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On Donald Trump and Placing the Blame

December 31, 2016 Leave a comment

Donald Trump is set to become President of the United States in a couple of weeks. This, obviously, is a problem (isn’t the whole point of politics supposed to be to keep guys like Trump out of power?), and it may be one without an acceptable solution.

There are any number of articles out there containing excellent advice for how to politically resist a Trump presidency and all of its attendant outrages. I recommend them all. The only problem with them is this: their efficacy depends on Trump’s whim. (A scary thought in and of itself.) Tactics like protesting and pressuring Congress and organizing for the next elections… they can be effective if the United States is still a democracy, with elected officials who have to pay attention to the voters. But if Trump is confident in the support of the armed forces and the various law enforcement services across the country, then he doesn’t have to worry about that. He can just have protestors or Congresspeople jailed or shot, and elections cancelled.

I know this is the kind of thing that the opponents of an incoming president always say. But it’s different this time, because a) all previous presidents were politicians who understood the nature of the presidency and the context in which it operates, and Trump neither knows nor cares about any of that; b) Trump has a famous disregard for law; and c) Trump’s supporters clearly don’t plan on holding him to any standards. Seriously: when was the last time Trump let the law stop him from doing something that he wanted to do? When was the last time that the Republican Party stopped him from doing something that he wanted to do?

During Trump’s time in office, however long that turns out to be, the USA is in danger of turning into a fascist dictatorship. It just depends on the degree to which Trump feels like colouring outside the lines, and the degree to which everybody else can summon the courage to refuse to follow evil orders. I’m not comfortable relying on either of those things.

So I’m not saying that people shouldn’t protest and organize. I think they should; I think it’s worth doing. I’m just saying that it might get you killed.

This is all tricky for me to talk about, because I’m Canadian. It might seem like I’m sitting up here in relative safety and perceived superiority, snarking on you poor dumb Americans for screwing everything up. I assure you that’s not at all what I’m doing. Everything I have to say about the USA is equally true of Canada; you guys elected your Trump and we have yet to face ours, whoever he or she turns out to be. (Harper wasn’t great but he had some good points, and was pretty much Abraham Lincoln compared to Trump.) Whatever I have to say about you, it’s true of us too. Including the part about how it may already be too late.

Anyway. Another kind of article I’ve seen many examples of has been the ones that try to pin the blame for Trump’s victory on this person or that group. In general I don’t like to dig into whose fault something was, but I will in this case because I think there’s a point to be made.

Here’s whose fault it is that Trump won the election:

Everybody.

Okay, not everybody. There are certainly people in the world who had no power to affect the election in the long or short term. And there’s a specific group of people who did have some power to affect the outcome whom I acquit of any blame; I’ll speak more about them later. But here are some of the groups and individuals who are to blame, in no particular order:

1. Donald Trump himself. He didn’t have to be the worst possible person one could imagine ever becoming president. He’s a human being with agency and resources. He could have been different. He still can! He can change. I don’t expect him to, but if he doesn’t, it’s on him.

2. The other Republican candidates. None of them are any prizes either, but why couldn’t they beat him? Why weren’t they better candidates?

3. The Republican Party as an institution. It’s not really a political party anymore so much as a ruination machine.

4. Trump’s own inner circle. They couldn’t have stopped him? Physically, if necessary?

5. Hillary Clinton. She could have been a better candidate. She could have campaigned differently. She could have done any number of things to make the election turn out the other way.

6. Bernie Sanders. If Clinton was so terrible a candidate, why couldn’t he beat her? Maybe if he had spent more of his career building connections to African-American communities more people would have supported him.

7. The Democratic Party. They preferred Clinton to Sanders and put their thumb on the scale. They’ve spent decades not paying enough attention to the people who were counting on them.

8. Russia. Not that it’s Vladimir Putin’s job to make sure the USA has good leadership. It’s not. But is it in Russia’s best interests to have Donald Trump in charge of nuclear weapons? I say that it is not. However much Putin might think Trump is his tool. Trump is not reliable and is the kind of tool that will turn in your hand.

9. The media. Gave Trump all kinds of free publicity and let him get away with everything. Too attached to their equal-time, both-sides-do-it paradigm to point out the real difference between the two candidates. Or, really, the real difference between Trump and all the other candidates.

10. The electoral college. It is literally their job to stop this kind of thing from happening. Yeah, I know, nobody really expected them to do it, but still: it’s their job, and they didn’t.

11. The voters. Half of them stayed home and almost a quarter of them voted for Trump. It’s the job of the voters to look over the candidates, to evaluate the available information about them, and to pick the one who would make the best president. And about three-quarters of them didn’t. They didn’t care, or they valued their own racism over the good of the country, or they preferred to listen to lies.

“But, Matthew, you can’t expect–”

No. I guess I can’t. And now Donald Trump is going to be the president. Good job all around!

Liberal democracy is a pretty good system. It’s got some redundancy built in: if one component underperforms, the other components can compensate. But the people who designed it didn’t envision a situation where _all_ the components failed. (Or maybe they did and just figured, oh well, if that happens then you get what you deserve.)

There are people out there who are politically active. They vote (and voted for Clinton in this election), they make sure they are informed on the issues, they do things to help out in their community, they fight injustice. These are the people whose fault Trump’s election is not. The rest of us all have work to do.

Which I hate as much as everyone else does. I don’t want to volunteer or protest or annoy politicians and corporations and media companies. It isn’t any fun. But this is where we are. The only thing we have the power to fix is us. It’s boring uncomfortable work that, these days, may carry with it the risk of being locked up or shot. But we have to do it anyway, because now we know what happens when nobody eats their vegetables for decades: Donald Trump gets elected.

If I Ran the Christmas Countdown

December 24, 2016 Leave a comment

A few years ago, I counted down my top 25 Christmas songs. I’ve expanded the list a lot since then, and changed it, and this is what it looks like now. It’ll probably change again next year.
Note that I’m not saying that these are definitively the best Christmas songs. I’m also not saying that they’re not. What I am saying is that if you set me to come up with a top 100 list, this is what I’d come up with. Artists specified if there’s a definitive version or a best version, not if there’s not.
I hope you see something on here you don’t know, but like!

100. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
99. Every Year so Different (Cornershop feat. Trwbador)
98. Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings)
97. Elf’s Lament (Barenaked Ladies)
96. The Snow Miser Song/The Heat Miser Song (The Year without a Santa Claus OST)
95. Here Comes Santa Claus
94. Hard Candy Christmas (Dolly Parton)
93. Underneath the Tree (Kelly Clarkson)
92. WTF AMP (Letters to Cleo)
91. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (How the Grinch Stole Christmas! OST)

90. Purple Snowflakes (Marvin Gaye)
89. Pretty Paper (Roy Orbison)
88. Away in a Manger
87. Angels We Have Heard on High
86. Snoopy’s Christmas (Royal Guardsmen)
85. Holiday Everything (Phil Marlowe)
84. Fairytale of New York (The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl)
83. O Christmas Tree
82. Do You Hear What I Hear
81. Christmas Vacation (Mavis Staples)

80. The Holly and the Ivy
79. It Came upon the Midnight Clear
78. There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In (Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello)
77. Silent Night
76. Christmas Night in Harlem (Louis Armstrong)
75. Donna and Blitzen (Badly Drawn Boy)
74. Close Your Mouth It’s Christmas (the Free Design)
73. Do They Know It’s Christmas (Band Aid)
72. My Favorite Things (The Sound of Music OST)
71. My Little Snowflake (Prozzak)

70. White Christmas
69. Christmas is All Around (Billy Mack)
68. O Little Town of Bethlehem
67. Run Rudolph Run (Chuck Berry)
66. Joy to the World
65. O Come All Ye Faithful
64. Christmas in Hollis (Run-DMC)
63. The Christmas Song
62. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon and Yoko Ono)
61. Up on the Housetop

60. The Little Drummer Boy
59. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
58. The First Noel
57. Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree (Brenda Lee)
56. Winter Wonderland
55. We Three Kings
54. Green Christmas (Barenaked Ladies)
53. Father Christmas (the Kinks)
52. Christmas Wrapping (the Waitresses)
51. Huron Carol

50. Hallelujah Chorus
49. I Guess There Ain’t No Santa Claus (Barry Manilow)
48. Jolly Old St. Nicholas
47. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
46. Santa Baby (Madonna)
45. Good King Wenceslas
44. 2000 Miles (Pretenders)
43. Holly Jolly Christmas
42. Christmastime (Oh Yeah) (Barenaked Ladies)
41. Lost Winter’s Dream (Lisa Mychols)

40. The Twelve Days of Christmas (John Denver and the Muppets)
39. I Saw Three Ships
38. Last Christmas (Wham!)
37. Another Christmas Song (Stephen Colbert)
36. Power Pop Santa (the Pointed Sticks)
35. Making Christmas (A Nightmare Before Christmas OST)
34. I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas (Gayla Peevey)
33. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
32. Linus and Lucy (A Charlie Brown Christmas OST)
31. It Snowed (Meaghan Smith)

30. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
29. Silver Bells
28. Deck the Halls
27. Carolina Christmas (Squirrel Nut Zippers)
26. Blue Christmas
25. Christmastime Is Here (A Charlie Brown Christmas OST)
24. Cool Yule (Louis Armstrong)
23. Five Pound Box of Money (Pearl Bailey)
22. Christmas in Killarney (Barra MacNeils)
21. Oi! To the World

20. At Last I’m Ready for Christmas (Barra MacNeils)
19. Welcome Christmas (How the Grinch Stole Christmas! OST)
18. The Closing of the Year (Wendy & Lisa)
17. Sleigh Ride
16. What’s This? (A Nightmare Before Christmas OST)
15. F##k Christmas (Eric Idle)
14. Jingle Bells (Barenaked Ladies)
13. Jingle Bell Rock (Randy Travis)
12. Marshmallow World (Kim Stockwood)
11. We Need a Little Christmas (the Muppets)

10. White Wine in the Sun (Tim Minchin)
9. Christmas Comes But Once a Year (Christmas in Carrick) (Barra MacNeils)
8. Step into Christmas (Elton John)
7. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (Roy Wood and Wizzard)
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!/Count Your Blessings/We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Ray Conniff Singers)
5. O Holy Night
4. Carol of the Bells
3. All I Want for Christmas Is You (Olivia Olson)
2. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (Darlene Love)
1. Christmas Dream (Mistletones)

On the Toronto Blue Jays: The Short Term

February 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Sometimes a baseball team is in a position where it should make moves for the short term. Sometimes it’s in a position where it should make moves for the long term. Sometimes it can do either or both.

Right now the Toronto Blue Jays should be making moves for the short term. See, most of their best players are getting up there in age. They’re going to be relying heavily on RF Jose Bautista (34), 1B Edwin Encarnacion (32), SS Jose Reyes (32), C Russell Martin (32), SP R.A. Dickey (40), and SP Mark Buehrle (36). That’s a lot of guys past their prime. They’re still good, mind you, or at least they were last year and there’s reason to believe they will be again this year. The point is not that these guys aren’t good.

But they won’t be good for too much longer. It’s a rare baseball player who’s still good at 33 years of age.*

So, if the Jays are going to win with these guys, it had better be pretty soon.

And the Jays do want to win with these guys.

So it had better be pretty soon. Like, this year, preferably.

Therefore they should be making some moves that will pay off this year, as opposed to a few years from now.

But that’s not what they’re doing.

– They’re turning centre field over to Dalton Pompey (22), who looks good, but who knows if he’s going to be able to put it together in 2015? He might need a year or two to acclimate to the major leagues.
– They solved their second base problem by trading for Devon Travis (24), who probably won’t be ready for the major leagues by the start of the 2015 season, and will get by as best they can with Maicer Izturis and Steve Tolleson and Munenori Kawasaki and Ryan Goins and Ramon Santiago until then.
– They’re going to be using some combination of Marcus Stroman (24), Drew Hutchison (24), Daniel Norris (22), and Aaron Sanchez (22) to play key roles on the pitching staff. They all looked good last year, but young pitchers will break your heart.

These are all long-term moves. They’re moves that you make because you expect them to work out well in a year or two, but not necessarily right away. But necessarily-right-away is exactly what the Jays need right now.

They need to win this year. Not because the manager and general manager are worried about their job security; that’s their problem. But because the clock is ticking on their strongest assets. This is not the year to try to get by with prospects and spare parts.

(Note: of course it’s true that veterans can let you down just as badly as young players. Their performances are somewhat more predictable in the short run, though, and you take what edges you can get.)

* Let me put it this way. Here’s a list of everybody who’s ever played for the Jays who’s going to be exactly 33 in the 2015 season (according to seasonal ages on Baseball Reference):

Jeremy Accardo
Taylor Buchholz
Buck Coats
Ben Francisco
*Aaron Hill
*Casey Janssen
*Kelly Johnson
Shaun Marcum
*Dustin McGowan
David Purcey
*Guillermo Quiroz
Mark Teahen
Merkin Valdez
Jamie Vermilyea

Only fourteen guys; I thought it would be more. Oh well. Anyway, of those fourteen, only five still have major league careers: Hill, still a regular but it looks like he’s on the downside; Janssen, still a closer but starting to show some cracks; Johnson, clearly on the downside; McGowan, who hasn’t signed with anyone at the moment and whose future is unclear; Quiroz, a bench player who had two major league at bats last year.

Of the rest, some of them are never-weres, but there are also some good players there. Guys who couldn’t make it to where Bautista, Dickey, and Buehrle are now. So, great for Bautista, Dickey, and Buehrle, but with every year it makes it a little more likely that they won’t be able to do it again the next year.

This is the club that Reyes, Encarnacion, and Martin are joining in 2016.

On The 13 Clocks

July 27, 2014 2 comments

I haven’t updated this website in quite a while. I am still writing. Not as often as I’d like, but I am still writing.

Here’s something that I realized recently. And for all I know, I’m the only one who’s realized it. I did search the web to see if this was a well-known thing, but found nothing.

It has to do with James Thurber’s fantasy novel The 13 Clocks. The 13 Clocks has been somewhat in the news recently, thanks to Neil Gaiman’s laudable efforts to bring attention to it and get it back into print. I first heard of the book, I dunno, a bunch of years ago and tracked down a copy at a library discard store. I liked it but I don’t know if I had reread it since that first time before just recently.

When I heard about Gaiman’s crusade, I thought to myself, I should read that again. So I read it to my son as bedtime reading. Now, there’s one part… hold on.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

There’s one part where Zorn, the hero of the story, and his friend the Golux have to collect a bunch of gems in a really short time. They’ve heard of a woman named Hagga who cries gemstones, so they figure they should go to her. They use this magical rose that they have to find their way to her, but when they get there, they can’t get her to cry. She’s all cried out because everybody wants her gems.

The good news is, tears of laughter produce gems too. They don’t last as long as the cried kind but Zorn doesn’t mind that. So they try to get her to laugh. This doesn’t work well either, and it looks like they’ve failed. And then, suddenly, Hagga starts laughing like crazy for no particular reason and cries jewels all over the place. Zorn and the Golux collect up the gemstones and thank her and take off out of there.

So, when I read it, I thought that that was pretty weak. They need her to laugh, and she doesn’t, and then all of a sudden she does? Inexplicably? Because of nothing that Zorn or the Golux did? That’s no way to tell a story. So why did Hagga laugh?

But! Then I noticed the last paragraph of that chapter, after Zorn and the Golux have left:

Inside the hut, something red and larger than a ruby glowed among the jewels and Hagga picked it up. “A rose,” she said. “They must have dropped it.”

Obviously this is the magical rose they used to find her in the first place; that part is no problem. The key thing here is, “dropping a rose” is a euphemism for farting. And in the world of The 13 Clocks, the boundaries between the metaphorical and the actual are pretty blurry. So maybe that’s what Hagga was laughing at! Maybe Thurber had the plot of his fairy tale, and the fates of Zorn of Zorna, Princess Saralinda, and the evil duke, all depend on his own fart joke.

Does this hold water for anybody?

I’d really like to know what Neil Gaiman thinks about it. Oh well…

On Encyclopedia Brown: the Bugs Meany Introductions

February 25, 2014 2 comments

Every now and then I like to provide a valuable resource for those of us who consult the internet for things, when I can think of one, and I’ve thought of one.

You may or may not be familiar with the Encyclopedia Brown series of books by Donald J. Sobol. Sobol wrote them for kids, starting in 1963 and ending only with his untimely death at the age of 87 in 2012. Each book was a collection of short stories in which our hero, a boy named Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, is presented with a mystery, which he solves, but doesn’t reveal how he solves it; you have to either figure that out yourself or check the answers in the back of the book for that.

Encyclopedia’s arch-enemy is Bugs Meany, the leader of a gang of older boys called the Tigers. Bugs and the Tigers are tough and unscrupulous but not that smart. In each volume, Sobol introduces us to Bugs Meany and the Tigers, and as the series went on, the introductions became the best part of the book and were often worth the price of admission all by themselves.

In the first book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, Encyclopedia didn’t know Bugs and the Tigers yet, and his client had to explain to him who they were: “‘Oh, no,’ replied Clarence. ‘Tigers–that’s the name of a boys’ club near the canal. The boys are plenty tough, all of them. But their leader, Bugs Meany, is the toughest one.'”

The second book, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch, had a real introduction, but Sobol hadn’t hit his stride with them yet, and wouldn’t for another few volumes: “Bugs Meany was the leader of the Tigers, a gang of older boys who caused more trouble than itching powder in Friday’s wash.”

3. Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues: “Bugs Meany was the leader of the Tigers, a gang of older boys who caused more trouble than woodpeckers around a maypole.”

4. Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man: “Bugs Meany was the leader of the Tigers, a gang of tough older boys. When it came to upsetting the peace of the neighborhood, they were worse than noisy plumbing.”

Sobol finds his winning formula with 5. Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All: “Bugs Meany was the leader of a gang of wild older boys. They called themselves the Tigers. They should have called themselves the Berries. They were always getting into one jam after another.” The best introductions are of this form, and Sobol would use it for most of the rest of the series, with a few exceptions.

6. Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace: “They should have called themselves the Tea Bags. They were always getting into hot water.”

7. Encyclopedia Brown Saves the Day: “They should have called themselves the weathermen. They never stole anything till the coast was clear.”

8. Encyclopedia Brown Tracks Them Down: “‘Give Bugs a free hand, and he’ll stick it right into your pocket,’ said Encyclopedia. Bugs Meany was the leader of a gang of tough older boys. Encyclopedia had often been hired to stop their stealing and cheating.”

9. Encyclopedia Brown Shows the Way: “They should have called themselves the Umbrella Carts. They were always pulling something shady.”

10. Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Case: “Bugs Meany was the leader of the Tigers, a gang of tough older boys. Encyclopedia was often called upon to stop their dishonest doings. Only last week he had put a halt to the Tigers’ ‘Giant Summer Pet Sale’. Bugs had dipped seven sparrows in peroxide and tried to sell them as canaries.”

11. Encyclopedia Brown Lends a Hand: “Bugs was the leader of a gang of tough older boys called the Tigers. Encyclopedia was kept busy stopping their crooked doings. Only last week Bugs had filled a glass bowl with water and hung a sign on it: ‘Invisible Fish. Two Dollars a Pair.’ Little kids watched for air bubbles and shouted, ‘There’s one!'”

12. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Dead Eagles: “They should have called themselves the Mountaineers. They were never on the level.”

13. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Midnight Visitor: “They should have called themselves the Taffee Twisters. They were always pulling something crooked.”

14. Encyclopedia Brown Carries On: “They should have called themselves the Elbow Bands. They were always up to something crooked.”

15. Encyclopedia Brown Sets the Pace: “They should have called themselves the Razors. They were always getting into scrapes.”

15½. Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake: “They should have called themselves the Pretzel Makers. They always tried to make dough the crooked way.”

16. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Mysterious Handprints: “They should have called themselves the Pocket Watches. They always watched for the police while their hands went around in some little kid’s pocket.”

17. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt: “They should have called themselves the Spoons. They were always stirring up trouble.”

18. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Disgusting Sneakers: “They should have called themselves the Steel Clocks. They were always giving some little kid a hard time.”

19. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Two Spies: “In Encyclopedia’s opinion they should have called themselves the Shoelaces. When they weren’t tied up cheating little kids, they were at loose ends.”

20. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of Pablo’s Nose: “They should have called themselves the Pots and Pans. They were always cooking up trouble.”

21. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Sleeping Dog: “They should have called themselves the Gift Factory. They were always giving some little kid the works.”

A repeat! What a rip-off. 22. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Slippery Salamander: “They should have called themselves the Tea Bags. They were always getting into hot water.”

23. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Jumping Frogs: “They should have called themselves the Spurs. They always arrived on the heels of trouble.”

24. Encyclopedia Brown Cracks the Case: “They should have called themselves the Screwdrivers. They were always twisting the truth.”

25. Encyclopedia Brown, Super Sleuth: “They should have called themselves the Pirates. They ‘sailed the seas’ of Idaville, always ready to steal the treasure of the small kids. Encyclopedia would have liked to make all the Tigers walk the plank.”

26. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret UFOs: “They should have been called the Shepherds. They were always trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes.”

27. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Carnival Crime: “They were so underhanded that sometimes they had trouble raising their arms over their heads.”

A partial repeat. 28. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme: “They should have called themselves the Lamp Chains. They were always pulling something shady.”

My top five are

5. 13.
4. 21.
3. 14.
2. 9.
1. 18.

Oh, and while I’m at it I might as well mention that Sobol also wrote a teen spy novel called Secret Agents Four which is really good and I recommend it to all.

On Naming Teams

May 15, 2013 Leave a comment

So my eldest son, Thing One, plays Little League baseball. Which is awesome. But I would like to say two words about the shameful lack of imagination that prevails when it comes time to name the teams.

In his first year, Thing One’s team had T-shirts that were a maroon or burgundy colour, and the kids were encouraged to come up with a name for the team having something to do with the colour. They eventually settled on the Daredevils, which doesn’t really have much to do with the colour, but never mind. Other teams in the league were called the Cardinals and Bulls, which ho hum, but also Green Crushers and Black Bullets and Frost Giants and Purple Poison Vipers, which are awesome. So that was fine.

Then the next year his T-shirt was bright red. This time the coach dragged his heels on putting any names up for a vote, even after encouraging the kids to come up with names, and eventually said, “Aah, let’s just call ourselves the Reds.” This motion did not carry, which I was grateful for, because I had thought up a bunch of red-related team names which I suggested to Thing One for his approval:

the Roosters
the Laserbeams
the Red Alerts
the Kings of Diamonds
the Strawberry Punch
the Valuable Rubies
the Hotshots
the Hot Prospects

He liked the Strawberry Punch, and suggested that to his team along with one of his own devising, the Flaming Monkeys. The one that carried the day was the Red Devils, which another player contributed. (I think the recurring “devil” thing was a coincidence. Could have been worse.) And while they were discussing it, this other kid, who just happened to be hanging around, not even a baseball-playing kid, suggested the Explosive Apples, which I thought was sheer genius. Imagine the logo of a team called that: an apple with a lit fuse in place of the stem.

And now this year. The jerseys are blue, so the coach imposed Blue Sox by fiat at the start of the season, but later opened it up for suggestions, and the kids ended up voting between the Blue Eagles and the Blue Jays. “Blue Jays” carried the day, which pleased Thing One, but didn’t do much for me, despite my long-standing fandom for the Toronto Blue Jays. Because come on. Let’s unleash the imagination here, let’s come up with something that nobody else has ever used. Blue Eagles isn’t bad in that sense, but I think we can do better. Maybe:

the Kingfishers
the Sky Tyrants
the Valuable Sapphires (well, they didn’t use the idea the first time!)
the Angry Sea
the Blue Diamonds
the Ice Storm
the Ultramarines
the Jump Blues

Possibilities!

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On “Harry Potter” and Wizard’s Hall

March 16, 2013 Leave a comment

So recently I read someplace about a book called Wizard’s Hall, by Jane Yolen. Yolen seems to think her book was an unacknowledged influence on J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, of which you may have heard. I figured, well, I like Jane Yolen* and I like Harry Potter, so I should totally check this book out.

And I’m glad I did. It’s not a big read; it’s pitched young and fairly slim. Didn’t remind me of Harry Potter at all. There are some superficial similarities, it’s true: wizard school, and a few smaller details. Mostly Wizard’s Hall reminds me of, oh, The Last Unicorn and The Riddle-Master of Hed, and other fantasies of that vintage. A Wizard of Earthsea. Same kind of atmosphere.

Basically here’s what I think is happening. I think that the main premise of what Rowling was doing with Harry Potter has not been widely enough recognized. I mean, it’s no secret or anything, nor do I lay claim to any kind of special understanding. But in North America, we just aren’t as familiar with one of Rowling’s major ingredients, and in some cases may not even know that it is an ingredient. See, the “Harry Potter” series isn’t just a fantasy series. It certainly is a fantasy series, but that’s not the only thing it is. It is two things, in roughly equal parts:

1. A fantasy epic
2. A British school story

If you’ve read “Harry Potter”, but aren’t otherwise familiar with the school-story genre, it may sound like I’ve just said something stupidly trivial. Like if I said that The Lord of the Rings was both a fantasy epic and a Middle-Earth Ring story. But that’s not it. The British school story is an actual thing, a genre on its own. Wikipedia can tell you all about it that you have to know, but my point here is that it is an established genre that Rowling and her British readers would be largely familiar with, and that it has a lot of conventions.** Rowling’s particular stroke of genius was to realize that if you take a convention-heavy genre like the school story, and marry it to an imaginative, content-rich, convention-poor genre like fantasy, you could come up with something really exciting. Which she did.

So a lot of the stuff Rowling was doing in “Harry Potter”, she wasn’t just freestyling. The Quidditch, the chocolate frogs, the Hogwarts setting… she wasn’t inventing all that out of whole cloth, on the one hand, but she wasn’t ripping anybody off on the other. She was working within her genre and adapting its conventions to fantasy. And what she came up with wasn’t like anything else in fantasy and was at the same time unprecedentedly popular. And you couldn’t explain the popularity by the strength of the writing, which certainly got the job done but was sometimes clunky.*** So how to explain it?

Well, it’s hard to explain, if you’re trying to figure out how Rowling filled up this rich and vivid world, and you don’t know that she had this preexisting school-story paradigm to keep her on track. If you’re being very generous, or you’re well-disposed to Rowling, you might just say that she has a tremendous imagination.**** Or you may very well be tempted to say that she got this from this writer and that from that writer. But it’s really much simpler than that.

Conclusion: Yolen doesn’t have a beef: you can’t start at Wizard’s Hall and get to “Harry Potter” without going through school-story-ville, and if you’re going through school-story-ville, you don’t need to start at Wizard’s Hall.

(Note: I have no idea whether Yolen is familiar with British school stories or not. She’s a writer, so my basic expectation would be that she’s read widely, and has run into Wodehouse’s Mike and Psmith or Blyton’s “Malory Towers” series or something. On the other hand: all my reasoning above. So I make no claims to have any idea what’s in Yolen’s mind with regard to all this.)

* try Yolen’s Briar Rose in particular, it’s very good
** not that kind of convention
*** certainly there are fantasy writers out there who are much better prose stylists, and much less popular, than Rowling. Yolen arguably among them
**** not that she doesn’t. A genre will only take you so far. She had to come up with all the details; the genre only gave her guidance for what kinds of details to come up with