It Really Isn’t a Question: To Be or Not to Be

It Really Isn't a Question: To Be or Not to Be

Last night I had a dream. I was hunched over my keyboard, working furiously. And in the corner was Arthur Schopenhauer with a friend. He motioned toward me and said, “The Will is strong with this one.” And my head planted on the keyboard — the letter “x” scrolled across the screen.

I assume the Force is a good thing to have. I don’t really know, having seen almost none of the films and not having given them much thought. But the Will is not a good thing to have. It exists for itself. It is a parasite that lives within us, feeding off us — only interested in its own existence.

We all live in the middle of the most terrifying horror show ever imagined. But most of us haven’t a clue. In this context, a drone attack on a wedding party is the ultimate act of mercy and Obama is a saint.

Suicide: A Once Comforting Thought

The writer Stevie Smith famously found the thought of suicide extremely comforting. She said that when she learned about it as a child, it great cheered her because she knew that if life ever got too painful, she could end the pain — in an instant.

As a result, she lived her life to its natural conclusion despite her depression and anxiety because of that thin tether of knowing that she could always kill herself tomorrow.

Nobody’s Waving — Their Drowning

I suppose one could see the Will as a friendly entity that keeps us alive through the bad bits of life so we can enjoy the good bits. But I think that Smith sums up life for most people pretty well in his poem fragment:

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

That’s most people: too far out all their lives, drowning while everyone thinks they are having a marvelous time.

You see a lot of people drowning on Facebook. But they would prefer you not see them drowning, so they are waving furiously as they swallow mouthfuls of seawater, sink, and then breath the brine as they die. Don’t trust the happy pictures of ball games and parties. You need both hands to slit your own wrists.

Emily Dickinson Had It Right: We’re Stuck

Most people only know the first two lines of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem, “The Chariot”:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me…

Many people they think (certainly I did when I was young) that the word “kindly” is meant ironically. It isn’t. The whole poem isn’t a celebration of death — Dickinson was not a cheerful poet (or person, it would seem — she was pretty much a shut-in like me). But people are sometimes fooled by things like, “‘Hope’ Is the Thing With Feathers.” The quotation marks around “hope” certainly indicate that she sees it has something of a phantom.

But “The Chariot” is quite positive toward death. She looks upon death as a good thing.

All These Prisons

For most of my life, I was like Stevie Smith: I took comfort in knowing that I could make this all go away. But my dream Schopenhauer was right: my Will is ridiculously strong. I could never kill myself except under the most rational of circumstances (eg, I’m in the World Trade Center and a fireball is coming toward me, so I jump). Otherwise, no.

So more and more I feel like a prisoner in this body on this planet — stuck in this constant now, now, now. But like Dickenson, I cannot stop for death. I must live in this cage until it takes pity and stops for me.

It is only science and art and lots of people (one at a time) that provide any kind of relief. I would rewrite Dickenson: “Hope is a thing for children.”

The Peter Principle and the Meaninglessness of Hierarchy

The Peter Principle and the Meaninglessness of HierarchyWhen I was younger, I often heard the Peter Principle defined as follows, “Everyone rises to their own level of incompetence.” Thus, I saw it as a statement of the stupidity of corporations: that they promoted incompetent people. But that is not it at all.

Investopedia provides a far better definition of the phenomenon, “The Peter Principle is an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach the levels of their respective incompetence.”

It was only when the Peter Principle started to be applied to me I came to understand it. And it was then that I saw that it wasn’t an attack on the employee but on the corporation.

Peter Principle in High Tech

Consider this example, which I have seen in action many times. A computer programmer is hired by a company and they are great — a modern-day alchemist who manages to things done no one thought was even possible. So the company, wanting to reward this exceptional coder, promotes them to a programming manager. And this person is not great at the new job. To start with, they don’t like it because programming is in their bones. But also: they don’t know anything about management. They hate going to meetings. They think spreadsheets and reports are things people create because they don’t know how to code or that they’re just plain stupid. So, far from being a great manager, they are a bad manager — maybe bad enough to get fired.

Meanwhile, that same company probably has a mediocre programmer who would make a great manager. But they can’t be made a manager because it would be unfair. The mediocre coder would now be above the brilliant coder in the the hierarchy. The mediocre coder would make more money. The mediocre coder would be sent to conferences and fly business class. In other words, the mediocre coder will be better than the brilliant coder.

Hierarchy Destroys Diversity

The problem, of course, is that most companies have it all backwards. And a hierarchy is almost never the best way to structure a group. But you see the human tendency toward hierarchy. The World Wide Web was definitionally flat. It was, quite literally, a web. But once it became commercialized, it turned into a hierarchy. The vast majority of people on the internet spend the vast majority of their time on the top 100 websites.

And it’s built in. If you are on Facebook, why? Why not another platform? Because Facebook is only useful if everyone is there. It isn’t just a monopoly, it’s a company that can only exist as a monopoly. There is absolutely nothing technologically interesting about it and that has been true from its very idea. It provides Sudoku Meaning to people. But it’s also herd mentality. Have you ever noted the shape of a stampeding herd?

The point is the hierarchy — this idea that we need one. The fact is that it is much easier to find a good middle-manager than it is to find a good programmer or other creative. But because we think the hierarchy is natural or right or whatever, we must put the creatives at the bottom. We must pretend that although necessary, they aren’t worth that much. Hence, companies try to turn exceptional creatives into exceptional managers, but end up with mediocre (and generally unhappy) managers.

We Need a Better System

There are better ways, of course. The most obvious is the ecosystem. It is typical of the stupidity of man that the lion is referred to as the “king of the jungle.” (And that makes no sense given that lions don’t live in the jungle, tigers do.) That’s not the way the jungle works. Yes, there are apex predators. But everyone dies and is eaten. Humans think they control this planet? Ha! Insects and bacteria.

But there is no reason that a manager of programmers should necessarily make more than any given programmer. Especially if you want to believe in a meritocracy (and we don’t have one and can’t have one), you should see this. A programmer working alone can revolutionize the world. A manager working alone can’t do anything at all.

In a company however, you need lots of people doing lots of things. And doubtless, some of those people are worth more to the company than others. But the hierarchy doesn’t come close to modeling this. An ecosystem does.

The Lost in America Reversal

There’s a scene in Lost in America where this idea is put on its head. Albert Brooks plays an idiot, as usual. He’s a great advertising creative and gets upset when he isn’t going to be promoted to management. And his supervisor tells him plainly that Brooks is too talented a creative to lose him to management so he promoted someone with far less ability.

And that’s the way it should be. Except it shouldn’t be that the other guy was “promoted.” There should be an ecosystem where everyone plays their role — doing what they like and are good at. And if that means a lowly coder makes as much as the vice-president of finance, so be it. (Note: the vice-president of finance is just at the top of a huge group of people. So he isn’t actually doing any more work than the coder, and isn’t necessarily any more important — even if the vast bureaucracy he leads is).

A Change Ain’t Gonna Come

Sam Cooke - A Change Ain't Gonna ComeI do love the Sam Cooke song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Cooke is one of those performers, like Brel, who never misses. If you put together “Sam Cooke’s Least Loved Songs” it would still be a great album. According to Cooke the song is about social change and he was thinking specifically of his touring group being turned away by a “whites only” hotel. But it sounds like a gospel song. In particular, it sounds like a black gospel song — so full of hope because that’s all they had.

When I first went to college, one of the few courses I always attended was Developmental Psychology. And I learned the term “meta-grumble.” The construction actually makes no sense: a grumble about a grumble?! But what it means in the literature is the complaints of those who have all their basic needs met. As a result, any complaint I have is a meta-grumble. Imagine if someone had told me at 10 years old that I would be a successful freelance writer and editor and have enough money to buy anything that I wanted and was able to spend much of my time learning new things. I would have been thrilled.

My Meta-Grumbles

But I’m not. Earlier I was having a panic attack. I drove to the store to buy a bottle of vodka. I was so freaked out that I got a bottle of gin instead. But I drank two shots and the panic went away. But I can still taste the gin and that makes me want to retch. Here I am living my dream life and self-medicating with vile alcohol. I don’t have anything but meta-grumbles. Yet here I am: a hopeless mess.

The initial incident that spawned “A Change Is Gonna Come” happened just a year and half before Sam Cooke was murdered. It was recorded less than a year before he was murdered. And it was release a week and a half after he was murdered. The most important lines to me are these:

There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on.

Sam Cooke was Wrongly Optimistic

In fact, no. He couldn’t carry on long enough for the song to be released. And the police never considered it a murder. It was just a black man, after all. I have little doubt that Cooke was set up to be robbed and that the murder was part of that: Elisa Boyer and Bertha Franklin were working a scam they had worked many times before. But again: the police were probably only interested in the case to the extent that it deprived them of killing Sam Cooke themselves. The absolute best take on the murder was that Sam Cooke was robbed and Franklin did feel threatened. But I find it hard to believe that someone feels that threatened but has time to go get the shot gun.

Regardless, I’m not writing about Sam Cooke. I’m writing about everyone. The truth is that President Donald Trump really bothers me. I feel like I live in a new country. Even if the Democrats take control of Congress (which is unlikely; hopefully they will take the House) and a Democrat becomes President in 2020, everything has changed. The Democrat will be more corrupt than they would have been without this dark moment in the US.

It’s possible that it will all work as shock therapy. The Republicans, freed from having to pledge allegiance to Trump otherwise they will be primaried, will work to turn their “party” into a normal conservative political party. I mean, I understand why the current Republicans don’t stand up against Trump. The most recent polling of evangelicals shows that he is more popular than ever. A married man has affairs with a Playboy playmate and a porn star, and these good “traditional values” evangelicals like him more than ever.

Is This the US or North Korea?

I feel like I’m living in North Korea. The Dear Leader can do no wrong. Anything said against him is a lie. If Trump claimed he shot 18 holes of golf and got a score of -38 with 5 holes-in one, these people would believe it. Because Trump doesn’t have a constituency; he has a cult.

There is no reasoning with these people. They’ve learned that truth is just a matter of opinion. That’s right: conservative Christians are now postmodern. If I want to believe that the Moon is made of green cheese, well, that’s just my opinion. They know it’s wrong, because the Moon is actually made of Donald Trump’s sperm. But I have video evidence:

Okay! So no green cheese, but some kind of cheese! But who is to say? I literally have more evidence that the Moon is made of green cheese than they have that Donald Trump is a moral man. Because there is plenty of video evidence (mostly not in claymation) that shows quite the opposite. Just listen to him interviewed by Howard Stern. Is this the Christ of the modern conservative Christian?!

Suicide Is Always an Option

Maybe none of it matters. The first thing I think about each morning is killing myself. Don’t alert the authorities! There was a two month period over the summer where I was actually suicidal. And if things had not made a turn for the better, you would probably not be reading this today. But generally (and currently and for all my life except those two months) suicide has been an intellectual issue.

I’ve studied it very well, and I know how to kill myself in a painless and foolproof way. What I’ve never quite figured out is how exactly to do it so my body is found by professionals. I would never want a family member or friend or even hotel maid to find me. Oh yes, dying in the bathtub and putting a very clear note on the door of the hotel bathroom would probably work. But it isn’t certain. At this point, that’s what I would do.

Hope Remains

As I said though: I’m not going to kill myself. As long as I can write, I still have hope. And as long as I have hope, I would never kill myself. And let’s face it: I’m too much of a coward to do it. If I didn’t do it over the summer, I don’t think I will ever do it. I do hope I die before I’m 60, but that’s quite different.

Still, hope that Sam Cooke showed in “A Change Is Gonnna Come” is something I just can’t relate to. I love it. I listen to it often. But I fear any change that comes will be for the worse. I’m not of my father’s generation when things were improving. My life has seen things get worse and worse. Not for me, of course! I’m blessed. I am literally living the dream.

But that isn’t enough, I’m afraid. I’m not that selfish. And of course, that’s what my country wants me to be.


It is a couple of hours since I wrote this and I’ve spent most of that time listening to Minutemen. I’ve always known that George Hurley was a great drummer, but it really stood out tonight. Strangely, I’ve found the music to be very calming. And nothing more than this acoustic set from only a few month before Boon tragically died. God I love those guys. Tonight it was “History Lesson – Part II” that really struck me, even though “I Felt Like a Gringo” will always be my song:

No. We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.

Although I wish every member of the NRA would listen to “Little Man With a Gun in His Hand.” Because that’s what we think of you all. You think you’re tough. We think you’re pathetic.

Afterword II

Now I’m listening to a live (1980) concert by Talking Heads with Adrian Belew et al. Maybe it’s just my mood, but for the first time, I see that it’s really the rhythm section that makes the band — Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. There isn’t a lot that David Byrne adds. Of course, I think that Byrne is a supreme asshole who thinks all the success of the band is due to him. But his guitar playing really is bad. I play funk guitar better than he does. And the only album of theirs that really remains listenable is Remain in Light, and that is one of only two albums that Byrne allowed the others to take their appropriate credit. Still, this is okay. Nothing close to the worst of Minutemen.

Note: whenever I rag on Byrne, someone comes by and says, “Oh, you have to listen to X.” And I do. And it’s totally derivative work. He spent all his creativity on those first four albums. There’s nothing left. He’s boring.

And really: what was the point of bringing in Busta Jones on bass? Weymouth was perfectly competent. That’s no slight of Jones who was an amazing bassist. But it just stinks of Byrne trying to push everyone away to make himself the star. Like I said: I hate the man. If he were in the room, I’d slap him. Age hasn’t improved him either. Maturity doesn’t go along with aging for David Byrne.

Listen to the bass part on “Once in a Lifetime.” It’s almost all just vamping. That’s true of most of the songs Jones plays. Nothing he plays requires his level of skill. Did I mention that David Byrne is an asshole? It makes me feel better. I’m a mess. And there are times when I am unkind. But at least I’m not David Byrne.

Afterword III

I hope you understand that my real problem with Byrne is his lack of loyalty. Loyalty is very big in my life. And those who show a lack of it are really out as far as I’m concerned. I have read a lot about Byrne — especially from the early to mid-1980s. I wanted to like him but there was little to like. And if you want a good example of just how pathetic he is, listen in 1994’s “Angels.” Why didn’t he just re-release “Once in a Lifetime”? Or better: just him screaming, “I have no new ideas!”

And with that I guess I’ll go watch a monster movie because I really do feel better. The only thing is that I don’t want to go to work tomorrow.

Afterword IV

Maybe I’m just going crazy. But I could hardly breathe watching this.


Final Word on the College of Architecture and Planning Sign

College of Architecture and Planning Sign

Two of the biggest pages on this site have to do with this funny sign on the College of Architecture and Planning building. The joke is that these very smart and erudite people who teach planning didn’t plan enough to get their sign properly displayed. It’s slightly amusing, but my reason for writing about it was that there were a lot of people who thought it was real — that the faculty of Architecture and Planning had this sign made with no thought and then just said, “Oh well, nothing to be done!”

No, Academics Are Not Idiots

This was an idea I’ve heard over the years from people who want to believe that all academics are idiots. It shows a certain amount of insecurity. I certainly understand the urge to poke at elites. And certainly academics are elites. But they are generally elites without much in the way of power. And at this point, it seems a pretty tired gag.

My Purpose: to Show the Image Was Made to Be Funny

So my only reason for writing the articles was to make the point that the sign was a joke. It doesn’t matter if the subcontractor screwed it up and the dean said, “Let’s keep it, it’s funny!” And it doesn’t matter if a change was made to the building and the dean said, “You know, instead of redoing the lettering, let’s put the “C” on the other wall because it will be funny and stand as an object lesson for our students!” And it doesn’t matter if the photo was simply photoshopped to make a funny image.

There Is No Deep Meaning in the Image

The sign was meant to be funny; it wasn’t an indication that academics are idiots. That’s all I had to say. Unfortunately, there are about a million people who took the image very seriously indeed. And for a long time, I responded to these people with variations of, “You make an interesting point, but it’s still true that whoever did it, did it because it was funny.” It doesn’t mean anything. People can’t use it as an illustration that academics are idiots. That’s not what is going on in the image. Regardless of what way you turn it, the perpetrator did it because they thought it was funny. And that’s the end of the story.

The Two Articles

So I eventually wrote two articles about this stupid little image. At first, I had no idea that this would be such a big deal. The first article was just intended to talk about how un-serious it was. Then, the second one was written to try to lower the fever. But when the reaction to it was even bigger than it had been to the first one, I knew it was hopeless. So I gave up. But here, for all you people who think this is very important, I’m putting it all together.

College of Architecture and Planning Sign Is a Joke
Update on the Ball State College of Architecture and Planning Sign — It’s Still a Joke

I’m even including the comments because most of these people are very smart and they had interesting things to say. Sure, the world would be better if these people tried to cure cancer or something. But this is what they’ve decided to do and who am I to say they’re wrong? (A sensible person.)

College of Architecture and Planning Sign Is a Joke

At the top of this article, you can see the “hilarious” image of the College of Architecture and Planning sign. In case you can’t see it, the “C” in the word “College” is pasted on the brick wall to the left. It is clearly meant as a joke and perhaps an object lesson for all those “planning” majors. I think it’s quite brilliant in its way.

Cjhelms to the Rescue: Nothing to Be Done!

By all accounts, the building was at Ball State and has since been torn down. But it is hard to know anything for sure. Consider that when this photo was posted on Reddit this January 2014. Some reddit person who goes by the name cjhelms wrote:

The building was constructed in two parts. One completed in 1972 and the newer part completed in 1982. The newer part includes the wall to the left and the older part is the rest that you see. The photo was taken from the basement level. The lettering is above the first level (the windows above the words are of a second-floor conference room). There was originally a pedestrian bridge that connected to the entrance below the lettering.

When the newer portion of the building was constructed, the contractor missed his mark and caused the lettering to be cut off. Why didn’t they change it? The space that used to be a beautiful grand entrance to the college was converted into a loading dock.

Part of this may well be true: the left side looks newer. Just the same, none of this would imply that an error was made and I find it very unlikely. Much more likely is that they were making an addition to the building and they knew they had to cover over part of the existing beam. Rather than redo the sign, someone said, “You know what would be funny…?” Cjhelms’ implication that they couldn’t be bothered to fix the sign because it was now just a loading dock doesn’t fly. If that’s the case, why did they go to the trouble of pasting the “C” on the brick wall?

What’s more, I question cjhelms’ seriousness. In another comment, he mentions that it was built by the “lowest bidder,” which is a tired cliche. No one ever gets a contract by being the lowest bidder; they often get them by being the lowest qualified bidder. What’s more, cjhelms claims he knows what went on there because he works at Ball State. But that doesn’t mean he knows anything about the project. And if he weren’t there when it was built (he recently had a child so he is probably young), all he likely knows is campus folklore.

RJMjr60 at Least Makes Some Sense

In contrast, RJMjr60 claimed:

It was done intentionally to prove a point, and to continually reiterate that point to every student who entered the building… The name was a reminder to always think things through and the fact that it made it to Reddit many years after its demise is proof that it got people’s attention and made them think.

Or just consider the human psychology behind the sign. If you ran the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State, and something went wrong on the project for your new building, you would make the best of the situation. (For one thing, you would require the contractor to fix the sign!) You would not throw up your hands and say, “It’s an embarrassment, but there is nothing we can do about it!” So whatever the situation with the building, the sign was a choice — a joke that makes a point about the subject being taught.

It wasn’t some stupid dean who couldn’t think of anything else to do. “God, what an embarrassment! But nothing can be done! Maybe if Kurt Gödel were around, he could come up with some hyper-intellectual solution like moving all the letters closer together. But this is Ball State! We don’t have that kind of brain power, so let’s just embarrass ourselves!”

Comments Both Great and Small

Here are the important comments to the first article.

The image is a photoshop fake and the back-story is invented. Here is a genuine shot of the building.
Thank you so much! I’m preparing a follow-up article that will go up at 5:05 tonight. I don’t think this new photo quite proves what you claim. But it is really great to have it, and it has brought a couple of things to my mind that I hadn’t discussed before. I hope you will drop by and see if you buy what I have to say.
Isak Lindenauer
What’s stupid and what makes the joke fail is the fact that whoever wanted to create this hoax erroneously made the “error” on the left side. No one would start with a mistake or put up the sign starting at the right and working to the left. (Well, maybe if it were an Orthodox Jewish college!). For the joke to work, it has to appear seamless and believable. That means some shmendrick who was commissioned to put up the sign starts with the letter C without really thinking his actions through and making a plan even though the very word is in the sign. He gets to the END and sees there is not enough room for the last letter so he puts it on the right wall to finish the title…
Read the update. I don’t accept it, but the competing theory is that the left wall was added, cutting off the sign. The dean (or whoever) thought it would be funny to put the “C” on the wall. But we now have a better version of the image with the letters displayed perfectly. So I am 99% certain this is just a PhotoShop gag.
Dwight Simmons
What is really funny, is all the posts of Facebook and the comments about how stupid the College is.

Update on the Ball State College of Architecture and Planning Sign — It’s Still a Joke

A year ago, I wrote, The College of Architecture and Planning Sign Is a Joke. It is in reference to the photo at the top of this article. I didn’t think much about the article at the time, but it has been huge — arguably the most viewed article I’ve ever written. The reason I wrote it was basically political. A lot of people use the picture as “yet another example of how the government can’t do anything right.” And that offends me. So I went searching for information about the photo. There was very little and so I put together what I could find.

The “It’s a PhotoShop Hoax Theory”

Yesterday, there was another explosion of traffic to that page, and I got a very interesting comment from a guy named Dave, “The image is a photoshop fake and the back-story is invented. Here is a genuine shot of the building…” He provided a link to a recent article from Ball State Daily, Ten Signs You’re an Architecture Major. The content of the article has nothing to do with the question at hand, but it does include a picture of the building, which I have cropped to highlight the part of the building that is displayed in the original image.

College of Architecture and Planning

My Point: It’s a Joke

To reiterate, this has little to do with my original article. If that photo is digitally altered, then it was indeed a joke. The point of the article was that the College of Architecture and Planning didn’t, as I wrote, throw up its hands and say, “It’s an embarrassment, but there is nothing we can do about it!”

No one behaves that way! Whether the sign ever existed hardly matters. Whether it was a designer or a graphic artist, it was intentional. And it was always meant to be humorous. The fact that a lot of people don’t see that annoys me. It reminds me of those “ancient alien” shows that are predicated on the idea that humans are dumb.

Photo Differences

There is a really clear difference between these two photographs, however. In the original photo, there is a wall on the left side. There is no wall in the new photo. This doesn’t prove that the original photo wasn’t a PhotoShop job. Indeed, it adds some credence. It might have been perfect because the beam had no lettering on it. But why put a wall in? It makes more sense to have the end cut off, not the beginning. But I can’t say.

It is also possible that these photos are from different parts of the building. Or it could even be that they are different buildings — the Bracken Library on the Ball State campus has a similar design. This possibility would almost certainly make it an altered image and not a representation of anything that ever existed.

The Wall

The one thing that disturbs me is that wall. In my original article, I quoted a Reddit user, “The building was constructed in two parts. One completed in 1972 and the newer part completed in 1982. The newer part includes the wall to the left and the older part is the rest that you see…” The new photo is from the college archives — a similar one by the same photographer (Savannah Neil) was used a year earlier.

So maybe the original photo is actually more recent. I actually think so, because the building looks shiny and new. I suspect this photo was from the original shots taken of the building.

It could have been that someone thought they would throw up some letters on the beam temporarily when the expansion was taking place and they thought this was cute.

Or maybe it was a prank. I’m rather fond of that idea because it is exactly what you would think a few students at the College of Architecture and Planning would do and think was the funniest thing ever. On the other hand, that beam is very high and would be hard to get to.

Why Only This Photo?

The strongest argument for this being a PhotoShop job is that the original image is the only one I’ve found of the sign. There are no others from a slightly different angle or time. But if the building does date back to the early 1970s, then we are talking about a different time. People didn’t have cameras everywhere. Maybe it was pranksters. They took several pictures of it, but this is the only one they hung onto — or at least the only one they bothered to digitize.

Ultimately, all the new photo provides is some indication that this is photoshop work. (I’m about 50-50 on the issue right now.) But if it is, that only proves what I was always saying: the people at Ball State are not lazy idiots. The sign — real or digitally created — is still a joke.

Update (8 September 2015)

In the comments, Paul L provided what looks to be the original photo. It contains the letters where you think they would be. And the photo is better: you can clearly see a figure in the window who is vague in the “mistake picture.” So I assume this picture is the original and the mistake picture is a photoshop job. If any picture proves it, it is this one — not the picture above that I’m sure is an earlier one.

College of Architecture and Planning - Original, No PhotoShop

Update (14 September 2015 9:05 am)

Here is the video that we have been talking about in the comments:

If you skip to 0:53 in the video, there is a pan up of an image of the sign. It is shockingly like Alien Autopsy in that just before we get to see “the truth” it cuts. I guess we can be happy that it doesn’t go blurry. But it does show that the seam in the metal that the sign is on runs through the second “T” in “ARCHITECTURE.” In what I thought was the original image, the seam goes through the second “C.” As I’ve noted before these are the same exact photographs so one must be a PhotoShop job. And it would seem that the “correct” one is.

I hate being dragged down in the weeds on this. For the umpteenth time: the sign is a joke, not an example of incompetence. That is all I care about.


So here are the final coments. Again, my point is that this is a joke. That’s all I care about. It does seem that this is a photoshop joke. That’s what the data indicates. But a joke it is. Professionals are neither so ignorant nor so lazer to do this by accident.

There’s also this video which seems believable.

Thanks for that. This is more or less what one of the original Reddit people said — almost word-for-word. The problem with it is in the newest image above. And as I think I pointed out in this article, I can’t actually find the “wrong” image going back more than a year or so. But what are we to make of the newest image? Is it PhotoShopped? Because it is the exact same image. One of them has been PhotoShopped. I think I discussed in the first article that it is possible that now even the people at Ball State are relying on folklore about this. As it is, the video references Professor James Underwood for the “oral history.” I would love for the story to be true — partly because he specifically says, “It would be funny” — which was my original point. But it doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t Chris Helms who created the image in the first place.
There is one thing I’ve been thinking about that is brought up in the video and was discussed originally on Reddit: the big image above (without the left wall) is not that part of the building. The building is sorta symmetrical, and the part with the sign was on the other side. But that makes the “mistake sign” even less reasonable because then the new wall wasn’t built and there would have been nothing to change the original sign.
Is it too far fetched to consider the photo was flipped horizontally before the letters were photoshopped onto it?
At this point, I’d believe anything… If it turned out that Ball State doesn’t even exist, I wouldn’t be surprised.
The “original” photo you posted has Where’s Waldo waving from the window.
Considering Ball State’s own video says “this happened”, I’m inclined to believe the photo is real, and the “original” photo with Where’s Waldo is a photoshop.
Good eye! But all that proves is that the image was taken after 1987. Both images contain the same figure, so it is meaningless to note that the figure is Where’s Waldo. But I did notice something, so I guess I will have to update this damnable article.
Charlie (It was you!)
Have you looked at the 1:11 moment of video? I see no mention of this. It appears as though this part of the building with the ill placed “C” has been built over. Hmmmm, the plot thinks.
Jim B
Have you looked at the 1:11 moment of video? I see no mention of this. It appears as though this part of the building with the ill placed “C” has been built over. Hmmmm, the plot thickens.
It’s Photoshopped. you can see the tell tale drop shadow pixellation around the letters under 500 magnification. I made an addition to the photo to show off but there’s no upload here. :(
Interesting. Do blogs have that capability? That sounds more like a forum. Anyway, we are but a wee website.
I’m more than willing to believe you. But I have promised myself I will not be dragged back in! Every week or so, there seems to be an argument somewhere about this photo and someone links to this article.
But, once again: my interest is really not whether or not the image is real. My interest is whether or not it was actually a mistake. Was it the result of bad planning? Clearly it was not. It’s great regardless, and people find it constantly interesting — this has been going on for well over a year now.
Randall Peacock (with the ice pick in the kitchen)
Okay people, why is this so difficult to understand? I am completely baffled at the amount of ridiculously incorrect information that has been posted in this small amount of cyber space.
1. The original image is of the upper portion of the building. Starting at the third floor there is a cantilevered outside corner section of the building that sits within the interior corner formed by two brick walls. You can see this on any street view of the building.
2. The image in this post showing the “correct” sign is actually the spandex over the door on the first floor. The doors are at the first floor and are parallel with one of the two brick walls forming the inside corner. This is the reason you see brick on both sides of the doorway.
3. The photoshopped image of the incorrect sign is the “left” side of the cantilevered exterior corner. There are no signs on this third floor section of the building.
4. The building was expanded in 1982 but the expansion is on the complete opposite side of the building. All of the photos shown in the original and in this post are of the of the original portion of the building.
5. Simply going to Google Earth will allow you to see the street view of the building.
A Genour
I’m sorry, but you’ve been had. Your “original photo” in the update, the one with Waldo, is the photoshop, and quite a bad one at that.

A flip-book style comparison with the original with the mistake will show you how the Waldo photo’s creator has just moved the letters a few pixels to the right – not bothering to retouch elements such as the seam in the panels around the letter “T”. This is the by far biggest tell, and frankly you could stop reading here.

But to go on – you’ll also see how the job is rushed, not bothering to align the subtle textures of the metal around the letters with that of the rest of the panel. Also, Waldo’s addition to a clean photo is simple to perform, whereas removing him while preserving the reflection and detail of the dark space where he once was would require significant skill and time. In fact, calculating the pixel difference between the two images reveals that the difference is a perfect rendition of Waldo, something that would be *extremely* difficult to achieve if Waldo was the subject being removed, as you’d have to *perfectly* remove him, down to the tiniest color and texture subtleties.
I can’t speak to the authenticity of the first photo with the mistake. But I do question the assertion that the update’s “original photo” is of better quality – it is not. The noise pattern or “grain” is almost identical, with the slight addition of JPEG compression artifacts only visible upon a difference comparison and contrast adjustment – I say with confidence that the “original” is sourced from the photo with the mistake. The powers of suggestion are in full force here.
In conclusion, the “update” photo is fake, and Paul L is a dirty dirty liar :)
For the umpteenth time: I’ve always said it was a joke. I’m agnostic about whose joke it is. The original argument was about how it showed how incompetent academics are. I leave the rest of the argument to the tens of thousands of Reddit users who never seem to get enough of this!
A Genour
I see I was not clear enough in my post. I’m not discussing the original case of the “C…OLLEGE” sign, or whether it’s a joke. I’m simply pointing out that the 2015-09-08 update claiming to be an “unaltered original photo” featuring a correctly-spaced sign and a Waldo, is a photoshop fake, created by manipulating the “C…OLLEGE” photo that started all of this. That whole update is incorrect. The poster that gave you that update and photo is having a laugh at your expense, and trolling us all.
For what it’s worth, I’m fairly certain the “C…OLLEGE” photo is real, as suggested by the account in the 2015-09-15 update video by the college in question. And while I suppose it’s possible (although not corroborated by the story in the video) that a photo *could* exist of a correctly-spaced sign, the update photo of 2015-09-08 is certainly not it, as it’s a fake.
Explaining a joke ruins the joke you know. [Not when it isn’t much of a joke to begin with. –FM 6 Feb 2018]
What you are doing is dangerous. I try not to get drawn in. Just the other day, about 2,000 people rushed to this page because another discussion started on Reddit. This happens at least once a month. I could not possibly care less at this point. But apparently, I’m the only one who’s ever cared enough about the subject to lay it all out — twice! Ugh!
Well no one is going to disagree you are a dork. :-) [True –FM 6 Feb 2018]
Bruce Keller
Isn’t it that they added the new brick wall on the left, and it would have covered the ‘C’, so after building the addition, they just stuck on the ‘C’ again, making the joke?
Something along those lines is my theory. As these articles have shown, this picture means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. My interest in it is only that it isn’t the result of bad planning but rather an explicit joke. There are many people who want to believe that it is the result of actual bad planning. I think a lot of that is just people who have a problem with colleges and want to believe the myth of the “educated fool.” Regardless of what happened with the remodel of the building, there were many ways to deal with it. Those in charge decided to make it a joke. Which is great!
Sean R.
I was showing this to a friend and stumbled on this article. I was a student in the building in question. I can tell you 100% the c in College is on the brick wall and not on the metal with the rest of the letters (at least last I have heard from a friend that still lives in Muncie). As for the original post, the first picture is correct (the delivery/side entrance off of Neely Ave.), while the second picture is of the main entrance (off of McKinley).
I can’t comment on whether the C being placed on the brick was a joke or not, as no one in the building or on campus can answer that (I lean towards joke, as the planners on campus have had a lot of fun with the buildings over the years – the aerial view of the library looks like a stack of books, the architecture building looks like a drafting table, the performance hall looks like a piano, etc) I’m sure most people are long past this, just thought I would add a first person account to the mix.
For the right person, it could turn into an obsession. But it’s really very simple for me. I grew up around builders. The letters are a trivial amount of money compared to the remodel, much less the building. But had no one cared, they would have simply cut the “C” off. But for the college of planning? It’s a brilliant joke and object lesson.
The building is genuine. It’s on Clarence Street, York, England. The signage was originally like that, I remember as I passed it twice a day on the bus to and from work. York residents were told that it was a joke by the college. I’m unsure if they have since corrected it as I moved away 6 years ago
In general, I don’t respond to comments on this because I’m so tired of this story. But really?! This is the first I’ve heard of it.

The only reason I wrote about this in the first place was because so many people were claiming that it was just an error. Regardless of where it is and how it came to be, the people involved thought, “This will be funny.”
You are clearly a Big Edu shill. Wake up sheeple!!!1!!

I understand this to mean that my claim that this is a joke is an effort to protect pointed headed intellectuals. You aren’t far wrong; but you are wrong. It is my effort to protect human beings, who are overall pretty smart. Even if it was a mistake, the builders didn’t fix it because they thought it was funny. The original article was based on my experience with other humans — even ones I don’t think that highly of.
In the discussion of this image on reddit before I wrote about it, a lot of people wanted to believe that others were just stupid. I don’t want to live in that world. Lucky for me: I don’t have to. Humans are hardly perfect, but on the whole, not a bad lot. Not a bad lot at all.
James Fillmore

Could just be a joke about the silly word “sheeple.” Which, whenever I hear it, makes me think of the sheep in Aardman animations. Who are quite smart!
Here’s a fun thing I read recently. Mules aren’t stubborn; they’re smart, and have better eyesight/smell than horses. So if a mule sees a path is too treacherous to walk on safely, or smells a pack of predators in an oncoming direction, they’re really hesitant to move. A horse might not smell predators that sharply; they don’t really need to, they can run super fast. Donkeys/mules don’t run fast, so they rely on better smell for a warning sign, and better eyesight to make it into difficult terrain most predators can’t follow.
I came upon a mule fan site just the other day. It was fascinating. Mules also don’t bolt when they get scared. They seem to appraise the situation. They may then bolt. But as a result, people are not nearly as likely to be hurt by a mule. This is one of many reasons why mules are used in the Grand Canyon. They are also far more surefooted. They are also (in my experience) much quieter than donkeys. That’s the one thing I don’t like about donkeys!
James Fillmore
There is a large population of feral donkeys in Custer National Park, in the Black Hills. They are smart and hugely aggressive. They don’t attack people, but they will block roads and surround your car and butt their heads against the window until you roll it down and throw some food out far enough for them to chase it. Smart, annoying SOBs.
I love that! I’d hate to live through it. But I love it.
Came here because the BSU video was referenced in the following article:
I then clicked your link in the comments.
I thought I had missed something when I attended Ball State 2000-2002. I wonder if some of the profs I still know could shed some light on this. I’ll let you know.
As a former BSU architecture student in the 80s I can tell you the sign was in fact cut off when they made the addition to the building. It wasn’t fixed when I graduated in 88. Not sure when they fixed it but at some point they did fix it.
Janus Kane
Just go to Google Maps… the street view shows the sign without error, beneath the overhang where the sign was photoshopped onto.
I don’t mean to dump on your spirits, as I love your rationality… But this took me less than 2 minutes. Pictures for proof in the website field
Clearly, you did something in a previous lifetime that you are now paying for. Man oh Manischevitz…this article is like purgatory for you. lol
Yep. I’m trying to figure out what it is. But it was bad. No doubt about that!
IT IS very cute picture and it made me giggle out loud. Whether it be real or not, can’t we all find at least, some humor in this society? WHY be so darn serious all the time?
It isn’t about being serious, Sonya — at least for me. I just love to analyze things. Although I have to admit that after all this time, I’m pretty bored with this!
But yes, it is funny. And what I think happened is that an administrator said, “Why don’t we do this? It will be funny!” People think of bureaucrats as stodgy. Well, here’s one that wasn’t!
(Being years late to this conversation) I’m with “flip horizontal”, though the “maybe original” image in this post isn’t the same used in the “meme version” being discussed. I did it–flip horizontal, a little rotation–the vertical caulk line at the left, and the odd brick pattern, seem to confirm. If, of course, there is an institution called “Ball State” in the first place ;)
I’m with you! I’m so sick of this article and the question that I wish I had never written it. Every week or so, someone posts it on reddit, and my email box gets filled with passionate arguments that remind me of nothing so much as arguments about JFK’s assassination. I know the subject is interesting. But I swear to God, the world could be on fire and people would still be arguing about whether the photo is real or not. If I weren’t afraid that it would land me in a mental hospital, I’d write a third article taking into consideration what everyone has said — because many people have made good points. But truthfully, I’m far more interested in Bugs Bunny: Rabbit or Hare?

How to Deal With Mental Pain

Jules Shear - The Third Part - This is my darkness now, only I can see in itOne of my very favorite songs is “The Girl’s on Fire.” And my favorite line in it is, “This is my darkness now, only I can see in it.” There’s a lot of meaning in that line.

It’s about pain. It’s about how no one can share your pain. We all lie to ourselves that we are part of a greater whole. But we aren’t. We are alone. We are so alone that most people won’t even allow themselves to think about it. That’s because it is so terrifying.

You Just Can’t Know My Pain, and I Can’t Yours

I spend a lot of my time as I’m waking up thinking about what it will be like to die alone. Since I don’t expect to live long and I am lucky to have a number of friends and family members who care about me, I expect that there will be people around to see me die. But they will only be spectators. It will be like a sporting event. They’ll be watching, but they won’t be on the field — in the game.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of myself as so much an individual that no one can know what it’s like to be me. The fact is, I’m making an argument for us all. There will be no one around who truly understands your pain — or anyone’s.

“This is my darkness now, only I can see in it.” –Jules Shear

Oh certainly, we all know roughly what it is like to be dumped out of a long-term relationship. We know what it’s like to lose a job or something far less ephemeral like a child. We can all watch Love Story and sob when Ali MacGraw dies.

But we don’t know what it’s like for you. Because we aren’t you. Just as you aren’t us. Others can’t see in our Darkness and we can’t see in theirs.

The Pointlessness of Trying to “Cheer Up” Another

This is why people trying to cheer you up always works the opposite as intended. To begin with, even though you know they are trying to be helpful, they’re stealing from you. That pain belongs to you not them. And it’s pathetic too! Because they don’t know what you are feeling.

Words Don’t Help

Indeed, “cheering up” someone usually has the opposite result, because it makes the person feel even more alone. It’s like someone commiserating with you about a dear pet that just died as though you’d just lost a car. Regardless, the only thing that can be said in such a situation is a platitude that you’ve not only heard before, but have probably used. So you feel bad hearing the platitude and you feel bad knowing that you were being equally useless to another friend.

Life is hard. Don’t trivialize it with words. And good God never trivialize it with platitudes. Everyone knows them all. That’s what makes them platitudes.

The Only Relief to Your Pain

What if you can embrace your pain. I mean really do it: love your pain. Then you might have a chance. But that is a hard thing to do. And there is no one who can help you.

Otherwise, your only hope is death. And that’s not so bad. Because it comes to us all. And most of us have control over it. If the pain ever gets too bad you can kill yourself. This is a thought that cheered up Stevie Smith very much. And it cheers me up to.

That doesn’t mean you should do it. In fact, I think most people are wrong when they do it. But it’s nice to know that if things get so bad that you just can take it, you have the option.

Christmas: Everything I Have to Say

President Trump and Third Wife and Similarly Ephemeral Christmas Tree

It’s Christmas, 2017. The Republicans are happy as can be because they learned that even the most moderate members of their caucus can be bought for peanuts. We learned that Susan Collins was willing to deprive 13 million people of healthcare for the promise that the Senate would vote on stabilizing the Obamacare exchanges. But the deal doesn’t apply to the House, so it means… nothing. I don’t think she’s stupid. Like every national-level Republican, she hates everyone except the rich.

In a few months, even she won’t be able to deny that she did extreme damage to the United States of America in exchange for nothing. “Oh, how could her fellow Republicans be so nasty!” But she didn’t make a deal with the Republicans — she made a deal with the Republicans in the Senate. So at best, all this means is that Susan Collins is just stupid. I have no doubt of that. But the bigger issue is that Susan Collins is evil. I really hope there’s a hell and she burns in agony for all eternity. I mean that! But I’d be willing to go with a century.

Susan Collins Is Just a Synecdoche for the Republican Party

I don’t mean to be down on Collins. She’s just a symbol. She’s the “most moderate Republican in the Senate.” And that means she’s just about the most moderate Republican in Washington. Yet if you replaced her in the Senate of 1980, she’d be the most extreme. That’s modern America: we’ve gone off the rails. The Republican Party is crazy. They have control of the country, so the country is crazy.

But I guess we can be forgiven. This is how empires fall. What is interesting is that most people — the power elites especially — don’t think so. They think that the good times will go on forever. But it won’t. It’s like what Bertrand Russell said:

The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.

Yeah, every day it is just great! You fed and pampered and then one day is very different. That’s what will happen to us. There will be a new superpower. And then one after that. And so on and on. Yet the power elite will never learn. They’ll think the party will go on forever. It always has. No one has wringed its neck yet!

Aren’t Humans Better?

I know a lot of you think that humans are better. So do I! The problem is that the people who crave power and money, they are different. They lack empathy. They don’t know or care what it’s like to worry if their children will have enough to eat. They don’t know or care that others live lives of little fulfillment or choice. They don’t care that we are destroying the planet. They just care that their lives are great. And they convince themselves that it is all because they are so great.

At Christmas time, they should think of God. They should imagine that even if they are better — smarter, stronger, harder working — they aren’t that way because they made themselves that way. They are that way because God made them that way — or because of pure chance.

Meanwhile, all the people who learned the lessons of kindergarten — to share and treat others well — they do, at best, so-so. Because we don’t create societies designed to reward nice people; we create societies based on the law of the jungle with a tiny bit of humanity sprinkled on top so that the non-complete psychopaths can live with themselves.

The first Trump Christmas

This is the first Christmas we’ve had with President Donald J Trump. And really: I’m glad. He’s the president we deserve. He’s the president who represents the nation that we built. You know the Revolutionary War? The southern states went with it because they were afraid that if they stayed in the British Empire, they might soon be deprived of their peculiar institution. And northern slave ships might have been deprived of all that sweet, sweet slave money!

“No Taxation Without Representation!” That was just a slogan for the prols. England would give them representation. The Americans didn’t want it because their revolution had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with money.

Putin is right to worry about the United States. We are dangerous and unpredictable. And we don’t care about our own citizens, much less those of other countries. Will we get out of the Trump presidency without a nuclear war? I give it a 50-50 chance.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care. But it’s more that I can’t care. All I see is suffering. And what does our government do? It stops refugees from getting asylum. It lets US citizens struggle after a natural disaster because they speak the wrong language and have the wrong skin color. They are throwing 13 million people off their health insurance so they can give more money to people who are already ridiculously wealthy.

And don’t believe the propaganda! These companies getting tax breaks are going to use the money to further automate their facilities so they can lay-off even more people. And to top it off, they are allowing dead people to give even more money to their kids tax-free. $5.5 million wasn’t enough; now it is double that. And they wanted to get rid of it altogether! It’s just that a few Republicans thought that might look bad. Oh, all those tough choices!

Merry Christmas 2017!

This is why we need Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman and all these other myths. We can’t believe our leaders. Remember when Trump ran as a populist and then filled his cabinet with people from Goldman Sachs? Remember when he said his tax bill would cost him a fortune? It is estimated that it will make him $15 million extra every year! And his family will be similarly enriched.

I don’t know what to tell you. Certainly, it is true that Trump supporters would still love him if he jabbed them in their eyes with a dagger. Republicans, of course, think that in February, people will see they have more money and be thrilled with Trump. But Obama gave middle and lower-income people a bigger tax reduction. When asked about it in November — after they had had it for almost a year — over half of them said their taxes were the same. More people said their taxes had gone up than people who said (rightly) that their taxes had gone down.

So the good news is that in the 2018 elections, the Republicans are likely to get slaughtered. My only hope is that this lasts to 2020, and that the Democrats get complete control of Washington and fix all the damage the Republicans have caused.

I don’t want anything for Christmas in 2017, 2018, or 2019. In 2020, I want to see professional politicians who actually care about America and Americans back in power. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t know what we are going to do.

But if a group of people can mess this up, it is the American people. Thus far, they seem to understand that the Republicans are destroying this country. They are right. I hope they keep remembering this. Because I love this country. And I don’t want to see it destroyed so Donald Trump and his friends can get even richer.

Did you see this cabinet meeting where everyone tells Trump how great he is? This is what authoritarians do. This is not something I ever thought I would see in my country.

A Great Christmas Breakfast

There was this little cafe in Cotati, California that used to serve this thing they called Grandma’s Eggs. My first wife and I really liked it. But over the years as I got more into cooking, I saw that it had many problems.

First, the potatoes in it were cut too large. And they were fried and not usually cooked enough. So I’m going to explain to you the proper way to make this delicious breakfast dish. It also has the advantage of being fast to make.

The Potatoes

The first thing you must do is get a couple of good russet potato and clean them as much as you think is necessary. I personally think that as a culture, we are way too hygienic. You don’t need to clean everything so much. That includes your bodies. Geez, people, give it a rest. There are only a few parts of the body that are really disgusting. And most people don’t clean them very well because they are disgusting. The anus is disgusting. The bellybutton is disgusting. Women seem to do a very good job on their vaginas. Men don’t tend to do as good a job on their penises. It’s no wonder most women don’t like giving blowjobs. And here’s something most men won’t admit to: blowjobs aren’t very pleasurable. Men seem to like them because women tend not to like to give them. I’ve talked to a lot of men, and mostly they don’t much like them. On the other hand, most men find a nice clean vagina a source of endless erotic enjoyment.

Where was I? Oh yes, potatoes. Cut the potatoes up into squares of about 3/8″ to 1/2″. Then put them in a microwave-safe dish and pour a little olice oil on them. Then mix. The reason for this is to stop the cut potato parts from sticking together. Cook them on high for about 4 minutes. Then take them out, mix them again, and cook for another 4 minutes.

Now this is tricky because the bowl will get very hot. What I usually do is to use two bowls. Transfirst the first cooked set into a second bowl.

Fry the Potatoes and Onions

Add about 2 tablespoons of butter to a skillet and then heat to the point where the potatoes are in that position where it really is hard not to eat them. while they lightly fry, get a small onion out and dice it. Add it to the potatoes. Then spice with about a half teaspoon of salt and an eighth a teaspoon of pepper. Cook until delightful.

In a separate mixing bowl, crack 5-6 eggs. Or 7. Or 8. I think it’s better for more eggs. But you don’t want it to overwhelm the potatoes and onions.

Finishing Up

Now you just cook it until the eggs are solidified. And serve. It’s delicious. Really.

It’s the perfect example of how you just can’t go wrong with a dish of good ingredients. You can add other things too. Throw in some frozen peas or corn. Add anything else that you think will make it more delicious. You can also add grated cheese, but I really do think that’s a bit much. But sliced mushrooms? Can’t go wrong there! Whatever you like.

Left Overs

It is almost always the case that I make more potatoes than I need. So you can just put the extras in a container and use it for a future batch of Grandma’s Eggs. After you make the recipe a few times, you’ll get a good idea of how much potato you need for your guests.

I’m not planning to show up for Christmas until about noon. So I’ll make enough for me and not worrying about the rest of the clan.

My plan for the day is to make myself some wonderful Grandma’s Eggs, and then drink quite a lot more than I need to. All the difficult stuff has already been cooked. But I’d be fine eating Grandma’s Eggs for dinner. It’s delicious.

It goes really well with a bagel or an English muffin. But then I’m going to have to go on a diet. I’ve gotten so fat! It’s amazing! I didn’t think I was capable of putting on this much weight. It’s a good thing that I really don’t care anymore!

What follows is what I have written on previous Christmases when I didn’t even think something like this was possible.

–FM (25 December 2017)

The First Secular Christmas

Merry Secular ChristmasSince I first started this blog, I have been creating posts for Christmas. I am, of course, an atheist. But I love Christmas. I love any opportunity I have to cook for large groups. So what follows will include a lot of stuff about food, but also material that will appeal to anyone who likes Christmas in a secular way.

I agreed to make dinner for five on Christmas day—not so much because I wanted to, but because I wanted to have prime rib for dinner. It turned out to be twelve people, but the bigger problem was that I created a four-course menu and had a wholly unsatisfactory kitchen. It was stressful and the results were so-so; but it worked. Many thanks go out to Brian Pricer for his amazing taste buds and invaluable help

Ceasar Salad

For this I used a standard recipe that I mostly ripped off from a magazine without a cover. I’ve made it before, but this time it was utterly disappointing. This can be attributed to the fact that I used a tube of anchovy paste instead of making my own. Learn from my mistakes: always make your own anchovy paste. I don’t like making anchovy paste; the smell of the anchovies makes me gag, but this is a small price to pay for an acceptable Ceasar.

Cream of Tomato Soup

This may seem like an odd choice, but I thought it was a nice link between the salad and the main course—maybe because I love cream of tomato soup and have been searching for the perfect recipe for the last fifteen years and this represented an excellent opportunity to experiment. For me, this was the high point of the meal. The previous day, I made the recipe and it wasn’t so good. I made a few changes—a big one from Brian—and it made all the difference. Here is the recipe. It is based upon an idea from Cooks Dot Com to use cream cheese rather than heavy cream. (Actually, it had a fair bit of heavy cream too; I can’t help myself.)

Main Course

I am too suceptible to the opinions of others—at least it comes to cooking. As a result, the prime rib (11 pounds!) ended up being over-cooked by about a half-hour. It was still very good; you can’t really make a prime rib that doesn’t taste delicious.

With the beef, I made an artery-clotting Asiago and Sage Scalloped Potatoes using an online recipe (it has errors in it, so if you try it, study it first and figure out how you will deal with them). It was very good, but it really needed more cooking time. In general, I prefer to have scalloped potatoes twice baked; I should have done that this time.

Finally, there were Julienne of Fresh Snow Peas and Carrots. I started with another online recipe, but my early experiments did not inspire. In the end, I added a little ginger (I like ginger a lot) and replaced the olive oil with grape seed oil (another suggestion of Brian’s). The grape seed oil made all the difference; it was great.


For dessert, I had planned to make a cheese cake. Brian stepped up, however, and did the dessert for me. He made a cheese cake that was not exactly to my liking; I think mine is better, but it was still delicious; you can’t go wrong with four pounds of cream cheese and a pound of sugar, right? But he also made a pumpkin pie that also included two other squashes. It was by far the best pumpkin pie I have ever tasted. It was amazing. I will get that recipe if I can and post it here.

In the end, at least it was an interesting dinner. And I didn’t have to eat turkey. And I learned a bit about managing a large dinner. And then I collapsed.

–FM (29 December 2009)

Merry Secular Christmas: The Second

For those who dread this day, but have nothing like cooking to distract you, I provide a few diversions.

Some Talks

First, there is Robert M. Price interviewing Tom Flynn on Point of Inquiry:

You may be alone, but you are not alone!

And last, to lift your spirits even more, here is Rebecca Watson at Skepticon 3, giving her talk How to Ruin Christmas:

Christmas Carols

I’ve put together three Christmas Anti-Carols in a YouTube playlist. First is Porn Orchid channeling Tom Waits and Bauhaus with a cheery ditty (Oh! Give me a noose I can hang from the tree!), Christmas Sucks. Then we have the real Tom Waits with Christmas Card From a Hooker. And last is Eric Idle’s Fuck Christmas, with lyrics so you can sing along!


I will spare you Frosty the Pervert, but you can check it out yourself if you like. I will just leave you with The Distressed Watcher‘s rant An Atheist Christmas: Reason For The Season:

–FM (25 December 2010)

Positively Christmas

As we celebrate Christmas, the family has been listening to a local station playing holiday oriented songs. And then on came Bob Dylan doing one of the Christmas classics, Positively 4th Street. You can’t get enough bitterness and anger during the holidays. Merry fucking Christmas!

What Christmas is All About

My friend Will really loves this bit from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Or at least he did. I used to like it too. Now, I see it for what it is: Charles Schulz cramming his religion down my throat. He even repeats the damned speech in voice over! If you look back at his comic strip, he threw a lot of Christian mythology into it. To each his own. But I do think it is heavy-handed.

Of course, Schulz lost his faith and died more or less an atheist. Because he wasn’t an idiot.

It’s Not a Wonderful Life

James StewartThe following parody of It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t all that funny. But I include it for personal reasons. You see, I’m a big Frank Capra fan. It Happened One Night is one of my very favorite films. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Lost Horizon are both excellent films.

But I can’t stand James Stewart. How he became a star, I’ll never know. His minor role in Philadelphia Story almost ruins the film, but even he can’t destroy something with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. But without a doubt the film he most completely destroys is It’s a Wonderful Life. Of course, even I have to admit that the film also suffers from Capra’s own excesses.

So any time someone parodies the film, I’m for it. Regarding this SNL parody: it has more real human emotion than the actual film.

Give the Jew Girl Toys

In my long standing commitment to ruining every holiday, here is Sarah Silverman performing Give The Jew Girl Toys:

–FM (25 December 2012)

I’m Mysterious, Folks — Live With It

Keeping MumChristmas would not be complete without a little thought about God. And this gives me the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that I am an atheist and why few other atheists believe that I am.

In the following amusing scene from Keeping Mum, Reverend Goodfellow quotes from Isaiah 55:8, about the mysteriousness of God. I’ll give you a bit more than he does. It’s from the Old Testament. What’s more, it is rather older than other Old Testament books we know and love like Leviticus. Like most of the entire Bible, but especially the Old Testament, Isaiah is not what it purports to be. It was written by at least three different people over the course of 200 years. What we are looking at comes from around 600 BC, and is an excellent example of what a jerk God is:

[8] “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
[9] “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

Here’s the clip. It is Rowan Atkinson. You’ll enjoy it, I promise. Consider it a gift to me:

But Goodfellow’s take on it is correct: “I’m mysterious, folks. Live with it.” Of course, the whole anthropomorphizing of God is silly. But in a broader context, it is how one must live if one thinks about these things. I suppose that most people are too busy or just plain reasonable to worry about such cosmic unanswerable questions. But this is why I say that the best theists are better than the best atheists, even though I am most clearly an atheist. Goodfellow understands that there are no answers, but he values the question. By saying that God is mysterious, he isn’t providing the tired platitude, “God behaves in mysterious ways.” It isn’t apologia; it is acceptance.

Now Goodfellow probably thinks that God loves him. I don’t know; I haven’t seen the movie (but it looks good). But given the observation—”I’m mysterious, folks.”—and the quote from Isaiah, it is meaningless to claim that God loves you. How would you possibly know? God is unfathomable. But I think, despite everything, we have to look at the universe(s) and think that it is a great privilege to have existed. And if someone wants to call that “God’s love,” I have no problem.

Personally, I have a hard time ascribing any kind of motivation to the universe(s). And if there is a motive, I am far too humble (And if you read me, you know that I am not humble!) to think that I am the result of that motivation. If the universe has a purpose, I am a byproduct. And that’s fine. Regardless, I am blessed. I have grace. And now you know, why none of the other atheists want to let me join in their atheist games.

Merry Christmas or whatever!

Sam Seder’s War on Christmas

Sam SederFrom year’s ago, it is still a classic: Sam Seder’s battle with Bob Knight about the War on Christmas. (It’s embedded below.) Seder is hilarious in this segment. But the more serious thing here is that Knight actually claims that, “The war on Christmas is really the culmination of a war on faith.” Look, I’m pretty hard on atheists around here, but at least they are a minority group that is by and large despised in this country. They have real reasons for feeling marginalized. But Christians? According to Wikipedia, between 73% and 80% of Americans call themselves Christians. The fact that they play this victimization game is appalling. It is also shameful. I don’t think that Christians, without prodding from “leaders” like Bob Knight and Bill O’Reilly, would ever think there was a war on Christmas. Christians are allowed to celebrate the holiday any way they want.

I discussed this last year in, Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas. The issue is not that Christians are being harmed in any way. It is that their religion is so powerful in this country, that they feel persecuted when the entire society doesn’t rise up and say, “But we understand that, unlike all those other religions, your religion is true.” And this kind of thing coming from a huge majority is simple bullying. As I wrote:

Another aspect of this is the use of majority status to silence the minority. The argument goes something like this, “Most people in the United States are Christians, so why not just say, ‘Merry Christmas’?” This would be a strong argument if anyone were avoiding a discussion of the holiday. But “Happy Holidays” does not exclude Christmas, while “Merry Christmas” does exclude others. The truth is that minority groups are, for a number of good reasons, insecure. So if anyone is unhappy it ought to be the Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and so on. With almost 80% of Americans being Christians, what do they have to worry about?

The whole issue is made worse because the very Christians who hate “Happy Holidays” want to “put the Christ back in Christmas!” This creates a problem for those of us who think that Christmas is a secular holiday having nothing to do with religion. (I’ll discuss this later today.) We have no problem with “Merry Christmas” because it is just that federal holiday when you are expected to give everyone gifts and cook a lot of food. But if somehow people manage to turn Christmas into a religious holiday, then we will have a problem with “Merry Christmas.”

And really, if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t want atheists going around saying, “Merry Christmas!” I would think that was profane. Ditto for corporate retailers trying to suck up to Christian customers. But as I have noted many times before, most Christians talking in public are idiots. I don’t think for an instant that Bill O’Reilly speaks for the Catholic Church. He’s a “Catholic” because he was raised a Catholic. His religion, like those of most of the people you hear talking about this, is money.

There is no war on Christmas. There is no war on faith. That is psychotic delusion talk. And shame on any news organization that takes it seriously. Sam Seder takes it exactly as seriously as it deserves:

A Brief History of Santa

St. NicholasThe great CGP Grey put the following video together two years ago this Christmas. It is “A Brief History of Santa.” Now I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the video, but in general, Grey has his facts together. So if it is wrong, I’m sure it’s just stuff around the edges. The main thing in this that I know is true (And important!) is that Santa Claus has basically no real connection to the fourth century Greek Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. And as anthropologist have long known, he (Just like Jesus if he walked the earth) was not white. That’s him there over on the left.

So enjoy and learn how we got Santa Claus as we now find him, including interesting facts about where he is supposed to live:

Special Christmas Birthday Bonus

JesusOn this day in 0 AD, Jesus was born. I tell ya, that one never stops cracking me up! According to scholars who are inclined to believe the Bible, Jesus is thought to have been born between 7 and 2 BC. And where the data 25 December comes from is open to debate. By around the start of the fourth century, the Church was just using the date without any real justification. Of course, because of gradual changes in the earth’s orbit, the actual date ought to have been slowly changed to some time in January. According the Wikipedia, “The date of Christmas may have initially been chosen to correspond with the day exactly nine months after early Christians believed Jesus to have been conceived, or with one or more ancient polytheistic festivals that occurred near southern solstice…” In other words, it’s a mess.

But this much is very interesting to me: there is a whole academic industry devoted to trying to tweeze history out of a clearly (and purely) religious text. And then people say things like, “Hey, Luke and Matthew agree on this point!” Like Luke and Matthew aren’t based on either the Q document or Luke based on Matthew itself. It’s all so silly. I’m with Robert Price: maybe Jesus was a real guy, but by this point, he has been so papered over with myth that there is nothing left of the historical figure. If you are a believer, you’ll just have to wait until you get to heaven. If you aren’t a believer, I think you should just place Jesus in the same category as Thor. And by that I don’t mean that Jesus doesn’t exist and isn’t God. I just mean that Jesus is some God that some people believe in now, or once believed in. The historicity question is nothing more than intellectual masturbation.

Bottom line: if Jesus was an actual man, there is roughly a one in 365.25 chance that he was born today. And who really cares? It’s an excuse for a party.


I do wish that Christians would stop getting upset about the use of Xmas. It is an abbreviation that goes back at least a thousand years. The X is just the closest that we have in English to the Greek letter Chi, which early Christians used as an abbreviation for “Christ.” Unfortunately, as in most things, it is the people with the most ignorant of ideas who are the loudest.

–FM (25 December 2013)

Christmas Music Doesn’t Have to Suck

Christmas MusicI had wanted to put together some music for Christmas. But you know: music that doesn’t suck. This is a lot harder a chore than it sounds like. The truth is that most traditional Christmas music really is terrible. And I don’t say that out of some desire to be iconoclastic. Part of it is just that I really do have a low opinion of Perry Como. But I will admit that most of it is simply the fact that I’m just really, really bored with it.

Another problem is that most Christmas music is not organic. At some point in a star’s career, someone who worries about money says, “It’s time to release a Christmas album.” The star doesn’t understand why at first, but as soon as it is explained, he is on board. Everyone likes free money!

But despite the fact that most Christmas music is primarily about money (Fitting!) and tired, there are some songs that I like. Let’s start with a classic, “Blue Christmas” by Elvis. I just like his affected singing. Plus, it’s just a love song with some clever lyrics:

“Santa Baby” is a silly song. But Eartha Kitt is wonderful:

You know, there was a kind of “new wave” music that didn’t suck. Mostly, it was when they didn’t take themselves seriously and didn’t use synths. That’s why Tom Tom Club was better than the first Talking Heads album. And that why one of the most enduring Christmas songs is The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” “Christmas Wrapping”:

I’m sure there are others, but I don’t have time for a bunch of research or reflection. Ultimately, I think the best thing for Christmas is just to put on some great music regardless. But thus far this holiday season, I’ve been forced to turn off Bill Evans and Jacques Brel. But personally, I think that Mozart is very festive:

I hope you have a Merry Christmas, even if the music sucks all day long!

Avoiding Christmas Conflict

Christmas DinnerAre you wondering how you are going to get through this holiday season without killing your family members? Last year, I offered up a little advice, Pigeons and Politics. It was a little serious guidance from my years of both having reasonable political discussions and having ones that came to blows. Ultimately, the best thing to do is to avoid everything except maybe, “How about them Ravens?!” That is unfortunately as far as I can go. One of the best moments in The Birdcage was where Armand says, “How do you feel about that call today?” to Albert as they practice not being gay. Albert responds, “How do you think I feel? Betrayed, bewildered… wrong response?” But the truth is that Armand doesn’t know any more than Albert.

Luckily, The Onion offered up some helpful advice, Avoiding Family Conflict During the Holiday Season. Much of it is just amusing like, “Try to end thousands of years of entrenched prejudices before flying home and talking about current events.” Or: “Avoid anything that could trigger fights, like a history of family depression.” Or even: “Change name. Start new life.”

That last one is part of a broader category of actually useful advice. For example, “Split potentially huge family blowouts into smaller, more manageable bickering matches over the course of the holiday season.” Or: “Ensure each family member has their own table at which to eat dinner.” But most of all, there is this rather too detailed plan for the day:

If you become frustrated during the festivities, consider going for a walk to the end of the driveway, continuing on for half an hour, reaching the town limits, entering a train station, buying the first available ticket, arriving in a town called Rockport, heading to the edge of the ocean, and just screaming.

Some of them, however, are just hysterically funny (not that the last one wasn’t). Consider, “Take the time to consider things from your brother-in-law’s point of view so you can fully appreciate how f**king stupid his perspective is.” Or: “Make yourself appear larger than you are around your father-in-law by standing up on your hind legs and puffing out your chest.” But my favorite sounds like something I’ve experienced, “Encourage family members to seek personal space when they need it by telling them the front door’s right f**king there anytime they want to use it.”

I hope this helps to make your holiday experience better. And if not: there’s always the train.

The Reason for the Season Is a Myth

The Human BibleThe idea is that the canonical and non-canonical gospels are none of them biographies in the modern sense. Some were simply collections of sayings attributed to Jesus or stories about Jesus, some of them allegorical, some legendary, few historical. Others were attempts to write for Jesus the sort of literary and edifying biography then written about certain great Greco-Roman figures like Pytha­goras and Apollonius of Tyana. But these, too, were far from what the modern scholar would consider to be historical.

Thus the work of the student of the historical Jesus is rather like looking for a historical needle in a legendary haystack. There is little to find, and it is not easy to find even that. Even so, some scholars have done a passable job reconstructing possible versions of the historical Jesus. Some paint him as a peasant revolutionist, violent or non-violent. Others make him a magician. Some an apocalyptic prophet, others a wandering sage.

And of course some of these Jesus-constructs are combinable. Each is a “historical Jesus” in that each is a viable product of the science of historical reconstruction. The trouble is, there is really no way of knowing how close to the real thing any of these reconstructions has come. And there never will be until someone smarter than us New Testament scholars invents a time machine.

The “historical Jesus” in the sense of “Jesus as he really was,” must remain, I am convinced, unknown to us. Thus it is fair, though admittedly a bit clever, to say that whether or not there was a historical Jesus, there is no longer. That is, even assum­ing Jesus of Nazareth to have been a historical character who actually lived, we have no access to him and never will.

—Robert M Price
The Christ Myth and the Christian Goddess

–FM (25 December 2014)

Chris Blattman and Social Purpose of Gift Giving

Chris BlattmanChris Blattman is a political scientist at Columbia University. He wrote an interesting article this last week, The True Meaning of Christmas. I came upon it through a link at Economist’s View, and so I figured that it was going to be about the meaning of Christmas being commerce. It is good for the economy, as I note when I’m forced to drop by Target and I see that there are literally ten times as many people shopping as normal. But that wasn’t Blattman’s point at all. It’s rather the opposite.

Tim Harford: In Praise of Scrooge

Last week in FT Magazine, Tim Harford wrote, In Praise of Scrooge. It starts with the questionable claim that misers make the rest of us richer. While I accept that’s true if we had limited resources, it seems to me that misers (or people who burn money) are limiting economic flow and thus keeping most people poorer. But that’s not the main part of his article. He’s interested in the deadweight loss of Christmas: the fact that a lot of money is spent on stuff the recipient doesn’t want. Again, I’m not sure that matters at the macroscale. It doesn’t really matter what all those people at Target are buying so long as they are buying something.

Chris Blatman’s Response

“Giving gifts also creates inequalities, very much on purpose. These gifts quietly say, ‘I did something nice for you. Now we’ll see if you pay me back and how. I’m watching and waiting.'” —Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman responded to this by noting that gift giving really isn’t about economic efficiency but rather cultural signaling. Clearly, that signaling can itself be economic as when the rich give to the poor. (Did you think that the Gateses gave all that money without getting something priceless in exchange?) But on the other side Blattman noted, “Think about gift exchange between relative equals. Cash would be pointless. I’d give you $50 and you give me $50. What would be the use of that?” Indeed, there is no use in doing that, and gift exchanges between equals must have to do with something else.

But think about that for a moment. Christmas really is good for the economy. But the most efficient system, by Tim Harford’s thinking, would be if we did no giving whatsoever. Or, to take Blattman’s example, if I gave my sister fifty bucks and she gave it back to me. This would clearly result in less economic activity. There would be fewer jobs. We would be in a state of constant recession. Now, from an environmental standpoint, that might not be bad. But given that our modern economy is based upon consumption and more consumption, we might want to work out how all of this would affect the working class before we call off the practice of holiday gift giving.

Gift Giving as Emotional Negotiation

The way gift giving really works is summed up by Chris Blattman this way, “Giving gifts also creates inequalities, very much on purpose. These gifts quietly say, ‘I did something nice for you. Now we’ll see if you pay me back and how. I’m watching and waiting.'” Now, he claims this sounds cynical, but I don’t think it does. People are constantly appraising their relationships. That’s all this is. It isn’t about wanting to make good on your financial investment, but on your emotional investment.

Gift giving is about that dance that characterizes our relationships. We are all still that teenager pulling off flower petals, “She loves me… She loves me not…” Gifts allow us to signal that we care. And it allows millions of people to have jobs in the winter that they wouldn’t normally have. It’s a winning custom for the whole of society.

Odds and Ends From Christmas 2015

Odds and EndsMerry Christmas everyone! As you read this, I will probably be suitably toasted as I serve dinner to my family. But in Christmases past, I’ve written some rather interesting articles about the holiday and I want to share them with you. There are also other odds and ends that aren’t as directly related to me. It’s all quite interesting I think.

The Little Drummer Boy

I remember Christmas shows like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. I’ve seen them so many times, I have them largely memorized. But I have only the vaguest of memory of the other big Rankin/Bass Productions Christmas show, The Little Drummer Boy. It’s possible I blocked it out. I found the following video through Paul Bibeau’s article, The Five Most Traumatic Christmas Special Moments. It is a video with Jane Edith Wilson reading her essay about how The Little Drummer Boy scarred her. It’s very funny:

A Brief Political Interlude

This is too good. I often like Bill Maher. But when it comes to Muslims, he’s a flat-out racist. And that makes him a complete apologist for all kinds of vile government action. Mostly, he finds himself in the company of people who won’t battle with him. But this exchange with Glenn Greenwald is fantastic. Maher tries to extricate himself by mumbling, “That silly liberal view that all religions are alike because it makes you feel good.” Greenwald will have none of it. He comes right back with, “No, it makes you feel good to say our side is better… You get to ignore the responsibility that your own government has for the violence and instability in the world by saying, ‘Look! It’s that primitive religion over there that’s the blame!'” Exactly. Maher just “knows” that the problem is Islam, even though the closest he’s ever come to the religion is hosting Sam Harris.

La Luna

Okay, this has nothing to do with Christmas, but somehow, I think it fits. It is an animated short by Enrico Casarosa called, La Luna. It’s wonderful:

Pasty White Guy Gets Cool Gift

Danger, Will Robinson! Very large picture of dumpy old white guy ahead!

The cool things about friends is that they know things about you. Yesterday, Will stopped by to drop off a Christmas gift to me. I knew that he had bought me a t-shirt and I figured it was something with Bernie Sanders on it. But no. It was a Gil Scott-Heron t-shirt, “Must be something we can do.”

And Will bought it before my Gil Scott-Heron week. Anyway, it is one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. To prove it, I’m providing this embarrassing (And blurry!) picture of myself:

Frank in Gil Scott-Heron T-Shirt

The Santa Claus Conspiracy

As regular readers know, I think Paul Bibeau is one of the great treasures of the modern world. I still find it amazing that he isn’t a big star. But there is a quote told to struggling artists, “If you wonder why you aren’t successful even though your work is great, that may be the reason.” For most artists, that’s not true. But in Bibeau’s case it probably is. If he were half as smart and half as talented, he probably would be a star.

Back in 2012 he wrote, The Truth About Santa Claus. It is about the uncoordinated conspiracy of parents to play Santa. But in keeping with the undeniable fact that if you scratch a cynic you will uncover an emotional marshmallow, he wrote this:

And the heart of it is this: that we are here to love one another. That our most important job is to help the people around us build a life in this world. That the best we can ever hope to accomplish in our short time here is to someday be someone’s happy memory. Parents know this. And so do couples and friends and anyone holding anyone else’s hand under our shared and difficult circumstances.

As an emotional marshmallow myself: I agree.

Bob’s Burgers

And let’s finish off with the most recent Bob’s Burgers Christmas episode, “Nice-Capades.” It will only be around for another month, so you should watch it. Now. Trust me: your family will love it! (For the record, this includes one of the best jokes ever. After the mall Santa says, “You just kicked Santa out of the massage chair,” Gene says, “Isn’t that a song?” That’s brilliant.)

[Note: you have to pay for this now that Hulu has figured out that they are such idiots they can’t make money streaming a 22 minute show peppered with 7 minutes of commercials. -FM]

That’s it for now! Have a wonderful Christmas and try to be someone’s happy memory!

–FM (25 December 2015)

A Merry Christmas for Edwards and MacLiammóir

Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóirOnce filming was complete, MacLiammóir, Edwards, and Cloutier were flown first to Marseilles, en route — as they believed — for Morocco again; but instead of North Africa, they were transported to the idyllic artists’ colony at Saint-Paul-de-Vence in Provence, where they were greeted gloomily by Welles, who immediately set off for Paris. A few days later they joined him there. No explanation was ever offered for any of these bewildering peregrinations. Their lives had turned into a major-key rehash of Waiting for Godot, with a dash of Kafka — major key because they were excellently fed and watered and the locations were all charming, but the sense of disorientation was acute. They were beginning to doubt whether they would see Dublin that Christmas: “feel sure that Orson has plans for large Christmas tree in marketplace at Mogador, entertainment probably to include brief but startling appearance of O himself as Santa Claus.” As if in defiance of the chaotic reality, Welles made a public announcement that Othello had completed filming and that he would soon be starting work on Ulysses, which was certainly putting a brave face on things.

The truth of the matter was that he was increasingly anxious about money; his last earnings had been in April, on The Black Rose. With no handy $100,000 on offer from a passing blockbuster, he had started to think in terms of a theater tour, to kick off in Paris and then to play such centers as Brussels, Antwerp, Lille, and Amsterdam. It would consist of a double bill comprising The Importance of Being Earnest (slightly cut) and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (savagely cut). Edwards would direct Earnest and play Canon Chasuble and Marlowe’s Prologue; Welles would direct Faustus and play Algernon Moncrieff and Faustus; while MacLiammóir would play Jack Worthing and Mephistopheles, having by now presumably accepted that villainy was well within his range. Suzanne Cloutier would play Cecily and — “poor child,” remarks MacLiammóir — Helen of Troy, while Fay Compton, if they could get her back, would be Lady Bracknell. They would ask Dior to design the costumes and André Derain to do the set. Of course they would.

After a few more days of ebullient planning, still at the stage where everything seems possible — Dior? pourquoi pas? Derain? mais naturellement — Edwards and MacLiammóir gratefully returned, just in time for Christmas, to Dublin, where a card from Welles was waiting for them: “Miss you badly already and hope for wonderful things in New Year.” There were affectionate phone calls on Christmas Day, but no certainty as to what was going to happen next. Welles wrote to them from the Hotel Lancaster in Paris, by no means encouragingly: “As 1949 prepared to die of old age I want to acknowledge that I’ve made it pretty awful for both of you. Come what may (and it probably will) you deserve to know how earnestly I’m going to balance the budget before next Christmas…” But then, in the New Year, something wonderful happened, just as Welles had hoped: the French-Algerian financier/producer Edmond Tenoudji of Films Marceau came through with 12 million francs in exchange for the French distribution rights, so filming could resume.

–Simon Callow
Orson Welles, Volume 3: One-Man Band

Odds and Ends From Christmas 2016

Odds and EndsAnother Christmas. It’s a little interesting to mix Christmas and death. Better would be Easter and death. But whatever. Christmas is just an excuse to cook. But we now have a baby, Hector, who is the result of a US-Mexico collaboration. And I think it is very important that he grow up bilingual. So I bought him books on colors and shapes that are in both English and Spanish. And I got him a “first” Spanish-English dictionary.

But most of all, I got a Spanish translation of Are You My Mother?, ¿Eres Mi Mamá? The great thing about it is that it is properly translated. Many years ago, I got a Spanish-English edition of Green Eggs and Ham, and the Spanish was literally translated — no rhyming or anything. But check out how ¿Eres Mi Mamá?

La mamá pajarito
empollaba un huevito.

Anyway, let’s get on with our odds and ends…

The Reason for the Season

I remember whenever we would visit my aunt at Christmas she would make some statement about remembering the “reason for the season.” She, like most of the people on my mom’s side of the family, is a conservative Christian. And so the “reason” is Jesus and his miraculous birth. It’s kind of funny. My aunt is a nice person and all, but like most people in my family, she’s not educated. The Christmas story is so obviously fable! How can adults believe it? Even if you are a serious Christian, you have to admit that this is nonsense! And really: Easter is what the the religion is all about. Jesus’ birth means nothing.

The Historical Jesus

I like this quote from Robert M Price in The Christ Myth and the Christian Goddess:

The idea is that the canonical and non-canonical gospels are none of them biographies in the modern sense. Some were simply collections of sayings attributed to Jesus or stories about Jesus, some of them allegorical, some legendary, few historical. Others were attempts to write for Jesus the sort of literary and edifying biography then written about certain great Greco-Roman figures like Pytha­goras and Apollonius of Tyana. But these, too, were far from what the modern scholar would consider to be historical…

The “historical Jesus” in the sense of “Jesus as he really was,” must remain, I am convinced, unknown to us. Thus it is fair, though admittedly a bit clever, to say that whether or not there was a historical Jesus, there is no longer. That is, even assum­ing Jesus of Nazareth to have been a historical character who actually lived, we have no access to him and never will.

Any reason for a party, but let’s not start setting people on fire.

The Trouble with Transporters

I’ve written about the Star Trek transporter a few times before. In particular, Using a Teleporter Is Suicide! And then more recently, More on Teleporters: It’s Murder! You know I feel strongly about something when I write two articles about it and each title ends with an exclamation mark.

CGP Grey dealt with the subject in the following video. It’s good. And it is easier than reading my articles. But he doesn’t touch on what is really the most important issue, which is that we die every instant (or at least each Planck time — roughly ten to the negative 43rd power[1]). Consciousness itself is a lie. But that’s kind of a downer, and CGP Grey tries to stay upbeat.

Checking in With the Belchers

It wouldn’t be a Christmas post without a short word about Bob’s Burgers. Although I have to say that the show now has some competition. Bob’s Burgers really is the show of my life growing up. But Rick and Morty is more the show of my life now. I’ll explain that later. (Maybe I already have.)

This year’s Christmas episode was, “The Last Gingerbread House on the Left.” In it, Linda, Teddy, and the kids go caroling, while Bob gets drawn into yet another of Mr Fischoeder’s crazy adventures. The whole thing reminded me of my last few years of college.

Christmas Caroling

I spent a lot of time with Andrea and her then husband Eric. Eric was a very good person to have around because he always had ideas for things to do. So in those years, the three of us — and a number of other friends — often found ourselves doing stuff that was, all and all, pretty cool.

There were two things that Eric wanted to do that we never did. The first was to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m so glad we never did that, because I did not then know that my acrophobia was so extreme that I couldn’t have made it more than a couple of feet onto the bridge.

The other was that we should all go caroling. I liked that idea. But Bob’s Burgers shows what happens when people who can’t sing go caroling. It isn’t a gift you give to others; it is a gift you demand of others. And that isn’t really so bad — as long as you leave after one song. And if you can’t remember more than a couple of lines, so much the better.

Fairytale of New York

As I noted before, there are good Christmas songs. James reminded me of “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl. You probably know of MacColl because of her heroic death. It’s a wonderful song.

A History of Christmas

Several years back, R Elisabeth Cornwell wrote, A Very Atheist Christmas. And she takes on the issue of the supposed hypocrisy of atheists celebrating Christmas:

Some Christians have accused me of being hypocritical for celebrating a Christian holiday. However… celebrations are a natural part of human culture, and Christians simply appropriated local celebrations to suit their own peculiar beliefs. Christmas is only “Christian” because ancient winter pagan celebrations were incorporated by the Church.

The Christmas tree, which became a part of English and American tradition through German influence is a recent tradition. The English took on the German tradition of the Christmas Tree during the Victorian era under the influence of Prince Albert. Americans, on the other hand, were likely influenced by the Prussians during the American Revolution as well as the many German immigrants who came to the fledgling nation. But evergreens have been part of human celebrations at least as far back as the Egyptians as a symbol of the triumph of life over death…

Christmas belongs to anyone who wants it, and just because I gave up believing in a god doesn’t mean I gave up believing in the love and joy of family. I did not give up the joy of celebration with my abandonment of the absurd. So to my religious and non-religious friends, I wish them all a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah from the heart and I hope they take it with the true spirit with which I give it — that of the spirt of humanity — something we can all celebrate.

Merry Christmas!

And that seems like a very nice place to end this special edition of Odds and Ends. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas. If for no other reason, Christmas gives us all one more reason to be less of a dick than we usually are.

Ho ho ho!

[1] Roughly: 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000054 seconds.

–FM (25 December 2016)

Al Franken’s Shame and Evil’s Gain

Al FrankenI watched Al Franken’s resignation speech on Thursday. It was broadcast live on local news here in Saint Paul. My wife watched the last half of it with me. Like me, she’d been an ardent Franken supporter before he was accused repeatedly of sexual misconduct. The speech seemed sincere, and Franken appeared to be fighting back tears through most of it. He did not admit to abusive sexual behavior, yet he affirmed how all such accusations must be taken seriously.

When his speech ended, my wife said, “At least he didn’t make his wife stand behind him.” And this is true. By announcing live on the Senate floor, Franken avoided using her as a prop, the way so many politicians do at press conferences when pleading innocent to similar charges. (Frannie Franklin was in the gallery, along with the Senator’s soon-to-be-unemployed staff.)

The contradiction was jarring. Here is someone who obviously respects his wife enough not to make her publicly bear his disgrace. And yet his disgrace centered around accounts of demeaning women. Franken’s political service itself remains a contradiction. He was a great Senator for Minnesota, and a good one for America. Yet his personal failings resulted in our losing a key progressive voice, who could work easily with both wings of the Democratic Party, right when such figures are needed the most. His fall almost feels like an abandonment — even if it was deserved.

Did Franken Deserve It?

In his speech, Al Franken pointed out the irony of his resignation when Republicans are backing politicians accused of far worse — one of whom was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.

In his speech, Al Franken pointed out the irony of his resignation when Republicans are backing politicians accused of far worse — one of whom was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. Feminist writers such as Dahlia Lithwick and Ramona Grigg have defended him to some degree. They have argued that, given such a vast degree of difference between the criminality involved in these accusations, Franken’s resignation represents a gift to the forces of evil.

Make no mistake, Franken’s ouster is the GOP’s gain. There are several highly principled and intelligent individuals Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton can appoint to fill Franken’s seat. (My favorite is apparently not on Dayton’s shortlist.) Yet none would be able to match Franken’s legislative influence. (That’s particularly so as the appointment will only last until next November when a special election will be held.)

However, those accusations — if true — indicate a kind of behavior that cannot be tolerated in any workplace.

Was Franken Guilty?

This is, of course, the pertinent question. The opinions of people in Minnesota are varied. Some believe it’s all slander. Others believe he’s probably gotten away with worse. My opinion is, “I don’t know what happened.”

Eyewitness testimony is, as we know, an unreliable form of evidence. Human memory isn’t that good. And that’s just the beginning. It’s entirely possible that Franken’s alleged groping behavior at photo shoots was accidental. It’s harder to believe the instances of forced kissing were accidents.

The Guardian quoted Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist. He said, “I didn’t know of any of these accusations but he’s a very self-confident person who thinks of himself as special. With some of the accusations you see that: what he felt was being goofy or having his way was clearly unacceptable.”

Self-Confidence or Harassment?

I could see that being the case. Al Franken, after all, got away with books titled Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and his anti-Fox News Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Those titles were meant to be provocative, and they were. (Unlike similarly-provocative titles “written” by right-wingers, Franken used fact-checkers.) Also, Franken spent years working at Saturday Night Live, described as having a backstage environment where “everyone hates everyone else and is jealous of everyone’s success.”

Where Franken Came From

If you can thrive in the vicious worlds of political polemics and a Lorne Michaels program, you may very well become accustomed to getting away with Alpha behavior that less competitive people rarely display. I’ve had jobs where I was extremely valuable, and I knew it. At that time, I got into heated arguments about how correct my plans were. I cringe now to remember this behavior. I’d hopefully never talk to a colleague like that today.

But no matter the degree of gray areas in accusations against Franken, I believe it was time for him to go.

The Perils Of A Persona

Some politicians (LBJ, any mayor of Chicago) present themselves as tough guys who “know the game.” Consummate insiders. They don’t expect voters to approve of them personally. Instead, they promise to deliver policies the voters want enacted. And they remind us about how the sausage gets made.

That was not Al Franken’s style.

He claims to have had no interest in politics before the death of (still beloved) Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone in a plane crash in 2002. Franken said he was particularly incensed by Wellstone’s successor, Norm Coleman, a career opportunist who told one reporter “I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.” He said it while waving a cigar — the very picture of DC corruption.

Al Franken’s Rise

Franken beat Coleman by a handful of votes. But he took office and established a reputation as one of the hardest working, most dedicated liberals in Congress. He frequently toured every last corner of Minnesota, holding town halls even in non-election years. He made nice with local Democratic Party insiders who’d tried their hardest to defeat his primary nomination. When in Washington, Franken would post, on his website, hours where he’d be having coffee in publicly-accessible Senate spaces. If you were in town, you were welcome to join him.

Al Franken’s image was one of absolute political integrity. He was in office, not for power, not to secure some board membership once he’d delivered favors to donors, but to serve his constituents. He was re-elected by a far larger margin. Even some conservative Minnesotans who disagreed with his politics believed in his sincerity.

And so, once the sexual accusations began to accumulate, Franken’s shine was tarnished. (His first, most famous accuser originally said she forgave him; had that been the only instance, he wouldn’t be stepping down.) Even if his statements about “I remember the incident differently” were 100% honest, they sounded exactly like what any other politician would say. Al Franken wasn’t supposed to be like any other politician; he was supposed to be something different.

Come Back, Shane

I bought it. And I’d enjoyed Franken ever since his days on the old Bill Maher program Politically Incorrect. (You remember: back when Maher was willing to let his guests do most of the talking.) I’d heard his radio show; I’d read his books. And Norm Coleman was (And still is!) human slime — your typical ex-liberal who switched sides when it became convenient. He ran one ad which featured an honest-to-God cancer kid; it would have made Elvis Costello sick.

A Personal Recollection of Franken

The man aspiring to good ruined, perhaps deservedly so. The man wallowing in evil triumphant, and certainly not deservedly so.

At the time of Franken’s first campaign, I was working at a residential facility for adults with disabilities. We took all of them to the State Fair, as every Minnesotan except me loves the State Fair. We went very, very early in the morning — 6:00 am! — because the crowds are thinner that early, and pushing wheelchairs is difficult in a big crowd.

At one point, we ran into Franken. We were taking a break — it was still early, but we needed coffee — and I spotted Franken similarly caffeine-ing up a few feet away with his wife. I walked over; he looked exhausted. “Hi, I’m sorry to bug you,” I said, “but this guy I know over there is a big politics junkie, and if you could just take a picture…”

Now, that individual isn’t just a politics junkie (which he is, he’ll watch city council meetings on public-access cable), but one of the most outgoing souls I’ve ever known. Half the time he looks like he’s about to die of pure old age right there in his wheelchair. Then he meets someone he’s happy to see, and his whole face glows with joy.

Al Franken came over, got the Joy Face at full strength, and you could see Franken’s spirits lift. A corncob tasting at some unholy hour on a Sunday morning, that’s the drag of campaigning, but the good moments — they’re worth it.

The picture of them together still hangs in that person’s room. When frustration or physical pain or low pay was getting me down at work, sometimes I’d go look at that picture, and remember one time when my feeble efforts helped make someone very happy.

Tarnished Memories

And now that memory is partially ruined.

As is the memory of how much my wife enjoyed listening to Franken’s last book, Giant Of The Senate on CD. She particularly liked Franken talking about how, in that 2008 campaign, his adult children asked him if the opposition would dig anything up they needed to know — and Franken said no, their family was safe from that shame.

The day after my wife finished that book, the first accusations came out. Her response was very angry and straightforward, “He lied to his family.”

The Scum Also Rises

So, quite likely through faults of his own, Al Franken is gone. While worse certainly remain, and worse certainly served a full career without any accountability for their darkest behavior.

Bob Packwood

In 1995, I was living in Oregon, during the forced resignation of senator Bob “The Tongue” Packwood. (He not only was accused of worse than Franken, he kept a diary about it.) A GOP congressman who pressured Packwood to resign later said, “we had a choice: Retain the Senate seat or retain our honor. We chose honor, and never looked back.” That was Mitch McConnell, current Senate majority leader and apologist for Donald Trump and Roy Moore. Honor, indeed.

Norm Coleman

Our old friend, Norm Coleman? He’s doing great! He became a lobbyist, naturally, serving all kinds of wonderful clients, including a stint pimping for Saudi Arabia. Now he’s chairman of a Israeli lobbying group (show me the money, honey!) which shared on their website Coleman’s bliss over Trump announcing that America would no longer recognize Palestinian claims on Jerusalem as a historic capital. “No more false news,” Coleman was quoted. (Lord, he can’t even get his dogwhistle catchphrases right.)

Sheldon Adelson

This group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, is funded by scumbucket Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. They threw an exclusive gala at the Trump International Hotel in DC Thursday night. What a glorious day for Coleman; knowing how lushly he’s been rewarded for stooping so low, and how disgraced his old opponent was, who tried to behave with such dignity.

Aspirations Aren’t Enough

The man aspiring to good ruined, perhaps deservedly so. The man wallowing in evil triumphant, and certainly not deservedly so. I’ve always liked to believe this recurrent American story would someday change. But I am considerably less hopeful about the possibility than when I used to look at that smiling Al Franken State Fair picture.

Notable Female Intellectuals

This is a compilation of a four-article series that I unfortunately titled “Beautiful, Intelligent, and Learned.” But I rarely talked about the beauty aspect of it. It wasn’t generally my intent for beauty to be seen as physical beauty. I only wanted to feature women who were doing work that improved the world. A better word would have been “grace,” but I feel certain that would have been as misunderstood too.

I have long gotten into trouble by using idiosyncratic language. (Usually, the words I used were exact in their definitions, but I was using less-common definitions.) If I say I have a crush on Kory Stamper, it means I want to discuss grammar with her over tea, not that I want to date or have sex with her. You will notice in the Kory Stamper article that I also refer to having a crush on Peter Sokolowski, and have never been particularly attracted to men in a sexual way.

I’ll think I can leave it at that. If people read all my work, they will certainly understand. That’s especially true given that I’ve been very open about my vow of celibacy eight years ago. (Friends will note that wasn’t a huge sacrifice given that I’ve never been much interested in sex.)

Salima Ikram

Female Intellectuals: Salima Ikram

Ladies and gentlemen: Salima Ikram. She is professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. So in addition to being really smart and learned, she’s really cool. I discovered her on a mediocre documentary Egyptian Secrets of the Afterlife.

Originally Published: 13 October 2011

Melissa Harris-Perry

Female Intellectuals: Melissa Harris-PerryLadies and gentlemen: Melissa Harris-Perry.

I know her from MSNBC news shows where she is often an analyst and sometimes a guest anchor. And as I’ve stated before, I wasn’t that taken with her at first. But like many things (from movies to food to people), those I like best I often started out by not liking.

She was on The Last Word last night. As I watched highlights of the show, I was impressed, as usual, by the historical context she put current events into (in this case, Herman Cain’s sexual harassment problems). I was impressed, as usual, by her insights into these events (in this case, she noted that the sexual harassment charges may actually improve Cain’s standing with Republican primary voters).

Dr Harris-Perry is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University and the author of such books as Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

Originally Published: 1 November 2011

Barbara J Fields

Female Intellectuals: Barbara J FieldsWhen I first watched Ken Burns: The Civil War 20 years ago, like most people, I was very taken with Shelby Foote’s southern charm and great storytelling. But this last week when I watched the series again I was blown away by Barbara J Fields, the historian at Columbia University. She speaks more incisively about the Civil War than anyone else when it comes to its broader meaning. Certainly, Foote is still the best when talking about the war on the micro-scale — about individuals caught up in it. But I’m not really interested in that anymore. In that way, the war was a catastrophe. It is only in the broader context that all that suffering means something.

In Her Own Words

Here is Fields talking about exactly that:

I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until we, today, have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner said once that history is not “was” it’s “is.” And what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is in the present as well as the past. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes and a lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say there’s no such thing as slavery, we’re all citizens. But if we’re all citizens, then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and regrettably, it can still be lost.

I’d never thought about this, but we are at war with each other. And this is why the claims of Romney that raising the top tax rate is “class warfare” are so offensive. There is a class war in this country, but it isn’t found there. But then, I don’t suspect that Romney and his ilk see many homeless people.

Barbara Fields is a great intellectual. And is also a very compassionate person.

Originally Published: 9 May 2012


In 2011, Fields gave a speech at the 150th anniversary of the South Carolina Low-country Sesquicentennial Observance. Unfortunately, I can’t embed it. But you can see it on C-SPAN.

Originally Published: 9 May 2012


I have come to see Ken Burns: The Civil War as a fundamentally racist documentary. I don’t think that Ken Burns is any more racist than I am or than pretty much any American white person is, and a majority of American blacks. It’s almost impossible not to have to deal with subconscious racist thoughts bubbling up from time to time when we live in a society that is based on racism and still is so overwhelmingly racist. But a big chunk of the racism in The Civil War comes from Foote and the way that he completely removed slavery from his narrative of the war. It was just “War Is Hell!” from him. And again, I don’t think he was especially racist. But it’s people like him who keep the poison flowing.

Two years ago, I wrote an anniversity post for the Thirteenth Amendment. And I still think this is true and sadly sums up so much of what is wrong in this country:

I keep remembering this line from Ken Burns: The Civil War. When poor southern soldiers were asked why they were fighting, they replied that it was because the northern soldiers were there. Well, first: they weren’t northern soldiers, but the soldiers of all of them. Second: isn’t that typical that the elites could convince poor southern whites to fight and die for an institution that doubtless made them poorer than they would have been?
Originally Published: 8 December 2017

Elizabeth Warren

Female Intellectuals: Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren has been on my mind for a long time. I think most people know that she’s a Harvard Law School professor, an expert at bankruptcy law, and the reason we have the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — something so good it makes Republicans apoplectic. And, of course, everyone knows that she’s running for the Senate in Massachusetts against Scott Brown. If she loses it will greatly reduce my opinion of that fine state.

What most strikes me about Warren is her combination of erudition and empathy. Even after this evil political campaign, she still radiates sensitivity — especially compared to the plastic Mr Brown.

A week and a half ago, one of Bill Maher’s “New Rules” was that “Elizabeth Warren has to stop dressing like the ‘before’ woman in a beer ad.” It is a funny line. But it is hardly fair. For one thing, I think that Warren is very attractive. But more to the point, what does Bill Maher (at 56 years old) want? He mostly dates women who are in their twenties. (Note: well below the creepy line.) Warren is 63. And I think she has more important things to do than worry about what 20-year-old boys (and Bill Maher) think of her looks.

Originally Published: 16 September 2012


The the most recent poll shows Warren ahead of Brown by 6 points. It’s too early to tell, but this is good news.

Originally Published: 17 September 2012

Thanksgiving 2017

ThanksgivingAs you may have noticed, I’m consolidating articles. A big part of this is Google. They will give me a lot more credit for one 10,000 word article than 20 500 word articles. That’s what I did for my Christmas posts. I will create a whole new post on Christmas that includes the old posts and then I won’t have any old articles on the subject of Christmas itself. (I’ll still have articles about specific issues that relate to Christmas, however.)

I’m doing the same thing for Thanksgiving. This is really hard, because work is a nightmare around Thanksgiving because of Black Friday and something you may not even know exists, Cyber Monday. So this Monday I worked 11 hours. Tuesday, I worked only 9 hours — but just because I was too exhausted to go on.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s one of the few times of the year that I get to cook for a large collection of people.

This year, we are having a ham and tri-tip. That’s all very easy. I’m responsible for the tri-tip as well as pretty much all the side dishes: green bean casserole, potatoes au gratin, macaroni and cheese, and strawberry cupcakes with vanilla frosting. I was going to make a cheesecake, but I decided that I was going to make something for myself instead. So cupcakes it is! Also: cheesecake takes a long time to make. The truth is that nothing on my list is all that time-consuming.

The Serious Business of Thanksgiving

Most of my writing about Thanksgiving is historical, however. I’m very interested in the European invasion of America. Mostly, the Europeans acted very badly. But even when they didn’t, they brought so many diseases that it didn’t matter.

Check out this great video by CGP Grey, Americapox: The Missing Plague:

So much of what follows will be along these lines.

–FM (23 November 2017)

Thanksgiving Without Cynicism

Peanuts ThanksgivingWell folks, I’m pushing today. There is so much to do. First, I have to write my normal stuff for today. And then I have to write at least my morning stuff for tomorrow. And, I have all this cooking today. As usual, I’m going to my older sister’s place for Thanksgiving. I’m not in charge of cooking. But I’m still bringing: my au gratin potatoes, which are now kind of a staple that no family gathering can be without; my absolutely great macaroni and cheese; the great mushroom quiche from The New Moosewood Cookbook; and a pumpkin pie, which I have never made before and I don’t vouch for. All of this is a good deal more complicated than you might imagine. The macaroni and cheese in particular, takes a long time; it is very complex. Really, I can’t stress this enough: it is fantastic.

But here’s the thing that I think you can probably tell from that last paragraph. I am really looking forward to this holiday. In fact, I keep thinking that it is Christmas. And in fact, it pretty much is for me. The only difference is that I give the kids money and try to lobby everyone beforehand to not buy presents. Otherwise, it is an opportunity to cook for a bunch of very grateful people. And it is an opportunity to hang out with my family.

Everyone in my family is about as annoying as I am. We are imperfect people. Yet on holidays, it all seems very much like a game to me. Mostly it is just one long tease, but very good natured. And we laugh a lot because it just doesn’t take much to get us to laugh. We are the sort of people who laugh at stand-up comedians performing in an empty bar on a Tuesday night with a blizzard outside. And the only one who has strong opinions about things is me. I, of course, have strong opinions on everything. But I keep them to myself.

Speaking of lobbying, I successfully lobbied against turkey this year. Other than on sandwiches, I don’t see the point of eating turkey. Ever. But on special occasions, I really don’t understand. What is special about turkey? It’s just a really big chicken with less tasty meat. My preference is to have prime rib. And the cost is basically the same! We aren’t having it tomorrow, however. For one thing, it is a pain to cook. I’m willing to do it, but I’m not cooking. So we are having tri-tip. Why? I don’t know. It just is the case that my brother-in-law likes to cook it and he does a good job of it. So I’m sure it will be delicious — especially with my side dishes!

Does this mean that tomorrow there will not be the usual “Frank tries to destroy your holiday” post? Not at all, although I have to admit that I don’t have any idea what I’m going to write. But holidays are very disruptive of my work. This week has been really difficult. And then Friday, the libraries are closed. There is no national political news except the turkey pardon. (That give me an idea for an anti-Thanksgiving post!) But overall: family, food, and some excellent alcohol (I’m still deciding). It really doesn’t get much better.


And before someone says something: yes, my expectations have gone down over the years…

–FM (27 November 2013)

The Myths of Thanksgiving

Indian SkeletonJohn Green is an internet phenom. He and his brother Hank make highly produced videos that seem that be educational while being very entertaining. But if you watch them enough, you’ll come to see that they are neither. Or maybe it’s just me. If I already understand the subject, then I can follow along and see that they are in fact hitting the high points. If I don’t already understand, I might pick up one or two things, but I end up wishing that I had spent the time reading Wikipedia. As for entertainment value, let’s just say that John Green is a one trick pony who gets old fast. (In fairness, I can put up with Hank a lot longer.)

But now and then, a John Green video is just what the doctor ordered. And I’m desperately looking for things to post on this Thanksgiving Day. I figured that he would have something interesting to say about the history of the day. Surprisingly, he didn’t. But he did make the following hodgepodge video about the European colonization of America. It all goes by rather fast and I can’t help but think that at this point he isn’t trying very hard. It is more schtick than anything else. Still, it’s kind of fun and interesting in as much as it make sense:

The most interesting thing about the whole Thanksgiving story is the ex-slave Squanto, who is probably the only reason any of the Plymouth colonists survived. Something that I don’t think is highlighted enough is that only half of the people who came over were Pilgrims. Included in their cargo was beer and opium. And most of all: the Pilgrims weren’t searching for religious freedom. They had religious freedom in Holland, but it wasn’t going well. Many of the older members of the congregation were going back to England and the children were leaving to start new lives. Moving to the new world was their way of surviving as a going concern. That’s fine, but I get really tired of the happy horseshit about the brave Pilgrims coming to America in search of religious freedom.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of Christians trying to claim Thanksgiving as a religious holiday. Where does that come from? Even the standard story they tell to children doesn’t indicate that. The Native Americans saved the colonists from all starving to death. So to pay them back, they had a big old party with turkey. To me this says that the colonists were gracious, but clearly the natives are the heroes — you know, the pagan natives. In retrospect, they’ve got to have regretted that.

I like to think of it happening like this:

–FM (28 November 2013)

Capitalism, Productivity, and Thanksgiving

Peanuts ThanksgivingHappy Thanksgiving everyone! It is actually a holiday that I kind of like. That’s because it is just about eating. I think we could use more holidays like this. In fact, as time has gone on, I’ve become more fond of holidays. The reason is simple: the oligarchs are trying to destroy the very idea of holidays. Americans work far too much. We need to take more time off. Part of our economic problems come from the fact that those who do have jobs work a lot, leaving an unreasonable number of people with no work at all.

In other countries, the people have chosen to exchange increasing productivity for more leisure time. This makes sense. But Americans have not in general made that decision. They’ve taken all of the increased productivity in a higher standard of living. I think that is likely not an actual choice. In the United States, not “living to work” is seen as a moral failing. But at some point, the “family values” crowd might consider what is better: being able to afford a better television and iPhone or being able to spend more time with their kids?

Of course, for the last four decades, American workers haven’t traded their productivity gains for either more leisure or a higher standard of living. All those productivity gains have gone to the owners of capital. The whole social contract in America has broken down. And I’ve been waiting for decades for the people to do something about it. But they seem too busy just trying to make ends meet to do anything else.

In addition to this, conservatives have gotten really good at defining as “normal” and “moral” the current system that enriches the powerful at the expense of the weak. It reminds me of Newspeak in 1984. The idea of the language was to make it so that people weren’t even able to think heretical thoughts. The very idea of freedom would be gone from people’s minds. I run into people all the time who are poor but somehow think that the capitalist system is God given. We have embraced capitalism in the past because it worked — for both owners and workers. Now it has stopped working for the vast majority of people. But capitalism is embraced for ideological reasons rather than practical ones. And that is evident in the fact that most workers don’t think that capitalism has to prove itself. Capitalism never fails — it is only failed.

So on this Thanksgiving, I hope that you did not have to work. What’s more, I hope that you took care of all your shopping before today so that you don’t have to go down to Safeway to pick something up. All that does is convince our corporate masters that everything must be open on Thanksgiving. But most of all, I hope you don’t sneak down to one of those horrible pre-Black-Friday sales. Trust me: you don’t need all that crap anyway.

Enjoy Thanksgiving! We may not have it much longer.

Thanksgiving Poetry

Thanksgiving TurkeyI figured there must be some fun Thanksgiving poetry out in the big world. And I was sadly disappointed. That’s not to say there isn’t such poetry. It is just that the vast majority of what I found was pretty lame. But I did find a decent amount of stuff that tickled me — at least a little.

One website, You Can Be Funny, had Funny Thanksgiving Poems. There are basically just two things that the poems discuss. One is the fact that people eat a lot on Thanksgiving. The other — and main — category consists of those that discuss the fate of the turkey. Here is a typical, but better than average, example:

Turkey, Turkey, look at you
Please be careful what you do.
Thanksgiving day is almost here.
We eat turkey every year.
Go and hide out in the woods.
We’ll eat pizza like we should.

Better is a poem by Jane-Ann Heitmueller, “Reprieve.” It is the turkey equivalent of Poe’s “The Raven.” It is a little funny, but mostly it is profound. Thanksgiving is always a good time to think about death:

While sauntering down an oak filled lane one bright, crisp autumn day,
I sensed a quiet, hidden gaze directed in my way.
With searching eyes I scanned the limbs to find the Peeping Tom,
And sure enough, though well concealed, the turkey sat… so calm.

Apparently, ’twas in his heart approaching Turkey Day,
So he was hidden with the hope to be nobody’s prey.
I couldn’t help but sympathize, as I went strolling by,
And know I too would be in fear thinking I soon might die!

Striking a pose of nonchalance, my pace, I kept it steady,
Deciding this Thanksgiving Day—
My meal would be spaghetti.

Will and Guy’s Humor (“Funny Clean Jokes”!) provides some very sentimental poems, but we must have one poem about food in general:

May your stuffing be tasty
May your turkey plump,
May your potatoes and gravy
Have nary a lump.
May your yams be delicious
And your pies take the prize,
And may your Thanksgiving dinner
Stay off your thighs!

Let’s end with a couple of more sophisticated poems from MadKane. This first one is from one of her limerick competitions. She asked people to write one about eating. And as always, she provided her own example:

A man was attempting to eat
When he spotted a mouse near his seat.
So he smashed down his foot,
And the mouse went kaput,
As his kid cried, “You killed little Pete!”

And then there is this Thanksgiving limerick from 2012 when Washington was approaching the “Fiscal Cliff”:

It’s time for some serious talk.
Please don’t bitch or complain, and don’t balk.
Our issues are great—
Act before it’s too late.
So kindly talk turkey. Don’t squawk.

Just to show you how beneficent I am, I have decided to not leave you with a poem. But I could totally create a poem using turkey, perky, quirky, murky, and beef jerky.

–FM (27 November 2014)

Morning Comedy: Thanksgiving

PortlandiaThis week is Thanksgiving. When I was a kid, I didn’t think much of it as a holiday. Now, it is one of my favorites because it is an excuse to cook in a very ostentatious manner. Of course, I’m spending this Thanksgiving with my younger sister who is kind of a vegetarian, so I won’t be doing a prime rib. Instead, it will be a couple of very nicely treated chickens. So I thought that we would do a week of Thanksgiving songs.

But given that at the moment I don’t know how many Thanksgiving songs there are, I figured I would hedge and start the week out with this sketch from Portlandia. I’m pretty sure someone mentioned this to me recently in the comments. And frankly, I’m very pleased whenever I’m able to rip off one of my readers for an article.

This is a very funny sketch that speaks both to the over-concern of many people about animals and also my odd love of chickens. Because, frankly, I’d love to see one chicken with its wing around another chicken.

–FM (22 November 2015)

AskForgiveness Day

It is Thanksgiving. And given that this post will go up at 11:05 am local time, I should already be cooking and, more important, drinking. But as I write this, it is days earlier and I am sober. So let me tell you a little about the Thanksgiving celebration. Don’t get me wrong: any excuse for a party. And our society is sorely lacking in rituals that bring people together. So that’s great. You should enjoy this day. And you should give thanks, because if you are able to read this, it probably means that your life isn’t too bad. But that doesn’t give an excuse to the bastards who run the world.

Anyway, I came upon an interesting article at Indian Country Today Media Network, Six Thanksgiving Myths, Share Them With Someone You Know. It wasn’t like I was shocked or anything. But I did learn a great deal. One thing I did not learn, but that is very important is that the Wampanoag and Pilgrims were not all that friendly. In fact, the Pilgrims had chosen a former Wampanoag settlement. The tribe had abandoned it because previous European traders had caused an outbreak of plague that killed as many as two-thirds of the roughly 100,000 Wampanoag people who lived in 69 villages. Of course, it wasn’t just the plague; traders also kidnapped tribesmen and sold them into slavery.

What I did not know is that the Indians and the Pilgrims seem to have gotten together because the latter group were acting like typical American idiots. They were happy about harvest, so they were shooting off guns and cannons. “The Wampanoag chief and 90 warriors made their way to the settlement in full warrior mode — in response to the gunfire.” Since the Pilgims were vastly outnumbered, I guess they figured they should invite the concerned warriors to hang out and eat.

But the most interesting thing is that this didn’t become a regular event. The original meal took place in 1621. But there were no similar celebrations for more than a decade. In 1636, a white man was murdered. Now, usually, that means he was murdered by another white man. That’s the kind of thing that happens. If you look at the statistics in modern America: whites kill whites and blacks kill blacks and so on. But the Pilgims blamed another local tribe, the Pequot people. So in retaliation, the good Christian Pilgrims massacred them — burning many of them alive and killing many others by different methods. It is this massacre that the Pilgrims started celebrating each year:

The day after the massacre, William Bradford who was also the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote that from that day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots and “For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”

Apparently, Thanksgiving didn’t become the G-rated celebration of how super-keen things were between the Pilgrims and the Indians until the Civil War, when Lincoln used it to try to united the nation. And it is a nice story! But it should be treated like Santa Claus: a nice story, but not the truth. This nation has never come to terms with its treatment of the hundreds of native tribes. Maybe we should rename this holiday AskForgiveness Day.

–FM (26 November 2015)

Thanksgiving 2016

I do like Thanksgiving in the sense that I like cooking and I like eating. But it’s hard to get past the mythology of the holiday. You know what I’m talking about: the Wampanoag and Pilgrims getting along and singing Kumbaya. One day out of hundreds of years and we pick up on it. The reason is clear enough: our European ancestors were awful. And the room that I write this in — much less the house that I will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner in — is the result of straight-up theft, combined with unthinkable acts of cruelty and murder.

That’s not to say that the hundreds of American tribes were perfect people. I don’t buy into the noble savage myth either. Humans are, all things considered, pretty awful. But when the first Americans came here, they weren’t invading; they were settling. And they ended up with a diverse system of cultures. Most important, they interacted very much like the countries of Europe: sometimes they got along and sometimes they didn’t. It’s sad to say that today, most people just assume it was one or the other. Either these original Americans were peace-loving peyote eaters. Or they were constantly at war with each other.

The truth is that the first Americans were just people — like any others. When Europeans invaded, they won because they had more firepower. And by “firepower,” I’m talking more about disease than guns. Cortés didn’t manage to destroy the Aztec empire by his brilliance. It’s just that all his men, coming from disease infested Europe managed to wipe out 90 percent of Moctezuma’s troops by breathing on them. This, of course, was typical of meetings between Europeans and Americans.

European Invasion

I’ll discussed this below, AskForgiveness Day. I note that, “The Pilgrims had chosen a former Wampanoag settlement. The tribe had abandoned it because previous European traders had caused an outbreak of plague that killed as many as two-thirds of the roughly 100,000 Wampanoag people who lived in 69 villages.” But don’t get the wrong idea; it wasn’t just inadvertent death and destruction. Those earlier Europeans kidnapped many Wampanoag people and sold them into slavery. You should read the whole thing; it’s got some other nice tidbits of information that are worth thinking about today.

It isn’t my intent to beat up on the Europeans. As I said: humans are awful. But the whole European invasion of America always makes me think of a platitude from my youth, “Might doesn’t make right.” But unlike most platitudes, this one is so obviously wrong. Might indeed makes right. If it didn’t, certainly all our presidents going back to at least Ronald Reagan would have been hanged for war crimes. And does anyone think but that Churchill would have been tried and hanged if the Nazis had won World War II?

Hard Truths

We humans try to avoid hard truths. So we come up with fairy tales to justify why we are rich and others are dead. But fairy tales are for children. After a while, we tell children that Santa Claus is a fable. But we never get around to admitting that the Thanksgiving story is equally one.

–FM (24 November 2016)

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