Author Archives: admin

American fraud: University Assessment

I used to teach at a major University. I don’t anymore. I was once tenured faculty; I’m not anymore, for health reasons. I miss teaching, I miss interacting with sharp kids. And I miss good colleagues who became good friends. And I find that old habits die hard. Nothing I do now is governed by the academic calendar, but I am still aware of that calendar, and I do think ‘today, I would be meeting new students, yesterday would have been filled with department meetings.’ And that’s the part of university life that I don’t miss at all. Meetings, and especially meetings about university assessment.

‘Assessment’ essentially describes the way professors determine whether or not students are learning anything in their classes. At least, that’s the idea; to describe it so reasonably essentially involves slathering huge quantities of lipstick on some fabulously ugly pigs. We’re supposed to decide what ‘learning outcomes’ we expect from our students. We then devise ‘assessment instruments (or ‘rubrics’), and measure outcomes. And then adjust our teaching in response to those findings. Numbers are good. If you can prove that ‘learning outcomes’ are being achieved, and can prove it statistically, that’s the holy grail. The powers that be want evidence based educational improvement.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a terrific article by Erik Gilbert. In case you don’t want to bother with the link, he says that his kids are heading off to college, and as they prepared to make that important decision, he realized that he didn’t care about their assessment programs:

My lack of curiosity about assessment when making an important choice about my children’s education probably surprises no one, but it should. It’s unsurprising in that no one, higher-ed insider or not, ever seems to worry about this when choosing a college. No admissions officer ever touted his institution’s assessment results. No parent ever exclaimed, “Suzy just got into Prestigious College X. I hear they are just nailing their student learning outcomes!”

Gilbert then continues to describe his experience with assessment:

Every year on my annual productivity report I write a mandatory and usually somewhat contrived narrative describing the ways in which I have changed my courses and teaching in response to the assessment data from the previous year. As an administrator, I sit on the Learning Outcomes Assessment Committee. . . .

So, what does it say that I looked at climbing walls, not assessments, when making a significant and expensive decision about my sons’ educations? It says that I, like virtually everyone else, don’t think that good assessment makes good universities and well-educated students or that bad assessment makes bad universities and poorly educated students. In fact, I am starting to wonder if assessment may actually do more harm than good.

Bingo.

The dirty little secret of higher education is that assessment–which involves a huge expenditure of time and resources–is essentially worthless, if not actually harmful. The key, in fact, is the line ‘mandatory and somewhat contrived narrative.’ Because he’s trying to be fair and balanced and reasonable, he understates: the narrative of assessment is essentially fraudulent.

I admit that my views on this subject are extreme. When assessment was presented to us in various department and college faculty meetings, I made an obnoxious pest of myself by asking, repeatedly, why we were wasting time with this ridiculous nonsense. That phrase, ‘ridiculous nonsense,’ led to a meeting with a Higher Administrator. Who admitted that, of course assessment was worthless. But we had to do it, so stop rocking the boat. Which I did. To the dismay of many many colleagues, who privately told me that my anti-assessment tirades were both entertaining and spot-on, so please don’t stop.

What never happened, though, not once, not ever, was any attempt to sell the program on its merits. If, for example, some trusted senior colleagues had spoken, talked about how valuable assessment had been to them, how much their teaching had improved; if any respected figure in higher education had ever once offered a testimonial, I think we might have been better disposed towards it. Never happened. Instead it was the worst kind of top-down management; you are doing this, period, so shut up.

Anyway. I taught playwriting. Here’s how you teach playwriting. You have students write plays. They read them aloud in class, and you lead a discussion, offering feedback. The students are asked to re-write their plays. A couple of weeks later, we read the re-write, offer more feedback. Repeat as necessary. Then, if possible, produce the play.

“But how can you know, how can you demonstrate, that the plays have actually improved, that the feedback really did help?” This from a senior assessment administrator. “What rubric can you devise to assess your method?” And this is what she suggested. Contact all the other college playwriting teachers in the state. Send them my students’ plays; get them to send me their students’ plays in response. Come up with a form, breaking plays down into different categories: characters, structure, dialogue, stagecraft/theatricality. Assign points to each play in each category. Everyone reads everyone’s students’ plays, and all assess them according to these criteria. If a play’s first draft scores a 30, and the rewrite scores a 45, then the feedback you offered was helpful.

I came out of that meeting greatly discouraged. Essentially, I would need to read four times as many student plays as I was already reading, and so would my friends at other schools. We were talking about a prodigious amount of work, all to prove what? That plays improve when they’re re-written?

Then, it occurred to me, that I had two alternatives. I could do all that, send bundles of plays off to colleagues at four other universities, do all that reading and assign all those numbers. Or I could just take ten minutes some afternoon and make up a bunch of numbers.

Guess which one I did.

Everyone did. I had another colleague who taught a beginning theory class. The students had various units in which they learned about various kinds of critical theory, and how to apply those theories to play texts: feminist theory, post-colonialism, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on. It was a terrific class, wonderfully taught by an energetic and imaginative colleague. The main assessment tool was a series of critical essays the students were expected to write at the end of each unit, applying the theory to the assigned play. Anyway, I was asked to be one of the assessors for that class, reading a ton of essays and assigning points in various categories: clear thesis, strong use of evidence, coherent argument, etc.

Here’s what we learned, and could prove (with numbers!). Some students were really into theory, and others much less so. Some students wrote really well, other students didn’t particularly. If a student didn’t like theory very much, and didn’t write very well, she could still work hard and do well in the class; this professor gave great feedback on the written work, with room for students to redraft.

So that’s what we learned. Obvious stuff that we already knew. Also, we learned, that the colleague teaching the class was really good at it. We knew that too. The next semester, I’ll admit, we kind of blew off all that reading. Making up numbers was way easier.

To be fair, the Chronicle also allowed someone to rebut Gilbert’s article, and Joan Hawthorne’s response is passionate and well written. It’s an administrator’s response, and describes the heady early years of assessment, a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, insisting that what professors professed was more important than what students learned. I don’t buy it. The straw man she sets ablaze is certainly flammable, but no, there never was a time when professors didn’t care if students learned the material in their classes. I can say that with some confidence; my father, grandmother and aunt were all university professors.

At this point, I think the burden of proof is on assessment, not on its detractors. If assessment is so terrific, why have no faculty, anywhere, defended it? Why isn’t the literature replete with anecdotal evidence, with ‘I thought I was a good teacher, but assessment opened my eyes’ testimonials? Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that administrators and compliance officers are keeping assessment’s dessicated remains breathing because doing so justifies their bloated salaries and ever-expanding numbers? Why do I see this as analogous to primary education, with its preposterous proliferation of standardized tests for second-graders?

I will say this: many faculty fake the numbers. We learn the assessment jargon, and we pretend that assessment matters and that we’re doing it properly. I did, and so did every colleague with whom I interacted across campus. Assessment is just the latest edu-babble fad, super-attenuated but essentially worthless. It does no good, and never has, because it doesn’t actually serve the students. It is–here’s that phrase again–ridiculous nonsense. Time for it to go bye-bye.

Sharknado, the first three: review

I think the success of the first Sharknado movie took the programmers at the Syfy network sort of by surprise. Of course it was a preposterously bad movie, based on a ridiculous premise. One of the enchanting pleasures of Syfy is their glorious revival of the tradition of the B-movie. No, not just of B-movies, of entertainingly terrible movies, the whole grindhouse/drive-in/American International/Roger Corman movie tradition. When I was a teenager, my friends and I loved to go to the Starlight Drive-in and watch abysmal (but fun) movies. Or, on nights when my parents weren’t home, we’d watch Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater on WTTV, the Indianapolis station that also showed IU and Indiana Pacers’ basketball games. I grew up watching awful sci-fi/horror movies. I think they’re awesome. Sharknado proudly partakes of, and contributes to, that tradition. Which is why my wife and daughter and I recently watched the last two.

But really, was Sharknado that much more ridiculous than other Syfy offerings? Was it worse than Scream of the Banshee, say, or Dinocroc? Or Dinocroc vs. Supergator? Or Dinoshark? Or Frankenfish, Pteracuda, Piranhaconda, Lavalantula, or The Man with the Screaming Brain? Yep, they’re all for real, and have all been broadcast in the last five years on Syfy network. So once you’ve committed to a movie on the premise of an anaconda/piranha crossbreeding, why not follow it up with one about tarantulas made of lava? Or, for that matter, a movie about a tornado that sucks sharks out of the sea and drops them on big cities?

But Sharknado took off. One main reason is Twitter. The actual viewing audience for the initial broadcast was actually not all that impressive. But enough people live-tweeted it, and those who did were sufficiently snarky, Syfy decided to re-broadcast the next night, but include the more amusing tweets. Let’s not pretend for a second that Syfy isn’t in on the joke.

But what about the actors? And there you have it, the secret to the success of these movies. Let’s not kid ourselves, acting in Sharknado requires a certain skill set that’s not quite, but is related to, acting. Ian Ziering has starred in all three Sharknados, and, you know, he does just fine. He treats the character Fin (yes, the character is named Fin) seriously, and commits physically to all the action requirements, most of which would seem to require a chain saw. You don’t ever not believe him. In the third movie, when he announces that he plans to name his infant son Gill, the joke landed precisely because he committed to it. After Beverly Hills 90210, his career pretty much flat-lined, which makes him just the right kind of star for a Sharknado-type movie. Famous enough to carry the picture, desperate enough to accept the role. (John Heard was in the first one, a better known, and probably even more desperate actor–he slept-walked through the first third of the movie, then became shark bait without anyone missing him).

The first movie also featured two main actresses: Tara Reid and Cassie Scerbo.  Tara Reid, you probably know. It’s not like she doesn’t have some impressive film credits: The Big Lebowski, American Pie. But she never could act, and after some forays into reality TV (and a famously botched boob job), she needed a hit. But she’s dreadful in all three Sharknados. Part of it’s the writing. Thunder Levin, the writer, has yet to give April, her character, anything to do except stand on the periphery of scenes and bite her lip in anxiety. Plus, Fin and April, for some reason, use a shark attack crisis as a perfect opportunity to work out their relationship issues. But whatever the challenges of the character, Reid conspicuously fails to meet them. In the perfect marriage of actress and character, April and the actress who plays her both manage to do nothing but annoy. (Bo Derek (!) plays her Mom in the third movie, and manages to out-bad-act even her.)

Cassie Scerbo, though, is something else again. Again, it may be the writing; her character, Nova, is a badass. She isn’t given much to do; shoot a semi-automatic weapon, throw hand grenades, look good in a bikini. But she more than meets all three challenges. More to the point, she has some energy. She’s forceful; she’s fun to watch. She’s only in the first and third movies, and the second movie is poorer for it. She’s the one actor in this thing that I think could have a subsequent actual career. Fin is a bit torn between the two great loves of his life, April and Nova, and Syfy obligingly sent a piece of debris hurtling towards April at the end of the third movie. Now we all get to vote on-line on whether April dies or not, in the fourth movie. Guess how I voted.

I appreciate watching a good actor meet an acting challenge, though. And in the third movie, they bring in the perfect Sharknado actor, for a far-too-brief appearance near the end. David Hasselhoff. And, I’m sorry to say this, but he’s brilliant. Genuinely good. Just tongue-in-cheek enough to play up the ridiculousness of the movie’s premise, but also charismatic. I mean, Hasselhoff’s career was built on joke-TV–Baywatch. His job was to be the one actual dramatic character in a show that was otherwise all about the bikinis. Well, this one’s about sharks. He knows how to handle this kind of material. (Frankie Muniz was also pretty great).

I mean, watching Sharknado movies does require a good deal more suspension-of-disbelief than is usually the case. If, in fact, tornados could suck sharks out of the ocean, they’d just die. If, miraculously, sharks didn’t die up in the air, they’d die when they hit the earth. Even if, somehow, they survived the fall, they’d die anyway, because they’re fish; they can’t live out of water. Even when (in all three movies) they land in commercial swimming pools, they’d die; fresh water with chlorine? Lethal to salt water sharks. Certainly, sharks wouldn’t be biting people much. But the silliness of the premise is most of the fun.

But in addition to the, you know, actual actors in these things, there are also many many cameos. In the third movie, Mark Cuban plays POTUS, and is impressive; at least, he looked like he was having fun. Ann Coulter plays VPOTUS. (Never have I so rooted for sharks to eat someone. But alas).  Matt Lauer and Al Roker play themselves in the last two movies, until they both become shark lunch. We get to see Lou Ferrigno, Bill Engvall, Jackie Collins, Lorenzo Lamas. Will Wheaton was in the second one. Of course, they all get shark-chomped pretty quickly, but that’s the gig; you get ten seconds of screen time, and then the actual stars of the movie–the sharks–take over.

And the sharks are, well, dreadful. Bad CGI is half the charm. The action isn’t really ever terribly convincing, and the effects are, well, low budget. And quite apart from the general absurdity of a sharknado, the movie’s plots are preposterous. But that’s why and how Syfy makes them. They don’t cost much, and they deliver. Movies are supposed to be fun. It’s nice when they’re also not poo. But when the movie is called Sharknado, I’ll settle for fun.

 

“We’re not gonna take it”

Following a recent rally and speech in Alabama, as Donald Trump left the stage, what I assume is his campaign theme song played loudly, following him off stage. I’ve heard it a couple of times since, following his speeches. It was Twisted Sister’s anthem, ‘We’re not gonna take it.’ If that is indeed Mr. Trump’s theme song, it strikes me as an astonishingly appropriate one.

It’s an interesting question, is it not, the selection and use of a campaign song? There was a time when campaigns commissioned songs from musicians:

Let’s put it over with Grover. Don’t rock the boat; give him your vote. There’s a time for a man who’s a leader of men. Let’s put it over with Grover again.

Sadly, that most perfect of Grover Cleveland campaign songs wasn’t written until 1968, by Richard and Robert Sherman, for a Walter Brennan movie. (The Shermans also contrasted it with a boring one for Benjamin Harrison). Of actual campaign songs, it would be difficult to top Bill Clinton’s choice of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow)” in 1992. Optimistic, forward-thinking, and catchy; hard to beat. John Kerry’s choice of CCR’s “Fortunate Son” in 2004 was equally inspired, especially given who he was running against; a politically connected guy from a wealthy family whose National Guard service was essentially a ploy to get out of fighting in Vietnam. Mike Dukakis also hit the jackpot with Neil Diamond’s “They’re Coming to America.” Given the anti-immigrant sentiments of today’s Republicans, I’m surprised someone on the Democratic side doesn’t revive that one today. Except that it’s associated with Dukakis, and he lost badly.

I’ve only mentioned Democratic candidates’ theme songs. Sadly, Republican candidates have had a tendency to pick songs by artists who disagree pretty strenuously with their policies. John McCain and Sarah Palin went with “Barracuda,” because that was Palin’s nickname as a high school point guard. But Heart, who wrote and recorded it, turns out, loathed Sarah Palin’s politics, and threatened to sue. Likewise, Tom Petty didn’t take it well when George W. Bush used “I won’t Back Down” for some early events. At least Mitt Romney, when he used Kid Rock’s “Born Free” picked a song by a Republican, though Kid Rock has since disavowed membership in the party, saying he’s “f-ing embarrassed” to have been a Republican.

But now Trump seems to have chosen “We’re not going to take it.” And that song’s absolutely perfect; the song, the band, the message.

Watch the Twisted Sister video:

 

The grotesquely evil and abusive Father, the nerdy kid who can only find solace in the music of, well, Twisted Sister. But the power of music marks the kid’s revenge; one power chord drives the father out the window, crashing to the ground. It’s a song of defiance and rebellion, but it’s a strangely non-specific kind of rebellion. And it’s led by Dee Snider, Twisted Sister’s lead singer, who deliberately dressed like a sort of androgynous gargoyle. The point was to profit by choosing a look parents would loathe. (Look at some of their early videos, like “The Price,” where Snider wore no makeup and dressed in jeans).

Look at that chorus, though: We’re not gonna take . . . ‘it’. What is this ‘it’ we’re not going to take?

We’ve got the right to choose, and there ain’t no way we’ll lose it.

This is our life. This is our song. We’ll fight the powers that be just

Don’t pick our destiny ’cause, you don’t know us, you don’t belong.

Chorus: We’re not gonna take it, no we ain’t gonna take it, we’re not gonna take it anymore.

Oh, you’re so condescending, your gall is never ending

We don’t want nothing, not a thing from you.

Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated

If that’s your best, your best won’t do.

All, of course, sung loudly and emphatically, by a guy dressed like some kind of grotesque glam rock parody.

What do we know about Trump’s supporters? They’re fed up, they’re angry, they’re furious about a political process that seems both hypocritical and ineffectual. They like Trump because he gets things done. They also like him because he ‘tells the truth.’ In fact, he doesn’t actually tell the truth; whenever his claims can be fact-checked, they turn out to be, in almost every instance, ludicrously inaccurate. But he says things–often insulting things– that most politicians don’t say and then he doesn’t back down when challenged. Plus, he’s rich, and he’s spending his own money on this campaign. He won’t be beholden to ‘special interests’ if elected. (He is now accepting campaign donations, which, I predict, will have no impact whatever on his popularity).

Above all, Trump has played the oldest card in the deck. He’s able to reassure voters that all their problems, all their feelings of economic insecurity and worry about the future and sense that the future is slipping away are all the fault of a single, unpopular minority ethnicity. The ‘Mexicans,’ are to blame. And, by golly, he’s going to deport them. Build a wall and keep them out, and get them both to build it and pay the costs involved. Like Nero blaming ‘Christians’ for the Great Fire of Rome, or the Hutu blaming the Tutsi in Rwanda, or the Gio and Mano blaming the Krahn in Liberia, scapegoats are always simple-mindedly easy to identify and splendid targets for finger-pointing. (Note how deftly I sidestepped Godwin’s Law). And the results can be brutal.

In fairness, this has not yet happened with Trump. The rhetoric has been fierce; actual violence has been limited to a single appalling incident in Boston. Still, Mr. Trump can at least be cited for failure to establish a civil tone in this campaign. And unfocused, inchoate rage is discernible underneath the excitement of Trump supporters for his campaign. He’s not going to take ‘it.’ They’re not gonna take ‘it’ anymore. Take that liberal elites. You’re condescending, trite and boring. You’re outa here.

 

 

Birthright citizenship

Over the next fifteen months before we all get to vote on who the next President of the United States will be, lots of things will have happened. We’ll all have seen the Star Wars movie. We’ll know what finally happened with Katniss. Apple will come out with a nifty new dingus, Amazon will deliver by drone, and Wall Street crooks will go unpunished. Kale will come in injectable form, houses will be equipped with holodecks and engineers will be working out the final bugs in transporter technology. 2016 is going to be dope.

We’re in the silly season of Presidential politics, is my point. Candidates are jostling for position, raising money, giving speeches, trying to figure out what voters’ main concerns are and what issues might be profitably emphasized. Trying to get noticed. Now, in August 2015. With football season starting in, like, two weeks. And because one candidate, the most unlikely candidate in years, is leading the Republican race by a big margin, the issues he’s focused on have tended to draw the most attention. Which means Trump, and which means immigration. And, lately, he’s been saying a lot about an obscure but important issue; the idea of birthright citizenship. A policy that has to change, apparently. Trump calls it a ‘magnet for illegal immigration.’

And other candidates are weighing in. Chris Christie: “While birthright citizenship may have made sense at some point in our history, right now, we need to relook at all of that.” Lindsay Graham: “I don’t mind changing the law. I think it’s a bad practice to give citizenship based on birth.” Bobby Jindal: “We need to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants.” Scott Walker, asked if he supported ending birthright citizenship, responded ‘yeah,’ before waffling. Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush wouldn’t go that far, but both agreed that illegal immigration is a serious issue. (HINT: no, it isn’t.)

Here’s the thing: birthright citizenship isn’t a policy, and it isn’t a law that can simply be changed legislatively and it isn’t ‘a practice.’ It’s in the Constitution. And it’s not really ambiguous or obscure. Here it is, from Article One of the Fourteenth Amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside

If you’re born in the United States, you’re a citizen of the United States. Period. And yes, the National Review and Daily Caller have recently made themselves look ridiculous by arguing that ‘all citizens born in the United States are citizens of the United States’ doesn’t mean, you know, that being actually born here somehow means that you’re, like, a citizen or whatever. (I’m absolutely not going to link to those two publications, by the way).  Silly websites are welcome to publish silly articles all they want to–First Amendment–but the facts are that getting rid of birthright citizenship requires an amendment to the Constitution, and that will never, ever happen. And trying to make it happen will also have the charming side effect of destroying the Republican party. Which I would rather not have happen, thank you very much. ‘Cause: Lincoln.

Reading articles about this issue is sort of fun, though. It’s not hard to read between the lines of the various statements of the Republican Presidential candidates to see what a tricky issue this is for Republicans. First of all, they have to pretend that illegal immigrants are currently pouring over our southern border–which they’re not–and that undocumented workers therefore create a host of big social problems–which they don’t. Trump wants to build a big fence, and get Mexico to pay for it. He won’t and they won’t. It’s a silly, nonsense issue. And Trump won’t let it go, because he’s not a serious man. He just pretends to be one on TV.

And it’s not like there aren’t actual, real things that can and should be done for those people who are now in our country, living their lives half-in-shadow and hoping for some resolution to their legal status. We could, for example, pass the Dream Act. We could create a sensible pathway to citizenship. We could end the grotesque exploitation of these workers by employers. There are real things we could really do. Instead, Trump flies around in his helicopter saying ridiculous things on the subject.

And I, for one, hope he keeps running, keeps up in the polls, keeps harping on building big walls and calling Mexicans rapists. Keep it up, Donald. The race for the Presidency, in fact, may already be over. To find out why, some recent history.

In my lifetime, two candidates from California have won the Presidency; Nixon and Reagan. Both were conservatives; Reagan, massively so. From 1960-1996, California only voted for a Democrat for President once. Nowadays, of course, California is a reliable blue state, a Democratic stronghold. What happened?

Immigration hysteria. In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson, in a close race for re-election, blamed illegal immigrants for all his state’s problems. He strongly supported Prop 187, which denied all sorts of state benefits to undocumented workers. And Republicans haven’t won California since. Hispanic voters noticed. And they vote.

To win the White House, Republicans probably need to win about 45% of the Republican vote. Mitt Romney, you may have noticed, did not win the Presidency. He won 27% of the Hispanic vote, and polled afterwards, Hispanics kept going back to one word–self-deportation–as the main reason they went Democratic.

Self-deportation then, birthright citizenship now; the Republicans keep shooting themselves in the foot with Hispanic voters. Jeb Bush would rather actually come up with a sensible immigration policy: and you can see how uncomfortable Trumpian demagoguery on this issue makes him. He speaks fluent Spanish; his wife is from Mexico. I don’t particularly want Jeb Bush to be President, but this is a policy where his instincts are reasonable. His brother, as President, proposed an immigration bill that wasn’t half bad. Marco Rubio sponsored a decent enough immigration bill in the Senate; he’s not a wacko on this issue. So there was reason to think that Republican outreach to Hispanics could work.

And there’s still plenty of time for Rubio or Bush to revive their respective candidacies. But the Republican electorate is, by and large, insane on this issue. Make any proposal that provides for people who are already here to stay and you’ll get accused of supporting ‘amnesty.’ Blarg.

Self-deportation was a terrible idea when Governor Romney proposed it; birthright citizenship just flat isn’t an issue at all, because the Constitution is very hard to amend, and no amendment ending citizenship for frankly racist reasons has a chance of passage. So it’s not like this is, you know, a thing. But for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it’s about the best question they ever get asked. “Do you support birthright citizenship?” “Yes. I support the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.” Boom.

Meanwhile, millions of young people, the Dreamers, remain in a preposterous legal limbo. That’s the issue we should be talking about; passing the Dream Act. This is America. We built our nation on immigration. How about this: I will support any candidate who supports full amnesty and the Dream Act. And oppose any who don’t.

 

Once I was a Beehive: Movie Review

Let me start with the easy stuff: Once I was a Beehive is terrific fun. Within the sub-genre of ‘Mormon films,’ we’ve seen plenty of excellent serious films, many of them about missionaries. Maclain Nelson, who co-wrote and directed Beehive, even starred in one: The Saratov Approach. But the comedies haven’t been much good, ranging from the mediocre The Singles Ward to the execrable The Home Teachers. What we haven’t had up to now is a comedy made with intelligence, insight, humanity and good-hearted affection for the quirks and oddities of Mormon culture. I know that comedy’s hard. Still, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to see Once I was a Beehive, a genuinely funny movie that avoids every potential misstep and creates believable human characters and derives its humor from carefully observed and beautifully realized actual people; a comedy, in short, that just plain works.

The movie begins with Lane Speer (Paris Warner), on her way to a camping trip with her Mom (Amy Biedel) and Dad (Adam Johnson). She’s fifteen, there’s a party she wants to go to, and she doesn’t particularly want to go camping. But her good-natured Dad teases her out of her bad mood, and we see the bond between them, and when they get into their canoe and head for the wild, what we see is a real family, outdoorsy and close-knit.

Cut to Dad’s funeral. Cancer. And Lane is quietly devastated.

Cut ahead a year. And Mom Speer is engaged to remarry, to a Mormon guy, Tristan Samuelson (Brett Merritt). And they’re going on a three week honeymoon, and they have arranged for Lane to spend those weeks with Tristan’s sister, Holly (Hailey Smith). And Holly’s daughter, Phoebe (Mila Smith), is sort of a brilliant mess, with a serious anxiety disorder, a therapy dog she can’t be parted from, and a sort of needy nerdiness. Enter Sister Carrington (Lisa Clark), an obnoxiously enthusiastic Young Women’s President, who pressures both Phoebe and resolutely non-LDS Lane to come to Girls’ Camp.

Clark is initially very funny in the role, but in her characterization, I thought I identified the film’s first major pitfall; that kind of cartoonish caricature wears pretty thin pretty quickly. I needn’t have worried. As Carrington’s exquisitely planned (and scrapbooked) schedule falls apart, so does the character, and Clark’s performance shifts, turns Carrington into a real person, vulnerable and snappish. Hailey Smith gives a quieter, still funny, but equally nuanced performance as Holly. And then they arrive at their campsite, and Barta Heiner rides up in a motorcycle.

In a rational universe, Barta Heiner would be recognized as the national treasure she really is; both the best acting teacher in the country, and an actress at the level of Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. That’s not hyperbole, though I also admit to a certain prejudice; she has been my revered friend and colleague for nigh on thirty years. In Beehive, she plays Nedra, the Girls’ Camp director and a tough and crusty outdoorswoman. Poor Lane, who by now is totally weirded out by the whole Mormon-centric Girls’ Camp experience, immediately recognizes a kindred spirit, and decides to stick around.

And a good thing she does. Because of her father, Lane has skills the other girls lack–she can set up a tent, read a map, cook a tasty meal over a campfire. And we also see her basic, essential kindness, also learned from her father, we presume. She befriends odd little Phoebe, helps her come out of her shell, helps hide, and protect, her therapy dog.

There are ten girls at this camp, and all are fully realized characters, both in the screenplay and through their performances. Clare Niederpruem is particularly strong, as Bree, Sister Carrington’s daughter, whose immediate, instinctive reaction to self-reliant Lane is essentially that of Elphaba to Galinda. And vice-versa. (Everybody sing along: “Loathing, unadulterated loathing, for your face, your voice, your clothing!”) But the movie really works based on the performances of Paris Warner and Mila Smith, as Lane and Phoebe. Both girls are tremendous. At times, Smith comes across as a precocious little female version of Sheldon Cooper; at times, she’s a frightened child with an anxiety disorder who just wants her doggie. These two performances make the movie–the grown-up actors, all of whom are terrific, are really there in support the two girls.

And it’s all pretty funny. There’s a scene where the girls, challenged to pair up and create, with a partner, a ‘spirit animal’ that defines something about themselves, give us a pretty hilarious menage of lions and dogs and (in the case of Lane and Phoebe) Galapagos tortoises. A little later, Sister Carrington reveals her ‘spirit animal.’ When Lisa Clark said ‘cougar,’ I laughed out loud. It was just a little throwaway joke, without the set-up-payoff-reaction shot structure of most movie jokes, but it nailed me. You know that obnoxious faux-profound line ‘I never told you it would be easy. I said it would be worth it?’ In this movie, it’s a punch-line, and a funny one. But also not in a mean-spirited sort of way.

I have a feeling that people who have been to Girls’ Camp would find the movie funnier than I did. And, let’s face it, Girls’ Camp is, in our culture, as much an exercise in indoctrination as it is a fun camping experience for teenaged girls. This movie faces that reality, finds a way to make it funny, but it does so with some real affection, and with this perspective: Girls’ Camp is about a lot more than just Mormon-centric preachifying.

That’s a fine edge. Does this movie make fun of Young Women’s programs, and especially, of Girls’ Camp? Yes. Does it recognize how relentlessly didactic Girls’ Camp can get, with every hike an object lesson and every task a sermon? Yes. Those are all fine subjects for satirical comedy, and the movie realizes the comedic potential inherent in each. But does the movie ultimately suggest that Girls’ Camp can provide a genuinely empowering experience for young women? That it’s about friendship and fellowship and kindness as much as it’s about ‘Trial of Faith’ scavenger hunts? Yes. That’s a thin line for a movie to tread, and I applaud Nelson and his whole team for treading it so dextrously.

(I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s one choice the movie might have made that would have ruined it, I think, and which, gratefully, it decided not to make. Comment for further enlightenment).

There’s one final issue I’d like to raise. Is this a feminist movie? Is this a movie likely to be applauded by Mormon feminists, or should it be? It is, after all, a movie with an almost entirely female cast. (There’s one guy at camp with them, the bishop, who apparently spends the entire week in his tent listening to an audiobook version of The Hunger Games; a pretty good joke right there.) It’s a movie about female leaders, about a Young Women’s President, and also about Bree, a Laurel President, who learn how to be real leaders over the course of Girls’ Camp. It’s about women with genuine leadership skills, about strong, independent, powerful women. It’s about Nedra, the older woman played by Barta, with a military background and wonderful compassion and friendship for young Lane. It’s about teenaged girls who overcome cattiness and cliqueish-ness and selfishness and grow, as friends, as women, as Christians. (It’s also, in one of its funnier scenes, about women pretty shamelessly objectifying hot young male forest rangers). Best of all, not one modesty lecture. Never once.

I consider myself a Mormon feminist, to the extent that I can be, given my gender. But, sure, yeah. It’s a movie about one official LDS program that really does try to empower young women. I’d say, sure, it’s a feminist film, maybe not with a capital F, but in its own quietly effective way.

Two final, personal notes. Full disclosure: I know and consider myself friends with many, if not most of the people in this movie. Not the kids; most of the grown-ups. Yes, that absolutely means that I was prejudiced for it to be good. Get over it.

Also this: there’s a testimony scene at the end of the movie. And I mostly dislike testimony scenes in LDS movies. And see, here’s the thing: I have this weird medical thing, a product of my chemo-therapy, where the tear duct in my right eye is damaged. I tend to cry a lot, even when I’m not remotely sad. So, in that testimony scene, I noticed my right eye was leaking a lot. And I thought, ‘well, that’s annoying.’ And then I noticed my left eye was leaking just as much. And my left eye isn’t damaged at all. So that happened too. Seriously, people, go see this.

 

The election of 2016, and 1828?

Yesterday, This Week with George Stephanopolous, featured a political event in Iowa. It looked sort of fun, with lots of balloons and tents and barbecue and shots of children eating corndogs and, you know, like, elephant ears. Several candidates were viewed in their natural habitat, presumably to eventually be tagged and released into the wild. And the politician/star around which all the moons revolved was, of course, that gas giant Donald Trump.

And so, journalist-turned-anthropologist Martha Radatz gathered a group (a pride, a murder, a coven?) of Trump supporters around her and asked the question bedeviling American political observers ever since His Hairness announced his candidacy: ‘what’s the deal with Trump?’ A high school girl (giddily anticipating voting for the first time), an old guy, a middle-aged woman; it was a diverse group, if one doesn’t think as ‘diversity’ as suggesting the presence of black or Hispanic or gay people. A diverse crowd of white, straight, middle-American Republicans, in other words. And they didn’t just like Trump, they really liked him; they were wildly enthusiastic about both his candidacy and what it portends. You could see it in their eyes. Genuine excitement.

And it was all about style. Every comment was some variation on a theme; he’s not an (epithet) politician. He’s not guarded in his speech, he doesn’t care if he offends people. He’s forceful, he’s tough, he’s strong, he’s direct. He’s unafraid. He says what he thinks. Nobody put it this way, but the fact that he doesn’t have the normal politician’s filter when he speaks was seen as a huge plus. Pundits have been predicting for weeks that the Trump bubble will burst, because no political figure can recover from, well, whatever. Insulting Mexicans, belittling John McCain’s military service, attacking Megyn Kelly. It didn’t matter. To the people in this focus group, what pundits might perceive as insulting and dismissive rudeness was a plus. It’s just Trump being Trump. Our country’s in a mess, and what’s needed is some plain talk and direct action.

It reminds the historian in me of the election of 1828. Look up that election on Wikipedia and you’ll learn that the key issues in that campaign was the Tariff of 1828, and also controversy over the election of 1824, an election that ended up in the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay ended up supporting John Quincy Adams, and was subsequently named Secretary of State, a turn of events that became known as ‘the corrupt bargain.’ But like the current election, 1828 was as much about style as it was about substance. Andrew Jackson was seen as a rough-hewn, plain-talking Man of the People (though, in fact, he was a wealthy plantation owner). Adams was seen as an effete Easterner, who owed his influence to wealthy bankers.

And of course, after Jackson was inaugurated, the Westerners who had supported him, uh, enjoyed a celebration. Okay, they totally trashed the White House. Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington socialite of the period, described it thusly:

But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob.

Furniture and china was destroyed, as was the White House carpeting. Finally, punch bowls full of booze were set out on the White House lawn to lure the mob out of doors. Jackson himself, meanwhile, had to sneak away to a nearby hotel.

Okay, 1828 is not 2015, the issues of their day are not the issues of today, and I don’t think that nice Iowa focus group is interested in grinding cheese into the White House carpet, and throwing tea cups at the wall. What does seem similar is the sense that ‘our’ country is slipping away from us, that powers beyond our control have taken over the political process, that whatever prosperity we’ve achieved since 2008 isn’t necessarily shared by all Americans. That Congress and the Presidency are under the thumb of monied interests; banks in 1828, corporate lobbyists today. And what’s needed now is a harsh and liberating dose of straight talk, of political incorrectness, of power wielded for the common good. That’s what Trump (and Andrew Jackson) seem, (seemed) to their supporters, to stand for. (Though, to be fair, Donald Trump hasn’t actually shot anyone in a duel. Which Andy Jackson was kinda known for: 103 duels altogether.)

Andrew Jackson makes a lot of ‘top ten Presidents’ lists. And I suppose, as a Democrat, I’m supposed to admire the founder of the Democratic party. I don’t. The two great moral evils our country committed on its way to prosperity were chattel slavery, and the brutal mistreatment of our Native American populations. Jackson participated with great energy and enthusiasm in both. He didn’t just own slaves, he bought and sold them, and he was the author of the unspoken pact in which the Democratic party would stand by the South’s ‘peculiar institution.’ He pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress, and was therefore the instigator of the Trail of Tears. He ignored the Supreme Court when it suited him to. He opposed the Bank of America, setting back the economy by fifty years. (I think it’s hilarious that he’s on the 20 dollar bill. The one guy in US history most opposed to a national currency got his face put on the bill we all use the most. That’s a joke that never gets old). He didn’t think the federal government should build roads or bridges.

He was, in short, a cantankerous, obstreperous, hot-headed SOB. He was wrong about pretty much every major issue of the day. So, no, I’m not saving room on Mt. Rushmore for the guy.

But at least he was decisive. Slavery, and the north/south tensions created by a slave-driven economy, was the most festering wound in our body politic in the 1830s. He dealt with it. Something had to be done about Native American populations. He did something. I think he was wrong in both instances, but that’s an easy, armchair judgment for me to make; at least the man didn’t back away from major problems.

(And, again, like Trump, he was sort of obsessed with fake/nonsense issues. For Trump, it’s illegal immigration, for Jackson, the ‘incipient despotism’ of building a coastal light house).

Look, I’m not saying that Donald Trump is the next Andrew Jackson. And I’m certainly not saying that what we need is a Jackson Democrat; a return to the common sense of average people. At the same time, I do understand being fed-up with the status quo, and I absolutely understand the desire for someone completely different, someone radical and transgressive. Maybe that person is Bernie Sanders. Maybe it’s Jim Webb. Maybe it’s someone brand new.

I do think that the pre-ordained favorites, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, are not actually reading the mood of the country very well. And, amazingly, Donald Trump is. We’re a very long way off, but already this election is . . . interesting.

Ten greatest TV shows of all time

So, I’m sitting at lunch, enjoying a sushi burrito, with two actor friends. And we get to talking about what we’ve seen and what we’ve enjoyed, and Parks and Rec came up, and one of us said, ‘hey, what would you say were the Ten greatest television shows of all time?’

Coming up with lists like that are fun precisely because they’re nonsensical, and therefore lead to absurd arguments and preposterous controversies, all the more vehemently disputed precisely because of the extreme subjectivity of any and all artistic tastes. I’m putting my apples against your oranges, and against Barry’s bananas, with all of us sure that Alice, if she’d been there, would tossed in the trashheap. Besides the greatest television show I ever saw in my life was Game Seven of the 2014 World Series, which those other two bozos didn’t even watch. (Losers). Still, we came up with a list. Join the free-for-all, mock our choices. Just be prepared for us to mock back.

First, we had to make some rules. We’re only talking scripted feature television; shows that tell a sustained story. That lets out Sixty Minutes, excludes Johnny Carson, leaves out Letterman, bids Jon Stewart sayonara, counted out Colbert and omits Sid Caesar and That Show of Shows. No variety, no news, no fake news.

With considerable reluctance, we also decided to keep it to American shows only. Our game, our rules, though it meant leaving out Ab Fab and Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the British Office, which also led to the exclusion of the American Office, because the British one is better.

But we did decide to include both comedies and dramas, in part because we know, as professionals in the field, how hard funny can be, and also in part because that’s how people watch TV. We just watch. Nobody says ‘I can’t see Walking Dead; I only like sit-coms.’ Or, rather, you could say that, but you’d be wrong. Ecclesiastes-via-The Byrds: ‘to everything, there is a season and a time.’ We decided that applies to TV as well as life.

So here’s what we came up. And understand, we did not work historically or anything like that. We mixed-and-matched; modern shows and older ones thrown willy-nilly together, with no rhyme or reason to our choices.

Top Ten Television shows of all time, in no particular order:

Mad Men. Critical darling, plus it starred a friend of ours. We love its bitter condemnation of the past, and the open sexism and racism of a period historically within my lifetime. Plus, for an essentially realist period piece, it kept tossing in these astonishing moments of surrealism; a guy losing his leg to a riding lawnmower in the office, dead men dancing, Don Draper’s long affair with women who may or may not have actually existed.

I Love Lucy. It changed everything. It changed the way television was shot and transmitted. It was the first great star vehicle. Plus, we love this irony. Every episode of the show had the same plot; Lucy wants to do something, Ricky tells her she can’t do it. She does it anyway, and makes a frightful (but hilarious) hash of it. Ricky condescendingly forgives her. The message: those silly dames, thinking they can actually do things, even compete with men. But the show deconstructed itself at every turn. In fact, the show was a vehicle for Lucille Ball. It was about her comic genius. She made all the business decisions too. It was a show about a brilliant woman, playing a goofball brilliantly.

M.A.S.H. It lasted a good deal longer than the actual Korean War lasted, and it surely got gooey and preachy at times. But it was still an astonishing show, a dark comedy about America’s nightmare adventure in Vietnam Korea. And because it was about war, characters died, people we cared about. And every time an old character left the show, the character that replaced them was even better.

The West Wing. I know, it exhibited every Aaron Sorkin fault and flaw; his preachiness, his obsession with failed romances, its knee-jerk liberalism. And to some extent, it’s true; during the Bush years, The West Wing created, in Bartlett, the President we wished we had, as opposed to the actual President we were stuck with. But the characterizations were rich, the writing powerful, and the actors were up to the challenge.

Breaking Bad. Such an extraordinary depiction of a man gradually, day after day, choice after choice, descending into criminality, murder, and evil. With Aaron Paul’s and Bryan Cranston’s superb performances, we had two of the most compelling characters in the history of television, with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. And the amazing Anna Gunn, as Walter’s wife, Skyler.

Friday Night Lights. Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. And yes, I know some of the teenagers were played by 29 year-olds. I don’t care. It was a show about football that my wife, who hates football, loved. Kyle Chandler was terrific as high school coach Eric Taylor, but my favorite character, always and forever, was Connie Britton’s amazing Tami Taylor. The most thankless possible role, the coach’s wife, and she made her the most dynamic woman in the town.

It’s interesting to me, BTW, how many actors were in multiple great shows. Connie Britton starred in Friday Night Lights, but also had a crucial smaller role on The West Wing, which also featured Alan Alda, Hawkeye Pierce on M.A.S.H. And Christina Hendrix not only held the company together in Mad Men, she was one of the most memorable characters ever in Firefly.

All in the Family. It’s the show that changed everything. It’s the show that demonstrated that serious discussions of the most important issues facing the United States could take place in a situation comedy, and also, that those discussions could be more than thought-provoking, they could be riotously funny. Not just historically important; it was brilliant, night after night, for 9 years.

Firefly. I know. It failed. Fourteen episodes only. We only got part of one season to fall in love with Captain Mal and Wash and Zoe and Inara and, OMG, the wonderful Kaylee. But fall in love, we did. So inventive, so wonderfully creative. I will never, ever, forgive Fox for cancelling the show just as it was finding its audience. And now it’s probably the most popular show on Comic-con.

Parks and Recreation. It passes the first and most important test of a sit-com. It was never, ever, not-funny. But it did something even more difficult. It managed, for seven seasons, to create leading characters who, though flawed, were all essentially good-hearted. That’s a magnificent achievement, and incredibly difficult. Plus, just watching the apotheosis of Chris Pratt as an actor is worth the price of admission.

E. R. I hesitated to include it. It went on much too long, got self-indulgent and grew ever soapier as time went on. But my gosh, those opening episodes were incredible. The fast dialogue, the incredibly realistic wounds and surgeries and illnesses. I’m not sure it ever survived George Clooney leaving, but for awhile there, it was appointment television.

So what shows did I leave out? What shows should I have left off? Because, here’s what’s fun; we’re all right. And we’re all hopelessly wrong.

 

Planned Parenthood

Let me start with this: there is simply not a political or moral issue about which I feel more conflicted than abortion. As a feminist, I cannot imagine anything more basic or fundamental than a woman’s right to make the most essential decisions regarding her health, her body, or reproduction. Seen from that perspective, I would likely define myself as pro-choice. I likewise believe that the preservation of human life is of paramount importance. And whatever we may think of a human fetus, it is incontestably human. It might become a fully formed human being, with all the rights and privileges we humans grant to other humans. From that perspective, I suppose I would also have to label myself pro-life.

As you’re probably aware, an anti-abortion group calling itself the Center for Medical Progress conducted a sting operation intended to discredit, and if possible, destroy Planned Parenthood. Actors secretly taped meetings with at least four officials with Planned Parenthood, portraying themselves as researchers seeking tissue from aborted fetuses to be used for medical research. The meetings were then heavily and misleadingly edited to create the impression that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of fetal tissue, and that these conversations were basically negotiations over price. The Center for Medical Progress released the edited videos on YouTube, and they created a sensation. They are exceptionally difficult to watch. The Planned Parenthood doctors come across very badly. They seem callous to the point of inhumanity.

I have not watched the longer videos, the raw material from which the YouTube videos were edited. Fortunately, Sarah Kliff, a first-rate journalist with a background in the relevant legal issues involved, has watched them. Here’s her report:

The videos are sting videos that are designed to smear Planned Parenthood. The unedited footage shows the fake buyers actively attempting to make the discussions look worse for the hapless Planned Parenthood staffers. The Center for Medical Progress argues that these videos show the organization was selling fetal tissue for profit — which is, to be clear, a crime. But abortion clinics are allowed to receive compensation for any time spent procuring fetal tissue — for example, the extra time a staff member has to spend getting consent to donate or the work a lab technician does identifying specific types of tissue. Planned Parenthood says this is all the videos show, and for the most part they’re right. It’s routinely the fake buyers, not Planned Parenthood, who move the discussion toward money.

Planned Parenthood is an organization that believes it can do good in the world by procuring fetal tissue for medical researchers. Their critics find fetal tissue research self-evidently repugnant. To a large degree, what you think of the videos comes down to what you think of the fraught topic of fetal tissue research. But there are also moments that should give supporters of the women’s health provider pause — moments when officials with the group seem to haggle over fetal tissue compensation and appear to make women’s health a secondary priority. These are moments that do not appear any less troublesome when watched in the full video. They are not simply a product of biased editing — and, if anything, the biased editing is making them too easy for Planned Parenthood’s supporters to ignore.

Of course, as Kliff also notes, the main impact of these videos is emotional. These leisurely lunches, in nice restaurants, with well-dressed people chatting casually about fetal tissue over a glass of wine; well, these people seem monstrous. It’s hardly surprising that Republicans in Congress have introduced bills intended to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

So that’s one emotional reaction. But there’s another strong emotional response possible, and it’s the one I experienced recently while watching the recent Republican Presidential debate. Mike Huckabee seriously argued that a fetus should be given all the rights of citizenship, and protected via the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. Scott Walker’s stance on this issue is to make all abortions illegal, without exceptions for pregnancies that were the result of rape or incest, and without exceptions for instances where the mother’s life is in jeopardy. Think about that. Let’s suppose that a woman presents at a hospital with an ectopic pregnancy. A fertilized egg has attached inside a fallopian tube. There are both surgical and medical treatments possible, but there is no possibility of saving the fetus. And the patient will die without medical treatment. The ‘no exceptions’ stance of many of the Republican candidates would, taken to their logical conclusions, condemn that woman to death.

This is an issue about which it’s difficult to the point of impossibility to have a calm, objective, rational conversation. If one believes that humanity begins with conception, then an organization like Planned Parenthood, which does perform abortions, is essentially engaged in the murder of babies. At the same time, a great many fetuses spontaneously abort in what we prefer to call miscarriages. If, as some claim, God regards every fertilized egg as a human life, then forgive me for suggesting that God is remarkably cavalier with human lives.

Let’s instead keep the uneasy truce that Roe v. Wade created, in which first trimester abortions are all legal, and in which the state’s interest in protecting the fetus begins with viability. And let’s also admit this truth: abortion is much more a tragedy than it is a sin. Is it possible to, not allow abortions, but limit the number that actually occur?

First, let’s admit this reality: if Planned Parenthood were completely de-funded, if it ceased to exist, that action would, in all likelihood, make a difference in the numbers of abortions performed nationally. They would increase; they would go up. Planned Parenthood is much more in the business of preventing pregnancies than it is in the business of aborting them. It is also the only source for women’s health care for many poor women all across the country. It is, in short, an organization that does a great deal of good.

Second, if we take human life seriously, if we’re pro-life (and, remember, ‘pro-life’ is one word I use to describe myself, another being ‘pro-choice’), then let’s genuinely support human life. Let’s end the death penalty for capital crimes. Let’s all commit ourselves to opposing war. Let’s pass a national maternity and paternity leave bill. Let’s find ways to fund child care for working women. And let’s do whatever we can to lower the costs associated with adoption, including adoption by same-sex couples.

Third, let’s support the goal of universal, national, comprehensive (age-appropriate), medically accurate sex education in all American public schools. And let’s admit that, however well-intentioned it may have initially been, that abstinence-only education is a policy failure. That should be easy to do; after all, the states that support abstinence-only programs have higher teen pregnancy rates than states that offer comprehensive education. It just strikes me as morally wrong to ask teachers not to teach any academic subject completely and accurately.

This is an astonishingly divisive and emotionally turbulent issue. And, of course, for some people, it’s an issue where no compromise is possible. But I don’t believe that’s true for most of us. Let’s see if we can find some reasonable middle ground. Start by continuing funding for Planned Parenthood.

 

Aside from Trump. . . .

Like 24 million of my fellow Americans, I watched the first Republican debates. Mostly, I watched for the same reason most of us rubberneck accidents on the freeway. We wanted to see The Donald crash and burn. He did not disappoint. Asked, by Megyn Kelly, about appalling comments he’s made about women in the past, Trump smirked and suggested those comments were all aimed at Rosie O’Donnell. After that gratuitous insult, he then treated us to a seminar on why alpha males, caught in the role of sexual harasser, tend to lose the subsequent lawsuits. Deflect, accuse, wonder why dames can’t take a joke and, geez, guys, it’s all just a bunch of political correctness. The next, day, he topped off this charming display of boorishness by suggesting that Kelly’s ‘rudeness’ to him was due to her menstrual cycle. What a prince.

So, usual Trump tactics and results. Say something insulting and idiotic. Watch your poll numbers go up. Get called on it, double down. Watch your poll numbers go . . . up. Apparently, in 2015, infantile tantrums work. (In all fairness, he did offer one of the few specific and sensible policy suggestions of the night. The man’s a pig; doesn’t mean he’s stupid).

Of course, it doesn’t matter. As the invaluable Nate Silver pointed out today, Trump can’t win. He may continue to go up a little in the polls, but his negatives are off the charts; he’s pretty close to his poll ceiling. He has a solid core of supporters, but twice as many people insist they would never, under any circumstances, ever vote for him, and that’s among Republicans. And as John Oliver pointed out on Sunday, none of this really actually matters all that much. There will be babies born before the 2016 election whose parents haven’t even met yet. We’re way way early.

So what did this first debate tell us? What can we learn from it? And what, especially, does it tell us about who might be the Republican nominee for President?

The most recent poll has Trump in first, Ted Cruz in second, Ben Carson in third. I have immense admiration for Dr. Ben Carson, an admirable man with a remarkable personal narrative. From my perspective, he looked lost up there. He has no political skills, and essentially no understanding of the major issues of the day. Ted Cruz is one of the lizard-people, I’m convinced of it. He exudes unctuous smarm. And he’s detested in the Senate; absolutely detested, including by fellow Republicans.

Carly Fiorina probably won the earlier ‘kiddie table’ debate, which didn’t surprise me, actually. I’ve heard her speak, and she’s very good. She’s well-spoken and intelligent, and understands the issues in a way that the other non-politicians running sometimes don’t. Her problem is her narrative. She was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which she ran into the ground. She ran for the Senate in California, and got clobbered. 12 of the 30 top operatives in her Senate campaign recently came out with a statement that they would never work for her again, ever, in any capacity whatever. And her former H-P employees make for a formidable (and computer-savvy) group who will do whatever they possibly can to sabotage her campaign. She’s another ‘too much baggage’ candidate, I think.

Of the actual serious candidates, I thought Marco Rubio did pretty well, as did John Kasich. And, speaking as a Democrat, that’s scary. Rubio struck a chord with his talk about a childhood in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck. If he could take that experience, and translate it into concrete policy suggestions that really would help the lower and middle classes, he could be a formidable opponent. And Kasich came across as a decent, honorable, competent man. When the man said that he had attended the wedding of a gay friend, I expected boos from the audience. None followed. Yay. I mean, it’s not like he said anything all that remarkable; basically, ‘I decided not to be a self-righteous jerk when my friend got married.’ But the ‘basic humanity’ bar has been set deplorably low by some of the more unhinged members of the people on that stage.

Let’s make a few basic assumptions. First, let’s assume that Joe Biden decides not to run for President, and that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. I know that a lot of progressives really like Bernie Sanders; I’m among them. He’s the Clean Gene McCarthy of this race; a man of integrity, a serious man with serious policy ideas. I think it’s great that he’s in the race. I don’t think he can win. He might even win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and still lose the nomination; Hillary Clinton is much stronger with minority voters. But I want the Democratic primary process to be tough, grueling, a real grind. It’s been awhile since Secretary Clinton was in a tough electoral contest. It’s good for her to struggle. I think she can win, but she has a lot of negatives, too.

Let’s further suppose that the Republican nominee, when all the dust settles, is Marco Rubio, and that he selects Kasich as his running mate. Rubio, from Florida; Kasich, from Ohio. That’s a formidable ticket. Ohio and Florida? In play?

Now, they’ve got to run on an economic platform that makes sense. No more ‘tax cuts for billionaires, because wealth trickles down’ garbage. They can’t just say ‘I feel bad for poor people because my Mom was poor, so see, I care about you and your concerns.’ You actually have to govern in a way that reduces income inequality, and puts more money in the pockets of poor people. No more running against ‘Obamacare.’ No more crap about how the nuclear deal with Iran will bring about the end of days. Rubio’s expanded Child Tax Credit idea is the kind of Republican idea that could actually make a difference in the lives of poor people. They need more policy proposals like that one. And if they do that, run as moderates, Rubio/Kasich could win.

Unless, of course, Trump runs as a third-party candidate. He’s kept that door open, as everyone saw last Thursday. And he would absolutely pull votes from Rubio. or any other Republican. But speaking as a Democrat, that’s a lot to hope for. Donald Trump is, fundamentally and essentially, an infant. And infants get bored.

Towards fun

I was having a conversation this morning with my son, and, as is our wont, we got to talking about what we’re reading right now. He’s working his way through the Game of Thrones novels, which I haven’t read yet, but undoubtedly will. He mentioned that some people think George R. R. Martin doesn’t write particularly well, but he thought the extraordinary plot construction, characters and story threads more than made up for whatever deficiencies the man may have as a prose stylist. And then my son said something profound. He said ‘reading is supposed to be fun.’

Yes! Yes, a thousand times yes! Obviously, we read for hundreds of reasons–to pass the bar exam, to figure out who-dun-it, to laugh out loud, to use up tedious/terrifying minutes in the dentist’s office. But those of us who love to read mostly do it because it’s fun. It’s fun to learn about the world. It’s fun to explore imaginary worlds. It’s fun to keep up with old friends, or to make new ones. It’s fun to root for the good guys to win, and for the bad guys to lose, and for the ordinary schlubbs in the middle to at least survive. Sometimes, in fact, I root for the bad guys to win, if they’re sufficiently rogueish and attractive. Anti-heroes are a hoot.

I am a theatre person, and I love going to a theater to see a play. While there, I expect to be entertained. Of course, ‘entertained’ is a contested term; I’m quite entertained by plays that some of you may find as exciting as watching grass grow. But I think we’re basically in agreement about some basics. We want to see a play that will move us, touch us, make us think, lead to conversation. We want to see believable characters we can care about (even if they’re bounders). Same with movies. I’m not saying I only want to see action/adventure, with car crashes and ‘splosions and movie stars running unscathed through enemy machine gun fire. What I do want is fun. That can mean a slow-paced film with lots of long conversations, if what the characters say is crackling sharp-witted (or engagingly dim-witted) and full of conflict.

As Kai and I were talking, I asked him what his response would be if I told him that I had two books which I knew he hadn’t read, and he could have either one–one by Elmore Leonard and the other by John Updike. His response was immediate, and was the same mine would be: Elmore Leonard, in a New York minute. To heck with the books lit professors assign to their classes. Though in fact, lots of lit professors nowadays may well assign Leonard.

This isn’t to say that I can’t or won’t read literary fiction, or that I only like crappy genre novels. In fact, I do like crappy genre novels, but my favorite contemporary (or ‘sort of contemporary’) novelist is the famously difficult David Foster Wallace. And I know that Jonathan Frandzen is Wallace’s writer bestie, and I love Frandzen too. But I will go to my grave insisting that Stephen King and Donald Westlake are as good (and as important and as vital and as ‘important’) as any other writers in America. The ‘genre v. literary’ dichotomy is so much nonsense; what I want is a good story well told.

But what I really loathe is the idea of medicinal art. You know what I mean. It’s the idea that seeing Great Works of Art is good for us, is edifying, enlarges our understanding, inoculates us from ‘worldly’ shallowness, teaches us uplifting and morally upright principles. And I suppose that there’s a level at which all that happens. But I don’t generally give a crap about being edified. My morality is my business; what I want from an artist is something, well, fun.