Discovering The Milpitas Monster

The Milpitas MonsterWill called me the other day to tell me that he and his wife had discovered a film I might like, The Milpitas Monster. They had seen part of the film, but couldn’t take the bad sound quality and turned it off. I went onto YouTube and found the whole film and watched it. I’ve watched it three times now. And I ordered it on DVD. The truth is that the bad sound and video quality are due to the transfer, not the film itself. Just see the trailer below.

But as I watched the film, I was thinking about why I have so much respect for low and no budget films. It’s because it is really hard to make a film. I mean: really. I’m sure I’ve talked about this to some extent before. I once made a short (10 minute) film that got to the first-cut stage. So I know what it is like. For example, suppose you want to film some random people walking into a building. The first couple of times you can probably do it, because you’ll ask your friends. But then you run out of them. And frankly, I never found friends to be that helpful.

How These Films Get Made

A great example of this was one really simple shot: the main character drives up in front of a hotel. The doorman comes out and opens the car door, then refuses a tip. It took us several attempts to get a doorman to do it. I think I tipped the one guy who would ten bucks. But we had to time the whole thing right so it didn’t interfere with the hotel’s customers. The whole thing — after finding a doorman who would do it — took two hours. Most of it was just standing around.

That’s a lot of work for about seven seconds of MOS film.

The Milpitas Monster Does More

But whenever I see something like a police car in a low budget film, I’m always amazed. Where do you get a police car? Police uniforms? Well, you rent them. But when you are trying to make a film with no money, that’s usually out of the question. And that’s the first thing that really struck me about The Milpitas Monster. It not only had police and fire vehicles, it had a helicopter! (Last I checked, they rent for several hundred dollars an hour. Since everything takes ten times as long as you think is the absolute longest it will take, that would mean thousands of dollars.

Yet The Milpitas Monster managed to have all of this. And more. At about 10 minutes into the film, I was shocked to see that a garbage truck that the monster attacked is upside down. How do you do that?! That would be very expensive. It’s possible they did it with optical effects. And if that’s the case: that’s really impressive too!

The Story Behind The Milpitas Monster

Luckily, I learned how this $5,000 ultra-cheapie managed to do so much. It’s all laid out in an interview with the director, Robert L Burrill, in the book, Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-by-State Guide with Interviews. In it, I learned that Burrill was a teacher at the high school in Milpitas, CA. He taught commercial art, and I guess part of that was photography.

So one day, he got the idea of making a short (10 minute) film about some garbage monster. There were a lot of elements to it. It had models and animation, for example. They showed the film to people in the area, and the response was good. Burrill refers several times to people thinking it was “cute.” So they continued to work on the film, gradually making a feature-length version of The Milpitas Monster.

School Time to Big Time

Because it was a school project, a lot of people got involved. For example, at the end of the film, there is a list of almost 100 local businesses that paid $50 to have their names listed in the credits. But it was more than that. The city council was behind it. So the filmmakers got help from the police department, the fire department, and most especially the high school. Thus the film is a lot more visually diverse than, say, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. (Just the same, Death Bed works in ways that The Milpitas Monster does not.)

I was glad to see that Burrill didn’t apologize for the film at all. He specifically discusses the editing and how the film does a good job of covering simultaneous action in multiple locations. This is probably the biggest thing that new filmmakers blow. And it’s important. You can put up with the limited abilities of the actors if the dramatic momentum is carrying you through the film.

I said that I ordered the film. It cost me 10 bucks. But if it is good enough, I think I’ll spring the $40 that they want for the director’s cut that contains 20 more minutes of film.

Different Films for Different Times

There are lots of times when I want to watch a professionally made film. It’s very hard for a low budget film to do anything quite like Dean Spanley. But a film like this, that involves an entire community over the course of several years? It’s totally unique. You’ll never have the experience of watching the first time again. None of the people who make these films are masters at the art of viewer manipulation.

It’s probably best to think of films like The Milpitas Monster as categorically different than professional films. And once you see that, you can pinpoint how they ought to be viewed. My problem is that people want to compare a film made by a bunch of young amateurs with $5,000 with the newest Hollywood blockbuster made by professionals for $100 million or more. Hollywood has exchanged authenticity for professionalism. And that’s fine. But more people should respect those who choose authenticity.

My Life and Work in the California Fire

My Life in the California Fire

I lived through the northern California fire. I just saw a map of the Tubs Fire. It came a lot closer to me then I had thought — perhaps just too short blocks. I’m going to talk about my experience with the fire. It is light-hearted. But don’t take that to mean that I don’t take the fire very seriously. Over 40 people died. Some people were identified by the serial numbers on their replacement hips. Roughly 3,000 structures were burned to the ground. At least another thousand were partially burned. It was a horrible thing. People were very afraid and for very good reason.

Evacuation From the California Fire

Sunday night I had been smelling a wild fire. I sleep with my window open because I have south-facing Windows and my room tends to get very hot during the day. Then at 3:00 in the morning there was a knock on the door. My neighbor Jodi told me that there was a fire and that people were evacuating. I could see the main street from my doorway and indeed it was bumper to bumper traffic — at 3:00 in the morning.

Then at 3:10 in the morning I got a very loud knock on the door from Charlie, my next door neighbor, telling me that there was now a forced evacuation. I threw on some clothes, grabbed my father, and drove to Coddingtown, the biggest mall in our area. The mall is less than 3 miles away. I walk to it all the time, and it takes me about 50 minutes to get there. It took us longer than that to drive there.

Hanging Out in Coddingtown

We sat in the car and listened to the local news. Most of the local news was not what I consider news. But it reminded me very much of the news coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. They didn’t know anything. There was no new news. And they were going to repeat that over and over again.

The only cool part was at around 5:00 am when the fire got close enough to them that they had to evacuate. I don’t say that because it’s cool that they were In Harm’s Way. It just broke things up. And it was some actual news for a change. And note they were all safe and so was the station. Unfortunately, our local NPR transmitter was completely destroyed. So now I have to listen to the San Francisco feed which is not very good.

Back Home — in Retrospect, Not Too Smart

At around 10:00 in the morning we decided to go back home. I could see on my phone that although we were in the evacuation Zone we were at the very edge of it. If we simply crossed the street we were not in it. So we went home and sat around there. My bed is much more comfortable then a car seat.

The next few days we’re all the same. I spent the days reading books which was nice because I get so little time to do that. And at night I tried to read by flashlight but found it very difficult. I’ve seen this in movies a lot. Maybe it’s just kids who are able to do it. I usually just gave up and slept an excessive amount.

Life Without Internet

If I had taken the money back the gods would surely have cut the electricity again.

My biggest problem was that I was unable to work. We had no electricity; no internet; no gas. It was kind of interesting though. You could drive 5 miles away and everything was just fine. So we ate out a lot. But that would only go so far because if I didn’t get an internet connection soon I wasn’t going to have any money to eat out. My work is entirely dependent upon having an internet connection.

But on Wednesday I had an idea. I called up my friend Barbara who took care of my brother when he was still alive. I asked her if I could rent some space in her home where I could work. She said sure — that I could do it for free. But I was certainly not going to do that. Barbara has a lot more people to care for than I do. She deserve to be paid.

Renting Office Space Outside the California Fire

So Wednesday night I brought my computer and everything else over to her house and set it up. It was great. Thursday morning I made my way over to her place and worked my first day. I was thrilled. Then I went home.

Tribute to the Gods

And then the electricity came back on! That included the internet connection. Thank all the gods!

So I drove back to her place and got my computer and set it up. Barbara tried very hard to give me the money back. But I was sure that was a bad idea. As far as I was concerned the money I had paid was a tribute to the Gods. If I had taken the money back the gods would surely have cut the electricity again.

The Journey’s End

We only got gas back yesterday. Which means that we went for another 4 days without it. And it is impossible to cook anything substantial in my house without gas because the stove is gas.

But I didn’t care because I had electricity and I had internet and I could work. And we were extremely lucky. We could easily have lost our home. The picture above is of the house of my sister-in-law who lives about a mile away from me. It looks like Armageddon. The first couple of days of the fire it looked like Armageddon everywhere. But it’s mostly over. And I hope there will be little more destruction and no more death.

Checking In

Frank MoraesHi, you all. I don’t feel like writing an Odd Words post, so I thought I would just check in with you. I also don’t feel like writing any of the posts that have been piling up in my head — one about Glenn Greenwald may be so out of date by the time I write it that I may not write it. But the truth is that I’m tired.

Early this last week, I wrote to my doctor, complaining of three things: breaking out into sweats; losing 15 pounds; and having high blood pressure. She set up some tests and told me to schedule an appointment after the results were back.

So on Tuesday, I went in to see the Kaiser Permanente vampires to give them four vials of blood. Because I walked the four miles to the office, I was somewhat dehydrated when I got to the draining office. And the phlebotomists had a hard time. I went through three of them. The last one got me in my hand. She was only just able to fill the fourth vial; the vein was giving out. And she left me with a pretty bad bruise afterward — which was kind of cool.

Nine Tests

My doctor had 9 tests run. I got to see the results before the appointment, so I was pretty sure what I was going to hear when I went in. Pretty much everything looked great. The only exceptions were that my cholesterol was a bit high — which is not surprising given how much I love cream sauces. And my thyroid was not functioning as well as it should be. So I figured she would increase my thyroid medication.

When I met with her, she did exactly what I expected. But the most interesting thing about my health this last few months is that I constantly feel — it’s hard to explain — dazed, perhaps? I feel like the outside world is unreal. It’s kind of like being a little drunk, but without the mental impairment. And so I asked my doctor if high blood pressure could do that. She said, “No. But stress will.”

Stress Kills — And So Much More!

From the moment we met, she took it for granted that I was suffering from stress. And I know that. It’s one of the reasons that I have avoided going to the doctor. It’s hard to seek help for something that you feel is your own damned fault. And that’s the thing with this stress: it is of my own making.

It would be one thing if I worked in an emergency room. But I don’t. I’m a writer. Nothing I do is that important. But I put a lot of pressure on myself — especially when I don’t think I’m doing a good enough job. And that has certainly been the case the last few months.

My doctor recommended that I see a counselor. (She shoved a bunch of papers at me with information on getting a counselor.) And she recommended that I go to a stress-reduction workshop. (She shoved a bunch of papers at me with information on when the workshop was offered.) And then she went over the standard stress-reduction things that everyone mentions: meditation, yoga, and binge-watching the entire Kung Fu series.

She also recommended a number of different teas. My doctor is a big tea drinker — as am I (I don’t know if that is on my chart). But I’ve never been big on herbal teas. But I’ll give it a try.

You Aren’t in Control

The whole thing is very weird, though. I feel like I should just be able to turn it off. But I can’t. I know that stress kills. And here is my mind — killing itself. It’s like a movie: watching yourself as the conveyor belt moves you ever closer to the spinning blade.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic. But I fear all of us are hostages to parts of the brain we can’t control. I’m still hopeful. And tomorrow, maybe I’ll write about politics.

Shakespeare on Desire — Or “Fancy”

Shakespeare on Desire -- Or FancyTell me where is fancy bred.
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourish’ed?

It is engendered in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.

Let us all ring fancy’s knell
I’ll begin it.
Ding, dong, bell…

—William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice

Trumpcare to America: We Will Never Forgive You

Mo Brooks - Trumpcare to America: We Will Never Forgive YouI was really struck by the interview that Alabama Representative Mo Brooks had with Jake Tapper. They were talking about the issue of the new version of Trumpcare which grants states the right to allow insurance companies to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. Brooks, in the grand tradition of white men who thought it was worth fighting a war to maintain chattel slavery, saw this as a good thing. It showed how the conservative mind (and to a less extent the American mind) works: it doesn’t believe in mercy; it does not forgive other people.

Mo Brooks said, “My understanding is that it will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher healthcare costs to contribute more to the insurance pool. That helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives. They’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now those are the people — who’ve done things the right way — that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.”

Let’s Not Forgive Mo Brooks

Let’s quickly throw aside the ending point there: that healthy people are seeing their costs skyrocketing. That’s not true. What Brooks is getting at is what conservatives supposedly hate about Obamacare: that healthy people subsidize unhealthy people. We know they are lying about this, because healthy people subsidizing unhealthy people is what health insurance has always been about and conservatives generally didn’t complain about health insurance until they were attacking Obamacare.

We also should shove aside this idea that people are healthy because did things “to keep their bodies healthy.” I can’t help but see this as nothing more than a vague bit of fat shaming. I could be wrong about this. But I’ve heard this so much over the years. When people talk about “healthy,” they almost always mean “thin.” I discussed this almost two years ago, Meghan Trainor, Fat Shaming, and the Health Myth.

I noted in that article that actual scientific studies do not find that being modestly overweight is bad for someone’s health. It’s a great irony that when I was way too thin — so skinny that it actually was unhealthy — no one was ever concerned about my health. Now that my BMI is on the high side of normal, I do occasionally get told that I should lose some weight for the good of my health. The truth is that being my weight — and quite a lot heavier — is actually quite healthy.

But I’m sure that Mo Brooks, who seems to be a fairly slender man, imagines fat people cramming pastries into their mouths. This, of course, makes them unhealthy and who has to foot the bill? Poor old slender Mo Brooks.

Do People Deserve to Live Without Healthcare?

What I’m more interested in is the possibility that Brooks is right. Not about weight, of course. But consider one of my young friends who is a skydiver. Imagine if, in practicing this very dangerous hobby, he managed to suffer a spinal cord injury. Imagine all the extra bills that go along with that!

Or imagine an actual friend of mine who used to be a heroin addict. As a result, she got Hepatitis C. Now it’s been a long time since she’s done any drugs. She does live a very healthy lifestyle now. But she has not always “done the things to keep [her body] healthy.” I suspect that good ol’ Mo Brooks would see her as the the sort of person who should have to pay more money for her health care. He can’t forgive her for her past behavior. And the fact that she will almost certainly die much younger than she would have otherwise doubtless doesn’t make any difference.

Rob Portman and the Limits of Empathy

The Angel of MercyRemember when Senator Rob Portman became pro-rights for LGBT people — because his son came out to his father. As long as gay men had nothing to do with Portman’s life, he was against them. He could only see them as full human beings once he found out that one of them was his son. Then he could grant them the rights that everyone deserves.

This goes along with the widely documented fact that people who live in high crime areas are less punitive. That is to say that people who live in an area where almost no one ever robs a liquor store will tend to think the punishment for that crime should be much more harsh than people who live in an area where liquor store robberies are fairly common.

This makes sense. In a high crime area, everyone is much more likely to know people who have committed these crimes. Thus, they see these criminals as the human beings who they are. It’s easier to have empathy, just as it was easier for Rob Portman to have empathy for LGBT people once he knew that one of them was his son, who Portman knew was an actual human being.

Americans Have a Pre-Existing Condition

It’s amazing to think that Mo Brooks’ comment did not get push-back because he was saying that he can’t forgive. This isn’t a partisan thing. Americans, in general, are this way. They really do like the idea of punishment. It’s not enough to lock someone away in a cage for ten years, they must also be stopped from having a decent job the rest of their lives.

I’ve heard both Obama and Bill Clinton say on countless occasions that people shouldn’t be punished when they lose a job “through no fault of their own.” Because that’s the thing, right: if someone is culpable for any part of their current situation, we don’t have to worry about them. And that’s because we don’t forgive as a general matter. That is the great American pre-existing condition: lack of empathy.

I get it: if someone is a rock climber, they shouldn’t be surprised if they fall to their deaths. But that doesn’t make the death of a rock climber any less tragic. And as it is, people who are attracted to extreme sports like this aren’t in any more control of it than I am in my incredible fear of it.

Let’s All Learn to Forgive

Trumpcare is a vile piece of legislation. You could make its protections of those with pre-existing conditions even stronger, and it would still be vile. The whole idea of Trumpcare is vile: that the richer and healthier you are, the more the government should work to protect you. But Trumpcare is made worse by making protection of pre-existing conditions weaker.

But it’s sad that most Americans wouldn’t have a problem with denying access to care because people didn’t behave in the past. And this is a much bigger problem than Trumpcare. Americans need to learn how to forgive.

I wish we were better than even that. I don’t think we should feel like we must forgive these people. No one is perfect. We all do things we probably shouldn’t. And whether or not you have a pre-existing condition is nothing but a matter of dumb luck. But I understand that most people can’t understand this.

So how about looking to the Bible, which so many Americans claim to worship. How about embracing the idea of mercy? How about learning to forgive?

I Haven’t Been to Paris; I Haven’t Been to Rome

Frank Moraes with Grumpy Squirrel - Stallman vs TorvaldsThe title of this article comes from Jonathan Richman’s song “New England”: “I’ve already been to Paris, I’ve already been to Rome; and what did I do but miss my home? Oh, New England!” There’s a bit of irony in the song when you consider that within about a decade, he would move to California, after writing, “I have been out west to Californ’ — but I missed the land where I was born.” Anyway, I haven’t been anywhere unusual. In fact, I’ve been the most normal place (for me) in the world: my bedroom/office.

Work has just exploded and I’m trying to keep up. I didn’t manage to wake up today until 1:00 this afternoon, and it is only now at 5:00 this evening that I’ve had time to start writing this. There are lost of people depending on me. And it’s nice to be wanted.

Politics

So what’s going on in the world of politics? Have you noticed that when it comes to national politics, the answer is “nothing”? Or rather, “The same as every other day”? Donald Trump is saying something that doesn’t make any sense but ultimately, he isn’t getting anything done and so we cn all feel a little better about that.

James Hohmann wrote The Daily 202: Eight Ways Trump Got Rolled in His First Budget Negotiation. That’s something that is kind of interesting, but hardly surprising for those of us who were paying attention. We expected that Trump wouldn’t be much into the job of President of the United States. But many (little brains) thought that he would be some kind of deal maker. If you paid attention to his business career, you certainly knew that “Trump Deal Maker” was nothing but branding based on no actual truth.

The article is about the budget deal that Trump made. Of getting such a bad deal for himself, Trump said, “I think the rules in Congress and, in particular the rules in the Senate, are unbelievably archaic and slow moving and, in many cases, unfair.” I hate a paraphrase a man as evil as Donald Rumsfeld, but you know, you negotiate with reality as it exists, not reality as you wish it existed.

Every time Trump says something like this, it makes Hillary Clinton’s main campaign pitch (which I disagreed with) sound all the more devastating, “Vote for me because I know what the hell I’m doing.” Trump famously said that “no one” knew healthcare was so complicated. Everything is complicated to Trump. And the fact that he has a bunch of money is just another example of how the rich are not allowed to fail in our society.

Space Exploration?!

Space.com reported, Wow! See Epic Views of SpaceX’s 1st Spysat Launch and Rocket Landing. Now I’m all for private exploration of space. But let’s get one thing clear: SpaceX and other companies are following in the footsteps of a very big NASA. And it will continue to be that way. Oh, NASA may not be long for this world. Conservatives would love to destroy the space program. And regardless, the US is a dying empire.

But it is collective action that has allowed us to explore the Moon and the planets and the rest of the solar system. Companies like SpaceX are just like pharmaceutical and internet companies that have made their fortunes on the backs of our collective action. This is one of the reasons I’m not a capitalist: it’s always individuals making money after the really expensive part of the work was done by the government. And to make matters worse, once these individuals make huge amounts of money off the backs of the government, they do everything they can not to pay the meager taxes that they owe.

In this particular case, it was a big deal that a private company did something governments have been doing since the 1950s. I see that and I think, “Oh, how pathetic!” But Space.com thinks that it is, “Wow!” To top things off, SpaceX launched from a US government location: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. If you ever want to know how scientifically sophisticated someone is, ask them what they think of Elon Musk. He’s the Steve Jobs of science. And those who have been reading me for a while, know that this is not a compliment.

Richard Stallman vs Linus Torvalds

This makes me think of the difference between Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. They are, generally, about equally smart. But Torvalds is not a creative man. And as such, he’s the much more famous of the two. It’s really interesting. Stallman — largely by organizing and energizing a large group of people — created a software structure. Torvalds came in and added one piece to it — a piece that would have been added by someone within a year or two. Torvalds without Stallman is nothing. Stallman without Torvalds is still hugely important.

For example, I’m not writing this on GNU/Linux, but I’m using a whole bunch of GNU tools. The truth is that it doesn’t much matter to me what kernal I’m running, as long as I have all those Unix tools that I’ve come to depend upon. Now in their cases, this isn’t a matter of money. But that’s usually how it is: whoever creates just the right piece of a technology at just the right time is the person who becomes rich. I still find it amazing that people don’t see this.

Some day, I think people will see the truth. They will get past their obsessions with facts that tell them that the GDP increased more this year than last, and start seeing that measuring GDP doesn’t really move them any closer to the truth. Richard Stallman does understand that the political and economic system we have is all messed up. It doesn’t even occur to a mind such as Torvalds that this is the case.

And Back to Donald Trump

So that brings us back to Donald Trump. He doesn’t much matter when you look at the big picture. On the small scale, he matters. People are dying because he’s president. And that’s why we must fight the Republican Party. But we also have to think much more deeply and see that regardless whether Donald Trump or FDR is president: we live in an immoral society.

I’m happy to be working more — to be valued by our immoral system. But to answer the rhetorical question of James L Brooks’ classic As Good as It Gets: yes, in this society, this is as good as it gets. And this should trouble a whole lot more people. But I find that most give me blake stares when I bring up the subject. They don’t see the problem. To anwwer Samular Becket’s rhetorical question: this one is good enough.

Well, not for me.

Sick and Tired and Over-Worked

Frank MoraesHave you missed me? I’m sick and tired and over-worked. Really. I have some awful kind of flu. I’m not sleeping well. And I have various obligations that are making attention to this blog very difficult. But I thought I could spend a few minutes ranting to you about stuff that’s on my mind. But note that throughout this week, I will post what I can, I’m just not sure what I’ll be able to post. (Maybe stuff like this.)

Politics

I know most of the regulars around here come for the politics. To be honest, I don’t know why. None of you seem to agree with me. And more and more I’m seeing myself as an old fashioned socialist. You know: like George Bernard Shaw. But you know, without the brilliance. Anyway, I wanted to say something about politics — keep you all interested.

I hear that our man from whine country, Josh Barro, thinks that the Republicans won’t agree on cutting taxes. You know: because a lot of Republicans want tax reform and Trump simply wants to cut taxes. It always amazes me that a man with all Barro’s advantages can be so amazingly ignorant. Who thinks the Republicans aren’t going to come together to cut the taxes of the rich? That’s their raison d’etre. Give me a break!

Spider Baby

I might be doing great when you read this. Or terrible. But I’ll be busy. I hope by this weekend, I’ll be back writing the kind of considered nonfiction that you’ve come to expect of me.

In 1967, Jack Hill made a horror-comedy called Spider Baby. I’ve been obsessing about it. I can’t believe that I had never seen the film until about a week ago. It stars Lon Chaney as a very caring and sympathetic chauffeur and caretaker of three children who are, well, insane — if that’s the right word. It is laugh-out-loud funny and hide-your-eyes scary.

Not that I expect any of you to care. Oh, a few you will, I suppose. In fact, I can even imagine someone commenting that it’s their favorite film. Of course, no one commented on the quote I posted about Jill Banner, so maybe not. My taste in film has change, and as with most things in my life, it’s just pushed we further into isolation. But if you get a chance to see the film, give a view for me.

The Plays

You know, I’ve written a couple dozen plays, but none of them are “feature” length: one and a half to two hours. And so I’ve been working really hard to turn a 45 minute play into a full length one. And after much painful work, I’ve decided to screw it. I probably mentioned that I was working on a play where the cast and crew (the same thing in my plays) divide into two factions and go to war with each other.

I haven’t been able to make it work. But I know that I can — I just have to spend the time on it. But it occurred to me the other day that it made no sense to do that in that play. And that got me thinking that it’s madness to try to make any of my plays this long. They aren’t truly plays but theatrical essays. I get over a half an hour on a very wacky comedy about MP3 compression. That in itself is a herculean accomplishment.

Turn the Water Off

The whole thing reminded me that one of my favorite plays when I was a kid (and now too) is Robert Anderson’s 1967 smash Broadway play You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running. And what is that? It’s just 4 short plays put together. Now I’m no Anderson. But it did occur to me that I could make a play where the first act is two 30 minute plays and the second act is a 45 minute play.

And then I can take the play around to theater people and show it them. That will provide the high point of my life were the head of some theater company says, “Haven’t you ever seen a play?!” That would be delicious!

Because that’s all I’ve got: I’m weird. Yes, I’ve seen many plays. And I’ve read hundreds. And the things that I’ve taken from them are different than what most people have taken from then. I really do know what I’m doing. But I’m not Shaw. I’m not Anderson. That’s probably why Psychotronic Review is so important to me. You might hate my play “MP3” (I’m not that fond of it myself, although it has 10 minutes that are magic). But it would be different from what you expect. And you wouldn’t know how it was going to end.

(Am I alone in this? Does it bother any of you that you know how almost every play and film is going to end? There’s a reason for that: the play wouldn’t work otherwise. At least it wouldn’t in a traditional story. But good God: have we learned nothing since Homer?!)

So the idea of knowledgeable people hating my work is wonderful. I’ve always felt much better as an outsider. It’s easier to be hated than loved. (There is, of course, the small chance that there is an audience for my work — but that’s a chance I’m willing to take.)

That’s All Folks

I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write this week. But I’m not going anywhere. In fact, as I sit here, drinking my Theraflu, I’ve gotten kind of excited. I might be doing great when you read this. Or terrible. But I’ll be busy. I hope by this weekend, I’ll be back writing the kind of considered nonfiction that you’ve come to expect of me. (Note: “considered” was added to that sentence as a joke.) Although I really have about 3,000 pent up words on Spider Baby, and you know I’m not going to be publishing it here.

Professor Moore Is Dead

Will H Moore - Professor Moore Is DeadWill H Moore was a professor of Political Science at Arizona State University. On Wednesday, he posted Punched Out on his blog Will Opines. It was a shockingly calm and rational suicide note. I wasn’t even sure it was for real, but Inside Higher Ed confirmed that he had, Professor Shares Suicide Note on Blog. A friend sent it to me saying that she feared that it read rather too much like me and that I might some day do this.

It’s interesting to read the blog post because it is neither whiny nor sad. I suppose there is a certain amount of resignation in it. But it shows how a person’s situation isn’t what matters but how they experience it. Professor Moore even seems to understand that his suicide is the act of a privileged man. The blog post would be less ambiguously titled “clocked out,” because that’s what he’s doing — he’s done with life in the same way that a factory worker is done with a day of work. (He is explicit about this.)

To Write Is to Live

But the suicide note itself shows how different Moore is from me. I can’t imagine writing a suicide note. If I still have the will to communicate, then I will keep on. Just the same, much of what he wrote was chillingly familiar. But it seemed to be more me of a couple of decades ago. I spent a good decade of my life trying to kill myself through other means. And I survived in a way that has made me, I think, a better person. At least I can say this: I like myself more than the man I used to be. And more important: I like myself more now and I liked myself then.

Professor Moore mentions that on the Meyer-Briggs test, he always scored (IE)NTJ. That is: he was sometimes introverted and sometimes extroverted. N stands for intuition (vs sensing). T is for thinking (vs feeling). And J is for judgement (vs perception). When I was younger, I was a solid INTP, but over the years, my T score fell to the point where I am now solidly INFP. But I feel certain that I would have liked Moore. I have had a lot of (IE)NTJ friends over the years. They’re more grounded than I am. I suppose I add a little color to their lives and they add a little stability to mine.

Why Did Professor Moore Do It?

Put simply, Moore’s reason for suicide is that he needs to produce or he falls into depression. But in order to produce, he must interact with people, which he finds painful. He said that he was borderline autistic — having great difficulty understanding why other people acted as they do. This is the one place where I feel most distant from him. To me, the abyss is my friend. I think I’m somewhat like Emily Dickinson. I’d love to be well known and widely read; but I’m fine just producing for me, and when I’m gone, the abyss.

Of course, I don’t believe that this is why Professor Moore killed himself. I don’t think there are reasons. The drive is there and then we make up the reasons. But it certainly doesn’t seem like this is a momentary fancy on his part. Whatever private suffering he was experiencing, it is gone now. It’s sad for those who loved him. But the old Christian platitude is one that I fully accept because I think that death is simply the absence of suffering: he is in a better place now.

Parchment Paper and Delicious Healthy Enchiladas

Parchment Paper And Delicious Healthy EnchiladasI have a few things to say about parchment paper. And it isn’t just that it isn’t wax paper.

Those of you who’ve poked around this site long enough know that Mr Curious likes to cook. He seems to be pretty good at it. And, as he would tell you, anyone can be! All it takes is practice. The more things you try making, the better you will become. You will learn which methods and shortcuts work best for you.

If you want to learn to cook and don’t know where to start, find a cookbook one of your relatives has lying around. Try making some dish you want to eat, but have never made before. (Avoid recipes with complicated-sounding steps or equipment you don’t have.) If you follow the recipe, the dish will turn out perfectly edible. You might make a mistake — it won’t poison anybody. (Unless it’s undercooked meat or spoiled vegetables.)

I heartily recommend Better Homes And Gardens cookbooks — preferably older ones.

Over time, you will rely less on recipes, using them more for ideas than as strict guidelines. The reason cooking is easier than singing or writing? You’re your own food critic! You know when something tastes good, and you’ll learn how to adjust a recipe to your tastebuds and cooking style.

The Fightin’ Side Of Me

How to adjust a recipe brings up my know-it-all side. Mr Curious has an all-but-ideal recipe for Potatoes au Gratin. Which is much easier to make than scalloped potatoes, and just as delicious, if not more.

Our chef correctly notes that the problem with potato dishes is they can be a mess to clean up. Potatoes are very starchy, and often stick to the cooking pan’s bottom under oven heat. The above recipe provides an elegant solution to this problem.

Unfortunately, the solution is wrong. I have the correct one!


Embedding “The Fightin’ Side of Me” does not imply approval of jingoistic lyrics.

Parchment Paper Does Everything Right

Parchment paper is a thick paper which does not burn at regular oven temperatures. (Under 400-425 °F, but probably safe for higher temperatures if you keep an eye on it.) It is generally used for baking bread or dessert items, to prevent them from sticking in the pan.

But you can use it for so much more! It’s ideally suited for anything being cooked in a rectangular glass casserole dish. If your cooking dish has a reusable plastic storage lid, you don’t even have to take your leftover food out! Just wait until it cools, put the lid on, and stick your leftovers right in the fridge. It won’t get the parchment paper soggy.

I’m not aware of anything that sticks to parchment paper. So cleanup is a cinch. Your food comes out easily, and your cookware is easy to rinse.

Worried about the waste of throwing out paper? Worry no more! Parchment paper is easier on the environment than aluminum foil, and it doesn’t come from factory farms like dairy fats. Wax paper, which is often used instead, has a petroleum-based coating and doesn’t work any better. Besides, you won’t be using parchment paper all the time — and, let’s face it, most people throw away a lot of paper products they should be recycling. (You can’t recycle used parchment paper, but you can compost it.)

A Healthy Delicious Enchilada Recipe

Now that the lecture’s over, let’s cook! You will need a baking dish (I use one that is 8.5"×13"), parchment paper, and the following food items:

  • 1 block firm tofu
  • 1 packet MILD dry taco seasoning mix
  • 8-10 soft whole wheat tortillas, almost as wide across as your baking dish
  • 2 cups enchilada sauce (canned, or packet mix with tomato paste and water)
  • Reduced-fat cheese of choice (see recipe for amount)

Instructions

Drain the tofu by pressing it with a dry, smooth cloth. Crumble the tofu into a bowl and stir in the seasoning mix. (You do not need to heat it or add water.) Now cover the bottom and sides of your baking dish with parchment paper.

Put some tofu in a tortilla. If you like, add shredded or thinly sliced cheese strips. Roll up the tortilla to be shaped like a long pipe. You want enough filling so that the rolled tortilla looks full inside. But you don’t want so much that the tofu spills out the ends when you roll it.

(If it’s not full enough or the tofu spills out, just unroll, add or remove tofu, and roll it again.)

Place each rolled tortilla in the baking dish, with the tortilla flap on the bottom (so it won’t unroll). If your baking dish isn’t long enough, don’t be afraid to smush the tortillas in there so they get tall and skinny.

Cover the tortillas in that enchilada sauce. Add more cheese on top if you like.

Bake, uncovered, at 350°F for 20 minutes, longer if the cheese on top isn’t melted to your satisfaction.

Recipe Notes

My spouse invented this tonight! Start to finish, it took about 45 minutes. I think it cost about $12. Refried beans would be cheaper and just as delicious, with only a little more fat and cooking time.

The taco seasoning flavor is strong, which is why I suggest using a packet labeled, “Mild.” You can also add half the packet to start, then taste a bite of tofu before adding more seasoning. You can save any seasoning you don’t use for later.

Of course, you can go the less-healthy route. I’m preaching the virtues of parchment paper, not nutrition. White flour tortillas roll up fine (not corn tortillas, though). You can crumbled beef, shredded chicken, or pork, anything you want can go in the tortillas. Pre-cooked bell peppers, onions, or cactus would be a tasty addition. (They would require more tortillas and a larger baking dish.)

And if you absolutely loathe reduced-fat cheese, by all means use the regular kind. Do not use nonfat cheese! Nonfat cheese doesn’t melt at all. It just gets dry. That’s fine for some things — But not enchiladas (or pizza)!

Afterword: Mr Curious Responds

Frank responded:

“I will certainly use parchment paper in the future. But the point of my Potatoes au Gratin bottom was not to make clean-up easier — even if this is a bonus. The point is to make the cheese at the bottom easy to cut into bite-sized pieces.

“Also, enchiladas don’t have to go alone. Normally, I serve enchiladas along with my refried beans and Spanish rice. It’s true: doing this does create an enormous amount of food. But I like all of this so much that I don’t have a problem eating it for a week straight.”

The Modern Willy Loman Has Simply Yielded to Power

Death of a Salesman - The Modern Willy Loman Has Simply Yielded to PowerDeath of a Salesman is an amazing play. Formally, there are many things I don’t like about it. I’m not keen on the use of flashbacks, to start. And I don’t like the standard theatrical drama. Yet unlike most of Shakespeare that I now find boring, I never tire of Death of a Salesman. And I think the reason for that is that the play is as relevant to American life today as it was in 1949. The modern Willy Loman is more tragic than the original.

When people analyze the play, they tend to focus on Willy Loman’s delusions. But I don’t think he’s delusional at all. I think he understands the society that he lives in. And he understands that he is one of its losers. What makes him fascinating is that he tries to cover. His ideas about what it takes to be successful are really just bravado. After all, what does it mean to say, “He’s liked but not well-liked”? That’s an astrology-level of explanation — there to prove absolutely anything at all.

Willy Loman Was Self-Aware

But under this bravado is the understanding that Willy just hasn’t had the kind of luck that leads to the kind of life that he thinks would represent success. And here, my focus is not on Willy’s environment, but on who Willy is. He’s limited in his thinking. He’s leveraged his one talent — an appealing, outgoing personality — into a reasonably successful sales career. But with age, his charm has declined to the point where he is fired.

I come back again and again to something that David Foster Wallace (PDF) wrote:

There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things … then you will never have enough … Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. … Worship power — you will end up feeling weak and afraid … Worship your intellect … — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The Modern Willy Loman Has Crammed the Truth Deep

What I fear most about modern American life is that the people who worship power are not self-aware enough to feel weak. The people who worship beauty don’t feel ugly. The people who worship intellect don’t feel stupid. Understand: they still act the same way. That’s why the millionaire is always a million away from happiness while the billionaire is always a billion away. But as a society, we manage to stuff these truths so deep that we rarely if ever grapple with them.

This isn’t some kind of law of nature. This is a law of our political, economic, and legal system, which is designed by the powerful to protect themselves.

Willy Loman spends all of Death of a Salesman grappling with this truth. Many people who analyze the play contend that he was never a good salesman. That’s nonsense. He’s been at the same company for 34 years. At the time of the play, that means, he’s been working for the same company since 1915 — that he managed to sell his way through the Great Depression. This is a man who was good at his job — maybe even great. But he’s forced to grapple with his idea that being charming and hard-working is all it takes to succeed as he gets older and therefore less charming and less able to work hard.

The Death of the American Dream

Today, people have turned against the idea of the American Dream — even as idiosyncratic as the idea always was. Now they see things the way pre-industrialism royalists did. You just are or aren’t a success. Of sure, as a society, we continue the pretense. We have people like Daymond John[1] to do a turn on the red carpet so that no one gets any ideas like that maybe all that really matters is who your parents were. But even though we’ve stuffed it really deep, we know the truth: all that really matters is who your parents were.

Willy Loman Has Given Up

This isn’t some kind of law of nature. This is a law of our political, economic, and legal system, which is designed by the powerful to protect themselves. The problem is the system itself. But Willy Loman at least reflects on his place in the system (regardless of how feebly). Today, people seem to be suffering from learned helplessness. They just accept their lot in life because they have no memory of a time when they had any control.

In 1949, it was Death of a Salesman. Today, it is “Salesman Becomes Walmart Greeter, Works Part-Time at McDonald’s in Retirement.” And it’s not a life-action film; it’s a Lego animation.


[1] And note that John was hardly the son of a crack addict. He grew up in a fairly stable household and went to a good high school.

CGI: an Interface Not a Programming Language

CGI - Black BoxCGI is not a computer language, and you can date me by the fact that I’m going to rant about it for a few hundred words. That’s because I set up my first web server in 1993. It was on an IBM RS/6000 named Eeyore which sat right on the internet. It was a time when the internet was basically Usenet (eg, rec.arts.startrek) and annonymous FTP for people who knew anything and AOL for their parents. The funny thing is, for most people not much has changed. Then the internet was AOL and now the internet is Facebook. At least it is for most people.

In 1993, there wasn’t much you could do with web pages. It was cool. You could put pictures on pages. You could have section headers and paragraphs. Text could be bold and italics. And there were lists and forms. But there was no interactive content — except with CGI. CGI stands for Common Gateway Interface. And it was a way to run programs remotely through your web browser. In theory, you could create a content management system using CGI.

But what was really cool about CGI was that it was, as its name indicates, an interface. I wrote a bunch of CGI programs. Some of them were compiled C programs, other were shell scripts, and still others were Perl scripts. It didn’t matter. As long as the web server could run the programs, and the programs were written to receive and transmit data correctly, you were golden.

CGI: Time Waster

Now you might wonder why I was writing these things. There’s a simple answer: I was a graduate student. And unless you are less than six months from defending your dissertation, finding ways to not do your work is critically important. I did many other things along these lines: I wrote a graphic program for X-Windows, I wrote an editor in 8086 assembly language, and I did a lot of really destructive things what I will say with complete humility was due to my genius for digital electronics.

I didn’t know anyone who was running a web server for a few months. So messing around with CGI was just play for me. Truthfully, at the time, GNU/Linux seemed like a much more serious thing. And by the time Netscape came around and made the web a much more serious thing, I was finishing my dissertation and then teaching pre-meds physics. (That was a scarring experience because I now know that doctors are (1) mentally insignificant; and (2) soulless.)

People Don’t Know Anything

The world can be forgiven for thinking that CGI is a programming language. Because what we used to do with CGI we now do with programming languages like PHP. But it still annoys me. Most things about computers annoy me. What cars were to my father’s generation, computers are for mine. As simple tools, they’re fine. It doesn’t matter. I remember one time I was an undergraduate doing some work for a research faculty member. I couldn’t leave a note because I didn’t have a word processor, so I wrote a really rudimentary one that allowed me to output to the printer. It’s better to just have a word processor.

Just the same, if you’re into computers on a deeper level, it seems to me that you ought to know how a CPU works. You should know what the difference is between a heap and a stack. You should know what a line of Pascal code would look like in assembly language. But I know that’s asking too much. Almost no one knows why the moon has phases. We’ve all become so specialized that should there ever be even the smallest tremor in our social networks, we’d be doomed.

Meaning Requires Knowledge

It’s no wonder people struggle to find meaning in their lives. Every thing in their lives is a black box.

But I’m grumpy enough. Don’t tell me CGI is a programming language.

We Have to Create a Better World

Richard Carrier - We Have to Create a Better WorldChristianity is simply false.

But what do we do then? What do we believe? … Since this world isn’t the way we’d want it to be, we have to make it the way we want it to be. This world isn’t protected by any supreme justice or caregiver, there is no infallible wise man to turn to, no divine hero to love us, and we aren’t going to live forever. So we have to create those things.

We have to create justice, and care for each other and the world we live in. We have to find and give and receive love from each other. We have to be the hero. We have to give our lives meaning. We have to protect life, and invent technologies of immortality — metaphorically (in the way people’s words and actions live on in their consequences and memorials), and literally (through medicine, and the science of life extension and resurrection). And until we invent any real immortality, we have to accept the way things are and make the best of the short lives we have. We have to love life rather than fear death. We have to respect life rather than treat it as disposable.

We have to do all of these things. Because that is the world we want to live in — and no one else is going to do any of this for us.

–Richard Carrier
Why I Am Not a Christian