About James Fillmore

I am a spy for MI-6 who recklessly sleeps with innumerable gorgeous partners, drinks like a madman, ruins expensive company equipment, and I get away with all of this because I save the world on a consistent basis. As my cover, I am a poor person living in Minnesota.

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)


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.”

Observe the Writer in Its Unnatural Habitat

Mall of America

Anybody out there want a free vacation? Plane tickets, hotel room, and $80 per diem included? Plus a nice $2,500 check?!

Well, all you have to do is win the Mall Of America’s “Writer-in-Residence” contest.

The Mall of America — pride of Bloomington, Minnesota — is turning 25 this year, and they’re looking for writers to capture that undefinable “Mall atmosphere.” (Um, it’s a mall.)

Submit your 150-word proposal at contest page before 10 March 2017. No previous publishing experience is required. And be creative! As the entry page says, “Heck, if you can make the assignment work as a musical-comedy screenplay, by all means make it so!”

Selected semifinalists will advance to an elimination round, amping their proposal up to a daunting 500-800 words. That’s around 50 Tweets, but life is full of challenges. Be brave.

The Mall of America Gig

So what, exactly, is the “in residence” part? I’m glad you asked. That’s where the real fun begins. You get five eight-hour days hanging around the Mall, and you are supposed to write about it. Not in some corner office! Oh, no. Here’s how it works — from the Official Contest Rules page (PDF):

Winner’s workspace will be located in a common area space within Mall of America. The core daily work hours will be 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. While the Winner will be encouraged to take breaks from writing to explore the Mall, post on social media, eat and find inspiration, the Winner will need to be physically present at the writer’s desk for no fewer than four (4) hours per day. The Winner’s ongoing work may be displayed in almost-real time on a large monitor at the workspace.

The work product may scroll continuously throughout the day for passersby to view. Content will not be displayed on the monitor until it has been submitted by the Winner and approved by a Mall of America Marketing representative. The Winner must submit new content of no less than 150 words, to be displayed on the monitor at three (3) mutually agreed upon times each day. Winner’s written work must not be inaccurate, derogatory, incompatible with, inconsistent with, or otherwise contradictory to the Mall of America’s desired presentation of the Mall or the patrons, tenants, licensees, invitees, or employees of the Mall.

Essentially, it’s a zoo with one animal: the lone ad copy writer in its unnatural habitat. Parents can bring their children to observe the writer as it types, stares blankly, types, stares blankly. “Look, Billie, it’s going to forage for food!” I’m tempted to apply for this, but unlike a zoo chimpanzee, I would not be allowed to fling poo.

What Would Be a Good Mall Story?

If you didn’t have to write ad copy, there’s lots of interesting people at malls. The workers, for one: security guards, janitorial staff, those unfortunate young women working at Hot Dog on a Stick. Obvious tourists (although the Mall isn’t as big a draw for them as it was back when). Teenagers with nothing else to do.

There are also old folks, in almost every large shopping mall, who go walking in the morning before stores open. I don’t know which mall started this, but it’s pretty common. It’s a way for the seniors to get some exercise on a surface which is smooth, under climate controlled conditions, and without crowds knocking them over. They’ll usually finish their walk at some little store where they can get coffee and doughnuts. Those are interesting people; I’ve met a few.

Where Have All the (Ad Copy) Writers Gone?

But ad copy? Are ad writers so lousy now you need an open contest to find any new ideas? Malls are surrealistically creepy, and always were — that was their appeal, once they spread like gangrene. Ooh, check out the pus, it’s so strange! Capitalism made blatant, with only the feeblest attempts to resemble anything human — a sad tree here, some soothing music there.

To go biblical, these contest runners are desperately trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. Reanimating an abomination that never should have existed at all.

My Personal Mall Story

Naturally, being a Minnesotan, I have been to the Mall many times. One time, I went to go see a movie. Mall of America has got movie theaters, kiddie rides, bars, the whole deal — just like most mega-malls.

A while before, a friend had given me some marijuana brownies he’d made from homegrown weed. On my movie trip, I was riding the bus, planning on munching popcorn, and I thought this was the perfect time to eat those brownies.

I got to the Mall a bit earlier than planned, and the brownies were kicking in. Very strongly. So I decided to hang out in a sporting-goods shop. I like sports uniforms; they freak me out less than the garish stuff sold in most stores.

I saw a Minnesota Twins jersey I suddenly, really, wanted. I almost bought it. Then I remembered — there was another, competing sporting goods store about 300 feet away. I thought I should comparison shop. So I noted the price and headed for the other store.

The other store had a similar jersey, and I almost bought that one. Until I remembered I’d come there to comparison shop. What was the price in that other store? I’d forgotten.

You can see where this is going. I wandered between those stores — perhaps five times each. Finally I realized it was time for the movie, I was way too high to comparison shop, and I should just buy the damn jersey. Which I still have. Consumerism!

Think Outside The Box, While Inside a Box!

Come up with a musical-comedy screenplay. Or why not a comedy routine? A sarcastic, hipster slag on anyone insufficiently cool to realize how cool the Mall is? Everything is permitted. Nothing is forbidden. Assuming approval from Mall of America Marketing, of course.

I remember, during our high school graduation ceremony, the outgoing principal giving a speech about creativity. Don’t be afraid to dare new ideas, he said. Think different. Be a rebel. This contradicted every authoritarian ruling he’d decreed during my years at school, in a way. But in another way, it didn’t.

Think differently — for money. Be creative, dare to dream — for money. Change the world — for money.

So, have at the contest, folks! Be the zoo writer! Be innovative and new! Just keep in mind:

Contestant acknowledges and agrees that Sponsor may use Submission without the approval of Contestant throughout the world, an unlimited number of times, in perpetuity in any and all media, now known or hereafter invented.

That’s true even if you don’t win. But hey, you get a chance to write in your cage for five days.

Random Ramblings On Sports Fandom

SportsIt’s that magical time of year when Minnesota’s city park employees turn tennis courts and baseball diamonds into hockey rinks.

How do they perform this amazing transubstantiation? (H/T: Catholicism!) Well, there are several complicated steps. I shall endeavor to describe them as best I can.

  1. Remove tennis net or baseball bases. Put in storage.
  2. Get fire hose. Attach to fire hydrant.
  3. Spray court or field with water.
  4. Wait a day.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary.
  6. Get hockey goals out of storage. Place in park. Number of goals depends on size of park; however, number must be divisible by 2.
  7. Empty park trash cans weekly.

How to Make Friends Through Sports

I am from Oregon, originally. So I grew up playing baseball, basketball, and football. Hockey? Not so much.

When I was about to move here, I stopped at Powell’s Books, a wonderful store in Portland. I found a book titled “50 Ways To Make Friends In Your New City” (or something like that).

I am terrible at making friends (largely because I don’t trust humans, which is a prejudice, but not an unjustified one). So I picked up and read the book. In Powell’s, it’s completely acceptable to grab a book, sit at the cafe, have coffee, and read the whole book. Pay for your coffee. And put the book back where you found it. These are the rules.

The book had lots of advice I couldn’t use. “Join a local church.” That’s a fine notion for some, not really my speed. “Change your political views.” For example, if you’re moving to Houston, become a Republican; if you’re moving to Seattle, become a Democrat. Well, I’d rather join a church than switch my party loyalty. My cultural background is quite mixed: Québécois, Irish, English Catholic, and some Native American. All have different traditions. One thing they have in common: they don’t switch political sides. That’s a no-go.

But this was a piece of advice I liked, “Root for the home team.” Yes! I can do that! And I did.

Minnesota Sports Are Cool

I had many fun evenings cheering along with Minnesota sports fans, in stadiums and bars. The Twins were quite good for a long while, and rekindled my childhood love of baseball. The Timberwolves are never good, but it’s kind of a shared misery thing.

Even the Vikings were fun. At least they were until I heard one too many fans complaining about “Culpepper & Moss”: a quarterback and wide receiver “team.” Daunte Culpepper, the quarterback, had a crazy strong arm. Randy Moss, the receiver, had the eyes of a wary small mammal. They’d glower out from under his facemask. He had a bizarrely balletic mid-air grace.


Imagine a clever chipmunk watching two dogs snarl at each other over some piece of meat. As they pace around and bristle their fur, our chipmunk friend dashes in, grabs half the meat, and disappears up into its tree before the dogs know what hit ’em. The dogs, furious, bark like mad. Tough luck, guys! Dogs can’t climb trees!

This was Culpepper-to-Moss. It was, as one writer put it, the pro football equivalent of every kid’s favorite football play drawn up with sticks in dirt, “You go long, and I’ll hit you.” The skinny kid runs as fast as he can. The quarterback throws a bomb. The skinny kid jumps in the air, and, even if about to get tackled by three guys around him, he corrals the ball with one hand and cradles it to his body.

This happened almost every Vikings game! And it was fantastic! But Vikings fans started complaining about “Culpepper & Moss.” I didn’t get why, at first. Then I did: they were both black. Football fans are pretty damn racist. So I stopped watching football.

(The Vikings also gave me one of my favorite sports memories. Another receiver, Cris Carter, had a contact lens pop out. As Carter was one of the football’s most respected players, referees paused the game. For two full minutes, giant behemoths from both teams were crawling around, looking in the turf for a contact lens. This was a wonderful thing to watch.)

But Not Hockey

I’ve enjoyed the Minnesota Wild, too. Or enjoyed other people enjoying them. Because, honestly, I don’t “get” hockey.

Not that I don’t appreciate the sport! It’s full of skill, drama, tension. Players do amazing things while skating at high speeds — even while skating backwards!

(My favorite hockey players are the goalies. People are hurtling a harmful projectile at you. Your job is to go “No! I can’t be hurt! Stop, projectile, stop!” For similar reasons, my favorite baseball players are catchers.)

However, I don’t “get” hockey: for the same reason anyone “gets” anything, whether it be a religion or cuisine or whatever. I didn’t grow up playing hockey! If you fire-hose-spray a city park in Oregon, you have a muddy park. In Minnesota, in winter, you have a hockey rink. So everyone plays hockey. That’s one subject in the fine Pixar film, Inside Out, directed by Minnesotan Pete Docter.

I don’t ice skate, and never will. I’m not training for any hobby which includes, as a practice requirement, “falling down repeatedly.” Fallen on ice lately? It’s very hard. It kills people! No ice skating for me. So I’ll never “get” hockey. (Or sadly, curling, which is much more up my alley, but still requires ice skating.)

Other Ways To Enjoy Sports

I used to work helping take care of disabled adults, and there was one guy I’d bring to Twins games. The guy didn’t talk and didn’t sign ASL. It was virtually impossible to communicate with him. He’d allow you to help him with some things, resist other attempts to help, that’s pretty much all the feedback you’d get.

He’d agree to let you load his wheelchair in the van for a Twins game. I don’t know why. With people who don’t talk or sign, I’d still talked to them. My reasoning was that it doesn’t take any effort to do so, and I have no clue what they’re picking up on the other end. It may be pure syllabic gibberish. They might understand every word. Or something in between. If they want me to stop talking, they can push me away.

So we’d go to Twins games, and who knows if this guy actually liked baseball. But there was one thing he clearly liked. (Keep in mind, this guy had a grumpy expression 99% of the time.)

If the Twins scored — and the crowd went wild — this guy would crane his neck around, look at all the cheering people, and start laughing. Belly laughing. He didn’t make laugh sounds, because he didn’t make sounds, but his chest would heave and his mouth would smile and tears pour from the corners of his eyes.

I suspect, though I do not know, that he found sports fans hilariously ridiculous. As, indeed, we are.

Nothing At The End

Now’s when I’m supposed to wrap this all up and make it come together, right? Nope. That’s for real writers. I’m posting on a blog!

There’s a local minor-league baseball team, the St Paul Saints. Yes, uninspired name, but they have a long history of inspired promotional gimmicks. At one, Mascot Night, there was a mascot from a pre-employment screening clinic. The mascot was a pee cup. Cup-shaped, yellow on the lower half. This was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.

Some years, the Saints do Atheists Night. It has various skits in-between innings. One had two random fans racing around the foul territory, with obstacles to overcome. As they raced, the PA announcer described what symbolic meaning each obstacle represented. Such as, for a mudslide, “it’s the primordial ooze!”

When one was first to the finish line, our PA announcer said, “The winner gets…” and froze. For 15 seconds. Then intoned, “What?! Did you think there was a reward at the end? It’s an atheist race! There’s nothing at the end!”

Nothing at the end here either, I’m afraid. Enjoy sports if that brings you closer to others. Remember, they are a bit silly. (But most hobbies are. Nothing wrong with that!)

Skate in the park if you live in a frozen place — if your home is warmer, enjoy it being not so damned cold. And have the merriest New Year you can.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama Presidency

Ta-Nehisi CoatesSince the election, I’ve been clinging to voices of sanity. Anyone with a brain. I like imagining they aren’t outliers. Scientific lectures, comedy, even politicians talking — if the author has something to teach me. So, I’ve wondered, where has Ta-Nehisi Coates been? After all, Trump ran the most overtly racist campaign since George Wallace. Coates is one of our finest essayists — especially on racism in America. He would certainly have a unique way of viewing the election.

As it turns out, he’s been preparing a richly-layered analysis of Barack Obama. It appeared earlier this week in The Atlantic, My President Was Black. It features both interviews with Obama and Coates’ views on the President’s legacy. Like most of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing, it caused me both to question and accept many of his conclusions.

Why Was Obama So Centrist?

He notes, “I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history.” Skilled and moral, yes. But among the greatest? I’m not so sure. He didn’t pass all that many laws after 2010.

Coates continues, “He was phenomenal — the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.”

Obama Was Constrained by Racism

This is unquestionably true. It gets at both my primary criticism of the Obama administration (not liberal enough), and Coates’s ongoing examination of the role racism plays in America. It’s unlikely Obama could have been much more liberal. Any such effort would have been excoriated as “Giving Free Money To Shiftless Negroes” (many Republican voters believe this falsehood).

Obama says as much to Ta-Nehisi Coates, talking about being approached by activist groups: “You feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?'”

And here’s the conundrum of Obama — the devil’s bargain anyone who seeks power inevitably makes. The key factor in a “deal with the devil” story is very like the Midas legend; be careful what you wish for, you may get it. Obama was elected on a populist platform he had no hope of enacting. Racism will out.

Election 2016: The Unblackening

Ta-Nehisi Coates unflinchingly describes the myriad versions of racial backlash Obama’s mild-mannered demeanor inspired, and quotes the President in a frank observation of why New Deal politics may now be unsupportable:

But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority… that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.

Obama and Coates (And you and I!) all know “what’s changed.” Wealth redistribution was fine when it went from richer to poorer white people. After the civil rights movement secured legal racial equality (theoretically anyway), suddenly redistribution became an evil. An assault on freedom. This reaction was in place long before mythical legends of Welfare Queens driving around in their Cadillacs.

I have struggled with the election results. There are two primary reasons. First, I am simply afraid of their practical ramifications for people inside and outside the country. Second, I know the hideousness that produced the results. This is both the hideousness of rapacious corporate greed that’s erased our safety net and the demonizing of the Other, which capitalism is quite happy to exploit. This is America’s fascism. Perhaps it always was.

Being Wrong About the Comforting Narrative

“Racism is never simple,” Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly observes. Earlier, he delivers a solid refutation of my own previously held position:

One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

It’s what scientists call a positive feedback loop. Racism gave Republicans their first opportunities to chip away at the New Deal. That erosion made life for working people worse. That made them blame “government” (for presumably wasting their tax dollars on minorities) more. So it enabled further-right politicians, who slashed the safety net more — and on and on and on.

It’s not “chicken and egg,” because we know what came first. Racism did. But it is a self-strengthening mechanism. A Danish friend once told me their saying is “a screw without an end.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes Me Think

Ultimately, Coates’s article made me reconsider Obama’s time in office. I wanted him to be more liberal. I still want Democrats to be. And yet, even the conservative ACA was seen as a giveaway to Those People. How much more could Obama have done? How do we end the screw?

Can we fight inequality without being accused of racial favoritism? Can we fight inequality without a dedication to alleviating the great injustices done to so many of our citizens? These positions seem contradictory. Since the disease of racism poisons all of us.

And Coates made me aware just how much darker Trump’s election was for people of color. What a slap in the face it is that the centrist, elegant Obamas incurred so much hatred. Even the “talented tenth” (or thousandth) of a percent are never acceptable enough.

Ta-Nehisi Coates noted of an Obama appearance at the storied Howard University, “Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students.” What a price! What moral debts we have accrued. And what terrible interest we continue to pay.

Trevor Noah Steps It Up Against Tomi Lahren

Tomi LahrenLast Wednesday, Trevor Noah of The Daily Show interviewed far-right video’s “It Girl,” one Tomi Lahren. Ms. Lahren’s bile-filled screeds against the evils of liberal America are hugely popular right now on social media. (Shouldn’t we change that description to “antisocial”?) She comes across as the Muppet Babies version of Ann Coulter.

It has apparently been widely shared among Noah fans, who appreciate his unflappable demeanor, and among Lahren fans, who like it whenever someone uses a vicious manner to expresses hateful sentiments they admire. (Oh, yes, does that make them feel strong.) Tomi Lahren also lies, which her audience no doubt loves, as well.

Dish It Out vs Take It

The lies begin immediately, with Lahren claiming she’s “not angry.” Well, then she does a good job playing it on TV (and she’s well aware that constantly-fueled rage is what her intended audience feeds upon).

As is usual with far-right media figures, Lahren’s untruths and deliberate distortions don’t cease. They become something like Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound, with constant delivery and repetition of falsehoods substituting for argument. Throw in a little flag-decal patriotism, and the effect means to convey that people On God’s Side have so much data to back them up, their bomb-droppings are irrefutable.

With immense patience and charm, Noah sets about defusing them. It’s a terrific performance. He addresses each of her bogus claims and false equivalencies. I won’t spoil any of his jokes (and the best ones seem to fly right over Lahren’s head), but here’s one example of his tone.

Tomi Lahren considers BlackLivesMatter to be essentially a violent subversive organization, morally equivalent to the KKK. To “prove” this, she cites instances of destruction and murder committed by self-identified BLM supporters. Noah counters that these are the actions of individuals, and the movement does not advocate violence (which is true). Nope, says Lahren, if someone says your movement inspired their hatred, your movement is hateful.

Noah then asks about the KKK and Trump — by Lahren’s logic, isn’t Trump responsible for the KKK’s resurgence? Even if you haven’t watched the video yet, you already know her answer. No! Trump is good! BLM bad! Etc. We’ve heard this record before.

Tomi Lahren’s Damn Lies and Statistics

Tomi Lahren soon floats a statistic so baffling, the audience gasps; a black person is 18.5 times more likely to shoot a police officer than get shot by one. She then claims the 18.5 number is a statistic “no one wants to talk about.” Noah deftly changes the discussion point.

That multiplier 18.5 stuck in my head for a day. Surely, it can’t be true?

Of course, it’s not; and, as Gore Vidal once said elsewhere, it would make a good project for a course in logic. What on Earth can she mean? Well, for one, this statistic actually refers to the probability of any given police officer being shot by a black person, versus the probability of any given unarmed black person being shot by a police officer.

Since there are vastly more black citizens in America than police officers, the number starts to make sense. While policing is not among America’s most dangerous jobs, it does carry some risk, more so than that of the average citizen being killed by a cop.

Look at it this way: shouldn’t the police have a far higher risk of being shot by criminals than you have of being shot by officers? In that context, 18.5 seems amazingly low. If air travel was only 18.5 times less likely to end in explosions than space rockets, none of us would fly again.

The statistic comes from author Heather Mac Donald, who has long written that excessive police violence against minorities is a myth. As she has a clear ax to grind, her number is suspect, but I’ll use it for the sake of argument.

A Simple Test

The argument then becomes: how much more likely is a police officer to be shot by a non-black person than a non-black person to be shot by an officer?

Happily, a programmer named Joseph Atkins-Turkish has read Mac Donald’s work, and done the computations for us, Next Time You See a Racist Abuse Statistics, Here’s How You Call Them Out. Surprise, surprise! Using Mac Donald’s numbers, an officer is 124 times more likely to get shot by a non-black person than a non-black person is to be shot by an officer.

I realize this is Mac Donald’s sin. She is a published book author and contributor to publications like the Wall Street Journal, while Tomi Lahren is merely a young twerp kissing instant celebrity’s rear end. The one knows she is lying; the other blithely repeats this lie. Still, from my perspective, it’s hard not to fault them both.

Noah’s Better At Being Serious Than Funny

I have not watched The Daily Show much since Noah took over. To be honest, I never watched it much before, as I haven’t had cable in 10+ years. But I’d come across the occasional Jon Stewart segment online which had some bite to it.

Most Americans probably first saw Trevor Noah, as I did, on a Daily Show segment where Noah played a game called “Spot the Africa” — showing thriving cities and broken slums, asking Stewart to pick which one was America and which one Africa. The joke was that we tend to stereotype Africa as though it hasn’t changed in the last half century.

The appeal of that segment no doubt helped Noah land the Daily Show anchor gig. How’s he done? It’s a matter of opinion.

Larry Wilmore

Myself, I preferred seeing clips from Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show — Wilmore’s an older fellow, like myself, and his sense of humor just gels with me more.

Plus, Wilmore got fired, largely because he wasn’t picking up the antisocial media “traction” Noah does. I’m still plenty mad at Comedy Central about that. We could have used Wilmore during the general election — and I think the added viewership during election season would have translated into more people coming to appreciate Wilmore’s dry wit.

But, that’s not Noah’s fault, and I should stop resenting him for it. Does his tenure on The Daily Show need time to find its own rhythm? Surely it does. Will they find it? Who knows.

His skilled, polite (on his side, at any rate) debate with Tomi Lahren shows one direction the show might go in. Noah’s “Spot the Africa” segment was serious underneath the irony. His interview here is deadly serious, yet he unearths humor in it. This might be his superpower! Let’s hope so.

Chelsea Manning: Obama Should Pardon Her Now

Chelsea ManningAs you know, Presidents have Constitutional authority to pardon people for any federal crime. This can be someone convicted, or someone who hasn’t faced trial yet. Ford pardoned Nixon of all crimes Nixon might have committed in office. A loyal gesture which doomed Ford to half a term.

You also know that Presidents are concerned about their “legacies”: how they will be remembered by historians. Perhaps this comes from reading too much modern history of past Presidents. Jackson, for example, is not coming off so well as he once did. Every President since Hoover has a Presidential library, where documents, recordings, and films are stored. Sometimes bones of those Presidents are there, too; six chose to be buried at theirs. Ford has both a library and a museum! (He’s buried at the museum.)

Up until recently, Barack Obama often said he hoped the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) would be a major part of his legacy. Now, Democratic dreams of using the ACA as a start towards better and better health-insurance reform appear to be all but dead. With control of Congress and the White House, Republicans are almost guaranteed to wipe the law from history.

If President Obama wants to have something in his legacy besides being America’s first black chief executive (a proud legacy in itself), he should pardon Chelsea Manning.

Different Kinds Of Pardons

Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth (this sentence imposed when Manning was 25). She has attempted suicide twice.

Pardons are used by Presidents for different reasons. Sometimes they are the result of a petition movement that stirred the President’s compassion. Sometimes they arise from a sense of injustice. Lincoln pardoned 264 of 303 Sioux men sentenced to death in the Dakota War of 1862. Perhaps this was out of mercy, perhaps sending a message that Confederate soldiers would not be tried as traitors. (The Sioux executed were those who had committed crimes against civilians; Lincoln pardoned those who only fought against the US Army.)

Pardons may protect former political allies. George HW Bush pardoned several Iran-Contra participants,. Bill Clinton did the same for old Arkansas cronies. Presidents pardon family members (Carter pardoned his brother). They can be posthumous. Send a cultural message. They can be any or all of the above; Carter also pardoned Jefferson Davis. This neatly acknowledged that Davis was a traitor and forgave him for it simultaneously.

A pardon of Chelsea Manning would send a different message; one to the future. The Trump administration is practically certain to commit high crimes and misdemeanors. Trump has already vowed vengeance on reporters who’ve ever criticized him. A Manning pardon could announce that people who expose government wrongdoing are to be celebrated, not persecuted.

Chelsea Manning, American Hero

Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth (this sentence imposed when Manning was 25). She has attempted suicide twice. The first time resulted in a cruel and unusual punishment of solitary confinement; the second time was during this confinement.

Manning’s conviction was over releasing classified video and text information which revealed two primary things. One, that US diplomats routinely lie to and manipulate other diplomats, which is a complete shock to absolutely no one (diplomats from other countries do exactly the same).

The second offense was identifying war crimes committed by the US military. Chelsea Manning leaked a number of important things:

  • Video of airborne soldiers rejoicing as they murdered civilians
  • Internal documents which proved that Pentagon statistics on civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were deliberately falsified
  • How assaults, rapes, and murders of civilians were being reported to superiors by principled military personnel, and those atrocities were not being investigated.

Doing so was an act of pure moral courage on Manning’s part. And, quite possibly, required by military law.

Soldiers Can’t Follow Illegal Orders

Adolf EichmannIn the Nuremberg trails of Nazi war criminals, an argument used repeatedly by defendants involved claiming they were only following orders. Partially in response to this (also possibly to bolster our moral authority in reconstructing Germany and Japan, where we’d bombed millions of civilians), Congress authorized new rules for our armed forces in 1950. They are the Uniform Code Of Military Justice, or UCMJ.

The UCMJ is our military law. It concerns violations within the armed forces. If a soldier on leave is caught pickpocketing a tourist’s wallet in Times Square, that soldier will face criminal prosecution under normal New York laws. If a soldier steals a fellow soldier’s smartphone while on base, that soldier is disciplined via the UCMJ.

Everyone joining the military is made aware of the UCMJ. They aren’t taught the whole thing (it’s huge), but told how the rules are different from other rules. For example, spitting on another person’s shoes in civilian life is not illegal (most places). Spitting on an officer’s shoes in the military can get you in big trouble. Conversely, if you punch a fellow soldier, you will be busted for months, yet no criminal charge goes on your civilian record. In civilian life, you can be sued or charged with a crime for that.

Article 92

Article 92 of the UCMJ says that military personnel have a duty to obey lawful orders and to disobey unlawful ones. What is an unlawful order? This is tricky. Generally, anything that would be considered a war or civic crime. What constitutes a war crime can be difficult for combat personnel to answer. Consider this: you are ordered, “Blow up that house!” You say, “I saw kids in there.” And your commander says “They’ve left, it’s all enemy soldiers now.” Who bears the moral burden?

If you blow up the house, and find dead children, who was wrong? Perhaps your commander saw shadows and thought they were children running out. If you refused to blow up the house, you would be under major risk of prosecution for insubordination. If you defend your insubordination as disobeying an illegal order, you need to prove your commander knew for certain kids were inside. That’s almost impossible to prove.

Ethical Conviction, Civilian Oversight

Manning had vast proof of illegal orders being issued, of war crimes, and things that others in the military had reported and were being ignored. She wrote “This is one of the most significant documents of our time removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare.” Whether or not Chelsea Manning was acting out of fidelity to the UCMJ, or simple moral revulsion, I do not know. She made a brave decision to share this information with the world — and more important, with the American people.

Our President is called the commander in chief of the United States Armed Force for a reason. The President is a civilian; our military is under civilian control. By voting for President, we decide who gives orders to our military. In order to assess if our President is a good commander, we need to know what our military has actually done. Past tense: done. Things the enemy already knows. War crimes? Body counts? Those are not secrets to the other side. And if they are kept secret from American voters, this effectively eliminates citizen command of the military.

What Chelsea Manning leaked about diplomacy was a good laugh to diplomats all over the world. It embarrassed us a little bit. Who cares? That’s like sharing video of a President farting. It harmed no one. What Manning leaked about our wars was a vital service to American democracy, and fully in keeping with the highest ideals our military forces aspire to.

Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Accountability

One of Donald Trump’s notable characteristics is never admitting to being wrong. One of Barack Obama’s many noble attributes is his willingness to share self-criticism in public. The first poses as strength; the second shows real strength.

President Obama did not choose to put Chelsea Manning in prison (she was charged under the UCMJ). But he has not pardoned her service to the nation. And his administration has prosecuted other whistleblowers who acted out of ethical concerns.

Sending a Signal

President Barack ObamaIf President Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning, it’d signal to America what distinguishes Democrats from Republicans most: our ability to change what doesn’t work. Obama, no doubt, thought it crucial for national security that we come down hard on whistleblowers in this new age of cyberleaks. And yet we need to distinguish between those who should be removed from sensitive positions and those who should be jailed for treason. (Much like the decision Lincoln made about pardoning the Sioux men.)

It would signal that in the next four years, what we need above all are fearless people willing to shine a light on any wrongdoing by the new administration. Power, especially unchecked power, affects the judgment of even those most determined to resist it. There is little indication President-elect Trump has any such determination.

A Legacy to Be Proud Of

Barack Obama will be remembered as an inspiring example to America of what foolishness we perpetuated by keeping African-Americans from our political sphere, and what evil we continue to perpetuate by permitting the poison of racism in our culture. He’ll be remembered as a skilled political navigator who overcame Republican efforts to dismantle functioning government during his last six years.

Yet his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act will almost certainly be gutted — becoming a historical footnote. But there are still things he can do to help the nation and improve his legacy. He could do something unprecedented and far-reaching by pardoning Chelsea Manning. It is something that might inspire the next person in the next (or any other) administration to have Manning’s courage to speak out.

That would be a legacy. It’d certainly last longer than the worship we once had for Jackson.

Why Trump Is the Greatest American Idol

Donald Trump - Hero of Republican EstablishmentLet us salute the greatness of lazy men.

It was bound to come to this. We’ve demeaned workers and the very concept of labor long enough. Now the person who gets up, has coffee, puts in their eight, and comes home, doesn’t feel like “I did an honest day’s work.” No. They feel like a sucker.

Because the clever ones, the “winners,” are those who figured out how to make gazillions doing as little as possible.

Once upon a time, we were fascinated by con men and grifters precisely because they were weird. And weirdos are interesting! The grifter or the hustler — someone who abhorred regimented labor — was an amazing figure. Everyone would enjoy giving the finger to their boss and never filling out a time card again.

Old and New Grifters

Of course, the classic grifters are not lazy. To become a master con man takes years of practice — and probably a lot of beatings. It’s actually much harder than having a regular job. But that’s not how we view them. We see the grift as easy money.

Over the last four decades, we have seen the rise of a new kind of gift. And these new grifters are Our Heroes. Don’t think Joseph Weil. Think Gordon Gekko.

Forget the blather about soldiers and teachers and people who bring wounded abandoned puppies back to health. They’re saints. As is, we’re glad they exist, because we sure as hell don’t want to do that stuff. But they aren’t heroes.

No. A “hero” is someone we look up to — someone, at our best, we think we could be.

Greatest American Hero

And Trump is the Greatest American Hero.

He’s never done an honest day’s work in his life. Never had to. Early on, he figured out that the American lip service paid to a work ethic was quickly becoming blather. So, rather than pretend to a work ethic like his kind did in generations past, he was simply “deserving.” His schtick was, “I’m too awesome to work.”

Truly, a man ahead of his time.

Sociopathic Society

This attitude is sociopathic, of course. In a sane culture, you’d never be proud of laziness. Even if you hate a co-worker, you do what needs to be done for them. If for nothing else, you assume this creates an environment where they do the same for you.

But that was Old America. Before we learned that every human interaction must be weighed by a cost-benefit economic analysis. Before free riders — the people who don’t obey social norms, yet get away with it — became Our Heroes.

American Idols

Trump’s art form is the “reality” show, and what are those? They’re quick, easy cash for TV networks. You can spend a bundle on period decor and fabulous actors and talented writers for Mad Men. Or you can produce a bunch of cheap crap and hope something sticks.

Notice the title of late, unlamented American Idol. It was never about singing. Your local PBS station has programs about singers in your community who are unbelievably good at their craft, totally unknown, and stick with it for the joy of honing their skills and sharing this joy with others.

American Idol was about becoming an “idol.” About “winning.” Not being a “loser,” like those local musicians who are so damned good. Pride in a difficult task, well accomplished? Save that for the nerds.

The losers.

The people who haven’t “figured it out.”

Valueless Work

Trump is an idol for a nation that’s devalued workers so badly, we’re not sure helping our fellow employee (or fellow anyone) makes sense anymore. Sure, it seems right. But what does that matter? Maybe the liars and hustlers were the smart ones, all along.

I don’t believe that. I think it’s destructive madness, ultimately. But is cashing in on it currently rewarding? Yes.

Yes, it is.

Agreeing and Not With a Thoughtful Conservative

Charlie SykesRecently, Sean Illing at Vox interviewed Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host in Wisconsin who is quitting the business.

Sykes says a good many interesting things in the interview. Mostly what impressed me was his consistency. He believes that Republicans who considered Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior unfit for the White House are utterly hypocritical in supporting Trump. Sykes admits that Trump represents a fascist figure, and that some conservative voters believe in “crazy stuff.” He said, “How many times can you say that Obama isn’t gay or a Muslim or that he wasn’t born in Kenya?”

I especially liked his take on the conservative media’s support: “another chance to beclown themselves on behalf of the Orange Duce.” He added, “They broke it. They own it.” And Trump’s most fervent GOP political allies? “The Huckabees, the Giulianis, the Newt Gingriches — they ought to be totally and utterly discredited by their support.” I agree. But I feel the less outspoken allies should be as well.

Naturally, as I am not a conservative, there are areas of disagreement. Charlie Sykes respects Paul Ryan; I do not. Sykes believes William Buckley’s rejection of the John Birch Society was principled; I see it as purely a strategic move. The Birchers often accused prominent Republicans of being Communist tools; it was wise to break off that kind of dissension, while maintaining the anti-civil rights and Cold War rhetoric that appealed to Birchers.

Did Political Correctness Give Birth to Trump?

There’s one area where I both grant his point, and reject it. Sykes blames some of the far-right’s rise on liberals who were too quick to label opponents as “racist” or “sexist” (while acknowledging that Trump is both). And I’ll agree that these terms are very powerful, so they should not be used lightly.

I’d argue that the perception conservatives have of the nation being “too PC” is something few conservatives have any direct experience with, but they hear about it from their media.

However, there’s a difference between attacking people and attacking policy. I neither know nor care what Reagan’s views towards African-Americans were. His policies were deeply racist. People who support voter-ID laws may themselves be unbiased; but voter-ID laws are deeply racist. Bush II worked well with Condoleeza Rice; but he also supported policies that endangered women’s health.

It Was You, Charlie

Furthermore, at least before the rise of social media, calling conservative voters “racist” or “sexist” was not a frequent occurrence. How often did it come up at the workplace, or at family dinners? Most accusations of “sexism” or “racism” were over-hyped instances of, say, something spoken at a college protest.

It was Limbaugh and Fox News that spread these stories, to further their narrative that liberals were bent on thought-controlling dissent out of existence. I’d argue that the perception conservatives have of the nation being “too PC” is very like their perception that crime rates are rocketing and voter fraud is rampant. It’s something few conservatives have any direct experience with, but they hear about it from their media.

There is blame on our side for using those terms too lightly (particularly on the internet, where pejorative terms are used with little care for how harmful they can be). But it’s mostly right-wing media that has created the notion that white male Christians are threatened by “PC.”

Charlie Sykes and the New Prometheus

Finally, there’s one area where Charlie Sykes is completely, 100% correct. Illing compared Trump to a “Frankensteinian monster,” and Sykes didn’t think it’s an apt analogy. Right on, Charlie! The monster was highly intelligent, and only became filled with violent rage once he’d been rejected by humanity’s cruelty to those who look different.

Trump does indeed resemble an angry monster, but it’s what’s inside that counts. If we’re going horror classics, he’s more Dracula. He lives in a castle, must return every night to his lair, preys on superstitious rural villagers. And like Dracula in bat form, Trump is skilled at navigating blindly through an echo chamber.

My credit to Charlie Sykes for leaving it.

The Subterranean Stadium: Toy Football for Everyone

The Subterranean StadiumA few years back, the godfather of modern documentary filmmaking, Errol Morris, did some short features for ESPN. They’re all available on Grantland’s Errol Morris Week page — at least for now. The website hosting the page no longer exists; ESPN canned it because of personality conflicts with its founder, Bill Simmons. Based on his television appearances, Simmons does come across as an arrogant jerk. But he did bring skilled writers onto his website and goaded ESPN into hiring great filmmakers for its sports documentary series.

So who knows how long ESPN will keep the archived website up. For now, you can watch the Morris films on it. They’re all worthwhile.

The Subterranean Stadium

One of those films, The Subterranean Stadium, had me bawling halfway through, and I didn’t stop. It’s about grown-up high school friends who gather every Sunday to play toy electric football. They’ve been doing this in what they call their Subterranean Stadium since 1981.

Little plastic players rest on a toy football field that vibrates when you turn it on. Each player stands on a rectangle with plastic rudders underneath; you can adjust the rudders to make the player move left or right when the vibration starts. When a defender’s rectangle touches the ball carrier’s, that guy is tackled. You switch off the vibrating motor, and the humans set up their rudders for the next play.

I had my own Subterranean Stadium, so to speak. I got one of these toy football games as a Christmas present one year. And I loved it. The gameplay was fun (I had no friends, so I would play both sides and see who won). But what I really loved was the painting. The players came in default shapes (blocker, runner, tackler, and so on) and two default colors. I saved up my allowance to buy model airplane paint and painted Seattle Seahawks jerseys on one team, Green Bay Packers on the other. (I picked the Packers because one of the default plastic colors was a Packer color, so I saved money on the pants paint. The Seahawks were my favorite team.)

From Football to Model Making

This began a half-decade obsession with model making. From about eight to 13, I loved models. My father was horribly mentally ill, and our home was a stressful one. Making models was kind of a Zen thing. I blocked out the madness around me. Or I did until I hit puberty hard, and realized models made me look nerdy (along with every other aspect of my personality). I kinda want to go back and try a new model again, someday. Painting all the little pieces before you glue them together was pretty fun.

But it started with me painting those plastic football players. I saw the games on TV, I knew uniforms weren’t unicolor. So I painted all the players. Right down, if I recall, to the colored stripe down the side of each pants leg.

There were even little stickers featuring team numbers you could put on the players! And guess what — there still are. Yes, the same company still makes the same game. You can order sets with two team jerseys pre-painted (Yuck! Painting’s the whole fun!) and it’s dent-resistant.

(Slow) Disaster Strikes

The game I used was prone to denting because it was made of thin metal. Getting excited over setting up the next play meant I sometimes dented the field with an elbow. Eventually this meant the entire field was inside an event horizon; no matter how you set the plastic rudders, all the players would converge on the biggest dent.

I begged and begged my father to buy me a new one. I promised to paint his favorite football teams instead of mine. As he was mentally ill, he was cruel, and mocked me for ruining that Christmas present.

A Memory Returned

I’d totally forgotten about this before seeing The Subterranean Stadium. I only stumbled upon it recently. Strangely, I was looking for some information on the inner life of mascots.

The men in this film gather in a basement to play toy electric football, tourney-style. The basement, Subterranean Stadium, is an homage to the obsession they have with this game. There are shelves upon shelves of plastic players in different uniforms. Need I say, all-hand-painted.

As the film continued, I saw my abused childhood self in these middle-aged men. They’d suffered disease. Heartbreak. War. Prison. Their Sunday basement gaming wasn’t mocked as pathetic, the way a lesser filmmaker would have presented it. It was shown as almost triumphant. Despite it all, these old friends still manage to lose their stress once a week, playing and laughing together over a toy football game.

A Great Insight Into Everyone

Errol Morris, who used to be an insurance investigator, is the best interviewer that documentary films have ever seen. Like a sneaky cop, he puts people at ease, gets them to open up by not being judgmental. But unlike a sneaky cop, he’s not interested in damning anyone. What fascinates him is the subjectivity of existence and perception. It’s the Rashomon thing; different people witnessing the same event will have different accounts.

As I said, The Subterranean Stadium is short; about 20 minutes long. It’s about oddballs, and it’s extremely compassionate. See it before ESPN deep-sixes the host website. And it’s on this page. You just have to click once.

How Seeing Disgraced Made Me See Theater Differently

DisgracedI had a profound experience recently, watching the play Disgraced.

As a young man, I saw a lot of theater. It was mostly in school, but there were other times. As a result, I was trained to consider theater more “artistic” than film or television. And for the most part, it bored me stupid. It seemed more pretentious than anything. People at Shakespeare plays tittering to demonstrate they were educated enough to “get the jokes.”

I’ve always liked reading plays, though. I love Ibsen, Shaw, Wilson, Wilde, Williams, and yes, Shakespeare. And eventually I discovered Gore Vidal, who explained how many movies I admired were just filmed plays. I read Vidal’s play “The Best Man,” liked it. Saw the movie, liked it. So the ice was cracking — though I would have sworn to anyone it wasn’t!

A few years back the SO invited me to a play, “Two Pianos, Four Hands.” It’s about two old friends recalling their background as classically-trained pianists; they reminisce over their love of music and how stressful their classical training was. Possibly because the SO has shared similar stories, I found myself really enjoying the humor, the emotional moments, the music. (It’s a two-actor show, and you do need serious piano chops to perform in it.)

I was surprised. But I still thought of theater as either pretentious or Cats and refused to budge.


Two weeks ago, we were offered free tickets to a local production of Ayad Akhtar’s play, Disgraced. Well, I rarely turn down anything free. And it opened my eyes to a different side of why theater can be great.

The play is about a successful second-generation Pakistani-American lawyer. His Anglo wife is a budding artist, his friends from the law firm are Jewish and African-American, they live in Manhattan, they’ve got it all.

Until one day the lawyer’s nephew asks him for help. He knows an imam who has, almost certainly, been railroaded on phony terrorism charges by the FBI. The lawyer uncle doesn’t want any part of it. He’s an apostate; he’s angry about how Muslims are treated yet loathes the fundamentalist Islam he grew up in. Still, his nephew is sweet, his wife wants him to try, so he’ll see what he can do.

And then all hell breaks loose.

What progresses is one of the quickest transitions from “casual entertainment” to “intense drama” I’ve ever seen. And the entire play is just 90 minutes long. But it’s set up masterfully. When the tensions explode, you recall the hints of them before. Longterm relationships can sometimes be based on mutual affection overriding simmering resentments — it might only take a second for those resentments to boil over.

The Significant Other and the Holding of Hands

Now, the odd thing here isn’t that I enjoyed it. The work was personal and political, and the actors (particularly the lawyer) were magnificent. Of course I’d like it! What stunned me is how much the SO liked it.

The SO can handle drama in documentaries, no matter how dark or dense. But television or movies? No way! If a fictional show or film has too much tension, whether physical or emotional (and Disgraced has both), the SO hates it. A documentary shows you what happened, and history can sometimes be ugly. We shouldn’t turn away from ugly history — acknowledging it is how we get better. Yet the SO dislikes tense fiction, even in service of admirable reform goals; entertainment should not be stressful.

Afterward, I asked, “So you liked the play? I found it enormously tense!”

The reply: “It was. But after all the characters were horrible to each other, the actors came out for a curtain call and held hands.”

Rethinking Theater

And that made me think of a different way that theater is great. It’s not more artistic than film or television. But it’s more stylized, less “real.” You’re aware of set design, unnatural blocking, the possibility of catastrophe. It’s less faux-realistic than film and television; and sometimes that is a good thing — a very good thing.

Film and television have contributed to each other over the years — sometimes constructively, often less so. One example: television learned from film how images seen on a screen seem truer than reality. A cleverly-constructed political spot is more convincing than a live stump speech.

TV commercials (probably inspired by film cartoons and experimental cinema) demonstrated that quick images are often more effective than long stories. Now films rarely have coherent stories, they largely bounce from set-piece to set-piece with a logic that’s more visceral than meaningful.

How do you go about making the audience forget they are sitting in a chair, eating popcorn, and instead think they are watching something really happen? It’s an art film and television (and now internet visual media) have innovated over decades, and no doubt will continue.

And don’t get me wrong — I love it! I admire the craft and passion that goes into it. These days, I seem to be drawn to films that work less hard to put you inside the narrative with, for example, ever more complex special effects. I’m drawn to films with more compelling stories. Or ones that intentionally make you question the story’s logic or are bluntly self-aware.

This is essentially what theater always did, by its very nature.

A Change Has Come

I’m not going to convert. Films and televisions shows I get on DVD from the library are free. Theater costs money, and I am broke. But if I avoided theater as a young man because it seemed pretentious to me, now I’m learning that any art form can be pretentious. And some theater is more heartfelt and less pretentious than television or movies.

Basically, I’m being anti-McLuhan. Screw the medium. I prefer the message.

The X-Files And Conspiracy Irresponsibility

The X-FilesThe sci-fi geeks among you are probably aware that The X-Files returned recently, for a limited-miniseries run on Fox. I loathe the current sequel trend, but not on general principle. It’s because the sequels tend to be enormously lazy cash grabs. It’s perfectly fine to redo or add to existing material, if you have something worth adding. (The first few seasons of Sherlock are true to the original in spirit, and well-liked by Holmes nerds even though the stories differ wildly from Doyle’s originals.)

Like many people, I enjoyed The X-Files when it first aired in 1993. Its leads, as FBI agents investigating UFOs, Bigfoot, and such, played their encounters with monsters so dryly they seemed more like accountants than law enforcement. Or: DMV meets Dracula. While the show’s hints of an overarching, the sinister plot to cover up “The Truth” about UFOs was fun, suggesting that kooks everywhere were right all along. Although this had been stolen from, and done better in, Close Encounters, it was enjoyable transposed into scary-show format.

X-Files Loses Its Spark

Also like many people, I drifted away as the Sinister Plot became more labyrinthine. It lost its air of spooky silliness and drifted into a tedious mix of pretension and sloppiness. The show’s creator, Chris Carter, seemed not to realize he was pulling together bits from earlier popular successes (Twilight Zone, Close Encounters) and believed viewers tuned in for his “vision.”

“If the conspiracy is really as powerful as Mulder thinks it is, only collective action can change it. Only some version of democracy can stand up against it.” —James Surowiecki

The Sinister Plot got away from poking (not entirely harmless) fun at UFO and Bigfoot conspiracy buffs (at times, the show’s depiction of such could be downright mean-spirited). And it moved into much more irresponsible territory. In addition to covering up Roswell, and lying about abductions, the Bad Guys also assassinated JFK. And Dr King. Seriously. That’s really reprehensible.

(The episode where this is revealed mentions actual historical facts about Hoover’s attempts to smear King, and how hard-right elements considered him a communist threat. Maybe in Carter’s mind this information justified working such a tragedy into his monster serial. If so, Carter’s mind is unhinged.)

Giving X-Files Another Try

But, I have high admiration for Gillian Anderson as a performer, and some nostalgia over seeing her recreate the role which started her fine career. Plus, I like miniseries. American TV shows tend to have seasons which are way too long (cable has begun figuring this out.) So, I thought I’d give it a try.

Oh, boy.

Our FBI agents and now retired from the UFO biz. They had a kid who’d been genetically altered with alien DNA, whom they had to give up and never see again for the kid’s own safety or something. They are contacted by a Glenn Beck type, who wants their input on a big story he’s planning to break. They’re hesitant, being good liberals, but the Beck fellow knows his UFO lore, so maybe he’s not entirely an opportunistic TV liar.

Turns out Beck has an honest-to-God alien spaceship (or working copy, anyway), stashed in a hangar. Why? Oh, herein lies a tale. Brace yourselves. This is Scientology, Story of Xenu-worthy stuff.

When we started exploding A-bombs, it attracted the notice of space aliens, who came to save us from destroying ourselves. But the Big Mean Earth Bad Guys kept shooting down alien ships and learning from their technology. They built replicas of those ships to abduct people and perform genetic experiments involving, again, alien DNA. Also, stories of alien abduction helped distract the public from these Mean Bad Guys’ master scheme, which involves environmental devastation, obesity, consumerism run amok, sparking wars, and blowing up skyscrapers. This is all to justify the buildup of a surveillance/police state which will finally be unleashed after the next manufactured catastrophe to take over the world. Starting with America. Bwahahaha!

Where to start with this? Wouldn’t any aliens who mastered FTL travel to stop us from using atomic warfare realize we were pretty violent primates and, I dunno, keep their ships from being shot down? But the illogic isn’t worth going into.

The Same Old Thing — But Newer

What I do find bizarre is how this equates both right-wing fantasies (the Beck type moans about gun confiscation), left-wing reality talking points (global warming, the military/industrial/security complex), and conspiracy stuff (JFK again, UFOs, the World Trade Center), mashing them into a giant pile of equal Woes Upon Ours.

And I guarantee you, as usual, our FBI heroes will never be able to solve. One more layer upon one more layer to uncover… The Beck character is shut down. The Great Truth can never be revealed. “They” won’t allow it.

What the hell does Chris Carter think he’s doing with The X-Files? Making some profound statement about our troubled times? I suspect he’s a reasonably left-leaning guy with a very large bank account from his overpaid cinematic work, who thinks he’s providing “fun entertainment” with “a little meaning to it.” I suspect this because this is what Hollywood types with slightly leftist sympathies who enjoy their comfortable lifestyles very often say they think. You know, the new Star Wars has an anti-Mean War message! In there somewhere. Amidst all the explosions.

Collective Action and Conspiracy

As to the annoying persistence in our culture of how people with marginalized positions believe “if only I could make people understand this one truth, they’d realize I’m totally right,” let me refer you to almost every chat thread on the internet. (Not here! We’re quite civil when we disagree. Mostly…) Or The Atlantic review of The X-Files from 1997 by James Surowiecki, from which I take this fine quote: “If the conspiracy is really as powerful as Mulder thinks it is, only collective action can change it. Only some version of democracy can stand up against it.”

Exactly. And by turning real fears, genuine abuses of power, into plot material for a monster show, Chris Carter mocks the very notion of democracy. He says, in effect, “It’s all just another form of entertainment… but that’s OK, since it has a little meaning to it.” So, too, did Indiana Jones defeating the Nazis.

Star Trek and Doctor Who have more bite. And Terry Pratchett would eat this weak social commentary for breakfast.

But I still love Gillian Anderson.

Stunning Petulance from Minneapolis Police Officers

Lynx forward Maya Moore - Minneapolis PoliceOn Monday night, four off-duty Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officers were moonlighting as security personnel for the Lynx WNBA game at Target Center.

The officers wore their Minneapolis Police Department uniforms while working the security job (as permitted by the department).

And in an act of stunning petulance, all four walked off the security job because Lynx players wore t-shirts like the one Lynx forward Maya Moore is wearing in the photo on the left.

On the back of these shirts are the names of Philando Castile, killed by police in Minnesota last week, and Alton Sterling, killed by police in Louisiana. And beneath the names is a Dallas Police department emblem — remembering the five officers killed by a sniper in Texas.

Not Just Shirts

The MPD officers were reportedly also offended by a pre-game news conference Lynx players held. It included seemingly universal comments such as Rebekkah Brunson saying the shirts were meant to “honor and mourn the loss of precious American citizens and to plead change for all of us.” And Maya Moore saying, “We are highlighting a longtime problem of racial profiling.”

The Minneapolis police officers should not have been surprised. Last Saturday, the Lynx wore the exact same shirts and made similar statements before a game against the Dallas Wings. Several of the Wings teammates expressed gratitude for the show of support. In that instance, Moore declared, “If we take this time to see that this is a human issue and speak out together, we can greatly decrease fear and create change… Tonight we will be wearing shirts to honor and mourn the losses of precious American citizens and to plead for change in all of us.”

The Police Union Joins In

“We don’t support law enforcement murdering civilians and we don’t support civilians murdering law enforcement.” —Lynx player Simeone Augustus

Commenting on the officers who walked out, MPD union head Lt Bob Kroll said, “I commend them for it” and “if [the players] are going to keep their stance, all officers may refuse to work there.” Then, in an act even more petulant than the walk-off, Kroll said, “They only have four officers working the event because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw.”

The Lynx have won three of the last five WNBA championships, and average about 8,000 fans per game. That’s roughly half the size of a typical NBA crowd, and far larger than a rock concert at nearby venue First Avenue. (A rather well-known rock club, where Prince filmed scenes for Purple Rain.)

Minneapolis Police Have a History

You may recall the story from 2014, when Minneapolis Police Department union members duped a local TV station into claiming Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was flashing a “gang symbol.” The slander was almost certainly a response to Hodges’s attempts at reforming the department.

A Longtime Problem

And such attempts are nothing new. During most of the 1980s, Anthony Bouza was head of the MPD and deeply unpopular with the force because of his reform measures. Later, Bouza described those reforms in Police Unbound: Corruption, Abuse, and Heroism By The Boys In Blue. Bouza wrote that “temptations to abuse are everywhere, and practically irresistible.” He found some officers so dirty and so unfireable, he would pay them to sit at an empty desk rather than poison new recruits with their attitudes. Bouza said officers refer to such attitudes as thinking of themselves as “meat eaters”: tough guys; ones who don’t ever back down from a confrontation.

MPD: To Protect and Serve… Themselves

Most hated of Bouza’s reforms was a reduction in two-person shifts. Officers claimed this reduction would make them unsafe, and pointed to an inevitable officer death as proof. (Police work is dangerous, although not so dangerous as fishing, farming, logging, driving, and many other occupations.) The real cause for officers’ hatred of this policy was the very reason Bouza initiated it. A two-officer crew has virtually unlimited power. In rare cases where an officer’s actions are investigated by prosecutors, witness statements from another officer will always be given more weight than testimony from suspects or bystanders.

Bouza took on the MPD job after previous experience as police commander in The Bronx. But that didn’t seem to matter to the “meat eaters” at the MPD.

Shame on the Minneapolis Police

In any case, shame on the petulant MPD officers who walked off their jobs in a huff because of the principled statements made by Minnesota Lynx athletes. But don’t expect the MPD to make desperately needed changes anytime soon.