The Agony and Ecstasy of a Title Chase

I won a championship! After six punishing rounds, I earned the title of champion in the expert division in the Florida Endurance Race Series (FLE). My wife Tory encourages me not to qualify my accomplishments, but the truth is that the field for the entire series was not too deep. On the other hand, there probably was a reason for that. In order to take the title, I completed four 6-hour races, one sixty miler, and one fifty miler over the course of five months. Simply completing the FLE was a daunting challenge, one that not many wanted to put on their racing calendars. In addition, during that stretch I also raced three cross-country races in the Coconut Cup, finishing second in the 40+ expert class, and two local races. So that’s eleven mountain-bike races in five months.

I might also add that I never finished outside the top five in any of the six rounds of the FLE. In four of those six rounds, the competition was legit. And I won the two rounds where the competition was not as stiff. My purpose here is not to be defensive of my accomplishment but respectful toward those reading this—and you know who you are—who take on the best cyclists in Florida, week after week, in the Florida State Series and manage to finish the season on the podium. I’m not sure I’d want to compare myself to those beasts, the elite of the elite. They face a different sort of series with different sorts of demands and challenges.So now that I got that out of the way…

…I won a championship! I was disconcerted by how nervous I was going into the final round. I had a nearly invincible eleven-point lead. Barring some catastrophic problem, I knew the title was mine. But I nevertheless wrestled with some mental demons. Maybe that’s because a few weeks earlier I watched the final round of the AMA Supercross. My heart rate still accelerates when I think about the final laps of the both the 250 and 450 mains. Anything can happen in the final minutes of a race when a title is at stake. Tory soothed me with a mantra that played on repeat in my brain: “Be Dungey!” I’m twice his age, but I needed some of his precocious poise.

Three years ago, I went into the final round of the Coconut Cup with a seven point lead in the 40+ sport division. I felt confident because the race was on one of my home courses. But then the night before a deluge hit the area, turning portions of the course into a quagmire. It was going to be a mudder. Weird things can happen in the mud. My plan was to keep an eye on the guy in second place, maybe file in behind him when the course funneled into the woods; as the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. I didn’t have to beat him; but if he beat me, I could not allow more than six guys to get in between us. As it turned out, I got the holeshot, felt really good, and ran away with it. But I can tell you that, during the final lap, I thought I heard a million different noises coming from my bike, all produced by my imagination: “Is that the sound of a slow leak in my tire? Do I hear the cling of a broken spoke? Is my crank coming off?”

Two years ago, I entered the final round of the Coconut Cup four points down on third place in the 40+ expert class. I figured a podium was out of my reach, so I felt no pressure. It was just an ordinary race. Three miles from the finish, I overtook a guy in my class to finish third on the day. Little did I know at the time, that pass put me tied in points with the cyclist who held third place in the series. As the rules state, the finishing position at the final round breaks a points tie. So I finished that season with the unexpected jubilation of a series podium, while someone else was left heartbroken.

Those are the stakes of a title hunt. It’s something you build, watching it take shape with each round. You calculate possibilities with each race score. If things go well, your emotional investment increases as the season wears on. You feel like you have much to gain, but usually much more to lose. The pressure intensifies.

That is why none of my other accomplishments feels quite like winning a championship. Earning a Ph.D., writing books, and becoming a full professor required sacrifice and hard work. But they weren’t risky. Unlike a championship chase, they couldn’t be taken away from me in less than a moment. Those goals stayed put until I got there. A championship title, on the other hand, can be snatched from your grasp with one small mistake or one bit of bad luck.

By my thirteenth and final lap at Haile’s Trail, I had memorized the course. I knew the exact location of the final climb. Once I crested it, the words came out of my mouth almost involuntarily: “That’s it. I did it.” The fear of nebulous disasters disappeared, replaced with the dawning certainty of a title with my name on it.

The Danger of Studying Islam

A few weeks ago, my daughter’s sixth-grade history class began a unit on world religions. They started with Judaism, moved on to Christianity, and then worked their way into the Eastern religions. My daughter was fascinated, but also distraught: she wanted to study all the world religions. Islam was missing from the syllabus.

So my daughter asked her teacher about it. Impressed by my daughter’s enthusiasm, the teacher agreed to spend a few class periods on Islam.

I anticipated opposition from some parents. I did not anticipate that one would send a death threat to the teacher. I did not expect police to get involved. At that point, I realized how dangerous studying Islam could be. I had taught the subject myself numerous times in one of my university’s lower-level humanities classes with no pushback. On two occasions, I even invited the director of the Florida chapter of CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) to serve as guest speaker. My students were curious and interested. The problem in my daughter’s sixth-grade history class was the irrational response of parents brainwashed by right-wing media.

The teacher needed support. I fully offered it. After all, it was my daughter who convinced her to include the study of Islam in the world religions unit.

I sent her a handwritten note, encouraging her to stay strong and assuring her she was doing the right thing. I also composed an email for school administrators. Here is part of what I wrote:

“My daughter Mira is in Mrs. ___’s history class. I write in strong support of Mrs. ___’s decision to cover Islam in class.

The reason for my support is simple. The class is doing a unit on world religions. Islam is a major world religion. Therefore the class should cover Islam. This makes obvious and clear pedagogical sense.”

I added that opposition to such incontrovertible logic stems from ignorance. We tend to fear—and then hate—what we don’t understand. I concluded, “Now more than ever, it is critical that Islam is included in a unit on world religions.”

Let me anticipate objections. Yes, I believe Islam is a religion of peace. My primary evidence? The fact that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are peaceful and peace-loving. To condemn a religion with 1.6 billion followers worldwide because of a few is intellectually sloppy and morally uncharitable.

Studying the five pillars of Islam and the way in which the vast majority of Muslims practice their faith makes those sorts of generalizations less tenable.

But education is an open-ended endeavor: you never can know where the study of a subject will lead you. I concede that some who study Islam may conclude that its history and doctrines leave too much room for violence. (And I mean really study Islam—reading the Quran, understanding the faith from inside, and not from right-wing websites.) At that point, the student will wrestle with the nuances that attend scholarly inquiry and the questions that often snowball during intellectual investigations For example, if the history and doctrines of Islam seem to leave too much room for violence, then how do I explain the peacefulness of the vast majority of Muslims? What is religious fundamentalism? What does textual literalism mean? How does culture shape theology?

Engaging these sorts of questions from different angles is an antidote to the ignorance, fear, and hatred that characterize too much internet and cable-news discourse on Islam. And what better place to offer this antidote than during a unit on world religions in a sixth-grade history class?

Where Is My Mind? (part two)

Given that reason’s primary role is to justify our beliefs after we have already committed to them—that is, given that reason is our worldview’s PR representative—the result is that our beliefs are remarkably resilient. They can accommodate challenges of all sorts. This is because, again, reason, which is pretty stern and unyielding, is not primarily a gatekeeper.

The literary figure of Don Quixote exemplifies the resiliency of worldviews. Convinced that he is a knight-errant, he sees everything through the lens of chivalry and wonder. He is convinced that the windmills in the distance are dragons. When he receives empirical proof that the dragons are actually windmills—specifically when he charges the “dragons” and crashes headlong into a structure composed of wood and nails—he is not dismayed. He does not abandon his interpretive framework. Instead, he accommodates his worldview to the new data. How? Simple—he determines that a wizard cast an enchantment to transform the dragons into windmills. Such a conclusion is internally consistent with all the assumptions that shape his worldview. With those assumptions firmly in place, his reason is deployed to explain the seeming discrepancy that a windmill is not a dragon.

I’ve been studying these epistemological curiosities for decades. But what has lately compelled me to think about them much more carefully (and disconcertedly) is the Trump phenomenon. Specifically, the Trump supporter. In the past, like much of the scholarly work I do, my epistemological investigations seemed a bit like an academic game. I’ve used them to compose some pretty decent journal articles and conference presentations; they work well at inducing intellectual trauma in my students. But with the rise of the Trump supporter, all this shit has become painfully real.

The worldview of a Trump supporter is the political equivalent of Don Quixote’s spectacular interpretive-rescue operations. Except you would need to replace Quixote’s idealism with the Trump supporter’s apocalyptic—and apopletic—anger and fear. I have never encountered a worldview more resilient than that of a Trump supporter.

Examples: When the video was released showing Trump brag that he “grabs ‘em by the pussy,” I thought that was it; his campaign is over. Hardly. When Trump criticized the father of a slain purple-heart soldier, I figured he was sunk. Not even. With each lie, outrage, and absurd tweet, I thought Trump was finished. And Trump seemed to agree with me when he proudly declared, “I could shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Through it all, Trump supporters rallied around their candidate. Nothing could deflate their support. Nothing. They created a political worldview that could accommodate any and all challenges. And here’s a little prediction: even if the absolute worst happened to Trump—say he was impeached for collaborating with the Russians to influence the election—Trump supporters will remain Trump supporters. They will find a way to refute and/or accommodate the accusations.   

A change of political opinion rarely results from a specific political claim or argument. That’s why political debates hardly ever occasion changes of mind. These debates occur on the periphery of political worldviews. They are defensive and antagonistic; the goal is to win, not to be open-minded. This is why Richard Rorty identifies the poet—not the philosopher—as the fashioner of the public self. The poet represents experiences and emotions that get to the heart of who we are. The philosopher merely marshals evidence to support an argument, the truth of which was assumed at the outset.

For the first twenty-four years of my life, I was a Republican—not just a Republican, but a Rush-Limbaugh listening Republican. Obviously I changed my mind. How? Much of it had to do with going to graduate school in the liberal arts, which cultivated my sense of empathy. I decided that the GOP was hardly the political party of compassion. I became a Democrat.

A few years ago, I lived in London with my family for six months. As a result, I became even more liberal. Why? Not because of any political argument. I didn’t read one book on politics while I was there; I didn’t even think much about politics during that time. Instead, I lived in a city where over 300 different languages are spoken. I also spent time in Ireland, Austria, France, and Italy. I experienced what it was like to live as a European—not as an American. I saw the world differently.

You cannot un-know what you know; you cannot un-experience what you experienced. What I experienced and came to know in graduate school and in London seeped into the heart of who I am. My experiences touched the core of my worldview. And then they spread to the periphery of that worldview, manifested in specific political opinions. I’m nearly certain that nothing you can say can change these opinions, and I can do a pretty good job defending them. But if you capture the attention of my moral imagination and intuition, or if I have a profound experience of some sort—in short, if something touches the core of who I am—then all bets are off.

Where Is My Mind? (part one)

I take devilish delight in teaching some of the epistemological eccentrics of the Western tradition: Montaigne, Pascal, Hume, Nietzsche. These thinkers challenge the dominant view—established by Plato and endorsed through the centuries by Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and countless others—that reason is the mind’s gatekeeper, allowing beliefs entrance into our worldview only if they are deemed “rational.”

The epistemological eccentrics arrive at the metaphorical club, confront Reason, and say, “You are not the bouncer here.” They then lead some of the beliefs waiting in line to the back of the club and point to an open door, where beliefs of all kinds enter with no ID. And Reason has little clue.

Take Pascal and his famous Wager Argument. Pascal says that Reason’s sorry ass cannot settle the question of whether or not God exists. Reason can offer good reasons both for and against God’s existence. In a move equivalent to sidestepping the bouncer line, Pascal advises we ditch reason and use prudence. Is it more prudent to believe or disbelieve in God? If you disbelieve in God and it turns out he does not exist, you would be pleased to know that you were right in your disbelief. But so what? What difference does it make? You’ll be dead anyway. But if you disbelieve in God and it turns out that he does exist, then you’re not only wrong but damned to eternal hell. In addition, if you wager that God does exist and it turns out you’re wrong, so what? You may be wrong, but again, what real difference does it make? The prudent person, writes Pascal, will wager that God exists.

But let’s say you wager that God exists—because you’re prudent—but you still find it hard to believe. Pascal advises us, in that case, to fake it. Pretend you truly believe. Go through all the motions: church, prayer, rosary, whatever your denominational choice entails. Why? Because if you fake it, you’ll eventually make it. That is, after a while, the belief will become authentic simply through habit.

Both Montaigne and Hume likewise appeal to habit as formative to belief. Regardless, you can see that reason plays a small role in this process. Reason cannot lead to the conclusion that belief in God is rational (or irrational). Reason’s role is confined to the assistance of prudence, which compels us to make an existential leap of faith—not an assent to a theological or philosophical proposition.

As it turns out, much philosophy and psychology over the last fifty years have vindicated the eccentrics. Consider Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt shows how belief-acquisition is a pre-philosophical and even pre-cognitive phenomenon. We come to believe what we believe through “automatic processes” involving moral intuition and emotional impulse.

Haidt makes use of a vivid metaphor: an elephant being led by a rider atop its back. The elephant represents those moral intuitions and emotional impulses that compel us to believe something. The rider is reason. While the rider might try to guide the elephant, that elephant is huge and slow, carried along by its own momentum. The rider has little control, but likes to pretend he knows exactly what he is doing. So he justifies where the elephant goes—who it avoids and who it stomps on. But the rider does so after the elephant has already chosen its path. Here is how Haidt puts it: “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.”

In short, most of our beliefs—especially the beliefs that are central to our worldviews—precede reason. To return to my analogy, the owner looks around his club and sees all sorts of beliefs that did not enter through the main door. He asks the bouncer Reason, “How the hell did all these beliefs get in here?” Reason doesn’t want to look bad, so it responds, “Don’t worry. They’re all cool.” Reason then goes on to offer a pretty damn persuasive justification for every one of those back-door beliefs, which now constitute pretty much everyone in the club.

So you may claim your beliefs are rational. But their rationality is simply your after-the-fact justification. You initially committed to beliefs for reasons of which you may not even be aware. Afterwards, you managed to convince yourself—and maybe some others—that your beliefs are rational.

 

Competing As An Elite

What It Takes (and Doesn’t Take) to Compete in the Elite Wave

 

I use the word “compete” loosely. I recently finished my second season in the elite wave, racing in all but one round of the Coconut Cup and a few rounds of the Florida State Championship Series. (To be more specific, I race the 40+ expert class.) At my best, I was near the front mid-pack, although at one round of the FSC, I finished only one minute behind the overall leader. During the race, I remember thinking to myself, “Why is everyone going so slow?” Either they all secretly agreed to slacken the pace that race (and didn’t tell me) or I had something special that day. In the Coconut Cup, I tallied a number of seconds in my class and usually finished in the top five overall. But then again the Coconut Cup does not draw the same number of competitors as the FSC.

Don’t mistake my honesty for self-pity, however. I didn’t ask for this; I was bumped up into the expert class. And so I race against the fastest off-road cyclists in the state on a regular basis. I am a proud mid-pack elite waver. I must say, however, that I still feel like Cat. 2ers and 3ers are my kindred spirits. I occupy a nebulous position: I feel like an amateur athlete, but I received cash payouts on several occasions for top-five finishes. Because of my between-and-betwixt status, I thought I’d share my thoughts about what it takes (and doesn’t take) to compete in the elite wave. My purpose is to demystify the aura that surrounds the off-road cyclists who start first at every round of every cross-country event.

What it takes #1: Ridiculous amounts of training aggression. No, it’s more than aggression. You must inflict pain upon yourself. But it’s more than that. It’s downright masochism. You reach the point where you need that pain; it lets you know that you have paid your dues. In my forthcoming book, Confessions of a Midlete: Who We Are, Why We Do It and How We (Occasionally) Kick Ass, I turn to Nietzsche’s conception of the Ubermensch to explain this aggression and Freud to explain the masochism. Nevertheless, if you want to line up in the elite wave, pay your dues.

What it takes #2: Assuming you’ve met requirement #1, confidence is also important. You have to feel like you belong there. Like many other areas of my life, I had to fake it at first. When I taught my first class at the college level, I had to fake being a college professor. When my first child was born, I had to pretend that I knew exactly what I was doing. After a while, I actually got really good at these things. The same applied to racing in the elite wave.

In fact, I would recommend having fun with that confidence. On race morning, swagger past all the non-elites as you move to the front, say “excuse me” like you’re a bad ass. And line up behind the tape like you’ve been doing this your whole life.

What it takes #3: A very understanding spouse. If your marriage has not yet come under stress, it will. If you have kids, the stress triples. If you can’t work some magical math to make the numbers add up—enough hours spent with your wife, with your kids, at your job, training, and going to races—then you have a few options: forget about racing in the elite wave, divorce your spouse, and/or be a shitty parent.

(And to my competitors who are single, I’m sure you—gleefully—realize that you have an unfair advantage. You should race in a separate class: Elite Singles. You shouldn’t race against Elite Marrieds. Let’s add another class while we’re at it: Elite Marrieds with Children.)

What it doesn’t take #1: race-day stress and anxiety. Racing in the elite wave is less stressful than racing in Cat. 2 or 3. Why? Because in the elite wave, everyone goes fast, and everyone knows what they’re doing. No need to worry if you get a bad start. I have watched the fastest riders in the elite wave pass me and a bunch of others on their way to victory. When I raced in Cat. 2 and Cat. 3, I knew that inevitably some douchebag would get a good start and bottleneck me and a bunch of other angry competitors. (I unfortunately re-experience this during the mass start of an endurance race, where too many wannna-be’s reveal—to the detriment of everyone behind them—that their fitness level does not match their overzealous competitiveness.)

What it doesn’t take #2: a coach. Not only that, but I’ll share a really embarrassing secret. I don’t even use a heartrate monitor. I’m not just low-tech, I’m no tech. I could tell you that I’ve been doing this long enough that I know my body, that I know when the intervals are working, that I know how hard to push. And I think I would be about 75% truthful. The fact is, I will hire a coach sometime in the future. Nevertheless, you can do it without.

What it doesn’t take #3: mechanical skill. I can say this with certainty (in the form of another embarrassing confession): I am the worst mechanic on the line of the elite wave. I suck at working on my bike. I don’t want to learn. I don’t want to learn because I hate working on my bike. Because I hate working on my bike, I suck at it. I am a professor of literature, after all. All of my knowledge is theoretical—zero practical knowledge. Thankfully, mountain bikes are pretty bullet proof these days. My mechanics are patient with me. They know I can ride the hell out of my bike, even though I don’t know how the hell it works.

So these are my confessions. If you see me at the races, go ahead and make some fun. But I would bet you my competitors have their fair share of embarrassing secrets as well. They may be the fastest off-road cyclists in Florida, but they are—mostly—human.

 

Social Classification

When I teach Chaucer, I connect my students to the Canterbury Tales by broaching a concept they all know well: social divisions, cultural types, the modern-day caste system. Before the knight even begins his tale, we have a good idea what’s coming because we know the basic characteristics of a knight: honor, courtesy, bravery—the whole chivalric-code thing. Before the miller even begins his tale—well, after I tell my students what a miller is—we brace ourselves for the rude and crude character type after which the miller is modeled.

 

We all have ready-made social classifications into which we place the people we meet: bratty kid, teenage rebel, college-age partyer, thirty-something business professional, single mom, helicopter parent, grumpy old man, etc. These classifications are often unfair because they are stereotypes—presumptions foisted upon people usually because of the way they look. Though often unfair, we would be lying if we said we didn’t make use of them.

 

Part of the reason for this is that for the mind to understand anything it requires categories to begin the process of ordering sense data. I would never even make it out the front door if I had to start from scratch every time an object appeared to my senses: “That is an object. It emits a pleasant smell that makes my mouth water. Since it is the morning it must be a breakfast item. It is square and brown…” I can save a lot of time by simply filing the object into the category of toast. And although that may be unfair to this particular piece of toast because it is unlike other pieces of toast within the category of toast—maybe it comes from a fancy bakery, maybe it’s gluten free—I can at least start there and then make distinctions.

 

Anyway, my students can relate to this approach to the Canterbury Tales because they have recently been in high school and understand the social-classification system. I am amazed at how little that system has changed over the years. Jocks will always have a place in every American high school. As will nerds. The “princess,” as Claire is called in The Breakfast Club, might go by other names these days, but she’s still around. The “basket case” overlaps with the Goth. And alas, the “criminal” still walks the halls of public high schools.

 

In junior high, I was amazed one August when an erstwhile Goth showed up on the first day of school as a popular kid. He changed categories! I didn’t know that was possible. The year before his hair was dyed black, his clothes were dark, and his musical interests centered on the Violent Femmes. In August, when he returned to school, his gelled hair was blond, his Polo shirt was green, and his radio was dialed to top 40. My fellow students and I were too stunned to make fun of him. The kid forced me to throw out the social playbook; anything seemed possible now.

 

Golden Notes makes use of the social-classification system. But like Chaucer, I like to experiment with the blueprints. My character Brodie is a good example of someone who fits nicely into one category but can step into others when necessary. Others complicate categories. Zoe may be a Gothic loner, but she also possesses an enormous capacity to be a friend.

 

Social classification systems are part of our mental furniture. But they are forever pulled, pushed, and stretched thanks to interesting people who defy expectations, people who may identity themselves with a category but never let themselves get too comfortable there. 

Who the Hell Do You Think You Are?

In the first sentence of John Barth’s novel, The End of the Road, protagonist Jacob Horner affirms, “In a sense I am Jacob Horner.” The novel hooked me with this one line because I am fascinated by the shadowiness of identity. How well do we really know ourselves? How much of our identity is foisted upon us? How much is constant? How much is bullshit?

 

Sixteenth-century essayist—and kindred spirit—Montaigne wrote, “I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word.” Here is a man who knew himself—or knew he didn’t know himself. In the nineteenth century, the living and breathing aphorism factory known as Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines.” Breathe in that fresh air of honesty—honesty to admit that we all are, in a way, dishonest. Richard Rorty, my favorite postmodern provocateur, recommends that we jettison the will to truth as we cultivate our identities. The goal is not to find out who you “really are,” but simply to create and re-create yourself. Who you are depends upon imagination and your will to believe it.

 

Socrates is the gadfly who got all this confusion started when he proclaimed, “Know thyself,” thereby hurtling us into this maze of identity. Of course, Socrates took this Greek commandment from the Temple of Delphi, where the oracle would tell you your future in language so cryptic and ambiguous that no one every truly know what the hell she was saying. Who, after all, ever correctly interpreted the oracle’s prophecy? 

 

In the eighteenth century, when the genre of the novel comes lumbering along, it dives headfirst into this maze. By generic definition, the novel focuses on the individual. Just consider the novel titles from this period: Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Moll Flanders, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Roxana, etc. Many of these novels are psychological portraits, depicting the complexity of identity. In the case of Tristram Shandy, nothing happens for the first 400 pages of the novel because the eponymous narrator can’t get past his own idiosyncratic perspective.

 

In Golden Notes, I tried to create identities that are realistic, which is to say volatile and, in some cases, unpredictable. As many novelists affirm, once you create characters, once they come alive, they begin to act on their own. I found that to be true. My characters are testaments to the fact that “Know thyself” is less of a command and more of a conundrum.

A deleted scene from Golden Notes: characters discussing the classic John Hughes film, The Breakfast Club.

Cali Sky listened to the sounds in the apartment. Zoe was asking Tam a question.

            “When do you think they’ll begin to lose those identities?”

            “They won’t completely,” answered Tam.

            “I hope not. I can’t imagine them without them.”

            “Me neither. But they’ll fade…or evolve. They’ll change into some form that’s acceptable in the real world.”

            “Oh my god, that’s depressing. They’ll become like everyone else.”

            “Maybe. Yes and no. Andrew’s the athlete, right? He’ll end up owning some appliance store or something and ruthlessly drive the competition out of business. Or he’ll wind up with some corporate job and become an alcoholic and wife-beater when he never gets promoted. He’ll talk about kicking his boss’ ass but will never do anything about it.”

            “The Breakfast Club?” asked Cali Sky.

            Zoe nodded with a smile.

            “Who else?” Tam asked.

            “Brian,” answered Zoe, “the brain. I knew kids like him in high school. One has already started law school. Total successes. Then there’s Claire, the princess. She’ll spend daddy’s money for the rest of her life.”

            “No,” corrected Tam. “She’ll end up marrying the criminal, Bender. But they’ll change each other. Meet in the middle. She’ll become less like a princess. He’ll become less like a criminal. They’ll become the average middle-class family with two kids and no aspirations. Boring and predictable.”

            “No,” groaned Zoe.

            “Well,” Cali Sky proposed, “maybe the same thing will happen to the athlete and the basket case. They get together in the movie, right? Maybe they’ll also get married after high school and cancel each other out. He’ll become less like an athlete and she’ll become less like a basket case. What’s left? Your average American family. Ordinary.”

            “Oh my God, Cali Sky,” exclaimed Zoe. “You’re ruining the movie for me.”

            “Just don’t think about their future, Zoe,” Cali Sky advised.

            “Maybe not,” Tam said. “I don’t see the basket case marrying the jock. Of all the high school types the basket case is least likely to conform.”

            “Unlike the criminal?” Cali Sky challenged.

            “Criminals like Bender reform when a girl like Claire comes along,” answered Tam. “Not a basket case.”

            “Thank you!” exclaimed Zoe. “At least one of them might remain true to themselves.”

            “She’ll stay weird,” Tam said. “Dress differently. Play strange roles every now and then. Do what she wants when she wants. Freak people out. She’ll never conform.”

            “Tam,” said Zoe with a smile, “you just described yourself.”

            “As well as you,” Tam returned.

            “And a rock star,” added Cali Sky.

            “So it’s all of us,” Zoe gushed. “We’ll never conform!”

            The phone rang.

            “Seriously,” said Cali Sky, as if stumbling upon a realization that both thrilled and disconcerted her, “a rock star is one of the few professions where you never really need to grow up.”

            “Like a photographer,” Zoe said triumphantly.

            Cali Sky entered her room to answer the phone. When she returned a minute later Tam and Zoe had not changed the subject.

            “A filmmaker!” said Zoe.

            “That’s an artist,” Tam replied. “We already said all artists.”

            “How about a boss? Of any sort of business?”

            “But you have to work your way up to that position. Along the way you conform. It’s inevitable. Besides a boss has too much responsibility. Responsibility necessitates conformity.”

            “How about a college professor…”