Friday, February 28, 2020

Presenting Facts, with Humor and Attitude (on Author Visits) by Dean Gloster

(In Which I Talk about Making National News this Week for Advising the Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security on the Coronavirus. Yes, Really.)

            Our topic this month is what can librarians, teachers, students, and writers expect if you invite me to give a presentation

            First, humor.

            I used to be a stand-up comic, I wrote a masters’ thesis on humor techniques, and I spend way too much time writing jokes for Twitter, where I have 138,000 followers. (That number generally gets an ooooh from eighth graders.)

Second, you can expect that I’ll probably customize it to refer to current events. That’s the former stand-up comic in me: I like to riff on what’s happening now.

Third, you can expect that somewhere in it, I’ll go deep. If we’re going to talk, we might as well talk about something real.

For specific topics, I can do a presentation on how (and why) to be funny, complete with practical humor theory. (That is, taught in a way that a teen or adult can immediately use, unlike the humor theory taught in some college classes.) I could also cover the ethics and morality of humor, a subject most young comics (those under 40) often don’t think enough about.

            I can do a presentation on the power of story—why presenting information as a story more effectively moves and persuades people, along with the practical implications. I was a lawyer for 30 years, and I did a lot of courtroom work, where the key to moving the judge was to present the facts in the form of a story that made sense.

            I can also do a presentation on the Supreme Court—I was a law clerk to two U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

For writers, I can also talk about a variety of craft topics, including writing better dialogue, how (and how not to) to work in backstory, techniques and tips for a fast, compelling opening, and how and why to use humor, even in serious stories.

            You can also expect me to update those presentations to have a timely hook.

So if I were doing a presentation today, I’d probably mention my fun tweet exchange this week with the acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security that ended up in the national news. Especially since it involved whether we’re going to die.

            Some background: After he came into office, Trump fired the entire U.S. pandemic response chain of command and never replaced them. His administration savagely cut disease-fighting operational budgets of the CDC, NSC, DHS, and HHS. His hiring freeze prevented the disease-prevention arms of those organizations from operating effectively. And for other current vacant positions, he just has “acting” directors, some of whom are holding down several jobs. On Monday, though, the stock market fell in the U.S., with the Dow declining over 1,000 points because of concerns over the impact on our economy of the spread of the coronavirus.

That created a problem for Ken Cuccinelli, who is, in addition to being Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration, is also Acting Deputy Secretary of our entire Homeland Security.

Cuccinelli had trouble getting into the updated Johns Hopkins online map showing the real-time spread of the coronavirus, and instead of calling them or asking someone in the government, he did what some others in the administration do, and just tweeted about it:

It’s a little weird, crowdsourcing IT help during a deadly pandemic because, as the acting head of an agency, you don’t know how either a phone or the Internet work. So I responded:

But I took pity on him, and from my brother Mark I got a link that was working, so I tweeted that to Clueless Cuccinelli, along with a light drizzle of sarcasm:

That tweet ended up in the national news the next day, because—understandably—the Huffington Post found the whole exchange both alarming and entertaining.

Entertainment isn't everything. I grew up as the high-achieving son of a neglectful, alcoholic, mentally ill mother who was sometimes dangerous. (Which I wrote about here: ) That helped me learn early that grownups will sometimes not do their job to protect us, and we’ll have to find a way to do better ourselves.

That’s a message I pass along in some of my presentations, and it’s especially relevant today. Because my fun exchange with clueless Ken Cuccinelli is part of a broader story now unfolding, which is less funny: There is a global, spreading coronavirus pandemic that our government is responding poorly to, and is lying to us about.

The virus, covid-19, is similar to the cold virus, but somewhere between 7 and 20 times deadlier than the flu. Our own CDC and outside scientists now say it is extremely unlikely that the spread of the virus will be contained, particularly given that in China—despite draconian efforts—it spread from a single city to throughout the country in 35 days. Now, there are more new cases outside China each day than in that country. As I type this, our government’s response is frighteningly inept. Against the advice of the CDC 14 infected Americans were brought back on a flight of uninfected people, and then greeted by HHS staffers who were, according to a whistleblower, unequipped with gear and uninformed about how to avoid getting infected.

Yesterday as I type this, the President falsely claimed there were only 15 infected Americans, when the Center for Disease Control had admitted there were 60, one discretely identified in California. Today as I type this, there are 28 identified in California alone. And the CDC’s criteria for identifying infections is dangerously flawed—if you have all the symptoms, you are not even tested, unless you have recently been in China, or you know you have been exposed to someone who has recently returned from China—even though there are more new cases diagnosed every day outside China than there are in that country. To try to reassure people, two days ago acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf testified (falsely) to Congress that coronavirus was no more deadly than flu, but only because he exaggerated the lethality of flu by 1900 percent. Today, the New York Times announced that government health officials are banned from giving accurate information about the epidemic unless they’ve cleared those statements first with the office of Vice President Pence, which will insert a political spin, at the expense of public health.

When it’s raining lies, it’s important to be able to operate an umbrella.

Not everyone can operate an umbrella.

            So take precautions. Wash your hands frequently. Use hand sanitizer. Don’t rub your eyes or nose of touch your face without washing your hands first. If you’re sick, stay home and don’t infect others. If you’re an employer, relax your sick day policy and encourage sick people to stay home. Start making alternate child care arrangements for when schools and daycare centers close. If you have immune system, heart, or respiration problems, be especially careful.

            And vote. To do that, you have to register to vote. As I mention in some of my school visits, in California, you can even pre-register to vote, if you’re 16 or 17, here:

            Ultimately, when I talk with groups these days, my message is often: be a protagonist.

            Protagonists don’t accept the world they’re born into, they try to make it better. Protagonists grow and develop, because the circumstances demand it. Protagonists do not quit, despite setbacks and obstacles and difficult odds.

            We face difficulties ahead, my friends. Be a protagonist. And good luck to us all. 

Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.

When Dean is not studying Aikido or downhill ski racing, he’s on Twitter: @deangloster

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