Friday, April 28, 2017

"Salvaging A Perspective Recently Inappropriately Disparaged"

The Perspective:  “Alternative facts.”  Which I shall proceed to resuscitate.

A while back, in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, a woman wrote about coping with the current presidential debacle by deliberately reading books about previous terrible presidents.  To demonstrate that the current president isn’t so terrible?  No, she explained.  He is terrible.  But reading about previous ones reminds us that presidents have been terrible before.  

Optimistic Corollary:  Therefore, ultimately survivable.

Let me herein honestly attest that I – Braggy Braggerson – was way ahead of her concerning this practice.

I have always been interested in terrible presidents. 

You want proof?  Okay, here’s proof.

On my last birthday, at my less than subtle request – “I want those!” – I received – from the “American Presidents Collection” (wherein a different eminent historian is assigned to write a less than 200-page biography of every president – Exception:  the Ulysses S. Grant “Large Print” version I received expanded to 309 pages… do you happen to remember how this sentence began?  Okay I’ll remind you. 

On my last birthday, I received seven authoritative, short presidential biographies, among which were the biographies of Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan, William McKinley and Warren G. Harding. 

With the exception of Buchanan, who is factually unsalvageable – he supported the “Dred Scot” decision (slaves captured in free territories had to be returned to their masters) and whose belief concerning the seceding southern states during his presidential tenure amounted to, “I am against their seceding unless they want to” – the other historians’ researched conclusions concerning their assigned subjects ranged resuscitatingly from McKinley – he is woefully underappreciated – to Harding – he was better than “nearly as bad as Buchanan.”

Bringing me to the concept of “Alternative Facts.”

Here’s the thing about that idea.  I’ll use me as an example, because… why not?

I have, on occasion, been known to be nice to people.  And were you, in the course of chronicling my life, to have an contacted those people I had been nice to, those people would have hopefully reported, “He was nice to me”, and, if you had corroborating evidence in that regard, that extolling insight into my characer would then be included in my biography, which might possibly be entitled:  Earl Pomerantz – They Called Him Nice.

On the other hand…

The opposite thing.

Which I have also occasionally been to people. 

Corroborating evidence in that direction leading to an alternate biographical conclusion, entitled:  Earl Pomerantz – Bad To The Bone.

Do you see what I’m talking about?  Without bias or preconception – or, perhaps, resulting from bias or preconception – because, in any person’s actual life they do tons of stuff, some of it frustratingly inconsistent, evidence can be readily assembled, leading to honestly supportable but violently contradictory conclusions.

“Grant was a drunkard.” 

“Hold on – it wasn’t that bad.”

“Was he or wasn’t he?” is for another blog post.  My point today is, biographers on both sides can provide evidentiary backing for either.

I at first reflexively snorted, hearing about about “alternative facts” as it related, originally, to the estimated crowd size at the recent president’s inauguration.  And I cheered, hearing about (because I don’t watch anymore) commentator Chuck Todd, crippled by having been wrong about everything concerning the election, rise up and proclaim, with admirable righteous indignation, “Look!  Alternative facts are not facts.  They’re falsehoods!”    

But then I thought about it.

And I realized they’re not.

“Angry Chuck” was sadly aiming at the wrong target.  (An additional misstep he hardly needed after his unfortunate recent track record.)

“Alternative facts” are hardly the enemy.  The real enemy is “fabricated facts.”  (Such as the inaccurate crowd-size figures at the inauguration, or seeing thousands of people in New Jersey cheering when the World Trade Center went down.) 

Equally objectionable are “debunked facts.”  (Such as those opposing legitimate “Climate Change” arguments or those supporting “Supply-Side Economics”, which economists are surprised is still breathing after nearly unanimously driving an unsurvivable stake into its heart.)

It felt viscerally redemptive, taking someone publicly to task for the distortion labeled “alternative facts.”  But when you are after the big whale, you must be sure you are brandishing the appropriate harpoon… so to speak.  

Otherwise, it’s Earl Pomerantz – Bad To The Bone, with no rebutting substantiatable alternative reality.

Leaving me forever remembered as a terrible person.

When I was only actually terrible sometimes.
Observation I Forgot To Include Because I Did Not Know Where To Put It:  Every debate is a contest of alternate facts.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Knowledge And... Wait, What's The Opposite Of That Again?"

I recently completed a Book-on-CD entitled Hag-Seed, written by the highly acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

Hag-Seed was a rewardingly enjoyable “read-in-the-ear”, concerning a deposed theater – make that theatre because it’s Canadian – festival director, who exacts revenge against his nefarious adversaries via a production of The Tempest the exiled director mounts, working with actors incarcerated in a nearby prison.

Interesting – to me, and hopefully eventually to you – is that what has remained with me after finishing Hag-Seed was a brief, extraneous-to-the-storyline description, included as the discredited impresario was one day driving to work.

As the director passes the fields, the author takes a moment to delineate the seasonally appropriate crop modulations, describing,

“… the light green of the winter wheat, the darker green of soybeans.”

An innocuous fragment of a sentence.  And yet it caused me to rewind the CD, or whatever, so I could listen to it again.

“… the light green of the winter wheat, the darker green of soybeans.”

Hardly memorable poetry, or well-turned phrase, or Wildean aphorism.  What then was it that affected me?

What affected me was the author’s personal knowledge of the color of winter wheat as distinguished from the darker color of winter soybeans.  (I know.  It’s “colour.” but I was going someplace.)

I love it when writers know stuff.  A friend of mine wrote a movie in which he infused into one of the films characters his own personal knowledge of astronomy.  The way it was written, the included factual information did felt not artificially appended, like a glued-on mustache; it felt like my friend generically knew what he was talking about.

Similarly, the still-memorable “plot point” in Beverly Hill Cop in which the Eddie Murphy character explains that coffee grounds can throw “drug sniffing dogs” erroneously off the scent.  The inclusion of “coffee grounds” felt like exciting
“bonus information.”  I mean, who knew about that?

DRUG SNIFFING DOGS:  “We did.  And we hate it.”

I mean, besides the dogs.

Of course – typically for me – accompanying my appreciation of impressively informed writers is a rebuking critique of myself for knowing comparatively nothing.  Among other real or imagined impediments, this glaring deficit in direct knowledge made me reluctant to write movies, believing that, over a two-or-so-hour period, my inability to provide any enriching informational tidbits might lead the audience’s enthusiasm to wear thin.

How do I compensate for my lack of integral knowledge about anything?

What else?  I exploit my substantial ignorance instead.

You can do that in comedies.  In serious dramas, the “Bar of Knowledge” is demonstrably higher.

“We attack the American capital tomorrow!”

“New York City?”


Possibly a chuckle in a comedy.  In a serious drama, that’s “Check, please.”

“Tell us, Earlo, what piece of comedy can you point to exemplifying your most egregious informational stupidity”?

Thanks for the setup, “Blue Italics-Writing Person.”  It really moves things along.

Consider “The Wheat Sketch”, co-written with my older brother, who, like myself, is also not a Saskatchewan sodbuster.

The sketch’s original premise grew out of a report that, in order to stabilize marketplace prices, Canadian farmers would be receiving government-paid subsidies not to grow wheat.

Okay.  So there’s these two middle-aged farmers, rocking contentedly on their front porch after a subsidized season of not at all growing wheat.

Suddenly, one of them sits bolt upright, realizing that there might be a serious problem. 

What is it?

“I think I didn’t grow oats by mistake.”

A potential criminal offense, since the government was only paying them not to grow wheat.  If they mistakenly didn’t grow oats instead, they were receiving government subsidies under false pretenses. 

The farmers’ reflexive proposal to this dilemma is to go out and immediately dig up what they did not grow by definitively determining what they had not planted.  Shooting that possibility down (because “We didn’t plant anything!“) their alternative recourse was to wait, knowing that

“If she don’t come up in the spring she’s wheat; and if she don’t come up in the fall she’s oats!

Well, you can discern the difficulties with that piece of material, starting with farmers being unable to distinguish between wheat and oats and ending with the clueless assertion that one of them comes up in the spring while the other of them comes up in the fall.  Not to mention whether farmers call the crops they annually cultivate “she.

But… “That’s comedy.”  Unless you’re an actual farmer, in which case, that’s “ridiculous hogwash.”

The message here, recalled to mind by that educated descriptive in Hag-Seed, is that your writing is inevitably informed by your experience.

Whether it’s knowing about soybeans.

Or not knowing about wheat.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"Dreaming As A Survival Strategy"

Recent front-page “Lead Story” headline in the L.A. Times

“Los Angeles sees surge in car crashes.”

(You know, normally, newspaper headlines capitalize all the words, sometimes capitalizing all the letters.  I suspect that the L.A. Times did this “lower case” thing on purpose – They did not want to scare the subscribers.)

Writers, by avocation and often too by personal preference, live in a fantasy world.  I myself have not infrequently been accused of at times being insufficiently “present.” (And have been considerate enough not to remind my detractors that those characteristic “absences” paid for this house.)

Health professionals – I am stereotyping here although not maliciously – work to dissuade their patients from living in fantasy worlds so they can more happily and productively embrace actual reality.

Okay, so you climb down from the clouds and what’s the first thing you are perhaps confronted with?

“Los Angeles sees surge in crash deaths.”

My immediate response to that being,

“I want to go back to my fantasy world.”

I mean, come on.  Wherever you live, though more unavoidably in Los Angeles, you are required to drive places.  Do you really want to know first thing in the morning that your chances of getting there have been seriously diminished?

I don’t.

You want to hear some statistics?  And if you live in Los Angeles, you may not be so quick to respond in the affirmative.  It’s just that a post is respectably enhanced by the inclusion of “hard numbers.”  Otherwise it’s just a guy, possibly irrationally, bloviating hot air.   

Okay.  And you may skip the following paragraph if you are averse to carnage, even if it’s simply numbers on a computer screen, rather than driving “Lookie-Looingly” past a car accident – slowing traffic immeasurably in the process but that’s a gripe for another occasion – and sympathetically going, “Oh, my.”  (Transparent Schadenfreude for “I am glad it’s not me.”)

Continuing the L.A. Times article…

“In 2016… 260 people were killed in traffic collisions, an increase of almost 43% over the previous year, {which} appears to be more than a one-year fluke:  So far in 2017, crash fatalities are 22% higher than in the same period last year.”

And as if that weren’t enough to make you choke on your Cheerios, expanding the concern nationally…

“In 2016, 40,200 people died in crashes involving cars.”

Consider that for a second.

Forty thousand two hundred people were going someplace…

And they never showed up.  

How’s that for giving reality a bad name?  Nobody ever dies in a fantasy world.

The article goes on to delineate reasons for this dramatic surge in car crash fatalities.  But you know what?

I don’t care.

I drove to “Pilates” this morning, and it was hardly absent from my mind that, in just the first three months of this year, my chances of delivering myself there safely had dropped 22%.

“Normal” people, apparently, do not consider such matters.  It would seem that, for them, the idea of traffic fatalities – over forty thousand of them annually – is shrugglingly “Business as usual.”

And I ask you,

Who’s the crazy person?

The person internally registers that daunting statistic, or the person who blithely ignores it, pulling out of their driveway and heading off to their destination?  (While simultaneously texting or holding their i-Phones to their ears, or maybe, as I have personally observed, administering makeup to their faces, brushing their teeth, or bisecting a sandwich nestled precariously on their laps)?

I could rattle on about cave people enjoying better odds making it back safely to their domiciles, or western pioneers returning to their homesteads unhurt after riding to town for supplies, or at-risk Black Plague candidates reaching their hovels “plague-free.”) 

But why waste your time with unprovable comparisons?  Of course life has never been a hundred percent “Danger Proof.”  Still, wouldn’t you expect that the twenty-first century could do better than over forty thousand families getting notificational phone calls from the police?

That last sentence, although accurate, is, perhaps in retrospect, overly gloomy.  Who knows?  Maybe it is healthier not to think about those things.  It probably is, as there is little you can do about the aforementioned eventuality beyond driving responsibly, and being hyper-vigilant when other motorists do not. 

Why bring up this matter at all?

So that, at least now, when you see someone drift away into a fantasy world, you may be more understanding concerning the reasons they went there.

And give them a considerate break or two when they do.

(Unless they are behind the wheel at the time, in which case “Knock it off!)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Expert Opinion"

There appears in some quarters to be a raging hostility towards expertise, as if, somehow subliminally, the appellation “I’m an expert” connotes the famed Chevy Chase addendum, “And you’re not.”  It understandably upsets people to be so snootily dismissed.

“Don’t tell me I’m not an expert.”

Well, you’re not.

“I said ‘Don’t tell me!’”

My suspicion is that it is that it not the expertise itself that is so vociferously objected to, it’s the underlying “Children should be seen and not heard” implication in which if you’re not “experts”, you’re “children.”  It feels hurtfully disrespectful to hear, “Shut up and just listen.”  

My concern, however, is that this hot-button business has gotten muddled, in that this perceived (or possibly actual) condescension triggers an inflaming animosity towards experts, not because they are supercilious nincompoops but simply because they are experts.  This seems to me to be a dangerous confusion, especially, say, picking an example out of the air, when voting for the office of President of the United States.

Hold on.  We’ll get to that.

Arguably, ever since Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960’s, who admittedly messed up in Viet Nam though it wasn’t entirely his fault – he just wasn’t a Kennedy – who also messed up in Viet Nam (and the Bay of Pigs) but at least he was a Kennedy – Lyndon Johnson, due to decades of service wrangling Congress, had a background eminently suitable for the position of president.  (Subsequently demonstrated by his successfully ramrodding the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts through a recalcitrant legislature.)

Since then, however, we have preferred to elect peanut farmers. 

And their equally less qualified ilk, voting for them consistently over battle-hardened (maligned) “Washington insiders”, with admirable resumes and hands-on expertise.


A candidate for president:  served in Congress, headed the CIA, served as Vice President of the United States and one term as actual president.

“We don’t want him!

Who did they prefer?

The former Governor of Arkansas.

What’s the annual budget of Arkansas?  You know the budget for the latest Captain America sequel? 

The budget of Arkansas was what they paid for the trailer.

Not the preview of the movie, the star’s actual trailer.

Bill Clinton was not a tainted (by experience) “Washington insider” and that’s all they needed to know.  He was their kind of candidate – a two-seater pilot asked to captain a Jumbo Jet – and they gave him the job.

Which brings us to the present fiasco.

“Qualified for the position”?  The man was substantially elected because he wasn’t.

Paraphrasing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,

“We don’t need no stinkin’ experts!”

He says he’s an expert negotiator.  Though I’m not sure presidents can sue people. 

“I’d love to discuss World Hunger with you, but I’m due in court.  Do whatever you want, and if it doesn’t work out we’ll insist that it did.”

I want the most important job in the world handled by someone who knows what he – or she, another qualified expert shot down at the polls – is actually doing.  When I was looking for heart surgeons, I never once demanded, “Get me the guy who builds gaudy condominiums!”

The irrational "hatred-of-experts" opposition is ubiquitous.  I recall a very funny comedy sketch in which a man who, although he knew where fish went in the winter, due to his lack of professional expertise was denied a public platform because, as it was explained, although he may have indeed known where fish went in the winter he was not expertly qualified to know.

“If you are not an anointed expert, then they shut you right up”, was the point of that very funny comedy sketch.  I am trying to remember who wrote it.

Oh wait.

It was me.


The people I cleverly deride say “X.”  I myself have said “X.”  I am “the people I cleverly deride.” 


Did you ever wish that you had never opened your mouth?