Monday, December 24, 2018

Advent in Herod's Kingdom

Long before Christmas season was a consumer extravaganza starting just after Halloween, it was a period of solemn religious reflection starting four Sundays before Christmas. For some of us, it still is. In America that means it's both. I experience, and enjoy, the secular Christmas of eggnog, gift wrap, and Dean Martin, but I'm also mindful, maybe a bit more each winter, of Advent and its quieter demands. We're in the bleak midwinter, of the season and sometimes of the spirit. And midwinter's never seemed bleaker than when I watch the news.

Advent was originally a period of fasting, a shorter chillier Lent before the twelve days of Christmas feasting. Part of me still prefers that model to the current model of feasting until the 25th and then collapsing into post-holiday blues. I don’t diet in December, although maybe I should, but it’s worth a little sobriety and reflection. We are in the desert of short days.

Jesus of Nazareth was not really born in winter. But he came in the midst of a spiritual winter. He came into a dispirited world. And, as our parish priest recently reminded me, Jesus was born into a political winter: into an occupied country, whose local puppet rulers had grown corrupt and whose imperial masters had let their own republic die. It was a season for cynicism, a solstice of despair. And the faint gleam of hope that Jesus brought was a long way off. As I’ve blogged before, Christmas is Christianity’s second holiday. Easter celebrates the fulfillment of hope. Christmas only gives a far-off sign, a cold shimmer on a winter night, to keep hope alive. The promise will be kept, but not yet. Not for years yet. You need to hold onto your faith for decades more.

Jesus was born poor and naked in Herod’s kingdom. And Herod was no good king. The gospel of Matthew says that Herod sent soldiers to kill the infant Jesus, and to massacre hundreds of children hoping to get the one they’d been sent for. That story isn’t historical, but it is a lesson about power and fear and how monarchs lead.

Medieval and Renaissance England loved to stage King Herod. He was one of the great roles of English theater. He ranted. Long, insane rants about how great and powerful he was, how he was the greatest of the great. An incarnation of the Sin of Pride, made ridiculous by that sin. Hamlet is still using Herod as the example of over-the-top acting: to “out-Herod Herod” is to out-ham the hams.

So Shakespeare’s vision of the Christmas holidays involved a ranting, egomaniacal king, an absurd boaster who was actually a foreign puppet. But that vainglorious buffoon sends armed men to tear children from their mother’s arms. There’s such a thing as getting too close to the original meaning of Christmas.

It’s Advent, and we live in Herod’s kingdom. Children are taken from their mothers, and the king is angry with the wise men. Virtue and kindness are out of favor. Despair comes easy. But Advent’s promise is hope in the distance: a star on the horizon, an obscure birth in a village far from fame or power. Tomorrow may not be better. Tomorrow may be even darker than today. But a better day is coming, in its own time, and when it comes no earthly power will be able to delay it.

What to do in the cold dark days between the promise and the fulfillment? Stay faithful. Make ourselves ready. Remember that Herod will not last forever. And hold tight to the advice the angel gives the shepherds: “Be not afraid.”

Happy holidays and merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Harvard and David Hogg

Parkland survivor David Hogg, one of the most talented of that talented crop of activists, just got into Harvard. I’m happy for him. He was immediately attacked on social media by haters who called him unqualified. But he is a perfect example of Harvard’s long-standing admissions process, the “holistic” method they’re currently being sued over. That method is once again favoring a white kid. But it’s a reasonable and smart decision by Harvard.

The first thing to remember is that only about 10% of Harvard students are admitted strictly on academics. Most people assume it’s a hundred percent. It’s ten. (This figure is from Jerome Karabel’s excellent book, The Chosen. I should disclose that I do almuni interviews for Harvard, but am not using anything I’ve been told by Harvard itself for this post.)

Even that ten percent won’t necessarily have the best GPAs; Harvard turns down hundreds of valedictorians every year. A perfect GPA doesn’t hurt, but it’s not what Harvard’s looking for. Those ten percent are academically exceptional “in Harvard departmental terms,” meaning exceptional in a particular field of study. These are the students admitted to make the faculty happy. Some are strong in other areas as well. But some are “pointy, in admissions lingo, rather than “well-rounded.” Think of a physics prodigy who’s only a B+ student in English, or the future Pulitzer-winning historian who just gets by in calculus class. The ten percent of “scholars” are not the kids who always do everything they can to get a hundred on every piece of homework, but the kids who show some exceptional talent and might eventually help an academic field of study move forward.

Hogg’s application is private, and none of us know how it looks. But it’s not impossible that he’s in that ten percent. He intends to major in Government (what other schools usually call political science), and it may be that his hands-on experience in political organizing, and the skill with which he’s done it, is an asset that the Harvard Government Department wants in its classrooms. I am not saying that is the case; I have no idea.

Of course, the odds are nine out of ten that he’s in the rest of the admitted class. What are those people admitted for, beyond their grades? Things like “leadership” and “character,” which may sound like empty buzzwords but which schools like Harvard take deadly seriously. Harvard’s core business is producing future leaders. Business leaders. Political leaders. Leaders in the arts. Leaders of non-profits. Religious leaders, if they can. They are successful and rich because their alumni, as a group, are rich and successful. They are not joking about this. And they have spent a lot of time and money fine-tuning their strategies for finding kids who will be successful alumni some day.

They admit athletes in sports that will never make money, because they believe that leadership on the playing field prepares people for leadership in other fields. Does looking for future business leaders by recruiting the captains of prep-school fencing teams sounds crazy? Mark Zuckerberg was his prep school’s fencing captain. It sounds crazy, but it works.

Harvard admits kids who led a huge number of clubs at their high school; at various points their admissions office has referred to kids like this as “a wheel” or “Mr. School.” (Think “Mr. [Name of School].”) They’re not looking for kids who’ve just done a lot of extra-curriculars; they’re looking for kids who show the ability to engage and motivate others. They’re looking for people who are already showing leadership skills. They know it’s easier to develop students whose personalities incline them toward leadership roles than trying to teach “leadership” to students with very different personalities. Harvard has introverts, for sure, but there are a lot of extroverts on that campus.

Harvard also deliberately recruits students who’ve shown leadership in charity and volunteer work. There is, or used to be, a nickname for these applicants, too, taken from the building in Harvard Yard set aside for students’ charity work. Again, we’re not talking about the kids who participate in the annual blood drive, but about the kid who founded the annual blood drive.

Harvard also looks for kids with special artistic talents. If they took Matt Damon over someone with slightly better grades, that wasn’t a mistake. They did that on purpose. Did Yo-Yo Ma have the best GPA in his high school class? It could not possibly matter. Admitting Yo-Yo Ma was the right move and it has worked out beautifully.

(If you’re a role-playing nerd, or a recovering role-playing nerd, let me break it down for you: Harvard doesn’t just look for intelligence, or even for intelligence and wisdom. It looks for charisma.)

If a university obsessed with looking for signs of leadership gets an application from David Hogg, who has already shown enormous poise and leadership on a national stage, the outcome should involve exactly zero surprise. Harvard searches high and low for kids who might someday show the kind of leadership that David Hogg has been showing in public every day now for months. He is the closest thing to a sure bet that the Harvard Admissions Office will ever see. If you’re screening for leadership, that kid is a slam dunk, the surest bet the Harvard Admissions Office could have.

Politics has nothing to do with this. Harvard wants to produce leaders from every party. There are plenty of conservative senators who went to Harvard. And frankly, as a Harvard alum who wishes the school well, I couldn’t be happier about this choice. That kid has far too much potential to let Yale have him. I want him to be one of us. So, bravo, Harvard. And David: welcome to the family.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

My First Short Story in a While

As previously mentioned, I have a new short story out this month: my first in 21 years. I am very happy about this. And, as promised, here's a taste and a link to the full piece. I hope you enjoy it.
The thing that broke your heart was, he could still fly. Nothing else to call it. There he was in those silly clothes, going wherever he pleased and not falling, as if gravity were just some tired social pretense and he’d grown too old to bother. But it wasn’t the same.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Writing Short Stories, Then and Now

I used to write short stories. Then, for many reasons, I stopped writing fiction. Today I had my first story published in more than twenty years. (It will be posted on the web in two weeks, and I will link to it then. If you can't wait, the issue's for sale here.) More stories may be along; we'll see. If it takes another twenty-one years, I'll have something to look forward to in 2039.

It's a little strange returning to an art form after two decades away. One of the things it means is that in my old stories, no one has e-mail. Most people didn't. Or cell phones. Any temptation to dredge up old pieces is held at bay by the fact that they've become historical fiction.

So what else has changed?

Electronic submissions have made the business of sending out stories easier, and vastly sped up response times for science fiction markets. I loved the ritual of going to the post office, and I enjoy an occasional return to that, but in the old days after stories went in the mail you had to put them out of your mind for at least a couple of months. Now you sometimes get a response in less than a week. Sometimes it's still months, of course, but things are more efficient.

(Literary magazines are still as slow to respond as always, or slower. Budget six months for a reply and be happily surprised if you hear back within three.)

The small cool science fiction magazines I used to love, with their tiny press runs, have largely been replaced by cool online science fiction magazines. That's a useful change, especially in terms of how many people potentially read a story. I didn't have many links to share in the old days. I'm back to being a fiction rookie again, trying to break in just as I did when I was younger, except that rookies today get to play for bigger crowds.

I am now older than my characters. In my twenties, my typical science-fiction narrator was about 45 years old. I had real storytelling reasons for that: one way to write about the future is to use a character who's old enough to have lived through the key social or technological change, and who remembers how things were before. On the other hand, I used a middle-aged protagonist at least once in a straight-realist story, so I don't know what I was thinking. My go-to protagonists are still middle-aged, but now I don't have to imagine what that's like. A 45-year-old narrator might just be me with marginally better knees. And maybe some of the emotional tone I was reaching for as a younger writer, the rueful complexity I associated with my elders, is nearer to my midlife grasp. At least I'd like to think so.

Fiction writing is no longer my vocation. I've learned there's something else I'm better at. I will never know how well I write either scholarship or fiction, because that's something you can never know about yourself. But I know which one I write better. The best thing I have ever written is a scholarly article about Shakespeare, and so is the second-best thing. Ten years from now, that will still be true. If I had been asked twenty-five years ago whether I'd prefer to be a better fiction writer or a better Shakespeare scholar, I wouldn't necessarily have chosen the way it's turned out. But no one gets asked. It's great luck to feel any vocation as a writer, and I'm grateful. It feels like ludicrous good fortune to discover I can still publish in a second field, years after leaving it behind.

Knowing that fiction won't get me anywhere means I don't have to worry about getting anywhere with my fiction. I can write short stories because I don't have to make a living from them. It's no longer possible to make a living writing short stories. Even commercial markets (and I should say Apex Magazine has been both fair and generous) won't pay a month's rent or mortgage in America, and no one can sell a story every month. But my stories don't have to pay my rent. Neither do I need to use stories to get attention for my novel, or worse yet my unfinished novel, or get myself an agent. If I write a novel, I'll try to get it attention, and probably an agent too. But right now the point of my stories is to be the best stories I can make them. If I end up writing a novel, the point will be to create the best novel I can. There don't need to be other reasons.

I suppose this is all to say that my ambition is to write fiction with "a professional's skills but an amateur's goals." But I lifted that phrase from the scholarly article I have coming out next month. I'm better at some things than others.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog