Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Will somebody invent a time-turner already?

I just got back last night from the 2010 Northeast Unschooling Conference. Because this is my favorite conference, I really want to say something about it, but I feel lost for words. Maybe that's because I haven't fully recovered from the lack of sleep and regular meals yet, or maybe it's because I just spent five solid days talking to a bunch of my favorite people and my words are all used up. Last year I came away with lots of new ideas and theories and navel-gazing things. This year, all I can offer is gratitude.

Things I'm really, really grateful for:

Kathryn, Beth, Julian, Jean, and everyone else who worked so hard on this thing to make it completely awesome, and were willing to give sleeping space and picnic transportation to lots of people.

Living thirty minutes, or an hour, or three hours, or eight hours away from people who I used to live no-fucking-way-in-hell far away from.

People who will happily give you a floor, a sandwich, or a ride most of the way home when you can't pay for any of them.

Early morning chats over accidentally-stolen coffee, and late night chats about stuff you just can't always mention in front of the sun.

Getting smiles and waves and hugs from people who were strangers until just moments ago.

Little kids who freely play, dance, express their feelings and their creativity, and go out of their way to find your watch and give it back to you when you drop it in the stairwell.

Friends who are willing to clean all the things, sing about bananas, make genetic waffles, pluck the still-beating hearts from squirrels*, shout about vajazzles and double dingos, find friends for Zombie Steve, and treat sandwiches like the serious business they are.

And lots and lots of other stuff! I won't say the conference was perfect, because nothing in life ever is. But it was sublime and supreme and lots of other superlative kinds of words, and listing every single thing I'm grateful for would take as long as recapping every minute of the conference. I think my only regret is that there wasn't nearly enough time to spend with everyone I wanted to see! The hardest part of a conference, besides saying goodbye, is being torn between wanting to spend as much time as possible with your closest friends, and wanting to make new ones. So until somebody gives me a time-turner so I can rewind and do multiple things at once, I'm gonna walk away from every conference with a little bit of regret for the things and the people I missed. But mostly, I'm just really fucking grateful to love and be loved by so many people that I can't see them all in five days.

*No actual squirrels were harmed in the course of this conference or the making of this blog post.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

(Not) Back to College

In less than a week, I will join thousands of other young adults in a traditional American ritual. I will cram my car full of as much crap as it will possibly hold, drive clear across the country to a place I have visited only once before, and move into a tiny room with another young adult. Sounds pretty familiar, right?

What makes my journey different is that I'm not going to college. The confluence of my transition with back-to-school time is a coincidence. I'm going, instead, to live in a pretty interesting neighborhood of Boston, with a friend and her family. And though this living situation will bear little actual similarity to college life, I think it's an interesting comparison. Because even though I won't have the curriculum of a formal program of study, the city has its own curriculum for me.

I will be studying:
  • Diversity, both ethnic (I will be staying with a Haitian family, in a neighborhood in which my friend says "you can walk down the street and hear five arguments in four different languages") and religious (Catholics and Muslims and Jews, oh my!)
  • Politics. I'll be going from a very conservative town to a very liberal one, which raises questions: What are the dynamics which make a city that is 40% Catholic also be 80% liberal? How do politics color the culture of a city? It'll be interesting to observe this stuff, especially with a major election around the bend.
  • History. Lots and lots and lots of history in Massachusetts. (Lots in Florida too, but the Massachusetts kind doesn't stir up so many icky feelings about my slaveholding ancestors, and is thus more enjoyable for me.)
  • Architecture. Nearly 50% of houses in Boston were built prior to 1939. Cool!
  • Weather. I've lived in Florida my whole life. 'Nuff said.
  • City Life. I am but a humble country mouse. Public transportation, knowing how to navigate on foot, personal safety - this stuff is new to me. Plus, I'll be exposed to all kinds of cool cultural stuff that Jacksonville, being more "America's most bloated suburb" than an actual city, does not have.
  • Diplomacy. I will be living in close quarters with a friend. That is always a learning experience in itself.

All of this is in addition to the things I will learn pursuing work and leisure, dealing with autism and chronic illness, and being a queer geek, just as I would anywhere else.

"Ah," say the naysayers, "but if you were going away to college in a new city, you'd learn all that plus a curriculum! So you're still missing out!" Oh, ye of little faith. First of all, I have lived on a college campus before, and I can say from experience that I am the sort of person who would simply cocoon myself up in campus life and never go exploring in the city. Second, anyone who knows me also knows that hellfire and dragons couldn't keep me from academic learning. I react to libraries the way Blanche Devereaux reacts to cheesecake. Third, if I were doing a formal full-time curriculum I would not have the time or inclination to sit and ponder about Catholicism and the Salem witch trials and the difference between sleet and freezing rain.

But most importantly, I will be learning about politics and history and diversity and architecture and the changing seasons because those are my interests. Those are the elements, in addition to friendship and good timing, that attracted me to a place like Boston in the first place. Were I not interested in those things, I probably wouldn't spend time thinking about them, and I may not have been excited to go to Boston in the first place. And none of those interests were sparked in me by any curriculum. Some of them were very nearly ruined by curricula, and even with the ones that weren't, I have never found a program of formal study that would satisfy my craving for them in just the right way. Going into a history program and studying whatever history they tell you to study, when your passion is for a specific aspect or period of history, is quite like going into a bakery and ordering a slice of lemon meringue pie when you were craving chocolate cake. You're in the right ballpark, but man, when you need chocolate cake, nothing else will do. You just can't enjoy that lemon pie like you would if you'd really been wanting it. Learning is very much the same.

So I'm gaining a lot of benefits I wouldn't necessarily have in college. As for what I'm missing? Let's see... there's the thousands of dollars worth of debt, the experience of living with a complete stranger who might steal your stuff or have sex on your bed, the pressure to join a sorority, the bad cafeteria food, the feeling of being babysat all the time despite being a legal adult... Oh yeah, and the Almighty Piece of Paper. Fine. If I decide I want one of those, I can get it. But for now, all the other benefits of college are coming to me, at far less cost, and in ways that are not artificially constructed by people who have never met me, yet claim to know what I need. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Why I am a socially awkward geek


Stage One: Excited Yammering

"Hi I heard you like Mudkips!"
"OMG I LOVE MUDKIPS! They're so like, blue!"
"Yes! And water Pokemon are the best!"
"I love Lapras!
"Yes! Lapras!"

Stage Two: Running Out of Steam

"So, um, I had a sandwich today..."
"Oh, cool. What kind?"

Stage Three: Person Says Thing Which Most People Would Have No Problem Responding To But I Have No Idea What in The Hell to Say

"There's a great sandwich place near my house."

Stage Four: Awkward Silence

[agonizing 30-second pause which seems more like 30 minutes and I am wondering if the other person hates me now because I didn't engage their sandwich thing, and now I'm not sure where to put my eyes so I end up staring into space and looking like I am about to start drooling and then I suddenly realize that and I get all self-conscious and stare at my shoes instead]

Next is the stage which is sometimes referred to as "repairing a conversation". This is the stage people with Asperger's are notoriously bad at. I am no exception.

Stage Five: Desperate Attempt to Salvage Conversation by Blurting Out Whatever is in My Head

"Did you know James Buchanan was probably gay? He was the president right before Lincoln. Some people think Lincoln was gay too because he shared beds with other men, but he probably just couldn't afford a bed. Also he had syphilis. But everybody had syphilis back then."

Stage Six: Panic Over Other Person's Lukewarm Response Coupled With Even More Desperate Attempt to Pull Conversation Back to Common Ground

"So anyway! Mudkips! Yes!"
"Mudkips are cool."
"One time I caught a Mudkip and named it Fart."
"Hehe. Fart."

And that's where the conversation usually dies its final, painful death. This is why I have learned to associate a) mainly online, and b) mainly with other socially awkward people, because those conversations go more like this:

Person 1: Remember Thundercats?
Person 2: I never watched Thundercats. I liked TMNT a lot though. And Captain Planet. Everyone says Heart is a sucky power but I think being able to command whole herds of buffalo to do your bidding would be pretty badass.
Person 3: Hey guys I made spaghetti
Person 4: [randomly quotes Cracked article]
Person 2: [still yammering about 80s cartoons]
Person 3: This spaghetti sauce coulda been better, I don't think I used enough oregano
Person 1: Man I usually just use sauce from a jar
Person 4: [still quoting from Cracked]
Person 5: The poop, it was HORRIBLE!
Person 2: Nice

I made that transcript up, but just barely. It probably sounds like a horrible trainwreck to anyone with a remotely organized brain, but it is normal conversation for me. So if you ever try to engage me in conversation, and I end up staring blankly into space, it's not because I'm not listening. It's because I'm trying to think of a response that is appropriate and doesn't involve poop or Thundercats or randomly blurting out something about gay dead people or things I see out of the corner of my eye. This can take me an alarmingly long time, because I have to sift through all the contents of my brain like an unsorted toy box. The socially-appropriate response is in there, but it's usually underneath many piles of plastic dinosaurs, and often by the time I find it, enough time has passed that the response is no longer socially appropriate:

"I bought new shoes today!"
[almost a full minute passes as I sift through possible responses: I wear shoes too, I haven't bought new shoes in like five years, remember light-up sneakers?, non-sequitur Simpsons quote involving shoes, dude remember Thundercats, cool what kind of shoes... yes! That one!]
"Cool, what kind of shoes?"

But by then it is too late. I have already been staring into space, looking puzzled, for a full minute, and the other person has either wandered off or has begun to wonder if I am experiencing some kind of temporal lobe seizure. Or they just think I am retarded. Usually that one.

This is compounded by the fact that I frequently cannot decode what a person has actually said until several seconds after they say it. My actual hearing is fine, but someone has clogged my ear-to-brain tubes with their internet porn, or something, because the words get stuck on the way there:

What you say: Do you want a sandwich?
What I hear: Djoowamma sawitch?
My response: [30 seconds of unresponsive staring in which it does not occur to me to go "What?"]
My brain process: Someone is making noise with their mouth. They are talking. Are they talking to me? They are looking at me. Shit. What did they say? Dew in the subway? Jew on the sub-witch? No! Do you want... do I want what? Person is holding a sandwich. Do I want a sandwich!
Me, feeling as if I have won a gameshow: Yes! I'll take a sandwich!! :D

This is if I am lucky enough to be continuously in the same room as the person talking to me. If they say something as I am walking by, I may never respond. This is why I hate it when store employees say hello to me. By the time I realize a person has spoken to me, and figure out what they said, and figured out how to respond, they have long since walked by, and I look like a big fat jerk.

So if you ever meet someone who appears to be an idiot, it is quite possible they are experiencing some kind of mental process like I have outlined above. Or maybe they are a self-absorbed ass. There's really no way to tell. It may not be exactly reassuring to know there is no way to immediately discern whether someone is an asshole or just experiencing some kind of cognitive dysfunction, but um, yay neuroscience?


*It occurred to me on rereading this post that I made it seem like I really, really like Thundercats, and now probably everybody at NEUC is gonna come up to me and be like "So! I heard you like Thundercats!" and then I will have to explain that I've never seen Thundercats in my life and it's just sort of a meme for people who were kids in the 80s to be like "omg remember THUNDERCATS?" except most of the people who read my blog weren't born in the 80s and wouldn't get that which means they also wouldn't try to talk to me about Thundercats anyway so I don't know why I even brought it up. And now I've said Thundercats like 75 times in this post and I will probably get an inordinate amount of blog hits from people looking for information about cheesy 80s cartoons and actually my blog is mostly about navel-gazing and they will be sad.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Accounting for Taste

I was thinking about South Park today. Well, more to the point, I was thinking of a comment left on this entry from The Seventeen Magazine Project, a brilliant project undertaken by an equally brilliant teenager. The comment in question, or the part of the comment that got me thinking, was this:

"this is exactly why i hate southpark. i don't need a bunch of straight white males telling ME what i should and shouldn't find offensive, thanks."

The discussion wasn't about South Park at all, and the mention of it was somewhat incongruous to the rest of the thread, but I still found it relevant. Now, for those of you who don't watch South Park, I realize it looks like a crude, potty-humor cartoon suitable mainly for stoners. When it first came out (half my life ago - ouch), that's basically what it was, and I'll admit there's still that element to it. But over the years, it has also developed into a forum for biting political and social commentary. What interested me about this comment is that it points out the privileged viewpoint from which Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and many of the other South Park writers make their arguments. Indeed, the episodes sometimes espouse the kind of views that would make me switch off the TV in disgust if they came from the mouth of a serious political pundit. And yet, I love South Park, even when it offends me. Why?

I spent some time today mulling that over, and I realized that it basically comes down to this: Regardless of whether South Park makes me shake my head in disgust or clap wildly in agreement (and it seems to do both in equal shares), it is one of the very few shows that both makes me laugh and makes me think on a consistent basis. Thinking on that more, I realized essentially every show I watch is appealing for one or both of those reasons. I've been feeling a bit data-happy lately, so I decided to make a graph. Below is a plot of 21 shows I watch regularly, or watched regularly in the past, and my reasons for watching. (I was tempted to knock one off to make a nice round number, but a mother cannot choose between her children.)

(Click to embiggen.)

A few notes on this graph. First of all, this is obviously completely subjective. I can only rank how much a show makes me laugh or think; there is no objective measure of how funny or thought-provoking a show is. Which brings me to my next point: The shows which make me think the most are not necessarily "smarter" shows. I would rate Arrested Development, for example, as a "smarter" show than South Park, in terms of the humor being much more sophisticated. But South Park got a higher "think" score because it generally makes me question my views or reflect on things that are going on in the world. Arrested Development simply puts its smarts in a different basket.

I also feel like shows intended for children got shafted a bit because of my age. As a near-25-year-old, Rocko's Modern Life doesn't really inspire a lot of original thought in me, but when I was seven - and thus part of its primary target audience - it certainly did, and were I seven years old today, I'm sure Spongebob and The Fairly Oddparents would as well. So again, there is really no way to measure a show's ability to provoke thought.

The biggest thing I noticed, however, is that even ranking the shows as honestly as possible, not a single one fell into quadrant III. Nothing. Zilch. There are definitely shows I would put in that quadrant, I just don't personally watch any of them. But someone does, or they wouldn't last a minute on the air. So while "makes me laugh" and "makes me think" are my personal criteria, it occurs to me that other people may have completely different reasons for enjoying or not enjoying a show. Of course, it's probable that shows that I would put in quadrant III would be in another quadrant for somebody else. But I still suspect that other people's reasons for watching a show are not the same as mine. For example, there's a long list of things I don't really care about in a show:

  • The cinematography
  • The quality of the acting (I like William Shatner, for God's sake)
  • High drama/action/badassery
  • Fashion, style, and trendiness
  • Sex and romance
  • The hotness of the cast (Except for Hugh Laurie. And Rachel Maddow. And Leonard Nimoy*. And Jon Stewart. Okay, fine, so maybe this helps a little.**)

Those things can make a show better, mind you, but they're not going to draw me in to begin with; they're icing on the cake of shows I already like. But I recognize that for some people, these factors may be much more important, to the point of making or breaking a show entirely.

So tell me, internets, what do you look for in a show? I've put a poll on the sidebar of my blog, and would really appreciate your responses. I'd also love to hear your thoughts in the comments, especially if there is some factor I've left out of the poll. I think this stuff is interesting to think about, not only because it can help us understand our own preferences, but it can also help build bridges between our own interests and those of other people. It's much easier to find the value in what another person likes if you're aware of all the different ways a show can be appealing, and that can go a long way to prevent shaming and judgement over differences in taste - something that, I must admit, I am still working on.

*Do not question this. I will sic all of my Trekkie friends on you. It won't be pretty.

**Although I still maintain that there is a clear difference between smart-people hot and Hollywood-pretty hot. I would not find these people one bit attractive if they did not make me laugh and/or think, so I maintain that I have not actually diverged from my basic point here. Much.

Friday, August 6, 2010

How to Raise a Writer (A Choose Your Own Adventure Story)

For anyone not familiar with Choose Your Own Adventure, they were a series of simple chapter books that were really popular with kids when I was growing up. The format is essentially that you get a little bit of story, and then must choose what happens next. Choose right, and the story keeps moving on toward a happy ending. Choose wrong, and you are inexplicably sent hurtling into space, or eaten by a dinosaur, or whatever. Most kids backtracked, of course, and read the whole book. That is how it works.

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Bonnie, who liked to do lots of things. She loved to play video games, swing on her swingset, play with her cats, go swimming, and play chess with her Granddaddy. But her very favorite thing to do, more favorite even than swinging, was making up stories. She would spend hours in her room, making up new stories about Dorothy and the Scarecrow, or Kermit and Fozzie and Miss Piggy, or the Babysitters Club. She thought that these stories were pretty interesting, and wondered if she should write them down.

Option A: Bonnie tells her stories to an adult, and asks them to help her write them so she can save them forever. Turn to page 2.

Option B: Bonnie feels very shy about her stories and does not tell them to anyone. She dislikes writing because it makes her hand hurt, and she doesn’t want to write anymore after writing at school all day, so her stories never get written down. Turn to page 4.

Page 2: Bonnie tells her story to an adult, but the “adult” turns out to be the SkiFree monster and it gobbles her up. THE END.

Page 4: Since Bonnie doesn’t like writing, she spends a lot of time thinking about her stories so she doesn’t forget them. This gives her a lot of practice rewording things until she likes the way they sound. She even goes around narrating everything she does in her head, saying “And then I got the toothpaste, and then I put it on the brush” to herself as she brushes her teeth. Occasionally other kids will catch her mouthing words to herself, and they think she is odd.

A: Bonnie’s parents become very concerned about her odd behavior, and sign her up to be tested for psychological problems. Turn to page 6.

B: Bonnie’s parents were also strange as children and thus do not notice anything unusual about her behavior. Turn to page 8.

Page 6: Bonnie is diagnosed with autism, and her parents are instructed to keep her on a tight set of schedules and routines. This leaves her little time for making up stories, and also causes the sun to explode and everybody dies. THE END.

Page 8: Bonnie does not have a lot of friends, but she likes to play by herself anyway, so this isn’t a big deal. She seems happy playing in her room alone, so her mom lets her do that as much as she wants. As she gets older, her stories get more complex, involving dozens of characters and complicated plots. She writes a story for 6th grade which prompts her teacher to tell her she should be a writer, and the other kids even ask her for copies of her story.

A: Bonnie is thrilled to be told she should be a writer, and decides to write lots and lots of stories and pass them out to all her friends to read. Turn to page 9.

B: Bonnie decides she must be really good at daydreaming and continues to do this all the time. She almost fails 6th grade because she refuses to write an important essay. Turn to page 11.

Page 9: Suddenly, ninjas. Thousands of them. You wouldn’t believe the carnage. THE END.

Page 11: Bonnie realizes that since she is good at tests, it doesn't really matter if her homework gets done, because she will still pull a C. She starts skipping whole assignments and even staying home from school a lot. But eventually she has to write essays, because her school decides essays are very, very important and should be written in every class, even band and gym. Fortunately, her teachers like her essays a lot, so much that they almost always give her 100s on them. People keep telling her she should be a writer when she grows up, but she really doesn’t like writing and is kind of offended by the idea that out of everything she does, her only special talent is being really good at homework. She would rather be outgoing and good at something flashy and interesting.

A: Bonnie meets a fairy who teaches her about how everyone is special in their own way, and being smart matters more than being popular. She decides writing is important and chooses to write more essays, both in and out of school. Turn to page 14.

B: Bonnie drops the fuck out of high school after one semester and proceeds to waste away her teen years reading Pokemon forums. Turn to page 16.

Page 14: The “fairy” was actually a hallucination brought on by a fever dream. Bonnie has died of dysentery. THE END

Page 16: Bonnie is not good at typing, but learns to do it quickly so that she can keep up with online chatrooms. Wanting to become popular at the Pokemon forums, she begins writing silly and barely coherent fanfiction to entertain others. As she gets more involved at these forums, she meets lots of interesting people with opinions she has never heard before. Some of these opinions piss her off, and she writes lengthy, organized posts responding to them. She occasionally notices these posts are the same length as the essays she used to write in school - sometimes even longer!

A: Bonnie realizes she likes writing essays after all! She decides to go back to school, because this will make her successful someday. Turn to page 17.

B: What? She’s not writing essays! She’s just talking to people! Piss off! Turn to page 18.

Page 17: Alligators bit off your face :( THE END

Page 18: Bonnie eventually becomes good friends with some of her Pokemon forum buddies. One of her best friends likes blogging on Xanga and Myspace, and convinces Bonnie to join those sites to read her posts. Bonnie thinks blogging is sort of stupid, but she likes the little gadget that says what music you’re currently listening to, so she joins and just starts posting memes. Eventually, she realizes blogging is an easy way to tell all her friends at once when something awesome or enraging happens, instead of telling the same story 20 different times. She’s also very opinionated and likes to rant, and sometimes people like her rants. She finds this to be a much more exciting kind of writing than she did in school, because she has a real audience giving real feedback. Over the years, she becomes completely addicted to blogging, because basically, she likes attention. THE END

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Concern Trolls: A useful idea

If the first rule of the internet is Do not feed the trolls, it follows that the second rule is Know thy trolls. Gotta know it's a troll to know not to feed it, right?

Usually trolls are easy to spot because they don't bother to hide their trolling. They're the loud, obnoxious assholes of the internet. They tend to get banned and blocked quickly. But there's another kind of troll that is more insidious, and sadly, not always recognized as a troll: the concern troll. I'm pretty familiar with these from queer, feminist, and fat acceptance discussions, but as unschooling is becoming more well-known, they're quickly cropping up there, too.

According to WiseGeek:

"Concern trolling is a form of Internet trolling in which someone enters a discussion with claims that he or she supports the view of the discussion, but has concerns. In fact, the concern troll is opposed to the view of the discussion, and he or she uses concerntrolling to sow doubt and dissent in the community of commenters or posters."

In other words, a concern troll does not want to understand your perspective. They just want to mock you and piss you off, but they're doing it passive-aggressively. So how do you tell them from people who are actually misunderstanding you and need clarification? A concern troll frequently:

- Has only just recently joined the site of the discussion, perhaps having joined specifically to post in the current thread. This is mostly applicable to forums and email lists, but concern trolling also happens on Facebook, blog comments, sometimes even Twitter.

- Persistently attributes ideas to you which you have not expressed, even after you have reworded your position multiple times.

- Claims to be a subscriber to your same philosophy, except for [insert idea which is incompatible with said philosophy]. For example, "radical unschoolers" who believe children must be controlled at all times.

- Relies very heavily on fallacies such as strawman, slippery slope, ad hominem, and so on.

- Invokes Godwin's law for maximum emotional impact, especially early in a discussion.

- Has no problem making ad hominem attacks (subtle or otherwise) which clearly apply to you, your family, or your friends, often while insisting that they think you are just lovely and they're only worried about those other people. When called on the fact that their attack applies to you, they continue to insist they did not mean you.

- When cornered, complains that we should all be entitled to our own opinions, after spending the entire discussion making it very clear that they do not feel you are entitled to yours.

- Leaves virtually the same comment on everything you post, even if your posts are not all on the same subject.

- Uses extreme worst-case-scenario examples in a persistent and insistent manner. This tactic is designed to convince you that your beliefs are "fair-weather" and that you'd drop them in a heartbeat when Shit Gets Real.

Now, not everyone who uses one or more of these unpleasant tactics is a concern troll. Some people are just bad at arguing. But when a discussion is going nowhere, draining your energy, and distracting you from things that are more important (including the original point you were trying to make - concern trolls are good at that), it's worth taking a step back and asking yourself: "Does this person actually care about my ideas?" A person who is worth engaging in a discussion, whether they ultimately agree or not, genuinely wants to understand where you are coming from. A concern troll does not. They are trying to undermine you. And you have no obligation to feed them! Go have fun. Let them feed somewhere else.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Chess Theory

In chess, when one player is outmatched, the game is over.
-Mr. Spock

Life is not a game of chess.

I mean that in a couple of different senses. For one, much to the chagrin of our Vulcan friend up there, life is not as clean-cut and logical as a game of chess. Life is big and confusing and messy and unpredictable. In chess, the queen is the most valuable piece (save for the king), and you know to protect her. You can see all her enemies coming a mile away, and you have plenty of time to prepare. In life, a rook may sneak right up behind your back, and you often have no idea which piece was the queen until it's already gone.

In chess, everyone starts with identical pieces with which to fight their battle. Not so in life. In life, all the pieces are thrown into a bag and spilled out in front of you at random, so that you may end up with any mix of pieces. Some people have seven queens. Others have nothing but pawns. A certain few are born without a king; their game is over before it started.

But the most important way that chess differs from life is that life is in color. Chess has only black and white. It is clear who your enemies are; they are the ones Not Like You. Your goal is to destroy them. In life, you've got all the colors known to Crayola running around. I like to think I am a nice rich shade of purple, maybe Violet Red. When I look around the world, I may see other shades of purple and try to join with them, but very few will be Violet Red. And if I want to look for an enemy, what then? I never did like Cornflower and Yellow-Green, but if I look at them closely I'll realize we're both made of blue. And anyway, the goal of coloring was never to defeat the other colors, but to combine with them and make something nice.

But I may be getting too deep into the world of metaphor. What I'm trying to get at here is that a lot of people, using whatever measuring stick is most relevant to them, try to divide life up as if it were a chess game. They choose a team, choose an Other to oppose, and try to outmatch them. Sometimes it really is white vs. black. Sometimes it's gay/straight, old/young, liberal/conservative, traditional/radical, vegans/omnivores, lactivists/bottle-feeders, unschoolers/"Muggles"*, or whatever else you can think of. And then it becomes a zero-sum game. In extreme cases, it can slip into wild statements about wishing the other group would stop existing. Because remember what Spock said about chess: "When one player is outmatched, the game is over." The only way to stop the Others from outmatching you is to outmatch them first, to end the game. A world where I cannot "win" without defeating someone else is not the kind of world I want to live in.

I firmly believe that life-as-chess is the mindset that leads to all of the most heinous, reprehensible acts in the world, whether on as large a scale as the Holocaust or as small a scale as kids beating each other up over small-town football rivalries. But the life-as-chess mindset requires tunnel vision. It requires imagining life as purely logical, instead of wonderful and tangled and messy. It requires pulling only the black and white crayons out of the box and dumping all the others on the floor as if they simply didn't exist. It requires you to behave as if everyone had all the same pieces, and ignore the people who don't. If your view of the world includes only Us and Them, you're missing all the people who fall outside of that dichotomy. If your answer to all the world's problems fits on a bumper sticker, you're not seeing the whole picture.

I like chess, but if I have my choice of all the games in the whole wide world, I'd much rather play Beatles Rock Band. Let's get some harmonies going in here.

*I have to admit, I can't resist the cuteness of the "Muggle" metaphor. But I like it precisely because it is only the evil wizards who oppose the Muggles; the good guys respect the Muggles' rights, even if they cannot share their worldview.