Mr. Potato Head is an ontological nightmare

Where is Mr. Potato Head?

I’m not talking about any particular Mr. Potato Head toy, even though the whereabouts of my four-year-old’s are currently unknown. (It’s probably in the nether realm that exists somewhere between the underside of my couch and the Oort Cloud.) Nor am I wondering where I can find one to buy.

I’m asking a more fundamental question. Mr. Potato Head is modular, with swappable arms, legs, hats, and facial features. In which of those parts resides the true essence of Mr. Potato Head? Which are the ones without which he ceases to be MPH? Is it one in particular? Is it some combination? Or is his true being immaterial?

It wasn’t until about my 12,000th viewing of Toy Story 3 that I started wondering about this. Before then, I would have blithely assumed that the heart and soul of Mr. Potato Head resided within the potato. It’s the obvious choice. Right there in the name. A Potato Head lacking accessories may be trapped in a ceaseless torment of lucid thought and total sensory deprivation, but he’d still be Mr. Potato Head. Right? Well, I’m not so sure.

There’s a scene in Pixar’s movie in which Don Rickles’s Mr. Potato Head character makes his way across the grounds of Sunnyside Day Care by plugging his various parts into different foods: a tortilla, a pickle. As physical comedy, it’s some of Pixar’s best work. As an ontological proposition, it’s what David Foster Wallace would call a real two-handed head clutcher.

If Mr. Potato Head retains his identity across different corporeal foodstuffs -- if the nexus of his various non-culinary pieces turns out to be irrelevant -- then the potato body is far less than the “true” MPH. It’s not even as crucial a vessel as the most ardent spiritualist would consider our own squishy bodies to be. At best, It’s a prosthesis. A Mr. Potato Head who is also Mr. Tortilla Head who is also Mr. Pickle Head clearly relies on none of those things to call himself “Mr.”

Does this mean, then, that those plastic hands, feet, and mustaches are the containers for what we might call Mr. Potato Head’s soul? If so, which one? Or are they mere conduits? Is MPH a distributed consciousness across all of his parts? Does their physical proximity matter at all? What about mixing and matching? What happens if you exchange pieces between separate Potatoes Head?

From Pixar’s depiction, it seems clear that the soul of Mr. Potato Head is indivisible. When he reunites with his friends after his long night of body-switching, he’s still clearly himself. He’s relieved and grateful to be back with his loved ones. There’s no sense that he’s left behind a part of himself in the soggy tortilla, nor are there replicant Mr. Potato Heads out there inhabiting stray French fries and corn cobs, each one believing himself to be the real MPH. Whatever you want to call it -- his spirit, his soul, his essence -- it’s clearly portable. The irreducible being of MPH requires no permanent home; perhaps it needs no physical home at all.

As a committed materialist, I find this possibility troubling. Where was Mr. Potato Head’s soul prior to the fabrication of his original plastic pieces? Was it already fully formed, or did it come swirling out of the ether at the moment of manufacture? (While we’re at it, just when precisely was that moment? Before or after the packaging was sealed?) Will this non-corporeal but “true” MPH continue to exist after all of his physical parts have ceased to be? Where is Mr. Potato Head?

This is giving me a headache. Anyway, Mr. Potato Head is a crappy toy. The pieces are always getting lost.

The problem with the NFL

Ordinarily, by this time of the year I'm vibrating like a boiling pot ready for the football season to start. This year ought to be especially exciting. My beloved Patriots are coming off their fifth, and arguably most exciting, Super Bowl win. I'm primed to avenge a narrow loss in the fantasy football championships. But something is different this year. The enthusiasm is dimmed. Putting mental energy toward football seems almost like a chore.

It's not that I don't enjoy the game. I love the strategic aspect of football, and the athleticism on display can border on the divine. Hell, I'll cop to being a sucker for some of the tribal elements of fandom -- I'm a Bostonian and proud of it. Nothing has really changed. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one.

The problem is the NFL.

The National Football League is rotten to the core. The NFL is corrupt. It is racist. It is deadly. It is wholly and ruthlessly dedicated only to the further enrichment of 32 of the world’s wealthiest people, and whosoever must be maimed, marginalized, or mistreated in pursuit of that goal is just grist to the mill. As a fan -- someone who tunes in, occasionally buys shit, and sees innumerable GMC truck ads when launching ESPN's fantasy Gamecast -- I am, in whatever small way, complicit. I don’t like the way that feels.

These feelings have been flitting around in the old subconscious for years. The revelation of CTE was troubling. The league’s inconsistent approach to discipline for off-field issues, in particular domestic violence, was disconcerting. The subtle but unmistakable difference in public perception and treatment of black players versus white players was something I thought only needed to be addressed with jokes. These all seemed like small concerns, easily hand-waved, unrelated and hardly a small price to pay for a game that has brought me so much joy over the years.

Then Colin Kaepernick happened.

Kaepernick’s protest was not simply a morally courageous act to bring attention to the problem of police violence in America, although it was that. The firestorm that erupted around his protest has incinerated every vestige of the NFL’s claim to respectability. The lie at the heart of the thing has been laid bare for all to see. Forget “the NFL is family”; the NFL is a devourer of worlds.

Let’s start with this: the average NFL career is just over three years, and the average NFL earnings are just shy of four million dollars. We all know how averages work, yes? For every Tom Brady who plays for decades and stacks up a few hundred million simoleons, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of practice-squad scrubs who wash out with nothing to show but a couple grand in the bank and an opioid addiction. But it’s the Bradys that we see on TV each week. Ever heard of survivorship bias?

In other words, those “average” numbers that you’ve probably already heard are surely a massive overstatement of the median player’s longevity and lucre. The NFL is not a path to riches and to stardom, and that’s even if you get there in the first place. God only knows how many high school football players with pro-league dreams are discarded by the time the teams’ 53-man rosters are drawn up. That’s too depressing a number even to Google.

So most players don’t make the pros, and most of those who do wash out. They aren’t getting rich. But all those years of practice, of high school and college games, and of desperately trying to make the cut at the pro level still comes with a cost to them. CTE is pervasive; according to one study, 99% of NFL brains suffered from it, and other studies have suggested that playing high-school ball alone can be sufficient to damage the brain permanently.

It’s tempting to say that these are grown men making an informed choice to put themselves at risk, because if that's true then the culpability is all theirs. Except they’re not grown men. Even in their late teens and early 20s, with some amount of education, we’re asking these people to make far-reaching life decisions whose implications they cannot possibly comprehend. Not to mention that a pro prospect is surrounded by any number of people whose own incentives are to get the player to sign, sign, sign. Agents, publicists, even family members -- an NFL contract can be a meal ticket for more than just the one who signs on the line that is dotted.

Is playing football an informed choice? The risks of CTE have been known only for a few years now, and are still not well understood. Hell, forget “informed” -- is playing a choice at all? Promising players are often children when they begin to be funneled toward ever more competitive strata. I don’t want to overgeneralize about the upbringing of your typical football player, but I know from experience that it’s exceedingly hard to walk away from something into which you’ve invested so much of your life’s equity, especially if you feel an obligation to those closest to you to continue. Now imagine that, longshot or not, your only route to a better life appears to run through the NFL. Could you quit?

The NFL isn’t satisfied with feeding on these young men’s bodies, though. As Kaepernick’s example shows, the league also demands their minds. It’s worthwhile to remember what Kaepernick actually did: he knelt during the National Anthem. That’s all. He was quiet, and still, and had been doing the kneeling thing for quite a while before anybody noticed and asked him about it. When he was asked, he spoke clearly and directly about his reasons for doing so. And boy oh boy, did that make the (white) fans mad!

I don’t typically listen to sports talk radio, but occasionally at the gym I’ll tune into the Felger and Mazz simulcast. You bet I’ve heard no shortage of spittle-flecked tirades against Kaepernick from the (white) Boston fans, all of which revolve around the central theme that Kaepernick ought to shut his mouth and know his place. You see, when a (black) player earns a high-paying contract, may or may not justify his salary with his play, and then dares to disrespect the flag/troops/whatev with a stoic protest, why, that’s a slap in the face to the (white) fans! For some reason!

All this is why I realized that the NFL, not so much in any of its constituent parts but in toto, is racist as shit. This is an entity in which 32 mostly white owners profit from the labor and, in some cases, outright destruction of mostly black bodies, and by sleight of hand have convinced their customers, the fans, that it is the players who are deserving of our scorn. That it is the players who are ungrateful money-grubbers, who prioritize the glorification of their own massive egos above the success of the team. That they’ll do anything for a buck and screw you if you don’t like it. Yeah, it’s the players who do that! Not the owners.

It’s funny, though. Since this whole thing blew up, Colin Kaepernick has been unemployed. Never mind that he is young and healthy, with a trip to the Super Bowl on his resume. We tend to hear that he’s yet to be signed because of his skills, which have either declined or are not the right fit with today’s offenses, and while it may be true that Kaep has not progressed much since his breakout season, it’s also true that the following quarterbacks are currently signed to NFL teams:

  • Brock Osweiler
  • Blake Bortles
  • Geno Smith
  • Blaine Gabbert
  • Ryan Mallett
  • Mark Sanchez? Holy shit

We’ve heard a lot of mealy-mouthed words from a lot of mealy-mouthed owners that Kaepernick wouldn’t fit in their systems, or that he would be unwelcome by their fanbase, but whatever the excuses, it’s all bullshit. Kaepernick is unequivocally a better player than everyone on that list, plus many more. He is also a man who refuses to be ground up in the gears of the rapacious monster that is the National Football League. He won’t allow his identity to be subsumed by the massive business concern that is temporarily signing his checks. That is what the league cannot allow.

I suspect that some of these owners privately agree with the substance of Kaepernick’s protest, even (“police shouldn’t execute people” being a fairly self-evident proposition), but are simply afraid to upset the apple cart. Why would they want to disrupt the status quo? The status quo has made them billionaires.

To recap: the NFL is a money-sucking machine that aims to hoover every last dime from the fans into the pockets of the owners. Owners profit off the exploitation and sometime destruction of an essentially captive workforce, demanding conformity and loyalty to a false ideal of “The League” but abdicating responsibility for the players’ health and wellbeing, especially in retirement. They will pay for exceptional workers if they must, but thanks to the salary cap don’t really have to. Besides, those eye-popping topline contracts trick the fans into thinking that the players are all overpaid, spoiled babies even though their share of league revenue is actually unfairly small!

Besides which, when franchise values are increasing by double-digit percentages every year, owners couldn’t overpay if they tried. Shahid Khan has doubled his investment in less than six years, and he owns the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars, for god’s sake! A team that has averaged three wins a year since he bought them! We’re not going to let that gravy train derail on account of Colin Kaepernick, or the victims he speaks for.

What a fucking abomination the NFL is.

But, uh... let’s have fun out there this season.

Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors

This is a big one: I'll be appearing at the Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors at the Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island.

I'll be giving a 30-minute talk, and signing books at two sessions. In between, I'll likely be hyperventilating. Sure to be a fun time!

Other authors and illustrators appearing include a whole bunch of Newbury and Caldecott winners, not to mention Chris Van Allsburg, the author of The Polar Express!

The event takes place on October 15 from 9:30 AM - 5:00 PM. Tickets are $5 at the door. Don't miss it!

Meet me at An Unlikely Story!

I'm visiting An Unlikely Story on September 14 to talk Poptropica: The Lost Expedition.

An Unlikely Story is an independent bookstore in Plainville, Massachusetts, that is owned and operated by Jeff Kinney. It's a gem: friendly staff, good coffee, and wonderful ambiance. They also host authors and illustrators, and hold community events. It's local business at its best.

The event is free, but registration is recommended, so make sure you get on the list. I hope to see you there!

Acknowledgments

Now that Poptropica: The Lost Expedition is finally out -- and I'll only spam you with one more link to buy it -- I've realized something. See, I've never been a dreamer or even especially ambitious. I have always wanted to write a book, and to see it on the shelves at a bookstore, but that desire was filed alongside other hazily defined ones like "visit Hawaii" and "own a Scrooge McDuck-style money bin."

Yesterday I went to my local Barnes and Noble, and there it was: about ten copies, cover facing out, alongside several other gleaming new volumes. My book. A dream come true. Knowing how much work went into it, the setbacks, the backs and forths, it didn't feel as much like encountering a unicorn as I had thought it might. More like a relief that I hadn't hallucinated the past year and a half.

About that realization. I've always griped about the speeches that celebrities give when they win an award. "Why don't they use the opportunity to say something?" I'd wonder. "They're just rattling off a list of names of people nobody cares about."

Now I get it. The work is the opportunity to say something. The list of names is the acknowledgment that nothing is accomplished alone. If Joe Schmoe watching at home doesn't care about those people, the person tearfully clutching the statuette is overwhelmed by gratitude. They don't want to pass up the chance to mention, however briefly, the legions of other people whose efforts undergirded their own.

That's why, after four paragraphs about myself, I would also like to acknowledge and thank some of the people who helped make the book a reality. It's a long list, and incomplete.

Without Jeff Kinney and Jess Brallier, Poptropica wouldn't exist. It wouldn't have become a worldwide hit, and it wouldn't have kept me employed for like the past nine years. Their faith in the product and its potential, and in the ability of a low-level employee to contribute meaningfully to its success, is a debt I will never be able to repay. Both of these men have been incredibly generous to me over the years with their time and tutelage.

Kory Merritt is an unbelievably talented illustrator and the genius at work on this series. As a novice graphic novelist, I can't tell you what a relief it was to know that Kory would be the one putting picture to word. Sometimes when I was stuck or unsure of how to pay off a joke, I'd put something like "Jorge makes a funny face!" with the confidence that Kory would make it work. And he always did.

At Abrams, Orlando Dos Reis was an attentive and diligent editor. He helped to shape the manuscript in ways both large and small, striking the delicate balance of preserving the authorial vision while also tactfully suggesting ways in which the author could be less of a dunce. Which happened occasionally.

I've been fortunate to have many great teachers throughout my life, from K-12 public schools to college. I'll risk forgetting some of them to name a few in particular: Heidi Finnegan, my eighth grade English teacher and twelfth grade independent study advisor, was the teacher in whose class my love of writing took root. It was there that I realized writing might be a viable path for me to follow -- and so I have. The book is dedicated to her for that reason.

Emerson College may have been ludicrously expensive, but I still got a hell of an education there. Steve Almond and Rick Reiken were two phenomenal teachers of the art of fiction despite being light years apart in approach and temperament. Bill Donoghue was a literature professor whose enthusiasm and knowledge kept me signing up for class after class, even though it took me until the final paper of my final course with him to get an A. Richard Hoffman was both a teacher and a writer of profound empathy and insight, who taught me most of all about the value of what writers do.

Of course it all started with my parents. We were a family of readers. We had books in every room of the house, and we never had enough. My mom shuttled her three kids back and forth between home and the library every two weeks, lugging tote bags brimming with borrowed books each way. Every trip, we took out so many books that my mom wrote down all the titles in a spiral-bound notebook to keep track of them. When they were due, she sent us scavenging around the house, crossing off each entry as the books were added to the bags. Sometimes they were hard to find. They ended up in some weird places.

As for my family, I wouldn't know where to start. My wife Molly is unfailingly supportive and has saved my life more than once, in more ways than one. My kids can drive me nuts, but they've also given me the moments of greatest joy I've ever experienced, and a reason to be my best self. I still might have written a book without them, but I'm not sure why I'd have bothered.

So there. I still have some grand thoughts on the human condition, but those are in the book.

The publicity blitz begins

"Blitz" may be a strong word. But Bill Shaner of the Metrowest Daily News penned a nifty feature about The Lost Expedition that ran a couple days ago. I am now even more of a celebrity among my extended family than I was before.

In seriousness, it is a very weird feeling to be the subject of a newspaper article. I've spent a lifetime discounting my own abilities and it doesn't come naturally to me to be pitching something, even something I've worked so hard on and that is so close to my heart. But I do believe the book deserves an audience and I am willing to do what I can to make sure that happens.

Speaking of which: we're only 10 days away from the book's release! You can help the book succeed by pre-ordering your copy now.

Manuscript away!

I've just sent the first draft for Poptropica book 4 to my editor at Abrams. (That's right: book 4. Book 3 is almost done being illustrated!)

It's a strange feeling. For the past couple of months, this story has existed only in my head. I've been grinding out a few pages a day, reviewing what's been done and mentally plotting what's to come. In a sense, I feel as though I've been traveling and have just now returned home.

This isn't the end of the work, of course. There will be rewrites and revisions. There will be back-and-forths with the editorial team and our supremely talented illustrator Kory Merritt. There will be layouts and approvals. Heck, a year from now, I'll be spamming Twitter with requests to buy this one instead of The Lost Expedition, as I'm doing now.

Regardless, this is the first big step. It's where the vision in my head bumps up against reality. Sometimes that's gratifying, and sometimes it's distressing. But it's part of the deal. I've always found the hardest part of writing to be hitting that "send" button. I'm learning to let go.

New content added in "Site Exclusives"

Over the years, I've accumulated a lot of work, which has never been published, finished, or even collected in a single place. Rather than let it continue to languish on old hard drives, I've decided to let it languish on a barely trafficked website instead.

That's why I've added a new section called "Site Exclusives." This will be a repository for work old and new. Whether fiction, personal essay, screenplay, or whatever else I've got kicking around, anything that isn't contracted to be published elsewhere is eligible to show up here.

To get things going, I've uploaded three pieces, two of which have never been shared beyond an inner circle of friends and family.

"My Life in Turkey Guts" is a personal essay that I wrote for a college course, which went on to win the prestigious Emerson College Senior Writing Award for Non-Fiction, popularly known as the ECSWANF, for the class of 2003. If you love Thanksgiving dinner but don't especially wish to know how the turkey makes it from the farm to your table, consider yourself warned.

Elite, or l33t, was my first successful attempt at participating in National Novel Writing Month. The first draft was completed in December 2009 (but I hit the word count in November!), and the book has been lightly revised in the interim. The excerpt I've posted chronicles a first date between the main character and an intriguing young woman, and a conversation that forces the main character to look at himself honestly.

Season High is a screenplay idea I've been working on for -- good lord, 12 years or so. Of course, when I say "working on," I mean that in the most euphemistic sense. My friend RJO Stewart and I completed most of a draft during the summer of 2004 and then abandoned it. In the intervening decade, I thought about Season High a lot, but didn't do any more work on it until a fresh start in 2015. It is not done.

Hope you enjoy these! I plan to add work old and new, just as soon as I submit the manuscript I'm currently working on, and then take a six-week nap.

We are live!

We're up and running with a brand-new domain. I figured it was time to get with the year 2005 and start my own website.

This will be the online home for all my written work. I'll be updating the "work" page as I have new things to share, and blogging about release dates, appearances, and various other good stuff.

For the time being, most of that will pertain to Poptropica: The Lost Expedition, which comes out on August 16! This is the second book in the series, so if you want to make sure you're caught up, don't skip over the first volume, Mystery of the Map.

If you're desperate for even more adventures with Mya, Oliver, and Jorge, you can also play Mystery of the Map Island for free right now on Poptropica. It's an excellent companion to the book, and sheds light on a few of its secrets.

More news as it breaks!