The Limits of Satire

Leave a comment

Harvard Extension puts their course syllabi online for free download.

Thanks to this generosity, I’m “taking” a course on satire now.

Following a course syllabus is fun, because it makes me read things I otherwise wouldn’t, and think about them harder than I otherwise would. (I’m a lazy reader by nature.)

I guess I’ve never understood satire, or rather never understood the limits of it. When I hear the word Satire, I think of Gulliver’s Travels, Animal Farm, Candide. And they do indeed kick off the reading list.

Gulliver in Lilliput, a make-believe world that parodies our own

But then the course goes on to things I wouldn’t think of – “Ku Klux” by Langston Hughes, The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, and others that are 1) not funny, 2) not clearly allegorical, and 3) shockingly bad/violent, but in a realistic way.

So what exactly is the line that separates satire from just reporting of the world as it is? If I’d read, a couple years ago, a story about a US president publicly mocking governors of his own country while they struggle with an outbreak of disease, while he simultaneously tries to corner the market on that disease’s vaccine, it would’ve been a satirical exaggeration of politicians’ greed and indifference. But if you wrote that story today, could you still call it satire?

Literal public statement from actual president of the United States

Hughes’ poem Ku Klux, too. It’s over-the-top violence and hypocrisy and ignorance. But is it satire, if exactly that sort of thing really happens as reported?

Ku Klux Klan, real people, still with us.

If I could afford to actually take the class, this might’ve been covered on day 1. But I can’t, and I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

Pretty pictures that have nothing to do with COVID-19.

Leave a comment

I feel like my brain has completely shut off. I thought working from home would be fun. And it would be, if I weren’t trying to home school a seven year old at the same time. No one I know is sick, and my job, house, and grocery supply are all fairly secure, so I really do feel I have nothing to complain about. Which makes it all the worse, because I love complaining.

Sinners being tortured in hell.

So I’m looking at pretty pictures tonight. I had been taking a satire class, but the next few books in the reading list are all very dark (Nathanael West, George Orwell, blech) and, just, no, none of that.

Adulterers being paraded naked through the streets.

Hee hee hee, what are those ropes tied to?

May I recommend this very nice coffee table book? It’s got a great mix of pictures thrown in, and makes for an entertaining read, with very little discussion of historical plagues.

The Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam

To all five people who read this blog, stay safe and sane out there.

Sunday night poem

Leave a comment

I’d like to say something about Langston Hughes, but I’ve got nothing that hasn’t been said before. He’s awesome. This is for those of us who have to go back to work tomorrow.

Little Lyric (of great importance)
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

Burning heretics, orthodoxy, hypocrisy, etc.

Leave a comment

It turns out the very first medieval persons of Europe to be burned alive as Heretics were a group of 11th century priests who, after a trial in which they apparently ultimately confessed (I still have to search for details on the trial methods), were herded into a shack that was then set ablaze.

Jean Luyken, 14 chanoines d’Orléans brûlés pour hérésie en 1022

The details of their heretical doctrines are scant, and it’s entirely possible the rift was only about political affiliations: who controlled the archbishopric of Orléans, with all the power and silver that went along with that.

History is a calming subject to study, I find. I get so worked up reading It feels sometimes like humanity has already jumped off the cliff and is now furiously flapping its arms in the wrong direction, trying to get its skull against that ground as fast as possible. (Key Doctor Who quote: “You’re middle aged. Middle aged people always think the world is coming to an end.”)

Eccleston, still the best Doctor.

History, I find, reminds me that people have always been dishonest, cruel, and self-serving. And that, if occasionally we go through a couple hundred years of burning each other alive over minor disagreements, led on by people who delight in corrupting the uneducated for their own immediate pecuniary interests to the detriment of the entire race, on the whole we survive and pull through. That gives me hope for my daughter. For her future survival. Hope I nearly lost this afternoon when she rolled her eyes at me after I asked her to help me clean her room. She will live on, in defiance of petty and irrational rages.

Oh, and Twyla Tharp creativity routine update: For two weeks now I’ve set my alarm for 5:00 am. I got up at that time three days in a row, and really enjoyed the creative time to myself. And then I was done with that. I am a morning person, but when it’s dark outside, it’s still last night, and I need to be asleep. I’m re-setting my alarm.

Routine creativity, and drunken parrots

Leave a comment

I just started reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, and I don’t know why I never have before. Other than my generalized dislike for “self-help” type books.

The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life

Already on chapter two, I feel inspired. On the topic of establishing rituals, Ms. Tharp shares that her morning routine is to wake up at 0dark:30, take a cab to the gym, and work out for two hours. Which is exactly the kind of nonsense advice you find in a self-help book.

BUT, Ms. Tharp in her wisdom is not trying to tell me to do that. The ritual part she’s stressing is the fact of going downstairs and giving the gym address to the cab driver. I LOVE this concept of breaking it up, and telling yourself you only really have to commit to that first part. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? Routinely getting yourself in too deep to turn around?

That much, I can do. So starting this morning I’m trying out a new ritual. Set the alarm 45 minutes earlier than normal, and get up and make the coffee. From there (cup in hand, contacts in), it should be easier to sit down at my table and pick up a pen than it would be to go back to bed.

Ha ha ha, yes I’m obviously not going to the gym. That’s still nonsense. No, this is a writing ritual.

I’ve been writing only on lunch breaks and at night for a long time, because that’s when my free time is. I do have plenty of time at night, once the kid goes to bed at eight-ish. Single parenting isn’t as hard as it’s made out to be, in my experience (as long as the bills are paid, and that is admittedly a huge caveat). You can devote quality time to the parent-child relationship, and still have plenty of free time to read and write, so long as you cut out the less important things, like cooking, cleaning, exercise, shopping, personal hygiene, social life, and other supererogatories. It’s about priorities.

But by night, when my free time rolls around, I tend to have very little brain power left. And no discipline. After nine hours at the office, I’ve used up my daily allotment of discipline in the endless two-part struggle to not roll my eyes at people, and also not flip them off until after they’ve walked away.

But when I set the alarm to wake up early, it’s far too easy to lay in bed and decide it’s not worth getting up, because I can’t think of a single thing worth writing at the moment.

But just committing to making the coffee, that seems doable. It went great this morning.

Wish me luck for tomorrow!

Off-topic. I accidentally ordered a book that was untranslated from the original Latin. Rather than return it, I decided on a tremendous side-track, and now I’m learning Latin. I still have a copy of Wheelock’s from college, and I even still remember a little.

But Duolingo has Latin up now, and I highly recommend it. They use the normal Duolingo conversational format, the opposite of Wheelock’s structure. I’m using both at once. Duolingo is more portable, more “naturalistic” in patterns, and has a greater emphasis on drunken parrots, for some reason I don’t know, but for which I am grateful.

Day-drinking parrot.
Jimmy Buffet parrot.
Theirs too.
Drunk animal abuse.

How many deniers are in a livre?

Leave a comment

1 livre = 20 sous = 240 deniers. I’m relieved we switched to a base ten system. That’s a whole lot of math. In the Carolingian period, only the denier was an actual coin, livres and sous were accounting tricks.

Here’s something I was fascinated to find this week, in the book “La Vie Quotidienne dans l’Empire Carolingien,” by Pierre Riché, and maybe it’s just because my mind is on tax season.

This is a list of typical market prices in France in 794. Obviously things fluctuated year to year and location to location, but here at least, is a ballpark. There was a famine in 793 that drove up the price of everything. So in 794 the emperor published a list of market prices that necessities had to be sold for. That’s where at least some of this comes from.

The government did step in and control prices from time to time. To enforce the fixed maximum prices, it was for a long time apparently required by law to transact sales only during the day and with a witness.

1 hogshead of oats = 1 denier.
1 hogshead of wheat = 6 deniers
1 sheep = 12-15 deniers
1 sword = 60 deniers
1 male slave = 144 deniers

Price fixing was made a more complicated endeavor by the fact that units of measure varied from region to region and time to time. A hogshead could be anywhere from 20 to 70 liters.

I don’t know why pricing is given here for male slaves but not for female. Maybe women’s values were more subjective? Or maybe the author just didn’t want to get into that.

M. Riché passed away last year, sadly. This is the first of his books I’ve read, but I’ll be ordering more. He did a fantastic job taking a huge amount of random information and compiling it into a dense but still very engaging (even funny) read.

Best novel editing tip I’ve ever heard

Leave a comment

And this has nothing to do with “show, don’t tell” or “avoid passive voice” and subjective things like that.

This is the best advice I have ever heard, and it came from Maxwell Alexander Drake, who is a reputable author, and who also gives free advice at

For those of us lucky enough to live in Las Vegas, he does free monthly classes, year-round. And he has several excellent craft books out.

Now I think I’ve said enough to make me feel like I’m paying homage rather than just sharing this genius tip without his permission:

Go through your completed book, and highlight all the dialogue. Choose a different color for each recurring character. Then, you can scan through quickly, reading all of one person’s lines all at once, to make sure they sound like they’re in character throughout.

Genius, right?