I, Kate, am a Harvard-educated, Second City-trained comedy writer who teaches logic in my spare time. This is precisely why I am also still single. (Well, that and the fact that I live in Los Angeles.) I will use this space to share musings, observations, and all-too-true stories from my three decades (and counting) of adventures in love and storytelling. Thanks for reading! [Return to full-frontalnerdity.com]
Once there was a peasant whose ruler demanded delivery of riches she could not produce. She thought all was hopeless, when a strange little troll suddenly appeared. He claimed he could spin pure gold out of worthless straw, had done it time and again and would do so for her, but only if she gave him anything he asked for in return. Desperate and terrified, the peasant accepted his deal. The little troll danced and sang with glee; he always made the best deals, and this one was YUGE.
A year later, the troll returned to claim his due – the peasant’s very soul (in the form of her child). She did not want to pay such a price, so she tried to bribe him with anything else she could give. But no. “A deal is a deal,” said the troll. She begged him to renegotiate, and finally the troll pursed his lips; “Fine. There’s only one thing I love more than crushing souls – and that’s my name. My name is amazing. It’s the best name. And hearing people say it is the best thing in the world. So if you can guess my name, and say it out loud when I come back, you can keep your stupid kid.”
The poor woman determined to scour the country for every name in existence. She sent emissaries out in all directions to help her, but as luck would have it, the task wasn’t so hard. One of them happened to stumble upon the troll’s reclusive home and, because the troll was the narcissist that he was, saw that he had written his name across literally everything he owned. The emissary returned to the woman, told her his findings, and when the troll returned she was ready.
“Go ahead, try to guess my name. You’ll never do it. It’s very, very impossible.”
“HOW DID YOU DO THAT?! Cheater! Witch! Liar! No fair!” The little troll turned orange with rage, pulled out his hair, and stomped his foot so hard he buried himself in the earth. Sadly, his hands were too small to dig himself out, and everyone lived happily ever after (except the troll). The end.
I’m just saying: fairy tales have a lot for us to learn. And names have power; use them wisely.
It’s a tale as old as time: one of the greatest innovations of human timekeeping is credited to “Father of Leap Day” Julius Caesar, and where did he get the idea? From a woman.
Gather round, kids, for a brief story:
Once upon a time, there was a Prince with a Problem. His people, the Romans, were having some trouble keeping track of things. They, like most of humanity, had adopted a lunar calendar – first with only ten months (because, in a move that would make George R.R. Martin proud, winter was a “monthless time”), then eventually with January and February to bring it to twelve. But if the Prince and his countrymen had bothered to ask, any woman could have told them that letting life be ruled by a lunar cycle is just asking for trouble. And it was!
The Prince’s trouble was that the Man on the Moon takes on average 29.5 days to complete one of his cycles, which makes a 354-day year. Mother Earth, on the other hand, has more to do; she takes roughly 365.25 days to get all the way around the sun, which made the Roman calendar a full 11.25 days too short. Bummer. In just a few years, this communication gap had the Ides of March on the Ides of April, and that just sounds silly.
Like the Classic men that they were, the Prince and his Romans routinely ignored this inconvenient problem until it got so big they couldn’t; then they “fixed” it by inserting a random extra month into the year now and then, forcing that rascal Spring back where it was supposed to be.
Effective? Yes. Functional? Maybe. But much like a frat house, this was no way to live.
In a different part of the world, a Queen named Cleopatra and her Egyptians had devised a brilliant strategy for living in harmony with Nature. They kept a calendar of twelve tidy 30-day months, then made up the extra length with a five-day party at the end of each year. Every fourth year, that party went for six days.
Kids, if this sounds like the best idea humankind has ever had, you are right. We really missed the boat.
By the time Julius Caesar met Cleopatra, things had gotten way out of hand for the Romans. I mean, seriously out of hand – they’d ignored their time problem so long that Spring was hiding in Summer and snow was falling in May. Julius was impressed by Cleopatra’s brilliant calendar (and by everything else about her, pretty much), so he did what usually happens in these situations: stole it from her, made it a little less good, and proudly declared it his own. Typical.
First, Julius had to get his Roman calendar back on track, which could have happened by letting time take its course, but was more fun to do with brute force. (Bruté force? That would come later.) Declaring 46 B.C. the “Year of Confusion,” Julius Caesar made it 445 days long and forced that sneaky Spring Equinox back to March, where it belonged. He then sprinkled some extra days around the calendar (making his own month the biggest, of course), and decreed that every fourth year one extra day would be added to the end – which, for the Romans, was February.
Way to kill the week-long party, Julius. Way to kill the party.
And everyone lived happily ever after in harmony with Nature – except that they didn’t. There was a dark storm brewing, and it was called Accuracy. You see, kids, the problem is that Mother Earth only takes roughly 365.25 days to circle the sun. She actually takes 365.2422 days, which means that adding a full quarter day to every year then made the Roman calendar 11.2 minutes too LONG.
This seems like a small problem, sure, but like grains of sand in an hour glass, it adds up. In 128 years, the whole calendar was off by a full day, and by the time of Pope Gregory XIII more than 1500 years later, that sneaky bugger Spring was back in April instead of March.
Once again, the man in charge took drastic measures, removing ten days from October 1582 (no Halloween candy for you, kids), and declaring that, going forward, every century year – 1600, 1700, etc. – would have no Leap Day, unless that year was also divisible by 4.
That’s right, kids; bet you didn’t know how special that Leap Day was in 2000.
And so, with this new “Gregorian” calendar (because of course he renamed it after himself), we’ve got the whole 365.2422 days per year problem sorted out. For a while, anyway. It’s still not perfect, but it will be 3,300 years before we’re off by a whole day again. Let those guys worry about it.
*Or is it? The buried feminine roots of Leap Day seem to have caused some residual guilt that has seeped out in the form of misguided attempts at female empowerment. In Ireland and the U.K., Leap Day became traditionally the one day women were allowed to propose to men – and had to be compensated (with money or clothes) if turned down. In the U.S., this tradition became “Sadie Hawkins Day” (celebrated November 15th in common years), and in one city – Aurora, IL – single women are deputized on Leap Day to arrest men.
THIS YEAR, I say we tackle our own empowerment in a less condescending way, and use our special day to leap a woman one step closer to the Presidency. Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, after all – and the first day of Women’s History Month. Make some history, Hillary; one giant Leap for womankind.
To Tweet, or not to Tweet – that is the question;
Whether ‘tis nobler off the line to suffer
The stings and harrows of outrageous comments,
Or to type reams against a sea of trollers
And by opposing end them. To like, re-tweet –
No more; and by Delete to say we end
The headache and the thousand cyber shocks
The web is host to. ‘Tis a disconnection
Desperately to be wished. To post, to Tweet –
To Tweet, perchance to SCREAM. Ay, there’s the rub.
For in that Tweet of wrath, what screams may come
When we have rattled off our mental bile,
Must give us pause. There’s the Reply
That makes calamity of logged-in life.
For who would bear the links and shames online,
Th’obsessives wrong, the proud men’s humble-brag,
The pangs of tagged old loves, the trolls irate,
The insolence of hotheads, and the spurns
Of posts that merit few if any Likes…
When he himself might peace and quiet make
With a broke modem? Who would Facebook bear –
To gloss and Status-hype a weary life –
But for the dread of what is off the net:
The un-updated country, from whose road
No traveler checks in or ‘Grams their meal,
And makes us rather live those lives we have
Than share with followers we know not of?
Thus, consciousness makes cowards of us all,
And thus the natural glue of real connection
Is cybered o’er with hash-tagged bytes of thought,
And intercourses of points rich and cogent
Eggplant and poop emojis turn awry
And lose their satisfaction.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a dream. There was inspiration and motivation and daring and excitement. She was going to conquer the world and with a voice in her ear and endless story in her heart she knew that she could.
* * *
The land of creation is populated by liars. Its waters look deep but when stepped in are shallow, and the language is not how it sounds.
–How is it yes means maybe and maybe means don’t hold your breath? She never could understand or remember. She never learned to speak WhatsInItForMe.
But there are sparkly people, too, and she loves them! There are brilliant ideas and shiny talents; there is work and play and work and collaboration. O the collaboration! Yes, she says, and yes again. Let’s do something, or another thing, or lunch. A new project, new spark, new yes and yes I will Yes.
* * *
How can a world so small and crowded feel so empty sometimes? She has uncovered the challenge of living in the world while working in her head.
–It’s far better than the reverse, she reminds herself.
She watches friends change and fade and move on to better things, to better people. One by one some give up. She dreads the day she is faced with the same decision, wondering how one could possibly stop.
–Better odds for the rest of us. She secretly loves the acquired wisdom such ugly understanding betrays.
* * *
–This work is fantastic! Can you make it less ‘smart’?
–I love everything about this. Can you make it about a man?
–A brilliant new voice! Can you take out everything that makes it different?
Some create while others calculate, she learns. She wishes the calculators had as much faith in humanity as she does.
Stupidity and fear increase with power. With each note she leans to find the useful in the self-indulgent slop. She realizes she has a choice. Not every suggestion has to matter. Even if it’s right, she decides if it’s right for her. She learns to listen to herself.
* * *
Success is a carrot dangling, tantalizing up ahead. There is work, and money, but never the meal. She drags the weight of experience one step closer and grasps; victory keeps pace. One more step, one more reach, one more miss. With each try the weight gets heavier. Her legs get stronger. The distance gets smaller. But there is still distance.
She played Lucy once in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It sucks to be on the other side of the football.
* * *
–Why can’t my work speak for itself? Why do I have to learn to market to people?
–If only it worked that way. This is a business too, she explains. People have to see the dollar signs.
Mentoring reminds her how much she knows after all the years, how much she has to offer. It is good to give back, help, feel useful. She hopes they won’t look close and see she’s a fraud.
–What is the best strategy for breaking in?
–When you find out you can tell the rest of us.
She explains time and again there is no best way. Everyone has a different story. Everyone has the same answer: whatever works. Time and again she watches their faces fall to frustration. She remembers the feeling. It doesn’t get better, she wants to tell them. Unless it does and she just doesn’t know it yet.
–It really is true that if anything else can make you happy, you should do it.
–They tell the same thing to clergy, her student replies.
–Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.
Isolation, devotion, a calling. The joke works because it’s true. She wonders if she accidentally took a vow of celibacy at some point.
* * *
Night is dark, but feels darker. The city moves constantly, yet nothing changes. She wants desperately to give up. What if the years ahead look just like the ones stretched behind?
Stopping would be easy, logistically – she could teach, go back to school. Stopping spiritually is impossible. The voice is there. She has something to say and the ability to say it. Her drive to be heard will never fade; stopping just means desire with no hope.
But she lacks means. Substance and skill are useless without means. It feels like the means will never come.
Death would stop desire. She briefly considers it; the moment is one moment too scary. Her practical side objects: too much willpower, love, guilt. She wishes there were better reasons to get up.
–OOF. Okay, I’ll feed you! Now please get your fuzzy butt off my bladder.
She is reminded why she adopted the cats in the first place. Who rescued whom, really?
* * *
Nov. 9: Another birthday without the gift of work from anyone supposedly invested in my career. Another day is frustrating enough. If I make it to 40 in the same situation, it may kill me. Although I’m pretty sure I said that about 39. And 38. Time for champagne!
Nov. 26: Today I get to be with family. As rough as the last 13 years have been, at least I haven’t had to deal with parental disappointment or a lack of love. I give thanks for family.
Dec.1: It’s tempting to hate the agent who refuses to sign female comedy writers, but he’s not wrong. The odds are for-never in our favor re: work. But my motivation is starting to return. Spirits are up.
Dec. 27: Winter is coming? I’m pretty sure it’s here. A Game of Thrones marathon can ease me through the end of the year, but I need preparation to survive. New projects; new strategies; new sparks. Time to work.
Jan. 1: Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated story of my future. Stand me now and ever in good stead.
Los Angeles 2016
[My thanks to James Joyce for writing something I struggled with the first time, started to understand the second time, and have loved every single time since.]
I know that expecting to hear intelligent commentary during a morning “news” program is like expecting to hear a Kardashian explain algebra, but I was still taken aback by a comment one of the lightweights on the Today show made yesterday. During a discussion about the San Bernardino shooting – in the midst of comments about how hard it is to report the news because “we’re also human beings” – one person tossed off the aside, “of course, we take our responsibility seriously as journalists…”
It stopped me in my morning tracks because my first thought was:
Do you? Do you really?
I do not think that means what you think it means.
If you took your job seriously, you would be reporting information instead of talking about how hard it is to not piss anyone off. Piss people off! You are the piss on the propaganda parade!
If you took your job seriously, you would report that the Second Amendment protects the right of the people to keep arms for the purpose of having a well-regulated Militia, rather than for every shit, giggle, and macho fantasy the NRA can imagine. Or that banning certain weapons, limiting stockpiles, and requiring safety standards does not contradict that commandment.
If you took your job seriously, you would point out that there is a difference between Hillary saying, “Everyone knew I was using a private server” while the President says, “We didn’t know she used it exclusively” (two statements that can both be true without conflict), and Trump saying, “I saw thousands of Muslims cheering on 9/11” (a statement that is patently, provably false). Spinning and lying may be a matter of degrees, but they are very important degrees – one is bitching about the A/C at work and the other is hypothermia.
If you took your job seriously, you would not let, “People agree with me,” be an acceptable argument. You would not report a politician or spokesperson’s claim, then cater to a false “balance” by reporting a counter claim and walking away without any discussion of which speaker – if any – is supported by fact.
If you took your job seriously, you would not report opinion polls, or Twitter wars, or YouTube trends; you would not interview every single victim of an assault, or speculate about what might be true when there is no information, or show every angle of footage in an orgy of tragedy porn.
If you took your job seriously, you would give us facts, statistics, what is known and not known… actual information.
Your job, reporters, is not to tell us what a certain percentage of us currently believe; your job is to give us the info we need to decide what to think going forward. News is not the same as story. Whether the public likes you personally doesn’t matter. Imbalance does not mean the same thing as bias – even if someone whines that it does.
And the problem with you forgetting all of that is this:
You are making us stupid.
Ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds anger, and all of it adds up to the state of our world today.
Yes, we citizens have a responsibility as well. We need to call out those who remain willfully ignorant, lie, or deny facts; we need to make it socially unacceptable to act out of fear or anger or hate; we need to vote.
But when there is no island of responsible reporting to stand on amidst the sea of swirling bullshit, you make our job nearly impossible.
So help us, Obi-Wan Reporters. You’re our only hope.
Exactly 100 years ago, an alien mind inside an unusual man opened the eyes of humanity and forever changed the way we see the universe. His name has become synonymous with Time and Relativity and Space, yet his face has appeared to the world in many different forms.
No, I’m not talking about The Doctor. At least not the one from Gallifrey.
Much like the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, though, Doctor Einstein was also a hipster icon of his day. He may not have worn Chucks with a suit or made bow ties and the fez cool, but he did rock a thrift-shop wardrobe, some seriously crazy hair, and a retro bicycle as his regular ride.
Einstein was at times a frustrated genius, burdened – like the first few Doctors – by the inability of mere mortals to keep up with his intellect. He could also be patient and calm, like the Seventh Doctor, or grumpy like the Twelfth, and occasionally scare the shit out of people, much as the Fourth Doctor traumatized my childhood (no thanks to my older brother’s TV habits).
Like the Ninth Doctor (and the uncounted incarnation before him), Einstein was often a man reeling from and railing against war. But he also never lost his sense of whimsy – his inner Sixth Doctor – or (for some of us weirdos) his romantic appeal, like the Eighth.
Doctor Einstein saw and solved problems no one on this planet even conceived of, by keeping his mind open and letting his imagination lead the way. He quite often failed on the way to success, and knew that sometimes it is best to blow things up in order to put them back together much stronger. And 100 years ago, over the four Thursdays in November, 1915, he presented to the world his theory of General Relativity – quite literally creating the fabric of space-time with his mind.
I like to think of Einstein as the Zero-th Doctor – because any mathematician knows that counting really starts at zero, not one.
So today, as we celebrate family and friends, eat delicious meals, and give thanks for all that we have in this universe, spare a thought for the wonders of science. For the spaces we gather to share food, the gravitational pull that draws us together, and the time that slows down when life is really good.
And give thanks for Doctor Einstein, who opened our eyes to it all 100 years ago today. He is truly the original Time Lord.
Mae govannen, Mellon! Tolo ned; dortho. What’s that? You don’t speak Elvish? I said, “Well met, Friend! Come in; stay.” Don’t worry about which words mean what – just trust me; that’s the phrase. All you have to do is remember it, and you will speak Elvish too!
Okay, you’ll probably need a little more to get by, so if you run into trouble you should also remember Noro lim! (It means, “Run fast!”) Got it memorized? You may also want to practice saying them out loud so you can pedo (speak) well. If I’m throwing too much at you too fast, just ask me to daro (stop) – but I bet if you drill with some flashcards you’ll be able to absorb it soon enough.
Welcome to the Elvish-speaking world!
What, you don’t quite feel fluent? Of course you don’t; this is a completely ridiculous way to teach someone a language. Maybe you could hold down a job as a greeter at a Grey Havens jogging track (“Come in! Run fast!”). At best you could train an Elvish dog. But you certainly won’t be chatting with Elrond about the merits of mithril anytime soon.
If you have ever learned a language – and if you are reading this, I know you have – you know that an alphabet and some common phrases are not enough for conversation. We need vocabulary, and syntax. We need an understanding of the rules. In short, we need grammar.
And yet, for generations we’ve been teaching the language of math just like I taught you Elvish.
Learn those letters (digits 0 through 9); sing the alphabet so you can remember their order (counting); memorize these combinations and what they mean (drill those times tables); and BOOM. Good luck communicating!
The human brain is an amazing thing that can commit an impressive amount of information to memory – especially if it is useless – but after a certain point it just can’t memorize any more. Without some grammatical rules to govern things, the wheels rapidly fly off the Math Mobile. (At around fifth grade, for most people.)
Fortunately, education specialists know that learning logic is just as important for math “numeracy” as grammar is for literacy. Which is exactly what the Common Core sets as the new goal* of early math education.
[*I say “goal” because the Common Core is a collection of skill goals for each age and subject around which teachers and schools design specific curricula. It is not a set (or dictated) curriculum itself.]
Yeah, math homework looks really weird now, but that’s because – in addition to the old carry-the-one remainders method of doing math on paper – kids are first learning to think of numbers as collections and combinations of other numbers. They are learning the logic of math instead of just the labels. Like how a language speaker can look at a word she has never seen before and use prefixes, suffixes, and roots to figure out the definition anyway.
When a person who is “good at math” does subtraction or division in her head, she doesn’t line things up on top of or next to each other and fiddle around with carried numbers. No, she looks at your weird Facebook post celebrating your child’s 31st week of life and thinks that 31 is almost 32, which is itself made up of eight fours, and since there are four weeks in a month calculates that your child is just under eight months old because that’s the way normal people mark time, Thank You Very Much.
If that isn’t how you do math in your head, I am betting you probably don’t consider yourself “good at math.” Our kids, on the other hand, will be, and that will benefit everyone.
Is it annoying that future generations are going to know how to do stuff better than we can? Absolutely. Kids already think they know everything and this is only going to make them more obnoxious. But fighting against numeracy (or the Common Core in general) because “that’s not the way we learned it” makes about as much sense as going back to treating acne with urine. (Yeah, we used to do that apparently. Ew.)
Now, if you want to fight all the standardized testing, that’s a completely different issue. I will be right there burning the No. 2 pencils and bubble grids beside you. Tol acharn! (Vengeance comes!)