Good reads (and a listen) from late August

I’ve been scrambling to survive a magazine deadline and the first week of class, but I always save at least a few minutes to skim social media or rest with a book.

A few I recommend for your attention:

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Amazon link)
Visit your favorite local bookstore, grab a cuppa from the cafe, and read the first chapter.  Coates (who is famous for his long narrative and personal pieces about Black life in America for major media) penned letters to his teenaged son, explaining his experience of growing up black in Baltimore. The account is gritty and angry, reminiscent of Richard Wright. Though nearly a century has passed since Wright and others raised their voices against the discrimination and racism of American life, Coates seethes with the same resentment.

Polls show that white Americans downplay the idea that racism affects justice or social mobility in our country. Coates’s account is one voice among millions so perhaps some may dismiss him as an outlier. But you need to encounter his biography and his anger and his hope and his despair honestly and for yourself.

“I’m from New Orleans, but I didn’t understand why we needed to save it” (Washington Post)

intelligence is not wisdom. My belated New Orleans education forced me to swallow an impossible, and yet an inevitable, fact: the spiritual, the musical, the mystical side of human relations. Sometimes what is important cannot be seen, only felt.

Why is it so hard to value joy over economics? We struggle yet. But New Orleans seems to “get it.” Perhaps flirting with destruction is the only way to enjoy life.

A tough read about what no white Republican really wants to talk about. So I’m going to post it here in hopes that you’ll have the courage to read it:

“What is the Southern Strategy? It is this. It says to the South: Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the ‘eastern establishment’ whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.”

Source: How the GOP became the “White Man’s Party” –

I’m not sure I’d agree with Kennedy on every point here, but his eulogy for Robert Frost provokes great questions about art and its power to affect society through a radical telling of truth.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

Source: JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time | Brain Pickings

One of the best new songs I’ve run into. I absolutely love this track from The Fire Tonight’s new album.


Enjoy. I’m already collecting more. 🙂

Back in the saddle

Y’all. I am in the classroom again.

Teaching. It’s my jam. It’s my song. It’s what feels right.

I’ve read in several places over the past couple years that one significant difference between men and women in the workplace is in how they handle insecurity. According to the received wisdom / poll data / research bits, men are often full of bravado and confidence no matter how unlikely, while women hold back until they feel “ready enough.”  So, the reasoning goes, that’s why men ask for more raises and get them, get promoted, get attention, and leave their mark on the world.

The Confidence Gap (The Atlantic)

I can’t crawl inside anyone else’s head easily, but inside mine, I must admit this research rings true.  And very little brings out the megaphone of self-doubt like stepping into a classroom in front of several pairs of watching eyes.

It’s possible to bluff one’s way through a lesson (I’ve done it, under duress and overwork or poor planning), but generally I think students see through ill-prepared teaching.

It’s also intimidating to consider just how talented and intelligent humans are in general. We get all caught up with analyzing test scores and IQ data and grades and crap like that, but really — humans are pretty incredible even if they aren’t burning up the grading curve. So teaching requires a lot of strategy and planning, enough to move a conversation forward or help students develop further.

There are days when I wish I could turn off the nay-sayer in my brain. I already know that I’m not the brightest or the smartest or the best prepared or most creative. If “being the best” is truly some kind of award, I’m never going to win it. Some days I just feel lazy.  After all, I have no PhD; I’m not running a company that I founded; I’m not on a fast track to high-level management; I haven’t written a book; I hardly even keep up with tweeting more than 1 day in a row.

All that said, there’s an invigorating satisfaction to the challenge. I’m facing a classroom tomorrow morning where I need to lead a discussion on a chapter I assigned, prep students with a definition of argumentation, and explain an assignment well.  Will I do as well as I possibly could? No. I worked 8 hours today doing something completely different. There’s not enough time in the day or space in my brain to make this perfect.

So, like my students, I aim for “good enough.” Not in the lazy sense, where just scraping by is all that’s called for, but in the wisdom that comes from orbiting this globe more than a few times.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

Like so many human endeavors, the foundation to success in teaching is getting in there and doing it.

Nice to have the opportunity again.

Empty-Nesters: Please get back Into the pool. We need you.

Why aren’t there survival support groups for parents of teenagers?

I’m serious. Hear me out.

If what I observe is even remotely accurate,  the World has decided that Toddlers and Preschoolers demand the kind of support and attention given to Three Mile Island by a nuclear engineer prone to anxiety attacks.

d42dbb727391bbeb114561bb6ae8ae78New mothers should be surrounded by a support group the size of a brigade — including grandparents, friends of grandparents, church nursery workers, the moms of older kids who miss having a baby around, the fathers of older kids who are actually really great with babies but don’t push themselves into the gaggle of chattering women to get a chance to hold the newest addition…..Basically everyone within earshot of the crying babe.

I’m all about support networks.  Good lord, if I have a kid, I’m calling on anyone within siren distance for help.  I am an idiot when it comes to little kids. Completely incompetent.

But I think this whole parent support network breaks down as kids get older.

I spent a decade teaching teens, meaning I got to know a lot of parents of teens.  As a crowd, these parents tend to share some common characteristics:

  • They’re confused and sometimes hurt or angry because their teen seems to be suffering from multiple personality disorder. It’s as if 6 children have all moved into the same body…. 4 of them are total assholes at least half the time, 1 is always asleep, 3 “can’t even,” and the only nice one emerges when the parent isn’t around.
  • They’re tired because teenagers have ridiculous expectations for social lives but restricted access to driving privileges, a car, or gas money.  So the parental taxi service runs non-stop, the management of curfew is non-stop, the litany of last-minute requests to buy something that should have been taken care of last week is non-stop, the vigilance over “what were you doing last weekend” never stops.
NOT IMPRESSED: Teenagers as a species.
NOT IMPRESSED: Teenagers as a species.
  • They’re poor because nothing tops teen expectations for transportation except their need for money, electronics, clothes, games, movie tickets, adventures with friends, and school supplies. Maybe you can resist “keeping up with the Joneses” but your kid probably can’t.
  • They’re weary of the interpersonal conflict.  Sometimes kids grow up without giving their parents hell all the time. But almost every parent  has to live through at least 12-18 months of crap. Kids know where your buttons are. They know where it hurts. Sometimes they go for the jugular…but usually they’re just cluelessly self-absorbed adolescents drowning in angst.
  • They’re scared that they’re doing it wrong. Parenting is one of those jobs where you don’t know what to do until after you’ve lived through it and gained the experience you would have given a body part to possess 3 days ago.  And every kid is different so those hard-earned lessons may not transfer to the next one.
  • PARENTS, this is you.
    PARENTS, this is you in TeenWorld….. Misspellings and all. Without RDJ’s cool factor.

    They’re wrestling with the balance between safety and freedom, with when to intervene and when to let life teach its hard lessons. A teenager’s character blossoms in exciting ways, giving glimpses of the incredible person tucked inside, a vision of stunning future potential. But they’re also old enough to really, truly screw it up….bad. With lifelong consequences.  That’ll keep anyone up at night. Which makes teenagers’ unhappiness with their parents’ involvement all the more infuriating.

  • They’re feeling guilty because social media and casual conversation make it look like everyone else, despite all their protestations, is doing it so much better. Those people’s kids seem nicer, kinder, smarter, better dressed, better fed, better educated, more involved, and readier for college. Oh yeah, college! Another thing to feel guilty about – how big is your tuition savings account? (Answer: Never big enough.)

If the teen in question is a first-born, raise the intensity of all of these by a factor of 10.

To this, I have something to say:

Empty nesters, we need you.

Where are the support groupies for the parents of teens? They’re out on the lake. They’re chasing retirement. They’re trying to keep up with a kid at college who never calls home and loses all his socks so he just doesn’t bother wearing any, ever.  They’re tired because they’re 50 years old still working 50 hours a week. They’re saving for a future wedding (fingers crossed). They’re distracted because a first grandchild is on the way.

But empty-nesters, we still need you.

266092394761f1b95c58df16df767d59YOU are the voice of reason to the parents of teens in your life (and in your church and in your extended network of people you knew when your kids were in school).

YOU are the evidence that parenting adolescents need not be a terminal illness or the #1 cause of ulcers in adults in their 40s. (I made that up; stop Googling.)

YOU possess the power to say the magic words that parents of teens need to hear again and again and again: “It’s going to be okay.” 

The Apostle Paul gave Titus a model for church relationships as Titus got started in his pastoral career in Crete. In chapter 2, Paul suggests that it’s the older and more experienced people in the church who should mentor those coming along behind in the ways of life: marriage, parenting, working, living.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve noticed this mentoring cycle  seems to break as families grow up. I can imagine many reasons:  Social circles for kids and parents harden into the natural groupings driven by school, pulling families into spending time primarily around people who have kids of similar ages. With everyone tucked neatly into these strata, who has time to break out and ask for a hand up?

So. If you’re reading this, and your kids are grown, please find a family who’s still raising their kid13441326730742762560-1368441969s, and invest in their lives. Just start with going out for coffee or beer – what parent of teens doesn’t need chemical assistance?

Get to know teens in your church or neighborhood. Volunteer to chaperon a youth group trip, or have a bunch over for cookies. (Teens still like cookies.) It won’t be weird. I promise. Teens hate only their own parents. 🙂

Hillary earned a lot of scorn in the 90s when she reminded us “It takes a village to raise a child.”  But it DOES take a village. Being part of the Body means parents aren’t supposed to be stuck doing this alone. The rest of us at different stages of life should be investing something in the people coming after us.

Get back in the pool, Empty Nesters! You’re the lifeguards.

Worth Reading This Week: Film, Helping the Poor, School Desegregation, and Racism (Oh my!)

Two reads and one listen that are more than worth your time.

I’ll open with what I think is the best of the three, though it will require a longer time investment.

Episodes 562 and 563 of This American Life delve into a topic people stopped talking about years ago: school integration.  “Separate but equal” schools were rejected as a solution by the Supreme Court 60 years ago, yet many inner-city minority students live in a world in which their schools are measurably inferior to the surrounding suburban schools where all the money resides.  As rich schools get richer, we must confront the increasing data that supports continued integration of schools across racial lines as a solution to the achievement gap.

Or to be really blunt about it: The Gospel might mean I should love my neighbor enough to send my kid to a worse school so that families with few other options for their kids can benefit from the effects of my (white) privilege.

Controversial enough for you?  Good. Give it a listen.
Also, if you aren’t shaking with anger and grief during the audio of the parent meeting in St. Louis in 2013, you have no soul.

This American Life: The Problem We All Live With (#562)

Second, I commend this dense but readable essay that suggests Christians should stop fighting a PR war and focus attention on the daily, hard work of loving the people around us.  It’s not rocket science. But it takes work … when it’s a lot easier just to snap a selfie at a rally or #StandWith on Twitter or complain about how the Church isn’t helping the poor. (That last line is for you, John)

If you Love the Poor for the sake of the Favs and RTs, it will destroy you. Even doing it for the love of others can tear you apart, constantly peeling the onion of intersectionality until you’re a crying mess. Loving the Poor for the praise of Our Father In Heaven, as Jesus told us to do, might involve just as much crying, but it at least gives you something beyond yourself that you can hold on to when you have no idea whether or not you’re actually loving people or loving the thing you’re building for them or loving the way they make you feel.

Loving the Poor: Pics or It Didn’t Happen (from CAPC)


Finally, this essay about how watching films changes us for the better because it trains our hearts to empathize is well worth a read. Again, a little denser than I’d like for a casual piece, but absolutely worth your time.  Brought back lots of great memories from the time I read James K. A. Smith’s excellent book Desiring the Kingdom.

Irrigating Deserts: How Film Transforms and Causes Us to Love Our Neighbors (From CAPC)

OK, I lied. One more.

All the hoopla over Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman hasn’t produced in me any desire to read it. I’m familiar enough with the shape of the tale and the surrounding metanarrative of how a reclusive author at the end of her life suspiciously agreed to release a manuscript she never wanted published.

This is the first article I’ve read which makes me think perhaps GSAW is worth a read after all.

“I am Atticus”: Racism and Vision in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

My Hugo Awards ballot (2015): So much drama

This was the year Coart & I decided we’d take the plunge and pay our membership fee to WorldCon so we could vote in the annual Hugo Awards.

So of course this was also the year the Hugos exploded in a brilliant display of obnoxious politicization.

The Hugo Award is distinctive in being a fan-determined award with long roots.  Named for Hugo Gernsback, an editor of an early and seminal sci-fi story magazine (which is still where most sci-fi material gets published before “getting famous”), the awards have existed since the 1950s and generally point to good quality writing in sci-fi and fantasy. (Mostly sci-fi.)

sci fi guyI don’t need to rehash the year’s controversy.

I recommend reading a good overview of the drama – the Daily Kos published a great one.

Basically, the Tea Party of Male Sci Fi Writers Who Miss The Past got together and incited both the naive sheeple of the Internet and the worst trolls to game the system together in the name of preserving their values from the “social justice warriors” who are nominating all kinds of ridiculousness from female writers, foreigners, and *gasp* non-Christians.

The Hugo Awards are based on a ballot of nominees that garner enough collective nominations to make it onto the actual voting ballot. So if one group decides to organize themselves into a voting block, they can throw the vote.

It’s not really rocket science (haha) or even illicit, but it’s galling when the people shoving nominees down my throat a) have an obvious political and moral agenda that’s just as oppressive as the liberalism they hate so much; and b) they nominate a lot of shitty stories that I then had to wade through.

The Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies (yes, that’s what they call themselves) are welcome to their personal viewpoints, but preachy literature is always bad literature. And I’m wondering if the leaders of these mobs have any good sense when it comes to literature in any form, because geez, this is really lame stuff.

For those of you who might care, my Hugo ballot decisions are listed below.

The TL;DR version is this:  You should try reading Three Body Problem by Liu and definitely read the Ancillary Justice / Ancillary Sword series by Ann Leckie. Leckie’s first novel won the Hugo last year and it’s a great piece of fiction.   By contrast, John C. Wright may be one of the worst writers published today. Bleh. Utterly lacking in nuance or artistry; relies on crass sexism and religious overtones in lieu of actual storytelling prowess or skill. Yet he was on this ballot 4 times in 3 categories. and almost squeezed out my novelette vote from even making it onto the ballot.

Few of the shorter works were worth my time, but I commend a couple as noted below.

To explain the listings here: I’ve listed my votes in ranked order. The NO AWARD line indicates the point in the list where I think any further nominees do not deserve a Hugo.

Links open to (affiliate)

Hugo 2015: Best Novel

  • The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, Ken Liu translator (Tor Books)  great book! read this!
  • Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK) great book! read this!
  • —–NO AWARD—-
  • The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) (Tor Books) solid book and interesting work of steampunk-fantasy; but the ridiculous names pissed me off. It reads like a first novel, but this is an established author.  The underlaying idea is a good one.
  • Skin Game, Jim Butcher (Orbit UK/Roc Books) – fun!
  • The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson (Tor Books)

Hugo 2015: Best Novella
This whole category was crap, IMO.  Wright’s “Plural of Helen of Troy” is a decent idea but as badly executed as the rest of this stuff, and offensively misogynistic in his attempt to be “retro.” That’s the best I can say about this group.

  • ——NO AWARD————
  • “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House)
  • “Flow”, Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, 11-2014)
  • Big Boys Don’t Cry, Tom Kratman (Castalia House)
  • One Bright Star to Guide Them, John C. Wright (Castalia House)
  • “Pale Realms of Shade”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)

Hugo 2015: Best Novelette
Generally poor writing and story telling, but Heuvelt’s little story is a bright spot.

  • “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014) A neat little tale that was unexpected, though it didn’t bowl me over in writing style. Got on the ballot only because Wright’s nomination was disqualified. Another reason to despite John C. Wright. 
  • —– NO AWARD ——–
  • “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014) – a decent story here, just not very original
  • “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014)  – a lot of promise but fails to deliver at the end
  • “Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014) –
  • “The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014)  I got tired of the pseudo caveman speak real quick

Hugo 2015: Best Short Story
I was so so disappointed. I *love* short stories. They are my favorite literary form. It’s usually easy to find a good one, even within mediocre collections. So there’s no excuse for the unoriginal bullshit that ended up nominated for this category.

  • A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books)  – the writing style fit the story and it’s kind of a neat premise. A weak winner, though, I’ll admit.
  • ——-NO AWARD————
  • “On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014) I almost nominated this one, but in the end, I was drawn more to the philosophy questions embedded in it than the story itself.  To me, the Hugo winner should be worth reading, both for content and for the writer’s craft. I do recommend reading this story, though.
  • “Totaled”, Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, 07-2014)
  • “Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House)
  • “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House) in which Wright tries to be CS Lewis but fails miserably

Hugo 2015: Best Related Work
Essays and other non-fiction. I love this kind of writing. For example, John Scalzi’s collected blog posts in the book Whatever is a recent “favorite read.” This pile? Not so much.

  • Letters from Gardner, Lou Antonelli (The Merry Blacksmith Press) – an interesting ramble between thoughts about writing and Antonelli’s process and the short stories he’s recently published. Cool enough to merit a vote from me in what is admittedly a scattered and weird category.
  • ——-NO AWARD———
  • “The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF”, Ken Burnside (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House) – an argument to sci-fi writers not to mess up their thermodynamics science. *salutes* Noted.
  • Why Science is Never Settled”, Tedd Roberts ( – Yawn. Why was this even on the ballot?
  • Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth, John C. Wright (Castalia House) in which Wright declares that he hates Flannery O’Connor. I can’t even.
  • Wisdom from My Internet, Michael Z. Williamson (Patriarchy Press) – oh look! something so narrow-minded and offensive, it bumped Wright up a notch!

Hugo 2015:  Movies [Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form]

  • Interstellar
  • Lego Movie
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • —-NO AWARD—-
  • Captain America: Winter Soldier

Hugo 2015: TV [Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form]
Tough category. How does one judge a TV episode when you have to be watching the entire season for it to make sense?  Moffat’s writing for Dr Who shines brilliantly as always, but this whole category is a stretch IMHO.

  • Dr Who – “Listen” (by Moffatt)
  • Game of Thrones – “The Mountain and the Viper”
  • Grimm – “Once We Were Gods”
  • Orphan Black – “By Means Which….”
  • The Flash – pilot


I didn’t really vote in the other categories, except to try to push Vox Day (the leader of the Rabid Puppies) lower in the Editor categories. And I didn’t get a chance to read the Graphic Novels or the new writers for the Campbell Award, or listen to the podcasts. It’s a long ballot.

There you have it. Give the novels a shot.  And definitely grab some of the past years’ Hugo winners. They’re usually quite good.