Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Yes! I've Been Tagged!

Anita tagged me. I believe she thinks I don't like being tagged, but she couldn't be more wrong. I love being tagged. Unlike Tracy, who pretends to be put out by the obligation, I relish the opportunity to talk about the one topic I both know and love--me.

You don't know how often I start to blog and then stop and say, "Come on, Murph. Think of your readers. I know you love talking about yourself and yes, it is true that you live a fascinating life full of dangerous escapades like drinking milk even though it's supposedly expired, but it is possible, just possible, that your readers don't feel quite the same way." And then I delete the entire post about exactly how I beat LSU in College Football 2007 on my X-Box or how I found an old Cheeto between the couch cushions and just for a second considered eating it or how Quality Dairy has chocolate milk on sale. And I write some lame review about a book that garners five lousy comments instead.

But being tagged gives me permission--no, it demands that I tell you all about my inspirational existence. And so, without Freddy Adu...

Where was I five years ago?

I can't remember five days ago. Not kidding.

Where would I like to be five years from now?

Doing exactly this. Blogging about myself so that five people can read it and three people can comment. That would be so awesome. Personal growth and ambition are overrated anyway. I prefer the Vanna White method of self-improvement: Find something anybody can do and stick with it.

What was on my to-do list today:

  • Pick up new dining room set from furniture store. Did it.
  • Put set together. Yeah, right.
  • Mow the lawn. Figured it could wait another day.
  • Write blog post in which I answer questions nobody cares about. In fact, I'm betting most of you have already considered clicking off here.
Five snacks I enjoy:

1. Cheetos
2. Combos
3. Just about anything on a toothpick (see photo above)
4. Pringles
5. Ice Cream

If I Were a Billionaire I Would:

Wait until the Powerball jackpot reached $300 million. I would then buy 196 million tickets because the odds of winning are about 1 in 195 million. I would buy every possible combination, therefore insuring my victory. Provided I don't have to share any jackpots, I would make a profit of about $100 million each time I did this. I would then write a book called How to Win at Powerball--Guaranteed! and make infomercials like that Kevin Trudeau guy. And when people saw me, they'd say, "Hey, I recognize that guy from somewhere." And someone else would say, "Yeah, I think he sells food dehydrators." And the other guy would say, "No, that's not it."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

So I Read Will Grayson, Will Grayson

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I did not, like the rest of the world, particularly love Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and I judge John Green unfairly. Simply put, his books are so awesome that I expect them all to be. And that's kind of a high standard.

Let's get the good stuff about the book out of the way first:

1. I liked the format. Alternating chapters is cool with me and it works in this book. It in no way feels disjointed. The story flows nicely.

2. There are funny parts and I'm all for funny parts.

3. One of the things I like about Green is how he writes dialogue and how he handles male friendships. Once again, he did not disappoint in these areas. Levithan's dialogue was just as good.

4. I always admire how Green handles parents in his book. He gives them their due, but keeps them largely in the background. So many authors create stupid parents or evil parents or neglectful parents or parents who are on vacation so they (the authors) don't have to deal with them. Green writes parents who actually love their kids. It's refreshing in YA.

And now the things I didn't like so much. I've tried to put these in order from that which annoyed me the most to the least.

1. The characters--Tiny Cooper and Straight Will's dad are I think the only two characters I liked.

2. The story--In short, there ain't much of one. There's a nice little surprise about a third of the way through that concerns Gay Will, but that's about it on the plotting front. The term "character study" was created for books like this, and since I'm in the rejection process right now and getting a fair amount of "I liked this and this, but there just isn't enough story," I'm kind of sensitive to books that have this and this but not much story.

3. The gayness--Yeah, yeah, I know it's about the universality of love and whatnot, but I think we all like to read about characters we relate to and I just didn't.

4. The ending--Sorry, not buying it.

5. I have a prejudice against original song lyrics in books, especially when said lyrics are intended to be funny. First, it's impossible to read the song the way the author hears it in his head, so it's like reading poetry with terrible meter. Second, it's obvious the author thinks he's being clever and that's annoying. Third, how the characters react to the song lyrics says something about how the author views his own song writing ability. So if the author thinks it's all kinds of funny and has the character say something like, "I almost fell on the floor laughing" then the reader knows that the author thinks he wrote some funny shit and funny shit should be funny shit on its own. When a character laughs, I usually don't.

6. Too much theme--This is an issue in all of Green's work. (I haven't read enough Levithan to make the same criticism.) Green gets a little too didactic, especially near the ends of this books. He kind of hits you over the head with the message.

And can I say that I feel for the writer who's trying to write a book that gay kids will pick up? (And I think that describes this book, although I'm sure the authors would not admit to it.) On the one hand, we want being gay to be, like it says in the book, just another characteristic of the person, like having blue eyes. The character is this and this and this and, yes, he happens to be gay. This sort of treatment seems to get the most positive reviews, especially among those who are gay. But there's also a rule in writing that your characters are who they are for a reason. I once read a review that called a main character "ethnic for no reason." It was meant as a criticism. Implied is that if you make your characters Latino or black or gay, then that Latinoness or blackness or gayness must somehow matter to the story.

And so there's a conflict. By making gayness just another personal trait, the author is saying it doesn't matter. Like the color of the character's eyes. But clearly, it has to matter, or the reader will wonder why in the hell the author made the character gay. And I don't think this conflict only exists in the world of fiction. We claim to want equality, but is equality really enough? Don't we celebrate our differences? Don't we think our differences make us who we are? Don't they matter? And if they do, don't our differences drive each of our personal stories? Do we not form our self-identities based mainly on that which makes us stand out from the pack?

Equating gayness with blue-eyedness sound nice and is certainly the politically correct thing to believe these days, but is it the truth? Do gay people really want books where a character's gayness doesn't matter?

I don't know. Maybe they do. But I sort of doubt it.

Quick, name a fun word that starts with G


Your turn.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Good News Abounds

First off, let me publicly congratulate Anita for landing an agent. Read about it here. I myself may never get published, but Anita's success means that I might get to see my name in print--on the Acknowledgments page of her book. Of course, now things get interesting for the rest of us. From what I can tell, most writers, upon meeting with success, react in one of three ways.

1. They stay pretty much the same.
2. They start tweeting with well-known authors and dropping the words "my agent" into every other conversation and they just generally piss everyone off with their vainglory.
3. The initial dose of success isn't enough and it isn't long before they start complaining about how their agent can't sell their book or how unfair the publishing word is or how, yeah, they sold their book, but gawd---did you see the cover? And what's up with that release date? And so-and-so got a bigger advance. You know the type.

I'm guessing Anita will be a 1.

More good news: I have now lost 12 pounds. I ran my first 5k last week and yesterday I ran six miles (without stopping. Is that implied?). I hope to lose 10-15 more. I usually need some sort of motivation--the last time I lost a fair amount of weight was the summer of my wedding--but I don't really have a reason this time. I want to be healthier? Eh. I want to look good in a bathing suit? Not possible without major back hair removal. I want to be able to eat terrible food and drink beer all summer? Okay. That'll work.

Something I thought was good news, but actually wasn't: My laptop stopped working and wouldn't turn on. After consulting The Whole of the World's Knowledge, AKA the Internet, I bought a new battery. Popped it in and voila, it worked. For two hours. Then it quit again. This shouldn't have happened because I had the thing plugged in. So the good news is I did some new work on my current project. And the bad news is there is still something wrong with my preferred writing device.

Not good news at all: That oil spill in the Gulf. No one will ever accuse me of being an environmentalist, but Jeebus, that thing is nasty.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Dicken Elementary Snafu--Some Context

For those who missed the story on the news, Dicken Elementary (Ann Arbor, MI) principal Mike Madison, in an effort to help struggling students, set up a "Lunch Bunch" composed only of African-American students. He then took these students to hear a black rocket scientist speak at the University of Michigan. When the kids got back, those excluded from the trip booed them.

Now, what he did was just plain stupid, not to mention probably illegal. (In 2006, Michigan passed Proposal 2 which bans preferential treatment based on race.) I've never quite understood the idea that we achieve racial equality through inequality. If we hope that kids will judge each other on the content of their character and not race, then dividing them based on race seems a little counterproductive. Sending one group on a field trip while the others stay back at the school reinforces a message that these kids hear all too often: that they're different because of the color of their skin.

Also, if the situation was reversed, I have a feeling Al Sharpton would be coming to town. It's difficult to even imagine a white principal scheduling a field trip for only white students. Perhaps they could visit an NBA team and listen to a white basketball player so they see that they too can play in the League.

So why would an otherwise intelligent person and, from what I can gather, good principal, do something so dumb?

Answer: No Child Left Behind

NCLB requires schools to make "Adequate Yearly Progress," which means that the percentage of students scoring "proficient" on the state standardized test must go up by a certain percentage every year. Too many years of failing to make this improvement and the school faces progressively harsher sanctions, many of which will cost the school money (money they don't have).

So why does that matter? Because people who work in schools are no different than anybody else. If they are judged largely on the basis of one test then they will focus their energies on preparing students for that test. If they must improve the overall percentage of proficient students every year, then they will focus their energies on improving the performance of those who didn't pass the test the year before, assuming, usually correctly, that those who already passed the test will pass it again. All of which means that an incredible amount of energy, time, and money are put into helping the least successful students and very little time, energy, and money is spent on the high achievers.

But it doesn't stop there. NCLB also requires that each school achieve AYP in a number of subgroups, one of which is race. So is it any wonder principal Madison did what he did? I am sure that if we looked at Dicken's MEAP scores we would see an African-American population that performed below the level of their white counterparts.* To increase these students' performance, the principal creates this Lunch Bunch and then looks for opportunities to motivate the kids. The white kids are ignored because a. they scored better on the MEAP as a group and b. they are not an official "subgroup." In other words, they get the same treatment most students who do well in school get: they largely get ignored.

All of which leads to this conclusion: When put in ridiculous situations, even smart people will be do ridiculous things.

And for what it's worth, as a white kid, I think I would have dug listening to a rocket scientist. No matter what he looked like.

* I don't know Dicken's demographic breakdown, but statewide 89% of white fourth graders scored proficient in reading versus on 69% of African-Americans.