On Progress and Pronouns

This was originally posted on my local workplace’s Diversity blog. That post is behind a firewall.

The following rumination is given in the same spirit as the theatrical performance that inspired it: I recently saw Straight White Men, by the extremely gifted Young Jean Lee. It’s a comedy-drama about gender norms and expectations.

This trifle addresses a new use of pronouns to show respect for an individual’s … well … individuality. To put things in context, consider the word “parent.” As recently as a hundred years ago, parent in English-speaking cultures was a noun that meant not so much a sense of filial responsibility to a child as one of possession. A parent suggested a type of owner, in a way that no longer exists in the culture.

Child labor was common then. Supporting that norm, parent pretty much meant “boss of the child.” A parent could legally force a child to toil at great risk and harm, in the fields or the factory line. Today those norms have changed, and with them, the word. It even split in two: Parent is still a noun, but it’s also now a verb. “To parent” is assumed to mean bestowing something beneficial on a child. Even to very recent ancestors, upon finding a copy of Parenting magazine beamed to them from the future, this would be supremely baffling.

As you read below, please think of how language has changed with attitudes, and how it continues to change, arguably at an accelerated pace. As we strive to better understand the needs of previously voiceless groups … in our workplaces, our homes and social settings, keep in mind that it can be a bumpy ride, linguistically speaking. We can curse those bumps, or celebrate them. I invite you, dear reader, to relax and enjoy the ride. Take delight in our world’s growing richness and diversity.

The quite wonderful and thought-provoking Steppenwolf Theater production I saw opened with two cast members, who together announced to the audience the shared preference to be referred to with the non-cisgendered “they,” and its object pronoun form, “them.” They provided much to consider. And by they I don’t mean either one of them, although this is also true, but both. It’s unusual enough for someone like me to encounter one such soul. Two is a real night on the town.

Should you be wondering, there was no suggestion that they were a romantic couple. Not because one person cannot be a couple of any sort, romantic or otherwise, but because by using “they” just then I did not mean either of them but both.

You can see why this is interesting and yes, alarming. Two individuals in the same room who both prefer to be referred to using plural pronouns has increased linguistic complexity by the precise mathematical factor of O + M + G.

For example, when they are near each other at one of the inevitable cast parties, and by “they” of course I’m not implying that either of them can, on their own, be near themselves, but both. At the party. Together.

Let me start over.

It occurred to me that if one of them were to be referenced at said party as “them,” each would be compelled to turn, point, and say, “Do you mean me or them? Or us?” At which point I for one would need to excuse myself to freshen my drink.

Will this lead to a quota of just one they and them per social gathering? I sincerely hope not. They seemed quite charming, and by they I’m not singling one of them out, but merely saying each seemed like someone I would genuinely enjoy chatting with.

Just not together … Until I get it all, as it were, straight.

How do I love thee, podcasts?

How do I love thee, podcasts? Let me count the ways. I’ve come up with five, right off the top of my head. They span comedy, news and current events, design, music and even history.

Why Now? #TryPod

This month there is a push among podcasters I enjoy to encourage our friends to try a podcast, with the above hashtag. I’m glad they’re doing it.

Many or most folks who do not listen to podcasts just don’t realize was a wealth of (mostly) free entertainment and knowledge is waiting for them in their hip pocket. Come on. We all have commutes. Or routine work situations. Or dog walking rituals. We all have a time when we can listen to really good programming. Am I right? So why not give podcasts a try?

I usually recommend to newbies downloading an app called Stritcher, but there are many ways to pull down podcasts from the internet and get them in your ears.

Here’s my list of “starter” podcasts:

1. The Gist

I literally start my day with this one, nearly the moment my alarm goes off. The Gist is a roughly 25-minute podcast released every weekday. Host Mike Pesca is a phenomenon. He also has a pretty funny Twitter feed:

2. 99% Invisible

So you’re not into politics or current events, you say? Or over-educated whimsy? I still have plenty to offer in this podcast cornucopia. Here’s one that might suit your fancy: Ostensibly a podcast about design and architecture, 99% Invisible is really about much more. It’s about all of the hidden, human-made grace notes to our lives that we didn’t think we’d like to learn about. Until we did.

3. 2 Dope Queens

Demographically I am definitely not the audience for 2 Dope Queens. They’re black. I’m white. They’re Millennial women. Yeah, no. And they record this podcast in that distant, enchanted (or cursed?) land called Brooklyn. The queens what be dope are Jessica Williams, from the old Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson, fellow stand-up comic and most recently, author of You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have To Explain. They record in front of a live audience, hosting a show of other stand-up comics, mostly of color. It’s a joyful, antic party into which I always feel honored to be allowed.

Their friendship is a major appeal of the show, and each episode is a much-needed lesson in not taking life too seriously. Oh, and did I mentioned it’s a production of WNYC? It’s an NPR program. I find this seriously hard to believe. In a good way.

4. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

This guy says he isn’t a “real” historian, but he has done the impossible by making history interesting and relevant to me. I came to Hardcore History late, with the Blueprint for Armageddon series. It was six episodes (if I remember correctly), each over three hours (!?). The subject: World War I. The episodes were absolutely riveting. I would walk for hours along my Chicago lakefront, taking in his stories and regretting when my walks had to end.

Now that’s entertainment.

5. Song Exploder

I’ve saved possibly the best for last. Song Exploder, by the man with one of the best names to pronounce in podcasting: Hrishikesh Hirway (just listen to him pronounce it every episode — it’s as musical as the subject matter!).

Every installment has Mr. Hirway showcase another song, and learn from the creator how the song was assembled. He’s covered songs by Jeff Tweedy and his band WILCO, mad genius behind The Magnetic Fields, and and the practically child prodigy behind Microphones, to name just three. I think my all time favorite was the dissection of this wonderful song by tUnE-yArDs (a.k.a. Merrill Garbus). Water Fountains is a case study in discovery through unbridled play.

I dare you not to be inspired.

Podcasts that helped me survive Election 2016

It’s been a tough Presidential election season to get through. Especially if you’re like me, and you started following the proceedings early. I watched Biden decide not to run. And I witnessed sixteen GOP candidates get picked off, by one-by-one, by Trump, and in the process, watched the entire process debased to a level I couldn’t have imagined possible a year ago. Deeply depressing.

The key to my survival has been a handful of intelligent, well-informed, often extremely funny podcasts. I’ll list them for you now. Especially since, with the exception of this first one, they should all continue to reward listening once all of the votes are cast and Washington gridlock resumes in earnest.


Slate's Trumpcast

Like several of in my list, this is produced by Slate. Host Jacob Weisberg talks all things Trump, as a way to help us all get through this national and international fever dream. Weisberg hasn’t released an episode in a while, but he vowed to continue releasing them until the scourge has passed. Let’s hope that’s November 9, when all election results are tallied.


whistlestopThis podcast, now with a book by the same name, is by national journalism treasure John Dickerson. When he’s not writing for Slate or performing his new duties as host of Sunday’s Face the Nation, Dickerson is an engaging presidential election historian. His stories help us understand the reasons for some of our election traditions, and they remind us that things have been this loopy before in American history — although perhaps not since the days of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.


Speaking of Hamilton, of course you knew I would mention that musical of the same name, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who until recently was also its star on the Broadway stage. Like Whistlestop, Pod4Ham scratches the itch for a broader election politics perspective, as it dissects the musical’s songs, one at a time, using as its basis the brilliant original cast recording.

True, it’s only for Hamilton fanatics like myself. That is, it’s for the sort of fanatic who gets excited about visiting Weehawken, New Jersey, because it’s the site of Hamilton’s fatal duel with Aaron Burr:

Running on the Hudson, listening to Hamilton cast album, in the city where Burr shot him

A photo posted by Jeff Larche (@jefflarche) on

A little more accessible than Pod4Ham is Miranda’s recent appearance on SNL, which aired just one day after the recording was released about Trump bragging to Billy Bush, on a television series motor home, about him kissing and groping women without their consent. The comedy is priceless, and it also shows Lin-Manuel’s mastery of lyrics:

Vox’s The Weeds

The wonderful Ezra Klein leads a panel discussing the latest in politics. This episode followed the final debate, and is true to its title. It truly gets into the weeds of issues, including Presidential election politics.

What podcasts have gotten you through this punishing chapter in election politics? I would invite you to leave a comment, but as you probably know, trolls love to flood blog comments. Best to suggest something to me here (until trolls spoil the party there as well).

The Art of Authorship

I enjoy writing. And once every three months or so, like a familiar spasm that arrives out of the blue, I think about writing a book. A real book.

The book.

It’s the one I’ve been planning and constructing — and occasionally drafting — for the last seven years. If I complete it, it will be my first book.

Marie CorelliThat may never happen, and that doesn’t bother me. Well, much. But I will, when the spasm returns, sometimes read about writing, by real writers. It can take the form of rereading Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird by Bird. Or visiting Maria Papova’s extraordinary Brain Pickings blog. This morning, it was reading the fascinating The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners, Personally Contributed by Leading Authors of the Day (1890). That link brings you to the long-out-of-print book in full, in digitized form, thanks to the Google Book Project.

Here’s an excerpt, by British novelist Marie Corelli, in a letter on the craft of writing, circa 1888:

I do not think it possible to ‘train’ anyone to be an author … [writing] is the outcome of the mind’s expression; and the questions I would ask of any would-be writer, are not ‘Have you studied the art?’ or, ‘Have you trained yourself?’ — no! — but ‘Have you a thought, and is it worth the telling?’ If so, declare it, simply and with fervour, regardless of what it may bring; write it as you would speak it, and if it has true value it will reach its mark.

If you’re like me, and have the inclination to think about writing more than actually do it (which is certainly no more Walter Mitty-ish than my friends who enjoy reading brochures on yachts with no intentions of buying one, or thumbing through seed catalogs instead of actually planting a garden), you could do worse than spend some time with The Art of Authorship.


Friday’s Holiday Head Start event was another huge success!

Now that the dust has settled on the event (or perhaps that’s glitter?) I am thrilled to tell our wonderful donors what they helped support.

Actually, I’m going to let Sherry, our co-leader along with her daughter Shannon, tell the story (I could not be there). I edited her email to spare you the inside football thoughts on the already-underway planning and work for next year’s event:

The evening was fantastic. The cafeteria was packed!

… Not only did [a volunteer new to our Photo Station producing family portraits on the spot] print them, he did all kinds of enhancements to them.

We had 19 stations for the kids. … Haven’t officially tallied numbers yet, but we are pretty sure that there were over 300 for dinner. And of the 137 Head Start students, at least 70 of them and their families came. Which is a great turn out.

You supported all of this, and allowed our roughly 60 event volunteers to make a lasting difference for under-served 3- and 4-year-olds and their families.

By the way, the tally on our Fundraising Site understates the level of donations. Although it reports roughly $1,500 raised, that does not take into account dollar-for-dollar matching gifts to the online tally, plus one generous $500 check that Sherry gratefully accepted offline from an anonymous donor.

That brings our fundraising tally to roughly $3,500, just short of our ambitious $4,000 goal!

If you donated, thank you so much. If you’re considering supporting our December 26 bargain shopping for children’s gifts and toys, you can still use the link in the right column.

Won’t you consider a gift for this Giving Tuesday?

Today’s headlines included news that Wisconsin’s food stamps rules would become tighter, just in time for the holidays. But I was more heartened by this news a groundswell of support for Give Tuesday:

Let’s take note: today is #GivingTuesday, the fourth anniversary of a day that offers a glimpse of the world beyond the pathological extremes: a view of the commonplace generosity and social concerns of millions of people.

If you’ve been waiting until after Thanksgiving to give to the Holiday Head Start event, please wait no longer. Use the link at the top of the right column to donate today. It will just take a minute, and the warm feelings of knowing you’re giving to a wonderful cause will last all month!

Warmth for children on a cold Midwestern night

You may have just seen these photos posted on the Holiday Head Start site. As I write this, it is an extremely chilly November night with winds (if you’ll pardon the melodrama) literally howling outside the window. But sharing these with you makes me feel a little warmer, and a great deal better …

Warm Fleece Blanket Scarves, gloves and hats!

These photos show just some of the hand-made fleece blankets, scarves and hats that Holiday Head Start volunteers produced for last year’s event. One shows, sandwiched between the hats and scarves, the woven gloves we purchased to go with those hats and scarves.

Last year we made sure that each of the 140+ children in the Beloit Head Start program took home these items, plus much more. You can read more about what they and their families received here, and here.

Now we’re in the middle of raising the money for this year’s event. We expect to serve more under-served children and their families than ever before. Won’t you help?

Please consider supporting this important cause today!

Possibly my favorite poem ever

The last three lines of this are a bit of a mantra for me, something I try hard to ask myself when I get too hung up on details and nonsense.

The Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Many years later, a laser that does something

When I was in the sixth grade, I got my hands on small fragments of a one-way mirror, and, following descriptions I read about in the encyclopedia set we had in our basement, I took other components (a glass rod, a wooden box and a light source), and built a working laser.

No, it didn’t do anything, except win me second place in my school’s science fair. But I thought it was cool anyway.

Too Cool

If I was that kid today, I would hope this is what I’d bring to the science fair. (Hey, they’d have to give me a first place ribbon, right?)

Pied Beauty by Gerald Manley Hopkins

GerardManleyHopkinsI recently found this poem, by Victorian poet Gerald Manly Hopkins. The bucolic imagery somehow seems appropriate for early Spring. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.