Political football

In an era of outrage fatigue, I find I have deep reserves of anger for people who are shaming anyone who protests, including NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem.

To play “political football,” according to William Safire, is “to thrust a social, national security, or otherwise ostensibly non-political matter into partisan politics.” The idea has been around at least since the 19th century; an 1889 cartoon from Judge magazine shows poor President Benjamin Harrison on the ground, asking, “What can I do when both parties insist on kicking?”


Now football is political. Oh, for the simpler days, like, say, 1969. From a NYTimes article on Nixon:

When a Moratorium March against the war was announced for Washington in November 1969, the president announced that he would not “be affected whatever by it.” Instead, the White House said, he would be home watching televised football, enjoying the patriotic pageants staged during halftime.

Similarly, a friend of mine during the last election specialized in what I call hit and run attacks: she would make some attack on Hillary Clinton, and when I, often after having researched, responded with counterclaims (and usually more than one point against her opponent), my friend would say, “Oh well I just can’t think about it anymore.” Or, in one memorable case, after I went to lengths to debunk her latest Clinton conspiracy, she simply texted back, “I’m watching football.”

How infuriated Nixon would be now, and how bewildered my friend is (I know because she’s told me) to see that even old fashioned American escapism is tainted by citizens expressing themselves.

God forbid that Black men (two-thirds of NFL players) who are paid to engage in controlled violence with each other who in many cases destroy their brains and bodies should ever draw attention to actual violence happening to Black bodies and Black futures across the country.

But what if they didn’t vote, you say? It’s a common water cooler truism to announce that not voting forfeits your right to complain. It’s also complete bullshit. Actually that right is protected by the veterans the protest-shamers like to speak for. (For all the hoopla about mentioning race or sex, no one seems to mind playing the Veteran Card.) If you take away freedom of expression from what soldiers fight for, you reduce their sacrifice to protecting our asses and our oil interests.

An article two days ago about this issue by Roy Peter Clark has some zingers in it. Among them, this:

Everyone who removes a cap and stands in the sun to sing the anthem is making a political statement protected by the First Amendment. Every player who kneels to pray with his friends and foes after a game is making a political statement protected by the First Amendment.

From the Donald’s post-election lies spread about the NYTimes to this week’s Hamilton boycott, there is every indication so far that we are going to enter another Nixonland: the ones who claim to be tough often can’t seem to stand any challenges. The only question remaining is whether dissent will be merely discouraged or actively punished.

Why not use George W. Bush in response: “My answer is, bring ’em on.”

“I think”

I blame middle school teachers. They got us into this mess of a 2016 with its partisan rancor and its echo chambers and its casual hate.

What I mean is I remember very clearly my 7th grade teacher, Ms. K., telling us all not to use “I think” in our essays. I’m sure you were told the same, if your teacher was worth her salt. “I’m reading your essay, so I know these are your thoughts,” she told us. A website I just Googled on this subject puts it clearly:

Avoid “I” statements that weaken your argument. Phrases like “I believe,” “I think,” “The way I see it,” “It seems to me,” and so on, all imply that the statement that follows is only your opinion as opposed to being an argued position or a statement of fact. For example, the following statement is weak:

I believe that preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity.

If you simply leave off the “I” part, the statement is much stronger:

Preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity.

I have to say, looking at this I find “I believe that preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity” a charming formulation and statement. But that’s because I’m no longer the me-centered Manchurian candidate Ms. K. wanted me to be. Let me explain:

The other day I watched some of the Pence/Trump 60 Minutes interview. I put Pence’s name first as wishful thinking; of course he was little more than an extra.


Now, I do admit at times to being in awe of Trump. “I’m much more humble than you would understand” is a staggering feat of irony, and the man did it off the top of his head! I mean hair. Almost equal, in recent examples, is his use of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as personal theme. His is the first truly Seinfeld candidacy.

Of course I was also struck by fear that this man could be president. But more than that, I was surprised to find…is that…yes…it’s pity. I felt like I shouldn’t even be watching this, like it was some private home video of an insane person come to light after a parole hearing.

So, naturally I tried to sculpt this thought into a Facebook status. Because otherwise how would I know I had it? (“I status, therefore I think.”)

Here’s what I came up with:

I don’t just want Trump to lose, I want him to get the mental help he needs.

I meant it sincerely. Watching him I thought, can you imagine what it would be like to live as this person? It must be horrible. He’s keeping himself together with putty and invisible tape, two Tweets away from manically scraping his face off like the man in Poltergeist.

But I hesitated. Should I write “the mental help I think he needs”? I’m not a mental help expert, after all.

I don’t like meanness. I don’t know how long I’ve felt this way. Certainly in high school I was quite mean. I thought it meant I was fabulously acidic like Dorothy Parker. It didn’t. I’ve been mean since then; no doubt some of you reading this could tell me how and where and when. Lately I just don’t have the stomach for it. Even as a witness. I know, I know: I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled, but I just keep seeing Rodney King say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But I hear him with my mother’s voice.

I’m not saying this to apply for sainthood. Truthfully, I wish I were tougher. In-person interactions are slightly different, but internet fights lack closure. You never know when someone might spring another snark on you. Throughout the Democratic primary, I was actually afraid to post my support for Hillary Clinton, because I didn’t want to attract acrimony. I just kept it inside, like one of Nixon’s silent majority.

So the #LoveforLeslieJ thing got to me. Leslie Jones, fabulous comedienne, makes me laugh every time she opens her mouth. And she got chased off of Twitter by racist and vile hate speech.

That’s an extreme example, but the election has highlighted one of the reasons I’d really like to unplug from the web. No one can do anything without it getting shit on by somebody. Yes, this was always true, but the internet has allowed shitters to find each other and shit loudly and proudly and turn their shit into clickbait which then convinces people who just a moment before were perfectly intestinally-balanced that now they too have to shit.

Not all shitting is bad, of course. Some things need a lot of it. But here’s one example. Talented guy Mark Duplass gave a talk at a film festival where he said that aspiring filmmakers have “no excuse” to not make movies on the weekends with their friends. The technology is inexpensive now; go do it. Make something.

That’s a pretty harmless statement, but when a friend reposted it a while ago, someone I don’t know wrote an impassioned attack, saying it was tone deaf to the working class, who don’t have the privilege of weekends or time to think up ideas and stuff like that.

I thought, really? He was speaking at a film festival. He was considering his audience. No one was there in sleeping bags with a cart full of plastic bottles.

Let me briefly make a Pollyanna point: It’s easy to be against. It’s easy to attack and knock down. It’s harder to bring things into the world, whether they are big budget Ghostbuster movies or simple thoughts. I think, but I could be making it up, that Anne Sexton used to post a quotation above her typewriter about not letting the silence win. All I could find was this bit of her poetry which I am going to take out of context and suit to my needs: comparing silence to a white bird, she says it comes each day to “peck at the black eyes and the vibrating red muscle of my mouth.”

It makes me think, as I’m sure it did her, of the bit in Cinderella where the birds comes and peck out the eyes of the ugly stepsisters, which got left out of Disneyworld.

On the other hand, while poking around “silence quotation” searches, I came across different versions of the proverbial “speak only if it improves upon silence.”

Of course, we tend to have different criteria for what improves upon silence. The three gates is a more defined system: is it true? is it kind? is it necessary?

Yesterday, I tried out a version of this post on someone. Her reaction was lukewarm. As I then held my own draft up to the light, I could see a thinness here, a discoloration there. I began to doubt how much I really believed. So, I thought, this will be another for the scrap pile. These entries get fewer and farther between as I lose, for better or worse?, the assurance of different convictions that I had some years ago. The older I get, the more I just want to write “I think” and leave the rest off. “I think” is the statement. Or, more accurately, “I am thinking.”

I’d welcome that development on my Facebook newsfeed. People could post the same articles, but would be limited to that one caption, so at least I could believe that we all still had gears turning and weren’t completely stuck in our ways, using blogs and pundits to find different ways to proudly advertise our suspended animation.

Because that was going to be my original point, my rhetorical coup, to suggest that we need to lavish a little more attention on “I think” these days. We ought to reintroduce it into our writing, our texting, our talking, our statusing. Because I think we have lost touch with the idea that, as our grammarians chided, much of the time what we’re stating is, in fact, “only” our opinion.

This would not be a panacea. Note: the full Trump quotation is actually “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand” (emphasis mine). But it’s my proposal for a first step toward increasing civility in our discourse.

Yet the temptation is to write things as brashly and splashily as possible; the trend is for pith, not pity. I’m part of it. I get hung up more than the average bear on how many likes or views or comments something I write gets, when I know I ought to be writing for…silence, really.

I had an idea the other day to make a joke about an unsocial network, where you write things but are guaranteed that no one will ever read them, but then I realized I was just describing a journal.

So if it’s going to be public, at least I ought to be able to write in a way that I would accept a reaction of silence with perfect equanimity. I should take the pleasure in the work, not the fruits of the work. The act of figuring out the idea through writing it. Learning by writing: a buzz phrase in education I’m just picking up on, but practice.

Two things ultimately saved this meager essay from the cutting room floor.

1) There has been much talk in my family lately of children. My sister is pregnant, which is part of it, and my father is frequently offering me a rationale for keeping the human race going, is another. He is well aware of the counterarguments, and often quotes Dylan in “Masters of War”:

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world

Every time I see someone’s well-intended work or wish smeared or tarred because it didn’t cover all the human bases at the same time, I say a quick prayer of thanks that nothing I’ve done has ever attracted much attention. Someone would find it sexist. Someone would find it racist. Someone would find it allergenic. Someone would find it just bad. And maybe they would all have their points.

But I don’t want to feel the fear to bring writing into the world.

2) Using etymonline.com, I tried to trace the origin of the word “think.” It was not as simple as I’d hoped, but it turns out the word has the same root as “thank.” And in a rare moment of etymological poetry, the “thank” entry states thus: “related phonetically to think as song is to sing.”

Thank is to think as song is to sing. These things that we think, then, are thanks. Or they could be, or ought to be, or deserve our effort to try to be.

That’s just too good not to break the silence to share.

I thank you. I think you.


“Poetry leaves one vulnerable.”

–Ms. Hamilton, my 8th grade Language Arts teacher, to me

This remark (she wrote it on a poem of mine) came to me out of the blue while teaching yesterday. It was the kind of Madeleine-biting recollection you almost have to sit down from. I hadn’t thought of that whole thing for a while, but I told almost all of it to my AP Literature students, who were typically moaning over an assignment I’d given them:

“When I was in eighth grade I was madly infatuated with this girl named Stacy.”

“Did she know?”

“Oh I’m sure she did.”

“Did it ever happen?”

“She was out of my league. Or at least my crippled self-esteem decided she was, which is more or less the same thing. The point is, I wrote a poem about her, called, oh God, it was called, ‘She.’ How awful. And it was all about this ‘she’ figure who bewitched me in these different ways, or made life worth living, whatever. And then I, and I can’t remember if the teacher asked me to or I volunteered–”

Memories lost to the past forever. This is going to a motif today, children.

“–but I read it aloud to the whole class. Which she was in.”

“Did the class know?”

“I think the class next door knew, I was vibrating at such a high hormonal frequency. Dogs were probably whining across the street. And anyway, my teacher wrote on my paper the next day that she was proud of me, or something, and she added, ‘Poetry leaves one vulnerable.'”

I was saying this to encourage my students, whom I was asking to be a mite exposed themselves. It was day one of our whirlwind poetry exploration, and here’s my assignment; you can have it:

  1. Show obligatory clip of Dead Poets Society. What will your verse be?
  2. Ask students to make a private list of five times when they felt a strong feeling. “The time when ______.” Emphasize that this is completely private, even you won’t read it, but that they will be using it later (so they actually have to do it).
  3. Encourage students with examples, including both common when we feel strong emotions (deaths, births) and quotidian ones: “The time last Saturday when I lay down in bed and felt the clean sheets and thought, ‘I don’t have to wake up to an alarm tomorrow.'”
  4. Tell students to choose one of these times, and write a verse of poetry that conveys that feeling, without revealing any of the actual details which inspired the feeling.
  5. Resist urge to explain what you mean too much, or give too many examples.
  6. Possible example when they pressure you into it: “The fledgling robin beaked his way to the edge of the nest, looking down at the seeming abyss below. Suddenly, impossibly, he pushed himself off, and started to fly.” Explain that this is what it felt like to leave for NYU. And is also a pretty lame example.
  7. Know in back of your mind that this may help students see how, as an English teacher colleague of mine once put it, “It’s nice to know what zeugma and chiasmus are, but really it all comes down to metaphor.”
  8. Wonder if you will find anyone weird enough to just write a list of adjectives.
  9. Make each student stand and read her verse. No explanations.

The point of this (which, in classic DG fashion, I only remembered to tell one of my classes) is to activate in them the idea that they do, in fact, have strong feelings, perhaps more often than they realize. This is a variation of an exercise I made up last semester when I was trying to workshop Chekhov with Intro to Acting students (fail). I felt that you won’t be successful with this stuff, or won’t get anything out of it, if you’re not in touch with yourself as a feeling, bleeding, snotting human being.

I don’t like poetry. But I like it more every day. I mean as I get so OLLLLLLLLD. And as I approached how to teach poetry for the first time in eight years, I thought about the distance between me and my students, and how it was even greater than last time. I’ve had so many more feelings than them, I thought. Mostly I was thinking of despair and massive quantities of self-loathing, but I’m sure there are others.

So I did this with them. And, (it’s one of the great mysteries), when you tell students to do something, they usually do it!

It was really lovely–and I don’t often wax emotional about classroom moments–to see these kids stand up and read their little invisibility cloaked hearts out. Some of them felt what Ms. Hamilton meant when she wrote to me. It’s a brave thing to admit that you have a feeling. I was going to say “especially as a teenager” but I hesitate. What feelings do we admit to on a daily basis other than our typical rage and frustration and boredom? Oh and love too, love, yes, but not the kind of thing I felt when I wrote “She,” God help me. That can’t be sustained, and it’s a good thing too. Life can’t be lived at that frequency.

“Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide.”

–John Knowles, A Separate Peace

But I was driving home tonight and another sense of vulnerability came over me. I briefly entertained the idea of digging up my copy of “She” and reading it to the class, tit for tat. Problem is, there’s no way I still have any copy of it. And I keep a lot of shit, especially of the emotional variety. But that one’s gone.

And a lot is gone. And while I kid myself by thinking that writing offers me some kind of permanence…while I actually at times sacrifice the interpersonal for the sake of my writing, and even on occasion have made wounds for and through my writing (and vulnerable after all comes from a root meaning “wound”), do I imagine someone some day is going to dig through my hoary hard drives? Or scroll forever through my archived Facebook profile to see every pithy thing I said?

I’m not being self-pitying; I’m aware that some people read the stuff I write, and some people may continue to after I die, but zoom out far enough and it all fades away. And so I thought, poetry leaves one vulnerable, because in putting something down on paper we are remembering that we die.

Only that didn’t feel quite right.

Because the other part of what I was feeling was that the feeling itself had died. I know I liked Stacy, but even if I had the exact words in front of me, I wouldn’t feel them again.

“I think you’re courageous…to dare go visit…what I mean is, to face the fact, that we have lost those feelings forever.”

–Clarissa Vaughan, The Hours, David Hare’s screenplay

I happened to have just reread Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry-Picking,” in preparation for teaching it tomorrow. In it, and you should read it (again), the speaker makes a shift near the end (always look for the shift, scholars) and contrasts the way he felt as a boy with the way he feels now. And so you have a double departure, as the poem itself is about a lost feeling, and the feeling that inspired the poem is lost; it’s in the past. And poor Seamus is dead and gone too.

I know Ms. Hamilton didn’t mean all this morbid stuff when she wrote that to me.

“How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

–Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Years passed. Stacy and I made an effort to stay in touch with each other, even as she started a family. It was sometimes awkward, and occasionally easy. The last time I saw her, I believe, was for a gin and tonic or two at a trendy suburban place. She had her husband and kids, and I had to rush off to shepherd my production of The Vagina Monologues, which we no doubt laughed at as perfectly capturing something about the differences between us and our two trajectories. And we were joking about perhaps never seeing each other again. She said to one of her kids, “We don’t know, this could be the last time you see Mr. Daniel.” And, turns out, it was.

Because you can beat a dead horse, but.

I try not to see the creepiness in the zombified relationships I sometimes carry out online, pretending to still be in someone’s life when the opposite is true. It can be weird, yes, but when radio silence finally comes, when it’s clear that you will never, ever again, I’m not sure it brings any better peace. It more likely just leaves one feeling, well…



I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain.

–Roy Batty, Blade Runner



I am ________

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the “I am” formulation. It started for me after the Virginia Tech shooting, when everyone on my new Facebook account was posting graphics that read “we are all Hokies.”

To me, that was the very day I was LEAST a Hokie, least able to imagine what students at VT were going through. Saying anything else, I felt, especially on social media, appealed at least in part to an instinct in me which is not uncommon in humanity, and that is to make everything about myself.

I understand the impulse to show solidarity, I suppose, although I am not sure what more can be said than “Boy this thing is terrible.” Or maybe, “Boy this thing is terrible; I feel bad and you feel bad, but knowing we both feel bad and we both want things to be better makes it a little less awful.”

That’s harder to fit into a hashtag, I admit.

At its worst though, the “I am” impulse recklessly elides; it glosses over importance differences. I didn’t even like the “I am Troy Davis” movement, much as I wanted him to live. I felt the point was that I wasn’t Troy Davis, and never would be, thanks to the status and skin color I received in the birth lottery. This was part of the reasoning behind one man’s “I am not Trayvon” Facebook post, which briefly made the rounds.

I can stretch my mind to accept a “what you do to him you do to me” kind of argument in proclaiming your Troy Davisness, but this is also plainly not true, and to believe otherwise is to deny the reality of the struggle. Had we all been Troy Davis, we all would be dead by now. I wanted Troy Davis to be Troy Davis. And keep being him.

It’s curious to me where the “I am” crops up, and where it doesn’t. No one ever thought to dub themselves Gabby Giffords after she was shot. No one presumed to believe they “were” making the brave and painful recovery she was, a recovery unique to her because there is only one Gabby Giffords, I am sorry to say. Can we only be other people when they are dead, and when the evidence of their individual burdens and successes do not physically confront us?

I concede that sometimes the point is that you could have been the person in question, and/or it may involve reclaiming an image: by saying you are Trayvon Martin, you create a broader possible representation of the young black male than is sometimes seen in the media. But I wonder how many would have claimed to be Trayvon, or Troy, if the doubts about their respective culpabilities had been removed. That is to say, if we no longer saw them as innocent, would we still identify?

I believe this question renders moot the distinction between “I am”ing a person and an institution, or saying it for someone you do or do not resemble or share the views of. I believe this question points to why there is only one “I am” statement worth making.

I recently saw this belief of mine stated quite clearly by the late Maya Angelou in her lecture for Oprah’s Master Class. I know I mentioned her in my last post (six months ago), but when you got it, flaunt it. Anyway, Angelou uses a quotation from Terence, a Roman playwright:

terenceHomo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.

Angelou says this:

If you can internalize the least portion of that, you will never be able to say of a criminal act, “Oh I couldn’t do that.” No matter how heinous the crime, if a human being did it, you have to say, “I have in me all the components that are in her or in him. I intend to use my energies constructively as opposed to destructively.”

So yes, perhaps “you are” Trayvon. But then you are also George Zimmerman. Making that into a t-shirt won’t make you many friends, but I think what is exposed by that fact is our willingness to turn our backs on the broken, the ill, the criminal, the insane. And I fear that means we may also leave out the dark spots, the inconvenient touches of evil, when drawing up our conceptions of our selves, and so give those things a better chance to catch us unaware.

I enjoyed reading David Brooks’ “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” in which he asks us to remember that “most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.” He is not blaming the victim, but describing the way most of us grow up and away from that kind of ridicule.

Ten years ago I was a militant atheist reading Sam Harris and frothing over what I perceived to be liberals giving kid glove treatment to Islam (I sounded just like Bill Maher). I remember in 2008 the bombing of the Danish embassy over the Mohammed cartoons, and I then as now condemn it. But then I wanted to strike back by writing some play in which Mohammed appears and does something filthy.

And now, I don’t.

I just don’t have the appetite for that kind of thing anymore, for better or worse. I think for better.

tree_caliban“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” says Prospero of Caliban, finally, in the fifth act, and it’s one of the truest things the illusionist says in the whole play. But to get there he has to break his staff, drown his books, and receive a dose of humility, that blessing which points us to mercy.

So in the midst of 2014’s terrible spate of police killings, I was pleased to see the message that rose above the fray was “black lives matter.” This is a way of not co-opting someone else’s tragedy, but pointing to it, or lying down next to it, and saying, “This is, you are important to me.” So why not, to say something about the sadness in France, #satiricallivesmatter? Or #offensiveartmatters? Is this not closer to what we really wish to express, which is no more or less than a desire to live in a world where you are not killed for drawing a cartoon?

I am not one to denigrate clicktivism. I am not some grouch begrudging us the avenue of social networks to vent our feelings and find some comfort. I actually believe that as simple a thing as sharing an article or #Darfur can change the world, albeit minutely (and minute world changes are not to be sneezed at). But I am not a fan of the unexamined, easy viral sentiment, and I believe that’s what this too often is.

Small Talk

“I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

“Ha ha, yeah.”

And just like that, my fate is sealed.

I was getting my hair cut, see, and they run this TV in there on daytime crap all day long. I believe the choice du jour was Rachael Ray’s show, but I’m not sure. I do, for the record, remember noting that “Rachael” seemed to be gunning particularly for the ethnic crowd, or at least the ethnic crossover crowd, and by that I mean white women who wish they had a black girlfriend to gab with. And I’m not knocking those women. But I base this assertion on overhearing a segment in which a seemingly black woman (I was listening not watching) gave the host dance lessons, and then said, “You’re gonna need to go to rhythm class too,” and the host indignantly squeaked, “I do NOT need to go to rhythm class!” Ha ha ha black people have rhythm.

The man cutting my hair is a contemporary of mine. It’s a family-owned business I have patronized for a while, and he has cut my hair more than once. He is the young devil of the family, moonlighting as a dental student at NYU. He once gave me an impassioned argument against Obamacare, saying it would hike up prices for reasons I am not informed enough to fully understand or combat. I nodded and smiled, which is the crux of this entry.

Because here we are, over a year later. He said, “You know, you see the face of the customer, you do not maybe remember, but you start cutting the hair, and the stories come back.” He asked me about my degree, my dozens of girlfriends, and so on. I thought, well, what else do you see in that scalp up there, big boy? But this is when Shanaynay showed up to wedge us apart. Except she didn’t.

First, my man offered an inarguable bromide: “This is such a stupid show,” he said. Yes! I can agree with this! I immediately said, “Oh yeah!”

Because even if I do sometimes watch daytime shows because they offer me the escapist thrill of thinking the world is actually a well-managed three-camera affair, I can at least acknowledge that such a thrill is a stupid one.

To my credit, I did hint at some possible hypocrisy. Indicating that in fact this show was playing in his own place of business, I went ahead and offered him an out: “Do you just keep it on to have something in the background?”

He nodded and said, “But I am going to turn on the radio.” We both laughed the full-throated laugh of the small talker. It is NUTS how much funnier things are in small talk. Oh my GOD you can’t get your airplane seatbelt to click together?! Well I guess you get what you pay for! Hahahahahahaha I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT WE MEAN: ARE WE CHEAP OR ARE FLIGHTS TOO $$$$ EITHER WAY MODERN LIFE IS HARD hahahahahahaha.

I will add that my man did not switch to the radio, at least while I was there. How I wish he had. Tuned in to NPR. I would have had zero crises of conscience, I feel. Instead, he left it on, and during a banal segment about girlfriends who give you tough advice, he offered the aforementioned verdict: “I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

The casual racism wasted no time in smacking me across the face. I was instantly aware of the implications of his statement, and I instantly laughed and made cooing noises of agreement.


Given ten seconds to reflect, the researchers in my brain offered the thesis that really the most likely audience is little old ladies, not welfare queen boogiemen. Or the white retired couple who live above me and keep the TV blaring 24/7. Or the tired old cleaning ladies I met at a summer program who took plenty of breaks from scrubbing toilets (and finding the retainer I drunkenly puked out of my mouth one night) to catch up on stories. Or MY MOTHER for crying out loud. Or my self.

But I rejected the work of my researchers. I buried it. It would have been non-confrontational enough to say, and at least plant a seed to challenge his stereotype (even a seed based on other stereotypes), but I didn’t.

I recently read Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That, and one of the things she is over is small talk. She calls it “smalk” which I find to be a completely superfluous abbreviation. She has no patience for it. I find that such a feeling is a luxury of a very few, and may have something to do with age as well as money and power. Anthony Hopkins is said to be a bit eccentric in the way he will just up and leave his own table if you’re boring him: his wife has to smooth things over.

I have nothing new to say about the occasional inanities of small talk, of the embarrassment we may feel over using the weather as a conversational crutch, for instance, or the necessary evil of trading superficialities on a first date. But I have an exceptionally extreme terror of it. A friend of mine did a comedy bit about the people on the street who try to get you to Save the Children. She said not only did she start avoiding them, but that as she rode the train she would begin to get anxious just thinking about how she would soon have to deal with ignoring them.

I feel that way about everyone. I will cross to the opposite side of the street if I see you coming and I don’t want to do the plastic “how are you” thing. I will act like I don’t see you; I will deny you three times before the cock crows, and I apologize if it’s ever hurt your feelings.

I am, however, getting better, and also realizing the benefits. I went out with a combination of friends and strangers after a show, post-haircut, and I managed to start a little conversation. It’s a new skill, so it’s still a bit mechanical; my brain sends me messages like, “Now it’s your line. You should say, ‘What was weird about it?'”

But I listened to the person across from me, found something I could ask informed questions about (Yale Drama School), and then asked those questions, with follow-ups. When our chat spread to two other nearby diners, I took the kind of pleasure I imagine the cave man did who made fire: “I have done this!” “This was me!”

In addition to the pleasures of narcissism, I am finding that the more interested you are in other people the more interested you are in other people. It’s like having faith. The more you have it you have it but you have to have it to have it.

Of course, if you add alcohol to this interest in others, you can get all kinds of unpredictable results, like when at a large party I decided to lead a one man polling team to find out what everyone’s favorite cunnilingus technique was. If you are curious, I have sealed the results and put them in a vault to be opened six years after my death.

Then there are the times when you just have to suck it up and smalk it up. The times you’re in a social situation and you don’t agree with the person you’re talking to but, for the sake of harmony (maybe the person’s your significant other’s relative), you tuck your dick between your legs and prancercise in your airy kimono like a conversational Buffalo Bill. “I’m just like you,” you say. “I also believe Obamacare is the enemy of the people.”


I suppose the fact that my barber holds sharp objects up to my head is a motive for harmonizing, but I’m not letting myself off the hook that easy. It’s not like I was trying to sleep with his sister.

I understand this all may not seem like a big deal, and certainly not something worth still thinking about twenty-four hours after the fact. But if I could so easily put aside one of my convictions (making racist comments about Shanaynays), what else could I put aside? Is there anything I won’t put aside? I began to see myself as a barbershop Zelig, the Woody Allen character who takes on the characteristics of whoever he’s with.


He even turns different races.


It’s Allen’s argument against mindless conformity (Zelig is easy bait for fascists), and I started to wonder if, at the right cocktail party, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t agree to or say myself, for the sake of popularity.

If that’s not bad enough, there’s another kind of mortal sin you can commit while smalking (okay, Shirley, it has grown on me). And that’s faking it.

If my father only got to tell one story about me, he might talk about when I was a wee lad accompanying him on a Saturday morning trip to Sports Authority. It might have been the time we went to get me rollerblades. The point is, when we left the store, our masculine egos all puffed up by the smell of sneakers and balls, one man asked my father when the big basketball game was that day. My dad said, “Ummmm,” and then another man chimed in, “I think it’s at three,” the other man said. “Yeah! Yeah, it’s at three,” my dad said, nodding.

As we walked away, I said to my dad, “I don’t think you know what time the game is, because you don’t watch basketball.” I was, of course, right, and from then on my father decided I was a genius. And my dad and I now regularly compare notes about how we’re trying to be more honest about acknowledging what we don’t know. But it’s hard out here for a genius. At a recent Oscar party, we were all asked to make up fake awards for each other. A companion of mine handed me the “I Know Everything and I’m Always Right” trophy. Zing.

The Freakonomics guys, Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner, have a new book out, and their recent podcast focused on a chapter of it: “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language.”

The #notallmen (ugh) male ego is just one of the factors that can pressure us into false certainty, and those factors start early. When a teacher quizzes you, you don’t earn points for not knowing. Stephen Dubner interviews an English researcher whose work depicts how children are conditioned toward “having a go” at any question. Should teachers more positively reinforce “I don’t know”? Of course, a good teacher is generally asking a question that the student should know the answer to, and often wants the student to have a go regardless.

It works both ways, too. I had a mentor, a saint, who told me that if a student ever asked her a question to which she did not know the answer, she would say, “I don’t know, but I will look that up and we can talk about it tomorrow.” She hated when teachers threw students’ curiosity back on them: “I don’t know; why don’t you look it up?” From experience I know how tempting it is for a teacher to never admit he doesn’t know. I’ve BSed plenty of times, and only called myself out on it for a portion of them. I don’t think I would have lost much face if I had been more honest about my occasional ignorance, and certainly the relief over not having misinformed my students would have counterbalanced it.

But in job settings where you have bosses who aren’t teenage children, it can be even harder. It starts with the job interview itself, one situation where Levitt and Dubner admit that “never say I don’t know” can be a helpful maxim. In this post-recession recession world, that kind of can-do can-know spirit can easily seep into the rest of our lives. But imagine how easy it could have been:

“I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

“Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe.”


“Obamacare is the enemy of the people.”

“Is it, sir? I don’t know. Say more.”


And I don’t really know the ins and outs of small businesses and healthcare anymore than I know if there is or is not truth behind the Shanaynay stereotype. More importantly, I don’t know what personal experience is causing my conversational partner to espouse such beliefs, but with a little gentle polite prodding I’m sure I could find out, and then I’d be in a whole new world of understanding. It’s predetermined certainty, isn’t it, that keeps us all from actually listening to each other? Even if it’s certainty that what we’re hearing is just smalk.

Steven Levitt admits the occasional benefit of “I don’t know,” but asks, what’s the fun in life of constantly faking it? “The goal is to be good,” he says, and while I know he means “competent,” when I heard that I couldn’t help but jump first to the moral dimension. Because when I got back from my haircut, I saw a friend had sent me a link to a Maya Angelou interview. I read Caged Bird in high school, and blew through it to get it done. I’ve never been a big fan, though I enjoyed listening to her talk about her mancatching banana pudding on Oprah. Well. After listening to this (part of her Oprah Master Class), I sat on my kitchen floor, like a child, and clicked link after link, listening spellbound to this woman speak seemingly right into me.


You must listen, but here are the words:

And I think now what would Grandma do? What would she say? And I can almost hear her voice, say “Now Sister. You know what’s right. Just do right.” You don’t really have to ask anybody the truth is right may not be expedient, it may not be profitable, but it will satisfy your soul. It brings you the kind of protection that bodyguards can’t give you. Try to be all you can be, to be the best human being you can be. Try to be that in your church, in your temple. Try to be that in your classroom. Do it because it is right to do. You see. People will know you. And they will add their prayers to your life. They’ll wish you well.

I think, if your name is mentioned and people say, Oh hell, Oh damn, hahaha! You’re doing something wrong. But if your name is mentioned and people say oh she’s so sweet oh he’s so nice oh I love, god bless her! There you are.

So try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity. Take up the battle. Take it up. It’s yours. This is your life. This is your world. I’ll be leaving it long before you under the ordinary circumstances. 

You make your own choices. You can decide life isn’t worth living. That would be the worst thing you can do: how do you know? So far.

Try it. See. So pick it up. Pick up the battle. And make it a better world. Just where you are. Yes. And it can be better. And it must be better. But it is up to us.

This might seem a bit heavy to add to a discussion of small talk, but it feels right. And sharing her words is certainly right.

I do know what’s right, in this case. I should have said something about Shanaynay. Small talk offers us some quite large opportunities to be honest to our self, even if (hopefully if) that self is not rigid or fully formed. Being honest and un-Zelig must be how self is built in the first place, the kind that sticks out from the crowd like Dr. Angelou’s.

I’ll do better next time.


ThoreauWe do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. So said Henry David Thoreau. I know, because I beat the phrase into three years of eleventh graders so that they would have something concrete to say about Transcendentalism. In payment to the karmic gods, I’m forever haunted by these words I made them parrot, along with, “You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours even in a poor-house.”

Today I took the train (at peak hours!) into the city to see a screening of a documentary. It’s a so-called lost film from 1971 about Roman Polanski palling around with a Formula 1 driver. I was asked to go to this advance screening by a guy who runs a website for which I have agreed to write some film reviews. At the time I thought, who would pay money to go see this incredibly niche film?

Maybe no one, as the screening was cancelled. I was the only person who showed up for it, like a dupe.

As I walked back to Grand Central, surprisingly unperturbed, it occurred to me that I was much less upset about having wasted my time than I would have been had I been late to the screening. My train that morning had been five minutes late, which had put my time-sensitive scheduling to the test. I made it to the place with two minutes to spare, of course fruitlessly.

Isn’t that sick? I wondered. That I am so stressed by the idea of running a few minutes late I would rather the whole event be called off? I even had trouble getting to sleep last night, thinking of how I would have to wake up and be out in time.

Lately I’ve had a string of successes with being perfectly on time. This comes of course with living in one place for long enough that you get a good sense of how long transportation takes. But it’s a valuable thing, being not late but not early, especially in the city; for a while in college I toyed with smoking, only because it gave me something to do while waiting those last few minutes before a reservation or an 8:00 curtain.

On the other hand, I also recently had a wonderful experience with tardiness. A friend and I were to go to a Buddhist center, of all places. We both arrived early to the rendezvous point and stayed in our cars, thinking the other wasn’t there yet. By the time we figured out our error, it was too late to go. I had been mildly annoyed at first, but the afternoon morphed into an odyssey that involved encounters with wild turkeys, a search for dry ice, and the recovery of a trashed armchair. As I said to my friend, “Nothing we got at that center would be more spiritual than this.” Cue Grey’s Anatomy indie music montage. We all have similar “everyday is a winding road” stories.

It reminds me of that credo, When God closes a door, he opens a window. Or as I put it, everything’s for the best – because how could it be otherwise? When I was applying to college, my mother, among many others, offered up this piece of advice on a regular basis: “Well, these things have a way of working out.” Of course they do! Because there’s no possible way of ever knowing if Swarthmore would have been better for me than NYU. So why bother thinking about it?

Still, at a point in my life where I am very consciously working toward evenness of mind, nothing quite upsets me like the possibility of being late. Maybe I don’t like apologizing to people, for one thing. Also, in the case of a film or a piece of theater, I hate missing the beginning, and in this case it would have been worse as I had a job to do – and what if they didn’t admit latecomers? Now, I was much less frantic as I hustled to the building in Times Square than I would have been a few years ago, thanks to my “it won’t kill me” or “at least I’m not a child prostitute in Cambodia” mantra work. And I think that must be the goal: the balance of making diligent effort to arrive on time with not being distressed if you don’t. It’s like “productivity,” balancing making it work in the world with not beating yourself up for spending seemingly empty hours.

I recently read Siddhartha (yes, I’m slowly making the obligatory survey of Obvious Spiritual Literature), and on my walk back to the train I thought of the part where Siddhartha goes on a business trip.

When he arrived there, the rice was already sold to another merchant. However, Siddhartha remained in that village several days, entertained the farmers, gave money to the children, attended a wedding and returned from the journey completely satisfied.

I did pause for a few minutes after stepping out of the building, and went through a little checklist. I wondered how I could Siddharthize this little daytrip. Anyone to call and see if they want coffee? Any stores to go to, things you can’t find in Yonkers? Any shows whose box offices you want to pop into and try to get a cheap ticket?

No, not really.

Out of laziness I didn’t put my earbuds in; I just walked. I got to hear one well-dressed yuppie moan to another well-dressed yuppie – “You see how this collar, it’s all rumpled?” I walked through the Christmas shops at Grand Central, artisanal and Brooklynesque to a fault, and didn’t buy anything. I went to the bookstore and browsed and almost missed my train.

Nothing productive. No wedding, no entertaining of the farmers.

On the walk back from the station to my house I still wasn’t listening to music so I was able to really say “Good morning” to an old man walking his dog who said it to me first (the man not the dog). That felt important, like See Daniel you had a human interaction without having to worry about whether you shouted because your music was on. But was it worth the $20 I blew on train fares?

Since as far back as I care to remember, I’ve played a little game with myself. I might have written about it here, before. Actually, allow me to just excerpt from the Great American Novella I wrote in college and promptly shared with exactly four people. I haven’t looked at this story in years and it’s frighteningly earnest, so be gentle and whisper sweet things in my ear:

When I lost things I sometimes tried to make up for it by thinking of the stuff I’d gotten for free, a counter-balancing thing. Usually it was about material things, like I’d lost my scarf but my parents had just bought me a DVD or I’d downloaded some Ben Folds without paying. Now these things had been given to me, free of charge, whether or not I was worthy of them: Candace’s smile, Molly’s sex, this day, this air, this park, this life. There was so much to be given, more than I ever could lose. After a minute I remembered the word for these things.


Today I walked home in the cold and I thought, that game’s all well and good, just like David Foster Wallace’s thought experiments which so influence me. But the trick has got to be to get to the point where you no longer need to play it. I shouldn’t have to try to make a balance in my head of $20 for two hours of time. I remember where I was in Grand Central today when I had the thought, look, money is an illusion of worth anyway, it’s a constructed sense of worth: think of the pisspoor job you did teaching those parents’ children yesterday, and they paid you for that. I’m not being cynical; it was a bad teaching day. It wasn’t worth it.

The games go on, my blood pressure rises and falls. I’ve made progress on this path of being a human. I can sit in traffic and get my shoulders to drop their tension; I’m only mad now at the personal sins, venial, like when a person takes way too fucking long to make a fucking right turn.

But I still don’t have an answer for the most troubling question of all, which is why I should be allowed to have a long enough life where I make any progress, while so many others are clipped off in the midst of an ignorance or an innocence. And I don’t have an answer as to whether or not that makes me beholden to make something of life. I don’t have an answer yet to why I shouldn’t be late, always, forever, for any reason or no reason at all.


For the last month or so I’ve listened many times to a piece of music from the film The Year of Living Dangerously. Composed by Maurice Jarre, it has a quiet contemplativeness to it – the music feels dialectic to me, even though I’m not sure I really know what that word means; I just feeeeeel it. And I think the person who made the accompanying Youtube slide show of images from the movie did something really quite nice, intentionally or happily. The film deals with many things, but certainly the question I mention above, about why some and not others, comes into play in a story about white people in love in an impoverished Indonesia.

This particular piece of music swells right at the end, and it’s matched by an image of Mel Gibson, the main character, walking to the plane that will take his privileged ass out of the chaotic country. Right around 4:30 there’s a frozen  close-up frame, and it might just be an accident, but his eyes are closed in a way that perfectly captures, I think, what the character must be feeling at that moment, on that walk: a sense of failure and an awareness of waste, and the grim duty of having to be the one who keeps going.

That combination of picture and score is a fitting note to end this on, as it is an example of perfect timing.

In the meantime, here’s to continually trying to ride on the railroad, and not the other way round.


This may be more personal than you’re interested in. Not because I’m going to talk about my rash again though.

First, I Google imaged “board meeting” and this was clearly the best one:

board meeting

The spark for this entry occurred a few days ago when I read just the teaser of some blog post which said that being “active” or “busy” is not the same as being “productive.” That hit home because I’ve had a lot of spare time on my hands lately and I’ve been driving myself a little crazy with it. Both of my teaching gigs currently are part-time, and the main one being a Jewish school I had almost the entire month of September to sit on my hands here. I thought that would be relaxing. It was not. A couple of rejection letters combined with some late-blooming post-grad panic to produce (ha ha) a flurry of activity in me.

I wrote new things, revised old things, and submitted, submitted, submitted (and applied for full-time jobs). Submitting for me means writing a cover letter to a theater and emailing them a script or a 10-page sample. Because there are a lot of me’s out there doing that, you generally don’t even get your form rejection letter until 6-12 months later. Also, since each theater’s submission requirements are just a little different, you can spend a lot of time licking figurative stamps.

But it went further than that. I was also researching a new play idea, and began to become a little obsessive about how I was spending my time. “Well, you can watch another half hour of Das Rheingold, then read another chapter of Nixon and Kissinger, then write a new scene, all before going to work.” If I wasn’t doing something that I felt was leading me on to SUCCESS then I became antsy and irritable. I was not fun to be around, and I’m not a peach to begin with.

And when this need for proactivity (ugh) infects my brain, it gets to the point where I even start rationalizing things like getting a cup of coffee with an old friend. “Well, networking…” NO! NO! Not everything is an opportunity for networking or inching your way farther down whatever road you think exists through life!

I mean it’s really odd, in my opinion, that I have gotten this way, since I am not somebody who sees a whole lot of purpose to life in general. I think it’s bizarre that we all walk around in shirts and pants and underwear and shoes and socks and belts when really if we were being honest with ourselves we would probably be more comfortable in blue paint and peanut shells. Don’t you look around sometimes at the world, at these strange animals we are prancing around on two legs, with our buildings and our meetings and our very important importances and don’t you feel like you’re the only one in on the joke?

This occasional nihilism or anarchism or whatever collegiate ism you want to attach to it is coupled in me with what has always been a lack of ambition when it comes to art. I mean in terms of Gettin’ Famous. I’ve always felt that I would put out my work in whatever way I put it out, and/or put it on for whomever, wherever, no matter how small or unsophisticated an audience, and be fine. To me, the writing is often the thing itself, and I’ve daydreamed about an heir of mine finding a stack of Great American What-have-yous hidden in my rolltop desk.

Because while I certainly do not scorn but instead admire the efforts of people who try to improve the quality of life on this planet, I ultimately think we’re a random act of kindness, a blip on the scientific radar and I really have no strong feelings about the continuation of the human race.

So why the hell do I care so much that Playwrights Horizons doesn’t want my shit?

And why can’t I allow myself to waste time? As if it were possible to spend or waste such a thing at all.

I want to compare this now to something personal and because it’s my blog I get to do that. Lately in particular but always in general I also have a hard time with what most people would consider normal drinking. I recently read (for research!) Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore by Rachel Brownell, and that introduced me to the term “problem drinking.” I am a problem drinker, which is nicer and more accurate to say than I have a drinking problem. And recently I have sharply vacillated between nights when I don’t drink at all, and nights when I just flat out get drunk. Because my approach is, well, if I’ve already broken the seal on drinking, I might as well drink until I get that nice fuzzy feeling, otherwise, what’s the point? I will have wasted the time and calories when I could have been finishing Das Rheingold (and I can tell you that getting to the end of that one is worth it).

Writers and artists and other unsavory types have an advantage when it comes to productivity, because we can always chalk something up to a valuable experience. “It’s all grist for the mill” is the kind of annoying thing you hear people like me say all the time. Sometimes after puking up red wine on a Wednesday. (Right now you are the mill and my shame is the grist.) It’s true, of course, but can lead to some seriously disordered thinking. And also a lot of pissing off of ex-lovers when they read your stuff.

“Love is not a MILL and we were not GRIST.”

That is a line from a fight I’ve never had.

Productive is a straightforwardly Latin word from producere, which means to bring forth. Obviously this is different from what we talk about when we talk about being active. But a scan of the etymology for act  tells us that actus and actum both derive from the root agere, which means “to do, set in motion, drive, urge, chase, stir up,” which in turn comes from ag which means (here it is) “to drive, DRAW OUT OR FORTH, move” (emphasis mine). So if produce is to bring forth and act is to draw forth, what’s the difference?

“Forth” is what they have in common, and forth of course is the only way that time goes anyway. The only way it can go. What we do in that time has no effect on it, no matter how many brilliant uniquely tailored cover letters we write in an hour, the only thing that ever matters is the present moment – blah blah blah. The idea that you bring anything forth is a bit vague and presumptive. Forth is bringing you.

You know a few weeks ago I went to a Buddhist center up here and got to hear the main guru. And he seems very happy. And he was leading us in meditation and telling us how very easy it is to be very happy all the time. And he told us that we had homework. We had to start each day by, well shit I’ve already forgotten it because I didn’t do it, but it was something like start each day by visualizing how good a day it would be. Not visualizing like they tell you to do in THE SECRET, but just touching your inner happy touchstone. Like, choosing the light. And he said, but you really have to do it. And I was like, I will!

And I didn’t!

I’d like to have a more conclusive ending here but instead let’s just sum up in outline form because it is official and makes me feel like I haven’t wasted this time:

A) Productive and active are the same thing because nothing matters

B) People who write blog entries about the difference between productivity and action are corporate assholes

C) Except for me

D) I am going to work on being able to have 1-2 drinks just for the hell of it

E) This one is just a mental palette cleanser to set you up for

F) Just do it.

F) The English teacher in me wants to say, “‘It’ is a vague pronoun reference in that sentence/slogan, because we do not know to what it refers.”

G) And the hippie in me replies, “Exactly, baby. Exactly.”