their own vile, badly-plumbed pools of hate and leave me well the hell alone — but look: If you are racist, just have the cojones to own up to it. I won’t respect you any more than if you try to hide it, but at the very least you’ll save us all a lot of time. Be who you are. And then please head back to your racially-pure enclave. Us mongrels have better things to do.


The woman who sent a picture of American caskets from Iraq that ran in the Seattle Times (and was then spread around the Web) got fired for it. You’ll recall the government and the military don’t actually like us thinking about the fact the dead come home in boxes.

Fortunately The Memory Hole used the Freedom of Infomation Act to pry 360 such photos out of the military. So, no one’s going to get fired for this photo:

Personally, I think everyone who has a blog, journal or Web page should take a photo from the gallery over at The Memory Hole and post it. Do this for two reasons: One, to remind yourself that our War in Iraq has a human cost, and whether you were for this war or against it (and you’ll recall I was for it) this is the price we have to pay. Two, to remind the government and the military that it works for us, and we have rights and obligations, which include the right and obligation to be a witness to the cost of war.

Also, make a donation to The Memory Hole. I’ll be doing that myself later today.

Update: As most of you know by now, some of the pictures in the collection are of the dead from last year’s shuttle explosion. Most, however, are of the military dead. Here’s a clarification from the Memory Hole.

Reader Request 2004 #4: Fatherhood and Pie

Today, a two parter from Claire:

1. How has fatherhood changed you? What is your experience like as a father? How has it changed your relationship with your wife?

2. Pie or cake?

Well, first: Pie. All the way. I don’t believe this should even be a matter of discussion.

Now that we’ve got the important subject out of the way, let’s talk fatherhood.

As a practical matter, fatherhood’s changed me in that a large portion of my life is now given over to what can be described as “child maintenance” — the myriad things you do for a kid. For example, later this morning (I’m writing this very early) I and Krissy and Athena will go to the local school so Athena can have her entrance examination for kindergarten, which she starts in the fall. They’ll ask her to do her letters and numbers while they also talk to Krissy and me, I imagine primarily to see if we’re complete parental idiots that they’ll have to work around or not (let’s hope not).

Later in the day I’ll drive out to Athena’s preschool to pick her up and take her home; since Krissy has class tonight, I’ll make dinner for Athena, and afterwards we’ll probably go out and play in the yard, then Athena will take a bath and afterward we’ll either play a computer game together or watch some cartoons. Then Athena is off to bed, and Krissy and I alternate getting her ready for that (tonight’s Krissy’s turn). In between all this are the usual conversations, questions and so on that go on between Athena and me on a daily basis. The kid takes up a lot of time, in other words, and I imagine she will for a long time to come. I didn’t have to do any of this kind of thing before becoming a father; now I do.

Which naturally leads to the question of whether I miss having the freedom of not having a kid. I don’t think so. I mean, I do wish sometimes I had more time, especially when I’ve got deadlines and Athena is bugging me to play with her instead, which I can’t do and which can cause me to become irrationally irritated that my five-year-old doesn’t understand daddy has to work. As if any five-year-old grasps the actual concept of work — and particularly in my case. When daddy works from home and is sitting around in a bathrobe at 5pm, and he’s using the same computer the both of you use to play your favorite pinball game, I think it’s fair to say that the already-fuzzy idea of work becomes even more jumbled. So, yeah, a little more time would be nice. Somebody work on that for me.

But otherwise, I’m very happy with the trade. People who don’t have have kids often think about children as a matter of what they require from you (time, money, attention), which are resources taken away from other things. And this is of course entirely true, but only half the equation, since you also get something from your kids in return. I mean, having a kid is a lot of work, but having a kid is also a lot of fun: The reason parents burble on mindlessly about whatever allegedly amusing damn-fool thing their kid did today is because they’re having a ball raising that child, and all those clichéd moments of domestic gooeyness are, in fact, different when they’re happening to you. Kids are not merely a black hole of needs, sucking away your time, money and youth. They are also entertaining. So long as they’re yours.

I don’t think fatherhood has changed my personality much. Parenthood is famous for gentling a person’s soul, but I don’t feel any more gentle concerning the world than I did before. Anyone who’s read the Whatever over any space of time can see that the vector of my personality is speeding toward bitter curmudgeonlyness with nary a bump in the road. Nor has having a child curbed my often black and inappropriate sense of humor — indeed, I often use my child as a willing (nay, enthusiastic) prop for my own amusement. Let’s review:


Having said that, I will admit that one of the completely annoying after-effects of having a kid is that I become much more quickly emotional over incredibly stupid things. Hell, we were watching Brother Bear last week and I was getting all teary at the ending. I could die. I have no doubt that the 25-year-old version of me would be happy to smack around the 35-year-old version of me for getting weepy over greeting card commercials. But at the very least I am aware of how much of ass I look welling up like a soap star at the drop of a hat. I don’t seek out opportunities to have a good cry, you know. And it’s not like I don’t know that most the stuff gets me verklempt is ridiculous and lame. So I don’t know that this qualifies as a change in personality, rather than a change in response. If you see me getting all choked up at something, feel free to mock me.

I am happy to say that being a father has confirmed some things about me that I had hoped would be true once I became a father. I was delighted (and relieved) to discover that once I learned I was going to be a father, no part of my brain started looking, frantic-eyed, for an exit (one part of my brain started obsessing about death, but that’s not the same thing). I also think it’s strengthened my sense of responsibility; I’m still a flake, but less so than before, and if it came down to having to work as, say, a Wal-Mart greeter to keep my family going, I’d be willing to do it (I have a hard time imagining a world in which the only job available to me was “Wal-Mart greeter,” but that’s the point — it’s an extreme example). And the love I feel for my child is, as presumed and hoped, unfathomably huge. I simply cannot conceive of having a regret that this child is in my life. Nothing in the world has ever brought me closer to the feeling of a higher power than she has from the very moment of her arrival. Yes, this is probably overdramatic to say. But it also happens to be true.

It’s also made me, in public at least, a rather more polite person. If there’s one thing that I and the rabidly childfree are in agreement about, it’s that there are far too many ill-mannered sloth spawn rooting about places where other humans need to be, and the reason they’re ill-mannered is because their parents are complete wastes of protein. Yes, you need to allow for kids being kids, and “public” by and large does not imply “adults only.” Even factoring that in, however, there are still too many obnoxious, horrifying children who need to be mulched along with their parents. I don’t want my daughter to be a mulching candidate, so I’m generally on her in public to be polite. Which means that I have to be polite and set the good example because Athena does definitely cue off what I do. It mostly works in both our cases.

Now, on the flip side, having a child has also made me aware of some of the less attractive aspects of my personality as well. For one thing, I’m lazy and stubborn; sometimes Athena wants to do something with me, and I just don’t wanna. Sometimes I just want to do my own thing, waaaah. For another, I don’t gradiate my anger well; I have a tendency to be very calm as I become progressively irritated and then I suddenly become, well, not calm. This is a decent anger response for adults (it keeps me from saying or doing incredibly stupid things, and most of the time whatever’s irritating me goes away before I go ballistic), but it’s really not great for a kid, especially for kids who (like Athena) take a certain delight in trying to see how much they can get away with before they get in trouble. My problem is that I don’t communicate to Athena that she’s crossed a line until she’s so far over it that she’s not only on the way to Trouble Town, she’s in fact a longtime resident and running for Mayor. As a result, Athena is confused (and a little scared) by a sudden and to her mind inexplicable confrontation with Angry, Angry Daddy. Where did he come from? He wasn’t here two seconds ago! It’s a failing in regards to my daughter. In this matter, I’m trying to make myself more like Krissy, who shows her displeasure quicker but also doesn’t allow herself to get as revved-up as I get.

(In case you’re wondering, the appearance of Angry, Angry Daddy is not followed by a series of beatings. I’m not opposed to spanking, but I also think that you save it for when nothing else works and your child is bent on a behavior that’s going to get her killed — constantly sticking knives in wall sockets would be a good example. Athena is a child who has a sufficient enough learning curve that I can count the number of times Krissy or I have spanked her and still have fingers left over. We are both unbelievably thankful for this.)

As for how being a father has changed my relationship with my wife: Buckle in, kids, because it’s going get sappy. I happen to think my wife is a tremendous mother. For one thing, she’s got a maternal instinct that borders on the terrifying; get between her and her kid and she will gnaw on your heart. If you don’t think I mean this literally, well, I’ll pray for you. For another, she’s always smart with, fair to and respectful of Athena, and as such is a positive model for me as a parent. The realization that she is a great parent on top of all her other qualities reminds me that I hit the karmic lottery in duping her to marry me, and that I’d best be spending the next 50 or 60 years making sure she does not experience buyer’s regret.

All this mushiness aside, the parenthood aspect of our relationship is something of which we’re always mindful. We talk to each other about what’s going on with Athena so we can make sure she doesn’t get conflicting signals from us as parents; when Athena is stressing one of us out the other will swoop in to give the stressed-out one a break; and (I think very importantly), we make sure that Athena sees how much the two of us love each other and also love her. I don’t believe Krissy and I have ever been angry with each other around her (a nice side effect of generally not being angry with each other at all), and any disagreements we do have are generally handled when she’s not around. Athena’s going to have her own neuroses to develop; best not to add to them if we can avoid it.

As with any parents married to each other, we do have to make sure that our entire relationship and life doesn’t revolve around Athena, which means making sure we take the time to spend time with each other. It helps tremendously to have family around for this (family was why I got my ass hauled to Ohio by Krissy, and it was the correct decision on her part), but even just during day-to-day life peeling off some personal time makes a real difference. We also make sure we allow each other time to other things, too. Krissy likes to go out with friends some evenings, and I’ll happily watch Athena so she can do that. Sometimes I like to disappear in my office to write or play a game or read or whatever; Krissy keeps Athena amused and distracted so I can have that time.

It’s just part of the work of maintaining a relationship. But the rewards are significant, in that I I can honestly say I admire and desire my wife more now today than when we didn’t have Athena. All in all, it’s an excellent relationship (from my end at least), and if it’s been changed by fatherhood, I suspect it’s been for the better.

So, in sum: Thumbs up on fatherhood. Lots of work, and lots of reward — the former being integral to the latter. Is it for everyone? Probably not. But it’s for me.

(Want to request a topic for me to write about? Add it here.)

Reader Request 2004 #3: Can Writing Be Taught?

Aurora asks:

It looks like you have already got plenty of suggestions. Anyway here goes:

Do you think that writing can be ‘taught’? Art schools exist without raising eyebrows, but when you mention creative writing courses, people give you sardonic grins.

Heh. You think people don’t raise their eyebrows at the idea of art schools? That’s a very tolerant crowd you run with, Aurora.

When you talk about “teaching writing,” I’m assuming you’re not talking about teaching the mechanics of writing, which clearly can be taught and ought to be taught to every single American citizen, and frankly I’m always flummoxed as to why it’s not taught better. Drives me nuts when people I know are quite intelligent write as if they never passed a grade in school in which the primary writing instrument didn’t come in a box with 63 brethren of varying colors.

Rather, I expect you’re talking about teaching writing in a creative sense, and here I have to say that I suppose you could, and that an aspiring writer could shell out for a degree in something like creative writing, but I don’t how it’s really useful at all. I don’t think much of things like degrees in creative writing or, for that matter, journalism. I’m an anachronistic throwback — an atavist, if you will — but I tend to think of writing as a very practical, blue-collar application. Don’t study it, for God’s sake. Just do it. I took one writing class my entire academic career, a creative writing course which was useful primarily as an object lesson why such classes weren’t particularly useful, and otherwise left that side of academia alone. On the other hand, I wrote constantly for my school newspaper and later for papers and magazines in Chicago. Learning by doing worked for me.

Let me additionally go further and say that I think getting a creative writing or a journalism degree might ultimately be harmful to a writer. Classes that help writers learn specific writing techniques can be useful (I point I’m adding in late, as several folks in the comment thread have noted I’ve ignored this point completely), but if one assumes — as I do — that writers become better writers when they actually experience the world and/or other ways of thinking, getting trapped in an academic feedback loop of writing is pretty damn useless. All you do is hang out with other would-be writers, writing writerly little stories to impress them. You’re not actually learning much about anything or anyone else. My own guess is that this has led to the really fabulously boring world of modern literary fiction, where all the writing is terribly clever but doesn’t actually say anything of consequence to anyone who’s not already a writer or wishing they were. In other words, modern literary fiction is just like sitting in a room full of people who are delighted to smell their own farts. Good for them, but I’d like to go outside, if it’s all the same.

This is why, for my money — literally, as I buy books — the most fun and interesting writing today is done by genre fiction writers, most of whom (anecdotally speaking, based on my own reading) aren’t lifers in an academic writing program, and have been exposed to lives and jobs entirely unrelated to writing. Clearly, there is bad genre fiction (oh my is there ever), but the best genre fiction writers play with ideas and do things with their stories that literary fiction writers wouldn’t dream of. The implication is that this is because literary fiction writers wouldn’t lower themselves to do ‘genre,’ but I suspect some of it may be they just don’t have the imaginative and experiential tools to do it.

I’m on record as being ambivalent to the value of writing workshops, but I will say that of all the “teaching writing” methods, in which a student goes to learn at the feet of whomever, this seems to me the best way to do it, since it’s short (a few weeks at most), it’s immersive, it’s intense and at the end of it you still have to go back to your life — you can’t just add another year of grad school (unless you go to one while you’re in grad school for writing. In which case: What the hell is wrong with you?). You have to be focused in a workshop environment, and I think that’s probably a good thing.

But again, I think the best way to learn writing is simply to do it, send it out, and see what the editors of the various literary outlets you’ve been reading have to say. You’ll learn what they want, what you need to work on, and you’ll be getting the practical benefit of actually writing. And ultimately, that’s how one learns to write: By writing.

Reader Request 2004 #2: The Meaning of Life

Today’s reader request, from Karl:

I would like to know what you think about the question, “what is the meaning of life?”

Is it a good question? Does it have an answer? Do you know it? Is it a stupid question for people that are too anal?

Oh, goody! I finally get to use my philosophy degree.

It’s not a stupid question. I’m not one of those people who subscribes to the theory of “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” because there is, and I submit that in most cases you’re doing a disservice to the person asking the question by not pointing it out. However, this is not one. This does not automatically make it a good question, of course. Like many questions, what makes it good (or not) is the intent behind the question and the willingness to actually consider the response to it. Whether it’s a good question, in other words, depends on you.

The thing that gets me about the question “What is meaning of life?” is that generally the implication seems to be that there is just one meaning to it. That doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like pointing to a multi-hued striped shirt and asking “what color is that shirt?” You can answer by naming one of the colors of the shirt (thus ignoring the rest) or perhaps use technology to find a chromatic mean to all the colors of the shirt and describe that color through the use of Pantone strips or even angstrom units (which tells only what color the shirt would be if you mashed all the colors together — not the same question). If I were presented with a striped shirt and asked to name its color, I would say “You phrased your question poorly. Try again.”

“What is the meaning of life?” is to my mind phrased poorly; it implies all life has the same meaning, which would imply, among other things, that you have the same meaning to your life as your cat or a mat of blue-green algae — and no more meaning to your life than either. Both of these propositions may actually be true — but as with describing a striped shirt by naming one color, that’s not all there is to it.

Also, of course, it implicitly suggests there is meaning to life — which simply may not be the case. “Meaning” is the handmaiden of causality, and while the religiously-minded take comfort in the idea of an agent of universal causation (usually called “God”), as a matter of science, causation is a tricky thing. This is due in no small part to our current limits in understanding the universe. We can get to a near-infinitesimally small fraction of a second before the Big Bang to a point called Planck’s Time, but beyond that point the door is shut; our physical models of the universe fail. Beyond Plank’s Time lies god or randomness or some intriguing combination of the two or something else entirely. But it’s not inconceivable that our universe exists without causation (go see Dr. Hawking for the details), in which case asking for “meaning” for the universe or anything in it (including life) is in the final analysis like asking why chocolate doesn’t breathe avian sonnets. It’s not only a question without an answer, but a question in itself without (heh) meaning.

But let’s make the assumption that the universe has meaning, or at the very least that meaning can be approached in a Gödelistic sense: Fundamentally incomplete but workable within its own parameters. In that case, “What is the meaning of life” is still the wrong question. I would phrase the question: “What are the meanings of life?” This is an answerable question, because I believe there are several answers. And here are some of them, roughly in order of specification:

The Meaning of Life is to Observe the Universe. One of the spookier aspects of our universe is that it reacts to being observed; indeed, some of the stronger flavors of the Anthropic Principle suggest the universe requires observation in order to exist (and if the universe needs life to exist, how could it have existed to create life within it? See, there you go again, getting all hung up on causality).

I’m personally not especially convinced the universe needs life — most versions of the anthropic principle don’t suggest it does, merely that this universe is of a design that supports it — but this is not saying that as long as life’s around, it’s not doing a mitzvah by being observant of its surroundings. Any life will do; most anthropic principles don’t require intelligence, just sense — you don’t have to understand the universe, man, you’ve just got to feel it.

What end is gained by this observation, if not snapping the universe into place? Sorry, that’s another question entirely.

The Meaning of Life is to Make More Life. This particular meaning of life is neutral to other aspects of the universe and considers only what’s good for life as opposed to the rest of the universe. The advantage this particular answer has is that it’s manifestly true: Life, by definition, has within it the capacity to make more of itself and also by definition is compelled by instinct to make more of itself (otherwise it doesn’t remain life for long).

The drawback is that it’s not very satisfying — making more life is fun and all, but at the end of it all you get is more life and none of your existential yearnings fulfilled. Also, you’re still going to die. But, you know. Not every meaning of life is going to be deep. Some are just going to be obvious.

The Meaning of Life is to Create the Meaning of Life. After all, who says we can’t? Look: When you’re born you have no idea what you’re going to be when you grow up, right? You decide over the course of time what you’re going to do with yourself. Same thing here, applied on a much larger scale. It’s not inconceivable that life was created without meaning, a senseless agglomeration of amino acids that just happened to fold themselves into self-replication. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get a meaning. Maybe that’s our job in this universe: To figure it out. It doesn’t matter whether we were given the job by some creator, or just looked around and decided the job needed doing.

The problem here is that there’s no assurance from the universe (or any presumed creator) that we’re giving life the “correct” meaning, or that this meaning won’t turn out to be an ill fit for life — that just as one can hopefully declare one is going to become a ballerina when in fact one is as coordinated and graceful as a drunken tortoise. But, you know, so what. If there’s anything we know about life it is that more often than not there are second chances. If life doesn’t stumble upon a good meaning to its existence the first time around, maybe it will later.

The other problem with this answer is that unless “life” hits upon a meaning in the next 50 or 60 years, most of you reading this will be dead when it’s all figured out. And then a fat lot of good it will do you. Personally speaking I’m not optimistic about life figuring out the meaning in that time frame: It’s had (on earth at least) more than a billion years to get a clue and it’s still grinding its gears. We like to think humans might be able to crack this nut, but look: We can’t even agree about what the hell The Matrix was really about. I love humanity — it’s my favorite intelligent species! — but let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

The Meaning of Life is to Do What We’re Told. This is the religious answer, and no, it’s not meant to be dismissive. Religions come with rules. Rules are meant to be obeyed. That’s one of the attractions of religion; it offers structure. Not only religions offer the religious answer, of course: All sorts of secular philosophies, political platforms and self-help books do the the same. But the added bonus of religion is that usually a reward is offered as a sweetener for following the rules — and among those rewards is often an understanding of what it’s all supposed to be about. If religion is true, it’s quite a deal: Most religions are not so onerous as to be impossible to follow (especially here in the US, with its general tradition of religious toleration), so the risk-to-reward ratio is generally substantially in the favor of the practitioner. If it’s not true, well, you’re no worse off than everyone else who is dead.

I often don’t like how religious people practice their religions (especially when they decide their religious beliefs should be imposed on me through public policy) and as I’ve noted before I don’t subscribe to any religious philosophy. But as a theoretical matter I don’t see any harm in creating a meaning of life through a religious impulse; the fact that religion is ubiquitous suggests it offers something most people want or need (rules and the idea of continuation beyond this universe), and who knows? That impluse may even be correct.

The Meaning of Life is What You Want it to Be. This is the final and most specific answer: It’s not the meaning of life as in “all life everywhere,” or “all humans,” or even “all the people who live in your house,” but the meaning of life as in “the meaning of your life.” And once again, who is to say that creating a meaning of life for yourself isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing? This meaning is specific, involves only one person and will not outlast your own life. But last I checked, “meaning” doesn’t imply permanence. And it doesn’t make it any less true, for the time it lasts.

The meaning of my life is pretty simple: To live my life without regret. But like many simple ideas, the execution is difficult. It means being a good husband and being a good father. It means working hard to support my family. It means doing my best to give others the respect they deserve. It means being involved in the life of my community and country. It means developing a moral system and the backbone to stand for what I believe. It means being to admit I was wrong. It means being willing to forgive (but more often to be willing to ask for forgiveness). It means being a good friend. It means being aware of life and being part of life.

It’s a lot of work, and the real kick in the ass about it is that in a very real sense it’s all process — there’s no reward. Except one, which is in the very last seconds of my life I get to have the knowledge that the life I lived was as good as I could make it. That knowledge, a lifetime in its creation, is likely to last a fraction of a second before I’m gone. It’s the meaning of life as a sand mandala. Will it be worth it? Well, you know. I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. Briefly.

But in the meantime it’s a good way to live (or to try to live — I’m not as regretless as I want to be), and I can genuinely say my life has meaning. It’s not THE Meaning of Life, true enough. But like I said, I doubt there is THE Meaning of Life. It is, however, a meaning of life, and that’s good enough for me.

(Want to request a topic for me to write about? Put it here.)

The Unassimilated Hispanic Menace

“The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves – from Los Angeles to Miami – and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.”

— “The Hispanic Challenge” by Samuel P. Huntington, Foreign Policy March/April 2004

Behold! The Unassimilated Hispanic Menace!

As you can see, Athena is quite busy rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values all around her. Oh sure, she looks like she’s enjoying the Easter egg hunt. But inside she’s a raging cauldron of racial hate! Soon she will dash these eggs to the ground! La Raza! La Raza! Of course she refuses to speak English at home. She speaks only Spanish! It’s a little troublesome, since the only words she knows in Spanish are the numbers from one to 15, but if you think that’s stopping her, you just don’t understand the recalcitrant nature of The Unassimilated Hispanic Menace! On your knees, White America!

Yes, in fact, Athena is Mexican. She’s also American Indian, Italian, Irish, Welsh, English, German, French and Dutch. She’s got a grandmother who lives in Mexico — my mother, actually, who has not a drop of Mexican blood in her. My mom’s husband Robert, however, is ethnically Mexican, although when my mother and Robert met, only one of them spoke Spanish, and it wasn’t the guy with brown skin. Seems that Robert’s family had been in California for generations and had, you know, assimilated.

So yes, Athena has ancestors who came from Mexico in the 20th century. She also has ancestors who came from Europe in the 19th century, and 18th, and the 17th. Not mention some that came from Asia, oh, 40 millennia or so ago. She’s got cousins who have ancestors that came from Africa in the bowels of a slave ship and others whose ancestors served in the British Parliament. Honestly, I don’t know how much more assimilated my little Hispanic daughter can get.

Huntington paints a picture of Hispanics as insular, lazy and fundamentally hostile to traditional “American” values, none of which sounds even remotely like the rather substantial number of Hispanic Americans in my family. However, these Hispanics do have a tendency to be family-oriented and religious and culturally engaged, which I understand in white people are generally regarded to be positive values. So maybe I’m confused here.

Maybe I’ve been lulled into a false sense of complacency by my wife’s salsa and my father-in-law’s menudo (my father-in-law, incidentally, of German stock), but I don’t see Hispanics as a threat; I see them as my family. And you can be sure my daughter will know about her Hispanic heritage, just like she’ll know about her European and aboriginal heritage. And she’ll learn that all of those have combined to make her what she is: Uniquely American. Just like all the rest of us.

Reader Request Week 2004 #1: Boys and Girls

Welcome to Reader Request Week 2004, in which I write about subjects suggested by you, the fabulous Whatever reader (did I mention you’re fabulous? Well, you are). To kick off the week, let’s start with the first question I was asked for Reader Request Week 2004, which comes from Jennifer:

Why aren’t there more close male-female friendships in American society?

Well, Jennifer. How many do you want? I agree that same-sex close friendships are the norm, but I don’t think opposite-sex close friendships are entirely rare. In my own circle of friends (who are, I must admit, exceptional people, and not just because they know me), intrasexual friendships are downright common; I can’t think of one of them, male or female, who doesn’t have excellent friends of both sexes. And anecdotally it seems that younger people (or at least, people younger than me) don’t have much in the way of cross-sex friendship hangups. I think it’s all that instant messaging.

(Which is actually a not entirely facetious point: I have a lot of reasonably good “internet friends” of both sexes, the gender of whom is not nor is likely to become a critical issue because our interaction is letters on a screen. It’s not that I don’t know they’re male or female, just that the physical ramifications of that fact is severely muted by the medium.)

But let’s go with the idea that there is a dearth of intrasexual friendships in the population at large. Why might this be? Being that I have a penis and all, I can’t speak to this question from the female side of the equation. To understand the male side of the equation (and specifically, the heterosexual male side — assume for the purposes of this article that when I talk about men, I talk about men what like women), we need to start from certain premises. Let’s begin by noting that, to the extent that men have problems becoming friends with women, I think the problem boils down to two related reasons:

1. Men have difficulty just being friends with someone they want to have sex with (this is the famous bone of contention in the film When Harry Met Sally). The obvious corollary to this is that most (straight) men would be happy to have sex with most of the women they meet, if they could, which they usually can’t for various reasons. So strictly as an issue of math, the numbers are against it.

2. Men have difficulty being interested in women they don’t want to have sex with, because, hell, if all they want is a friend, they’ve got guys for that. Being friends with guys is less complicated, and most guys are all for things being as uncomplicated as possible. We’re not, on average, terribly complicated people.

Yes, this is sexist. Guess what? We’re talking about the sexes. Sex is usually a factor. I’m not one of those people who believes that we’re entirely ruled by our base, animalistic urges. That’s why we have civilization, after all. Indeed, what is civilization but an open war in which the gray, crenelated mammalian forebrain beats back the savage reptilian underbrain over and over and over again, preferably with a rock? At the same time, let’s not pretend that the reptile underbrain always loses. It’s been around for hundreds of millions of years for a reason. Sometimes the forebrain can’t beat it and has to be content with trying to shove it into a tuxedo, a la Young Frankenstein, and pretending to company it’s somehow been tamed.

So, simply as a matter of expediency, let’s take as a given that in male-female relationships, sex is a significant issue. The question here was laid out as an issue with US society, but I think it’s fairly clear that this isn’t limited merely to US. Wherever there are men and women, sex is a significant issue. The US is better off than many places because women and men are of sufficiently equivalent status that there’s not a problem with them becoming friends; i.e., US males in general accept and celebrate that women are not property, have brains as well as vaginae and prefer lives in which they are not walled off from the rest of humanity and do more than accept sperm and raise children. That’s that whole “civilization” thing again.

Anyway, the big issue isn’t whether men want to have sex with women. The real issue is: Why do men let the fact they want to have sex with women keep them from being friends with women? And also, why do men let the fact that they don’t want to have sex with certain women keep them from being friends with those particular women? These are big, fascinating questions for which I don’t have any particularly good answers, but I won’t let that stop me from attempting a couple.

First, men let the fact they want to have sex with women keep them from becoming friends because men often think it’s more important to have sex than have friends. Scratch that: It’s not that they think that so much as they intuit that — which is to say the ol’ reptile portion of the brain has distracted the forebrain in some way and is now whispering in the man’s ear: She’s fertile! Pass on your seed! And rip out the throat of all those who oppose your mating! And in a purely Darwinian sense this is correct: Being friends is nice, and perhaps as a matter of cooperation helping ensure the survival of the largest number of your tribe, it has an evolutionary benefit. But it doesn’t pass on your genes. Mating is more important. Friends are easy. Sex is hard.

Now, the thing is we don’t live in a strictly Darwinian world, in which you have to abandon the idea of friendship for sex. But tell that your reptile brain. Your reptile brain lays down the rules: She can be a friend, or you can have sex with her. Such are men that they a) they don’t ask why the dumb reptile brain gets to make the rules and b) they’ll happily default to the “sex” option regardless of the likelihood of that option actually happening.

I’m perfectly happy to entertain the notion that this “friend vs. sex” formulation is simplistic. On the other hand, think of all the people you know who get with other people who are bad for them — over the strenuous objections of their relatively clear-eyed friends — for the dubious pleasure of “being in a relationship.” Think about the overarching importance we place on sexual/romantic relationships at the expense of other relationships. Writer Justine Larbalestier recently railed effectively about the fetish of romantic relationships:

How come the majority of the longest relationships in my circles are between good friends? That’s right “just” good friends. People who have known each other for years and years and years, have loaned each other money, helped rear each other’s children, read each other’s books, shared houses, shared jobs, but who aren’t in a sexual relationship with each other. How come the myths of our potential lives are centered around romantic love instead of friendship?…

I see friends in relationships with people they don’t much like, because somehow that’s more grown up than being single. I see friendships destroyed when friends become lovers and it doesn’t work out and somehow the friendship dies in the process. I see single friends, otherwise perfectly happy, beating themselves up because they haven’t found the mythical One yet.

As for why men don’t bother becoming friends with women they have no sexual desire for — well, to go back to what I said earlier: It’s a lot easier to make friends with guys. Also, I suspect that for the guys who let their reptile brains do a lot of their thinking when it comes to women, there’s a deep-seated cognitive dissonance: You’re around this woman all the time, yet you don’t want to mate with her? What’s your problem? Men — again, generally uncomplicated creatures — don’t like cognitive dissonance. It’s like an itch you can’t scratch. Better to avoid it all together.

What queers this formulation is that men do have friendships with women all the time — good ones, with nary a hint of sex in them. So how to explain this? Well, I see two options:

1. The men are being friendly while biding their time for the sexual relationship component. This is rather common; I remember in college a good female friend of mine was dating a guy named Leo for a long time and in the process had acquired a number of good male friends. After she broke up with Leo, all of her “good male friends” except for me (who was involved in an entirely different friend/sex quagmire at the time) professed their undying love — i.e., desire for sex, this being college — usually prefaced with the statement, “Well, now that Leo’s out of the way…”

2. The man has found some way to reconcile his desire to have sex with his women friends with the fact he won’t, yet still wishes to have them around, and/or is able to accept that women he doesn’t want to have sex with still have other redeeming qualities.

(There is a third option of having sex with your female friends and yet still just remaining friends, but let’s acknowledge that most men in general do not get to experience this option, or indeed are mentally prepared to deal with it as an option.)

As a practical matter, the first of these solutions isn’t very useful, either to a guy’s mental health or to the overall health of the friendship, which is, after all, predicated on a lie (that the guy likes the woman as a genuine friend) and often on a platform of ill will to boot (the guy wants the woman’s current relationship to go sour). So I don’t recommend that. The second, of course, I recommend wholeheartedly.

At this point, I hear some of you ask: Well, John. You seem to have a lot of female friends. Are you just waiting for their men to die to collect them into a harem, or have you somehow dealt with your sexual desire for them?

Well, it is true: I do have quite a few female friends, dating back to high school, and have been fortunate to continue to make female friends, including several over the last couple of years. I’ve never done a head count on this, but I suspect I have more good female friends than male friends. Most of the women friends I have I’m sexually attracted to. Generally speaking, they are smart, capable, witty, accomplished and sexually desirable: In other words, they totally rock. If I weren’t attracted to these women, it wouldn’t be out of line to question whether I was attracted to women at all.

I am not waiting for their men to die; aside from being unrealistic (both in the “all those men suddenly dying” sense and the “and then they’d want to be with me even though I’m married” sense, not to mention the “and my wife would happily accept my new polygamous lifestyle with nary a peep of complaint” sense, which seems doubtful), it seems pretty mean to wish all those guys dead, not in the least because I’m friends with most of them, too. All things being equal, I want these guys to live — if not for themselves (which, to be clear, is a good enough reason) then because they make my friends happy, and I want my friends to be happy.

So you can conclude that by and large I’ve reconciled my sexual attraction for my women friends with the fact that I won’t actually be having sex with them (you could alternately conclude that I’m having sex with them all, but with me as with most men, that would in fact be the incorrect conclusion). I should note that “reconciled” is also certainly the wrong word to use here, since it implies that I have accepted a situation that somehow deviates from the optimal, as in “I’ve reconciled myself to a life without one of my kidneys.” It’s not like that at all. I’d imagine that a life where I was having sex with my all female friends would be interesting, but as that famous ancient Chinese proverb implies, “interesting” is not the same as “optimal.”

It’s more to the point that I’m not concerned about my sexual attraction to my female friends. Yes, generally I find my women friends sexually attractive. But tell me why that implies I need to do something about it. See, that’s the problem right there — The general belief (particularly strong among males) that one needs to do something to resolve one’s sexual urges, no matter how impractical, inconvenient, or just plain stupid. By this, if you’re sexually attracted to someone, you ought to be having sex with them, and therefore you should work to make it happen regardless of consequence — or at least tie up your psyche in ulcerating knots of guilt about it (the already-in-a-relationship guy’s option). Thanks, I’ll pass on that. I don’t believe that I need to follow through on every sexual desire — nor, I suspect, do most men who do have strong non-sexual friendships with women. They accept the sexual desire — it makes sense — they just don’t see it as the focus of the relationship.

Accept your desire to overcome it? Well, yeah: Why wouldn’t you be attracted to your women friends? If you acknowledge that as a heterosexual man you generally find women attractive — and that women who embody traits you enjoy in friends are more likely to be even more attractive to you than the general female population — then wouldn’t it be strange if you weren’t sexually attracted to your women friends? Once you get that into your thick skull, it makes the attraction substantially easier to deal with; you realize it’s part of the natural process of the friendship and something that adds to its quality, not a complicating factor that needs to be dealt with before you can move on. It also puts the sexual attraction aspect into perspective. Yes, I find my women friends sexually attractive, but as a general rule their sexual attractiveness is a minor component of why I think they’re so damn fabulous.

(Accepting the sexual aspect of friendships with women also makes it far easier to have strong friendships with women with whom one is not sexually attracted — if you can get past the idea that you are sexually attracted to a friend, you should likewise be able to get past the idea that you’re not.)

I don’t imagine that most of my women friends will be surprised to learn I find them sexually attractive; likewise, I don’t imagine that most of my women friends are particularly worried that I’ll invite them up to look at my etchings. I couldn’t tell you what percentage of my female friends find me sexually attractive; aside from my suspicion that women don’t necessarily process intrasexual friendships the same way, it’s also just not a topic that comes up much. There are usually other things to talk about. And I would imagine that if they do find me sexually attractive, that they factor it into the friendship pretty much like I do.

Of course, if they’re suddenly overwhelmed by desire for me and have to have me now, then I guess they’ll need to talk to Krissy about that. Let’s just say I’m not exactly worried about Krissy getting a ton of phone calls. And that’s fine. In this context, I’m delighted to hear the “I like you as a friend” speech. That’s the way I like them, too.

(Want to suggest a topic for me to write about his week? Leave ’em here.)

Krissy’s B-Day

It’s Krissy’s birthday today. You may take as given my continuing belief in her superfabulousness, which only increases with time. If you feel moved to wish her a happy birthday, I of course encourage you to do so.

One Minor Point of Clarification

Yes, I’m still on break until Monday, and still soliciting topic suggestions for Reader Request Week 2004 (see previous entry). I just wanted to jam in a quick note here about the “Iraq = Vietnam” meme:

1. Iraq is not Vietnam. Politicians and liberal commentators who insist it is are the political equivalent of the aging radio DJ who can’t stop talking about how Jim Morrison changed rock and roll, i.e., they’re sad and lame and thoughtlessly circling a fetishistic object of desire.

2. The fact that Iraq is not Vietnam does not mean it’s not its own unique clusterfuck. Which is the other problem with the “Iraq = Vietnam” meme; by using it, dumbass politicians and liberals allow other dumbass politicians and conservatives to promulgate the following, also incorrect, meme: “If Iraq does NOT = Vietnam, then Iraq = success.”

So please, if you’re a liberal, avoid the “Iraq = Vietnam” meme. You look an ass, and you’re giving a cudgeling oar to all the people who want to pretend that what’s going on in Iraq is some sort of smoothly operating military action, where everything is happening exactly as it should. Live in the now. There’s enough going on here.

Reader Request Week 2004: Get Your Suggestions In

I’m taking until Monday off around here in order to catch up on some housekeeping on a couple of other projects. But! Starting next Monday, I’m doing Reader Request Week 2004, in which I write on subjects requested by you, the fabulous Whatever readers.

I do this for two reasons: One, you guys suffer through reading me spout off about what I want, so I think it’s fun to turn the table and spout off on what you want. Two: it keeps me from having to think up topics for a week. See? We all get something. I did a reader request week last year (see entries here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here), and I thought it was pretty successful, so I thought it’d be fun to do it again.

What kind of requests can you make? Well, whatever you’d like. Ask anything about anything, general or personal — the very worst I will do is not answer it. The list of links above gives you an idea of the questions I answered last year, and it was a pretty varied lot, and I expect that (presuming I am asked varied questions), I will expound on an equally eclectic set of questions this year as well.

You can leave suggestions in the comment thread, or send me an e-mail — I suggest the comment thread since I’ve recently seen a spike in spam and might accidentally delete e-mail from unfamiliar addresses. But whatever you’re comfortable with.

Thanks in advance for your topic suggestions, and I’ll see you all again here on Monday. Remember, of course, I’ll still be blogging tomorrow and through the weekend over at By The Way.

Note to LiveJournal Users

I keep meaning to mention this and keep not mentioning it, so: Apparently someone has set up a LiveJournal feed for the Whatever called ScalziFeed. I didn’t do it; I don’t know who did. But I don’t see any harm in it, so if you’ve got a LiveJournal account and want to be notified when I update without needing to check back in here first, that’s one solution for you. Not that I mind you checking back when I don’t update; it inflates my visitor count and provides me with a false sense of importance. And we know how critical that is for my emotional well-being.

Athena’s Point of View

I’m having one of those weeks where the mere idea of expressing an opinion about any issue of relevance makes me break out in hives; since it’s a good rule of thumb not to inflict yourself on others when you can’t stand the smell of your own thoughts, I’ve been consequently fairly quiet around here for the last few days. Don’t worry, it’ll pass. In the meantime, let me share with you this collection of photos from my daughter.

Several days ago Athena decided that she wanted to try the digital camera for herself, and while I was initially reluctant, I finally decided that sooner or later she has to learn how to handle expensive stuff. So I let her use it. A few minutes later, in the process of taking pictures, she dropped it down the stairs. But the camera seemed none the worse for wear and Athena subsequently kept the thing in a vise-like grip, so I think it was a pretty cheap lesson in material responsibility. Everybody wins.

It’s kind of fun to look at these pictures because they come from an alien viewpoint, one two feet down and about 30 years younger than my own. The “two feet down” viewpoint is pretty obvious, because many of the pictures are, as you can see, pointing up at something on the wall — an interesting reminder that all the pictures we adults hang at eye level aren’t eye level for some of the people in the house.

The “30 years younger” viewpoint is evident in the subject matter of the pictures. I don’t know that I’d say that Athena’s taking pictures of things that are important to her, but she is taking pictures of things that are interesting to her. To some extent, the pictures show the things she’s curious about or involved in. This is a representation of some of the things that are going on in that little head of hers. And of course, that’s interesting to me as well.

Now that she’s played with the digital camera, she want to keep playing with it, and I’m inclined to let her do it. It’s cheap entertainment for her — it’s not like we have film costs, after all — and for us, her parents, it’s a neat way to get a look at her world and her angle on life. Also, she won’t be five forever — she won’t have this viewpoint forever. Anyone who’s been here knows that I certainly take enough pictures of my daughter that I won’t forget what she’s like at this age. But it might be fun for her to have her own photographic record of this time in her life, to keep that connection with her younger self.

Hopefully one of the things her older self will say is “I can’t believe I actually liked Hello Kitty.” Well, she did. We have the photographic evidence.