Judging Judgment (Ugh, What A Self-Consciously Cutsey Title. This Isn’t a Great Start)

In The Great Gatsby, its narrator asserts in the opening paragraphs that he makes a point of not judging people. He then goes on, roughly one paragraph later, to start judging and barely a page goes by in which he fails to not only judge people, but do so in a delightfully dry and at times super-catty, mean teenage girl sort of way (I’m also convinced Nick is clearly in denial about some clearly homoerotic feelings. If he’s not at least bi-curious, try to make sense, for example, of the end of the second chapter. Go on. I’ll wait. Did you read it? See?). I’m surprised how little scholarship on the novel has been devoted to this.

But that’s not the point of this post, if it can be said to have a point. As of now, it’s an open question. I hope it turns out to have one. Those are usually the best kind of posts. Fingers crossed!

I’m writing this to confess I’m very judgmental. I try not to be. I try really hard not to be. And a good 95% of my judgments are never voiced. But despite my efforts not to judge, I have fallen well-short of the mark, in my judgment. Of course, like almost anything, judgment of others can be both good or bad. In fact, I want to say judging others can be a positive. Is this the point? Maybe. Let’s find out.

We judge other people when we make friends. We judge other people when we fall in love, or decide this person selling me a time-share isn’t telling me everything. So, my point is that judging is not only necessary in life, but also a source of some of life’s greatest experiences.

Great. I had a point in this post. Shortish for me, but that’s good, too.

However, (crap; maybe that isn’t the point of this post. Could this post have two points? That feels awfully ambitious for the likes of me) when people get all judgy about being judgmental, it’s the other kind they’re talking about. And damned if I don’t do that dozens of times a day. Today’s notable one was when I glimpsed a man going by wearing his hair in a man-bun, I think it’s called. Now, this look is very dignified, assuming you’re a samurai in feudal Japan. But I’m willing to bet almost anything this man was not a feudal-age samurai. He was alive, for one thing, and also, he just didn’t present in an overtly samurian way.

But A) Who am I to judge someone else’s grooming/fashion choices? My daughter reliably informs me I have little insight into fashion. And I’m awfully judgmental for someone who temporarily blinded himself last week by vigorously shaking a bottle of salad dressing with the cap off.

For the record, that actually happened.

Second, why would I have an opinion about something so superficial? The fact I have a pejorative opinion about his hair says a lot more about me than Evan (that’s probably not his real name, but it’s more likely to be “Evan” than “Man Bun Guy”). And what it has to say isn’t pretty.

And you see what happened back there? I not only arbitrarily subjected Jeff (on reflection, he looked more like a “Jeff” than an “Evan”) to my scorn, but myself as well. I find randomly and unfairly passing negative judgment on others tends to boomerang back to me. Judge me if you must, but your judgment of me is nothing compared to the judgment I routinely judge of myself. Moreover, my judgment, in my judgment, would likely be in agreement with your judgment, assuming it’s an unflattering judgment.

Yes, judgment like that never helps anyone, least of all the judge, but it’s also sort of baked into the way the human mind works. It’s a pretty important survival tool, after all. So maybe cut yourself – and me, while you’re at it – a little slack. We’ve all heard the quote, or a variation of the quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Some people attribute this to Plato, but it almost certainly wasn’t him. In fact, no one actually knows who said it (or something like it) first. Which is a shame, because as quotes go, it’s pretty damned pithy.

So, just for the purposes of bookkeeping* and clarity, I’ve chosen to attribute it to the only surviving member of the Monkees, Mickey Dolenz. Because why not? He’s been around the block. No doubt he has some wisdom to share. Also, “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” ** are highly underrated songs.

Anyway, this quote, first uttered by Mickey Dolenz, is always worth remembering, at least for me. And if I can get myself to remember that more often, both as it applies to others and myself, then I’m willing to bet life will go a lot better for both me and those around me. Even for Brandon. Yes, he looked more like a “Jeff” than an “Evan,” but he really, when I think about it, looked like a quintessential Brandon to me. And that is said without any judgment.

*This is only word in the English language with three consecutive pairs of matching letters. And yes, there’s also “bookkeeper,” but you get the point.***

*** God, Jack, please shut off your rambling mind for just five minutes.

** Fun fact, although “fun” is all relative: this song was written by the great hit-making husband and wife duo of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Also, Neil Diamond wrote the theme song for the show. And I think we’ve reached the point in which I’d argue you’d be justified in judging me, and none too favorably, either.

Memorial Day

So my great uncle was, I think, 19 (let’s say 19) and stationed in England as a private in the US Army on the eve of the Normandy invasion. And he was scared out of his wits. So much so, he placed a call to his oldest brother, my grandfather, and confessed he was thinking of going AWOL.

Well, as he must’ve known, my grandfather did everything he could to talk him out of it. He must’ve pointed out the practical problems it would create. He must’ve pointed out how, if he flinched now, he would be haunted by it for the rest of his life.

Whatever he said, it worked. My great Uncle John returned to his unit and prepared to go to war. My grandfather wrote him an encouraging letter (which we still have) and promised he’d be home soon. But what my grandfather didn’t know is that my uncle was already dead, killed by a German shell in Normandy.

Two months later, my father was born, and my grandfather gave him his late little brother’s name. It’s now also the name I have. I can’t imagine the guilt my grandfather must have felt, nor the courage my uncle must’ve had to face his fears and go headlong into danger and death anyway.

I post a lot about politics, perhaps too much, but if there’s ANYTHING that everyone in America can still agree on, it’s that such sacrifice is worthy of remembering, and worthy of honoring.

Words, Words, Words

A Disquisition on the Efficacy and Utilitarian Pragmatism of Orotund Language

I love words the way other people love music. Or painting. Or, I suppose, grilled cheese sandwiches. There’s gotta be some people who are passionate about them. They’re pretty great, Gardening is something people love, too, I suppose. Or, I don’t know, Civil War trivia. Also, I really like most of those things as well.

I’ve strayed a bit. Suffice it to say I love words like other people love…other things. There’s a physical reaction, a surge of endorphins when I come across the artful arrangement of words. A well-wrought sentence can leave me quite literally in awe. I also delight in individual words: the sound of them, their rhythm, their self-contained histories. As the linguist Nom Chomsky (or Mr. T.: I always confuse the two) once sagely observed:) “I pity the fool who can only think of words as merely a means to an end. “


Having said (or technically, written, that), and proven myself quite happy to throw in the occasional latinate doozy (e.g., latinate), there is a line. Where that line is fluid, but, like has been said about the elusive definition of pornography, you know it when you see it. And I would like to report the sighting of an egregious line-crossing.

Who Am I to Judge?

You might might be tempted to point out I am not an authority on language nor a prominent voice in the writing community. Yes, that’s true. Thanks for picking at that scab. But I’m a reader, dammit, and I have rights. Specifically, I have the right to read an article in a much-loved magazine (I won’t reveal the name. Let’s just say it rhymes with The Atlantic) without having to crash into the linguistic abutment that is the word “stochastic.”

For reasons lost to history (but it’s a safe bet not having a date that night played a role), I happen to know the meaning of that word. I have a quiet hobby of mentally cataloguing obscure words. I know, how did I stay single so long?

I May Not Know Much, But I Know What the Word Stochastic Means. I’m Also Not Invited to Many Parties

And now, so do you: it means random. That’s it. Not some subtle variation of random, not random, but also freighted with some ineffable but present sense of otherness. It just means random. No more, no less. Also, it’ a synonym of arbitrary. Obviously. Granted, statisticians use it at times to describe a random process, but that’s super-technical jargon, and it means, at the end of the day, “random.”

I don’t begrudge the forgotten, one might argue, stochastic, soul who coined it, and I feel the pain they must have as they saw it fail to catch on in a meaningful way. Who I am picking a bone with is anyone who’d use it of their own volition when publishing for the general public.

Sure, if you’re writing for Statistics Weekly or Statistician’s World or Stats!, fine. But for a magazine not in the sexy, ruthless world that is the statistics-centric magazine market, you’re pushing it, even if your magazine’s demographic skews to the highly educated.

If you’ve written a piece that has forced you to use “random,” “arbitrary,” and even “indiscriminate” past the point of comfort, maybe you can justify it to yourself. But this happened in the first paragraph. And in the rest of the article, the need for stochastian (or maybe stochast-esque? Pick your favorite) language is minimal.

One of the things I love best about English is that it may be the finest tool for communication ever devised. Your mileage may vary. My theory (hardly novel) is that it’s chiefly because the English language is a voracious and remorseless thief. If it finds a word it likes that we don’t have a precise definition for, like schadenfreude, from the Germans or simply love how the sound communicates the meaning, like gung-ho from the Chinese, it swipes it. And Lord knows how many words the French have surrendered to us (what a reductive, cheap joke. Still, apparently I decided to keep it. I want to be clear: I’m just kidding. And I feel I can because the French and I have that kind of friendship).

You Know I’m Just Kidding, France, Right? You’re Not Answering My Texts and Now I’m Worried You’re Mad. Don’t Be Mad.

And of course there’s the litany of invaders of Britain who’ve shared their words during their raping pillaging of the British isles. Or more likely after. But I digress. And as much as I’m a sucker for words of all shapes, sizes, and especially, sounds, I realize that, even at its gaudiest moments of impressionistic invention, its chief function is communication. You certainly never want to talk down to your readers, and if you have an arcane word that is the absolute mot juste (thank you, France! You know what we’ve got is special), go for it.

But stochastic? Its only pragmatic function in an article not about statistical values is to show off. It’s sure as hell not not making a good-faith effort to communicate, is it? And let’s point out the elephant, or pachyderm, in the room: the author is a vastly more successful writer than I am. After all, she writes for a magazine that rhymes with The Atlantic.

But this diction is such that it pulls the reader out of the sentence with whiplash-inducing suddenness and violence. And to be clear, I’m so geeky, I become a little giddy when I have to look up a word I don’t know (it happens frequently). And that’ s because 95% of the time, the word conveys, with tear-jerking precision and beauty, something that more prosaic diction would have failed to do.

I Empathize, Ironically Because I Dabble in Narcissism Myself.

I get it. I mean, we all, or certainly many of us, write in part because we want to show off. For approval. For validation. To prove, once and for all, that you, Joanne D. were a FOOL to reject my request to go with me to the 6th Grade dance.

But ultimately, it’s an abrogation (yep. I think that’s the best word here) of our responsibility to readers. But you’re too good for that, author of this problematic article. Let’s try to spot and ignore those impulses in ourselves. They’re puerile. I mean childish. Dammit

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The Numbing of America

Yesterday’s slaughter at an elementary school in Texas is an act of evil beyond the scope of most of us, myself included, to fully absorb. I know no particulars of this latest mass shooting. I confess I felt no point in doing so. I saw the headline and kept scrolling. Allow me to be crystal clear: what I’m going to write in terms of sorrow is a small cup of water compared to the ocean of grief the victims’ families are feeling. What I’m going to talk about is my relative lack of grief.

Let Me Try to Explain, to Myself and You

Let me rephrase: I feel terrible grief. Let me rephrase once more: I think terrible grief, which is to say I recoil at this satanic malevolence, but I find myself doing so only in a theoretical, and if I’m honest, performative way. I feel, and I’m ashamed to admit this, virtually nothing.

I know it is a stark sign that my basic humanity has been diminished by years of this unspeakable, unremitting, seemingly unbreakable pattern of gun violence in America.

Neither I, nor anyone in my life, have ever been a direct victim of these mass attacks (A woman I knew in college was murdered a few years ago, and I felt – I still feel – grief about that, even though we hadn’t seen each other in decades). But each slaughter that chips away at my humanity has created a thicket of scars around what I will refer to, for lack of a more exact term, soul. And these scars have left me largely numb.

The Wisdom of Tyrants

Josef Stalin once said one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic. I’m not a big one for quoting Stalin, but he had a point. I think the breaking point for me was Sandy Hook. Once we apparently decided as a society that murdering young children was bad, but a price we have to be willing to pay to keep our guns, I checked out. Not consciously, but something in me became deadened. My capacity for empathy has continued to be quietly shaved away, sliver by sliver, with each subsequent shooting.

I was a bit too cynical in that paragraph. It’s not that most Americans feel that way. Most Americans – including a majority of NRA members – are in favor of some gun reform. But the NRA, and its allied lobbyists don’t care. They and every politician who takes their money has blood on their hands, their arms, over every inch of their polluted selves. And although most Americans want gun reform, they don’t want it enough for it to be an issue they will base their votes on.

The Obligatory Deadly Disease Metaphor

This is a sickness that’s infected all of us. And like many fatal diseases, it is so quiet and insidious that we don’t realize it’s become an inextricable part of us until it’s too late to do much about it.

Once again, my (and I suspect many others) existential crisis is a universe of magnitude away in severity from the grief families in Texas are suffering tonight. Or Buffalo last week. Or over 200 communities in 2022 alone. That’s correct: over 200 this year. And we’re in May.

What I feel – or, more accurately, fail to feel – is the result of residual trauma that’s become an ambient, barely perceptible distorted noise in the back of every American’s head.

I’m not trying to be glib, but mass killings in America have become a bit like living near train tracks. The trains routinely rumble past, but we are so used to it, we stop noticing them after a while.

Conclusion So Obvious About These Tragedies That Even Stating It Is A Type of Tragedy

It shouldn’t be like this. None of this should be like this. All of this is awful beyond words. There ought to be a word for how useless words are. And when the only visceral outrage about today’s news I can muster is at my lack of outrage, something simple and fundamental about me, about my ability, my right to be fully human, has been eradicated. It’s a shame there’s no cynical, murderous lobby to protect that constitutional right. That doesn’t give me an excuse to stop trying.

But my God, America, with its leaders brimming with thoughts and prayers, makes it one hell of a steep climb.

Trying to Get Organized

There are people, and you’ve likely met some of them, hell, some of you may even be some of them, who are, and there’s simply no polite way of saying it, organized. You know the type. The types who always take out the correct recycling on the right night. Who never misplace their car keys or ATM cards or young children.

And these people, when they are not busy alphabetizing their receipts, schedule some time to look down on those of us who are disorganized, although that term is now considered offensive; Unfortunatley, the preferred nomenclature is still being beta-tested, so, for the moment we’re stuck with “disorganized.”

Anyway, the “undisorganized,” as I call them, insist nah that becoming more organized leads to more efficiency, which paves the way for less stress, more free time, and more mental, emotional, and physical space, which in turn begets a feeling of calm and optimizes creativity. Personally, I think that’s asking a lot from, say, Post -It Notes, but I confess I have alway found a certain logic to their argument.

For example, I’m 53, but if you subtract all of the cumulative time I’ve spent looking for my wallet or car keys, I am only in my late 20s.

It isn’t easy for me to be organized. And it’s not like I’ve never tried. A couple of years ago, Netflix instructed us to throw out anything that didn’t “spark joy.” I dove into that project head-first, but after discarding all of the non-joy-sparking items I owned, I ended up naked in an empty apartment.

Worse yet, it wasn’t my apartment.

Regardless, my friends, family, therapists, pharmacists, and more than a few extroverted strangers have assured me that, whatever I am doing now in terms of, as they put it, “stumbling blindly through the final decades of your life,” needs a serious reset.

So, I determined once more to go into this organizing thing, and go in whole hog. Well, in total candor, 3/4 hog, as there are parts of a hog that realistically would only hinder my organizing.

I was also told the first thing I should do is make lists. And so I dutifully set about doing so, some of which I share with you now:

My Dogs:

  1. Daisy
  2. Donovan

So far, so good. “This is EASY!” I thought with glee. But then, I was overcome with worry that Donovan might someday resent I listed him second; they say animals can always sense these things, so I compiled a second list just cover my bases (which wasn’t easy to do, dear Reader, as I couldn’t find my base covers anywhere, because I’m disorganized).

My dogs (In Descending Order of Size)

1) Donovan

2) Daisy

As you might imagine, I was pretty tired by now, but knew I should keep going, as the only thing standing between me and living a life of efficient bliss was the discipline to compile just a few more lists.

Now, as you’re no doubt thinking and I came to appreciate only in retrospect, I should have drilled down more on what exactly these lists should focus on. It’s easy to realize that in hindsight, but I think we’ve all felt the peerless intoxication that can only come from going on a list-making bender. I quickly rattled off another:

Ten of my worst attempts at dissing someone in a Facebook thread and/or Sick Burns I’ve yelled at fellow motorists:

1) The draft picks on your fantasy sports teams seem at best arbitrary!
2) You know nothing of my inner longings!
3) You’re left-handed & hence an aberration!
4) You’re right-handed & hence banal!
5) You would make a tedious Master of Ceremonies, regardless of the occasion being celebrated!
6) You are seldom punctual!
7) Your cousins are on the whole more successful than you.
8 My knowledge of trivia regarding the Titanic leaves yours woefully wanting!
9) The color schemes in your home are trite! TRITE!
10) You seem the type of person whose taste in music I would have little regard for!

Inspired, I immediately wrote down another:

Ten Cities I Have Never Spent Time in with Danny DeVito*:

  1. Winnipeg, Manitoba
  2. Lisbon, Portugal
  3. Stokeley-on-Thames, England
  4. Budapest, Hungary
  5. Evansville, Indiana
  6. Rennaissaince-Era Florence
  7. Montpelier, France
  8. Montpellier, Vermont
  9. Montpelier, Idaho
  10. Battle Creek, Michigan

* This was my first real snag. The problem with this list, I realized early on, is that cities are big places, and therefore the only way I could know for certain that beloved character actor and national treasure Danny DeVito and I hadn’t spent time together in any given city was to list cities I have never been to, or, in one case, a city I’ve visited several times, but during a period in which neither of us was alive. It was a foolproof idea, if you thought about it, but only if you thought about it very, very quickly.

By now, I’d started to wonder exactly how these lists would make me more organized. I’d now made several, but didn’t feel any more organized. In fact, I lost four pens while writing them. And I was writing on my laptop. Which I lost twice.

But, I trenchantly observed, the whole reason I’m making these lists is that I’m not organized, I’m the last person who should try to figure that stuff out. Armed with that piece of unassailable reasoning and a long nap, I pressed forward.

Ten Catchphrases/Idioms/Words I Have Tried and Failed To Make Popular Again

  • “It’s raining men!”
  • “Huzzah!”
  • “Saaaay, what’s the big idea?”
  • “The cat’s pajamas”
  • “Victrola” (I feel technology was working against me on that one)
  • “23 skidoo!”
  • “You sank my battleship!!” (I tried to make it too sexual, in retrospect)
  • “Silence, knave!”
  • “Your milkman is hard to converse with at parties!” (That was more something I made up myself as the ultimate mic drop dis, but it never caught on.)
  • Routinely referring to strangers “Mack.”

I was feeling pretty good about these lists, especially as I’d lost two more pens and was sure I was making progress.

However; I was quickly disabused of this confidence by my so-called friends. “The list,” I was told with what I maintain was an unnecessary display of exasperation, “Should be about taking inventory of your possesions and getting rid of what you don’t truly need.”

Well sure, it makes sense once someone phrases it like that. So I gave it one more shot. Things I should get rid of. Ok:

Ten Household Items I’m Hanging On To Only Out of Sentimental Attachment And/Or They Are Also Nicknames I’ve Encouraged People to Call Me:

  • My curated collection of novelty fly swatters shaped like hands.
  • A 1:1 scale Lego model of all of my Lego sets
  • The Paint Stripper
  • The Long Extension Cord
  • The Widowmaker (now this was something I knew I should chuck, because, as some of you may know, The Widowmaker is not a standard household item. It is, in fact, a large rollercoaster, which I had won in a contest a few years back by succesfully naming the astrological signs of all the Vice Presidents. Now, was it a good conversation piece? It was a great one. But still. Organizing was going to require some sacrifice.)
  • The Freezer (I decided in the end to keep this. It’s a kick-ass nickname, and it’s an invaluable visual aid when I hold my presentations to convince people to call me by that name)$
  • My vast collection of Civil War reenactment uniforms, weaponry, and paraphenalia, even though I don’t participate in Civil War reenactments.
  • The Old Weed Wacker
  • Most of my living room, a.k.a., “The Chia Pet Sanctuary”
  • Lazy Susan

Once again, when I shared what I had done, my efforts were met with scorn, derision, and in one unfortunate case, a restraining order. I came to realize that while being organized made some people more efficient and calm, there are others like me for whom the act of organizing is a great stress inducer. And while a clean, organized life gives some the illusion of control, it is just that: an illusion. And I refuse to live that kind of lie. Not lies in general, obviously; I’m obviously willing – need – to live many other kinds of lies. But that’s straying from the topic.

On Punching Up

It’s Not Rocket Science, Although Given My Utter Ignorance of Rocket Science, Maybe Part of It Is

But I doubt it. I recently tweeted something on the Twitter machine – a silly, mildly amusing tweet that said, “I have never been in any way harassed or demeaned by Scott Rudin; this isn’t meant to condone his behavior in any way; it just shows how far down the ladder I am in my career.” Now, it’s ok-ish as jokes go; it got a handful of likes. But it also got some finger wagging responses questioning whether this tweet was “moral.”

I’m now undergoing physical therapy to rehabilitate my eye muscles after the severity of the reflexive eye-rolling it induced.

Now, like the joke, don’t like it, whether or not you enjoy the joke on its admittedly modest merits doesn’t matter. The point is that the person who is the target of this joke is 1) Me, 2) Me, and, arguably, 3) Both me and Scott Rudin (with whom I’m OK mocking).

And I’m ok mocking Rudin because he was apparently a terrible, terrible person to work for. In fact, downright abusive. It should go without saying, but it clearly doesn’t, that I was in no way mocking the people who were repeatedly yelled out, called demeaning names, and occasionally had actual heavy office supplies hurled at them.

I’m Not Sure I Follow Your Thinking, or Lack Thereof

I’ll go further: there is no way that tweet can be interpreted as such.

Unless, of course, you really, really want to. There is a pretty well-worn axiom about comedy; namely, that it should always “punch up.” In other word, the targets of jokes should be those with power, and those who clearly deserve ridicule (there’s often a healthy overlap on that Venn diagram). Punching down, therefore, is a joke that makes fun of people who are not in any way responsible for the topic at hand because they lack the agency to control the situation.

I’ll give you a current example. I found the movie Licorice Pizza, problematic in a lot ways, both aesthetically and ethically, which I assume is keeping Paul Thomas Anderson up nights. But there has been a bit of a, and this a word I don’t use lightly, hullabaloo, about a minor character: A white man who weds two Japanese wives. The joke Anderson writes is that neither wife speaks English very well (and spoiler alert, the man doesn’t speak Japanese, a punchline we saw coming from the opening moments), and so, when he talks to them, he adopts a cringe-worthy, caricature of a white person’s insensitive impersonation of how Asian people talk.

And yes, it’s super cringe-worthy. But also, if you can get past the cringing, pretty funny. Because we’re not laughing at the Asian women, nor are we chuckling at the imitation. The man himself is the object of derision: the joke is about his utter stupidity and cluelessness that this is either acceptable or effective. Anderson is mocking – and mocking pretty scathingly – the character’s white, male cluelessness.

Several groups have protested the movie because of this (the public seems largely is the central plot of a 25-28 year old woman in a complicated and ultimately romantic relationship with a 15-year-old boy. And man, let’s just take a moment to not only wonder what PTA is up to with this, but the hypocrisy of the viewing public. Would people be OK with it if the genders were reversed?) bit.

And I respect the argument that if said joke offends a portion of the Asian community, who am I to tell them they’re wrong? I’m not. I just want be clear that if they are protesting that this bit makes fun of Asians, then I respectfully submit they’ve really misread that joke.

But, but, BUT

Should that matter? Especially given the atmosphere in America and the increase of racial verbal and physical violence the Asian-American community has experienced? And aren’t there going to be some people too stupid and hateful not to understand it’s satirizing the patronizing, racist attitudes of some white male Americans?

To the first point, I say…maybe. I certainly take the point. To the second, I say, absolutely not. This is what I believe: We should never refrain from making something, from a joke to a painting to a cathedral, because someone, somewhere, might misinterpret it. That’s known as playing to the lowest common denominator.

When Did People Become Convinced They’ve A Right Not To Be Offended?

I have seldom set out to deliberately offend anyone, and when I have, I’ve always tried to make sure, I was punching up. If someone approaches me in an open-minded and hearted way and says what I said/did/didn’t say/didn’t do caused them to be offended, I would invariably apologize and explain as best I could why I had meant no offense. I’m no saint, sometimes I speak without thinking, and I’m, despite my best efforts, occasionally insensitive. I try to assume the fault is mine (thanks, Mom and Catholicism) until I am persuaded otherwise.

But being offended isn’t a sign of moral superiority. At least not a lot of the time. Someone tweeted at me that I was mocking the Trans community with that tweet. Perhaps Rudin was transphobic? Certainly wouldn’t say it was beneath him. But in what world is that Tweet an attack on anyone (other than Rudin), let alone on a marginalized community?

I’m No Authority on These Matters (And Yet I’m Blogging About It)

I’m just saying, before I should post a joke, I should reasonably (Ah there’s the rub. What’s the definition of “reasonable”? Not literally, I mean, I majored in English) assume might be gravely misinterpreted or offend people? Absolutely, and I’m the first to admit – the people who tweeted at me would rightly point out I’m NOT the first – that I don’t always get it right. But perhaps, before you publicly question someone’s morality over a joke, maybe that person should understand the joke. We already miscommunicate enough as it is.

Let’s try, if even only as a thought experiment, not assuming the worst about each other. And maybe find the differences in ourselves between being offended and fetishizing that feeling.

I’m Not Joking When I Say This:

Some of you may disagree, in which case I welcome a healthy and civilized discussion. But it’s how I feel. I hope that doesn’t offend you, but I don’t think it should.

A Couple of Quickies:

For Those Who’ve Been Around the Writer’s Block a Few Times

I’ve been lucky in terms of having suffered from it fairly infrequently. Or rather, I’ve experienced it in a different way. It’s just sometimes I don’t know what is supposed to happen next. “Well Jack,” you are likely thinking, “I hate to break it to you, but that’ the same thing.

Maybe, but I do differentiate them a bit. “Writer’s Block” implies to me that I’m driving along and I’ve hit a wall. It feels somehow visceral and violent. That’s different from simply getting stuck because you’ve run out of gas. One’s a collision, the other’s a petering out. One is a – you get the point.

Car Metaphors Are Obviously Not My Strength

OK, so I find plugging away at it is often counterproductive. I’ve often been saved by walking away. I’ll still think about the problem a lot, but not exclusively. Because I have laundry to do and baseball to watch and emails to fail to return. This loosens up the grip on my thinking a bit, and allows me a little more limberness of thought (gymnastics metaphors are also not my forte).

If that doesn’t yield results after a week or two, I find it’s often good to write about the work as if you were writing to someone and had to explain the problem to them in great detail. That simple, stupid trick fools my simple, stupid mind more times than not, and then I gain the perspective I need to see what the road ahead should – indeed must – look like (road metaphors are essentially car metaphors, so I’ll top there).

Failing that, I return to the writing technique I employ most: Frequent naps.

Second, Unrelated Thing

Our theater company has started a podcast; of course we have – everyone has. Anyway, please subscribe – and maybe even listen to – “New Normal Rep’s Play Date,” available wherever you find your favorite podcasts (it may take a day or two for it to be on Apple podcasts). I will owe you one. And visit http://www.newnormalrep.org to watch a live rehearsed reading of Nikkole alter’s excellent play, Torn Asunder on April 25th at 7:30 EDT, with a online talkback hosted by Jill Eikenberry.

April, 1945 and April, 2022

I sometimes think about those first few Allied troops who stumbled upon the death camps that Nazi Germany had infected Europe with and the obscene spectacle they had to behold and absorb while trying to help the poor ragged souls who were somehow still alive.

As we bear witness to stomach-twisting sights of sadism in Ukraine, remembering the horrors of the Holocaust and the liberation of those camps in April, 1945 seems especially crucial.

For these hardened soldiers, who saw, endured, and in some cases inflicted horrors few of us can imagine, this sight was beyond even their capacity to comprehend human cruelty.

I would think the most awful moment that day was when the soldiers happily started handing out food as swiftly as they could to people who had been starved beyond the point of imagination. The soldiers must have allowed themselves an iota of pride as they nourished people who must have appeared all but drained of anything human. For the skeletal survivors, despite holding the food in their disbelieving hands, this must have felt beyond the scope of their imaginations.

The measure of gratitude both must have felt. At being able to eat, and being able to feed.

But then, almost immediately, the soldiers were ordered to take it all back from the newly liberated prisoners. Allied doctors knew these survivors of what would become known as the Holocaust, or Shoah, would die in agony if they ingested solid food in any large amount.

They would have to be slowly reintroduced to nourishment. They weren’t yet ready to rejoin the habits of the living.

To the confused recipients, given bread only to have it wrenched away a minute later, it must have seemed as cruel a psychological trick as anything the Nazis inflicted. And for the soldiers taking the food back, prying it from hands so skeletal and weak that their resistance must have felt unbearably sad. It may have even made them feel complicit in the evil they had found.

This was hardly the greatest cruelty these prisoners had to endure, of course, but something about that story affects me quite deeply. Perhaps because this historical snapshot takes the Holocaust – an event of such sweeping and sadistic barbarity that it will forever be impossible to fully wrap our heads around – and manages to make the enormity of it personal and human-sized.

Or maybe, it is because there are acts of unreasoning hatred and violence so stark in this world, even its healing demands a brutal patience that’s almost as cruel.

Killing Your Darlings. In Your Writing, I Mean. Not In Some Jim-Jonesian Way.

William Faulkner famously urged writers to “Kill your darlings,” and Hemingway would never shut up about some variant of that advice, usually in clean, economical prose. He went so far as to say you should write your story, and then take all of the “best” lines out. Was he in the middle of A) killing something B) divorcing someone C) drinking heavily or D) All of the above as he gave this advice? Most likely.

Yeah, Yeah, Whatever.

Still, I concede it’s good advice. Not a bad rule of thumb. But, like, a rule rule? A rule without thumbs? I dunno. Would we like F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Toni Morrison, or James Baldwin half as much if they took our their best lines (I know, I know: what does “Best” mean? Let’s let that lie for today). The problem is, of course, most of us aren’t Fitzgerald, Morrison, or Baldwin. In fact, if I understand these things correctly, none of us are.

Which leaves us with the vexing problem of figuring our just who the hell are we? As writers, not people: I won’t even try to squeeze down that rabbit hole here. This is why it’s so important to have a good editor, or if you’re a playwright like I am, a good director and/or dramaturge.

But Also

Another thing: when we’re starting out, we haven’t learned that there’s a good chance the more we love a line, or a sentence, the more likely it needs to come out ASAP. It’s most likely self-conscious and overwrought. Or if it’s comedy, maybe not as funny as you think. This stage takes a long time. Very much so. More than is comfortable. But, with luck and metric crapload of trying and failing and reading and writing, and re-writing, and rinse, lather, repeating, you start to not only develop your own voice, but start to understand it. Two different things, it turns out. But if you begin to understand what you do best, and how to rely on craft to make it happen, you’re on your way. Well to the next difficult step, anyway.

Understanding that voice. This isn’t always quite the conscious act it sounds like, and that’s very often a good thing. But here’s what sorta sucks. Sometimes what we do well becomes our worst enemy. Because it’s now a trick, a crutch, and a good excuse not to push forward as hard on the other things. But surely if it’s what you do well, you shouldn’t stop doing it, right?

Yeah, Like I Know. Anyone Who’s Watched Me Try To Wrap A Present Wouldn’t Take My Advice On ANYTHING

I dunno. Depends on who you are as a writer, and how realistic you are about the quality and type of stuff you’re writing (and good luck with that. You likely wouldn’t have become a writer without at least a little ego and ego is the arch-nemesis of good re-writing, which incidentally nine times out of 10 is the secret sauce). At a guess, I’d say most of us shouldn’t abandon those skill we’ve come by, but always be wary about how and when we use them. Which is, I think, the crux of what Faulkner et al were getting at.

I just had a reading for a new play about Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. They were, if you don’t know, chock full of brilliant quips and loved, loved, loved to talk. Scratch that: Conversation and one-liners were, I think, a pathology for them.

Now, as you’ve no doubt gleaned, I’m a big over-writer. I’m fine with that, because I’ve also learned to become fine (usually) about chucking out a lot of my writing in rehearsals. I always lean towards cutting the damn thing. Even if I really like it. If it slows the momentum down or doesn’t work like you hoped it would, it pays to be a ruthless editor of your own stuff. Like, you don’t like you ruthless. And for many writers, at least the first part is easily doable.

But with this play, it was a challenge, because I had to balance that instinct with the reality of who these characters – and yes, they were people, but now they’re characters – are. Two people whose natures demanded honoring their stream of quips and flood of language. Also, I only allowed myself five of Parker’s real-life quips and like, two of Benchley6’s, which set up the downright hubristic challenge of putting quips in their mouths, which is a little like saying to Mozart, “Here, I wrote a tune for you. I think you’ll enjoy it.”

Help: You Need Somebody; Not Just Anybody

I had the advantage of having really good and really smart actors – you’d be surprised how the two qualities don’t always totally overlap, as well as a very smart director. Together, we’d all pitch in with editing suggestions, which, if you’re insecure about you’re writing, you’re going to let your ego become defensive. I’m a carnival of insecurity in real life. My memoir will likely be titled, I Apologize for Inadequately Assessing My Inadequacies.

But with writing, I think I have the correct ratio, more days than not, of eagerness to hear smart criticism (and how to separate the smart from the not-so-smart criticisms should be like, 3/4 of any writing course. I’m far from infallible at this, but my rule of thumb i: are they critiquing your work, or arguing why you should write the play/novel/story that they would write?) but also stand my ground when I, open-minded as I am, still feel I’m right. Of course, feeling I’ve reached a good place in this is a clear sign I need to constantly reevaluate that belief.

Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well, I Contradict Myself

I wrote a post a while ago about being really skeptical of writing advice, and would personally feel uncomfortable offering any. And yet here we are. I think it’s because this last play forced me to wrestle with the kill your darlings axiom more than usual. So, I’m probably doing this at least as much for myself as anyone who may stumble across it. The main reason I feel unqualified – apart from not being on the level of William Faulkner – is that I’m not you. You are the best judge of your writing. Or at least, you’d better try to learn to be. And how hard is that? Trying to learn to be objective about an innately subjective craft based in which your material is drawn inevitably from yourself, about whom, I hate to be the one to break it to you, you’re probably at least a little subjective.

It’s a hard gig, it turns out. But then, that’s why it feels good. Sometimes. I sometimes wonder what I have a better chance of totally grasping: my writing or my life. It’s a false choice, of course. That’s the whole freaking point. In the end, I think one writer said it best: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” sure, Shakespeare, you make it sound easy because you’re Freaking Shakespeare.

And even that guy wrote stuff like Timon of Athens on occasion. That’ kind of a comfort, though. we’ll never get it totally right, or even, for the vast majority of us, mostly right. That’s not the point. The point is trying to with every atom in your body and soul, while being OK with the fact you’ll fail. But maybe, to quote another guy who knew how to write, Samuel Beckett, you’ll fail better.

My Opinion are Not Necessarily The Opinions of My Own Blog or Even My Own Self

But that’s just me. Feel free to let me know where you think I’ve got it wrong and why. Cos I promise you, I have. Incidentally, I had an amazing last sentence for this, but I ended up cutting it.

What I Think I’ve Learned So Far, Though I Don’t Always Act Like I Have

I had my birthday this week – I had been putting it off for a while now – which means I turned 53. And so I got to thinking, “What, if anything, do I feel I can honestly say I’ve learned in this half century and change?

Here’s what I’ve come up with, and now I give you the gift of my wisdom. “What, me giving you a gift? It’s your birthday; surely it’s we who should be giving YOU a gift.”

That’s a great point. But you didn’t, did you? For whatever reason (and in the end, does it matter what the reason is?), you didn’t. So we will just have to put that behind us. Or try to. It’s early days. Anyway, here is a partial list (didn’t want to bog you down in Monty Python sketches) of what I THINK I’ve learned. Your mileage may vary:

– Despite my earlier assumptions in life, kindness is vastly more impressive and important than intelligence. Being proud of intelligence is like being proud of your blood type: an accident of birth. Kindness is a choice. An often very difficult one, whose benefits in the short term redound to others rather than yourself.

– Despite my earlier assumptions in life, our access to jet packs in the 21st Century is meager at best.

– I will never understand why some people have done what they’ve done. There reaches a point where accepting that is important and liberating.

– That isn’t permission not to make a good faith effort to try. 

– I will never understand why I’ve done some of things I have done, and there reaches a point sometimes where accepting that is both important and liberating. 

– This doesn’t free me from regular check ins about why and how I make the choices I do.

– Your friends matter. A lot. Choose them carefully and then tend to these friendships often and with care.

– Doing things with simplicity can be harder than building ornate structures for our thoughts and feelings. Complexity in thought and action is often a wonderful thing, but it can sometimes be used in the service of obscuring.

– Biting into an oatmeal raisin cookie you assumed was a chocolate chip cookie is a legitimate existential crisis. 

– I will almost definitely never play for the New York Yankees. Frankly, the odds of ever making any Major League roster look dim at this point. 

– So many of my life goals involve things beyond my control, and though that’s little comfort when I realize I may not achieve them, maybe it means I have to recalibrate my goals. Doing so is hard. It’s ok to feel how hard it can be.

– This is a BIG one: everyone is more or less winging it. I used to think there’d come an age when I’d wake up and finally understand the world. I haven’t. And I’m pretty confident no one has. I used to believe there must have been a day in school they taught us how to be adults and I happened to be absent that day. There is no such class.

– Few people terrify me more than those with absolute certainty. 

– I need to remember that when I feel absolutely certain. 

– This doesn’t exonerate you from your responsibility of taking action.

– I have accepted – at an alarmingly slow pace – the cliche that love is a verb and not a noun.

– Never turn down an offer of cake. Obviously this doesn’t apply to carrot cake. 

– Forgiveness is often the hardest task in life, which makes it extra-important that we try our best to get good at it.

– There ARE no Nigerian princes who will to share part of their vast fortunes if you just give them a little money to help them out of a jam. Don’t believe their emails.

– We will probably never learn who let the dogs out.

– Be grateful if you can regularly achieve true gratitude. 

– There will be things you say and do in an offhand way that you’ll quickly forget about that will stay with others their entire lives, for better or worse. 

– Evil is real but relatively rare. Goodness is abundant but often hard to spot. 

– This a controversial one – it’s ok to appreciate the contributions of people who may have also done bad things.

– The next time you want to condemn a person in the past for lacking what seems to us to be obvious moral and ethical truths, realize later generations will do the same to us.

– Giving a thank you wave when someone lets you go ahead of them in traffic is moral imperative.

– Unless they give you a good reason not to, always tip as generously as you can. 

– A friend taught me this recently: Allowing people – especially loved ones- to help you isn’t a sign of failure.

– Don’t take it for granted people will always help you. 

– Try to be frequently complicit in gentleness with whomever you can, whenever you can.

– Don’t confuse your gentleness for weakness, and make sure others don’t make the same mistake.

– If you’re debating about whether or not to order dessert, lean towards yes. 

– I will never be able to correctly pronounce the word “Sudoko.”

– Ditto for correctly spelling the word “Bureaucracy.” I literally had to copy and paste it just now.

– Say yes for as long as you can, and learn to recognize when you no longer can.

– Learn to accept some people won’t ever like you. Obviously, try to keep the numbers down, but not everyone is going to like you. Just like you aren’t going to like everyone. 

– You’re not required to like people, but you are required to be respectful of them. A hard one. 

– Generally speaking, the love you take is equal to the love you make. I stole this one, obviously, but it’s still true.

– There are no grand conspiracies, evil or otherwise. You’re giving people way too much credit. We’re just not smart enough as a species.

– Learn the difference between quitting and choosing a different path.

– Your feelings subsist largely on a diet of your thoughts. 

– The guilty party in every Scooby Doo episode is the second character the gang meets. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.

– While endlessly fascinating to you, no one else wants to hear the details of that dream you had last night. No. One. 

– Our most important job is to make the world a slightly better place when you leave it than when you showed up, even if only an inch.

– I know, it’s hard to do, but I’ll repeat: it’s been too long now, and any potential leads have long since evaporated: all we can know is that the dogs are out. Who created this condition is unknowable. Let the healing begin.

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