Category Archives: Popular culture, general

“Guys.”

I’ve been reading Katy Tur’s new book, Unbelievable, about her time as an NBC correspondent covering the Trump campaign. Tur’s a tough-minded and tenacious reporter, and her book is riveting. She’s also, incidentally, an attractive woman. And she has one chapter about the incredibly inappropriate sexual things men have said to her under the most ludicrous circumstances. Including the time when Candidate Trump, the guy who wanted to be President, who she happened to be covering, came up to her, apropos nothing, and kissed her.  When she describes these incidents, she dismisses them with a single, contemptuous word: “guys.” Just “guys.”

I hate that. I know what she means, and she’s right, and I’m glad she put it in her book, but I also hate it, what it says about men. Speaking as a dude, a fella, a ‘guy’, I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. Katy Tur had the most important political story of my lifetime, and she reported it with intelligence, nuance, integrity and unrelenting courage. Why can’t that be enough? Why can’t that be all?

When I heard about the current Harvey Weinstein news story, about the sordid and disgusting sexual history of the legendary Hollywood producer, my first thought was, sad to say, “so?” I mean, isn’t that the oldest of American pickup lines: “I’m making a movie, and there may be a part in it for you?” Film producer is also a sleaze? Also, NBA player is tall.

I taught theatre at the university level for twenty years. I’ve also directed maybe 50 plays, in college settings and professionally. I’ve also pulled down a few checks as a script consultant. That puts me in the very very furthest, Pluto-adjacent, outer edges of show-biz, I suppose. And the school I taught at was a religious school, and we always had to warn about students about, you know, professional realities. Some directors/producers/casting directors are honorable and competent and professional. Many are not. Watch out. Be careful. Carry pepper spray. All that.

But, you know, even as an outsider, it’s not hard to see how the sexual objectification of women is built into the very fabric of Hollywood. It’s not just who might proposition you in exchange for an audition. How many movies have roles for the male lead, and the female love interest? How often is the actor in his 50’s or 60’s, and the actress in her mid-20’s? How many movies or TV shows include gratuitous, not just nude scenes, but underwear scenes, bikini scenes, naked-from-behind scenes? How often are women depicted either as objects for male sexual interest, or as loyal and supportive and dull?

Everything about Hollywood seems sexually charged. Isn’t ‘glamour’ synonymous with ‘alluring?’

I thought of Dory Previn, the first wife of legendary Hollywood composer Andre Previn. You probably don’t know her work, but she was a terrific singer/songwriter, a cutey-pie voice singing lyrics of unmatched savagery, and a ferocious critic of Hollywood morés, such as they were. Here’s a lyric from her song Hooray for Hollywood.

They lead you like an animal to slaughter; you’re inspected, you’re rated, you’re stamped, standard or prime. They hang you on a meathook when you age, but female meat does not improve with time. They cut you up, and take the part that’s tender, and when they’re through, all that’s left of you is tough, tough, tough. The flesh is willing, but the spirit’s growing weaker. Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough.

Then straight to the chorus: “Who do you have to f*** to get into the movies? Who do you have to lay to make your way? Hooray for Hollywood!” (Dory Previn was outraged when her husband had an affair with an actress, Mia Farrow, 17 years his junior. When she objected, he had her committed to a mental institution, where she was subjected to electro-shock therapy).

Here’s what’s really horrible: Harvey Weinstein was one of the good guys, if by ‘good guy’ you mean talented, with an eye for a good script. How many genuinely great movies did he produce? Pulp Fiction, Ciderhouse Rules, Jane Eyre, The Englishman Who Fell Down a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, Emma, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Mansfield Park, Chocolat, Gangs of New York, maybe 50 others, first for Miramax, then for his own company. Everyone knew he was a sexual predator. Everyone protected him, I think, in part, because he made great movies. Disgusting human being. Gifted artist. Like Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Cosby. Michael Bay, Oliver Stone, Lars von Trier. How many people in Hollywood does that describe? I’ve seen lots of films by all those guys, and enjoyed them. I also voted for Bill Clinton, twice. Am I complicit? Am I responsible?

Here’s what else I know, though. Whenever an actress auditions for a movie, TV series, or play, she accurately perceives herself as a professional, as a hard-working, talented, skilled artist, looking for an opportunity to show what she’s capable of. That’s how she sees herself, because that’s who she is. She is fully aware that there are dozens, or hundreds of other women auditioning, all of them capable and talented. She also knows that getting cast is a long shot, and that sheer dumb luck will play into it. She wants to read well. She wants to act well. What I absolutely guarantee is this: she isn’t thinking “wow, this is my chance to have sex with a disgusting overweight unattractive man 40 years older than I am! Lucky me!” She did not show up to that audition to be sexually harassed. She was not signalling a desire to be sexually assaulted. She does not want to see the film’s producer naked. She’s applying for a job, seeking a professional opportunity. And deserves to be treated as such.

I’ve auditioned hundreds of actors, and cast many shows. What am I looking for? The “right” actor for the role. What does that mean? Can’t tell you. It’s a matter of feel, a question of instinct and experience. When will I know any particular actor is “right?” You just sort of do.

But yes, of course, to a limited extent, appearance enters into it. If I’m casting Romeo and Juliet, I need young actors in those two roles. And Juliet should be, well, pretty. Her physical appearance is one factor I need to take into consideration. But what you have to think (what you inevitably do think) is this: ‘is she pretty enough to be plausible in the role?’ What you can’t ever think (and I can truly say, I never have thought, not once, not ever), is this: ‘gosh, she’s cute; I wonder if she’d like to date me?’ I mean, why would you even think that? You have X amount of time to get the show up, and Y amount of things that have to be done and rehearsed and polished first. And Y>X, always, forever. And you’re going to waste your time making a fool out of yourself, and btw, an enemy of someone you still have to work with? While also wasting everyone’s time? How dumb can you be?

One thing would help: too high a percentage of producers and directors and writers are male. Hiring more women isn’t tokenism. It’s called ‘increasing the talent pool.’ When the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, they didn’t sign ‘a black guy.’ They signed ‘a superstar.’ More female writers and directors will result, ipso facto, in more great movies. Which, frankly, I want to see.

So many women I know, so many former students, so many colleagues, so many talented artists I have worked with in the past have come forward lately, post-Weinstein, and said, quietly, honestly, eloquently, “Me too.” It breaks my heart. It disgusts me as well. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world disgrace my entire gender, and my entire life-long profession. Yes, as a matter of fact, directors and producers are in a position of power. But you’re also doing something important and valuable and beautiful. You’re creating works of art, collectively, everyone working together. Why would someone want to profane that, turn it ludicrous and disgusting, for no reason? Katy Tur knows. “Guys.”

To all of you, let me say this. I am so sorry. I am horrified, I am appalled, I am sickened. Thank you for coming forward. Thank you for telling the truth. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so let’s start disinfected, root these attitudes and approaches out and destroy that entire power-mad mindset. Because this is about the abuse of power. And it’s repugnant.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2018

Let’s talk about something more fun.

2017 has been, in my humble opinion, a complete armpit of a year, what with the toxic politics and mass shootings and ill health and family tragedies (the last two are idiosyncratically mine). Let’s look forward to 2018. And, as it happens, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced the latest candidates for induction. So let’s argue about something meaningless, for a change. As always, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s choices are quite illogical, and at times, completely insane. And we’ll also never agree. That said, here are my choices.

Bon Jovi: Isn’t Bon Jovi kind of the perfect rock band? For one thing, they’re from New Jersey, did the whole high school friends/garage band thing. They have a cool-sounding band name, and yet all they did was pick the last name of their lead singer, Jon Bon Jovi. If they’d gone with the name of their lead guitarist, they’d still have a cool-sounding name: I’d listen to a band called Sambora. Old school rock and roll, with a big enough sound to fill arenas, plus they do stuff like build houses for poor people. Are they actually, you know, good? Good enough, I’d say. I’m a yes for Bon Jovi.

Kate Bush: A lot of people have declared Kate Bush a token pick, an attempt to address the R&R HOF’s ‘women problem.’ As in, there aren’t a lot of women in the Hall. It would be a shame to dismiss an artist as innovative and imaginative and unusual as a token pick, though. She’s as much a performance artist as she is a singer, and I love that about her; love how uncompromising her commitment is to her own vision. I’m voting for her, despite not actually liking her music all that much.

The Cars: I was ‘no’ on the Cars last year, and I’m voting ‘no’ again this year. I just don’t think they’re all that good. They’re not particularly innovative, not particularly influential, and their career was relatively short. They just had a few hits. No.

Depeche Mode: I don’t like Depeche Mode. I find their sound uncongenial. i do have to admit that Martin Gore is a terrific songwriter, and I love some of their songs, mostly when covered by other people. They’re certainly influential; unfortunately influential, to my mind. So I cling stubbornly to my ‘no’ vote. They’re probably getting in, though.

Dire Straits: This is the first year Dire Straits have been nominated, and it’s about time, in my opinion. Mark Knopfler is one of the great guitarists, and an outstanding songwriter. Just listen to the throw-away riffs in ‘Sultan’s of Swing,” or the urgent passion of that final solo at the end of “Brothers in Arms.” Just sublime. A heart-felt ‘yes’ to Dire Straits.

Eurythmics: Annie Lennox has one of the great voices in the history of popular music, let alone rock and roll. And with a multi-instrumentalist/producer/songwriter like Dave Stewart, she found her perfect collaborator. Their collaboration was relatively short-lived, but there was some amazing music over the years. An easy ‘yes.’

The J Geils Band: Sorry, but no. Look at their hits. “Freeze Frame.” “Love Stinks.” “Centerfold.” Essentially two novelty songs and a song built off one catchy riff. I know, they did more than that, but that’s what I know them for, and it’s just not good enough. A hard ‘no.’

Judas Priest: Rob Halford is an excellent rock and roll singer, and their guitarists, Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing are both first rate. They’re very good heavy metal musicians. There are lots of bands like that, and I don’t know that Judas Priest really distinguishes themselves from everyone else. So: No.

L L Cool J: Certainly an important and influential rap artist. I don’t know his work very well, and therefore it’s easy for me to say ‘no.’

MC 5: Or rather, the Motor City 5. If punk music is meant to be political, these guys are proto-punk pioneers. But their career was very very short, and I wouldn’t include them among the most important bands in the early history of punk. Just not important enough, and didn’t last very long. No.

The Meters: A tough call. Certainly, they were funk pioneers. In a way, it’s absurd to say that Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown and Funkadelic belong in the R&R HOF, but the Meters don’t. But much of their career was spent as back-up musicians for people like Paul McCartney. Their music is great fun, but, for this year at least, I’m voting ‘no.’

The Moody Blues: See, this is what happens when you let Yes in the R&R HOF; the riff-raff start showing up. I shouldn’t call them riff-raff. I have lots of friends who loved them. I just don’t think they’re the prog musicians that should go in first. Let ELP and Jethro Tull and King Crimson and Gentle Giant in the Hall. Then we can talk about the Moody Blues. No.

Radiohead: This is their first year of eligibility, and yes, they absolutely have to go in. It’s like the baseball HOF; we spend a lot of time arguing about guys like Tommy John, but when Derek Jeter becomes eligible, the vote’s pretty much unanimous. Radiohead is an easy call. Great band. Yes.

Rage Against the Machine: Punk and metal and politics. They’re ferocious partisans of a whole bunch of political causes that I, sort of, support. But purity of motive doesn’t necessarily lead to great music. No.

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan: Again, if you like funk (and I do), they’re important. I just think Chaka Khan should go in by herself, as a solo artist, before Rufus gets in. So, a reluctant no.

Nina Simone: certainly she was a great jazz singer. And she was a magnificent singer period. But her soul music was only a small part of her career, and I’m just not sure she was ever particularly rock and roll. So: no.

Sister Rosetta Tharp: First of all, yes, she should be in the HOF. She recorded a song called ‘Rock Me’ back in 1938. A gutsy black woman singing gospel music, accompanying herself on an electric guitar; she was a rock and roll pioneer. I just think she should be inducted by the HOF equivalent to the Veteran’s Committee. No, in this format.

Link Wray: certainly an important influence on future musicians. He really should have been inducted 30 years ago. Again, pass him on to the Veteran’s Committee.

The Zombies: Immensely important early rock and roll band, one of the most important British Invasion bands of the late 1960s. But they only put out two albums. A reluctant no.

So, those are my choices. Really, I think Link Wray and Sister Rosetta should be inducted too. This fan vote is largely a popularity contest. Love to hear your feedback!  And here’s a link to the website, and your chance to vote.

 

War for the Planet of the Apes: Movie Review

War for the Planet of the Apes is, among other things, about an authoritarian American leader who is bound and determined to build a wall between him and his perceived enemies, and also wants the Apes to pay for it. It’s also about Native American genocide, and the persecution of Christianity by ancient Rome, and other incidents of needless brutality perpetrated by the strong over the weak. It’s about a tragic class of cultures. It’s about leadership and suffering. It’s just an extraordinary movie.

This is the third movie, and I think probably the last movie, in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. All three movies have starred the remarkable Andy Serkis as Caesar, a preternaturally intelligent Ape, and a born leader. In the world of these films, a search for a cure for Alzheimers resulted in two unintended consequences. First, Apes, given a drug as part of the research, grew vastly more intelligent. Second, the drug created a pandemic that wiped out most of humanity. The Apes escaped to the forests; mankind retreated to various military compounds. An Ape vs. Human war ensued, driven in part by human paranoia and xenophobia, but also in part by a terribly mistreated Ape, Koba, who sought revenge against his human tormentors.

As this film begins, Koba is dead, killed by Caesar in the previous film. But a well-armed, well led army has begun a war of extermination against the Apes. Caesar continuous insists that he has no interest in killing humans. He realizes that humans and Apes probably can’t co-exist peacefully, but sends the message; leave him the forest, and leave him alone, and he won’t attack humans. That’s not good enough for The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). He intends to wipe Apes off the planet. In one attack, he kills Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Caesar sends the rest of his people away, and heads out, looking for The Colonel, with a small group of close followers. He thinks that killing the Colonel might be enough to get humans to leave him alone. That’s his object.

Caesar is a born leader, tactically advanced and with a sophisticated sense of what humans want and how to defeat them. But he’s stuck on horseback, without more advanced transportation or communication technology. Apes can use human weapons, but have limited ammo. Much of this movie is about Caesar’s journey to find The Colonel, and the discoveries he makes along the way. One discovery involves men who have either been murdered or buried alive. They seem to suffer from a disease that robs of the power of speech. Caesar also meets a young girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), similarly afflicted. She can’t talk, but she is an intelligent young woman, capable of sign-language communication (which is also the main way the Apes communicate), and courageous and loyal. Caesar takes her with him, lacking any better idea what to do with her, and she proves a valuable ally.

The initial plan was for Caesar to go questing after the Colonel, while the rest of his people sought refuge in a desert south of their woods stronghold. But the Colonel’s technological advantages have defeated Caesar’s plan, and Caesar’s people have been captured and taken to a fort The Colonel is building by an old army supply depot. The fort needs a wall. The Apes are set to the task of building it. And Caesar is captured as well, though his Nova and his two ape comrades are free.

Not all Apes, however, are on Caesar’s side. The army has coopted quisling apes, which they call ‘donkeys,’ And, like black overseers during slavery, the ‘donkeys’ prove more vicious and brutal than their human bosses. They also have devised a unique punishment for recalcitrant apes (and for Caesar, eventually). They crucify them.

It turns out that the Colonel has essentially seceded from white society, because of this odd muteness disease. It’s a mutation from the initial Alzheimer’s disease that proved so devastating for humans, and so beneficial to Apes. The Colonel quite ruthlessly executes anyone with the disease. Another army, from ‘up north,’ is on its way to bring him to justice. The wall is protection against another human army. Meanwhile, Caesar only wants to rescue his people. The last thing in the world he wants to is for Ape society to get caught in a crossfire. He just wants them to be free. And, like Moses, he’s willing to bring them to a Promised land he himself will be unable to enter.

Harrelson is wonderfully psychopathic as The Colonel. Serkis, is, of course, utterly brilliant as Caesar. CGI acting is simply acting; his performance is simply that of a superb actor at the top of his craft. The CGI just builds off the performance.

The whole film is rich and powerful. So many historical resonances; so much to take in. I was deeply moved by the entire film, as I was with the previous films. It’s a wonderful movie. It got a little lost in the shuffle of summer movies, but it’s certainly as moving as any. See it on the big screen, if you can, and bask.

The Circle: Movie and Book review

The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers. I suppose you could say it’s both dystopian and futuristic; it has a 1984/Brave New World vibe. I found it more or less by accident, and liked it so much I recommended it to my wife and daughter. They both read it, and liked it as much as I did, and so, last Friday, we decided to go together to see the new movie based on it. The movie was quite good too, though we agreed it wasn’t quite as effective as the novel. I should point out that the movie got horrible reviews, with a very low score on Rottentomatoes.com. And also that liking the novel is, apparently, exceptionally uncool. Guilty as charged: I liked both movie and novel a lot, and think the critics that didn’t like either are wrong. I will add that the theater was packed when we saw the movie, and, shamelessly eavesdropping as people left, heard enough to think that pretty much everyone who saw it the same night we did liked it too. Found it as chilling as we did.

I’m going to take it a step further. I think it’s an exceptionally prescient and important novel. I think the questions it raises are important ones, and exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves right now. So there.

The Circle is a high tech company; that’s its name. It combines the best features of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Paypal, Amazon, and any five other exceptionally big, hi-tech companies. It’s the coolest place to work you could possibly imagine. It offers the best benefits–dorm-like housing, gyms, off-the-charts health care–provides the best after-work social life, and sells the best products. Today, you may have an Amazon account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account; you probably have thirty internet accounts, each with its own password. The Circle gets rid of all that inconvenience; you get everything through The Circle.

Mae Holland is a young woman, bright and ambitious, working in a dead-end temp job. But she has a friend, Annie, who works for The Circle, and who gets her an interview. Which she aces. Next thing you know, she works in Customer Care. Better money than she’s ever made in her life, plus they extend her health benefits to cover her parents. This is huge, as her father suffers from MS. Mae is ecstatic.

Except, it turns out, her social score is kinda low. She goes home weekends, to help her Mom; she’s a no-show at various Circle parties. Her bosses notice, and she’s called on the carpet; kindly, of course, but firmly. After-hours social events are, of course, completely voluntary. But a low social score is, hmm, a matter of concern.

Circle-world is a place where everything is enumerated, evaluated, rated, assessed. Every customer care interaction is scored on follow-up customer surveys, and she’s encouraged to follow up on the follow ups, inquire about low scores.  She’s also given a side responsibility; product surveys, attitude polls. Plus, you know, there are all these parties she has to get to. She acquires a boyfriend, Francis, who, after love-making, wants to know how he did. What’s his score? And who gets real whiny if he doesn’t get a perfect 10. It’s not worth the hassle telling him he’s closer to a 3.

The tone of the novel is matter-of-fact and straightforward. Eggers specializes in scenes that are both comic and kind of horrifying. Mae is our window into this company, and her character serves Eggers well. She loves the place. She’s a compelling character, and we want to shake her; we want to shout ‘run!’ But she doesn’t. Whatever unease she may feel, she works off by kayaking. Or in love-less, frantic, self-destructive sex with Mystery Man, Kalden. We can absolutely see what makes Mae the most all-in Circler of them all. Though we’re worried to death for her.

But there are warnings. Not just Kalden; Annie, her friend, who landed her the gig, is clearly losing it. And Mae’s specifically warned by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer. Mercer’s kind of a doofus; he makes chandeliers from deer antlers, and is pretty much a Luddite. Or at least, an anti-Circle version of one. Mercer is close to and wonderfully kind to Mae’s parents. But Mae wishes he’d just stop pestering.

The Circle has a political agenda, too. The company has three CEOs, one of which, Eamon Bailey, is, of course, like, the perfect boss. Kind, generous, endlessly sympathetic, a plausible surrogate father for all the young Circlers. And Eamon is the main spokesperson for the multiple uses for SeeChange, a small, easily overlooked digital camera with excellent video and audio pickup. Eamon urges followers to put SeeChange cameras everywhere, every public place. SeeChange, he says, will end both government tyranny and terrorism, through complete, radical transparency. He also urges all politicians to go transparent; wear a SeeChange camera 24/7. People behave better, he says, when they know other people are watching. He suggests that transparency is a basic human right. Privacy is Theft becomes one of the company’s slogans. (Sharing is Caring is another). And Mae, to set an example, goes transparent too. Wears a camera everywhere; is on display, on the internet, always. A more-aware ramped-up Truman Show.

Okay, spoiler alerts. All these policies and devices are revealed publicly, in a big  Circle auditorium (which in fact, is not an arena, but a proscenium, the one public space configuration that most emphasizes performer domination and control. Bailey’s radical democracy looks a lot more authoritarian the more we interrogate it). Anyway, Mae introduces a new Circle innovation; using SeeChange to find missing miscreants. It becomes a game; let’s see if we can find this fugitive from justice, everyone! And they do, in less than ten minutes. Then the crowd insists that Mae use that technology to locate Mercer, who has become something of a hermit. (Of course they all know about Mercer; they know everything about her). And all those busy SeeChangers out in the world find where Mercer’s holed up. Panicked, he gets in his truck, tries to escape, run away from all the cameras and drones. And Mae doesn’t call it off. And he runs his truck off a cliff.

To people who essentially live virtually, for whom the internet and it’s many uses and possibilities, I can see how this movie could be seen as a gratuitous attack on the coolest thing on the planet. I think that may explain at least some of the bad reviews. But Eggers is on to something; people do not necessarily act better when they know people are watching, especially when they’re part of a crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes dozens of instances where people’s lives have been ruined by the collective judgment of internet users. And we may not have quite reached the point of The Circle‘s notion of radical transparency, and SeeChange cameras may be a few (very few) years off, but everyone has cameras, and it’s much much more common nowadays for particularly shocking (but context-less) images to go viral. Dr. David Dao was, no doubt, treated shabbily by United Airlines, but United flies millions of passengers around the world without untoward incident. Should the company pay? Undoubtedly. Should it be hounded out of business? Am I an old, clue-less white guy intimidated by technology? Of course I am. How implausible is the fictional Circle? Not remotely. Is Eamon Bailey something of a cartoon villain? Okay, sure. So’s Big Brother.

The movie takes the same essential scenario as the novel, but creates a filmic narrative around it. Mae’s two love interests disappear–there just isn’t time for Francis, who is in any event an essentially comedic character. If the movie had gone for satire instead of cautionary tale, Francis might have worked. As it is, I didn’t miss him–he’s completely absent. Kalden likewise goes away, sort of; in the book, he is eventually revealed to be Ty, the Circle’s Founder and one of its three CEOs. That revelation comes much earlier here, and Mae and Ty don’t have a romantic/sexual relationship. Biggest of all is this change: Mae isn’t a Circle-worshipper in the movie. She actively wants to destroy it. And does, but that’s creepy too; she wins by buying in most completely to Eamon’s doctrine of radical transparency.

The casting is well-nigh perfect, with Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks (who else?) as Eamon, John Boyega as Ty, and Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, quietly superb as Mae’s father. The one misstep, I thought, was Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, who never really found his footing in the role. Best of all, IMO, was Scottish actress Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend, Annie. In the book, Annie ends up in a coma, but it doesn’t really have the resonance of the movie, where we can read Annie’s self-loathing self-destruction in the actress’s face. That’s what movies are great at; faces.

The movie’s good. It’s great to look at, beautifully acted, and tells the story of The Circle with economy and dispatch. I found it almost as chilling as I found the novel. I did find the novel a bit richer, but that’s often the case of novels-turned-movies. Above all, I found myself cherishing privacy more than ever. I’m a fairly social person, I think, and I love social media. Up to a point. Any tool can be abused, including, of course, the most powerful tool of them all. The internet. Can we love it, and also find it terrifying? I rather think we can, and should.

Multi-level marketing (scams)

You know that thing where you’re talking to someone about something, and it’s a thing you have a strong feeling about, and you express that strong opinion, strongly? And it turns out you probably expressed yourself more strongly than you should have? I did that recently.

Utah is home to many many multi-level marketing companies. Just in Utah County, I can think of several. NuSkin sells, like, dietary supplements. DōTERRA sells essential oils; I think they call their salespeople ‘wellness advocates.’  Morinda sells various products derived from a morinda citrafolia, a Tahitian tree that produces the noni plant, juice from which is supposed to be good for you. There’s also Neways; they also sell nutritional supplements. There’s Young Living–they sell essential oils–and Nature’s Sunshine–natural health supplements. There are many others.

And they all work the same way. Ordinary folks sign up for this stuff, and sell the product, but are also trying to get their friends involved in selling it too. You make your money via a pyramid. You get a cut out of your sales, but you also get a cut from the sales of the people beneath you on the pyramid. The basic model is Amway. Also Bernie Madoff.

Here’s the strong opinion I expressed that got me in trouble. I think multi-level marketing companies are all crooks. I think they should all be illegal. I think they’re scams, ripoffs, hoaxes, frauds. I think their CEOs should be in jail. I think the normalization of con artists is a bad idea, and that businesses built on a pyramid model are nothing but Ponzi schemes, pure and simple. And I tend to think their products are all, without exception, worthless crap.

I come by these views honestly. I have family members who have been ripped off in Ponzi schemes. I have seen how devastating they can be. I know people whose lives were ruined by Amway. I think the world would be a happier place if Amway was shut down, and its business leaders thrown in the slammer. And that would include Dick DeVos, former Amway CEO and husband of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. And that includes Jason Chaffetz, my Congressman, a former NuSkin exec.

In China, MLMs are illegal. Good for them. If you want to know why they’re not illegal in the US, check the previous paragraph: they’re well-connected. The Federal Trade Commission has been trying to shut down Herbalife for years. Herbalife has responded in the usual way; by buying Congressmen, and by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on high-powered legal representation. So does Amway; so does Mary Kay. These are rich, powerful companies. They aren’t going to be easy to stop.

And they’re big in Utah. And that bothers me. Why are Utah Mormons susceptible to these kinds of scams? Because we’re naive, gullible, trusting? That’s surely part of it. But it’s also Church connections. Our lives tend to center around wards. And our fellow ward members are also our friends. If a person you think of as a friend comes to you and says, ‘hey, I know about this great opportunity, a way for you to make a little extra money, and also enjoy better health. It’s worked for me, and it can work for you.’ Well, that’s a powerful inducement.

It’s also why these things are so insidious. A friendship shouldn’t be about some outside agenda. We’re friends because we genuinely like each other. We’re friends because we decided to make a commitment to someone, to maintain and nurture a relationship with another person, for its own sake, not because you can make something from it. MLMs take the idea of friendship, that personal connection we feel towards other people, and profane it. It’s fundamentally sociopathic. It’s like doing your home teaching solely to get good numbers, without making any effort to actually make friends.

Pyramid scams take basic, honest human feelings and turn them into sales opportunities. I want to believe that my friends like me because they like me. Not because they think they can sell me some kind of weirdo goop. Frankly, I think MLMs are worse than Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Madoff ran an investment firm; his clients may have thought of him as a friend, but that friendship began as a business relationship.

I remember when my wife and I moved to Utah. I was a new BYU faculty member, and we hardly knew a soul. Some old friends of my parents, BYU veterans, invited us over for dinner, and we were thrilled. We knew these people a little, and it was nice to think that they wanted to be friends, maybe introduce us around to this new university subculture.

And then they pulled out their selling materials, and told us all about what a great deal Amway was.

We weren’t just offended. We were hurt. We were angry. We hid it pretty well, and are still able to greet these folks, when we run into them, with polite cordiality. But what an opportunity wasted! Of course, any possibility of actual friendship was completely gone. And that’s a shame.

So, sorry, but it’s time for these rip-offs to end. China got this one right. MLMs serve no legitimate role in any healthy economy. Or in any health-promoting friendship.

 

The Circle: Book Review

Dave Eggers’ The Circle would have to be described as a dystopic sci-fi novel, though the future it describes is likely no more than five years or so off. It’s the story of an extremely nice, hard working, basically decent young woman named Mae Holland, and the great job she gets at the best company on the planet. She’s healthy and bright; she kayaks for relaxation. She has long since put her cynical sad-sack boyfriend behind her. She’s moving up.

The company she works for is called The Circle, and it combines the best features of working for, say, Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and any five other forward-thinking tech companies. Her best friend, Annie, has risen to a top executive position there, and gets Mae an entry-level job at CE, which stands for Customer Experience.

And Mae loves it. She loves her job, loves the company. Her father is very ill with MS, and dealing with insurance companies and arranging every aspect of his care has become her mother’s full-time occupation. The Circle puts him on Mae’s insurance, and suddenly, he’s getting the best health care on the planet. (Though he is expected to show some gratitude for it). The Circle is as interested in Mae’s social life, in what she does for relaxation and fun as it is in her work product, and opportunities for recreation abound. She’s making good money, and doesn’t have much to spend it on, so completely does The Circle see to her every need. And she rises in the company, eased along by her boss, the pleasant, genial, forward-thinker progressive Eamon Bailey, one of the Three Wise Men who run the place.

Eamon, in fact, believes in the possibility of human perfectability, and thinks it can be hastened along through technology. He thinks it can be accomplished through a kind of hyper-transparency. He wants cameras everywhere. He gets politicians to wear cameras 24/7. What do they have to hide? After all, Secrets are Lies, Privacy is Theft, Sharing is Caring. Don’t people behave better when they’re being watched? Isn’t it, therefore, in the best interests of all mankind if we’re all watched, everywhere, all the time? And can’t small, plantable, easily transportable cameras, with excellent sound and HD pictures, monitored on the ‘net, be put everywhere? Who could possibly object?

Eamon’s goal isn’t a totalitarian state. It’s a kind of totalizing democracy. The democratization of ubiquity. And so, so achievable. And Mae loses herself in his vision.

Really, The Circle is the story of a nice girl, a deserving young woman, who gets a great job, loves it, is great at it, and advances. It’s the story of a great company, that takes terrific care of its employees, and is genuinely committed to doing good in the world. It’s the story of technological whizzes re-inventing mankind.

And so, you think, there’s got to be a plot twist somewhere. It’s going to turn out like, I don’t know, Soylent Green. This utopia can’t be what it seems to be. There’s a catch. But there isn’t. At the end of Brave New World, everyone really is happy. At the end of The Circle, Mae and Eamon and the other Wise Men really are exactly what they seem to be.

And if we readers find ourselves completely terrified by it, that’s our fault, of course.

Kong: Skull Island Movie Review

I would have given anything to be in the meetings where they greenlighted Kong: Skull Island. I mean, I haven’t ever worked at a studio or been in those meetings, but I have a fertile imagination and have seen lots of movies about Hollywood. All these guys–not in suits, they don’t wear suits–in skinny jeans and mismatched shirt/tie combinations listening to some writer going “cross King Kong with Apocalypse Now, with an environmentalist twist. Plus, Tom Hiddleston’s interested!” And the head of the studio’s going ‘I love it!’

In other words, this movie is nuts. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it; I liked it a lot. But it’s a big budget, major CGI, cast-of-thousands movie. And it literally is a cross between King Kong and Apocalypse Now. A King Kong movie that stays on the island and never takes its act to New York. It’s also the kind of movie where the main characters do completely insane things for utterly nonsensical reasons. Nothing in the movie makes the least sense, and our powers of disbelief-suspension are pushed to the breaking point, but it’s generally well acted, and the monsters are freaking awesome and the whole movie looks great. I was willing to go along with the ride.

Plot: wow, where to start. It’s 1973. The US is pulling out of Vietnam. So, okay, a “scientist” named Bill Randa (John Goodman) is obsessed with monsters. He thinks there may well be gargantuan super predators out there in nature somewhere, and he thinks the US government should find them before the Russkis do. And persuades a US Senator (Richard Jenkins) to fund an expedition, and also to provide him and his team with a military escort. His team includes a scientist named Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who has what he calls his ‘hollow earth’ theory, namely that the earth has massive subterranean caverns where ginormous critters could live. And Randa and Brooks have seen satellite footage of Skull Island, which they think might prove both their theories. They also bring a Chinese scientist, San (Tian Jing), because movies like this need more than one female character. But Randa’s worried about security, so he hires a British Special Forces mercenary, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). And a photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).

And they get a military escort. Like, ten helicopters (I lost count), under the command of Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is spoilin’ for a fight, Vietnam having gone so swimmingly. And lots and lots of soldiers, most of them pretty anonymous, but a few played by minor stars like Toby Kebbel and Shea Whigham and John Ortiz and Jason Mitchell. (We already know that they’re the ones who are going to survive). (Kudos to Kebbel, BTW; he also wore the motion-capture suit and played Kong).

Skull Island, it turns out, is in the Pacific (and not the Indian Ocean as in previous movies), and is surrounded by a permanent storm system. (The science in this movie is wonderful, what with the hollow earth and perma-storms and apex predators thirty stories tall). But the Pacific makes it closer to Vietnam, see. Anyway, they show up, and Sam Jackson pilots all those helicopters in past the storm system, and they see this tropic paradise (which really was cool looking). And Randa and his merry band of idiot scientists start dropping explosive probes onto Skull Island. And this pisses King Kong off. And he destroys all their helicopters, and kills a bunch of men. So the survivors are scattered to hither and yon. Eventually, they form two parties, one under the command of Colonel Packard (who’s getting increasingly nutty), looking for a way to kill Kong, and the other under the command of Conrad, because Tom Hiddleston. All the women are on that team, as is Randa and his scientist team. They just want off the island, and so are trying to reach a rendezvous spot.

Let’s pause for a sec and think about this. Randa and his team are looking for really big predatory animals. Which they think are on this island, or underground, in a hollow-earth-underworld. They find a new tropical island. A brand-new, extremely delicate ecosystem. Which they want to study. So they start by blowing a lot of it up.

Who does that? Who on earth thought this was a good idea? But, see, I think that’s the point of the movie. The movie has its scientist characters do wildly insane, incredibly destructive, pointlessly dangerous things, because it was the cold war and we did stupid stuff like that. I mean, is it stupider to drop explosive probes on King Kong, or drop atomic bombs on the Bikini Atoll? Or the Nevada desert? Or oceans of napalm in the jungles of Southeast Asia? Or all foolish things human beings do in the oceans and atmosphere and mountains and rivers and lakes of our poor mother Earth, searching for oil or coal or gold or whatever. Really, I think this movie, dumb as it is, has an environmentalist agenda front and center. John Goodman plays a scientist who is also kind of a moron (and whose lines are really quite absurd). And who sets off a chain reaction of events that kill dozens of US soldiers.

The ecology of Skull Island is fascinating. Insects are huge. A spider is twenty feet across. King Kong himself is maybe 200 feet tall. And he’s not the island’s scariest critter. Those would be these skull-headed dinosaur things, bigger than Kong, and with horrifying prehensile tongues. Which, of course, leads to this question: what do all these apex predators eat? Kong, we see, has a taste for octopus (if you can imagine an octopus 60 feet long). So, that’s one meal. But if skull-o-saurs do live in subterranean caverns, what else is down there?  Really big predators require really big prey. (They do seem to be able to eat American soldiers pretty well, but they end up urping them up afterwards).

John C. Reilly is in the movie, playing an American airman who crashed down on the island during WWII, nigh on thirty years earlier. He has been protected and saved by the island’s homo sapiens natives. Yes, there are native tribesman, mud-daubed and silent (though why they’re not 30 feet tall escapes me, given the relative sizes of other Skull Island fauna). Anyway, the natives all like Kong. He’s their protector.

In other words, King Kong is an apex predator essential to preserving the delicate ecosystem of this island. Tom Hiddleston’s character recognizes it; Samuel L. Jackson’s does not, and want Kong dead. (Though how he intends to bring that about is one of the many issues this screenplay doesn’t really address. I think napalm has a lot to do with it.)

Anyway, Kong, after some initial helicopter-bashing, turns out to be sensitive and courageous, with a soft spot for the ladies, like all Kongs before him. He and Brie Larson have a nice scene together, though on a high cliff and not the Empire State Building. And ultimately, insane Samuel Jackson and addle-pated John Goodman are appropriately eaten by monsters. And this preposterous (though wildly entertaining) movie marches off to its inevitable happy-ish ending.

I will say this; seeing a gas-masked Tom Hiddleston take on hundreds of flying menaces with a kitana in a field of poison gas was absolutely worth the price of admission. Do I recommend Kong: Skull Island?  It was very entertaining, the story and situation made no sense whatsoever, it got real preachy (though on subjects where I agree with it), and the action sequences were pretty well executed. What does that add up to for you? For me, it was two hours well-spent in a movie theater.

Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley

Professional conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to Berkeley to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans. Some 1500 people gathered to protest. A group of 150 masked and violent agitators attacked the protesters. Rocks were thrown; fireworks deployed. A riot broke out, and Berkeley security forces decided to cancel the event, to protect Yiannopoulos from physical harm. Those are the details I know; I’ll admit right now that I haven’t followed the story all that closely.

Nor have I followed the career of Milo Yiannopoulos very closely. (I have read that his followers generally refer to him as ‘Milo.’ So I won’t, even though it means having to type out the long and hard-to-spell ‘Yiannopolous’ over and over). Reading him would require that I go into Breitbart.com, which I am loathe to do. It’s an alt-right website; I’m not about to give them the click. As I understand it, he’s a Brit, ostentatiously gay, and absurdly good-looking. He was the head troll in Gamergate. He was banned from Twitter for harassing Leslie Jones, the actress, for having committed the unpardonable sin of getting cast in a movie. He hates ‘political correctness,’ which Breitbart seems to define as any constraints on mocking disabled people, women, or African-Americans. He’s anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay rights.

In short, he’s deliberately and intentionally insulting, needlessly vicious, and a self-promoter of the first order. He’s toxic, on purpose, for fun. And for profit: he just got a quarter of a million dollar book deal from Simon and Schuster. Which has done untold damage to that esteemed mainstream publisher; professional book critics have announced that they’ll boycott all Simon and Schuster books in future, other S&S authors have pulled out of their book deals; it’s a big mess. Which is great news for Yiannopoulos; like most infants, he likes causing messes.

And that’s the key to understanding the alt-right. They’re not Klan, and they’re not Klan wannabes. They’re not Nazis. They just get the giggles over using the rhetoric and style of the Klan and of Nazis, which usage they seem to regard as consequence-less. That’s Yiannopolous; when he insults feminists, he doesn’t seem to know or care if it actually harms women. It’s just how he gets his kicks.

So the Berkeley college Republicans, for fun, decided to invite the most incendiary alt-right troll on the planet. To Berkeley. They knew there would be protests. Anticipating those protests, a bunch of masked thugs launched a violent counter-protest, for kicks. Kind of like Fight Club; violence being politically incorrect, so let’s do that too.

So how should a university respond to a guy like Milo Yiannopoulos? First of all, the College Republicans were within their rights to invite a speaker to campus. And Berkeley students are within their rights protesting that invitation. As long as that protest, and that invitation live up to certain standards of civil discourse–and those standards need to be expressly stated and understood–then the University can be said to be fulfilling its main educational purpose. Invite speakers. Let them speak. Let protesters protest. Use the fact of that talk and that response to influence how teachers teach and how learners learn. Do not, ever, ban certain speakers or points of view.

And if you think it unlikely that Yiannopolous is going to say anything worth listening to (which I do), then don’t go to his speech.

What I strenuously disagree with is the idea that potentially offensive speakers should be banned from college campuses. Campuses absolutely must invite speakers, and some of those speakers are likely to hold points of view that some members of the campus community find offensive. Fine. Invite them anyway. A robust and bracing exchange of views is good for all participants.

Do you think Milo Yiannopolous is a contemptible weenie? Me too. In which case, his ideas, such as they are, won’t stand the test of time. So who cares?

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Trump Inaugural

For any of you who follow this, this will be my first post in weeks, a lapse for which I apologize, necessitated though it was by health difficulties. I actually began a post, back before Christmas, about the decision by the The Mormon Tabernacle Choir to accept an invitation to perform at the Trump inauguration. That decision was controversial; it has become less so, inevitably, with time. I mean, here we are, a third of the way through January, nine days from the events itself. Nonetheless, even now, I do have some thoughts about the issue, which seems to lend itself to an ongoing dialectic unique to this impending Presidency.

Let’s start with the pros. Of course the Tabernacle Choir should accept an invitation to perform at the Trump inauguration. Obviously, they should. An inauguration is a celebration of the American political system, and specifically, of the peaceable transfer of power which is one of the glories of our republic. To be invited to sing at such an event is a great honor. The Choir has performed at previous inaugurations, celebrating Presidents of both parties. This is not a partisan issue. The office of the President is one of the great creations of the Framers. Whatever concerns individual choir members may have about the policies or character of any individual elected President, they’re irrelevant to this decision. Americans held an election, as we do every four years. Incumbent Presidents stand down; the new President assumes power, which he (only ‘he’, so far) will relinquish in due time. That fact is worth celebrating and worth honoring.

Cons. Of course, the Tabernacle Choir should turn down this invitation. Obviously they should say no. Donald Trump is not like previous Presidential candidates or Presidential winners. He is unique, and his victory presents a unique challenge. He began his campaign for President by insulting Mexican/American immigrants, calling them criminals and rapists. He has proposed a ban on Muslim immigrants, and has peppered his campaign rhetoric with Islamophobic stereotypes. He has been caught on tape boasting of sexual exploits, including criminal assaults on women. He openly mocked a disabled reporter. And he continually and repeatedly lies about all of it. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir represents the Church, my Church, the restored Church of Jesus Christ. The values of the Church are, in every specific, incompatible with the character of the man, Donald Trump, as revealed by his own words, his own actions. The BYU football team is not allowed to play games on Sundays, because keeping the Sabbath holy is a central tenet of our faith. By the same token, the Choir cannot be part of a ceremonial meant to honor a man of such demonstrated vileness.

Precedent says the Choir should sing. Tradition makes the same case. It’s become normal for the Choir to be invited to sing at important events–an Olympic Opening Ceremony, for example. Well, an Inaugural is like that; a big public event. It’s normal to be invited, and normal to sing.

But that’s precisely why the Choir should have refused this invitation. It normalizes Trump. It makes his electoral victory seem like an ordinary part of American civil society. Every four years, we have an election, someone wins, and is inaugurated President. That’s part of what’s admirable about America. And that’s why we should suspend what’s normal this time, just this once. The guy who won this time is uniquely unadmirable.

That’s the key word, isn’t it? Normal. Donald Trump’s entire campaign was a repudiation of normal. In fact, that’s probably why he won. There’s nothing wrong with a candidate pursuing an unorthodox strategy; that’s fine. In fact, every candidate running (especially in a wacky year like 2016) is trying to distinguish him/herself from the crowd. Trump’s appeal was based on how  unnormal he was as a candidate. He self-financed. (He didn’t really, but he said he did, and some voters found that attractive). He took positions on issues at odds with normative Republican positions. Above all, he based his campaign on a full-out assault on what he called ‘political correctness.’

Which, frankly, I’m not a great fan of: political correctness. I’m disabled, not ‘differently abled.’ I certainly think we should be careful in our use of language. We shouldn’t set out deliberately to offend. But I find some examples of academic language comically punctilious.

That’s not what Trump meant by political correctness, though. Not at all. And for some of his voters, Trump’s language was a major selling point. Why pussyfoot around, they probably thought. Illegal immigrants are criminals, and probably most of them are rapists too; why not say so? Because Trump was the anti-PC candidate, he survived gaffes and misstatements that would have sunk most candidacies. By saying “I hate political correctness,” he essentially wrapped himself in Teflon. It allowed his alt-Right followers to say whatever they wanted to. And somehow, discovering that Trump supporters included borderline Klan members didn’t hurt him with the general electorate. He was opposed to political correctness, after all.

And that’s how Trump survived a scandal that would have destroyed nearly every other candidacy in the history of American politics; the discovery of the Billy Bush tape. For Trump to speak in such disgusting and disrespectful terms about women didn’t kill him. It was ‘locker room talk,’ guys being guys. Sure it was gross, but whaddya gonna do? That’s how men talk sometimes. Don’t overreact. It’s no big deal.

By attacking political correctness, Trump normalized what essentially amounts to bragging about criminal sexual assault. By electing him anyway, the good citizens of the United States normalized, at least, talking that way. We strained at the gnat of Hillary’s emails, and swallowed the camel of Trump-being-Trump.

And nothing has changed. Most Presidential candidates are very careful to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. If their business holdings could, in any sense, be seen as ethically questionable, they divest.  Trump has more extensive investments than any President-elect in history. He has done nothing to distance himself from the interests of his own corporations. He is already normalizing corruption. What’s the big deal? He’s a rich guy; he owns lots of stuff. So what if foreign diplomats already curry favor by staying at his Washington hotel? Who cares?

Donald Trump is not a normal President-elect. This was not a normal election, and this won’t be a normal inauguration. The Tabernacle Choir disgraces itself by normalizing his election in this way. His values are not our values; we should not pretend that everything’s okay, that all’s well in Zion. One choir member, Jan Chamberlin, has resigned over this. She’s the one genuine heroine of this narrative. The Trump Presidency is a unique phenomenon, and requires an unusual response. We have to do this; oppose everything Trump, all the time, always. A good place to start is by refusing to sing at his party.

My Rudolf fiasco

We had our ward Christmas party last Friday, and I was part of the featured entertainment. I have this thing I do; a kind of fractured fairy tales thing, only for Christmas. I gather the kids up on stage, and sit in a comfy chair, and tell them a Christmas story. Only I mess it up. I’ve learned over the years that little kids love correcting a grown-up, so I pretend to be wholly incompetent. I’ll start by telling the story of the Grinch, say, only I’ll drag in everything from Goldilocks to Sleeping Beauty to Lord of the Rings. And every time the story goes off the rails, the kids are outraged. “No!” they cry. “That’s not how it goes!” And I course-correct, and a great time is had by all.

I’ve done this for years. I did it with my children when they were young, and their friends, and other kid relatives. I am, it seems, fairly good at feigning befuddlement.

I did it in our ward last year, and it went well. The kids were appropriately incensed by my, to them, astonishing inability to tell a simple Christmas story. One kid–maybe 5 or 6–came up to me in Church the next Sunday. “Boy,” he said, shaking his head. “You are the worst story-teller ever.” “I know,” I responded sadly. “I’m sorry. I’m just bad at it.” And he walked away, astonished, no doubt, that someone was fool enough to ask this poor sad sack to tell a Christmas story when it was clearly beyond him.

A couple of years ago, I was on the organizing committee for the Christmas party, and we decided to hire Santa to entertain the kids. Someone knew a professional Santa, a guy in the stake, and we brought him in, despite no one knowing his act. And I’m sorry to say it, but he was a big disappointment. He struck me as the kind of adult who thinks that what kids want is a strong moral lesson. Little kids do not want a strong moral lesson. Little kids want goofiness. And what’s wonderful about children is their exuberance, their energy, their imagination, their love for the truly silly. This Santa couldn’t even be bothered to plop kids on his lap and ask ’em what they wanted for Christmas. If I were Santa–and I’ve got the body type for it–I’d love that; treating each kid as special. But not this guy. I think it got in the way of his preachifying.

Anyway, I was looking forward to this year’s Christmas party. I decided beforehand that I would tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer. That way, they’d catch on immediately to the nature of the game. “No!” they’d shout. “Red-nosed reindeer! Rudolf has a red nose! Not a green one.” And we’d be off running.

I do very little preparation for this thing. I can generally keep track in my head of where we are in the story, and which other extraneous tales I’ve already dragged in. I have various stalling tactics I can use when I need to buy time. “Are you sure?” I’ll ask. “I thought Rudolf had a green nose. Green means go; red means stop. Rudolf is what makes Santa’s sleigh go.” And meantime, I’m trying to figure out how to work Little Red Riding Hood into it.

This year, though, the kids were prepped. They were loaded for bear. They’d clearly remembered the goofy Christmas story guy from last year. And they had no interest in playing. In particular, I blame a cabal of older kids, 8 or 9 years old, deeply cynical little post-modernists, who showed up to the Christmas party with a plan. “You want to deconstruct Christmas stories,” I imagine them saying. “Well, deconstruct this, sucka!”

So I go “I’m going to tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer.” And a few younger kids were suitably aggravated. “No!” they shouted on cue. But these older kids had the situation in hand. “Yeah,” they said, smirking. “Green-nosed reindeer. Sure. Let’s go with green.”

It didn’t matter where I went with it. They were ready for me. So I said “Let’s see. Santa’s reindeer were Dasher and Prancer, Donner and Blitzen, Comet and Cupid and Harry and Hermione.” And the kids went “Sure! Harry Potter’s a reindeer. Why not?” Yikes.

By the end of the story, Gandolf and Dumbledore were also on Santa’s sleigh, casting spells so Santa could get down particularly narrow chimneys. Cindy Lou Who and the Big Bad Wolf were working together to save Christmas, and Cinderella and the Three Little Pigs were huffing and puffing to get Santa’s sleigh some tailwind. I was tap dancing like Savion Glover, and the story was like Kafka channeling Tristan Tzara. Those kids! Those rotten kids! Derailing my story like that.

Who am I kidding? I had a ball. I had to work a lot harder than usual, but it was a ball. In the end, I brought things home, Santa’s sleigh made it through the fog, Rudolf was a hero, and Harry and Hermione, reindeer, got extra hay at the end of the night. I build an event on mis-told Christmas stories, and the kids did me one better, and turned the night into a pure story adventure. It was kind of a fiasco, but it was also fun, and the kids seemed to enjoy it, making this grown-up sweat. Darn ’em. I fully admit it; I met my match in this particular group of kids. And I couldn’t be prouder.