These Aren’t Concentration Camps (Yet)—But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Good

I strongly urge you to watch this video:

and read this article (“Inside the Former Walmart That Is Now a Shelter for Almost 1,500 Migrant Children” ) all the way through, then call your reps.

My point here: This is not a “concentration camp” by any modern conventional standard (in that “concentration camp” connotes harsh conditions, overcrowding, and general neglect if not outright abuse). Here’s a New York Times description at what they saw at this specific migrant internment center:

Most of the boys are from Central America. Many of them smiled, waved at or shook the hands of the reporters touring the site. They were asked by the reporters and Southwest Key executives, in Spanish, “How are you?”

The constant reply was “Bien, bien,” meaning “OK, OK.” The media was not allowed to interview the children.

Some were leaning back, getting a shampoo at the sinks in the shelter’s barbershop, where a striped lit-up barber’s pole spun outside the door. They lined up in the cafeteria for dinner — chicken, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables. Some played pool, or joined a tai chi session in the rec room. One teenager sat at a cafeteria table with his head bowed and hands clasped, praying silently. Another told the cafeteria worker who served him dinner, “Gracias, Miss.”

Everywhere, some of the shelter’s more than 1,000 employees hovered nearby — they sat at the ends of the cafeteria tables while the boys ate dinner, watched “Moana” with the children in the old loading docks and escorted lines of boys in the hallways.

The vast majority, Southwest Key officials said, crossed the border unaccompanied.

That said, these certainly fit within the broad dictionary denotation of “concentration camp”—in that they are “a camp where persons (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined”.  (And we have no idea if other such centers are better, worse, or about the same).

Still, calling these “concentration camps” runs the risk of continuing to erode the general American understanding of the heinous magnitude of suffering endured by  the Jews and others interned and enslaved by the Third Reich, or the Americans of Japanese descent imprisoned by the U.S. government, or the countless others who have been confined, reeducated, absorbed, and exterminated by the smooth-grinding wheels of governments.

On top of that, calling these “concentration camps” is a disservice to progress and to these specific children.

That said, saying that “these aren’t concentration camps” is in no way meant to suggest that what’s happening here is good; it’s getting overcrowded, it’s unsustainable, they’re starting to set up tent villages (in Texas, in the summer—lack of rigid shelter and HVAC is a huge drop in livability outside El Paso). This is precariously close to starting the inevitable slide into what we all would recognize as concentration camps.

But, goddamit, right now we are very close to doing the Right Thing here: Most of these kids are showing up at the border without parents or guardians; it is right and good to shelter them, feed them, protect them, show them Moana. That’s what a country dedicated to the huddled masses yearning to be free should be doing.  With proper action, there is an opportunity here for these centers to level up to being well-run refugee centers.

We should call our reps, and say as much: I want unaccompanied minors to be sheltered and fed.  I want those who’ve been abused, or whose home places have been made unlivable by gangs or failed governments, to have access to asylum.  Kids who have braved the elements and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, they’ve got True Grit; I want to know how they can become my neighbors and fellow citizens.🇺🇸

Marketing, Rhetoric, Writing, and Mr. Rogers (a primer, of sorts)

This is a tremendous example of practical rhetoric: understanding an audience deeply and meeting them where they are—without assumptions or bias—so you can guide their thinking in a way that’s a win for everyone. If there was ever an example of “white-hat marketing,” then this is it: Mr. Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children” 

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street. 
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, Ask your parents where it is safe to play.
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

I write and have written all sorts of things (DIY books and essays and textbooks and book reviews and reference articles and newspaper stories and business columns and fiction and blah, blah, blah).  For the last decade most of my money has come from writing marketing copy.  If you’re covering your bills that way, then you quickly learn the First Noble Truth of Marketing:

You need to meet people where they are.

You cannot “create demand,” only meet it.  You cannot “educate customers,” only furnish names for things they already feel in their hearts. Everyone is busy and distractible.  Everyone hates ads and hates marketing. They have absolutely no desire to bother figuring you out; you need to figure them out and talk to them where they are.

And once you grok that First Noble Truth, you instantly understand the Second Noble Truth of Marketing:

All writing—every article, every story, every poem, every email—is marketing; no one has the desire to squander their energy figuring you out. You must meet them where they are.

And once you meet them, you can take them where you two need to go together. 

Continue reading “Marketing, Rhetoric, Writing, and Mr. Rogers (a primer, of sorts)”

RECOMMEND LISTEN/READ: PseudoPod 592: “Free Balloons for All Good Children”🎈

In almost all regards—from title through execution, in the fears it tries (and fails) to exorcise, right down to its final graff—this is the 100% perfect short story for me.  (And it’s likely no coincidence that it’s just about a perfect fit for my favored story formula, the 45/45/10 Three-Act.)

PseudoPod 592: “Free Balloons for All Good Children

First Days (or “To Hell with Mitch Albom and his Bullshit Flat-Earth Nostalgia”)

About to board the bus for her First Day
About to board the bus for her First Day

Tuesday was my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. At 4:20, when her bus finally arrived, she didn’t get off.

The driver checked, first calling out from the front, then shushing all of the kids and calling out again, then finally going seat to seat down the length of the big yellow bus.

My daughter wasn’t there.

Don’t worry—this is an “all’s well that ends” situation: Due to a printing error her First Day of Kindergarten name tag didn’t have her bus number printed on it, and subsequently she’d gotten on the wrong bus.  She ultimately wound up exactly where she should have been, all smiles and in fine fettle—albeit about an hour and a half late, following two bus transfers, and thanks to the intercession of three bus drivers, two transpo office workers, four school admins across two buildings, and one teacher. (The second day went smoother—in part because a neighbor kindly took it upon themselves to assign their first grader the job of making sure my daughter always sits next to her.)

You’re probably thinking “You must have been terrified!“, but the thing is, my son (now 11) also never showed up at the end of his first day of kindergarten. I can’t even properly recall how that came to pass, now, just that he didn’t get on any bus at all.  This may have been due to some confusion about aftercare (which required he take a different bus to get to a different locale)—

Retrieving him up at the end of his First Day.
Retrieving him up at the end of his First Day.

but I seem to recall that the geodesic dome he’s on in the pic had something to do with it, too, being strategically located right next to the bus loading area, but on the far side of a hedge tall enough to block the play structure from view, but not thick enough to prevent a kindergartner from slipping through.  An attractive nuisance if there ever was one.

Incidentally, his fish—a beta named “Electric,” given to him by an older boy who’d won it at a Labor Day fair, decided he didn’t want some stupid fish, and had thus stood in a gazebo and called out “Who wants a fish?”—had died that day while my son was gone at his first day of school.  That would be lamely symbolic if it wasn’t just a fact.

Point being, the boy was fine, as you can see in the picture.  He was more upset about the fish, and even that didn’t last.

Anyway, you’re probably thinking “You must have been terrified!

But I don’t know that I was terrified then either, because I remembered the end of my first day of kindergarten.  I remember it clearly, because it occasioned what I now recognize to be the first truly adult thought of my life:

I was the only kindergartener that rode my bus.  The “safety” (one of a small cadre of fifth graders given fluorescent orange Sam Browne belts and tasked with holding doors, keeping the halls orderly, and making sure the little kids found their buses) led me down a long cinderblock-and-linoleum hall, where kids were other kindergarteners were lined up under construction-paper cut-outs of school buses.  He stopped me in front of a red paper bus, taped high above my head on the wall, and said: 

“This is your bus.”

He walked away.  I stood there, alone, staring up at the two-dimensional red paper school bus, and thought to myself:

“How the hell am I supposed to get home on a paper bus?”

I tried to puzzle this out, and had a brief, vivid moment where I imagined myself shrinking down and flattening out like a Shrinky Dink™, transforming into a big-nosed black-and-white cartoon character (basically the kid from that 1980s Tootsie Pop commercial).  Cartoon me moseyed up to the bus, the door accordioned open—just like the door of the real, steal, three-dimensional bus I’d ridden to school just after eating lunch with my mom (back then it was half-day kindergarten, and I had PMs)—and I climbed aboard. Then the paper bus chugged to life and cruised down the wall in a little Pig Pen-esuque swirl of penciled diesel fumes.

In that moment, and for a moment, I entirely believed in that scenario. It was the only thing that made sense. And then I recall thinking:

Nothat can’t be right.

Soon enough another safety came and lead us kindergarteners, lined up like ducks, down to the turnaround where the real steel yellow schoolhouses were similarly lined up, and I discovered that my bus was identified with a number (that I could not read) written on a sheet of red construction paper—hence the red paper bus on the wall.  So, sort of a semiotics lesson built into that first day of school to, I guess—although it was a bit above my head (pun? joke!

Point being, kindergarten was my first time out of the home place, in a meaningful way.  Going to kindergarten, among other things, meant my first brushes with anti-Semitism, with both the quiet, constant terror of bullying, and the quiet heroism of the few bigger kids who tried to stand up for you.  And it was my first taste of solitude, being left to think my own slow, long thoughts in the intervals between assigned activities—something that I still treasure very much.  I wasn’t me before I was finally left alone to be me.

But none of that was on the First Day.

On the First Day I had to grapple with staying calm when faced wth a seemingly impossible scenario: Here, kid, you’re six now; figure out how to ride a paper bus home.

In a lot of ways, my life has been a series of brief intervals separating moments of distorted, disconcerting reasoning–and in which the only thing that separated me from a Very Bad Turn of Events was that simple first adult thought: 

“No, that can’t be right.  Calm down and think this through.”

It’s the only useful response to the apparently endless string of Kobayashi Maru that make up our lives.

Not that I knew any of that then—for chrissakes, what do you expect?  I was six; it was My First goddamn Day.

“Won’t Somebody Think of the Children!!1!” (Yemen Edition)

“On the campaign trail, Trump endorsed killing relatives of terrorist suspects, which is a war crime. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News in December 2015.” (source)

If your position is “Trump said we should kill the families of ‘terrorists’—an abominable, authoritarian war crime—and now he’s doing just that!” well, way back in 2016, when we had a President with a Noble Peace Prize on his mantle, we dropped thousands of bombs on Yemen (google it), and it isn’t like those somehow magically only killed sworn soldiers of AQAP.  A bomb dropped from a drone isn’t somehow more accurate than a highly trained SEAL with an excellent rifle standing in the same room as someone.  But, man oh man, do we suddenly give a fuck about Yemen, and military operations in Yemen, and civilian casualties in Yemen!  Better late than never, amiright?

Nawar al-Awlaki was 8 years old. Now she's dead. Don't forget to pay your taxes on April 18!
Nawar al-Awlaki was 8 years old. Now she’s dead. Don’t forget to pay your taxes on April 18!

I’m once again reminded of Penn & Teller’s Fishes and Loaves:

Penn and Teller were scheduled to appear on Letterman, and so they prepared a new twist on a classic “broken and restored watch” routine. In their improved version, they’d borrow Letterman’s watch, smash it, then wheel out a big aquarium and sprinkle the parts in the water, where they’d dissolve and the fish would eat them. Letterman would then freely select one of the fish, Teller would scoop it out with a net, they’d gut and and ta-da!, there would be the whole, ticking watch in the fish’s guts!

But the network standards and practices lawyers wouldn’t let them do that trick; it’d be too brutal to have an animal killed on screen. So Penn and Teller re-jiggered the routine: Instead of an aquarium full of live fish, they’d wheel out a fishmonger’s ice table with six dead fish on it. They’d take the host’s watch, smash it, sprinkle the bits in the ice, the bits would dissolve, the host would freely select a dead fish, and Teller’d fillet it to reveal the watch. Standards loved it, the host loved it, and that’s what went on live TV.

The point of the story—which is the sort of thing that belongs in an atheist’s Bible—is that everyone was more comfortable with six fish dying instead of one, provided they didn’t have to watch.

Same here: Dozens, hundreds, thousands of Yemeni kids are killed by bombs Made-in-the-USA, and we’re fine with it—as long as we don’t have to see her fucking picture, as long as it’s done from 36,000 feet by a drone piloted by some dude drinking a Sprite in a cubicle at Creech AFB and there’s no chance of one of “our boys” having to come home in a box in order to git ‘er done!  God forbid we should look at what our tax dollars are buying. 

It’s harsh, but it’s an apt summation of American foreign policy: Killing people’s families is our business model.

It was our business model in 2016, it will continue to be in 2017, the party, skin color, generation, and gender of the president notwithstanding.  If you don’t like that—well, you’re in decent company, because I don’t like it either.  But let’s be honest with ourselves, and just take a damned second to sort out of we really don’t like being in the Murder Business, or if we simply dislike it when a mouthy, pudgy, tactless New Yorker is the one murdering on our behalf.

Finally, if you’re suddenly worried about Trump triggering “World War III,” then I invite you to consider something: Maybe—just maybe—WWIII has been going on for the last 15 years.  We just outsourced all the suffering to developing nations—the same way we do with all the rest of our dirty work.

Maybe this is something else to talk about tomorrow, when you call your reps. I dunno; that’s between you and them.

The Two Productivity Gurus You Meet in Heaven

Good Buddy AMEM writes:

You ever write a piece on productivity?

To which I reply:

Sorta!

I’ve written scads of advice things to folks who’ve emailed me expressing interest in freelance editing/copywriting, but nothing sort of generically about productivity in the “GTD” sense.

Anyway, when it comes to that, two pieces of advice jump to mind.  The first is something a rabbi said during High Holidays services once, which amounted to “God doesn’t really give a shit about something you did one time; it’s when you repeat things over and over again that God takes notice.”  The rabbi was talking about sin, basically advising against beating yourself up over a single fuck-up.  Instead, make good and move on to Do Good Things (which may or may not square you with any Magickal Sky Fairy, but is certainly a helluva lot more socially productive). 

But this position—that the thing you do one time isn’t what you are—goes for everything, good and bad:  You aren’t a thief just because you stole something one time, and you aren’t a writer just because you wrote and sold one good thing.  The last story/book/article/brochure does almost exactly jack-shit to help you write and sell the next one.  You are a writer because you write every day.  So, decide on the thing you want to be, and be that thing for at least a little while every day.

This sounds sorta stupid—or, at best, equal parts stupid and profound, like the Wise Men of Chelm—but still, every story I’ve sold in the last, I dunno, eight-ish years has been mostly written 25 minutes at a time weekday mornings while children slept.

The other piece of advice is straight from Ramit Sethi, who is sort of a huckster and sort of dead-on about most of what he says (albeit in a huckstery life-coach-ish way).  Anyway, one one his big pieces of advice (at least a few years ago, when I was more actively following him) was to stop saying “I don’t have time for X.”  All of us are busy and all of us blow precious minutes and hours dicking around on Facebook and leafing through shitty magazines and watching crap we don’t care about on YouTube and whatever.  We have time for it.  You can get up 25 minutes early every morning and write stories and novels 25 minutes at a time.  You can get in shape—great shape, really—25 minutes at a time.  You can learn about retirement savings or knitting or how to eat all vegan 25 minutes at a time.  We use time as an excuse, because we don’t really—in our hearts—give a shit about the things we say we want. Just like TLC warns, we are scrubs “always talking about what we want / then we sit on our broke ass” 

The real problem isn’t the time, it’s the prioritization.  So, just the honest and start saying “I’m not prioritizing that.”

  • “Lose some weight?  Sorry, I’m not really prioritizing going to the gym right now.”
  • “Hate my job?  I’m not prioritizing finding a new one.”
  • “Feeling perpetually pyscho-emotionally fucked up?  Yeah, well, I just can’t prioritize finding a shrink and going to sessions.”

(These are all drawn from my life, incidentally.)

Changing your language like this forces us to really look at what we’re doing, ’cause when your kid says “Can we go play at the park?” or “Can you read me this book?” or “Can we watch this show?” and instead of saying “I’d love to sweetie, but I don’t have time” you say “I’d love to, sweetie, but I’m not prioritizing that right now”—well, you feel like a royal douchebag, and you do the important thing instead of the thing you thought was important.

So, that’s the advice:

  1. Be the thing you want to be for at least a little while everyday.
  2. Don’t talk about “time,” talk about Priorities.

Build a Cheap Lil Starter Robot with Your Kids


Spent the holiday weekend chilling with friends, and we built a few Jitterbugs (tiny, super-simple, super-cheap robots that run away from light, cockroach-style). I’d totally forgotten how much fun these are.  Here’s a video of my 4-year-old sitting in the closet with flashlights and competing at “reverse sumo” (first person out of the ring wins):

Here’s a set of Jitterbugs built by Stephen Trouvere and his boys, with the addition of LED eyes:

love how those lil guys turned out! For the curious, all we’ve done is built the standard jitterbug, then taken a pair of regular ol’ red LEDs, wired them in parallel, buffered the positive lead with a 100Ω resistor (brown-black-brown stripes), and soldered the free resistor lead to the positive battery terminal, and the negative LED legs to the negative terminal (it’s the same way we wire up the LEDs in the “Switchbox” project in that same book).

Full build instructions are in my first book (which also includes cardboard boomerangs, sock squids that can become Sock Cthulhu, musical instruments, and more).