Category Archives: Language

Games Worth Playing

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My latest column for Industry is up! Games Worth Playing: How a ritual based upon the I Ching can change the way we think about life and love


Perhaps readers are aware of the concept of the filter bubble: that with more and more tools to personalize online offerings, we are more in danger of seeing only the news we want to see. The term, while a nice coinage for the internet and indebted age, is not new. In relationships, too, we see what we want to see.

The bubble first grows in our heads, a fact I learned from a 3,000-year-old book
of divination called the I Ching, or the “Book of Changes.”

I’ll risk my reputation as a serious individual here to admit that, when it comes to relationship deciphering, I’m addicted to what could be considered a tool for magical thinking.

Read more here.

On Ray Bradbury

There are writers we love in our youth and ones we outgrow. If we are magnanimous we don’t disparage them later for being too symbolic or obvious. A few that come to mind include Poe, Dickens, and those genre writers that proved too entertaining to be taken seriously. Ray Bradbury somehow eluded the dangers of this latter category.

I’ve gotten much relief from Bradbury over the years, as a writer, long after reading Something Wicked This Way Comes (a book whose very title evokes the sublime), and Farenheit 451. When I read his Paris Review interview years ago, it made me stop and realize that as a writer I was trying too hard. I put the pen down for a while. Writing had become a pressured thing, and I needed to clear that out so that I could again create for no one’s benefit but my own.

He also took quite a bit of the guesswork out of the process.

“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”
—Ray Bradbury, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 203


“I want you to envy me my joy.”

There are few writers who seemed to take such distinct joy in their occupation. Quite a different thing from Dorothy Parker’s “I hate writing. I love having written.” (I can’t find the source, I thought it was Hemingway.)

In this 2001 lecture at Point Loma Nazarene University, the then affable curmudgeon exhorts writing students to start with short stories to learn the craft. His theory was,  if you write a story a week, it’s almost impossible to write 52 bad ones in a row.

He wrote, and talked about writing, so straightforwardly, and he made it clear he was a steward of his own subconscious. He honored his source. Writer’s block is just your subconscious telling you to do something else, he said. Write what you want to read. He spoke in terms of “hygiene,” purposefully I think. Because there is a way to go about it and a way not to, a way that pollutes it. You keep the well clean and then drink from it. The well is basic, it is not interesting, per se. It is the beginnings of thing, not a thing itself.

There is almost a delicacy to this understanding that is itself rare. Is it modern life gets us into habits of ripping ourselves to shreds, killing the goose so to speak?

Not allowing the transmogrification of the process of living is a form of self-control that our overanalysis merely feeds and abets, like a stripping process or a splitting. We are gone to extremes of self-monitoring, self-making, that even the most ordinary impulses in us can have no outlet because we deny we should even need it. So we twist ourselves in knots and block our own flow.

Maybe it’s time to put down the self-help and pick up the Martian Chronicles again.

His actual writing advice is wonderful, too. In this video he argues that literature is a pressure valve for civilization, a place for us to indulge animal instincts and emotions. “We save up a tension of tears,” he says, “I come along as a writer, and help you to cry.”

But really the thing that stands out about Bradbury in all his interviews and lectures is that he seems like a relic, almost a fictional paragon of decency and romanticism, a pure talent, a pure intellect, unblemished by consumerism and careerism. It reminds me of having a conversation with my grandfather and coming away completely disillusioned about the world, but in the best way.

I’ve always been more of a nonfiction writer, but I dabbled in fiction when I was younger. Following a recent shift in writing goals, and in honor of Ray Bradbury’s passing (during the epochal transit of Venus) I think I’ll write a story a week until further notice. I will not necessarily post them here, but if anyone would like to join me, please do! It’ll be like a mini NaNoWriMo.

One last thing: Bradbury’s vow of poverty strikes me as a necessary thing for an artist (maybe anyone) willing to be more than career-minded, to dedicate oneself to a life of integrity, to live with goals beyond mere survival. Of course, poverty’s not the only way, but the fearless facing of it may be necessary, just so we’re not fooling ourselves. It’s enough to participate, it’s more than a career. It’s the art of creation.

Personal Cliché

It is interesting tendency I notice that when I come to some profound change in life, I often resort to cliché in talking about it. Even when I make it up, finding the right way to say something, it has the force and compact quality of cliché.

“You can do a lot of things in life, but you can only do them one at a time.” This was a lesson I needed to learn, as I flitted from one thing to another and had grown frustrated with having so little sense of accomplishment. This single sentence boils it down to the essential point, though the story’s colors are lost along the way.

I have an impatient need to just move onto the next thing. But this also reflects the nature of our minds, showing the structure we necessarily impose on our thinking and memory.

After we’ve learned, the whole story is compacted, filed away. But, there’s a short liminal period when for a time we can see what has happened, how the changes took place.

This is why, incidentally, in business research it’s been found that it is better for someone who just learned something to teach others, than someone who mastered it long ago. Because you forget how you got there.

After the change is complete, in other words, we no longer have access to the mind that solved the problem. We may not even have much insight into the change, really. (It’s not necessary to understand change in order to progress.)

I’m reminded not only of Einstein’s inspiring quote, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” But also of a corollary, this time from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”

After that window is closed, explaining it to someone else can be an exercise in futility. We usually end up with a lifeless cliché, like that most despised by young people—Be yourself. I remember thinking, when well-meaning adults would say this to me, it seemed almost perversely naive. As if it’s so easy.

But at a certain point in life you just become more yourself, mostly because you can no longer put the energy into being something else. It’s pretty simple. Your self is actually an aggregate of all your choices, habits, and opinions, that reaches a sort of density that has more momentum than any of your projects to be something different, better, more enlightened, more glamorous, or whatever. This is why history seems inexorable in hindsight.

So, “be yourself” is just a conceptual marker of accomplishment, an acknowledgement rather than an injunction. Having found the circuitous path to it in our lives, we’ve earned that shorthand. But, each person must earn it themselves. This is why it is so hard to talk about this stuff with other people. You use tedious abstractions, trying to get at whatever it is. Conversation is a way of reaching for something, finding the words for something is like summoning it to you. And once you’ve reached it, it seems almost beside the point to talk about it with others who understand you. You just look at each other and say, “Yeah.” “Yeah.” And move on.

A goal of writing is to to preserve a moment in time, so that by some magic we can convey the richness of life to those reading it. It becomes an experience in and of itself. This is way beyond cliche, it is communication. It can help forge connections and lead you on the right path.

This makes me think of an old story. One night years ago I was hanging out with my friend Sarah. We were sitting right next to the stereo speakers, in our very first apartment, in Portland, Maine, listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish U Were Here.

How I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls
swimming in a fish bowl
year after year.
Running over the same old ground
What have we found
The same old fears?
Wish u were here

We looked at each other, stoned, all of nineteen, and said, “So true.”

Cliché Romance & Exorcism

As a writer, I have fought long and hard to remove cliche’d words and phrases from my writing. It’s an uphill battle, as you will see if you ever take up the challenge. One of my first writing teachers handed out a mimeographed, crooked old piece of paper with a list of a daunting number of phrases and word combinations considered cliché. Besides the tried and true, old stand-bys, the subtler examples (rock hard, steely-eyed, slippery slope) showed me how such ready-made phraseology is a hallmark of lazy thinking.

Writing is hard. There are so many cheats and short cuts, but they all add up to hackneyed writing. Readers can tell. Readers eyes glaze over, and that response is never the reader’s fault.

Today I found these in an essay draft:

silver lining

grass is greener

expand my horizons

pretty theory


and the ones included in this blog post I have purposely left in to show you the depths of my cliché problem.

Fearing that perhaps my thinking is hackeyed, I cut most of them. But I confess I love clichés. They are slightly ridiculous and strangely apt. Today I told a friend, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” We both laughed, as it was literally relevant to her situation. This somehow elevated the usage to the meta-comical, provoking a self-satisfied giddiness, like any well-placed pun or other low-brow verbal effect. Sure, I’m a word nerd.

The sociological interest, however, goes deeper. I’m fascinated by these turns of phrase, and what they may reveal about our culture and way of thinking, making connections, and categorizing.

I often deconstruct common concepts in my writing. The cliché is similar to stereotype in that it exists as a kind of shorthand. There is a kernel of truth to it. It’s a good jumping-off place. It takes on the air of symbol, that we know at a glance, and ignore, but that which can show us the contours of our beliefs, our interests and motivations.

Cliché is like found meaning. It has existed in culture long enough to be understood implicitly. It’s part of the human condition. The human condition—another curious concept that is more like a rhetorical tag than a defined thing.

Knowing that clichés help us work as little as possible to understand each other, I suppose that’s why they exist. But taking all the little events, how do they add up to a life? How do our words add up to meaning, or alter it, as a pebble plunked into a pond? How do they affect us? and how can we make our expression of ourselves more original?


Word of the Day: arch

As an adjective it means mischievous, or roguish. It is sadly never used anymore.

My favorite reference for it is from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her:

“Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say Yes, that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their meditated contempt. I have, therefore, made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all–and now despise me if you dare.”

“Indeed I do not dare.”

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

Miss Bingley saw, or suspected enough to be jealous; and her great anxiety for the recovery of her dear friend Jane received some assistance from her desire of getting rid of Elizabeth.

And now I have tricked you into reading a bit of Pride and Prejudice. My good deed for the day.

SlutWalk Chicago: By Any Other Name?

In Guernica, a piece about the march I participated in, SlutWalk Chicago, on June 4, 2011. For me, the march was all about how our attitudes about women’s behavior play into victim-blaming and shaming. But people walked for many reasons, and it was great to be a part of this sex-positive, man-friendly solidarity for sexual rights and freedom.

Read it here: SlutWalk Chicago

And here is a little audio collage I put together from mini interviews I did, asking people to why they were marching.
SlutWalk Chicago

The article reprinted here in its entirety:

The first thing I saw when I got off the train at Clark and Lake in Chicago was a beautiful young woman in a tiny black skirt and a black bikini halter-top. She looked like a streetwalker, and I got a little thrill. She was walking beside a short, boyish dyke. The tourists behind them smiled and pointed, but I knew where they were going.

On Facebook some critics denounced the name. “Slutwalk just cheapens and dilutes the cause.” “I support the idea behind this but not the title or people encouraging other people to dress sleazy.”

But they don’t say whose cause.

So as I walked, not that sluttily dressed myself, I asked people why they were walking.

SlutWalk Chicago is minimally defined as a march in support of women’s rights, but it is strongly anti-victim blaming and shaming. It is a spinoff of SlutWalk Toronto, which was initiated when a representative of the Toronto Police Service was quoted saying, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized.” It’s a march in support of education and against intolerance.

Here’s the official line, from the website of SlutWalk Chicago:

“SlutWalk Chicago aims to combat the myth of ‘the slut’ and the culture of victim blaming that prevails the world over. Our mission is to enforce the truth that those who experience sexual assault are never at fault-no exceptions. We seek to combat a culture that teaches ‘don’t get raped,’ as opposed to ‘don’t rape’.”

While the name must have deterred some, by taking a provocative stand it attracted more devotion from those who did participate.

If it hadn’t been called Slutwalk, it would have not attracted SWOP, Sexual Workers Outreach Project, a sex-worker advocacy group. They said as much, and that made me very happy. I ended the walk, which according to some guesstimates numbered around 2,000 people, with that group.

“I’m glad I decided not to wear my stripper heels,” one woman told me. Very sensible, I agreed. A young man walked in front of us alone, wearing his stilettos proudly. Someone yelled out “Free Porn”! And the spokesman of SWOP told me, “No! We’re not for free porn. We’re for people getting paid for porn!” “All I want is a raise!” one sex worker (not sure which kind) told me. I began to see how the Marxists dotted amongst the crowd also fit in here.

Workers rights aside, the essential point is that people must possess their own sexuality, proudly, unreservedly. To be the subject and not the object in their own lives. To see the difference between that, and fear-based behaviors—avoiding becoming a target, making women responsible for “holding out” or “giving in,” being ready to say yes as well as no.

That Toronto police officer must be eating his words by now.

And for all the people who found the terminology off-putting, I talked to many young women who said something like, “I heard about this thing called SlutWalk, and I just said, ‘Yep, I’m going.’” While the name must have deterred some, by taking a provocative stand it attracted more devotion from those who did participate.

“I like it because ‘Yes means yes’ is just as important as ‘No means no’!”

“I was called a slut and that I’d asked for it when my boyfriend forced me in high school.”

One polyamorist told me, “I’m for the idea of ethical slutdom, that sex feels good, so we must question why the dominant culture dislikes the idea of a slut.”

A kind of take-back-the-term empowerment crackled in the air, and the girls in fishnets and boys in heels all seemed to blossom for this cause.

If there was any fear of a stale feminist rally, the term slut practically, easily guaranteed that this wasn’t the case.

Truckers beeped, and one guy joked, “I know they’re honking because they like sluts, but also I like to think it’s a little bit of solidarity with our cause.”

Strange word of the day: "blandishments"

I have a habit of trying out words. I’ve done this since I was a kid, using a word I don’t know the meaning of but that I think sounds like what I’m trying to say. Sometimes it is felicitous, becomes a creative and interesting new use of a word, but other times it has comical effects. I once told my dad, who was wearing a wife-beater and had a mustache—it was the 80s—that he looked like a “homo.” “What?” he said. “You know, one of those guys who lives on trains and wears rags?” “Ohhh, you mean ‘hobo’.” Right.

So I was trying to make “blandishment” mean something like shields, or the defense walls of a castle, or something. Doesn’t it sound like that?

Turns out, it is excessive flattery or attention used to ingratiate oneself with someone or to persuade someone to do something. Using blandishments with your parents to get out of doing housework, say. Or at work, complimenting someone on how they do a particular thing to get out of it yourself: “Oh, but you are so good at unjamming the copy machine!”