Grimm Reaper (A short fable)

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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.”

“It’s Trumpelstiltskin.”

“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.

You News, We Lose

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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.

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.

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.