Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What I'm up to: Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents, or how I hope to get better math instruction to American kids, and other displays of blunt vicious sadism.


The loyal fans (and for that matter the indifferent fans and perhaps even the downright treacherous fans) have been asking what I'm up to, so here's the quick list of responses:



The main thing I'm doing right now is finishing the alpha edition of Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents, specifically the grade-school (K-5) version of it. (I have high hopes of there eventually being a middle school and a high school edition). Strange as this may be to some of you, I'm pretty passionate about math education, and right now Singapore Math -- the best single system of math instruction yet devised, and the system in use not only in Singapore but in the top 5-8 of any meaningful international rankings of  math skills from roughly age 10 and up -- is being widely introduced in the US, mostly in charter schools especially for the gifted and talented, but increasingly in the various first-generation-academic programs I admire, and probably coming soon to the public schools because much of it has been incorporated (not terribly well) into Common Core.



In the US, not just in math but in all subjects, we have a long tradition of thinking we can reform curricula and improve education by just printing new books and sending them to the teachers. Enormous numbers of good ideas have plowed into the wall of  "Just read a chapter ahead of the kids." (In contrast, nations that pull off successful reformations -- like Singapore did in the 1980s, like Korea and Japan recently did (and they were already near the top), like Finland and France do routinely, begin by paying for first-rate training time for teachers.  "What's in the next chapter" in no way substitutes for "How this works, how to teach it, and what you're supposed to be doing, and here's a hotline if you have more questions." 



We also have a long tradition of the dumbest parent voices bellowing the loudest, and of well-meaning parents floundering in confusion, and giving up, because even if they like some aspects of a new curriculum or sort of see what it's about, they don't know enough to be able to defend it against the bleating of "Chaaange! Baaaaaaad!" that every reform or attempted reform (valid or not) encounters.  Most importantly, they get frustrated with being unable to help their children (since they aren't sure about the different material themselves), and not being able to communicate with the teacher (who may very well not know what this is all about either; see our quaint custom of handing over a box of new books and saying "Try to stay a chapter ahead.")



So Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents is going to be my attempt to do something about giving American kids a chance to use the best available math teaching system, despite the odds against them.  I don't believe I can fix the education structure to give teachers the time and training they need, because, frankly, thousands of honest decent people who are smarter and far better politicians than I am have tried, and left craters in the Great Wall of  Duh.



Nor do I think I can write a better textbook, for the students, the teachers, or the parents. 


What I think I can do is figure things out (because I do understand the math, the pedagogy, why it is what it is, and how it should work), and write that in plain enough English so that parents can figure out what's going on.  (Teachers are of course welcome to read it too, if they're in one of those luckless districts or schools where they're being asked to go without training.)



The plan is to have a draft I can sell via self-pub sometime in early February.  It'll be cheap and certain privileges of writing to ask questions, point out typos, complain about obscurity, etc.  will come with the purchase; also I'm hoping to do a few seminars in the Denver area, or maybe further afield, to introduce people to the ideas.  Then I'll get back to novel writing while fielding questions and putting together notes.  Sometime late in the school year -- April, May, maybe June -- I should be ready to roll a beta or a prod version, which I'll probably crowd-fund because I think many parents will want a paper edition, and good paper editions require paying for decent design.



Meanwhile I'm also looking for regular work, maintaining some kind of family life, adjunct teaching a small college, and other stuff that need not concern you here.  But right now life is mostly Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents.



As kind of an appetizer, here's the last third or so of Part Zero, Chapter 0 (yes, that's what I'm calling it; consider yourself lucky I stuck to non-negative rational numbers) where I figure out what "figured out" ought to mean:

So about that "figuring out." "Figuring out Singapore Math" can refer to six different things:

Figuring out why anyone wanted to change the math curriculum anyway, from a perspective that might be as wide as all of American education or as narrow as the people who set the curriculum at your local school. That's covered in Part Zero, Chapter 1.

Figuring out why, out of many possibilities, the curriculum-pickers picked Singapore Math. In a few schools lucky and affluent enough to have math education specialists, the reason will be because someone with a really good, deep understanding of math education has studied it and concluded that it's the best way.

Many American charter schools and school districts, however, have no such person. Much more typically, the reason the curriculum supervisor(s) for your school chose Singapore Math is that it it's the math curriculum connected with the top-achieving school systems in international comparisons (including perpetual #1 Singapore, where it was developed). Who made that decision, and what they were thinking, strongly affects how well Singapore Math will be taught at your child's school.

Part Zero, Chapter 2 explains some of the typical reasons, to help you figure out which of them apply to your local school's decision. It will be useful to know that if Part Three (Chapters 17-20), which discusses the problems and challenges Singapore Math can pose, turns out to be relevant to your case.

Figuring out what's different about Singapore Math, and why you want that difference for your kids. This book is unapologetically on the side of Singapore Math. If you are looking for a book to help you resist it, look elsewhere, perhaps on the shelf that also holds The Case for Going Back to Roman Numerals or Freedom from Subtraction: Just Take the Change and Shut Up. Part One (Chapters 3-5) of this book explores it in much more depth. If your main question is "but why are you doing this to my kid?" Part One is your part.

Figuring out the parts of Singapore Math that you probably didn't have when you were in school, so that you can help your kid figure them out. This is Part Two, (Chapters 6-16)and it's the heart of this book. There's a short discussion in this chapter to orient you for quick reference. If your main question is "but how does this stuff work? how is my kid supposed to do this?," Part Two is your part.

Figuring out how to make Singapore Math a good thing in your kid's education and school.  This is Part Three.

Once you're more or less comfortable with Singapore Math itself, you may find you get a little evangelical about it. I certainly did.

In my own math tutoring work, there was a sort of obsessive period when I wanted everyone to understand how great this was. My obsession was interrupted by an occasional crash when I realized that no matter how much sense Singapore Math makes as a teaching approach, and no matter how much progress kids make with it, I was still teaching math, and math is still unpopular and hard; of the basic subjects, it's definitely the broccoli, not the strawberry sundae.

So if you're already pretty comfortable with Singapore Math, but there's that one thing driving you crazy -- or that thing the kid isn't getting, even though it's crystal clear to you -- or you start to have a terrible suspicion that there's a big problem somewhere out there in the system -- Part Three is where you go for ideas about how to cope with it. Part Three (Chapters 17-20) copes with diagnosing, coaching, making sure that it's really Singapore Math that's being delivered, and forming a supportive network.

Figuring out why and how it can be worth your effort to make Singapore Math a good thing for you and your family. Rather than a conclusion, I call this Part X, Chapter N; just as in algebra, the letters can stand for any number, you can read Part X, Chapter N any time you need a boost, and to feel that what you're doing is worth the trouble. You might think of it as your mission statement for your role as a math-coaching parent.

If you've been keeping count, that's six kinds of figuring out, which is why this is a whole book. The remainder of Part Zero (Chapters 1 and 2) covers the first two, simplest kinds of figuring out:

1)     why did a revised math curriculum become so important in American schools, especially charter schools?

2)     And why has Singapore Math been such a popular answer to the problem, and why do the reasons matter?

If you don't need to know why and just want to plunge right into the other four figurings out, that's what Parts One through X are for; flip on forward and I'll meet you there. Otherwise, turn the page and let's start that first figuring out.



Anyway, that is where my time is at the moment. With luck, a more or less finished edition can be available over the summer for parents (and teachers, and anyone else from hockey players to blacksmiths I suppose) to use in figuring things out for the coming school year. I continue to work daily on Grace, Basically, the mainstream YA novel (my first since Tales of the Madman Underground) that has been hanging maddeningly close to done for a long time; after that, time for some fun books where a lot of stuff blows up.  (Of course, when Singapore Math is suddenly thrust upon unprepared parents and teachers, a lot of stuff blows up, then, too, but it's not nearly as much fun.  And math should be a joy, in the way rock-climbing or skiing are, i.e. sometimes in retrospect you're having the best time right when it's most frustrating; this is the best chance we may have in generations to make math that kind of joy). 


Monday, December 29, 2014

A silly game with just maybe an implication or two ...

I really do hate the idea of "high concept" and "elevator pitch" and all the other ways of saying "your book idea should be so reduced that no one needs to read the book, because we want people to buy books, not read them."

So as it happened I discovered that Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post, on her Twitter timeline (@petridishes) has invented a game that satirizes all that beautifully, under the self-explanatory hashtag #BooksInFourWords.

I was also appalled to find out how fast I could come up with them, and then it occurred to me that since they're sort of semicryptic, they might make a good guessing game.  So see how many of these you recognize from the four-word version (these are just the ones I thought of right away):
  1. Working class porking class
  2. Bad ring, long walk
  3.  Farmboy pirate snags princess
  4.  Gloria should return coat.
  5. No rabbits for Lenny 
  6. Jim gets boats wrong 
  7. Nobody groks Martian sex 
  8. One leg, one whale
  9. Nouveau riche? No Daisy.
  10. Picking fruit sucks too

    Highlight the answers below for any you didn't get. Mostly these are books I just thought of right away, not any special qualities for them other than familiarity.

    1. Lady Chatterley's Lover
    2. The Lord of the Rings
    3. The Princess Bride
    4. Heart of Darkness
    5. BUtterfield-8
    6. Of Mice and Men
    7. Lord Jim
    8. Stranger in a Strangel Land
    9. Moby-Dick
    10. The Great Gatsby
    11. The Grapes of Wrath

    Anyway, what this little game reallydemonstrates, as if anyone needed a demonstration, is that in four words, you are pretty much guaranteed to lose all the actual  meaning and everything worthwhile in the book. 

    Just like you do in a marketing slogan, or a "concept", or an elevator pitch.

    And that, my friends, is why books should not be sold like movies. In fact, if movies were not sold like movies, it might be worth going to the movies again. 

    And I hasten to add I do go to movies. Mostly to movies that aren't sold very aggressively, or where I don't know what's in the movie after I hear the pitch or see the trailer. But still, movies, books, plays ... if you can tell me what it's about and what happens in four words, or thirty seconds, or the time it takes to catch an elevator to another floor ... and tell me accurately and not obviously miss most of it .... what's the point in reading/writing/making/seeing it?

    If you felt like drifting on over to Twitter and tweeting more #BooksInFourWords, that might be fun, or not. After all, the whole point is to lose the point, somehow, in just four words.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

In Which I Shamelessly Copy and Extend Upon a Really Good Idea


The good folk at Open Road Media , of whom I've often spoken because they are rescuing literally hundreds of thousands of books from the backlists of thousands of writers*, have come up with another clever promotion: dropping the price on the first book in various series. In this case they're dropping the price on Patton's Spaceship, the first book in my old Timeline Wars series, of which I've said a few things recently.

So for those who like series and prefer to start them off cheaply, especially those who want Books To Put Hair On Your Chest, till January 8, 2015, Open Road is making getting into the Timeline Wars cheap. The buy button on their page for it has links to most of the major online ebook sellers.

The more I looked at that idea, the better I liked it. It occurred to me that I have launched six series in my much-checkered career, plus something I shall merrily call an un-series, and discounts for exploring them seem like a fine idea, especially at holiday time when so many people buy signed backlist books as gifts.** Quite by accident, I'm already doing that to some extent because I found a batch of excellent-condition Orbital Resonances, which allows me to do a signed-hardcover-firsts sale for the Century Next Door series (the one that Amazon keeps renaming Meme Wars) which you can find details about in my backlist catalog (scroll down to the Temporary offers).

But there are other ways to get into series than the most expensive/collectible, and other series to be gotten into, so here's a quick list of deals I'm able to offer (I'd do one or two for every series but, alas, so many of you nice people buy books from me that most series of my books are now missing a book or two).




Series
Type of books
Special price till Jan 8 (for excellent condition)
Century Next Door (Orbital Resonance, Kaleidoscope Century, Candle, The Sky So Big and Black)
Signed 1st edition hardcovers
$64.25 ($10 off single copy prices)
Giraut Leones
(A Million Open Doors, Earth Made of Glass, The Merchants of Souls,  The Armies of Memory)
ARCs (advanced reading copies -- the things the publisher sends out before publication to reviewers.) I only have enough to do one set. Now you too can experience the cardstock covers and uncorrected typos and have the very-first-reader experience by pretending the books have not been out for years! Slightly more seriously, these would be highly collectible, especially since there's only one set, and it's probably a collector who will grab this up.
$45.00 ($34.00 off the single copy total price)
Jak Jinnaka, the origin trilogy (The Duke of Uranium, A Princess of the Aerie, In the Hall of the Martian King)
Mass market paperback first editions,  signed, dated, and personalized at no extra charge.
$20.00 ($5.50 off total single copy price)

Daybreak origin Trilogy (Directive 51, Daybreak Zero, The Last President)
Plain old mass market paperbacks to just read (but signed, dated, and personalized at no extra charge).
$17.50 ($5.00 off total single copy price)




If you are interested, drop me a note and we'll figure out shipping, personalization, and all those other details.


 
§


*most importantly including mine! Though upon looking at that page I do notice that my habit of using my actor headshots for author photos can have its drawbacks: I must've been auditioning for Lenny in Of Mice and Men that day.

**You didn't know people did that? Oh, my. Better do a lot of it so people won't realize you didn't know! You don't want to be the last one on the block!

Friday, December 5, 2014

In which other things lurch out of the past



TL;DR for this one: Forty-eight almost-like new (not yet certain about condition of all of them) hardcover first editions of Orbital Resonance (first pubbed in December 1991) have just emerged from storage, to my deep surprise. So I can offer a few dozen fans a chance at a really good condition signed first edition of one of my most popular novels. Go to catalog page (on right) for details.


§

This year I'm resuming the backlist signed editions business in earnest, which is why I've posted a catalog as a page off to the side of this blog (see listed pages at right, or I think below if you're reading this on mobile).

In December 2012 I was walled in finishing The Last President and in December 2013 I had a truly massive load of teaching, exam-giving, and grading to do, so for the two most recent Christmases,  I just couldn't handle the order taking, signing, packing, and shipping.  Therefore I let the business dwindle to only longtime customers (and people wise enough to subscribe to the newsletter ).

Newsletter, did I hear you say? Well, there was just a new edition of that, and if you didn't get it it's because you are not on the subscription list.  If you just tell me that you want to subscribe (use the email link at right, the same one people use to complain about my not maintaining a comments section) and I shall dispatch the newsletter to you forthwith.  Each newsletter contains some sales stuff and special offers, whatever publishing news about me there may be,  and an essay never to be published anywhere else.  (I think of it as successively flogging the product, the career, and my favorite dead horses).

The newsletter is free, very easy to unsubscribe from,  and will arrive whenever a combination of news and time permits, which is to say that the schedule is irregular beyond belief.  But if you think getting email from me now and then would be interesting, as opposed to "disturbing unfortunate electrons for no good reason," drop me a note, I'll send you the latest one, and you'll get the others whenever they come out from then on.

Now, back to the archeological find .... it came from the mists of time and an obscure warehouse near the Port of Los Angeles .... the first book of mine that ever got much attention beyond a few warm reviews and just enough sales to convince the publishers that my mother couldn't be all of them was Orbital Resonance, which is still the favorite Barnes sf novel of a largish fraction of Barnes fans. (Note: that's a largish fraction of a smallish absolute number). 

My agent at the time, Ashley Grayson, put a lot of effort into the book. He thought it was remaindered too early (because Tor somewhat hurried it into paperback even though it was a Nebula finalist -- in those long ago days, publishers were supposed to wait because if it won, there'd be a few months of elevated hardcover sales. Sigh. Those were the days, my friends...) So he bought up some copies in the pre-remainder sales, in hopes that a first edition might be worth some extra money some day.

Well, that's not quite how it turned out; it didn't win. But it did hold a special place in some people's hearts (in various guises as the last time Barnes wasn't a complete pervert, that Barnes book where the most violent act is a punch in the nose, the book Barnes did for people who like teenage girls with funny names, etc.) and Ashley was able to unload large numbers of first edition hardcovers.

More recently, as he's been clearing out his own storage, he's been sending me agent copies of my books, and in this case he hit a sort of jackpot: not only 48 copies of Orbital Resonance, but they were still all packed on 4 minipallets (that's a sheet of heavy cardboard with a pile of 12 books on it shrinkwrapped, and it preserves books beautifully), still in original boxes.

There are not going to be any more first editions in as good condition as these; a really good condition first edition of a 23-year-old book does not come along often. 

THEREFORE ... if you have any interest, now is the time to hasten over to the catalogue page (again, just off to your right) and drop me a note ordering one. When they're gone, they're gone (and I never expected them to exist in the first place). 

For those of you who would like to have the whole Century Next Door set -- Orbital Resonance, Kaleidoscope Century, Candle, and The Sky So Big and Black -- in first edition hardcover: Buy one Orbital Resonance 1st edn HC signed at full price, and I'll take off $3.00 from the price of any 1st edn HC of the other three in the same order.  Buy a complete set and I'll take off a total of $10.00 from the other three.

There were quite a few people who liked the Century Next Door books in their heyday; I'm going to try to come up with a blog entry about them someday soon (as in, sometime in the next very few days).

Monday, December 1, 2014

Another one from the vaults: what men's a/a was and how I happened to write some

Note: this used to appear as a short article in an online store I had, to explain my six men's a/a titles. (Men's action/adventure, as you will discover by reading on.) I closed that store -- I now do sales direct, details of which you can find in the catalog listed among the links to your right.  But this text was kind of useful for explaining those books, and besides, in a recent edition of the newsletter I'm referring to a page that used to link to this description, so .... here you are. For those of you who have bought books from me online, it may all be a rerun; for those who didn't, and have always wondered where all the manly books went, well, here's where.

What Men's A/A was

Sometimes genres vanish all but totally, leaving behind a few books, series, or authors; at various times Westerns, some kinds of horror, and some kinds of detective novels have done that for periods of decades.  Sometimes they vanish so completely that it's hard to imagine their ever reviving:  Gothic romances, nurse novels, or men's action/adventure. 

Somewhere in Daybreak Zero, by the way, I embedded the passing prediction that the chick-fic of today would be one such vanishing or generational genre, and that by the 2020s would be conventionalized the way English manor house murder mysteries ("Lord Blithering-Twit is dead on the priceless Tea-Carpet, a bloody mashie-niblick in hand!") or 1940s LA-noir hardboileds ("she was trouble in the shape of a dame, but I needed an income in the shape of cash, so I put the .45 in my pocket and the Packard in gear") are.

Anyway,  men's action/adventure flourished from the 1950s through the early 80s, and has disappeared except for a vestige in the Mack Bolan books and maybe the Deathlands series (heavily interbred there with postapocalyptic).  One of the main publishers for many years was the Gold Eagle division of Harlequin, and I did two men's a/a series launches for them during the years when they still thought they might be able to revive the genre.

Fundamentally, a men's a/a novel involves a hero who beats the absolute living snot out of a bunch of bad guys, preferably lots of them, until they are all gone,  which makes the world better till the next book.  It was widely believed in the industry that the readers were mostly blue-collar men in their thirties and forties, in some job that bored them and gave them time to read; the guy behind the counter at the auto-parts store or the plumbing dispatcher.  


Based on my fan mail, which is of course not representative at all, the readership was mostly high school boys who really wanted to leave home and join the Army, servicemen stuck on remote bases, and urban guys with dull jobs who took the bus to work.  Interestingly, too, the editors generally made a point of telling me that these guys just wanted stuff to blow up, daring escapes, and some not-very-repressed sadism, but the mail I got from readers of Dan Samson (which was marketed as men's a/a) actually talked very little about the violence, but quite a lot about the character of Samson, his moral dilemmas, and various points of history (more about facts than theory).  It is my guess that the thing that may have killed the genre was the dumbing down brought on by editorial contempt for the audience.

The basic plot of  a men's a/a is that one way or another the hero, who is highly competent with weapons and has unshakeable self-confidence, is quickly thrown into a situation where the bad guys are trying to kill him and he's mostly on his own.  He then fights his way through escalating battles till he confronts and beats the main bad guy for the book.  On the way through he acquires friends, sidekicks, and lovers, most of whom pass out of his life at the end, either because he does the equivalent of riding off into the sunset or  because in some earlier chapter they were  messily slaughtered to motivate him. 

All that was required was that super-simple ping-pong plot (bad pings, good pongs, bad pings harder, eventually on a desperation falling-over shot good pongs so hard it wins the game), which a lot of people could write, and quite a few writers learned craft turning out men's a/a, because if you wanted to put anything else in there, they didn't care as long as it still went ping-pong-ping-pong-ping-pong-PING-PONG and so on.  You could pretty much put in anything else you liked – anti-imperialist politics, New Age reincarnationism,  historical curiosities (as I did with Dan Samson); keen-o sci fi gadgets, a Marxist vision that capitalism is a temporary historical aberration, literary history, PTSD issues (as I did with Mark Strang).  And in fairness, nobody really said not to do that; it was just that the stock advice from every corner was "just have enough stuff blow up and be sure your guy is manly.")

Anyway, such were the glories of men's a/a, where I had a great deal of fun and made some survival money.  As it turned out, the first series launch (Dan Samson) was dead before publishing; they just ran out the copies to make some of the money spent on it back, because new management had already decided they didn't like the idea of launching new cross-genre men's a/a; and the second one (Mark Strang) not only suffered a similar fate, but went it one worse:  they decided not to print them and just write the money off.  Those books ended up at another publisher, and not published as men's a/a, mildly baffling some of the science fiction fans who picked them up.


A few astute readers with good memories will say "Isn't there a character named Dan Samson in the Daybreak books?"

Uh, well, yeah, there is. He even fits the physical description of the Dan Samson in the Timeraiders. 

And very conveniently, he could have been born right at the moment that that Dan Samson was killed in book 1 (it's a rule in the Timeraider universe: you are reincarnated at the moment of your death).  And since the new Dan Samson might very well be carrying out the cosmic mission of the old one, in a new life that leads into Daybreak .... when I realized what I'd done in the first draft, I laughed, shrugged, and left his name the same in the rest of the drafts. If any crazed fan ever starts to evolve a theory of how the whole Barnesiverse ties together, at least they'll have something to work with.

Would I ever write men's a/a  again?  I really don't know; probably if the money was good, and even more likely if I thought the marketing was being researched and handled well.  I really liked the Dan Samson audience and wouldn't mind working for them again.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Potlucks and LIFO, being too disgusting for a bully to touch, divas with PTA mothers, and making widgets: why sometimes you should just get drunk with Mr. Evil

Usually I like to do the seven things weave for blog posts, but this time I just had four in mind:
1. I've decided to blow off my church's Thanksgiving potluck this year due mainly to laziness (the first chance to sleep without setting an alarm in a while, and the awareness that it's the last time I can do that till Christmas because I have choir rehearsals and performances to make).  Interestingly to me, the moment I decided to do that I felt a pang of relief: my pet pot luck irritation would not be happening to me or various other people this year.  To wit:

At the end of every pot luck, it will be discovered that half a dozen lovely homemade desserts, relish trays, salads, and breads were never offered to anyone, and instead people ate various storebought stuff.  The fresh-from-the-oven dinner rolls are still under the aluminum foil in their lovingly packed pan; the crowd ate Poppin'Fresh. The grandma's-recipe pecan pie is uncut but its pie server is soaking in the dirty dishes, having been commandeered to cut Safeway brownies. The artfully arranged hand cut vegetable tray with homemade dip is in the refrigerator, untouched; the people ate handfuls of that culinary fraud, "baby carrots", from a crackly plastic tub, dipping them in Kraft Ranch dressing straight from the bottle.

How this happens is that the people who make good things at home tend to arrive early to set them out.  The people who remember on their way to the church that there's a potluck stop at the store and buy a bag of Oreos, or a readywashed salad or plastic relish tray.  They typically arrive at the last minute, when the homemade stuff is already set out, and as they run down to the potluck table, they find all the space taken up with the good homemade stuff. So they move that "out of the way" and set down their bag of storebought crap. (Sometimes appropriating serving implements, since they didn't bring those).

Note that nobody -- probably not even the last minute token Oreo bringers -- wants to eat the last minute stuff from the store when the good homemade stuff is available.  In fact, the reason why the Oreos and presliced veggie trays and so forth win out is that they were brought by people with less interest in the process, and the serving table is a LIFO (Last in first out, for you nontechnical types) system.  So for the sides, everybody eats that stuff they could have bought on the way home (usually the main dishes are safely immune), and the proud cooks go away with their work unsampled.

2. As a fifth and sixth grader, I had one particular bully-tormentor who was a year older than me and one of the most popular boys in his class, one of those socially precocious boys who is first to have a girlfriend, first to come to a dance drunk, a star athlete in seventh grade because he's hit puberty already and it was nice to him, that sort.  The leader of the popular boys' lunch table.   

About the middle of sixth grade I realized that in those days, schoolyard fights were essentially a very rough sport, more like bullfighting than boxing -- i.e. the bull gets goaded into attacking and then beaten and humiliated.  So I meekly endured teasing and having my nipples pinched (don't ask me why this guy was so fond of pinching male nipples, but he had a kind of route of a half dozen victims) for about a week while I planned, and then one day rode my bicycle into a crowd of him & friends, jumped off and threw it forward, thus tangling his legs. 

While he was tangled, I grabbed his hair and pulled his face into several thoroughly inept punches that were nonetheless probably at least a bit painful, and before he was together enough to retaliate, the nice old lady who lived in the house, who was sitting out on her porch, came along and sternly ordered me to go away.  I rode off, unretaliated against.

The next day I sneaked up behind him and hit him in the back of the head with a stick, while he was on his way home from school, and then ran like hell.

He confronted me on the school playground and I told him that he could hit me all he wanted (or as much as he could before a teacher was forced to notice him doing it) and I wouldn't try to defend myself, but he'd never be able to watch his back all the time. He shoved me down and got sent in early from recess. After lunch, walking by his classroom where the teacher hadn't come back yet, in full view of the room mother, I stepped into the room and hit him fairly hard in the head with my math book.  I got to go home from school early.

I wasn't sure how long I could keep this up, figuring sooner or later he'd catch me in what my childhood defined as a "fair fight," and I'd really take a pounding.  But while I was in the public library reading later that week, he came over and sat down next to me and said, "Everyone is saying you're beating me up and getting away with it."

I pointed out that I was hitting him from behind, using weapons, no warning, taking cover behind adults, all the things that destroyed ones honor. He said he was telling people that but they were still saying that I was hurting him and that he was afraid of me. He admitted he was only walking home with friends from school nowadays.  (I"d have used that strategy myself if all my friends hadn't been the same kind of bully bait I was). He got pretty close to saying he was afraid of what I might do, and he was humiliated by the teasing he was getting.

I offered to lose one fight to him in public, once, in exchange for his leaving me alone forever.

He was outraged.  "You would THROW A FIGHT!  You would JUST LOSE IN FRONT OF EVERYBODY!  You DON'T EVEN CARE!"

And he got up, left, never spoke to me again as far as I remember, and never bothered me. Apparently I was just too disgusting.

I employed similar strategies on two other bullies, with equally good results, though that was the only time I offered to throw a fight.  The only other verbal exchange that might have been relevant was that when I had ambushed one young goon and had him pinned down, and was alternately slapping his head and rubbing his face on the street, he said "I give up," and I said, no, he didn't. If I couldn't get out of fighting him by just giving up, then he couldn't get out of this by just giving up. Then he said nobody would believe I had done this, and I said he could explain his scratched up face any way he wanted, since he and I both knew. I let him get up eventually -- he was crying pretty hard -- and he asked me if I wanted him to apologize, or stop beating me up, or quit hassling me. I said I didn't care what he did, now, because I could always do this again.

Being a not very nice kid, I enjoyed the fact that he was quietly afraid of me for about a year after, giving me nervous little glances and drifting out of the crowd whenever his friends decided to make fun of me.
 
3. If you have no musical theatre interest, it's possible you've never heard "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line.  Go listen to it now, I'll wait, and you obviously have time if you read this blog.  Now, what you're hearing there is a pretty good reflection of a very large number of kids' lives. If there's not much for you at home, sports programs, or some art activities like band or theatre or choir, can give you a full-on life, or so it feels at the time. Sadly, though … comes time for the big musical, the big game, the big concert … and all of a sudden, some kid who misses half of practices, dogs it on all the laps, never even showed up to help run the Thespian concession stand, has the big part or is starting in the position you wanted.  And they might be pretty good but not nearly as good as you are. 

What the hell happened?

It wasn't until I was working in kid programs myself that I came to realize that the kid from the happy, supportive family -- especially the very achievement-oriented one -- has a parent who may well be essential to the operation.  Sure, Alice May Theatrebit works hard and she's there all the time, and you give her a good role, but Bethany Familyvalues's mother is president of the PTA, and coordinates parent volunteer efforts, and in short can keep your program going.  Neither Alice's indifferent parents nor Bethany's ever have to ask or exert any pressure; it's just, one kid will be there and work her heart out for you no matter what, and the other one will do a reasonably good job if you hand it to her, but if you don't hand it to her, she may lose interest and quit and there goes your painfully built program.

4. I mostly don't fall for it anymore, I hope (or it's done more subtly on me nowadays) but I have seen many students from middle school on up who make no effort till very late, then walk in and ask what they can do to pass, then don't do whatever they're told it is and try to bargain down, and continue the cycle of begging, agreeing, not complying, and re-begging until time runs out and the instructor has agreed to give them everything in exchange for no work.  Perhaps you've seen someone do that in a class or two, too? It seems to be a pretty common experience.



§


Now, what do those all have to do with each other? I think this: there is great power in not giving a shit. Rewards often go to those who don't care about them exactly because they don't care about them.  The one who can walk away from the bargaining table will get the best deal; the most reluctant get the biggest bribes; fortune favors the less prepared one who shows up at the last minute, because they will get all the help to keep them participating.

Obviously not in all cases and not in all fields of endeavor.

One place where it may be less obvious is our economy.  Let us suppose you work at Allied Widget as a widget-maker, perhaps a highly experienced and skilled widget-maker with forty years of widget-making behind you. You can't lose that job.  Widgets are your life. If the company is in trouble, you'll be on your union leaders' case to make concessions to keep it open.  You'll be going to the boss and asking what you can do to help.  You need Allied to be there because it's your whole life.

Now suppose you're an investor and Allied's stock is tubing, probably due to all the news in the previous paragraph.  You may very well decide to buy more Allied -- because to keep you, and thus preserve their stock price, they'll have to think about declaring a dividend. Two days ago you didn't know they existed, but you bought them on the off chance that they will pay to keep you, and if they don't, you can dump them just as easily.

So who gets the best deal, you the worker or you the investor?

Suppose you pour your heart and soul into a fifty-year crusade to create something marvelous for all of humanity, or to right an injustice as old as history.  And suppose the final key law to achieve your goal now comes down to one legislator's decision, with the rest of the legislature tied. Does your legislator go with you, the passionate advocate? Or with Mr. Evil, the passionate anti-advocate? Or does the legislator figure that he'll get a vote from one or the other of you, but not both, but he'll get thousands or millions from voter/taxpayers who have barely heard of the issue?

Maybe you and Mr. Evil can go out and get drunk together afterwards.

I offer no fixes or proposals here; I see no way you can measure intensity directly, and after all, very often, as Yeats said, the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. I merely observe that it can be a tough world in which to be a good cook, a bully, a kid for whom the ballet "wasn't paradise but it was home," a regular student who does his/her homework, a worker or an advocate.  Or I suppose anything. But it does seem like a very interesting way in which it sucks to care.