Monthly Archives: November 2017

Sticks and Stones and Pens and Swords: An Open Letter to Bill Maher

Dear Bill Maher,

You’ve been behaving yourself lately, as far as I know. You’re a bit of a professional troll, so behaving yourself is a relative term, but you’ve stayed within the bounds of your own bell curve. I’ve been waiting for such an opportunity to talk to you.

Previously, after various PR disasters, I’ve drafted open letters and standard rants to talk to you, most recently when you called yourself a “house n*gger.” Each time, though, I’ve gotten sidetracked to another topic. I have found myself not talking about the particular recent crisis, but a recurring problem that has, for years, blocked me from properly enjoying your show. A problem that underwrites each of your individual controversies, as well as asserting itself throughout your show. A misconception you cling to almost obsessively, and that I have heard many of your fans repeat.

You love the idea that your words can’t hurt anyone.

For example, when you gave an interview to Milo Yiannopoulos, you and he jovially agreed that humor is all just about bonding and jokes are harmless. You even said, “when people laugh, they know it’s true.” You said that, to a man who regularly makes jokes at the expense of transgender people. Who encourages his fans to hurt trans people and even outs them to this hostile audience. So do you agree with the content of his jokes? Do you think his audience’s laughter means we deserve everything he believes about us?

Probably not. Probably you would engage in some special pleading to get out of those accusations. Pardon me, I was getting ahead of myself.

See, most of the time, when you say your words are inherently harmless, you are defending yourself against critics. Someone is saying that something you said is damaging or unfunny or otherwise unacceptable, and you are defanging that assessment. By saying that words cannot possibly cause real harm to anyone, you are making your critics out to be overanxious handwringers. But, by your own logic, why would you even bother to respond?

In other words, if your words cannot cause real harm to your critics, or whoever your critics say you are harming, then their words in turn cannot harm you. If words never hurt anybody, you shouldn’t care when people criticize you.

Well, maybe you are unconcerned. Maybe you just mock your critics because you are a wordsmith and professional troll, so you respond to anything so long as you have a sufficiently witty barb. But I am inclined to think you are concerned, that you think your critics have real power that you must defend yourself from, and I don’t think that defensiveness is unwarranted.

There’s always chance that, for example, when person A points out that your joke or your interview was damaging to person B, some members of your audience will think, “hey, I like person B! Bill Maher sure makes a lot of unnecessary jokes at person B’s expense. I now feel bad for laughing at those jokes.” If this goes on for long enough, people will stop watching your show, to avoid that “I shouldn’t have laughed” feeling. Hell, it’s why I no longer watch, and I’ve heard some people say they are finding it harder and harder to stay a fan.

If this trend continues, you will lose your audience, your ratings will plummet, and HBO will have to decide whether or not you’re worth the loss. There’s a good chance they will decide it is not. And as your style of humor is naturally very contentious, you might find yourself struggling to find another venue that will support you.

That would be inconvenient for you, as you don’t seem to have many skills beyond “sarcastic wordsmith.”

So you fight back, with this weird little magician’s trick. You, afraid of the harm caused by your critics’ words, will claim words are harmless, and that therefore you should never be criticized for your words. With enough wordplay, you disguise your true intent, your audience laughs, and personal financial crisis is averted.

It is fundamentally absurd for any human to claim words do not have power. We survive by the power of language. We use language to gather information, to pass it on to our descendants, to form social bonds that protect us. Words are an evolved life skill, selected for just as fangs and claws and tails are. They don’t deserve to be dismissed as frivolous baubles.

That is not to say that freedom of expression is not important. But we should respect the right to free speech, not like someone who guards a lamb, but like someone who releases a hawk. Words are the tools we use to construct governments and societies, and the ones we use to fix it when it is broken. Therefore we give free speech sovereignty over the law. This does not mean we give people license to say anything without consequence. When we use our words to criticize another person’s words, we are using them exactly they way they should be used. Words are like diamonds. We use them to cut each other, because no other tool is up to the job.

As someone who criticizes your critics, you are not a defender of free speech. You are simply a user of it, and your critics no less so. You are both sparring on equal terms under the law. And, for the record, if your critics do someday put you out of business, it will not be because they are against the game of social discourse. They’ll just have won it. A boxer who claims his victorious opponent is trying to ban tournaments isn’t making an insightful point, but being ridiculous and a sore loser.

You make your living off of the words you say. Respect the power of your tools.


Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith


What It’s About

Ida Mae Jones, a light skinned Black woman, passes as white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, in WWII.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because it’s everything historical fiction should be. The research is excellent, and Sherri L. Smith includes a cool postscript on what real world events inspired various scenes in the novel. The story is moving and emotionally real, but it isn’t just about angst and difficult choices. It’s about female friendships, fulfilling dreams, being part of a cause you believe in, and the sheer joy of flying.

I loved both Ida Mae and all the supporting characters. She bonds with a couple of other quirky misfit girls and they support each other through flight school. She also has a close relationship with her father and brothers, as well as an interesting, tense relationship with her mother, who is afraid Ida Mae will abandon them for a life of passing for white full-time. The complexity of their relationship is raw and relatable. I love how you are made to see both of their points of view. In fact, while there are a few characters who are just straightforward villains, most of the time you can see both sides of a conflict, and feel for everyone involved.

It’s also one of those stories that absolutely needed to be told from within the group. I’ve seen a lot of passing-for-privileged narratives, for all kinds of identities, written from someone of the privileged group, and they’re usually crap. I’d honestly gotten pretty sick of them, but Sherri L. Smith shows how poignant and thought provoking these stories can be when an insider chooses to tell them.

It took me to another time and place, put me through an adventure, and left me thinking about the issues and problems it raised. What more could you ask for?

Content Warnings

Racism towards some of the main characters, or witnessed by them. Otherwise it is fairly tame; the work the WASP do is dangerous, but they aren’t involved in anything gory or graphic.

Pashmina, by Nidhi Chanani


What It’s About

Priyanka, daughter of an Indian single mother, uncovers the story of her past with the help of a magical pashmina.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s a beautiful, expressively illustrated graphic novel that is simultaneously simple and profound. With a fairly straightforward story, ideas about love, home, choice, family and the price of dreams were interwoven beautifully and naturally. I was carried from cover to cover in less than a day.

I liked Priyanka a lot. She was a relatable teen girl; good at heart but full of questions and insecurities that she sometimes handles poorly. Her most interesting relationships were between her and various elders, and there wasn’t a simplistic mentor/mentee relationship with any of them. They all had struggles understanding her, she had questions that none of them had perfect answers to, and they still had wisdom to offer her. I was one of those dreamy kids who got on better with adults, and her relationships felt honest on a level that not a lot of authors have captured.

Also, as a fantasy geek, I loved how seamlessly the magic integrated with the real world. It almost felt like magical realism, which I have a serious weakness for; if you liked stories like Beasts of the Southern Wild you will probably love this. I will definitely be looking out for more books by Nidhi Chanani!

Content Warnings

Traumatic events are referenced but nothing is graphic or detailed. I think you’ll be fine.

Harlem Nocturne, by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Harlem Nocturne

What It’s About

This book is equal parts biography and cultural history, focusing on three artists; modern dancer Pearl Primus, novelist Ann Petry, and musician/singer/composer Mary Lou Williams. As it describes their fusion of artistry and activism, it also takes the history of Harlem past it’s 1920s heyday and shows how the cultural and artistic boom evolved into the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are many gaps in our history when it comes to African Americans. You would be forgiven, after reading your average American textbook, for thinking the entire Black community was just cryogenically frozen between the 20s and the 60s. And that’s if you had one of the good ones that mentioned the Harlem Renaissance at all. This book is a fantastic way to begin filling in the gaps. Griffin’s focus may be the 40s, but she also gives context from the 30s and indicates how the changes wrought in WWII set the African American community up to weather the 50s and triumph in the 60s.

Griffin has a fantastic writing style. I never got bogged down in too much detail, nor did I get ever get lost. She’s as engaging as any storyteller; I didn’t just find these women’s lives interesting, but I also cared about them. They came alive on her pages, and I found myself hungry for still more information on them when I was done.

As I read this book, I kept returning to the ideas of the ups and downs of life, and legacy as the ripples we create. There’s also a beautiful mixture of realism and hope here. As the war ended and McCarthyism took hold, many of these women had their work eclipsed, and are still sadly obscure today. Yet the work they did was still important to what would come later. They spoke out, they lived life their way, and they shaped their communities in powerfully positive ways.

The whole book was engaging, thought provoking, and I finished it in about three days because I couldn’t put it down. I can’t recommend it enough, and I will definitely be reading and recommending more of her work. We all need books like this in our lives.

Content Warnings

Some references to lynchings and other anti-black violence, as context for their work. Otherwise you’re fine.

Flying Lessons, by Ellen Oh

Flying Lessons

What It’s About

An anthology coming of age stories, with both authors and protagonists from a diverse range of identities.

Why I Recommend It

Individually, these stories are all great. Though a few touch on sad content, like losing a parent or social isolation, for the most part they are fun and happy. That in and of itself is cool. It’s incredible to see a queer first crush that isn’t angsty, or a disabled kid connecting with his father over wheelchair sports, without anybody pitying or handwringing. And even when I have no personal connection to the identities represented, the stories touch on something fundamental human experience, in a moving and delightful. One of my favorites was the one where the Choctaw uncle tells his nieces and nephews with a tall tale. Folklore plus weird but kindly old people bonding with small children; that is now you make a Lane happy.

Collectively, this is a great introduction to marginalized authors who have long, award winning careers telling diverse stories. None of these stories are overtly political, but the combination tells a message that shouldn’t be political, but sadly is; anyone can tell a human story, and anyone can be the star of one. There is no one way to be the everyman, and isn’t that awesome?

Content Warnings

You’re fine.

Adventures in Odyssey Paused on Account of Nanowrimo

Hi everyone!

I had this awesome plan where I was going to use October to pre-write all three of my AIO episodes, so they’d be out of the way for Nanowrimo. Unfortunately, I was slammed by two absurdly rough weekends in a row, and I spent a good part of my week just trying to survive at work and then recover when I got home. So the posts are, unfortunately, not done.

The good news is that those episodes are already a bit Christmas themed, so maybe it’s lucky that they’re now being saved for December? Maybe? I dunno. I’m very sorry and I’ll try to get some quick bonus posts out during the month, but otherwise it will just be my Monday book reviews.

If you’re doing Nano as well, best of luck to you! For everyone else, have a wonderful month and may your upcoming holidays rock.