Superman, Mark Twain, and Lawrence Lessig: Congress Is The Light That Never Goes On

Lawrence Lessig and Jimmy Wales at the iCommon...
He hates it when they make him sit with Jimbo at the kids' table.

A few days ago, I posted a link to this piece by Lawrence Lessig.  It’s something of a love letter to Newt Gingrich in which Lessig blames the former Speaker  for most of Washington’s current dysfunction.  According to Lessig, Newt was the architect of the current winner-take-all, reelection obsessed profanities posing as politics.  I’m not entirely convinced by the narrative, which isn’t to say he doesn’t make salient points.

The thing is, some of this goes back to Andrew Jackson.  Most of it goes back to Thomas Hobbes.  It’s been chronicled by Mark Twain and in Action Comics #1 (where we also learn that populist Superman was also an isolationist in the build-up to World War II?  That’s a post-and-a-half).

Has Congress ever worked?  Has it Congress ever been this bad?

How All Literary Rejection Letters Should Start

This lets you know right away that the rest of the email is not about your Pushcart nomination.

After the salutation, the very first word of the first sentence should be “unfortunately.” This saves writers from having to scan the rest of the text for the word. It also means that if the writer’s e-mail service shows body text previews, the writer doesn’t even have to open the email to know they’ve been slush-piled. I still recommend reading the actual rejections just in case there are specific comments or requests for more work.

This message has been brought to you by the editors of a review somewhere in the formerly industrial Midwest. Remembering which story I sent them four months ago is pretty tough, and it looks like they forgot the title, too.

Since many of you visit this blog looking for bits and pieces about the MFA process and the nuts and bolts of trying to get pieces published, I thought I’d share the secret hierarchy of rejection letters.

1: The standard form letter like the one seen here.  Not very gratifying, but don’t take it personally.  You’re busy, they’re busy, and that’s just how it goes.

2: The form letter with your name and the title of your piece.  Pretty standard practice.  I think I get more rejections with this level of personalization than without.

3: The personalized rejection letter with a personal note telling you how much they liked your story, even though it’s not for them, and encouraging you to send them more. In the super-competitive and completely subjective literary world, this can feel almost as good as an acceptance.  When you’re at this point with a specific piece or a specific market, you know that the editors really looked hard at your piece, thought about it, and saw enough promise (or whatever they look for) to personally encourage you as a writer.  No one owes you that, so when you get it, it’s a good thing.  Follow up with a thank you.

The most important thing to remember?  We’re talking about subjective responses to art.  You will “fail” often, especially in the beginning.  The thing is persistence and, very often, revision.

China’s Comedy Noir: Doublespeak, Sweatshops, and the Shenzhen Electric Bicycle Ban

On last night’s broadcast, Conan did a really funny faux-awards show for his audience. When the ridiculous Journey tribute band started singing about 6-year-old Chinese factory workers, the first thing I thought was, “okay, that shit is real and  shouldn’t be joked about.”  Then I thought, “well, actually, the fact that it’s real maybe means it should be joked about.”   Then Larry the Cable Guy said he was glad the band mentioned child labor in China because yesterday was, in fact, a big holiday there: Solstice? No. Take Your Parents To Work Day.  And so of course people laughed, but were they laughing because they thought the satirizing of Chinese practices (which produce most of our everyday goods at Wal-Mart prices) was good and funny or because of how gruesomely incongruous these things are with the values we claim to uphold? It’s our nature to laugh at things that aren’t funny, to meet uncomfortable, damning juxtapositions precisely in this way.  Some people laugh at funerals.  Some people laugh when they’re nervous or afraid or just unsure about what’s coming next.

On the artist’s side of this equation, is there a fine line between exploitative comedy and satire, or is that line bold and clear?  And do jokes like these make audiences more sympathetic or callous towards the people suffering injustice?  I don’t have an answer for that.  Conan is very smart and, by all accounts, a man with great integrity.  I’m going to assume his staff was aiming for some critical thinking with the bit, but are they at fault for culling low-brow guffaws as well?  I don’t know, but the conversation about the ethics of comedy is worth having.

Speaking of China and gruesome incongruity: it was in the news yesterday that  police in Shenzhen are beginning to enforce a ban on electric bicycles because they’ve been deemed a public safety hazard.  As Evan Osnos wrote on The New Yorker’s blog yesterday: “The bikes, which are dangerously silent, have thrived in a regulatory netherworld between bicycles and cars, and they are said to have caused more than fifteen per cent of the traffic accidents in Shenzhen last year, in which sixty-four people died and two hundred and thirty-three were injured.”

Fine, Shenzen.  Take away the People’s Democratic Modes of Transportation And Hence Livelihood.  Wait, what?  Shenzhen sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Yes, that’s right! That’s the same region where working conditions in the factories producing most of our electronic devices are notoriously egregious, isn’t it?  Yes, yes it.

If you’re keeping score:

Dangerous Bikes: Bad

Inhumane Conditions so Westerns Can Have Cheap Goods:  Yeah, we’ll allow it.

I wrote a post a few months ago about writer and storyteller Mike Daisey’s work on this issue.  I urged folks to go read and listen to Mike’s personal experiences with Shenzhen workers as shared on TechCrunch, here.  I’ll urge it again.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog

A few months into any Golden Age comic book archive, you’ll come across the origin story of the title’s featured character.  Blogging, really, should be no different.  Comics emerged from the frenetic, sensationalist media of the early 1900s, and blogs emerged from the frenetic, media-saturated lives of people living on the other side of a century that saw the best and worst communications innovations in human history.

Lazily.

Chriscocca.com started as christophercocca.wordpress.com in January of 2007.  I used the Hemingway theme, and the goal was very simple: I wanted a place to share my publishing news.  I was submitting to online and print journals for the first time and had some very early success at those venues (Geez, Brevity, and elimae being the most notable). Eventually I started blogging about craft, which really means I blogged about instinct.  One thing I knew for certain was that there were still way too many people using way too many adverbs.  To wit, a post from November, 2007, currently in the classified archives:

I hate adverbs. I loved them as a clever little kid, but that was before (insert your own defining literary experience here). Except joyfully, and only when used in reference to the way Uncle Feather flew around Fudge’s house and pissed off Fudge’s family.

That Pessimist hates stupid phrases and words. Some phrases to avoid, courtesy of That Pessimist.

And scene.

Cover of "Superfudge"
Lighten up, Pee-tah.

I should say about word here about Uncle Feather.  When I was 10 or so, my dad helped me write a book report about Superfudge, and we had a good laugh describing UF’s manic flight around the Hatcher kitchen with the world joyfully.  First of all, joyfully is a pretty funny word, not because joy is funny, but because it’s kind of one of those words you save for big, important experiences.  The thought that a myna bird would do anything joyfully cracked me up.  Also, visualizing a myna bird joyfully flying around a room while exasperated keepers try in vain to bring him down, well, I don’t care how old you are, that’s a) hilarious and b) extremely gratifying.

I was writing a lot of terse, evocative microfiction in 2007, and my blogging style from those days reflects that.  Eventually, I developed a fuller style, but it was still a very at-arm’s length approach.  I don’t think I blogged for fun, even when I was blogging a lot about things that were important to me.  But I suppose I thought writing wasn’t supposed to be much fun, either. I mean, this is serious business, after all, and I didn’t want people thinking I was some lamebrain goofball blogging about episodes of LOST and He-Man.  My, how things have changed.

My love/hate relationship with blogging in this space went on and on and on. Last year I took a big long break to focus solely on my fiction, and I think was a good move for a few reasons: 1) It gave me time for fiction  and 2) it separated me from the constant head-checking I was doing before every click of the WordPress publish button. I needed to get out of my head and into my gut, and I needed to say what I needed to say in ways that weren’t so tied up in my own personal narrative.  There were great discussions happening on the blog by then, but all of the sudden I knew that if I was going to dedicate the kind of time and mental energy that a book would require, I was no longer going to be blogging about the ontological grounding of being (okay, okay, it’s God) for a while.

Maybe the Desk Inspector should mind his own damn business.

This year, I lightened up.  I don’t know exactly why or how, but I have a few guesses.  One thing I know for sure is that I started blogging more as soon as I finally designed a banner I really, really liked.  When I started playing with the images and thinking of what to call this new welling up of whimsy, The Daily Cocca popped up from the suppressed creative places I’d been trying to cram other projects into.  Simple as it sounds, a new banner and new layout energized me to have fun with content, to get out on the WordPress ecosystem and to make connections.   Specifically, the picture of me as kid really makes me happy.  Look at that smile.  That kid is happy, fun-loving, and full of a million crazy ideas.  That’s the kid who had the messiest effing desk you’ve ever seen, sloppy handwriting, poor time-management and every other awesome thing no one should really have to worry about as long as they’re young enough to wear a clip-on tie.  Seriously, what was the deal with the clean desk obsession? If my desk could close, it’s none of your business. If it can’t close, give me a minute.  No, no, I left that book at home.  You should be happy…it’s not cluttering up my desk.

Where were you when I needed you, Lego Charles Dickens?

Side note:  One time in elementary school the teacher was going on and on about something, and I started drawing awesome totem-pole-like doodles up and down the margins of my notebook.  This was in a pretty early grade.  We passed the books in and I didn’t think anything of it.  A few days later, the teacher called me in from recess to talk to me about my doodles.  I thought she was going to say how cool they were.  Instead, she made me stay inside and erase every single one.  I didn’t realize then what I stifling act of idiocy this was.  I knew she was being stupid, but I didn’t relate it to this whole idea of feeling like you have to parse your creative side and intellectual side until recently.  So let the 31 year-old speak now for the 8-year old who only wanted to draw comic books or play baseball for a living:  hey, any grown-up who cares more about order than innovation, more about clean lines and desks than creativity, compassion, nurturing, sustainability and raising up kids into whole people: not cool.

Yeah, so the messy desk thing is sort of mantra for me in this sense: it means be who you are in each of the ways that matter.  Write your fiction and your poetry as starkly (adverb!) or as richly (stop it!) as you want, and do your blog whichever way feels right.  People are complicated, people have different interests, different modes, different ways of communicating in different circumstances and for different reasons.  Why should you or I be any different?

Yesterday, I linked to a post on BookMunch about Stuart Murdoch’s new book of blogs.  Will Fitzpatrick says that while Murdoch’s art is “existentialism through fiction, allowing his characters to project his worries and fears that maybe this life isn’t all we want it to be…. his blogs, on the other hand, are much more confident. Murdoch still tells stories, of course, varying from taking pictures for Belle & Sebastian album sleeves to his opinions on the Olympics. But this time, he’s the focal point. And he turns out to be much funnier and more confident than you might have imagined. That’s not to say that he’s arrogant; he’s still self-deprecating at times, but it comes from a man much more comfortable with his own sense of self than his lyrics would suggest.”  Despite being a big fan of Stuart’s music, I’ve never read his blog.  But it sounds perfect, doesn’t it?  Since about the beginning of the year I have had this new, strange confidence in my voice as a blogger, separate and distinguishable from my voice as a writer of fiction or literary nonfiction.  The realization that we’re allowed to speak in many voices compels us, I think, to start.

I’ve never had this much fun blogging, and I’ve never been this productive at it.  I owe much of this to my teachers and peers in my MFA program, to the kid in the picture, to my messy desk, and to everyone who reads The Daily Cocca, everyone who comments, Jay and future guest posters/contributors, and all of you folks on WordPress I continue to connect with.  Thank you!

Lego Charles Dickens via Dunechaser on Flickr.

Sundry Appeals to the Aficionado Within, Part 1

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Nickelodeon. The channel’s migration up our 80’s and 90’s dial is fixed in my memory: 27, 29 (later the Family Channel), 32, 34 (later Telemundo), 36 (or, as my sister called it, “three-six” as in, “oh brother, how about three-six!”), 42.  I can’t even tell you what it is now because there are like seven of them, but they’re in the 260s and 270s, nimbly doing their thing around offerings from PBS and Disney.  (Remember when you had to pay for the Disney Channel?)

The first time I saw Nick was at my grandparents’ house, a Special Delivery cartoon about the American Revolution (awesome).  A few weeks later, at my other grandparents’ house, I discovered Nick at Nite.  It must have been 1985 (the year Nick at Nite debuted), because I could read the word Nite but couldn’t figure out the context. In any case, it was way better than The Blanket Show.

A few days ago, I saw a commercial for the newest iteration of the Power Rangers franchise.  The Zords are coming to Nick:

 

Yes, my first thought was: “Really, Power Rangers? 15 years later and you have the same exact production values?  Even I don’t rock flannel on flannel these days.”

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of 1993, I was 13 when Power Rangers debuted in the US.  I think I was 15 when I decided to start being ironic. And it was on right before Animaniacs (smartest cartoon masquerading as kid’s show of all time? check), so, you know, I caught a few eps.  Plus I had a little sister (which was also my excuse for watching Eureka’s Castle, though I’ll never disavow my love for David the Gnome). It didn’t take long to realize the four main reasons the Power Rangers became so massive:

  • Martial Arts
  • Dinosaurs
  • Robots (that transform)
  • All of those things together

Production values?  Uncheck.  That old footage Saban had lying around happened to combine the three coolest things ever, and that’s all it needed.   Speaking of which, later today or tomorrow I want to talk about two awesome blogs that I could spend hours and hours and hours on.  Sports uniform history minutiae  AND visions of a future that never was?  Yes.  Yes I will share that goodness with you.

A preview:

Billy Beane!

[Update: Read Part 2 here.]