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|Saturday, December 21st, 2013|
Here in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice happened three hours ago. In honor of the sun beginning its gradual return, here (as is traditional around these parts) are my favorite lines from Susan Cooper's poem “The Shortest Day”:
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
(Link changed again; I've dropped a note to Ms. Cooper to ask if she'd be willing to restore the poem to her website.)
|Utah marriage news
Much to the surprise of me and most of my friends, a federal judge ruled on Friday that Utah's prohibition on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
Also, in an unrelated case, there was recently a surprising ruling having to do with polygamy in Utah.
But there's been a lot of confusion and a little misinformation floating around, so I wanted to clear some stuff up.
First: Utah did not legalize polygamy. Last weekend, a federal judge ruled that Utah can no longer prosecute people for “cohabition”—that is, for “living together in what appeared to be a polygamous relationship,” as an NPR article puts it. But you can still only have one legal spouse at a time.
As for marriage equality: Friday's ruling was a huge and awesome step forward, but it wasn't a final decision, because it's being appealed.
The ruling takes effect immediately, and so some Utahns, including a state senator, are getting same-sex-married right away. Yay!
But in the past, such rulings have almost always been quickly followed by a stay, pending resolution of appeals.
Equality on Trial has some updates on the state of the appeal. Short version: The state has asked the district court's judge to stay his ruling, but it sounds like the court may not decide whether to issue a stay for a few days yet, and during that time weddings are proceeding.
(The state actually had the chutzpah to say that issuing the stay would protect same-sex couples, because without the stay, such couples might get married but would remain uncertain about whether their marriages would be revoked.)
In the Prop 8 case in California, Judge Walker's ruling was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which I gather is notoriously liberal. But in this case in Utah, the appeals court is the Tenth Circuit, which I gather tends to be moderate-to-conservative. I have no idea whether that means they're likely to overturn the lower court's ruling or not.
However they decide, though, their decision will almost certainly get appealed to the Supreme Court. Which may decide not to take it, but all this will take time; I suspect that Utah's legal position on this issue won't be settled 'til late 2014 at the earliest. But I could be way off; I'm just guessing.
A few of my friends have noted, with understandable glee, that the district court's decision quotes Scalia's dissent from this year's DOMA case. I'm amused too; I feel like Scalia's gloomy dissents are turning out to be self-fulfilling prophecies. In particular, his dissent in Lawrence v Texas correctly predicted that the majority ruling left anti-marriage-equality laws on shaky ground, and iIrc Judge Walker quoted him in his decision on Prop 8 in California.
Various people have asked how many states now have marriage equality. The answer depends on how you count:
As of Thursday, when New Mexico's state supreme court ruled in favor of equality, sixteen US states (plus DC, plus several Native American jurisdictions) have full marriage equality.
One more, Illinois, has passed a final law to achieve marriage equality, but it won't go into effect until next June or so. I nonetheless count it as an equality state.
And now people are getting married in Utah, so you could count it as eighteen. But I expect a stay to go into effect within the next few days, and the decision could be overturned by either of the two higher courts, so I'm not counting it yet.
So: 17 by my count, but 16 or 18 could also be valid answers.
Btw, not counting Utah, I think ten of those states have achieved marriage equality in the past thirteen months. It's been a remarkable just-over-a-year. Sadly, progress will be much slower for a while, but even so, I'm really pleased.
|Friday, December 20th, 2013|
|Year Four of the Blue Brain documentary
Film-maker Noah Hutton has just released the ‘Year Four’ film of the decade-long series of films about Henry Markram’s massive Blue Brain neuroscience project.
It’s been an interesting year for Markram’s project with additional billion euro funding won to extend and expand on earlier efforts and the USA’s BRAIN Initiative having also made it’s well-funded but currently direction-less debut.
Hutton also tackles Markram on the ‘we’re going to simulate the brain in 10 years’ nonsense he relied on earlier in the project’s PR push although, his answer, it must be said, is somewhat evasive.
Although more of an update on the politics of Big Neuroscience than a piece about new developments in the science of the brain, the latest installation of the Blue Brain documentary series captures how 2013 will define how we make sense of the brain for years to come.
Link to ‘Bluebrain: Year Four’ on Vimeo.
Link to the Bluebrain Film website.
|Save the wave from The Reckoning!
I really love this shirt that I helped design, which is at shirt.woot:
I’ve wanted to do something like this, which combines the Great Wave of Kanagawa with gaming, and I was super excited when the artists at shirt.woot helped take the idea I had in my head and make it a thing you can wear.
It’s currently #16 in The Reckoning at shirt.woot. This means that it’s likely going to go live on a farm upstate where it can play in a field with other T-shirts.
Unless it sells more before Monday, and climbs back up the pack to a single digit ranking, where it’ll be safe for at least a few weeks.
If you’re interested in having this design on a t-shirt, a hoodie, or a tote bag, this may be your last chance to get it, before it is swept away by a great wave of reckoning.
THANK YOU THAT IS ALL.
I’m not sure why I thought I needed to do bold slug lines in this post. It probably has something to do with the coffee in my otherwise empty stomach.
|On Being the Best, Or Not
The other day I was reading an io9.com piece by Esther Ingliss-Arkell about why everybody thinks they’re better than everyone else, even if, in point of fact, everyone can’t be better than everyone else. While reading it, I had two thoughts:
One, it was a nice day when I learned I didn’t have to be better than everyone else, just good enough;
Two, I can think of several things where I am totally worse than many other people.
The first of these I think is pretty self-explanatory. To begin, when it comes to creative fields in which “better” or “best” become highly subjective after a certain, hopefully high, level of competence. To follow, once you are at that certain, hopefully high, level of competence, whether you are better or best is usually kind of immaterial. For example, in my field of work, publishers can’t make a business in publishing only the “best,” whatever their (or your) definition of that is. There’s not enough of “best” to go around, and anyway, what’s “best” isn’t always the same as what sells. In addition to “best” they also buy “pretty darn good,” or (at the very least) “competent enough to sell.” I am happy to say I am at least Competent Enough To Sell, which for a writer gets you through the gate.
When I was younger, wanting to be the Best Writer In The World was a fine motivating goal, in terms of sticking with writing and learning the craft and the business of the field. As I got older I realized that wanting to be the Best Writer In The World would eventually give me heartburn and make me envious of and pissy toward the people in my field who might otherwise be my friends when it turned out their talents were as prodigious (or worse, even more so) than mine. So instead I mostly focused on being a better writer. As a result I did in fact get better as a writer, and I learned not to hate other people simply for being good in my field, or needing to feel that I had to always imagine myself the Best Writer in the Room.
So: I do not think I am a better writer than other folks in my field. I can think of several I consider better writers. I keep working on the writing so I can get onto that level. I do think I’m pretty good at the writing thing, and I think my track record as a professional writer lends some credence to that opinion. If other people think they’re better writers than I am, good for them. If other people think other writers are better than I am, that’s okay too. My ego is focused on being good and getting better.
As toward the second, a short list of things I know I totally suck at:
1. Drawing. Man, I’m just terrible at drawing. And I used to say to myself “well, at least I can draw stick figures just fine,” and then xkcd happened. So now I can’t even say I do a good job at stick figures. Stupid xkcd.
2. Cooking. I can cook three things well: Shadenfreude Pie, minestrone soup, and ramen. Everything else you do not want me in the kitchen for. Except for exploding your kitchen. Which I could do.
3. Knitting. Seriously, how the hell do people even do that shit. I tried it once and it just turned me into a ball of anger and insecurity. I see knitters clacking away and making cool things and think what sort of witchcraft is this? It literally astounds me.
4. Dressing myself. I think this might be a field I could become competent in, if I invested the time, but the amount of time that I would have to invest is so large that as a middle-aged man I might not live long enough. So when we go out in public, I let my wife dress me. Because she has to be seen with me, right? She will protect me from myself.
5. Organization. Oh, Jesus. Just the thought of trying to be organized makes me tired and wanting to lay down. This is another place where my perfect wife comes to the rescue, enough so that I have told her that she is not allowed to die before I do, because if I had to manage the particulars of my life, I would end up buried in a pile of bills and starving to death.
To be fair, only some of these are relevant to my day to day life (cooking, dressing myself, organization). But the point is that anytime I start thinking I’m generally better than other people, I have a useful, practical list of things to remind me not to get too far ahead of myself.
Which is actually important because Ms. Ingliss-Arkell is correct — left to my own devices, I would happily think of myself as just plain being better at, oh, everything, because that’s how I’m wired, along with, apparently, a lot of other people. It’s not true, and, happily, it also doesn’t matter if I am. Good enough works just fine.
|Thursday, December 19th, 2013|
|Targets of Opportunism
Out there in the stupidosphere comes the suggestion that the reason that I write articles like this, or do things like this, is because I am a stone-cold opportunist who doesn’t really believe in these things, but says and does them to get ahead in science fiction, a genre apparently positively overrun by feminists and cowering males. My master plan is apparently to get in good with all the wimmins, reap all the awardz, and then profit! Or something.
(No, I’m not going to link to the blog post in question, because it is in the stupidosphere. You can probably find it if you make the effort. But why would you? Now, then -)
1. Well, you heard it here first, straight white gentlemen: The way to win all the things and sell all the books in science fiction and fantasy is to acknowledge your own stacked set of privilege conditions and to publicly sign on to the idea that all people regardless of race, sex, gender identification or physical ability should be able to enjoy a convention or gathering without fear of harassment or marginalization. Yes, with those two simple steps, a Hugo and a New York Times best seller slot will be yours. Who knew it would be so simple? Besides me, apparently?
2. Mind you, if the Feminist Diversity Cabal™ were actually running all the skiffy things, there would be the question of why it would need (or reward) me for anything at all. I think the answer, implicit in the assumption that I’m am doing and saying these things for coldly opportunistic reasons, is that I have craftily realized one of two things: One, the Feminist Diversity Cabal™ secretly craves recognition from straight white men and wishes to reward them for even the slightest of notice; Two, the Feminist Diversity Cabal™ needs a willing patsy to lull the Straight White Men of science fiction and fantasy into a state of complacent quiescence until The Night Of The Castrating Knives (i.e., The Hugo Awards Ceremony, 2014).
Or, hell, Three: Both! Then I will be king! Of the Feminist Diversity Cabal™! Insert maniacal laugh here!
Truly, I have been playing a very long game with this insidious, opportunistic plan of mine.
3. And, you know, it’s worked! For I now have a Hugo! And best sellers! And such! Thus, having achieved all the things I can finally TOSS OFF MY CLOAK OF LATTER DAY ALAN ALDA-NESS AND REVEAL MYSELF AS WHO I TRULY AM, THE ALPHA OF ALL ALPHAS. COMMENCE WITH THE SANDWICHINATION ALL YOU LESSER BEINGS –
Oh, wait, I haven’t won a Nebula yet.
4. So, uuuuuuuh, forget point three.
5. Now, there is an alternate theory for why I do what I do. It involves a scenario in which I actually believe in what I do and say rather than being a Cat-Stroking Bond Villain for Feminism. But that’s not fun, nor does it feed into the “I am a complete asshole and therefore cannot conceive of others not being a complete asshole, especially people I don’t like” mindset of the stupidosphere. So never mind that.
6. Here is the one thing this dipshit in the stupidosphere was correct about: I am, in fact, all about taking advantage of opportunities. As it happens, I have many opportunities, due to my place in the world, to speak and act on things that are important to me. I also have the will to take the opportunities when they come up. And in the last year, events have conspired to give me even more opportunities to do so. So, guess what? I’m going to take them.
What will I do with those opportunities? Well, I will say this: I can pretty much guarantee the stupidosphere won’t like it.
Insert maniacal laugh here.
|The Death of the Blog, Again, Again
Jason Kottke declares the blog dead over at Neiman Journalism Lab, which makes him the umpteenth millionth person to do so. The actual piece is a bit more nuanced than its headline — Kottke notes that the blog is still an integral part of the online experience — but the overall tone of it is that the blog’s day in the sun is done, replaced by things fresher, less “streamy” and otherwise tuned to the Way Kids Do It Today.
A couple of things about this:
1. Kottke’s not wrong. I’ve noted before that I thought the many of the people who had blogs a few years ago were better served by things like Twitter and Facebook, which are easier for most folks to handle and actually do what they wanted their blog to do — i.e., keep them in contact with all their friends and family and let them share what they were doing (and also, pictures of their pets and children). I love my blog (hello!) but for the large majority of people, I wouldn’t recommend doing one. Even the closest new analog to the blog — Tumblr — is streamlined and connected in ways a standalone blog isn’t.
This isn’t to say that a blog can’t be useful for the people who have a need or interest in them — they absolutely can be. For the people who want to be able to write longer posts, keep a permanent self-branded outpost, and (importantly) have much more substantial control of their online persona, blogs have no real substitute. I recommend them for writers and other creative folks precisely because they’re your own space, and with a nod to the folks who host me, one of the great things about WordPress is that it’s made having and keeping a blog pretty dead simple. But for your mom, who just wants to keep up with the grandkids? Meh, Facebook is fine.
This doesn’t mean the blog format is actually dead. It does mean that its centrality to online life is substantially diminished. Mind you, this assumes that it actually ever was central, which is somewhat debatable — first there was AOL, then there was online chat, then MySpace and then Facebook/Twitter, along with Snapchat, Tumblr and all other manner of services and spaces, all of which, again, have been better tuned to the person who just wants to be online to see what friends are up to, and announce to the world what’s on the menu for lunch.
What does seem true no matter what is that the community of personalities that existed around blog seems to have substantially dispersed — the people who were best known as bloggers are off doing other things now or at least have their presence as personalities less tied to their blogs. I can certainly speak to that; I am these days rather better known as an author than as a blogger. I’m not the only one who has seen their “portfolio of presence” expand or at least diversify. I’m fine with that, personally — I was long ambivalent about calling myself a blogger because I thought was I did (writing) shouldn’t be defined by its medium.
2. What’s more important now, in the middle part of the second decade of the twenty-first century, appears to be an aggregate presence online — the ability to speak (or at least to be seen) across a number of online platforms. Or as Zach Weiner put it when he, Warren Ellis and I were chatting about it on Twitter:
How one does this is the interesting bit. Personally, I keep the blog here active, because it’s congenial to how I want to be online, but I also find myself participating very actively on Twitter, because that medium is also but differently congenial to my personality. Other media — Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr — I have a presence on but am otherwise less active with, since at the end of the day I have to, you know, write books and experience the real world with my family. I have to pick and choose. But the point Zach makes — that you have to go to your audience rather than simply hang out an online shingle and wait for it come to you — is a valid one. Personally speaking I don’t find doing this particularly difficult since I like farting around online anyway.
Also, I suspect in many ways a distributed presence online for a writer or creative person is a little bit like having multiple revenue streams, which is to say, a way to buffer yourself against one stream dipping or drying up. For example, this year, my blog readership looks like it will end up lower than it was last year — about 7.5 million recorded visits for the year, as opposed to 8.1 million in 2012. I attribute this to a couple of month-long “semi-hiatuses,” during which I posted less while I was writing books or on tour, a theory borne out by looking at the monthly numbers (November, which was one of those months, had the lowest visitorship of any month in two years). However, this year I also added 15,000 Twitter followers, most of whom (so far as I can tell) are actual real live people and not Twitter bots, and my Facebook and Google Plus public pages also saw growth.
(I should note 7.5 million visits still means 2013 is Whatever’s second best year ever, so I’m not exactly panicking over here in that regard. But again, the fact that my other online presences showed substantial growth works as an offset in any event.)
I don’t see myself ever not doing Whatever, because at the end of the day I want to control my own space online and say what I want to be able to say, unencumbered by character limits or SEO-driven advertisements in the sidebars or any other sort of distraction. But if it turns out that it’s just one part of an overall online presence portfolio, well, that’s no different than it ever was (remember (or don’t) my other online presences as GameDad, MediaOne’s music reviewer, AOL’s “Blog Mayor” or AMC’s science fiction film columnist) and it’s part and parcel of the fact that my presence is distributed in other ways as well — namely that in addition to writing the blog, I write books, work in other media, and even do appearances in the real world from time to time.
So, yes. I suspect I and Whatever will continue on even after this latest death of the blog. At least until writing it stops being fun for me and/or I decide to just stop writing. Short of no longer drawing breath, I don’t see either of those as very likely.
|Is school performance less heritable in the USA?
A recent twin study looked at educational achievement in the UK and found that genetic factors contribute more than half to the difference in how students perform in their age 16 exams. But this may not apply to other countries.
Twin studies look at the balance between environmental and genetic factors for a given population and a given environment.
They are based on comparing identical and non-identical twins. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, non-identical twins 50%. They also share a common environment (for example, the family home) and some unique experiences.
By knowing that differences in what you’re measuring in identical twins is likely to be ‘twice as genetic’ or ‘twice as heritable’ in non-identical twins you can work out the likely effect of environment using something called the ACE model.
This relies on various assumptions, for example, that identical twins and non-identical twins will not systematically attract different sorts of experiences, which are not watertight. But as a broad estimate, twin studies work out.
Here’s what the latest study concluded:
In a national twin sample of 11,117 16-year-olds, heritability was substantial for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58%) as well as for each of them individually: English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%). In contrast, the overall effects of shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by members of twin pairs growing up in the same family and attending the same school, accounts for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores. The significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment.
In other words, the study concluded that over half of the difference in exam results was down to genetic factors.
The most important thing to consider, however, is how well the conclusions apply outside the population and environment being tested.
Because the results give an estimate of the balance between environment and genetic heritability that contribute to the final outcome, the more fixed the environment, the more any differences will be due to genetics and vice versa.
If that’s a bit difficult to get your head round try this example: ask yourself – is difference in height mostly due to genetics or the environment? Most people say genetics – tall parents tend to have tall offspring – but that only applies where everybody has adequate nutrition (i.e. the environmental contribution is fixed to maximum benefit).
In situations where malnutrition is a problem, difference in height is mostly explained by the environment. People who have adequate nutrition during childhood are taller than people who suffered malnutrition. In this situation, genetic factors are a minor player in terms of explaining height differences.
So let’s go back to our education example and think about how genetic and environmental factors balance out.
One of the interesting things about the UK is that it has a National Curriculum where schools have to teach set subjects in a set way.
In other words, the government has fixed part of the environment meaning that differences in exam performance in the UK are that bit more likely to be due to genetic heritability than places where there is no set education programme.
In fact, the same research group speculated in 2007 in a research monograph (pdf, p116) in a similar analysis, that school performance would be less genetically heritable in the USA, because the school environment is more variable.
The U.K. National Curriculum provides similar curricula to all students, thus diminishing a potentially important source of environmental variation across schools, to the extent that the curriculum actually provides a potent source of environmental variation.
In contrast, the educational system in the United States is one of the most decentralized national systems in the world. To the extent that these differences in educational policy affect children’s academic performance, we would expect greater heritability and lower shared environment in the United Kingdom than in the United States.
In other words, all other things being equal, greater equality in educational opportunity should lead to greater heritability.
School performance may be less influenced by genetic heritability in the USA because the educational environment is more variable and therefore accounts for more difference.
Whereas in the UK, the educational environment is more fixed so a greater proportion of the difference in performance is down to genetic heritability.
It’s worth noting that this hasn’t, to my knowledge, been confirmed yet, but it’s a reasonable assumption and demonstrates exactly the question we need to bear in mind when considering studies that estimate heritability – for whom and in what environment?
Link to twin study on school performance in PLOS One.
pdf of research monograph on learning and genetics.
|Wednesday, December 18th, 2013|
|The best graphic and gratuitious displays
Forget your end of year run-downs and best of 2013 photo specials, it doesn’t get much better than this: ‘The 15 Best Behavioural Science Graphs of 2010-13′ from the Stirling Behavioural Science Blog.
As to be expected, some are a little better than others (well, Rolling Stone chose a Miley Cyrus video as one of their best of 2013, so, you know, no-one’s perfect) but there are still plenty of classics.
This one, from a study on parole rulings by judges based on the order of cases and when food breaks occur is particularly eye-opening.
This paper examined 1,112 judicial rulings over a 10 month period by eight judges in Israel. These judges presided over 2 parole boards for four major prisons, processing around 40% of all parole requests in the country. They considered 14-35 cases per day for an average of six minutes and they took two daily food breaks (a late morning snack and lunch), dividing the day into three sessions.
The graph looks at the proportion of rulings in favor of parole by ordinal position (so 1st case of the day, then 2nd, then 3rd, etc). The circled points are the first decision in each of the three decision sessions, the tick marks on the x-axis denote every third case and the dotted line denotes a food break. The probability of the judges granting parole falls steadily from around 65% to nearly zero just before the break, before jumping back up again after they return to work.
Moral of the story: don’t get banged up, make sure your judge has been recently fed, or bring snacks to court.
Anyway, plenty more fascinating behavioural science graphs to check out and no Miley Cyrus. At least, until she jumps on that bandwagon.
Link to ‘The 15 Best Behavioural Science Graphs of 2010-13′
|Escape From Waterdeep
When we’re in production on Tabletop, we shoot two episodes a day. Each episode takes around five hours to film, and by the end of the fourth or fifth day in a week, we all get a little silly from sleep deprivation.
Before they leave for the day, we ask all the players to sign a few copies of the game they played. We keep these signed games in a vault at Geek and Sundry, and give them out as prizes, or offer them for select charity auctions.
Last season, when we were shooting Lords of Waterdeep, I went to sign the cover of the game, and thought that the artwork sort of looked like Escape From New York. I was feeling a little silly, so this happened:
This copy of the game lives in the Geek and Sundry offices, and will remain part of our permanent collection.
Speaking of Tabletop, here’s what’s coming up for the rest of this season. If you own a game shop, you may want to talk to your distributor about getting extra copies of these upcoming games, if you experience what I’m told is called The Tabletop Effect:
- December 26th – Carcassonne
- January 9th - Tsuro of the Seas
- January 23rd - Ticket to Ride Europe
- February 6th - Fortune and Glory
- February 20th - Lords of Vegas
Oh! And speaking of Lords of Waterdeep, which is one of my very favourite games of this year, the iOS version is really great.
|Loathing is a Strong Word to Apply to One’s Self
I’m a writer and I really don’t have self-loathing in my blood, or in my liver or indeed in any other organ or part of my body (including the brain, which I suspect is ultimately the relevant organ under discussion here). As a result I am more than vaguely annoyed by the declaration above, which comes from a Salon article about “Literary Self Loathing.”
This is not to say that on more than one occasion I have not had doubts or concerns about my writing — the thing that writers do when they’re in the middle of writing a book and they think to themselves okay, honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing and that’s going to be obvious to anyone who reads this thing is something that happens to me, oh, a lot. I have concerns about whether my reach exceeds my grasp, whether what I’m writing compares well to what I’ve written before, and what the response to the work will be. I think this is both normal and probably healthy — the ability to criticize one’s own work is often key to having work that doesn’t entirely suck.
But none of that is about self-loathing. Self-criticism is “what I am writing right now isn’t good, and I need to find a way to make it better.” Self-loathing is “what I am writing right now isn’t good, I suck, I have always sucked and I have neither the talent nor the ability to write this, I should never have tried and why did I ever think I was any good at writing at all.” Even more simply put, it’s the difference between “this writing sucks” and “I suck.” Personally speaking I think one of these is helpful; the other one really is not. It’s also not helpful to confuse the two.
Are there writers who are self loathing? Absolutely, because there are people who are self-loathing, and writers are a subset of people. There are also doctors who are self-loathing, plumbers who are self-loathing, farmers who are self-loathing and so on. There are also writers who are not self-loathing. There are excellent writers who grapple with self-loathing; there are excellent writers who don’t (there are mediocre and terrible writers in each category as well, of course). Trying to typify all writers as self-loathing is as useful as typifying all writers as anything, save the base, practical definition of “someone who writes.”
Speaking personally, I am not a self-loathing writer primarily because I am not a self-loathing sort of person in general. I have my tics and neuroses, and as noted above I have a healthy regard for my fallibility as a writer, in terms of quality of output (I try not to inflict the bad stuff on the rest of the world). But fundamentally I am okay with myself, and I am fortunate that the construction of my brain doesn’t neurochemically incline me toward depression and/or self-loathing.
Also, and this is important, while writing is a very big part of who I am, it is not absolutely central to my idea of myself — which is to say, when I have a stretch of poor or indifferent writing, I don’t see it as an existential plebiscite on who I am as a human being. It just means I’m writing poorly at the moment. Hopefully I will snap out of it.
Finally, with regard to writing, my ability to do so and its relation to me as a worthwhile human being, the fact that I’ve been writing professionally for coming on to a quarter of a century now assures me that this is in fact something I can do pretty well. At this point in time any feelings of impostor syndrome (the neurotic underling of self-loathing) would pretty much be a luxury. All that time also reinforces to me the idea that writing is a learned skill and a trade — which is again separate from who I am as a person.
I think people who are writers and who are also the sort of self-loathe can possibly use that self-loathing as a tool in some way, but personally I suspect if you’re genuinely deep in the throes of self-loathing, as a writer or whomever, your first stop should be a doctor, to see if that’s something that’s treatable. It might be easier to deal with the writing that sucks if you’re not thinking that therefore, you suck.
|Still Life with Guitars and Ukuleles
There are actually five musical instruments visible in this picture. Not immediately obvious are the left-handed ukulele on the bookshelf (it’s my wife’s) and the mandolin, the case of which can just be seen on the left hand side of the picture.
And yes, these instruments get a workout. I’m teaching my daughter “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and she uses the Blueridge tenor guitar (the one in the center) while I use the Washburn travel guitar (the one to the left) and occasionally switch up to use the ukulele. All of them are tuned like ukes, so I can swtich between them without having to learn new chords. The mandolin I originally had tuned like a uke but it went out of tune too easily, so I retuned it to the usual arrangement and am learning how to use it that way. It’s a bit of a challenge, in no small part because the frets are so tiny. I don’t exactly have monster hands, so I’m kind of amazed how anyone plays these things.
I am not a good guitar/uke player. I am sufficiently competent that if I play a song other people my recognize what it is I am trying to play, and I continue to get better, although I don’t suspect I will ever be all that good. The thing is, I don’t care. I play because I like to play and it brings me happiness to do so. It’s a good enough reason.
|Like Odysseus he will return at last to slay this blog's suitors and regale us with tales of his adv
posted by Dan Guy
My Lords and Ladies of the Royal Court1,
Now, now, don't flip your wigs just yet; this is not yet the return of the illustrious Mr. G -- this is merely prelude, possibly prophecy (if he doesn't make a liar of me) by I, your humble web goblin.
For far too long we have gone without word here from Mr. G. He tweets, he whosays, he releases triple albums with his lovely wife and puts more girdles 'round the earth than has an elderly burlesque troupe, yet no blog has he posted in two months. But he has not abandoned us! I tell you that he will return! And I tell you this because he told me this, and told me to tell you this. In his words, he will be "doing a proper blog post" in the near future.
At the point when Google presided over the shotgun wedding of Blogger and Google+, apparently all blog posts by Mr. G became attributed to "Unknown". Why did no one tell me
this? I have now fixed things.
Since the first of November, and continuing on through the end of the year, a contest has been running among independent U.S. book stores. The prize is a visit from Mr. G, and to win a store has simply to sell the most copies of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE during the contest period.
Below you may find a list of all participating stores, along with where to find them online. Christmas is a week away, so if you act quickly there may yet be time to get in some holiday shopping and help push your local store into the lead!
1511 South 1500 East
Salt Lake City, UT 84105http://www.kingsenglish.com/https://twitter.com/kingsenglishhttps://facebook.com/kingsenglishbookshop
1175 Woods Crossing Rd #5
Greenville, SC 29607http://www.fiction-addiction.com/http://twitter.com/FictnAddictnhttp://facebook.com/FictionAddictionBookstore
82 Central Street
Wellesley, MA 02482http://www.wellesley.indiebound.com/https://twitter.com/WellesleyBookshttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Wellesley-Books/208745159156382
6208 E Speedway
Tucson, AZ 85712http://www.mostlybooksaz.com/https://twitter.com/mostlybooksazhttps://www.facebook.com/MostlyBooksAZ
51 Tamal Vista Blvd
Corte Madera, CA 94925http://www.bookpassage.com/https://twitter.com/bookpassagehttps://www.facebook.com/bookpassage
Books Inc Palo Alto
855 El Camino Real #74
Palo Alto, CA 94031http://www.booksinc.net/PaloAltohttps://twitter.com/BooksIncPAhttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Books-Inc-Palo-Alto/5475664447
522 Hartz Ave
Danville, CA 94526http://www.rakestrawbooks.com/https://twitter.com/rakestrawbookshttps://www.facebook.com/rakestrawbooks
Bookshop Santa Cruz
1520 Pacific Ave
Santa Cruz, CA 95060http://www.bookshopsantacruz.com/https://twitter.com/BookshopSChttps://www.facebook.com/BookshopSantaCruz
15 S Dubuque St
Iowa City, IA 52240http://www.prairielights.com/https://twitter.com/Prairie_Lightshttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Prairie-Lights-Bookstore/27924083261
Boulder Book Store
1107 Pearl St
Boulder, CO 80302http://www.boulderbookstore.net/https://twitter.com/boulderbookshttps://www.facebook.com/boulderbookstore
Books Inc Burlingame
1375 Burlingame Ave.
Burlingame, CA 94085http://www.booksinc.net/burlingamehttps://www.facebook.com/BookIncBurlingame
1295 Bardstown Rd
Louisville, KY 40204http://www.carmichaelsbookstore.com/https://twitter.com/carmichaelsbookhttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Carmichaels-Bookstore/124136360956856
Eagle Eye Bookshop
2076 N Decatur Rd
Decatur, GA 30033http://www.eagleeyebooks.com/https://twitter.com/eagleeyebookshttps://www.facebook.com/eagleeyebooks
Between the Covers
152 E Main St
Harbor Springs, MI 49740http://www.betweenthecovers.com/https://www.facebook.com/btcbookstore
204 N Main St
Hudson, OH 44236http://www.learnedowl.com/https://twitter.com/learnedowlhttps://www.facebook.com/learnedowl
121 W 5th St
Chico, CA 95928http://www.lyonbooks.com/https://www.facebook.com/lyonbooks
2238 Carter Ave
St. Paul, MN 55108http://www.micawbers.com/https://twitter.com/micawbershttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Micawbers-Books/58197328761
Towne Center Books
555 Main St
Pleasanton, CA 94566http://www.townecenterbooks.com/https://twitter.com/TowneCenterBkshttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Towne-Center-Books/142569542253
U C Davis Bookstore
2828 Cowell Blvd
Davis, CA 95618http://ucdavisstores.com/https://twitter.com/UCDavisStoreshttps://www.facebook.com/ucdavisstores
118 N 3rd St
Marquette, MI 49855http://www.snowboundbooks.com/https://www.facebook.com/groups/165471948623/
Magers & Quinn
3038 Hennepin Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55408http://www.magersandquinn.com/https://twitter.com/magersandquinnhttps://www.facebook.com/magersandquinnbooksellers
Books Inc Alameda
1344 Park St
Alameda, CA 94501http://www.booksinc.net/Alamedahttps://www.facebook.com/pages/Books-Inc-in-Alameda/90600029491
768 Boston Post Rd
Madison. CT 06443http://www.rjjulia.com/https://twitter.com/rjjuliahttps://www.facebook.com/rjjuliabooksellers
Over the Moon Bookstore & Artisan Gallery
5798 Three Notch'd Rd.
Crozet, VA 22932http://www.overthemoonbookstore.com/https://www.facebook.com/OvertheMoonBookstore
- I don't know what possessed me to start this blog post as Lord Buckley -- do the kids even know who he is these days? -- but there you have it2.
- It could have been worse. I could have rapped about Christmas jammies.
- There is no third footnote.
|Tuesday, December 17th, 2013|
|The Speculative Literature Foundation Announces a Working Class Writer Grant
This is a really interesting idea. From the grant page:
Working class, blue-collar, poor, and homeless writers have been historically underrepresented in speculative fiction, due to financial barriers which have made it much harder for them to have access to the writing world. Such lack of access might include an inability to attend conventions, to purchase a computer, to buy books, to attend college or high school, to have the time to write (if, for example, you must work two jobs simply to pay rent and feed a family, or if you must spend all your waking hours job-hunting for months on end). The SLF would like to assist in finding more of these marginalized voices and bringing them into speculative fiction.
You are eligible for this grant if you come from a background such as described above, if you grew up (or are growing up) in homelessness, poverty, or a blue collar / working-class household, or if you have lived for a significant portion of your life in such conditions, especially if you had limited access to relatives/friends who could assist you financially. We will give preference to members of that larger pool who are currently in financial need (given our limited funds).
There are of course more details at the link above.
I don’t think it would come as much of a surprise that I think this grant is a good idea. Writing is easier when you have a little bit of headspace to do it in — a headspace that’s not crowded with worries about work and bills and whether the super-old computer you write on is about to implode, taking your work with it. That’s what I see that grant offering: That little bit of headspace to let creativity happen.
Again, details at are the link. Check it out and share it with folks for whom it could be useful.
|"He was flapping his hands around, but there was no meaning in it."
Celebrity philosopher Slavoj Žižek, writing in the Guardian
about the now-unmasked fake sign-language interpreter
at the Mandela memorial:
And this brings us to the crux of the matter: are sign language translators for the deaf really meant for those who cannot hear the spoken word? Are they not much more intended for us--it makes us (who can hear) feel good to see the interpreter, giving us a satisfaction that we are doing the right thing, taking care of the underprivileged and hindered. [...W]e can see why Jantjie's gesticulations generated such an uncanny effect once it became clear that they were meaningless: what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf--it doesn't really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.
This is obviously a productive line of inquiry, and just the sort of thing for which Žižek has earned the epithet "the Elvis of cultural theory". In fact, I think we should ask ourselves a whole range of similar questions:
- Are wheelchair ramps really meant for people in wheelchairs? Aren't they really much more intended to make architects and able-bodied building users feel good about themselves? Doesn't this confront us with the truth that it doesn't really matter whether there are any people in wheelchairs?
- Is medicine really meant for sick people? Isn't it really much more intended to make healthy people feel good about themselves? Don't we really know in our hearts that it doesn't really matter whether anyone ever gets sick, because this whole business of having "doctors" and "nurses" and "hospitals" is really just a big charade meant to reassure ourselves that we're doing the right thing?
- Are paved roads really meant for vehicles? Aren't they really much more intended to make pedestrians feel good about themselves? Isn't it clear that, really, our entire system of streets and arterials and superhighways is basically just a gesture we undertake in order to reassure ourselves of our solidarity? Do bicyles, automobiles, and trucks actually exist?
It's possible that, like me, you've long secretly wondered whether the much-admired Žižek wasn't basically a kind of intellectual shock jock, a performer of platitudes meant to entrance left-leaning smart people. It's good to finally have a definite answer to that question.
|Monday, December 16th, 2013|
|Reading In the Heart of the Country
I create myself in the words that create me.
—In the Heart of the Country
I've recently completed a draft of a paper on J.M. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country
, writing about the book and its contexts (with regard to trauma theory
and Afrikaner Nationalism), but as I read various scholarly analyses of it, as well as reviews of the novel when it was first published, what struck me was the book's relative neglect compared to Coetzee's other novels, and the general lack of enthusiasm for it. When I first read it some years ago, I found it befuddling and often tedious. But it stuck with me, even haunted me, and that's why I decided to take some time digging into it. Older now, more experienced in reading Coetzee, I found it immensely rich and a powerful reading experience. Though I've spent a few months reading and re-reading it closely, I still feel like I'm only beginning to get a grasp of all it's up to.
It is impossible to sum up In the Heart of the Country
through a simple phrase such as, "This novel is about _________." That blank is full of possibilities. Those possibilities are, in fact, primarily what the book is about: the possibilities (and limits) of meaning.
It is a novel, so there are characters, a setting, and narrative. The protagonist is the narrator, a woman on a farm in the Karoo
sometime around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Toward the end of the book, she is referred to as Magda, and that is what I will call her. The text consists of 266 numbered sections, most of them one paragraph long, only a few of them longer than a page. The first 35 sections (pp. 1-16 of the Penguin edition) tell a mostly coherent story of Magda's father arriving back at the farm with a new bride, and then, eventually, Magda's murder of them. Section 36, though, restarts this story — the father is not dead, nor is he the one who returned to the farm with a bride. Instead, in this version, the black servant Hendrik returns with a bride, the father asserts his power over her, Hendrik discovers what the father and the bride are up to, and Magda fires a shotgun blindly into the father's bedroom, fatally wounding him. After the father's death, Hendrik becomes more of a tyrant and eventually rapes Magda, then he and the bride abandon her on the farm. Then the father is not dead anymore, and Magda, alone, nurses him in his silent old age. Also, she hears voices from "flying machines" — voices she thinks are in Spanish, but which are actually in a made-up mix of languages. What the voices from the flying machines say are quotes and paraphrases from various texts, including ones that were published well after the time of the book's setting (e.g. a translation of Luis Ceruda from Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude
Those are the primary events of the novel, but they don't give much sense of the book, because Magda's greatest obsession is her own identity and, especially, her textuality. Though Coetzee has rarely said much about his novels, he's said more about In the Heart of the Country
than any other, and the substance of his statements is generally the same: Magda is a figure in a book.
This gets at one of the central reasons, I think, for the novel's neglect and difficulty. It is explicitly not a novel of psychological realism, and yet it presents us with a narrating figure screaming out for psychologizing. Indeed, it's quite clear that Coetzee was playing around with some concepts from Freud, especially regarding female hysteria
. Though he makes it tempting to read Magda as a case of hysteria (or, to apply a later formulation, trauma), it doesn't work. Psychology is just one of the texts united in the figure of Magda.
As readers, we like psychologically coherent characters. Much of what we do as readers is, often, similar to amateur psychotherapy. We look for characters' motivations, obstacles, obsessions, wounds. Writers typically write for such readers. Psychological coherence creates the illusion of realism, and readers typically devalue texts where characters behave contrary to the expectations we have built up of their desires and proclivities. We build coherent stories of characters in life, too — we expect people to act in particular ways, to like and dislike mostly the same things over time, etc. We also try to live up to these expectations ourselves. We like our identities to be coherent. We prefer to be readable.
One of the great achievements of In the Heart of the Country
is how it demonstrates the ways that our desire for coherence creates the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories that are told about us. The self is a story. "I make it all up," Magda writes, "in order that it shall make me up."
The self is not just any
story, however. There are constraints. Realism is not a matter of what is real, but what can be made believable. Context constrains our text. Magda's context is that of a white woman on a farm in the Karoo in South Africa at a particular time of history. In the Heart of the Country
was written in the late 20th century, and so it exists after many stories of such women preceded it. Magda's believability, then, requires her to behave according to her genre. In the Heart of the Country
was Coetzee's first novel to explore the implications of the plaasroman
, the South African farm novel, a genre he would return to
many times. (Theresa Dovey, in the first book
on Coetzee, proposed that In the Heart of the Country
is a rewriting of Schreiner's Story of an African Farm
. It is, but it is also much more.) Magda is a figure who resembles a woman Freud would have categorized as a hysteric, and thus she is part of another genre, another set of expectations. She is a figure of a woman, and within Afrikaner culture of the time, women suffered many expectations and limitations because of their gender. She is a figure of a white Afrikaner, another identity full of constraints.
In the right circumstances, the constraints of identity are comforting — they help us see ourselves as part of a group, they let us feel meaningful and proud, they help us fit the idea of "I" into a "we". Such identities can then be wielded for social and political purpose. They make us into something that is like
one thing and unlike
But identities that disempower are ones we bristle against. Magda, though part of the white power structure, is disempowered by her other identity markers. She desires a total freedom, the freedom to tell any story about herself, to start from scratch. She dislikes what can be read of her, and wants a new reading:
Original sin, degeneracy of the line: there are two fine, bold hypotheses for my ugly face and my dark desires, and for my disinclination to leap out of bed this instant and cure myself. But explanations do not interest me. I am beyond the why and wherefore of myself. Fate is what I am interested in; or, failing fate, whatever it is that is going to happen to me. The woman in the nightcap watching me from the mirror, the woman who in a certain sense is me, will dwindle and expire here in the heart of the country, unless she has at least a thin porridge of event to live on. I am not interested in becoming one of those people who look into mirrors and see nothing, or walk in the sun and cast no shadow. It is up to me.
This freedom is impossible, though, because there are always hypotheses about her, no matter what story she tells. She is not just a figure in a book, she is a figure in a book with a genre, a language, a set of expectations. If there are to be events, even a thin porridge of them, they will be events that become interpreted into a story, and thus contribute to an idea of her: hypotheses and explanations.
The voices Magda hears from the flying machines present her with all sorts of different texts — most of them ones that, in reality, she would have no knowledge of. For instance, a sentence from Jacques Lacan's "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis" (1953): "It is a world of words that creates a world of things." Then there are sentences from Rousseau, Spinoza, William Blake, John Calvin (of all these voices, the one an Afrikaner woman of the 19th century might plausibly be familiar with). A sentence of Pascal, from the Pensées,
seems especially meaningful in the context: "God is hidden, and every religion that does not affirm that God is hidden is not true." The hermeneutical
tradition is a religious tradition: analysis of scriptures leads to understanding of God. But if God is hidden, analysis must always be incomplete, tentative, hypothetical.
Which of the stories Magda tells is "true", and which not? It's impossible to say. They are all stories in a book, and thus all equally true and false. As a reader, you can either accept that, or you must admit that you prefer certain interpretations of the fictive reality — that you privilege particular stories over others, because they get you what you want.
Coetzee was often criticized in the 1980s for not engaging more explicitly with the political realities of his world, the world of apartheid South Africa. He did not write the preferred social realism. His books could not be reduced to slogans. In fact, those books criticized the linguistic, narrative, and political structures that led texts to be reduced to slogans. In the Heart of the Country
does this as well as any of his novels, particularly in how it shows the discourse of Afrikaner Nationalism to be a discourse so constraining as to strangle its subjects.
The Soweto uprising
occurred just as In the Heart of the Country
was being published, and though there were certainly many factors leading to it, much of the revolt began from the requirement that all schools conduct their lessons in Afrikaans. In South Africa, questions of language became questions of life and death. Similarly, history was distorted through the Nationalist lens for specific political purposes. The story of Europeans arriving in southern Africa was a story of white people arriving at the same time as native Africans, and thus having equal right to the land. This was pure balderdash
, but nonetheless it was this story that was promoted because it served ideological purposes. The stories of Afrikaner culture were ones that simplified history (and Afrikaner culture) into a tale of "primitive Calvinists
" triumphing over the frontier, then fighting the British, then creating a country for themselves, the chosen people. Some of Coetzee's scholarly work
how travel narratives and novels contributed to or struggled against all of this, but it is his fiction that presents it most challengingly and complexly. It is in the fiction that we can truly explore the ways texts and narratives contribute to both personal and social constraints, because the novels not only offer the ideas, but enact them.
To read and appreciate In the Heart of the Country
, then, we have to be ready to read ourselves reading it. Magda is not a character in the way that a figure in a novel of psychological realism is a character; she is a textual effect. Or, more accurately, "she" is the result of textual effects and then produces more textual effects. The richness of the novel derives from the multiplicity of possible effects. The knowledge and expectations we bring to the text matter profoundly. Desiring psychological realism, narrative coherence, and linear plotting, we will be forced into frustration. We could let this frustration be nothing more than frustration, and could, then, proclaim the book a failure, but to really read this novel, we need to let it help us reflect on our readerly frustration, to work through it, and to see what lives on the other side. Similarly, we can use the novel to see the limits — and, hence, possibilities — of our liberation. (Who are "we"? What does this we
desire liberating from?) Magda ends up in silence, because that is all her context allows her: the death of art, the death of expression. Magda's fate is that of being a particular figure in a book. You and I are not that figure. Our languages are different and the book of our self is from another genre, one with its own constraints and freedoms. How will we read it? How will it be read? What makes us legible to the world?
A few notes on some of the scholarship, while it's on my mind...
Of the studies of this novel that I've encountered so far, my two favorites are Susana Onega's "Trauma, Madness, and the Ethics of Narration in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country
", an essay in The Splintered Glass: Facets of Trauma in the Post-colony and Beyond
, ed. M. Dolores Herrero and Sonia Baelo-Allué, and "Charting J. M. Coetzee's Middle Voice"
by Brian Macaskill, Contemporary Literature
35: 3, Autumn 1994. Those two seem to me to do the best job of keeping the text complex.
Chiara Briganti's "A Bored Spinster with a Locked Diary: The Politics of Hysteria in 'In the Heart of the Country'"
(Research in African Literatures
25:4, Winter 1994) is excellent on the novel's use of concepts of Freudian hysteria, but I think Briganti's approach simplifies the figure of Magda too much. (I also think Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle
is at least as relevant to the novel as his earlier writings.) Susan Gallagher's A Story of South Africa : J.M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context
is very good on the historical context of the novel, but simplifies it too much by reading it primarily as historical fiction. "The Taint of the Censor: J. M. Coetzee and the Making of In the Heart of the Country"
by Hermann Wittenberg provides fascinating background on the book's complex publishing history, and J.C. Kannemeyer's J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing
provides additional valuable context. Though Theresa Dovey's The Novels of J.M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories
is sometimes reductive, the application of Lacan to Coetzee is valuable, and it's a shame the book is long out of print and difficult to find. I got a copy via interlibrary loan (and was frustrated to discover many chapters of it marred by some idiot's underlines and notes). Other books and articles have some good, scattered insights, but the above are the ones I have, so far, most benefited from.
|one small part of a pretty great life
“My point is, there was a time when I thought I would never get out of Wesley Crusher’s shadow, but now that’s just a small part of a pretty great life, and it’s a part that I’m glad is there.”
The interstate highways in Texas go on forever, it seems, between major cities. For hundreds of miles, there’s not much to see but other cars, the occasional water tower, a few cows, and a ribbon of concrete that cuts across the vast, flat landscape.
A few months ago, I was in a van with Paul and Storm and Anne as we drove between Houston and Dallas down one of those endless highways. Anne was asleep in the chair next to me, as Paul drove and Storm navigated. I played Carcassonne on my iPad as we left Houston behind us and never seemed to get any closer to Dallas.
As I was losing yet another game (it turns out that it’s much easier to win in a three player game than it is in a four player game, regardless of your opponents’ skill level, due to the additional randomness inherent in the draw) my cellphone played the original Star Trek communicator sound in my pocket. I pulled it out and read a text message from my friend Steve Molaro, who is the show runner on The Big Bang Theory. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” He asked.
“I have all the time in the world,” I replied, “because I’m in a van on a highway in Texas and I think I’m going to be on this road for another decade before we get to Dallas.”
“I’ll call you in a little while,” he replied. I went back to losing my game.
A little while later, the Doctor Who theme came out of my pocket.
“Hey, it’s Steve.”
“Hey! How are you?”
“Really good. Listen, we’re writing a scene for you and I wanted your input on it.”
I was taken aback. It’s such an honor and a privilege to work on The Big Bang Theory at all, but to be asked to provide some input into how my scenes are written, especially when the writers there are so goddamned good at what they do, was pretty amazing.
“Sure,” I said. “I am at your service.”
Steve told me about the story arc they were doing with Sheldon accidentally discovering a new element, and how Sheldon was unhappy about it. “We thought it would be nice for Amy to bring you in, to try and cheer him up,” he said, “so I wondered if there was ever anything in your life that you regretted or felt bad about at the time, but you came to accept as a good part of your life.”
Oh, you mean my entire teenage years and my early twenties? I thought.
“Yeah,” I said. “When I was younger, people gave me such a hard time about Wesley Crusher, there was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I resented Star Trek. It felt so unfair that people who had never met me were so cruel and hateful toward me as a person because they didn’t like a character I played on a TV show, I wanted to put Star Trek behind me and forget that it was ever part of my life.
“But as I got older and started to meet more people who were also kids when Next Generation was in its first run, I started to hear these stories from people, about how they had nothing in common with their parents except for Star Trek, and they wouldn’t have watched Star Trek together if Wesley hadn’t been on the show. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who are now doctors and engineers and scientists because they were inspired by Wesley and Geordi the way our parents’ generation was inspired by Scotty.”
“That’s wonderful,” Steve said.
“Yeah, it’s really great. You know, my favorite episode of Next Generation is Tapestry, because I fully believe that our lives are a complex tapestry, woven from all our experiences — positive and negative — we have in our lives. There was a time when I really resented Wesley Crusher, but I just love my life now, and instead of feeling like I had to get out of his shadow, I feel like I’m standing proudly on his shoulders.”
“This is exactly what I was hoping for,” he said. “This is going to be such a great scene.”
“If there’s anything I can do, just pick up the phone,” I said.
“I’ll get in touch when we have the scene finished, and I’ll see you in a couple weeks!”
“Awesome. Thanks, man.” I hung up my phone, and looked out at the endless Texas landscape, unchanged in any meaningful way during the phone call.
“Who was that?” Anne asked, waking up from her nap.
“Molaro. He had questions for me for the Big Bang I’m doing when we get home.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
“No, not yet,” I said.
“You’re no fun,” she said.
“I know. I’m the worst.”
I went back to losing my game, Anne looked at her phone, and the van pushed ever onward toward Dallas.
A few weeks later, I got the script for the episode. As always, it arrived late in the evening, the day before the table read. I signed for it, thanked the courier, and ran into my office.
I sat on my couch, tore open the manilla envelope, and began to read. When I got to the scene with Sheldon, Amy, and Wil Wheaton, I read it as an actor: I kept my emotions neutral, and let the characters talk to me. Then, I read it as a fan of the show: I heard the individual voices, and I laughed at the jokes. Then, I read it one final time, as The Guy Who Played Wesley Crusher: I realized that I was going to be on one of the most popular shows in the English-speaking world, saying to anyone who cared to listen, “I’m an author now. I do public speaking, and I have my own web series about boardgames … there was a time when I thought I would never get out of Wesley Crusher’s shadow, but now that’s just a small part of a pretty great life, and it’s a part that I’m glad is there.”
That’s when the tears sprung into my eyes, and the weird mix of joy and something else that wasn’t quite sadness, but had its roots there bloomed in my chest.
I read the rest of the script, and, like I always do, felt like a kid the night before Christmas or his birthday, impatiently waiting for the morning to come.
When I went to the table read the next morning, I was greeted warmly and welcomed by everyone there. When we got to the scene with Sheldon, Amy, and Wil Wheaton, Mayim said Amy’s line, “We’re, uh, trying to cheer him up, so …” and the room exploded into laughter, myself included. Mayim was sitting across from me, and she looked up from her script and said to me, “I’m so sorry. I want you to know that I do not share Amy’s opinion here.” The entire room laughed, again. “I know, it’s okay,” I said. We read the rest of the script, and took a break before we began rehearsal. I found Steve and Bill Prady and some of the other producers, and walked over to them.
“Great job,” Steve said to me.
“I’m not gonna lie,” I said, “I got a little weepy when I read it.” I paused for a second. “Thank you for this.”
“No, thank you for being here.” He said.
“Can I pitch you a joke?” I said.
“Would it be too meta if Wil Wheaton says something about how he gets to guest star on a popular series, but Sheldon doesn’t know what that show is?”
“We thought about something like that,” he said, “but we worried that it may confuse the audience and take them out of the moment. That’s why there’s no reference to you being on Eureka or Leverage or anything like that. We thought it would be simpler and cleaner if our Wil Wheaton doesn’t have the same television acting career that you have.”
“That makes sense,” I said. “And, once again, can I just observe how weird and hilarious it is that there’s your Wil Wheaton, and Wil Wheaton Prime, and they look the same but are very different and I’m both of them?”
We all laughed, and they went back to the writer’s building to do their thing, while I went to the set to do mine.
Over the week of rehearsals, the words never changed in that scene, but my performance did. It was Chuck Lorre who pointed out to me that the sentiment may be very emotional to me, it’s more matter-of-fact to Wil Wheaton the character. When he gave me that perspective, the performance settled into what you saw in the episode.
Like Wil Wheaton said to Sheldon, there was a time when I felt like I’d never get out of Wesley’s shadow, but now I truly am grateful that Wesley Crusher and Star Trek are a part of my life.
Their Wil Wheaton couldn’t say it, but my Wil Wheaton can: Big Bang Theory is a very important part of my personal and professional life, and is one of the reasons I can stand on the shoulders of Star Trek in a way that I thought — well, feared is more accurate — I never would, and I’m incredibly grateful that it’s there. I’m grateful for the friendships I’ve made among the cast, crew, and writers, and I’m grateful for the opportunities it’s given me to work in comedy. Every time I’m there, I learn a little bit more about comedic acting, acting in front of an audience, and acting in a sitcom.
I don’t know what the future of my career holds, but I know that whatever is over the horizon, the road I’ve traveled to get here is like those Interstates in Texas: everything can look the same, and it can feel like you’re not going anywhere, until you suddenly get where you’re going and realize that you’ve been traveling for a long time.
|Sunday, December 15th, 2013|