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following the signs

I love Sesame Street for a lot of reasons, but I think what might have triggered my initial infatuation was its song parodies. As has been previously documented, I was a super weird kid*, and I distinctly remember watching Patti LaBelle sing "How I Miss My X" and feeling delighted - not just because it was clever, but because I felt like I was getting the adults' joke. It was a secret club, and by virtue of being a nerd, I had found my way in.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy (yes, I just read them, yes, I am sorry I didn't listen to everyone who told me to read them four years ago). Around the same time, I came across a link for the Sesame Workshop version of book 2, "The Hungry Games: Catching Fur." First of all: awesome. Second of all: the very existence of this video inadvertently highlights one of the most overlooked and (I think) one of the most important aspects of the books.

Obviously, the Hunger Games, as an event, are a huge viewing event for the members of the Capital. Something Katniss mentions a few times, however, is that the Games really aren't for the elites; they're there to remind the Districts of their powerlessness. The whole shindig is ostensibly for one audience, but, under its surface, has a completely different purpose. 

This is a level of media analysis that I think is often missing from the coverage of so-called viral videos and other marketing tactics. Sesame Street's target audience (3-5 YO) probably doesn't care much about the cleverness of the takeoff, just as they don't really care about the borderline-Dada parody "Homelamb." (At least I hope they don't, because I'm pretty sure Homeland is not appropriate for children.) Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit that relies on the support of Viewers Like You. The whole point is to remain present and worthwhile in the minds of supporters, so that it ultimately has the resources to provide the educational programming that is targeted at children. Similarly, the amazing PBS remixes that came out last year are clearly focused on people who *used* to watch Reading Rainbow, and who would potentially donate to support the network if they felt that it would provide some sort of cachet.

(I'm going to embed one of the Mr. Rogers videos here, because it is required viewing. Be prepared to choke up a little bit.)

In my first gig out of grad school I was doing ICT consulting for governance projects, and I did a little bit of side reading on semiotics and the art of signaling. The intersection between these areas of study and international development seems to me to (also) be important and overlooked - don't we need to know what people want to say about themselves before we offer them something that allows them to speak, literally as well as metaphorically? Side note: if you have any recommended readings here, I'd love to hear about them.

At any rate, this is one of the many things that Suzanne Collins got right in her book, and it's one of the many approaches that Sesame Workshop has gotten right in their work. I'll be looking for more examples of the interaction between mission-driven work and semiotics (MAN, that sounds dry, but it's not). If you come across any, please let me know.

 

*I really wanted to find a clip from the 30 Rock episode with Carrie Fisher, where a preteen Liz Lemon watches Laugh-In (or its surrogate), looks at the camera, and says, "It's funny because it's true." I don't know if I've ever seen a more accurate representation of my childhood on television.

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many gods

Well. Where was I?

First of all, boringly, I'm still sick - not as overtly anymore, but enough that I take a lot of naps and still wake up feeling bushed. My failure to recover completely probably has something to do with the fact that, in addition to my freelance work, I've also started working part time at a charter school near my house. Miss Eason's immune system used to be made of Teflon, but apparently times have changed, although children have not.

Nonetheless, a few notes and recommendations.

  • My general concern about sites like A Mighty Girl is that they will a) take themselves too seriously, b) ultimately contain nothing but girl power slogans without substance, or c) preach to the choir. I think what alleviated my fears with this particular site was seeing its book collection, which is FILLED with my childhood favorites (Dicey's Song! The BFG! Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, otherwise known as the most underrated Judy Blume book of all time!). These are not stories written expressly to empower girls; they are written as though the starring role of interesting and smart and imperfect young women is totally normal. Because it is, in real life. That seems to be the site's overall perspective. And I like it.
  • "No one believes that O Brother, Where Art Thou taught you five valuable lessons about engineering": the Awl on what you should *not* write about on Medium. (Or a variety of other platforms, for that matter.)
  • And, despite what I just wrote, a rather interesting article on employment, one that happens to be hosted on the Medium platform. I like what he says w/r/t understanding how to make yourself useful for employers, particularly after some of the Billfold interviews I've conducted. The article itself also lacks the sense of self-aggrandizement that I've come to expect from pieces on this topic, which is refreshing. 

And there's one more thing I'd like to recommend, but it requires a bit more explanation. I've learned a lot over the course of a week and a half with sixth graders, including: why eleven-year-olds think Hinduism is a good religion (no need to limit yourself to just one god, if you were wondering); which historical sites and events are featured in Assassin's Creed;* and new insights into male youth hairstyles (cuts like the fade - and, dare I say it, even the flat-top - appear to be making a comeback). I've gotten to see an entire class, in response to one student's answer of "I don't know," yell "YET!" in unison. I'm not going to front, I've even gotten some hugs.

HOWEVER, the greatest thing by far that I've seen is this video that my friend Clark showed to her ELA class. It's an excerpt from a hip hop song cycle by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer of In the Heights. That song cycle is called The Hamilton Mixtape. As in Alexander Hamilton.

I love this because it circles back to the core beliefs I hold for all of my work, namely that you have to go to people (audiences, children) where they are, and that well-crafted communications allow us to find the elements of an idea that resonate with others. I know everyone's laughing here at the idea that A. Ham is hip hop, but you can see how seriously Miranda is taking this, and he should: nothing he's saying is wrong, and he's exploring this personality in a way that helps us gain a new perspective on the man. Whether you're on a stage or in a classroom or designing a user-centered, mass-market health education program for a country with high morbidity indicators, isn't that what we all want to do?

 

*I have mixed feelings about this.

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more answers to important questions

(Sunday morning with Tyrell, my ten-year-old reading buddy.) 

(I will return with real content soon.) 

1.  

 HILLARY So in this chapter they use Willy and Milly, the hamsters, to try to retrieve the squid.*  (pause) If you had a hamster, what would you name it?

TYRELL  (without hesitation) Jamster.

HILLARY Jamster? Jamster the Hamster.

TYRELL And I'd give him a little hamster-size boom box.

 

2.  

HILLARY Let's say you had to sum up this book for your teacher, in one or two sentences. What would you say?

TYRELL I'd say NONE OF YOUR BIZNESS.

HILLARY No, really.

 TYRELL I'd say, "I'll tell you if you promise to give me an A+ on everything for the rest of the year and forever."

HILLARY NO, REALLY.

 TYRELL No, I'd give her the real answer! (pause) As soon as she agreed.

 

*Highly recommended. It's not perfect, but the Amazon review really doesn't do it justice.  

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we lift our outspread hands

 (On the heels of the post about the Italian reporter.)

 For about five years or so, it seemed as though everyone I met had read Ender's GameI suspect that, especially in the '80s and '90s, it was a frequent teacher suggestion for "smart" kids who didn't fit in, in one way or another; Ender is in some ways a prototypical prodigy, a kid whose power is used by others until he finally takes control of his own narrative. It would be a lie to say that his life gets fixed, per se, but it's a good book for outcasts to read, because he does ultimately learn to make his life work within the circumstances he has.

I've been thinking about Ender more lately than I have in a long time. When I returned to DC, I joined a faith-based social justice group, and our talk of late has been on the ever-cheery topic of drone warfare. What's weird is that Ender's Game more or less exactly predicts drone warfare and its consequences (spoiler alert: not pretty). What's weirder is that despite the fact that Orson Scott Card wrote a book in which I beautifully see my moral dilemmas outlined, there are other areas in which I can't really find any common ground with him at all. It's hard to reconcile.

There are a lot of ways in which long-distance killing, of men indiscriminately classified as "militants," seems to be the next (inevitable) step in humanity's (inevitable) decline. There are also a lot of ways in which I just want Orson Scott Card to be a Dude I Can Admire, instead of finding myself on the same page with a person I find otherwise difficult to stomach. Add to that the guilt of worrying about anything at *all* as a rich Westerner, and the inevitable personal and professional stresses that some weeks hit harder than others, and it all combines with the stupid and horrible problems of the world to make everything feel overwhelming, even for a privileged girl safe in a second-floor apartment in Washington. And after a while, you find yourself sympathizing with the righteous anger of this excerpt from George Appleton's Oxford Book of Prayer:

We worship death in our quest to possess ever more things; we worship death in our hankering after our own security, our own survival, our own peace, as if life were divisible, as if love were divisible, as if Christ had not died for all of us. To You we lift our outspread hands.

As if life were divisible. As if love were divisible. What vain messes we are as humans. Seriously, how do we stand ourselves?

And yet: you can't do anything if you're drowning in a sea of worry, and if you're fretting about how stupid it is for you to fret. (Welcome to the American dream: the luxury to worry about worrying.) Being with others tonight, finding fellowship even over such grim topics, was a good reminder that, in our quest to create a better world, sometimes we have to remind ourselves that happiness remains. In the words of Jennifer Michael Hecht, in a piece I think I've quoted in every journal I've ever had,

...The way you can sit there, miserable, and every person you can think of seems miserable. A is jealous of her boyfriend, B has just been put on Depakote, and C has a cat. Which is to say that life seems gross and frustrating and you feel certain that happiness or satisfaction isn't real. At least you're not singled out for misery, at least it's endemic and egalitarian...
[But] there are moments of such joy in writing this, and sometimes in looking out my window onto First Avenue. And if all that is true, that no one is happy and yet there is happiness, that the human heart changes more than you'd ever expect and yet it also runs alongside its chariot, blooming sweat and pounding away with the same glory that I feel right now, then it might also be true that we were once about twenty-one years old and standing outside my parent's house, and it was autumn, we were in college near my hometown and you were picking me up for a class we taking together. I carried my camera around a lot back then, largely because I was inspired by the photo album you and Linda had compiled when you were together... So I have this picture of you, under the tree, leaves everywhere, drinking from one of my parents' mugs. I guess we used to bring the mugs into the car and then return them at the end of the day. I guess we were alive, and I am alive, and the person in the photograph is you.

It's not revealing too much to say that Ender does not give up, despite a series of outcomes that would make anyone else reach for their cyanide capsules. Even that prayer offers a measure of hope: it doesn't end with "We worship death. UGHHHH WE ARE THE WORST," but rather a motion towards redemption. I guess that, as simplistic as it may sound, it's useful to remind ourselves sometimes that even if it seems that no one is happy, there is happiness. That no matter how frustrating the world becomes, there is joy in learning and being with friends and seeing the night sky. That we were alive, and that I am.

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