Put a Common Cork In It

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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!)

Don’t Let the Hodor Hit You on the Way Out

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There is a Hodor-sized hole in my heart right now. I knew the medieval BFG was going to be absent from Game of Thrones this season, but now that we’re almost halfway through the emptiness is palpable. No lumbering innocence. No verbal nuance. No exquisite torture from simultaneously craving more “hodor” and dreading his last.

[For those unaware, the character Hodor is a large but gentle servant of the Stark family who speaks only one word: “hodor”. Imagine Lenny from Of Mice and Men hooked up with Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, had a three-parent IVF baby with The Hulk, wrapped it in wolf pelts and tossed it backwards a few centuries. He’s perfect.]

My own Hodor is also missing this season. He, too, was a large, joyous man with an unfortunate penchant for accidental damage and a real name other than Hodor. [Geek of Thrones: fictional Hodor’s given name is Walder.]

One Hodor can do plenty of damage, intended or not; two Hodors can really mess a girl up.

Human Hodor and I bonded over our mutual love for his namesake. When I described the character to a GoT newbie as “simple-minded” and he amended, “simple-worded, not really minded,” it was the first time I realized I completely loved how human Hodor’s brain worked.

Hodor became our talisman. One evening after a Thrones viewing he bid me farewell with a kiss and a “Hodor.” It was ho-dorable. Soon, it was our standard greeting. First thing in the morning: Hodor. After receiving a thoughtful gift: Hodor! In exchange for a lovely plate of eggs: Mmm….hodor.

Before long we had hodored our way into being completely hodor about each other. Then, after a deep and emotional talk one night, he left the room and hit me with a simple text: Hodor. “Hodor too,” I replied, and that was that. Like Westley and Buttercup, we had no need for “I love you.” As Hodor wish.

Scientifically, fictional Hodor is an extreme example of a person stricken with expressive aphasia – when the Broca region of the brain suffers trauma, leaving speech limited but comprehension intact. Giant Hodor was probably a giant baby, so perhaps his mother dropped him a time or two. My own Hodor did not have the excuse of a head injury; his affliction was more traditional: fear.

From early on, he was honest about his commitment skittishness. The word “relationship” frightened him, even though the trappings of one did not. In practice, he seemed pretty gung ho about the actions of a relationship, so I didn’t mind that he was more comfortable saying “Hodor” than “I love you”. The meaning was clear to both of us, so I didn’t worry. I probably should have worried.

In the end, my Hodor turned out to have more going on in his head than he was aware of (though in his case it wasn’t a warging Bran Stark). When we broke up, he refused to admit that his fear might be greater than he thought, insisting instead that he must just not love me. Oh, the Hodor!

Maybe it’s true – maybe he didn’t – but like his namesake, Hodor also doesn’t know what happened when he ceded control of his brain for a moment. He doesn’t know that on the last night we spent together (three days before he bolted), he actually told me “I love you.”

He doesn’t know this because it was one of the last things he said before falling asleep – right between “”I love my bed” and “I also miss the coffee” (he had been out of the country for a while). I’m not sure which made me happier – that he said “I love you” instead of “Hodor” or that he placed me ahead of coffee. Holy Hodor, Batman!

I have no idea what to do with this information now. It wasn’t worth making a big deal of at the time, and I did not know our next conversation would be a breakup. At that point, it seemed a little awkward to mention it.

But as Hodor knows, little words can pack a big punch. I have recovered from many romantic devolutions caused by many problems – not being right, not being ready, not being even remotely interested; I’ve never had to get over someone who loved me back but didn’t consciously know it.

Hodors leave big shoes to fill. What’s a girl to do? Oh right, stare at Peter Dinklage for a while. Mmm…hodor.

Noisomes Off

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If I could have one superpower, I would choose the ability to blink leaf blowers out of existence with my mind. My faithful sidekick would do car alarms. We would be The Sound and The Fury – fighting for peace, quiet, and the manual way.

Leaf blowers are stupid, especially in the city. They accomplish no more than a rake or broom, in barely less time, and do it all while polluting the air with ear-splitting noise and filthy dust. Gas-powered leaf blowers (which is most of them) do all of that while also spewing toxic fumes, making them simultaneously noisy and noisome.

‘Noisome’ is one of those words that makes no sense, because it should mean “loud” but instead means “offensively stinky or unpleasant”. That dissonance, though, is what makes it the perfect word to describe the current state of communication in our culture.

We have a problem with noisome discourse – increasingly disagreeable, foul, and loud – and just like the leaf blowers, the problem is largely fueled by GAS:

GENERALIZATIONS – all of which are terrible. (See what I did there?) Too often we inflate our arguments by shouting that “all cops are bad” rather than “this cop is bad” or that “all men are pigs” when at the moment only that man is a pig.

[Why is ‘pig’ a derogatory term? I love pigs. They are smart, and clean, and taste like bacon. We should all be pigs!]

The problem with arguments inflated by generalizations is that they are easily punctured by a single anecdotal counterexample – thus letting the air out of what may otherwise have been solid logic.

ASSUMPTIONS – which not only make asses out of us, but likewise also leak a noxious stench into the air. When we hear words leave a fellow human’s mouth these days (or see them typed), our instinct seems to be to immediately assume the most racist / sexist / elitist / ageist / atheist / anti-whatever-ist intentions behind them. Sure, taking offense is fun, but why not allow for the possibility someone is curious, mistaken, or just plain dumb instead of horrible? Assumptions are dangerous; it only takes a single spark of defensiveness to ignite an explosion of anger and send civility up in flames.

SELFISHNESS completes the toxic triumvirate in our GAS. Not just “shut up and let me talk,” selfishness, or the “my way or the highway” variety; we have also become selfish in our refusal to accept partial agreement or any personal fault. High on the fumes of our own opinion, we focus all our attention on winning that last minor point against an ally instead of working with them to battle the larger problems facing both of us. As with any gas, the overall pressure of selfishness increases as the force of our need to be 100% right gets divided by a smaller and smaller area of focus, ultimately resulting in a blowout.

This chemical cocktail of generalization, assumption, and selfishness is fueling a lot of sound and fury in our world today.

As science has shown, GAS will, once released, expand to fill any available space. It may not seem harmful at first, and is even tempting since GAS can burn colorful and bright or give us a quick high that makes life briefly hilarious. But it is not healthy to breathe and can quickly turn dangerous, which is why we should stop releasing GAS entirely.

It won’t be easy. GAS is often hard to hear, mostly impossible to see, and no one ever wants to admit it comes from them (even though we all do it). But GAS is filling our world with an odious cloud that is highly combustible, poisonous to ingest, and toxic to our environment.

On Earth Day, let’s all stop spewing this GAS into the air and let clearer heads prevail.

Irrational Pastime

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Happy Pi Day!

According to Schoolhouse Rock, three is a magic number – and it is. But just as pi is equal to a little more than three, pi itself is a little more than magical. It is downright metaphorical.

Mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers have been chasing down the elusive number for thousands of years. Pretty much since we gained awareness of numbers themselves, and round things. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter was a constant number or that the number was just over three, but several hundred lifetimes would pass before we got more accurate than that.

What do you get when you divide the circumference of a jack o’ lantern by its diameter? Pumpkin pi!

The true quest for pi was borne out of our desire to “square the circle”. In a literal, mathematical sense this means finding a simple – or at least consistent – way to calculate a square with equal area to any given circle. Symbolically, squaring the circle is a much deeper human desire.

Circles have always been mysterious. They represent the infinite, even sometimes defined as “a polygon with infinite corners.” With no beginning or end point, they symbolize that which is eternal and immeasurable. According to Nietzsche and Matthew McConaughey, time itself is a flat one. Even this post is circular (it ends where it begins). Circles are unknowable, spiritual.

Squares, on the other hand, are a symbol of all that is solidly defined. They are firmly knowable, easily measured, comfortably comprehensible. There is a reason one of the earliest words in our culture for the nerdy and rule bound was “square.”

To search for an exact value of pi – to seek to square the circle – is to attempt to make the unknowable known. To define the undefined. Another term for pi is the “circular constant”, or in other words a mystery that is rock steady.

What was Sir Isaac Newton’s favorite dessert? Apple pi!

Historically, some have considered this quest to understand the mysterious a dangerous game. The poet John Donne wrote the verse, “Eternal God – for whom who ever dare / Seek new expressions, do the circle square, / And thrust into straight corners of poor wit / Thee, who art cornerless and infinite,“ explicitly condemning the search for an exact value for pi. Many more, like Archimedes, devoted their entire lives to the quest. All of them died without reaching it.

Because, of course, the quest is impossible. It took us several thousand years, but eventually (by the 18th century) we humans finally proved that the number pi is irrational – its digits go on forever and never repeat. About a hundred years later, we also determined that pi is transcendent, which means it is not the solution to any algebraic equation. Irrational and transcendent – just like the human mind.

Those two vital discoveries – that the circular constant is both never ending or repeating and impossible to equate – combine to prove without doubt that we cannot find a square with equal area to a circle. The circle, quite literally, can never be squared.

“Secant, tangent, cosine, sine, 3.14159!” – MIT cheerleaders

So the number pi is simultaneously proof that some things can never be known and that there are rock-solid constants we can rely on. Constants such as our drive to always dig deeper and know more, even if we can never understand it all. No wonder pi is the most enduringly studied number in human history.

These days, pi continues to symbolically bridge the mysterious and the defined. It has become our computational bedrock, used to test computers for bugs or weakness, and at the same time our mathematicians are scouring its digits through billions of decimal places (and counting!) in search of any pattern or logic to its order. So far, we’ve found nothing. It is proving uniquely and stubbornly random.

“Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.” – Albert Einstein

On March 14th, we celebrate this metaphorical number by eating pie, something both circular and delicious. We also celebrate another wonder of the universe – Albert Einstein, who was born on 3/14/1879. Einstein himself is a perfect representation of pi’s duality, as his life continuously bridged math and creativity, science and spirituality, and social consciousness with humor. He understood better than nearly anyone the perfect paradox embodied by pi: that the more we learn, the less we know.

Or, to put it in terms of the constant itself, “the wider the circle of light, the larger the circumference of darkness.” (Not an Einstein quote, but one of his favorites.)

Happy Birthday, Albert. And…

Happy Pi Day!

The Silence of the Clowns

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In space, no one can hear you scream. On Earth, they also can’t hear you scream if you have laryngitis.

For the last five days I have been without a voice. Speechless. Unable to make sound. It turns out that this is a long time to go without speaking; things get pretty surreal.

My mind first started to fight back with experimentation. I tried any and everything I could think of to break through the silence. Gargling salt water helps, but gargling itself is pretty weird without sound. Whiskey doesn’t help at all, but does improve morale. Hot bath – not great. Hot shower – better, but comes with guilt when living in a drought state. I drank gallons of tea, sucked pounds of lozenges, ate buckets of soup…not even headstands helped.

At a certain point, I started to wonder if maybe my voice would never come back. I also wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

Sure, there were a few moments when my lack of vocal power was distinctly frustrating. Not being able to call my cats in from outside, for example, or tell a new suitor that I heartily approved of what he just did with his tongue (hey, I wasn’t contagious). The worst was not being able to call my parents; I realized that 3-4 days is the most I want to go without hearing their voices.

The rest of life without out a voice, though, isn’t that bad. I have never liked answering the phone to begin with, so it felt pretty great to literally not be able to. It took some quick thinking when the pizza delivery guy called (some quick running, really), but otherwise I decided that it probably would be fine if I never spoke again. Heck, it might even make me better at life!

This revelation isn’t too surprising, since for the longest time I was an actual enemy of my own voice. I hated that people mistook me for a boy over the phone; I hated how high and squeaky it got when I spoke passionately; I hated that I couldn’t disguise it or control it more – though really what I lacked was the confidence to control it.

As a solution, I worked to avoid my voice as much as possible. I became afraid of the phone. In French class, I could only get so far with reading and writing, but still I refused to practice speaking. While I can sing, the idea of singing solo in front of other people was (and still is) mortifying. Even my comedy changed, as I settled comfortably into the role of straight man in my sketch groups, in order to avoid the humiliation of “doing voices”. And then, I found a way to stop speaking altogether.

This is the part where I reveal my darkest, creepiest secret: I used to be a clown.

In my high school, students had to take a semester of oration as an English credit. Most people opted for Public Speaking, but a few of us chose Theatre Production, also known as Clowning. One of the English teachers had actually been to clown college, so he taught it as a course from which grew our school’s clown troupe, which did community service around the city.

For two years, I was one of those clowns.

The goal in creating a clown character is to be completely disguised, hence the face paint and funny hair and fake noses. I loved the idea of being unrecognizable as myself – it was liberating. But in creating Harmony, my clown, I balked so badly at finding a voice that I turned to Harpo Marx for inspiration and chose to be mute.

Harmony wore bells, carried a horn and various whistles, and communicated via kazoo, but never spoke. I had to eliminate my hated voice in order to feel completely free.

Surprisingly, silence didn’t make comedy harder. I couldn’t rely quite as much on my wit, but years of children’s theater, slapstick comedy, and marching band made it pretty easy to make the joke without words. I was even comfortable humming! As a non-clown, as long as I can still whistle, whisper, clap, stomp, and bang on things, I know I could do fine without a voice.

After my clown days were over – which I admit wasn’t until after college – and I hit the real world, a funny thing (funnier than clowns) happened; through improv, sketch writing, and adulthood, I found my real voice. I became a writer. And the more I discovered that I actually had something to say, the more I got comfortable saying it, the less I hated or feared my physical voice. I’m not saying I’ll be voluntarily singing in front of people anytime soon, but I have gotten quite comfortable making noise.

Last year, at Sci-Fest Los Angeles, one of the plays depicted a world where political dissidents were punished by having their vocal chords surgically removed. They were then given a choice: life in prison, or total freedom with the promise to never write another word. A lifetime of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know”, nothing more. It was the most terrifying play I have ever seen.

A life without a voice box would be inconvenient, sure, but livable. A life without a voice would be a nightmare.

(I’m still pretty happy to have it back, though.)

Ceci N’est Pas une Post

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Love is a curious paradox; one no one can explain. Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain? Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain, or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?

Due respect to The Fantasticks (from which the above are lyrics), but I don’t want to “try to remember” September. This past September broke my heart. Besides, The Fantasticks is a play where two dads arrange for an old dude to attempt the rape of one dad’s daughter so the other dad’s son can save her and fall in love. That’s fucked up.

(Yet it is a truly fantastic play – how paradoxical.)

Love IS a curious paradox. We can only find it when we aren’t looking for it, we have to fail at it to in order to succeed, and it is hardest to lose when we didn’t need it in the first place.

Sartre (the original Debbie Downer) nailed it in Being and Nothingness, observing that love is so vital to us we desire to control the will of our beloved; we wish we could guarantee their love in return. Yet love is only valuable when freely given, so the moment we could secure it would be the moment it lost all meaning. (Though he said it in a far more complex and French way.)

The very thing that makes love terrifying – the fact that it can be lost or not returned – is the only thing that makes it worth seeking.

Breakups are also paradoxical. A love that matters is thusly worth fighting for, but in fighting we risk removing the value entirely. Still, the fight itself is necessary.

A long time ago, when I was young(er) and dumb(er), I got mad at my boyfriend for not doing the dishes while I was at work. He pointed out that I had not asked him to do the dishes; had he known I wanted it, he probably would have. Or, let’s be honest, he probably still wouldn’t have, but at least then I’d have had every right to be angry. As it was, I couldn’t blame him for not satisfying an expectation I had never vocalized. Grubby dishes aside, he was completely right.

Now, I speak up whenever I want something. Including – and especially – when that something is a someone.

When a love matters, it is important to tell them they matter. It is important to say out loud what we want, to give voice to all of the good that stands to be lost, and to politely point out that they are making a huge mistake.

But somewhere in the middle of the argument, in the middle of the tears, the declarations of “we’re awesome”, and the “that’s no reason to throw it all away”, there is also that little voice inside speaking the truth we don’t want to acknowledge. The one that knows the paradox cannot be resolved, asking, “What good is a love I talked someone into?”

Winning the fight means losing the value of the love. Yet to not fight would mean it never really mattered in the first place. And round and round it goes… the following statement is true; the previous statement is false… this sentence is not here.

I guess the trick is to fight for what we want and also have the nerve to never get it.

I do not know the answer; I only know it’s true. I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too.

(It really is a Fantastick play. Go see it.)

FDR U Ready 2 Rock? (The Vote!)

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It’s Election Day, America! Not for Idols (except in North Carolina – good luck with that, Clay), Next Top Models, or folks who Got Talent, but for the people who *actually* have an effect on our lives. (Sorry, Tyra. I love you but it’s true.)

One advantage of my current singledom is extra free time to do awesome things – like watch all 14 hours of Ken Burns’ ‘The Roosevelts’…and remember how moving FDR’s fourth inaugural address was…and how eerily prescient.

So today, I present my first guest blogger: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As you read his words (they’re brief, I promise), let them inspire you to step up and participate today.

Voting is inconvenient? Roosevelt ran for President four times, served three full terms, and stood for every speech without actually possessing the physical ability to do so. He got through this particular speech while suffering from both polio and congestive heart failure – we can handle some research and waiting in line for a smidge.

One vote can’t make a difference? Roosevelt was almost assassinated before his first inaugural, saved only by the fact that the gunman chose to stand on a wobbly chair (I binge-watched the first two seasons of ‘The Newsroom’ too – history!) No wobble, no New Deal, no end to the Depression – little things often make a huge difference.

It’s all just too fubar to bother trying? As FDR reminded us, we can’t let perfection be the enemy of good. We may not achieve it any time soon – or ever – but the point isn’t to be perfect; it’s to keep trying:

Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, my friends, you will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief.

We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage–of our resolve–of our wisdom–our essential democracy.

If we meet that test–successfully and honorably–we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time.

As I stand here today, having taken the solemn oath of office in the presence of my fellow countrymen–in the presence of our God–I know that it is America’s purpose that we shall not fail.

In the days and in the years that are to come we shall work for a just and honorable peace, a durable peace, as today we work and fight for total victory in war.

We can and we will achieve such a peace.

We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately–but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes–but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle.

I remember that my old schoolmaster, Dr. Peabody, said, in days that seemed to us then to be secure and untroubled: “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights–then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”

Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy.

And so today, in this year of war, we have learned lessons–at a fearful cost–and we shall profit by them.

We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.

We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.

We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

We can gain no lasting peace if we approach it with suspicion and mistrust or with fear. We can gain it only if we proceed with the understanding, the confidence, and the courage which flow from conviction.

The Almighty God has blessed our land in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth. He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.

So we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly–to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for all our fellow men–to the achievement of His will to peace on earth.

— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, January 20, 1945

Intolerance vs. love; information vs. fear; progress vs. destruction. The trend of civilization must remain upward. Citizens of the world, members of the human community, go vote!