To Kill a Mocking Turd

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When I came to Los Angeles 13 years ago, it was not to be a writer. I didn’t know yet that I was a writer. This seems silly in retrospect, given that I wrote my first play in kindergarten, tortured my family with puppet shows through elementary school, spent junior high writing original Nancy Drew mysteries, and was one-fifth of a sketch comedy troupe in high school. But math has objective answers and I usually got them right, so that’s what I knew I was good at.

Even after light dawned and I actively embraced what I had been doing my whole life, I still didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a writer. It wasn’t about legitimacy – I got paid as a writer for years before I called myself one; it was a little about resistance – being an actor is sexier than being a writer; but it was mostly about proof. Before I uttered the words, “I am a writer,” I wanted to be confident I could back it up with evidence (blame the mathematician in me).

Writing is weird in that it is something most people think they can do yet very few actually can. Or do. The coffee shops of the world are full of folks with “this amazing idea” who never manage to get it out but still call themselves writers – as if having the intention makes us the thing. I have the intention of learning to change my own oil someday, but that doesn’t make me a mechanic.

Eventually, I came to understand there are a few key elements separating writers from “writers”, all thanks to the quintessential poser I met in my first few weeks here:

Russell the Love Muscle and I met as extras on the set of Legally Blonde 2, and continued to connect on various film sets for months. Russell (dubbed “the Love Muscle” by my eventual boyfriend – who hated him) was many things; he was confident, he had an overdeveloped sense of what he had to offer the world, and he had an inferiority complex about everything. He was the inspiration for the term Nerd Fucker after our one (and only) date, which consisted of car-ride conversations about my IQ and Mensa, and the introductory phrase, “This is Kate, she went to Harvard” used every single time at his friend’s party. The Love Muscle had not gone to Harvard, and my purpose was to prove, through my willingness to associate with him, that the universe had royally messed up on that one.

Russell was also a writer, which was provable because he had a website. In showing me his work, he was the first (but certainly not the last) person to say to me, “Oh, I don’t believe in re-writing. I think the art is more pure if you just let it flow and then put it out there in its original form.” He may have even said “virgin form” – he was that kind of a guy.

This, as any real writer will tell you, is complete bullshit.

To his credit, at least Russell put actual words down on paper (or keyboards). The first key element to being a writer is 1) WRITING SOMETHING, which seems obvious but is probably the hardest step. There are a shockingly high number of “writers” out there who don’t even get that far.

This is because it is scary.

I mentor burgeoning writers regularly, and one of the most common discussions I have is about getting started. People get stymied because they can’t figure out how to translate the glorious idea in their head into words, and I tell them that the secret is to just do it – without stopping or looking back – because the other secret is that they can’t succeed. At least not the first time.

Which brings me to the second key element of being a writer: 2) HATING WHAT YOU JUST WROTE. First drafts suck. They just do. This is why they are called “drafts” and also “first” instead of “finished products”. There is a great Ira Glass quote about how too many aspiring artists stop after producing a bad first attempt, when in truth the mark of a real artist is that very ability to recognize its poor quality. He is completely right. While the Russells of the world look at their first drafts and declare them genius, the writers see all the flaws and get inspired to improve.

That improvement is the final key element to being a writer: 3) WRITING BETTER. My favorite author, John Irving, has said that he considers the real skill of writing to be in the editing. I could not agree more. A writer must not only have the ability to recognize weaknesses and visualize improvements to her writing, but also then have the fortitude to rip apart the work to make it better. There is a reason why this process is referred to as “killing your darlings” (or “babies”) – it hurts. But it is vital, and also impossible without something to fix in the first place.

Writing a first draft is terrifying, because translating a three-dimensional idea into two-dimensional words is essentially an impossible task. You will fail. Admitting that failure is ego-shattering, but necessary because the protective ego stops progress. You must be vulnerable to change. And making changes is heartbreaking, because the initial creation, while flawed, is still precious.

Once a writer gets through this process and creates something to be shared with the world, it is absolutely exhilarating. But the process itself is messy and miserable. No true writer would ever want those earlier drafts – those mocking failures – to be shared with the world.

Think about that before reading Go Set a Watchman. Is the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird something Harper Lee would want the world to see?

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An Argument For Sexism (Just This Once)

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My very first job – dressing as Droopy Dog for a Cartoon Network promotion – happened because I was exactly the right height for the costume (5’3”).

When I was 16, I won then lost the lead in Our Town because the community theatre decided to go literal and cast an actor from their town.

After being denied early acceptance, my eventual admission to Harvard resulted from an unusual dearth of French horn players that year – a hole I could fortunately fill.

In any situation where one candidate is chosen from a pool, said pool inevitably winnows down to a few (or two) evenly qualified finalists, of whom only one gets the prize. The deciding factor – the thing that tips the scales – is often an arbitrary asset no applicant could have anticipated or even controlled. Height. Home address. A musical instrument chosen in grade five.

Heck, I once lost a teaching assistant job via coin toss.

But sometimes, we have an opportunity to make that deciding factor say something important. Like that diversity matters, or that we value female voices. This is the very idea behind affirmative action; every school or hiring business gets more qualified applicants than needed, so if the final selections are going to be based on “other”, why not pick someone because they do NOT reflect what is familiar instead of because they do?

There has been a lot of talk lately from liberals about how Bernie Sanders deserves more serious attention and should be celebrated as the righteous alternative to Hillary. Does this worry me? A little. Does it disappoint me? More than a little. But mostly it pisses me off.

For the record, I love them both. Hillary’s husband was the first President I was old enough to vote for, and due to my super high-school nerdiness I actually got to meet and hear both Clintons speak at the White House. I am also from New Hampshire, and while our states do indulge in occasional sibling rivalry, Bernie has long been a major source of my fervent New England pride.

While it is impossible to directly compare their histories – because being a First Lady and Secretary of State is different than being a long-time Senator, and running for election in large state and national races requires different means than getting elected by 600,000 Vermonters – both unquestionably arrive at this moment as formidable candidates. Both fight for liberal social values and champion the causes of education and economic justice; both are highly intelligent; both are experienced leaders; both are more than qualified to be considered for President.

I probably even agree with Bernie more in places where they differ on policy, but for me there is no hard choice – Hillary should win the party’s nomination, and yes, she should win because she is a woman.

Because it matters. It absolutely matters that given this choice between two great candidates we Democrats jump on the rare opportunity to tip the scales in favor of diversity. To tell our daughters and sisters and wives that we see them as equals and believe they not just can lead but should lead.

Bernie’s voice is important! But he doesn’t need any help to be heard. Sure, we laugh at his accent and hair (we laugh at Donald Trump for the same reasons), but we also respect him because he is intelligent, effective, and dedicated to positive change (The Donald… not so much). We laugh at Joe Biden, too, but still elected him VP. Because Biden and Bernie are men – and a man can have both crazy white hair and our respect (hello, Einstein).

Hillary, on the other hand, has her intelligence and past work downplayed because history has made her wealthy, her successes qualified with references to her “calculated power marriage”, and her eloquent advocacy for women’s (and human) rights diminished by discussion of her awkward wardrobe and demeanor. She belongs to a group repeatedly dismissed over minor transgressions that don’t even raise eyebrows when committed by male counterparts – and you can tell yourself the objections are regardless of gender, but really they aren’t.

No candidate is perfect; it is time for us to finally choose the imperfect woman over the imperfect man.

Is it fair? No. There is no fair – but there is balance. Not long ago, a male relative asked me, “I understand the need for affirmative action, but what do I say to my son who lost a job to a woman just because he is the wrong gender?” My first thought was, “Tough shit? Welcome to the club,” but I like my relatives so I try not to swear at them.

The real answer is that his son didn’t lose the job (it wasn’t “supposed to be” his); he just didn’t win that time. But as a white man in a world where white men make most decisions, he has ten chances to win a job for every one chance she has. As Hillary herself said in her launch speech, “while talent is universal, opportunity is not.” In our current system, the Hillary’s of the world don’t get this far very often. When they do, it is important that we give them the job.

Sure, there is a danger we could overcorrect… but let’s have that conversation when we’ve elected 44 women in a row.

Number Munching

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There need to be more math-inspired food holidays, and together you and I can make that happen.

Wasn’t Pi Day fun? Even though this year (3/14/15 at 9:26:53) was the Pi Day of the Century, March 14th is a great excuse to eat pie in any year. But, just as they say that there are 10 types of people in this world: those who understand binary and those who don’t, the world is also divided into those on team pie and team cake.

As much as I love the number pi, I am decidedly a cake girl. It was the source of great friction in a relationship once, even after I baked a Cherpumple to bridge the gap with my pie guy. (A Cherpumple is a cherry pie baked inside a chocolate cake on top of a pumpkin pie baked inside a spice cake on top of an apple pie baked inside a vanilla cake. It is a foot tall, weighs 18lbs and feeds about forty. Epic.)My Cherpumple

So what other math-food holidays can we celebrate, preferably without sparking dessert wars?

We can stick to the irrational number world and celebrate “e Day”. Since e is the natural log, we could eat ants on a log, cheese logs, yule logs (the cake kind) and basically any other roulade. But e is approximated as 2.7, and February 7th has come and gone.

Famous ratios might be the answer, like the Pythagorean Theorem’s “a squared plus b squared equals c squared” relationship between the sides of a right triangle. This gives us the classic 3:4:5 triangle ratio, so we could have eaten triangular foods (pizza, baklava, candy corn) on March 4, 2005 (3/4/5) or June 8th, 2010 (6/8/10). Unfortunately, Pythagorean Theorem days require all three numbers, and even though the next one is September 12th, 2015 (9/12/15), I’M HUNGRY NOW.

Square root dates have the same need for three numbers that makes them rare – such as 2/2/4, 3/3/9, and next 4/4/16 – and besides, do we want an entire meal made up of root vegetables?

There is always the Fibonacci Sequence (my personal favorite), which runs 1,1,2,3,5,8,13… etc., adding the preceding two numbers into infinity. This number is traditionally celebrated on November 23rd (11/23), but could also be feted on 1/1/23 when it comes. Since Fibonacci formulated the sequence after a thought experiment about mating bunnies, we should all make like Elmer Fudd and hunt some wabbit.

Or, since the Fibonacci Sequence also defines the Golden Ratio – another irrational number, roughly 1.618 – we can celebrate the hell out of it on January 6, 2018. The rich can eat foods dusted in gold flakes and gold powder; the rest of us can meet up at McDonald’s.

Still, these dates are years away. I want math-inspired food NOW!

Our answer is the humble mole. Not the blind, hole-digging insectivore, nor the irritating, cancer-threatening skin growth; I mean the massive constant defined by the number of molecules in 12 grams of Carbon-12 – specifically 6.022 times 10 to the 23rd power.

Think about it: a mole is a unit of measurement in chemistry, and mole (“mo-lay”) is a delicious Mexican sauce made with chocolate and spices, so the food tie-in is natural and fantastic. Plus, the number of things in one mole of anything (6.022 x 10^23) is also known as Avogadro’s Constant; ‘Avogadro’ is so close to ‘avocado’ it’s like the food gods are daring us NOT to do this. A mole dish with avocado? Yes, please!

Finally, Amedeo Avogadro (for whom the number is named) was an Italian Count born in 1776 (freedom!) who studied and practiced law (litigiousness!) before inheriting his father’s title and enough money to retire and dick around with science (financial privilege!). What’s more American than that? This should absolutely be a national holiday.

Oh, sure, I know people already celebrate Mole Day on October 23rd at 6:02, but just as some people celebrate Pi Day on July 22nd (because it can also be approximated as 22/7 and Europeans write their dates day/month), we can certainly have two Mole Days. And, yes, it would make more sense to do it on June 2nd instead of June 22nd, but I missed that day, so screw it.

JOIN ME on June 22nd at 10:23 (am or pm is your choice) in eating a delicious Mexican dish of any type so long as it is slathered in mole sauce and accented with avocado.

It will be MOLE-ecular gastronomy at its finest. Bon appetit!

Pompous and Circumstantial

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Natalie Portman gave the Class Day address at our mutual alma mater last week, and despite her nerves she did a ‘Professional’ job (okay, I’ll stop). It was refreshing to hear her recount the experience of first setting foot in such an overwhelming and impressive place full of overwhelming and impressive people – and comforting to learn she made many of the same mistakes I did.

The world is full of brazenly confident people, and Harvard Yard has more than its fair share. For Natalie, there were five different peers who announced on day one that they would be President someday; I only remember two in my first days, but we both believed all of them from the sheer force of their conviction. Bold declarations are impressive, and those of us not in the habit of making our own are inclined to be won over by their swagger.

(This is the only explanation for a particularly disastrous dating choice of mine freshman year; he told me he was the smartest, funniest guy in the room and I believed him.)

As I quickly learned, though, there is no guarantee of any substance behind the bluster. For every Babe Ruth who backs up a called shot there are a dozen Donald Trumps who are full of shit.

Both Natalie and I reacted to our bold new world in the same way: by letting it intimidate us. We accepted these people’s brazen visions of the world, their standards for greatness, and their definitions of success. Instead of asking ourselves what we wanted out of school or life, we worried about not being good enough – and once someone else is allowed to make up the rules, there really is no way to come out on top. Just ask any six-year-old.

In this past year, I have been drawing inspiration from Albert Einstein’s “Annus Mirabilis” (1905), in which he published four papers each of which was a major breakthrough in its own right. One of the recurring themes in discussions of his unparalleled achievement is the complete unwillingness Einstein had to ever accept any unproven principle as a given. Because he refused to believe time was an immutable constant simply because everyone else assumed it was and no one had seen evidence to the contrary, he was free to explore his own imaginings and now the world understands relativity. You’re welcome, world.

When we free ourselves from belief in how things are “supposed to” be, we open the door to far deeper understanding and far greater achievement. As Natalie put it in her speech, we should remain ignorant of the limitations the world has assumed for us. Or, as that six-year-old would put it, “Sez who?”

Look to the bumblebee for inspiration. For centuries, the world of physics expended a great deal of energy and hot air over the fact that a short, fat, fuzzy insect with stubby wings should not be able to fly. And yet they fly anyway. Mainly, as mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah pointed out, because a bumblebee does not understand the laws of thermodynamics. It simply doesn’t know it can’t fly.*

[*Also, as has recently been determined, it doesn’t flap its wings up and down like other flying things but rather front-to-back with a slight tilt, as though treading water. This creates mini hurricanes above each wing, with low-pressure centers that make it easier to stay aloft. But “because of ignorance” is more romantic.]

If Forrest Gump taught us anything, it is that if we dive into that box of chocolates listening to cries of “beware the cherry cordial” and “butter creams are the best”, we will very likely be disappointed, but if we go in hoping for a sweet treat, we will probably get one. At least I think that was the point.

In other words, don’t believe everything people say (especially about themselves), don’t believe everything you think (especially about yourself), and – to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s commencement address at Wake Forest – define your own standards for success and happiness. Then go for them. Everyone else can go suck a cherry cordial.

Right Said Red

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In celebration of this past week in MC1R recessive genes – during which Ireland chose marriage equality via popular vote and Scotland reaffirmed creationism does not belong in science classrooms – I present my ode to the redheads of this world. It was written years ago for a drunk character in an autobiographical screenplay, but remains just as strong and true to this day. (And for the record, redheaded women are equally great.)

A Taste For Ginger

Fire-engine, orange, straw, or deep rust

No proverbial stepchild; In Red-Heads I Trust.

You may be just 2-ish percent of the people,

But sans you our lives would be – dare I say? Feeble.

Vivaldi, Van Gogh, William Blake, Joyce, and Byron

Plus one William Shakespeare – all hair like a siren.

Mark Twain, D.H. Lawrence, and George Bernard Shaw:

All pale and be-freckled when seen in the raw.

In music, there’s Garfunkel, Morrison, Nelson,

Axyl Rose, Johnny Rotten (they can’t all be handsome).

The wisdom of Churchill, the guts of John Glenn,

Oh where would we be without red-headed men?

With no Chris Columbus the earth would be flat,

Nor ever would move – Galileo found that.

Both Richard the Lion and Eric the Red

Had fiery carpets to match their bright heads.

And then there’s the classics, like Archie and Opie,

Beaker and Clifford, and boys christened Weasley.

With actors and athletes we’d be here all night,

From Redford to Tracy to snow-god Shaun White.

The POINT is: brunettes, blondes, albinos – don’t linger.

I for one will hold out for the sweet taste of ginger.

Time Weights For All Man

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AlTime is a flat circle. No, wait; Time is an increasingly desperate “news” magazine. Time is an herb to the blind and spelling-impaired?

Time is all of these things, and also none of them, for time – like color and popularity – is merely a product of our own perception.

We know this because 110 years ago a bored 26-year-old patent clerk started daydreaming and ended up having the best year of his – or of anybody’s – life. It’s a good thing there weren’t more people inventing things in Bern around 1905.

Exactly 110 years ago this month, that bored patent clerk – who was still bored even after publishing a paper in March that would become the foundation for quantum physics and another in early May about Brownian motion – started thinking about Galileo and Newton, and how the motion of objects is relative to the motion of an observer. He then asked a question no one else ever had: What about light?

That got him daydreaming about speeding trains, and the universe was changed forever. Literally.

[What is it with men and their fascination with vehicles? Galileo and Newton determined relative motion by thinking about boats (while a man walking on a ship’s deck may travel 10 meters in 10 second from his own perspective, he travels much farther to a person on shore also watching the ship sail by), and Einstein used trains to show that a beam of light bouncing from floor to ceiling travels one distance to an observer on the train but a longer distance to an observer watching the train from a hill. Boys and cars, man. It’s genetic.]

By the end of June, 1905, Albert Einstein had published his Special Theory of Relativity, which stated that if light truly does always move at a constant rate (which experiments had shown but scientists had been reluctant to accept), then time must be just as relative to the observer as distance and motion and acceptable fashion standards (shoulder pads, anyone?).

Suddenly, a clock was nothing more than a series of countable moments; a second merely an agreed-upon unit that only stays consistent so long as we remain still relative to the time piece. As soon as we accelerate that clock out the window, those seconds get longer. So…time doesn’t fly as it flies.

Our bodies already know this; the heart is a clock, beating out a series of countable events, and the faster we move the slower time progresses. Stay active, stay young.

Before 1905 played out, Einstein managed to blow minds open one more time by proving that mass and energy are on the same spectrum (or, as it is more commonly known, that energy (E) equals mass (m) times the speed of light (c) squared). This equation gave us the power (nuclear power) and Einstein the ability to reach his most influential deduction of all – which, given his work thus far, is certainly saying something.

If light is energy, he thought, (paper one) and energy has mass (paper four), then light has mass and should be affected by gravity (it is – eventually, in 1919, a solar eclipse allowed experimenters to prove that light does indeed bend its path when traveling past a large body such as the sun). And if the path of light is bent by gravity, Einstein continued, then so must time be affected (paper three).

It took a decade to work out the math, but 100 years ago this November Albert Einstein was able to present his General Theory of Relativity, which tied the fourth dimension (time) to the three we already knew so well (space) to introduce the idea of Space-Time as the fabric of our universe. A fabric that, like a fabric should, gives and curves around heavier objects. The larger a mass, the more it tells both space and time to “get bent”. That’s gravity.

So if time, like light and space and anything else with mass, is affected by gravity, it makes sense that time itself has mass. Finally! That explains the Sunday evening doldrums, when the weight of the weekend that hangs behind us requires a Herculean effort of will to drag into Monday morning.

It also explains why, as I try to fall asleep some nights, I can physically feel those ounces of time passing through me – from future, to present, to past – adding their weight to the ever-increasing mass of time that lies behind. One. Heartbeat. At. A time. How much farther must I carry that weight toward the unknown destination in my future? Can I keep moving forward as it keeps getting heavier every day? At what point will it weigh too much and drag me to a complete standstill – or backwards?

On these nights, I find it comforting to remember E=mc2 and the fact that the accumulating mass of my past also increases its potential energy. The longer it takes me to get…wherever, the brighter I can burn when I do.

Other times, I just roll over and find a fuzzy cat ass in my face. A cat ass in the face is pretty much the best life has to offer anyway, so what’s my hurry?

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.