Swimster The Tree-Climbing Fish

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
— allegedly Einstein; probably someone else who was no Einstein

Once upon a time there was a fish named Swimster. He had wide, fluttering fins that could push him far through the water with every stroke. He had a narrow body covered in slippery fins that could glide effortlessly through the gaps in the seaweed. He had strong gills to power him along. And more than anything, he dreamed of climbing the highest tree on the beach.

Now Swimster was under no delusions. He knew that most of the successful tree-climbers on the island had hands and claws and lungs. But he had heard stories of hard work and evolution, and had faith that with the right conditions, you can become what you’re not.

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So he decided to kick his evolution into gear by enrolling in a class at Ozzie the Orangoutang’s School of Tree-Climbing. As he paddled himself onto the shore for the first days of class, edging into the crowd of primates and amphibians, he tried not to notice their judging gazes fixating on his fins.

He flopped his way across the crowd to introduce himself to Ozzie, who greeted him with raised eyebrow-ridges. “Maybe this isn’t the right place for you,” she said, holding back her laughter behind an air of gentle concern. “Have you ever thought of trying a different hobby–perhaps, the swim team?”

The worst part was that she was right. Swimster knew he would make a better swimmer–he could swim fast and far without loosing a single gill-powered breath. But swimming was something he could do in his sleep, and he was looking for a different type of thrill. He wanted to move up, and not just around. He wanted to feel the roughness of the bark and the pull of gravity, and know that he could overcome them. He wanted to reach new heights and find himself in places he never dreamed possible.

So Swimster looked Ozzie in the eye (with his left eye) and declared, “I can do anything I put my mind to!” he said. She forced an uneasy smile. She wouldn’t say he was right, but she didn’t tell him to leave either.

She didn’t tell him much at all from that point on, but he showed up every day for drills regardless. And over and over, he would dig in his fins into the palm bark to power his way up the first few inches, before sliding down to rest in a nearby puddle.

With time, the inches slowly turned into feet, even if his fins never did. He trained without paying attention to the ambient snickers of his classmates above him. Or rather, he pretended not to pay attention, as he made it his mission to prove each of them wrong. They thought that they could take one look at his fins and determine his destiny? Well he would show them what it looked like at the top of a tree.

One day, he decided, it was the day that he would make the full climb. His now-calloused fins could pull him solidly half-way up the tree before even noticed the lack of oxygen. He prayed that evolution would kick in sometime soon to take care of the non-aquatic respiration thing. In the mean time, he clenched his gills soldiered on.

He was two thirds of the way up the tree, high enough to feel the hot sun and the dry air on his scales. As the surface of his fins got drier and drier, he just gritted his nonexistent teeth and told himself that dryness makes for a firmer grip. He did his best to quiet his quivering gills, and keep both of his side-facing eyes towards the highest branches as he declared with unflinching commitment, “I’m gonna make it to the top if it kills me.”

 

 

Opinion: Inclusivity officially went too far when it started fixating on people who are not me

I have long considered myself a champion of equal rights, and I understand why it’s important to be accepting of different people. There was a time when people like me were not treated as full human beings, and I stand by the activists throughout history who fought to break beyond narrow definitions of personhood and citizenship and move us forward as a society.

Yet any positive idea can be distorted beyond its original intentions, and I fear that this has happened with progressive social justice movements in recent years. Things officially went too far when we started bickering over the interests of groups so insignificant, they consist only of people who are not me.

Social equality isn’t something that I see as a pollitical or partisan issue: I simply want to be accepted for who I am as a person. Yet some people have decided to politicize this message of basic respect and inclusion by bringing up divisive identities that don’t even include me or describe any relevant aspect of my life.

I absolutely believe in equality. But I’m not overly nitpicky about math–I also believe in doing the type of equations where you get to round off a bit the edges. It just so happens that I consider the edges of legitimate society to lie a few steps outside the scope of my experience.

If we want to move forward together, we need to stop getting caught up in the frivolities of identity politics, and focus on the interests of humanity in general, especially the most general form of humanity, which is me.


This is satire. I label my satire because real stuff can be equally weird.
I promise I will write something earnest and non-satirical in the near future.

A Practical Guide for Talking to People You Disagree With

Particularly since the election, there have been increasing calls for people to spend more time talking to those they disagree with politically. Some of these demands have been pretty generalized (e.g. Everyone should get out of their echo chambers and reach across the aisle), and others directed at more specific groups (e.g. White liberal allies have the most responsibility to talk to Trump supporters about racial issues).

But there is less talk about how to actually go about conducting such discussions in a way that results in something more than extreme frustration.

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This particular post isn’t a statement about whether you should engage in these types of conversations or the relative effectiveness of conversation as a tool for change (Given that the word “disagree” can refer to everything from liking different TV shows to denying someone’s value as a person, that wormhole deserves it’s own post.)

But given that you have chosen to have a substantive conversation with someone who has different beliefs about a meaningful issue (pollitical or otherwise), here are some practical suggestions for making it as productive as possible:

1. Listen to understand.

People often respond to ideas that they don’t accept with the statement “I can’t understand why someone would think that.” But given that someone does think that, it’s important to understand why and how they do.

Why does this person think what they think? What logical premises would you have to accept to agree with what they think? Why might this person’s experiences have lead them to have a different set of beliefs than you do?

Understanding a belief system doesn’t necessarily mean accepting it as true or valid. In fact, especially when it comes to hateful or damaging belief systems, understanding precisely how they operate is crucial in determining how to break them down.

2. Find some common ground of agreement.

As you listen, see if you can identify any premises, values, or goals–however small or basic–that you can use as a point of departure. For instance, “I agree that X is a problem, but I don’t think that Y will solve it.” This shows the other person that you are listening to their ideas fairly and thoughtfully, if also critically. It also helps to focus the discussion by specifying what the fundamental points of disagreement really are.

3. Speak a common language.

It’s hard to get on the same page when you are using completely different sets of terminology. Try to avoid using language that is highly specific to particular academic field, pollitical movement, or other community that the other person is not a part of. If you really think a specialized term would be useful, explain what you mean by it first.

Jargon and canned phrases can be useful shortcuts when talking to people with a similar background and understanding of the issue. But outside of that sphere, restricting yourself to the plainest language possible is also useful in forcing you to explain your logic from scratch, with fewer unspoken assumptions.

4. Argue about opinions, judgements, interpretations, and values, but just look up the facts.

If you have internet access, there’s no reason to let an opinionated discussion turn into a heated competition of egos over who’s better at remembering easily verifiable historical events or statistics. Save the heat for stuff that matters.

5. Pick your battles. 

You have limited time and limited emotional energy, and these types of conversations often demand a lot of both. You simply can’t, won’t, and don’t have to talk to all the people about all of the things.

To get the most effect out of your personal resources,  consider talking to people who are reasonably likely to change their opinions, and starting by presenting the aspects of your beliefs that they are relatively more likely to accept.

6. But also plant seeds.

On the other hand, there can also be value in exposing people to ideas that they are unlikely to accept right now–but just might resonate later on or leave them with some questions that take root over time.

You won’t walk away from seed-planting conversations feeling great–like you “won” or even came to a mutual understanding–but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you had no impact.

This is obviously non-comprehensive list, so please feel free to comment with your own suggestions!

 

Career Development With a Twist: How to Sell Your Inexperience as “Outsider Status”

Good morning hopeless millennials, and welcome to Career Development With a Twist, the only career development service which “Wow”s its own photos.

In our previous segment, we discussed how to hide inexperience to gain access to entry-level jobs. However, it turns out that in some cases*, a lack of experience and expertise can actually work to your advantage in a securing position that you are seriously unprepared for. Here are some sample lines for a cover letter, to help you spin your severe lack of qualification as a cool and exciting “outsider status:”

  • “Unlike doctors within the medical establishment, I can relate to the average patient–in that neither of us has been to medical school or knows what a spleen actually does.”
  • “With America’s test scores still lagging behind, it’s clear that professional educators are failing us. What we need is someone from the world of poultry production who’s ready to run a classroom like a factory farm.”
  • “It’s no secret that NYC architecture firms are biased towards architects who believe in the theory of gravity. It’s time to shake things up by hiring someone who doesn’t.”
  • “Do I know all those weird pig-Latin-y wordjumbles? No. A good lawyer needs no more words than the ones he can make up himself.”
  • “Anyone can take the time to learn air traffic protocols and standard landing procedures, but what you really need is a pilot who doesn’t need to play by the rules.”
  • America needs a president that–” oh sorry, too real.

*Disclaimer: results may vary, based on factors including but not limited to gender, race, socioeconomic class.

Prank Calling

*Answers phone*

Is your refrigerator running?

Um, yeah…

Well you might want to go catch it. But you also might not. Maybe you’re sick of chasing after something that’s always running.

And more power to you then, if you’ve given up. Because who knows if and when it will ever stop running? And if it ever did stop, you know you wouldn’t want it anymore. You would call it broken and useless and go look for something else that’s still running. You only want what’s still running and never warming up. 

Is this a joke?

Yes. It’s all such a joke, and I wish I had realized it sooner, but I was too busy running. I thought that laughing might slow me down. 

Um are you still talking about…

I’m sorry, I’d love to talk longer, but I really need to go. My refrigerator’s running, and I might want to go catch it.

 

 

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Another Little Dance

A piece I made as part of University of Southern Florida’s summer dance in Paris program.

I made this bit walking around Montmartre, looking at strip clubs by the Sacre-Coeur and graffiti on the art galleries, and thinking about the things that “intrude” sacred spaces of all sorts.

Things I Don’t Get (Dance Training Edition)

A couple questions about typical dance training practices (a little one and a bigger one) that I’ve thought/talked about lately:

1) Why do we so often phrase corrections as body-type-specific, even when they’re not?

For instance, if you’re a shorter dancer, you’ve probably heard something like “Because you’re small, you have to make your movement even bigger.” And if you’re taller, you’ve probably heard “You need to use that length to move bigger.”

Both are basically asking you to move bigger, which could be a perfectly valid correction for anyone. Is reminding people of their height actually useful here?

Same with “You need to really point your feet, because your ankles aren’t as flexible” versus “Your need to really point your feet to use all that ankle flexibility.” If the point is just “point your feet,” is it actually relevant to point out obvious physical features?

I’m sure I’ve done this myself, maybe because it makes the correction feel more “personal” (without adding any actual personalized direction). But at a closer glance, it seems, well . . . pointless or even counterproductive to needlessly associate technique with body type. Sure some technical corrections are body type-specific, but if they’re not, why pretend they are?

2) Why do we assume that preschoolers can handle improv, but not middle-schoolers?

We put preschoolers in “creative movement” classes, because they’re not developmentally “mature” enough for structured technique and choreography. By age 7, they’re supposed to be too old and for that.

These “creative movement” exercises look suspiciously like improv classes, which usually show up in more advanced dance training–but not before high school or college, when the dancers are considered technically/artistically/intellectually/emotionally “mature” enough. And if they do have some improv experience before that, we assume that they must be an extra “mature” group of students.

Why this improv gap? I understand that there are other important aspects of training to focus on during this intermediate period, and that every school has to make some choices when it comes to allocating time.

But I have a hard time buying the “not mature enough” argument that gets thrown around a lot. Why do we trust 3-year-olds to decide how to move their bodies not 13-year-olds? Sure lots of middle-schoolers tend to be self-conscious about improvisation, but maybe that would be different if they never stopped doing it.


Note: I don’t teach on a regular basis and I do mean these as questions, not just criticisms. So if you’re a teacher (or student) who sees a good reason for doing these things, I’d love to hear and discuss it. I’m just less inclined to hold onto teaching practices without a good why.