The Sh*t I’ll Never Say on Facebook

I’m not myself on Facebook. There, I said it. But then, no one really is. Social media isn’t really us, is it? Like every other social media application, Facebook profiles are the drop-down selection, check-the-box version of us. The self-serving, digital distortion we choose to present to other drop-down, check-the-box digital distortions.

If you’ve known me in person for any length of time, you know me to be much more sarcastic and pessimistic than I ever am online. On Facebook I’m the nicer version of me. The cocktail party me. The polite me. The watered-down, best-behavior, heavily redacted me. I can’t be the real me, of course, primarily because Facebook has become, sadly, an amplification tool for hate speech. One “wrong” word can trigger an avalanche of judgement from the countless trolls (Left, Right, Christian, Atheist, 2nd amendment activists, anti-2nd amendment activists, and so on) who live to use the safety and anonymity of social media to scream self-righteous judgement from the mountaintops. I don’t fear getting crushed by that avalanche. I simply view it as a monumental waste of time and energy. No one ever wins or loses an argument on Facebook. No one ever changes an opinion with an I’ll-set-this-S.O.B.-straight post. So what’s the point of clogging up my news feed with bullshit?

So maybe you’re feeling a bit ripped off, a bit under-served. Well, you have been, I’m sorry to say. But in the interest of I’m-not-quite-sure-what, I thought I’d jot down a few things that’ll give you some insights into the real me. The one you’d get to know if you had beers with me or went to school with me or worked with me. Call it the NSFF (not safe for Facebook) list of my beliefs / thoughts / opinions. Enjoy.

  • Woody Allen’s personal life grosses me out, but I love his movies.
  • With very few exceptions, most military science fiction is the literary equivalent of a mindless Bruckheimer action movie.
  • Private gun ownership should not exist. The average person is far too stupid and irresponsible to own a firearm.
  • I have several litmus tests I use to assess people. This is wrong and I know it, but I still do it all the same. Here are a few: your opinion of Sarah Palin, your opinion of the movie “300”, what you read, how much you mention God.
  • The death penalty is stupid. I’m not a libertarian, but the idea that the state can get the death sentence right every time is ludicrous. The state shouldn’t have this power.
  • The jury system is crazy. Do I really want twelve semi-educated, easily duped, reality TV-watchers deciding my fate? No fucking way.
  • Ditto direct democracy. See above point.
  • I could never be a starving artist. I’m too bourgeois, first of all (a shameful admission). But also I’m too frightened of the nightmare of being poor in this country.
  • George Lucas can’t write, and Star Wars Episodes 1-3 should be a business case in MBA textbooks. Those 3 movies represent how horribly wrong things can go when a rich, powerful person surrounds himself with those whose livelihoods depend on them agreeing with every idea the boss has, no matter how ridiculous.
  • I still can’t wrap my head around how we’ve arrived at a point in this country where a contemporary P.T. Barnum is a hair’s breath away from occupying the White House. We are a nation of rubes.
  • In my personal experience, there’s a nearly 100% correlation between how much someone talks about religion and how much of an intolerant, bigoted asshole they are.

Surprised? Angry? Disappointed? Don’t worry. If you don’t think you’d like the person who wrote these words, you can always check out the Facebook David. I hear he’s a lot nicer.

The Hardest Job I Ever Had and What It Taught Me

As people age, many tend to look back a lot more than they look forward, assessing the good, the bad, and the ugly of their lives. If you’re like me, you very nearly obsess over it: second-guessing the roads not taken; shaking your head over bad decisions; whistling in amazement at how much chance and dumb luck play a part in your cradle-to-grave journey.

I sometimes reflect back on all the jobs I’ve had, and specifically, what I learned from them. And from just about every angle, there was one job–the hardest, most stressful job I ever had–where I developed tools and skills that have served me well, even long after I left the job. Was it my fast-paced consulting gig after grad school? Nope. My stint at a software company where I covered Asia Pacific and Latin America? No. Was it my nearly two-decade career at a Fortune 100 technology company? Not that one, either.

The hardest job I ever had–and the one that taught me the most–was waiting tables in college.

While that may sound odd, for those of you who’ve spent any time slaving away in a restaurant, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.

Here’s what you learn when you work as a waiter, especially if you’re employed at a popular, busy restaurant:

  • Dealing with pressure. One of the most intense, stressful, fast-moving environments is a busy restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night. If you can’t think on your feet and move your ass, you’ll get run over. Day traders, ER doctors, you think you have it tough? Puh-lease. Try dealing with getting triple-sat on a Saturday at 8PM.
  • Making quick decisions. Get the salads out, take the appetizer order, open a bottle of wine, refill ice teas. A busy shift for a waiter involves hundreds, if not thousands, of on-the-spot decisions. You keep a running list in your head of a couple dozen tasks that need to get done NOW, and the list constantly changes and gets re-prioritized. New items hit the list (sugar packets just ran out on table seven!) as fast as you can check off the existing ones. It’s a torturous mind-fuck of a thing–many can’t take it and melt down or simply walk out. And after your shift ends, it takes hours for your mind to slow down enough for sleep.
  • Engaging in the art of small talk. When you wait tables, you learn how to have efficient, meaningful, friendly conversations with total strangers. This is an underappreciated aspect of the job, and once you’ve mastered this skill, you’ll use it countless times over the course of your life. At cocktail parties, at conferences, at any place where you have to strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met.
  • Dealing with assholes. Few jobs teach you how to handle the angry, rude, or just plain mean members of the general public like waiting tables. Your choices are to smile and take it or find a way to de-escalate the madness. Arguing and smart-assery will get you shown the door, so you learn to deal with the jerks if you want to stay employed. And (surprise!) once you’re finished waiting tables, you’re not done dealing with the ass-hats. They’ll follow you into the corporate world (usually in sales or finance), the PTA, the charitable organization, or wherever else you end up doing work. And the skills you learned the hard way–by getting bitched out by every fragile-ego jerkoff who needed a self-esteem boost–will come in handy for years to come.

The list of life lessons from waiting tables could go on and on. You learn about yourself, how much you can take before you break, how much bullshit you can deal with. You learn about the general public, much of it ugly and disappointing. Stereotypes get broken. The super-rich can be the nicest, most patient and polite people you’ve ever met. The dedicated churchgoers of the middle class can be the rudest, least tolerant, and ugliest humans on the planet.

For those of us who spent our college years waiting tables or bartending, you know what I’m talking about. We got a lifetime’s worth of lessons, good and bad, about ourselves and humanity.

A Critique Group Write-Up of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

Hi Frank,

I really enjoyed your submission this month (even though it was about 175K words over our normal 10K limit…Side note: please try to respect the submission rules. We’re here to help, not be abused). It was a fun read and there was lots that kept me interested. You’ve created a really interesting world (even a map!) that was engrossing and an interesting cast of characters.

My main critique points are as follows:

  • You head jump constantly. This is a real ‘new writer’ kind of thing to do, and it won’t get past most slush pile readers. Show us what the characters are thinking by what they do, how they react, what they say, etc. Don’t just jump into their head and italicize I don’t know if I can trust this Fremen dude. Too easy!
  • The scene where Kynes is dying ventures into the classic ‘as you know Bob’ pitfall, just with the hallucination of his father substituted for Bob. It felt very data dumpy. You might want to figure out a better way to weave this into the narrative.
  • The Harkonnens feel a bit one dimensional to me. They struck me as just a group of “baddies just being bad”. Do they have a backstory? Why are they so angry? I felt like this was a gap in the story.
  • I’m not sure I buy the Baron H’s weight problem. Seems like a fairly advanced civilization not to have lap band surgery. This kept pulling me out of the story. Please reconsider this character trait.
  • Duke Leto is kind of the perfect white male hero everybody’s trying to get away from these days. You might want to consider re-shaping him into something more believable. The SJWs are gonna kill you on this one, I promise. I have to admit, I cheered a bit when he met his demise.
  • The whole “there’s a limited resource of immeasurable value concentrated to a small geographic area” felt a bit heavy handed to me. Oil? Hello? We get it. Then we have the locals who aren’t taken seriously, abused by corrupt overlords who don’t respect their religion, way of life, blah, blah, blah. Is this a story or an extended critique of modern western capitalism? Just something to think about. If I might offer a suggestion (which, yes, I KNOW we’re just supposed to say what didn’t work for us, not how to fix it), you might consider turning down the obviousness a few notches.
  • So let me get this right, at some point in the far future, everybody just kind of STOPPED using high-end computers, did I read that correctly? All of humanity just kind of collectively agreed to stop using them, and instead they rely on these brainy Mentat people who drink some kind of stuff that stains their lips (honestly, I kept thinking of my two-year-old with a grape juice mustache). And none of these ruthless, ambitious royal houses–even though they lie and cheat and steal at every opportunity–EVER secretly developed advanced computers to gain an advantage? I’m not sure I’m buying that. Ditto on the ‘no nukes’ prohibition. It just seems too easy, Frank. You need to pump up the plausibility here.
  • Fremen dialogue. I have to be very honest here, these guys talk to each other like ten-year-olds trying to imitate Shakesperian English, who come off sounding ridiculous (like laughingly bad). I know that sounds harsh, but try reading their dialogue out loud. If you can get two sentences out of your mouth without laughing, I’ll buy you a latte.

Well, those are my main points. I had fun reading “Working Title: Sandy Planet with Big Worms”, even with all the rough edges. Your story has great potential and best of luck with the edits! And don’t forget, next month it’s a firm 10K word limit. Have a good week and keep writing!

Donald Trump and the Shameless Vilification of Immigrants

The politics of fear and hate is nothing new. Politicians and propagandists have long understood the most effective way to rile up the masses is to appeal to the angels of our worse nature. It’s not a new trick, scapegoating society’s easiest targets, blaming them for any number of problems. Jews, Christians, Irish Catholics, African Americans, Yankee Imperialists, Red Communists, and so on. Those strange people with different customs and different clothes, who speak in strange-sounding tongues. They want to take away your way of life, run away with your daughter, force you to do things you don’t want to. In politics the blame game is old hat, here and around the world.

But in the case of Donald Trump, we may have seen a new American low when it comes to the vilification of undocumented immigrants.

In my state of Texas, about two-thirds of all undocumented immigrants are from Mexico. Most come from circumstances most white Americans can’t begin to understand. When I lived in Mexico City and made many trips around the country, the relentless suffering of that country’s poorest made a huge impression on me. The living nightmare of the poor in underdeveloped nations is something, once you see it, you simply can’t forget. It’s cruel, ugly, and it breaks your heart. To make things worse, corruption and graft pervade every level of Mexican society, making social mobility through hard work, a concept many Americans take for granted, a practical impossibility (with the possible exception of the drug trade). When you’re down, you stay down.

Faced with such hardships, many make the risky, expensive decision to come to the U.S. illegally. Sure, they won’t be legal, but this is a small tradeoff for the chance to live in a place where they can work and raise a family in relative security. So they come here and work their asses off in the most backbreaking jobs imaginable, the vast majority simply hardworking, modest people, who just want to take care of their families.

And how do we welcome them? With intolerance and bigotry, with ugly looks and poisonous language. And if you’re Donald Trump, you vilify them, dehumanize them, paint them as little more than rats carrying bubonic plague.

I’m sick to my stomach of this kind of thing, whether I hear it from Donald Trump or the white collar redneck at work. And I won’t shut up about it any longer. If you utter this kind of nonsense, don’t think I’ll let you get away with it. No more shaking my head, lamenting the ignorance of others. From now on I’m going to call out the bullshit where I see it.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts:

  • The overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants fill an economic need that’s actually complementary and additive to the overall economy. The facts and figures around undocumented workers stealing jobs and draining public resources are either exaggerated, taken out of context, or completely false. You can do what I did–fact check and do a lot of research–or you can do a simple gut-check. Have you felt threatened by an undocumented worker’s ability to steal your job lately? No? Me, either. Here’s another one. Have any major American health care providers or insurance companies blamed their poor quarterly results on the unbearably heavy load of unprofitable, deadbeat immigrant customers? I don’t think so. Look all you want, I doubt you’ll find anything like that in a 10K filing.
  • They don’t come here to freeload off the system (that’s a myth), contrary to what conspiracy theorists and fear mongers would have you believe. Here’s a gut-check for you: ever see a Mexican begging for money in the U.S.? Ever see a homeless Mexican in the U.S.? No? Me, either. Why is that? I think it’s because those who choose to come here are made from tougher, more resilient material than most of the rest of us, and they simply won’t let themselves fall to the bottom of society. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but it’s a damned rare thing.
  • How many of you have had friends or lovers or in-laws with a last name like Martinez or Sanchez or Gonzalez? Sure, you might say, they may have had brown eyes and hair, but they spoke perfect English and they didn’t like soccer and they were my frat bros at Texas A&M. Those aren’t the kind of Mexicans who are the problem. Oh, really? The odds are pretty high your frat bro’s mom and dad came over illegally. Deal with them apples.
  • Undocumented workers fill a need, whether you want to admit it or not. That nice lady from Guadalajara that took care of your kids? You didn’t ask for her social security number, did you now? All you cared about was a good reference and a good rate. After that you didn’t ask questions. And that remarkably inexpensive home you live in? It certainly wasn’t built with union labor now, was it? And the clink-clink-clink of dishes and silverware somewhere in the background of your five-star dining experience? Let me clue you in: there’s a slight possibility those workers aren’t formally on the payroll. Undocumented workers, uninsured and unprotected and living in the shadows, are the grease that keeps the economic wheels turning in many industries.

Don’t agree? Have an issue? Well then roll your eyes, call me a bleeding heart, and take me off your Facebook friend list, white bread. Because I’m not going to shut up about it. These decent people deserve more than the hate and vitriol they’re getting. Much more.

B.B. King and the Great Eternal Nothingness

B.B. King is gone. This was the news I woke up to this morning. Shock followed by sadness. I first saw B.B. King on The Tonight Show in my early teens, and I loved his music immediately. That impossibly gravelly voice paired with an unmistakable vibrato guitar technique. Even as I grew into my older teens and my tastes migrated to Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys, a B.B. King cassette or album was always at the center of my music collection.

Most of my childhood heroes are gone now. The writers: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and so many more. The sports figures: Alexis Arguello, Robert Newhouse, Walter Payton. Add to these countless film actors, artists, musicians, and political figures, far too many to name. Fate took some too early, some took themselves out, others just slowly withered away, somewhere in the murky background of public life, where the no-longer-media-relevant go to die.

So now there’s another hero gone, another name to cross off the list. I feel far more old and tired this morning than my forty-six years. On days like today, I find myself looking backward more than forward. Regretting the might-have-beens, the roads not taken, avoiding mirrors and cursing the wrinkling, graying present overtaking me and my loved ones, some faster than others. The sound of a clock ticking, winding down. The ominous thought of my own name getting crossed off a list.

I’m not a mystic, so the idea of a post-mortem paradise is an empty promise, a story made up for children who fear the dark. For me there’s no silver lining, just a black hole we’re all getting sucked into. The great eternal nothingness.

What to do, what to do? But what else is there to do, of course, but keep walking, keep breathing. Smile and laugh and fake it and hope your kids don’t notice the darkness lurking behind your eyes. Distract yourself with love, beer, work, hobbies, perversions. Bowling leagues, romance novels, macramé, cross fit, cross dressing, ecotourism, telling stories, reading stories, baking cakes, eating cakes, and so on. Whatever works for you, whatever takes your mind off the looming darkness, whatever distracts you (and doesn’t hurt others) from that big black hole that grows bigger every day, go do it.

Go do it right fucking now.

Introduction from Juarez Square and Other Stories

The following is the introduction excerpted from my new book, Juarez Square and Other Stories

Juarez Square - Web Cover RevealThe forces shaping contemporary life often feel like they’re moving our world in ominous directions. Technological innovations celebrated as progress frequently seem to bring as many curses as blessings. Fossil fuel-powered industrialization, for example, has ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity in much of the developed world, but at the expense of environmental disasters, petty oil dictatorships, and global climate change. And advances in information technology have been both a source of inspiration and a sad illuminator of our inner selves. As amazed as I am at the wonder of supercomputers pondering the origins of the cosmos, I’m equally as crestfallen by the mind-sucking banality of social media.

The stories in this collection revolve around people whose lives become entangled in the unintended consequences—and sometimes the intentional abuse—of advanced technologies like robotics, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and drone warfare. Many of the tales take place in the US-Mexico frontier region, where the future is borderless, savage, and Anglo and Latin cultures have, after generations of commingling, evolved into something which is neither Anglo nor Latin, but something in between.

I freely admit it’s possible that I’m overly sensitive to my environment, that my concerns may be exaggerated. And since I can’t really be objective here, I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether this collection is a harbinger of potential dangers we face, the proverbial canary in a coalmine, or whether it’s simply a literary diversion (hopefully an entertaining one) into an imagined future.

And to be sure, it’s not all near-future craziness in Ciudad Juarez. You’ll also find stories about a high-stakes political war on a manmade island-nation floating in the Atlantic, an unconventional woman running a robot brothel in Madrid, and a charismatic AI that takes the fashion world by storm.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book. And feel free to send me a note and tell me which stories you liked (or didn’t) at dlyoungwriter@gmail.com.

D.L. Young

Houston, March 2015

Millennials: My Love-Hate Relationship

It was the longest half hour of my life, waiting in line behind a gaggle of millennials at the local Barnes & Noble. I was there with my six-year-old for the Harry Potter birthday event, where they’d set up Hogwarts-related games and activities all over the store. My son was a Harry Potter fan, so you know, quality time and all that.

We were waiting our turn for ‘pin the beard on Hagrid’ or some such game, and from the length of the line I’d estimated a five-minute wait, tops. Turned out I was painfully wrong. You see, we had the bad luck to queue up behind a group outing of half a dozen twenty-somethings with three young kids between them.

As they watched their toddlers play the game and wander the store blindfolded, joking and taking pics they posted online, my son and I waited…and waited…and waited. This herd of millennials, like Hindu cows blocking a Mumbai roadway, seemed oblivious to the wider world around them. After fifteen minutes of torture (while I’m folding my arms, glaring, and wondering why anyone would bring and eighteen-month-old to a Harry Potter event), the three toddlers finally finished their turns. I exhaled in relief.

But my wait was far from over. Next the adults started taking turns (the adults!). I watched, my jaw hanging open, as each of them played this CHILDREN’S game for another fifteen minutes while an impatient, fidgety line of actual children grew longer and longer, snaking its way through the store. At one point I almost spoke up, but decided against making a scene that might traumatize my child (I would have been labeled a ‘hater’ anyway). Instead, like I fool I held onto the hope that surely not all of them would take a turn. Wrong again.

Whenever I reflect on the generation gap I have with millennials (I self-identify as a Gen Xer, if you haven’t already guessed), I always recall that Barnes & Noble moment. I remember those twenty-year-olds, not just the ones in line but all the others like them, whose bodies seemed far too soft and fat for their young age, who laughed too loudly at jokes that weren’t funny, who couldn’t comprehend satire, who’d been raised during an era of unprecedented US military intervention but had remarkably little interest in foreign wars (or foreign anything, except maybe Harry Potter and Japanese anime cartoons).

Who were these people, born just a decade or two after me? How was it possible, in just a handful of years, the skeptical glass-half-full pessimism of my generation evolved into a coddled, doe-eyed Disney-branded view of the world? Where did this unearned sense of entitlement come from? These questions I asked myself, finding no answers.

On the drive back home from Barnes & Noble that day, my frustration abating, I reflected on the news programs and articles I’d read about Americans born in the early to mid-nineties (good one here, if you’re interested).

How bad was it, really, that the workplace had to adapt to younger workers who expected (deservedly or not) more vacation and more flexible working hours? We’d worked ourselves to death in this country and the vast majority didn’t seem better off for it; the middle class dream had never been such a tenuous proposition.

And it certainly was no small thing that the scourge of racism, openly tolerated by baby boomers, shamefully acknowledged by Gen Xers, might become something millennials, with their genuine sense of fairness, help this country finally get past. No small thing, indeed.

So maybe they weren’t so bad after all. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was jealous of them, how free they were of the cynicism the eighties and Reagan and looming nuclear obliteration hardwired into much of my generation. Envious of how unworried they seemed about the crumbling world around them. What did they know that I didn’t?

Maybe I worried too much. Maybe I was simply getting old and cranky.

Road to hell or redemption? I wasn’t sure where they were taking us, but I knew one thing for sure:  next time I’d arrive to Barnes & Noble earlier to avoid the lines.

Millennials can never get anywhere on time.

Ice Bucket Challenge, A Cynic’s View

If you know me even a little bit, you know where I fall on the spectrum of cynicism. If you don’t know me, let’s just say I’m a Skeptic (capital S intentional). So when the ice bucket challenge, which ostensibly raises awareness and money for the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association, exploded across social media in recent months, I was more than a bit suspicious. There’s a tangible ‘LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!’ vibe in many of the videos and an I-don’t-want-to-be-left-out element that smells to my nose more like herd mentality than authentic generosity of spirit.

You see I have a charity budget, and every year I plan which charities I’ll give to, my support level, and then each month I send an auto-directed donation. I also take advantage of a great matching funds program with my employer. And I manage to do this (with the exception of this blog entry) without telling anyone about it or performing complementary water stunts. Maybe it’s my personality or maybe it’s the WASPy Southerner in me, but for me good deeds feel more genuine and heartfelt if they’re performed with quiet dignity.

And then I looked at the money. According to the BBC, “…from 29 July to 28 August this year ALS received $98.2m – compared with $2.7m donated during the same period last year.”

Wow. The equivalent of several years’ of donations in a single month. The numbers blew me away.

Suddenly the motivations behind the ice bucket challenge phenomenon interested me less than the technology enabling it all. The past few months have given us perhaps the most compelling example so far of the power of technology to connect and focus the collective effort of millions to drive massive, high-velocity change.

Without a doubt social media has brought us lots of negatives: loss of privacy, social isolation, widespread disinformation, censorship, cyber-bullying, and so on. But the flood of money pouring into the ALS Association never could have happened without it. And that’s a good thing, period.

For a cynic like me, on most days the awesome power and pervasiveness of social media, its potential for abuse, its vapid content, its vanity-driven nature, fill me with techno-skeptic fear and loathing. Just not today. Today my ice bucket is half full.

The Wannabe Industry

Want to be a writer? How about an actor? A singer? Maybe a professional soccer player? Sign up NOW and learn secrets from the insiders on how you can ditch your day job and live your dream!

Unless you live in a wifi-less cave, you’ve probably seen ads like this, where organizations or individuals market their (ahem) industry expertise to the aspiring masses. It’s the kind of thing I like to call the wannabe industry.

As a shallow, celebrity-worshiping culture, we tend to glorify certain professions: writer, filmmaker, musician, pro (insert sport here) player, and many other creative professions. At a holy-shit-how-cool emotional level, it’s understandable. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a famous actor, walking the red carpet?  Or a best-selling author? Or a multimillionaire sports star? If you’re stuck in a dead-end career or struggling financially, it’s tempting to daydream about an if-only life in a highly compensated, so-called glamorous career.

Still, it never fails to surprise me how otherwise intelligent, ostensibly rational people get taken in by the wannabe industry, ready to believe wildest claims from (let’s face it) people who often aren’t any closer to the center of an industry than Pluto’s orbit is to the sun.

CAVEAT EMPTOR – Here are my biggest red flags for the wannabe industry. Feel free to add more of your own.

Questionable credentials. ‘Industry insiders’ often don’t have any more experience within their specialty than the folks they’re selling their expertise to. If this sounds circular, that’s because it is. So before signing up and handing over your hard-earned money, do a background check. If your expert’s resume is chocked full of awards you’ve never heard (or can find anywhere) or his / her lists of accomplishments look iffy, move on. Sadly, this wannabe-teaching-other-wannabes dynamic is prevalent in an industry near and dear to my heart: fiction writing.

Style over substance.  Your spider-sense should tingle if you come across an organization that relies a bit too heavily on slick promotional materials and paid endorsements. And if they offer financing, don’t walk, RUN for the nearest exit. Creative arts academies are a classic example. While there are hundreds of imitators with glossy takeaway brochures, there’s only one Actor’s Studio.

Small Business with a Famous Name Wrapper. Private sports leagues for kids come to mind here. Think your local Chelsea or Manchester United soccer academy will teach your child the secrets of the Premier League pros? Think again. These organizations are small businesses that pay a fee to license a famous name. A logo on your kid’s overpriced jersey (and socks and shorts and don’t forget the personalized backpack and team-approved shoes!) doesn’t guarantee a meaningful learning experience. Don’t believe the marketing copy, these clubs have about as much contact with their professional namesake as your local priest does with Pope Francis. And they certainly don’t have a monopoly on good teachers and role models for your children.

Outrageous claims. Success (however you define it) in any creative endeavor is a combination of innate talent, hard work, and serendipity. And oftentimes these elements work together in strange ways. There are penniless, unknown artists with incredible gifts who simply never get a lucky break, and there are talentless hacks whose relentless work ethic earns them a seven-figure income. There is no secret sauce recipe, no right or wrong way to the top of the mountain, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. The only guarantee creative professionals can count on is there are no guarantees. And to quote a favorite movie line, “anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.”

Question everything. Be skeptical and do your homework before shelling out the big bucks. And beware of the wannabe industry, it preys upon your deepest hopes and aspirations, and it counts on your willingness to ignore that little voice telling you, “you might want to step around this, it smells like bullshit.”

Help Me BBC, You’re My Only Hope

Last night I saw something that frightened me, a BBC News program hosted by a woman wearing pancake makeup and tight-fitting clothes emphasizing (gulp) ample cleavage. After doing a double take, I started to worry, wondering if she represented a kind of turning point, the BBC’s concession to the ever-lowering bar of mass media standards where image has long since triumphed over content.

I didn’t lose my faith in US news programs overnight. It was more a gradual slide into disappointment that started in the nineties, when if you watched any national US news program (except maybe the MacNeil / Lehrer NewsHour on PBS), you might not have seen any coverage of mass atrocities and genocide in Eastern Europe and Africa. Newscasts were dominated by, or more precisely obsessed with, an intern and her relationship to a politician and his cigar collection.

Time passed and I noticed other changes. 60 Minutes seemed to throw in the towel at some point, pivoting more to celebrity profiles and less to investigative journalism. And then Frontline started using slow camera pushes on teary-eyed victims, ominous music scores, and every Hollywood trick short of a Hitchcock zoom to maximize the dramatic punch of their programming.

So I turned to the BBC. There was a content-over-style approach to the news I found refreshing. And I loved the journalists’ intolerance for PR-crafted talking points and dogmatic answers, the way they tenaciously pushed for the truth behind the bullshit. And there was a delightful absence of tabloid fodder. No Paris Hilton, no Kardashians.

But then last night I saw this woman, her chest nearly bursting from the top of her blouse, telling me something about some place (for whatever reason I can’t remember). And I began to worry. I don’t want a BBC News program without frumpy journalists, their unfortunate hair, wrinkled shirts, and bad tie choices.

Please don’t follow us to the bottom, BBC News. It’s cold and dark down here. Sure, everyone looks great, but we don’t know who’s lying to us.  And worse, a lot of us don’t seem to care anymore.