Bits and Pieces

February 27, 2012

There are several things I could write full blog posts about right now, but it’s not going to happen. Instead, I offer you the following semi-worthwhile snippets.

1. We had a new child! James Atticus was born last Thursday. He is named for my dad and for the character you’re all thinking of (if you’re not thinking of the character – go read a book, slacker!). Everyone is home and happy and Cate and I are adjusting to a two-child household. Mercifully, he’s been easy to get along with so far, so we probably won’t have to take him back to the baby store. Frankly, I couldn’t take all the pecking. Those storks are brutal with the high-pressure sales-tactics.

In semi-seriousness: I’m quite happy and it’s very odd to have a baby around the house again. I have lots and lots and lots of things to say about attempting to raise a man who respects women and doesn’t buy into the misogynist nonsense of our culture. That will come in time.

2. I taught my advanced writing class for the first time today. I walked into the room, said I’d been looking forward to this class all year and immediately had several students respond that they had, too. It was so gratifying. I love writing and I love teaching writing. This class is pretty much why I got into teaching in the first place. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it.

3. There has been a movement afoot on the internets to encourage men to speak up about the birth control nonsense going on right now. I feel compelled, and so I have to speak up. The ridiculous bullshit being spouted by a handful of conservative men who believe they should have the right to control women’s reproductive choices is simply absurd. It is born of a hatred for a women and I find it sickening. If we really want to start making moral arguments, I want to start talking about all the places I don’t want my money to go.

That’s beside the point, though. The point is women are just as capable of making decisions as men. It’s absurd that we’re still having this conversation in 2012. I look forward to watching Republicans be crushed in the upcoming elections.

The Flaws of Capitalism

January 13, 2012

So, I realize I’ve been blog-absent for a bit. It’s been a busy time. I lost a friend, as you know, and the baseball world has been taking much of my writing energy. I’ll probably have a longer post soon, but I’ve come across some little nuggets lately that I wanted to share in response to all the capitalism-is-perfect bloviating coming out of Republican primary candidates lately. They go like this:

“All of our antibiotics are 50-years-old because it’s not cost effective for drug companies to come up with new ones.”

That might not be an exact quote, but it’s pretty close. I caught that snippet listening to Science Friday on NPR today. The discussion was about a strain of TB that’s been found to be resistant to all the drugs we have. Good thing capitalist companies are making money selling old and increasingly ineffective antibiotics while sending there R&D to work on problems you didn’t even know you had. Yea capitalism!

“There are no private schools in Finland.”

That’s from an article in The Atlantic. The Finland it refers to would be the Finland with the best education system in the world. All of its teachers are also unionized, but that flies in the face of what we know here in America – that unions are the devil and just encourage slackers and hangers-on to drag down the system.

Living in a Plutocracy

November 16, 2011

As is probably obvious to people who know me and regular readers, I have been thinking a lot about the OWS movement, where it comes from, and what it says about America. I haven’t said anything because I didn’t feel like I had a lot to add. Then Zuccotti Park was cleared out, and I feel like I have to comment, even if I have nothing new to say.

I could go with lots of charts. I like charts, but I’m not going to do that. If you want charts, go here. They will tell you plenty.

Instead, I’m going to go for context in words. Let’s see how it works.

Right now, the distribution of wealth in America is more skewed than it was during the Gilded Age or the Great Depression. Think about that because those are not shining chapters in America’s history. I recently read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. It’s set in the Gilded Age, and has an interesting perspective. The characters in it, generally speaking, take their wealth so for granted that it’s almost impossible for the reader not to be offended. It’s a society that concerns itself almost entirely with wealth.

It feels a lot like right now.

Right now. 1% of Americans control 35% of the country’s wealth. 10% control 72% of the wealth. These are the people who control virtually everything in America. They are captains of industry. They are elected officials.

Tell me again about how the tax system is unfair.

I am a teacher. A teacher. Cate does not have a paying job. Yet, somehow, our household income places us in the 56th percentile in America right now. We are something approximating upper-middle-class. I always thought that if I eventually made it to upper middle class I’d be able to buy a book or go out to eat without worrying about how much those things cost. Of course, in those fanciful musings, health insurance didn’t take up 20% of my take-home pay while still leaving my family with significant medical bills.

Tell me again how socialized medicine is a bad thing.

Plutocracy is rule by a wealthy class. The goal of the wealthy class is to maintain their power.

Even adjusting for inflation, the cost of attending college has gone up 300% in the last 30 years. College is supposed to be the great equalizer. Everyone my age was indoctrinated to believe that if you Worked Hard and Went to College. You would Be Successful and Wealthy.

Of course everyone can’t be wealthy. And now, everyone can’t go to college. This is where all the complaints about student loan debt come from. College has become so expensive that a great many people can’t do it. Of course, they’ve all been told that college is the only way.

America is supposed to try to at least approximate equality of opportunity. Rich kids are already going to have a lot of breaks. Their parents have connections and can open doors for them, after all. But we have also become a nation that saddles its bright, but disadvantaged youth with tens of thousands of dollars of debt that wealthy youth do not have to face simply to keep up. It’s a sad thing. If we really cared about equality of opportunity, it would be hard, but not this hard.

I know what I have written here is fractured. I know it doesn’t describe all the problems with money in this country right now, but I hope it makes clear that there are problems. I know a lot of people are upset by the OWS movement, but its purpose is a good one. These people are trying to create a more equal country. One where who parents are doesn’t play as much of a role in your success as your talents and your willingness to work. There have been times when America got close to these ideals. Sadly, we are not living in one of those times.

A Word that Offends Me

October 19, 2011

I am not religious. This is unlikely to be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly. In general, I don’t have an issue with religious folks, I just disagree with them. There is one particular religious expression that really gets my goat, though. It is when someone refers to themselves as being “blessed.”

Though it might seem like it, I want to be clear that this isn’t really a religious issue for me. I’ve written before about how it ticks me off when people deny the existence of luck. You get this a lot in conservative circles. It comes with adjectives like “hardworking”.

“Blessed,” really, is the same thing. It says, “there is something special about me. God has chosen me. In choosing me, God is saying I am superior to others.” There are one million things wrong with that statement.

Let me use myself as an example. I did well in high school. Correspondingly, I got into a very good college where I continued to get mostly good grades while working all four years. Later, I worked full time while attending graduate school full time so I could become a teacher. Given all that, I don’t think most people would quibble with me saying that my modest success is the result of hard work. But let’s take another angle.

I was born a white, heterosexual male into a loving family in one of the wealthiest countries that has ever existed. My parents did well enough for themselves that I could attend a very expensive private college while only working part time to cover some basic expenses. Does “hardworking” still do it for you or do we need to insert luck into the equation? We’ll get to “blessed” in a minute.

It can get more extreme. I hate to pull out a cliché, but what about kids in Africa living in poverty that is all but unimaginable in the US? Are they unlikely to succeed because they are lazy or does luck play a role?

And now we get to “blessed”. What have the kids I just mentioned done to deserve their fate? When you use the word “blessed,” you are saying God has chosen you. Why you and not the impoverished kid who’s going to spend his whole life trying to figure out where his next meal is coming from? Sure, there’s that other cliché about how we can’t know God’s plan, but come on. Isn’t your sense of justice bothered by that? You are “blessed” but all these other people are suffering. If you deserve what you have, it follows, logically, that everyone else deserves what they have. Either that, or God doesn’t really care about those kids in Africa. You can’t have it both ways. Not if you’re using “blessed” to explain your success.

You can believe whatever you want about how the world works and we can respectfully disagree, but don’t go pretending luck isn’t a factor. Using words like “blessed” and denying the role of dumb luck in our lives is unfair because it trivializes the struggles of others. It gives us an excuse to not worry about them because they aren’t “hardworking” or “blessed” enough. Using words like this says nothing about us other than that our experiences and imaginations are fantastically narrow.

On Children’s Clothing

September 6, 2011

It’s been a while since something about society made me really angry on behalf of my daughter. As is always the case, I thought it best to vent via blog post.

Yesterday, Cate, Simone, and I went out to get Simone her fall wardrobe. Simone, you may have gathered, is a girl. That said, we do not, by any means, limit her to the “girl” section of clothing. If we did, I think we’d be bad people.

Simone is two. What does the world have to say about her clothing? It says that everything has to have some pink on it. It says that sports and trucks and dinosaurs are for boys. Girls get butterflies, cupcakes, and being pretty. Now Simone likes butterflies and cupcakes (so do I, for that matter), but she also likes trucks and dinosaurs. In fact, we pulled about half her clothes from the boy section, including a shirt with a big dinosaur on it. She is TWO. Why do her interests need to be gendered already?

All this is bad enough, but what absolutely killed me were the sweaters. The girl sweaters were entirely decorative. That is, they were only good for keeping you warm from the car to the door – if you’re lucky. Boy sweaters were thick and warm and clearly made for playing outside. This says that boys are expected to be outside playing while girls are supposed to be inside being frilly. There is nothing wrong with being frilly and there is nothing wrong with rolling around in the dirt. Shouldn’t kids have a choice that has to do with their personality instead of their gender? Why, when they are so young, is it necessary to paint them into such a tiny corner?

It makes me angry.

Beyond the Pale

May 4, 2011

If you pay attention to the news you are, I hope, aware of this. Basically, a Texas cheerleader was raped by a star athlete (I suppose, I should say “allegedly,” but he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge), and then refused to cheer for him. Consequently, she was kicked off the cheerleading squad. She sued and lost (the court said she was a “mouthpiece” for the school) and is now being forced to pay $45,000 for bringing a frivolous lawsuit. This makes my head want to explode, so I am going to take a minute to break down everything that is fucked up about this situation.

1. Cheerleaders are the mouthpieces of the school? Really? Really? I mean, yeah, if you’re a cheerleader you cheer. I get that, it’s part of the program, but you’re not allowed to take exception to some things? I don’t see how it is ever reasonable to expect someone to follow orders that are as extremely unreasonable as these.

2. This sets one hell of a bad precedent. Hey kids! You have free speech! Except, if you try to sue when that right is threatened, it might cost you a whole lot of money if you lose the court case. Which actually makes it seem like costly speech, doesn’t it?

3. He was still on the freaking team!!! This is the biggest one. I mean, what was this school district thinking? He pleaded guilty to assaulting her. Even if you want to pretend the rape didn’t happen, that’s still awful. How is this guy not kicked off the team? Don’t basically all schools have conduct clauses for students who want to participate? And if they don’t shouldn’t they? Would it really be the worst thing ever to say, “no one convicted of a violent crime can play for us.”

Oh wait, I forgot. This is sports. High School Sports. What could possibly be more important. Thousands of people come out for some of those contests so they can pin their hopes and dreams on children playing a game. I like sports, but shit, being a good athlete does not mean you don’t still have to be a good person. I don’t care how important high school sports seem in Texas. They aren’t important. Not really. I like sports, but one of the best things about sports is that they are frivolous. That’s kind of the whole point. If we have gotten to the point where high school – HIGH-FREAKING-SCHOOL – sports are so important that we will cheer someone no matter how bad a human being he may be – that we will step on the rights of others so that he can play, then we have some serious, fucking issues as a society.

The worst part is – and here I’m going totally into conjecture – I will bet you money that if the situation was reversed and the cheerleader had done something to the star athlete and he didn’t want her on the sidelines when he played, she would have been gone. In the blink of an eye. And they would have talked about how he had rights and she had done this and he shouldn’t be punished for it. Tell me I’m wrong.

I know this is America, and I know that, right now we are having a renaissance of hatred for women. I know that we really seem to value the rich and the powerful over the poor and the weak (Christian nation that we are), but come on? Do we have to fine the poor woman? Why? She already lost her appeal. Why do we have to pile on. (Aside: I’m not trying to call the woman poor or weak, I’m just making the point again that charging people for free speech and valuing athletes the way we do is problematic.)

Right now, I hope two things: 1. I hope someone starts a fund to pay for that fine for her because, frankly, she’s already gone through more than any person deserves. 2. I hope this fund is overwhelmed with donations such that her college (she is reportedly in college now) can be paid for. That to me, would be the best “up yours” to the assholes who made this kind of injustice possible. What a ridiculous world.

Popular = Good

March 10, 2011

I had this idea a few weeks ago, but I didn’t get to it. Please forgive the untimeliness of this post in our 24 second news cycle world…

Recently, the world ended when The Arcade Fire (or is the band called The Suburbs?) won a Grammy over several more popular, but less good artists. The world ended because the Grammys have long been a hackneyed awards show that caters to people who listen to top 40 radio and think popular and good are the same thing. The results are generally comical if you pay any attention to music, but I’m not going to go into that right now. Instead, I thought it might be more fun to look at what would happen if other types of media were subjected to the same “rigorous” selection process the Grammys normally utilize.

The Award: Best Picture

The Criteria: Nominees are the five highest grossing movies of the previous year. The voters will be looking for broad appeal (men and women have to be interested). Also, we want teenagers tuning in, so nothing too old and stodgy and nothing too childish.

2010

1. Toy Story 3

2. Alice in Wonderland

3. Iron Man 2

4. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Analysis: Toy Story was nominated as it was, but I don’t think it’s the winner here. It is, at least ostensibly, a children’s movie and thus isn’t cool enough to win best picture. Alice in Wonderland is for those weird emo kids or something, so it can’t win. Iron Man 2 has no appeal to the ladies and Twilight has nothing for the boys, so congratulations Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you are the best picture of 2010.

2009

1. Avatar

2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

3. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon

5. Up

Analysis: This is pretty similar to 2010. A kid’s movie (nope). Something for the boys and the ladies (nope and nope again) and a Harry Potter movie, but this time, Harry has some competition. He is trumped by the SUPER AWESOME (pay no attention to the terrible writing/story) Avatar which, because its special effects are out of this world, is clearly the best picture of 2009.

Other Years in Brief: 2008: 1. The Dark Knight, 2. Iron Man, 3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 4. Hancock, 5. Wall-E. The Winner: It’s all about the nocturnal flying rodent. Some people misguidedly though this should have won the real award.

2007: 1. Spider-Man 3, 2. Shrek the Third, 3. Transformers, 4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The Winner: Have to go with Harry again. His broad appeal is enough to overcome the mess that was Spider-Man 3.

2006: 1. Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2. Night at the Museum, 3. Cars, 4. X-Men: The Last Stand, 5. The Da Vinci Code. The Winner: This is a very tight, very respectable field. Lots of broad appeal here and the vote is going to be pretty split. When all else fails, go with what’s most popular. Congratulations buccaneers.

The Award: The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Criteria: The five best selling books of the year are up for the award. Voters care less about broad appeal (all real men know it’s uncool to read) than about making sure the book isn’t too hoity-toity.Also, no pictures or little kid’s stuff. This is a serious literary award, after all.

2010 (I had trouble finding a definitive best seller list, this is the best I could come up with)

1. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

2. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

3. Dead in the Family by Charlene Harris

4. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephanie Meyer

5. The Help by Cathryn Stockett

Analysis: This one is easy. It’s all about Larsson. He’s all dark and creepy or something. And people get to think they’re reading high literature without actually be challenged.

2009

Okay, okay. Stop, I can’t go on. Comprehensive best seller lists are hard to find and I just saw one claiming Stephanie Meyer had the top 4 spots in 2009 and 2008. Before that, it’s all Harry Potter. I am so glad everything isn’t run like the Grammys.

The Midwest is rife with labor protests right now as various Republican-dominated state legislatures try to take power away from unions. They are doing this, they say, for the Good of the People. Taking power from unions will balance budgets. Attract industry. We will live in a better place if we can just get rid of those awful unions.

Horseshit.

I am a proud union member, and I don’t understand why so many people have come to view unions with such disdain. That isn’t to say I don’t understand what Republican politicians have against them (we’ll get to that), but I don’t understand why the average working person has a problem with them.

If you are reading this, you probably know that before unions, work was dismal for the average American. Your employer, in general, did not care about you. You were paid as little as they could pay you and still have enough people to do the work. Safety was a non-concern. You were a cog. You were meat. You were disposable.

“So what?” you say (at least, if your are a Republican, this is probably what you say). This is America. Anyone can rise to the top. You just have to be willing to work for it.

I say again: Horseshit.

Certainly, it is conceivable that anyone can rise to a place of power with enough effort and enough luck (let us not forget luck, too many people fall into the trap of believing they deserve their luck). But everyone can’t. You can’t have a nation of CEOs and professional athletes. The world doesn’t work that way. Someone has to sell shoes and build roads and teach children. Someone has to do the things that actually allow us to exist as a society. This is why unions are good for the country.

Unions acknowledge that we are not all wealthy and powerful. That no matter what we do, we will never all be powerful and wealthy. But we are still human. We still have needs and dignity. If we band together we become powerful. We gain agency over our lives. Unions allow us to do this.

I don’t know if you are part of a union or not, but if you’re not, think about it for a minute.

Right now, your boss can fire you because he or she doesn’t like your shoes or your politics or because you drink Pepsi instead of Coke or for no reason at all. You could be the best worker at your job, but if the boss decides to fire you, there’s nothing you can do. Does this seem fair?

Right now, your company can tell you in the same presentation that the company had record profits this year, but that there is no money for raises or bonuses (I lived that one once upon a time). Does this seem fair?

You are still meat.

If you have any doubt about how much top level executives value you, go look at the labor they use overseas. Go look at how children are enslaved so products can be a few cents cheaper in America. The only difference between you and those children is luck. You were born in a country where, thanks largely to unions, there are laws that prevent companies from abusing there employees in quite such an egregious way.

Something you’ll notice if you look around the world is that countries where the workers receive the best treatment are the countries where the workers have the most power. Call me a socialist, but it’s true. You will also notice, if you look closely, that where labor is legitimately powerful, the standard of living tends to be very high (go take a look at co-determination and where it’s practiced).

What I am saying, in so many words is this: Unions are not the problem. Labor is not the problem. Greed is the problem. Corporate and political corruption are the problem. No one can work hard enough to “deserve” the kind of wealth the people in charge accumulate. You want to talk about hard work? Fine. Let’s talk about my father.

My father was dirt poor when he was growing up. For a long time, they did not have plumbing. At dinner, sometimes, they started with the youngest (he was the fourth child of nine) and if there was food left when the pot got you, you got to eat. My dad has dyslexia, but it wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late to do much good. But he worked hard. He worked in a factory (with a union). The company made forgings. It was hot, dirty, awful work. There were times when he worked 12 hour days six or seven days a week for months. He worked first shift. He worked second shift. He worked third shift. He did whatever was asked of him. Eventually, he did get a promotion. He left the union and became part of management. He retired after 30+ years working for the same company. The point of this story is not whether or not the union did my dad any good (though, undoubtedly it did). The point is that my dad is not a millionaire. He and my mom are very comfortable. They don’t want for anything, but they are not obscenely wealthy. However, if it is really true that all it takes is hard work, as so many Republicans want to claim, they should own a tropical island. So where is it?

The way unions and labor are being portrayed by conservatives is simply wrong. I’m not saying unions are perfect. Corruption happens everywhere, but the solution is not to take power from the workers and give it to the often extremely corrupt and greedy CEOs and politicians. Labor needs more power than it has. If employees were given more say in how a company is run and how workers are treated, then we would be a better nation. A stronger nation.

If the current trend continues and workers continue to lose power and wealth continues to concentrate at the top, it will become harder and harder to get anywhere, no matter how hard you work. Stories like that of my parents will become a thing of the past (without a union, it’s doubtful my dad could have afforded to stay at what would have been a painfully low paying job long enough to get a promotion). People will work until they drop dead – never having had the chance to save a dime – while a select few who were lucky enough to be born into the right circumstances live absurd and opulent lifestyles. This is not the America I grew up in, and it’s not an America I want to live in.

There is quite the battle going on among our politicians right now. At least, there is the pretense of a battle. Part of the new tax-compromise legislation has to do with the Estate Tax (or, if you’re conservatively minded, the DEATH TAX, mwahahahaha!!!!). Under the current package, when you die, the first $5 million dollars in your estate goes untaxed. The rest is taxed at 35%. Democrats are up in arms because they want it to go back to the way it used to be (first $3.5M exempt and 45% taxed thereafter). I think both sides are out of their ever-loving minds.

Politicians are really big fans of talking about what a meritocracy America is. This is bullshit. In a true meritocracy everyone starts in the same place and then gets wherever they end up through hard work (and, of course, sometimes luck). If my parents leave me $5 million and yours leave you a funeral bill, this is not a meritocracy (obviously, there are plenty of other things that make America not a meritocracy, but let’s stay focused on just this one).

It is not a meritocracy because, for instance, it is a whole lot easier to start your own computer company if you’re  brilliant AND have wealthy parents to help you out than if you’re brilliant and dirt poor. And yet, many people still refuse to acknowledge that rich people tend to beget more rich people and that poor people tend to beget more poor people and that this has, as much as anything, to do with the fact when your parents are rich, then you will, at some point, probably end up with all of their money (and power!) whether you have done anything to deserve it or not. Thus, allowing rich people to continue to pass all of their wealth down from one generation to the next does little more than create a wealthy ruling class. We might as well given them royal titles.

This is why we need an estate tax, but both proposed version seem absurdly conservative to me. The socialist in me wants to say you can either give to charity or the government can take it (let your progeny make it on their own merits), but that would never fly. So, this is what I propose (because anyone is going to listen to me): The first $200,000 is tax free. That amount of money is, for everyone who isn’t rich, life changing. You can pay off a mortgage with that kind of money and still have something left over. After that, it’s a 50% tax rate up to $1 million. This means, that if you die a millionaire, you can leave your kids $600,000 dollars. Again, that is one hell of a chunk of change. After that it’s 75% the rest of the way up. Why? Because there are too many people in America who don’t get the opportunities wealthy people give to their children. There are too many people who have to wonder where their food comes from instead of which absurd college prep academy is best for their kid.

If you want to live in a meritocracy, you can’t have a ruling class. The two are mutually exclusive.

Celebrities Writing Badly

November 15, 2010

During a recent bookstore trip I realized there are a ton of horrible novels on the shelves written by celebrities. This made me grumpy. It’s bad enough that people like Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, and the like make it hard to find the good books on the shelves. Add in celebrities with no talent but agents willing to sell anything and it’s practically impossible.

I will now tear apart the opening passages of three awful books by talentless “writers.”

Let’s start with Hilary Duff’s Elixer.

I COULDN’T BREATHE.

Wedged in the middle of an ocean of people, I gasped for air, but nothing came. The heat from a million writhing bodies radiated over me, their sweat weighing down the air. I searched anxiously for an escape, but painfully bright lights strobed on and off, clouding my sense of direction.

I was losing it. I was going to pass out.

I forced in a deep breath and tried to talk myself down. I was fine. It wasn’t like I was anywhere dangerous. I was on a dance floor, in the most exclusive nightclub in Paris. People lined up all night in the freezing cold for even a chance to stand where I was now.

Dreadful isn’t it? Ms. Duff does seem to understand the importance of varied sentence length, but that’s all this has going for it. “A million writhing bodies?” Hyperbole much? Also, the heat isn’t radiating over you. Presumably, the writhing bodies surround you (as you are on the dance floor). Envelop is probably closer to the meaning you were after.

Now, let’s talk about those pesky -ly words. They are often overused. My high school students have this problem (note: they are not published novelists). Let’s ditch “anxiously” and “painfully.”

The next paragraph is two sentences long. It should be one.

The last paragraph contains imprecise word choice at its best. What does it mean to “talk myself down?” Down from what? Calm maybe, instead of talk? Is that what you mean? “It wasn’t like I was anywhere dangerous,” now watch the magic: “I wasn’t anywhere dangerous.” That is called word economy. Make it your friend. Also, why is dance floor followed by a comma?

This excerpt is making me angry. Time for something fresh. How about conservative windbag Glenn Beck’s The Overton Window:

Most people think about age and experience in terms of years, but it’s really only moments that define us. We stay mostly the same and then grow up suddenly, at the turning points.

His life being pretty sweet just as it was, Noah Gardner had devoted a great deal of effort in his first twenty-something years to avoiding such defining moments at all costs.

Not that his time had gone entirely wasted. Far from it. For one thing, he’d spent a full decade building what most guys would call an outstanding record of success with the ladies. Good-looking, great job, fine education, puckishly amusing and even clever when he put his mind to it, reasonably fit and trim for an office jockey, Noah had all the bona fide credentials for a killer eHarmony profile. Since freshman year at NYU he’d rarely spent a weekend night alone; all he’d had to do was keep the bar for an evening’s companionship set at only medium-high.

Always nice to open with a broad judgment of humanity. At least the intro paragraph is coherent. That’s more than I can say for the single-sentence convolution-fest that is the second paragraph. I’m not even going to try and point out everything wrong with it. I’m just going to rewrite it: “Noah Gardner was happy with his life and had devoted his early-twenties to avoiding such moments.” There, isn’t that better?

I don’t even know what to write about that last paragraph. It’s a complete disaster. Once again, he’s making judgments about what large segments of the population think. This is bad form and can be alienating, so it’s a good idea to avoid it in your first three paragraphs or so. I think my favorite moment in the paragraph is “companionship.” Someone give me one reason why that shouldn’t be “companion.”

Time for the cream of the crop. I give you the first paragraph of Nicole Richie’s Priceless:

As the beautiful young woman strode through the international arrivals terminal at JFK, several people turned to look. A flight attendant noticed the way she carried herself, the clothes she wore, her shoes, and guessed she’d just walked out of first class. She was right. A young man pulling espresso paused, distracted by the girl’s obvious sexuality and lovely figure. She felt his gaze and turned slightly, favoring him with a brief smile that made his hand jump, causing him to scald himself. A man in a Savile Row suit lowered his Wall Street Journal and raised his eyebrows. Hmm. Charlotte Williams was back. Her father would be happy. The market would go up. He folded his paper and called his broker.

I think that is the worst paragraph I have ever read in a published novel. First, there is the obvious problem of telling instead of showing. We here all about how gorgeous and sexual this woman is, but nothing about her appearance or demeanor is described. Then there’s a nice believability issue. Who spills coffee on himself upon seeing a pretty girl? Also, “favoring him?” That’s the best you’ve got? Really?

What’s most interesting about all of this is that each “author” lacks the ability to look past him/herself. Hilary Duff gives us an account of a teenage girl on a dance floor! Glenn Beck tells us what the whole world really thinks! Nicole Richie writes about a pretty girl with a rich dad! I always talk to my students about writing what you know, but it’s nice to do it on a level that isn’t entirely superficial.

I will now go weep in a corner while wondering why this schlock is on the shelves while I remain a lowly English teacher.