On the Importance of Discomfort: Two Documentaries

Strictly speaking, I’m not a huge fan of documentaries. Or, more accurately, they aren’t my first choice in viewing because they ask a lot of me that I’m not always ready to give. Sometimes, I find them memorable. One example was New York Doll (2005), the story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, former bassist of the group New York Dolls who had overcome drugs and become a Mormon. Reviews were excellent, and since I know virtually nothing about the rock band world, I found it compelling on many levels. However—and this is the point—it never made me uncomfortable.

Two people recently recommended two documentaries, one of which I avoided for at least six weeks. Once I’d conquered that one, I could move on to the next. Warning: I can pretty much bet some will be offended by one, if not both, of these films. Discomfort may not be the word you use, but the feeling will be at least contentious or negative or worse.

The first, Larry Elder’s Uncle Tom: An Oral History of the American Black Conservative (2020), consists of a number of Black men and women talking about their conversion to the conservative side of the political divide. The old saying that there’s nothing like a convert seems relevant enough. The stories these people tell, however, reflect a depth that a simple dismissal like that doesn’t capture. Reviews are hard to come by. This one from the Chicago Tribune quotes from the film and lauds the effort. Rotten Tomatoes is largely silent, with just one review. Yet even there the documentary earns a 94% audience score. The opening was verifiably successful, making Uncle Tom one of the most successful documentaries on record. And it’s not about Trump, if that’s an immediate turn off. It’s about conservative Republicans.

Several things make this documentary remarkable. First, the speakers are diverse in backgrounds, professions, and narratives. In fact, the person with the most continuity is a contractor named Chad Jackson. We see him applying joint compound to PVC, cutting tin, and working on drywall. Yes, there are academics and politicians, commentators and pundits, but it is Jackson whose straightforward explanations are key. Some policies are discussed, but the message is more directed at the pressure to conform to one way of thinking. Another element of that is the suppression of Black voices that are successful but conservative. Biden made two mistakes recently: Telling a commentator who said he had more questions, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” (He went on that the NAACP had endorsed him every time he’d run, which wasn’t true; the organization never endorses anyone.) Later, he said, “…unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes.” He had to walk both comments back, and while neither is particularly terrible, each reflects the attitudes that the film takes on.

Second, the documentary is important not just for Black people but for everyone else as well. We often lack insight into the lives of others in general, but unless someone has told how things are in other cultures, we remain ignorant and, often, content with that ignorance. Culture extends to people from other parts of the country, other countries, other races, other denominations, other religions. Understanding should come after education, but that’s not always the case; understanding our own limitations includes awareness of the things we think we think we know but are wrong about. That’s inelegant. Mark Twain (well, probably not really) said it better: “It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Oh, for a touch of humility. For example, while most understand that “Uncle Tom” is a slur, few may know that the character from Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had nothing in his behavior that would suggest he was a turncoat or disloyal or any other pejorative term. Stowe intended him as a “noble character” who stood up for his beliefs. He dies because he refuses to disclose the whereabouts of two women escaping slavery. It is also important to remember that the book was a powerful anti-slavery tool. Published in 1852, it went on to become the best-selling novel of the entire century. Abraham Lincoln said to Stowe when he met her in 1862 (well, probably not really), “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Our next film also sports a long name. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020). Peter Debruge writing for Variety: “Rather than making audiences feel bad about trans-themed movies they may have naively enjoyed in the past, it educates on the larger issues while unpacking a legacy of problematic representation.” His is one of 47 reviews, compared to the single for Uncle Tom. That bit of a discrepancy could be dealt with elsewhere perhaps.

Disclosure has much the same format as Uncle Tom, without the plumbing scenes. Actors, writers, and activists discuss specific scenes in films dating from 1914 to the recent past. We all know some of them: Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl, and episodes in The Jeffersons and Nip/Tuck, to name a very few. The subtext is more interesting, as they discuss their own reactions and histories. At one level, then, we are taught or reminded to notice what we are seeing. Running the gamut, the reaction is reminiscent of our innocence (Bugs Bunny dressed as the Wagnerian soprano here at 2:24) or revulsion presented as comedic in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The speakers discuss their own reactions to these depictions, and the result is that we are better able to understand their viewpoints on a topic we have likely never considered.  Suddenly, we remember making unkind remarks about a topic without realizing someone affected by that topic was standing out of sight. (I did this once in my youth, and I have seen it done recently. Perhaps you have your own example. It stings.)

Recent transgender transformations have been notable for their publicity. Coming out was something of interest years ago, but the difference is revealing orientation versus dramatic changes in appearance is stark. Bruce now Caitlyn Jenner is one. Lana and Lilly Wachowski of The Matrix films and Sense8 fame  are others. It is a small community, however, with a demographic of 0.6% of Americans identifying as transgender. Not of this plays a part in the film, however. Rather, the focus remains personal.

People are free to align themselves with one party or another. People are free to seek reconciliation with gender dysphoria in ways that make them happy. Disagreement with the issues, one hopes, does not extend to an individual involved. This FaceBook picture captures perspective. This video from an American church has a group-building exercise. This one from Denmark begins with the same stage and script but deviates in several places. This one is called #RethinkLabels; some words will likely make you uncomfortable, but the ending makes it worth it. This one and this one and this one dramatize being judgmental. Most of us like to think of ourselves as savvy. These videos reveal a side of ourselves that is also tender.

The idea about pearls got me looking at their origin. It’s not true, for example, that a grain of sand inside an oyster produce the reaction that generates nacre to make a pearl. Usually, the culprit is some sort of parasite. And there are many kinds of pearls in many shapes and sizes; the perfect round white ones are actually the exception. (My hometown of San Angelo includes three branches of the Concho River, a source of freshwater pearls that have been treasured since the 17th century Spaniards tried to market them.) So mussels and oysters have the ability to turn an irritant into something beautiful. It seems like a good enough metaphor. Notably, vinegar dissolves pearls. That, also, seems fitting.

With these two documentaries, I learned a lot, I realized I was wrong about a lot, and I confronted some discomfort of my own. I think they call that having an open mind.

Betwixt and Between

The question these days is the sincerely spoken “How are you?” It is appreciated, of course, but I’ve come to believe the more appropriate question would be “Where are you?”

On one hand, the research on grieving began in earnest with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, about whom I wrote briefly just over two years ago in “Instead.” She identified five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. A nice visual can be seen here. Interestingly, depression is not at the bottom, and acceptance is actually pictured higher the starting place. The “Where” could mean one of these categories, and that could be helpful, but it’s not quite right. For the past 15 years, the process of loss moved between these various places, jaggedly, sadly. The last one—acceptance—assumes a moving on, but that is another complication. If I have, wouldn’t I know?

Where to, then? Betwixt and between, the place where the fairies are. It’s called “liminality.” You know far more about it than you may think. More common is the word “subliminal.” We’ve heard about advertising that inserts a suggestion onscreen too quickly for us to see it consciously (questionable) or the many examples of brands using subtle messages within their logos (the entire word “Toyota” is one). This sentence from Jon Goss, contains the message as well as a great pattern: “The market, standing between the sacred and secular, the mundane and exotic, and the local and global, has always been a place of liminality.” But the real scholar on this issue is Victor Turner, writing here about rites of passage. For graduates and mourners, bridges and grooms, many of those fell prey to the current pandemic.

No, I’m not teasing about the fairies. In popular culture, fairies are, well, very popular. Even the elves in all those Lord of the Rings movies were likely supposed to be fairies, according to this source. Their near-mortality, unusual beauty, and otherness support this idea. With the dwarves on one side and humans on the other, who wouldn’t prefer fairies? In the 1691 The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, Reverend Robert Kirk, minister of the Parish of Aberfoyle, Stirling, Scotland, wrote: “These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People…are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel…” (Oddly, the only Siths I’ve heard of are the bad guys in Star Wars.)

Their history extends far into the distant past, 5000 years with stories from India about nagas, beings who combined in form serpents and humans. Note, Harry Potter fans, that the females were called nagini, which is the name J.K. Rowling gave to Voldemort’s deadly serpent companion. She did her homework, possibly unlike a certain Darth-maker. The scholars in this hour-long podcast discuss all this at length (redundant?) and seem to be quite immersed.

There are a great variety of fairies: Sweet flowery ones as painted by Cicely Mary Barker; bad ones, often Scottish; beautiful Edwardian ones by Edward Robert Hughes; prank photographed ones, the so-called Cottingley fairies. Mention must be made of the most Americanized one of all, Tinker Bell, who was not, in fact, modeled on Marilyn Monroe as touted in urban legend. Most of these miss the point, however. When J.M. Barrie wrote, “When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies,” he hinted at fairies’ role at birth, but they also attend deaths and keep a place at hearths. They are to be found at the bottom of gardens, wherever that is, and near bridges.

So, back to liminality. It seems a long way to go, longer than usual because I get easily distracted and take myself places. The truth is, of course, that no one can go with me to mourn, not really. Early in the story of Job, when he has lost everything—all his children and all his wealth and was covered in boils—his three friends come to comfort him, but their reaction to his suffering is unexpected: “So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” There is nothing they can do besides be with him. They are, then, in the place that is between the happiness he had and the future he cannot see.

It’s often said we don’t know how to handle death in this country. I think, rather, that we don’t know how to mourn in this country. People do still wear black at funerals, but not for a year or more afterward, as was once done. It was an expensive custom, all those black outfits, but perhaps it signaled to the world where the mourner was. Many friends feel helpless, not knowing what to do or say. Worse, encouraging the bereaved to move on suggests that there is a choice in such things, reflecting perhaps the observer’s own discomfort at seeing grief.

The picture of the threshold is, of course, intentional. It’s earthy and underfoot. A more glorious symbol, the rainbow, more literally unites heaven and earth. A friend who lost a husband when both were young told me great stories about seeing rainbows when there was a reason, a need. I love them, too. ( Here is a horizontal rainbow, though the “bow” doesn’t seem apt: the actual term is circumnavigational arc. I didn’t know of such things.)

Having learned a good bit about fairies, and withholding my own potential tale of angering some Irish fairies some years ago, I think I have come to the conclusion that “I’m okay” is not a place but a signal. I’m in here, somewhere, where the new reality has formed just yet, so I can’t really leave the here and now for what is beyond the betwixt and between. I have indeed felt the comforting husband presence, unseen, unheard, but somehow here. It’s a place where words don’t so much can’t help but fail in their inadequacy to describe. And that is, at least for now, okay.

The Salsa Recipe

Tomatoes. Cilantro. Onion. Jalapeño. Lime juice. Salt.

When my son called last week to ask me about this foundational recipe (requested by neighbors, lauded by air conditioner repairmen), I explained it so he could make it himself. He asked, “How can anything so simple be so good?” And therein lies a tale. It’s not as simple as listing the ingredients. Here we go.

Should the tomatoes be fresh or canned? Yes. A friend who gave the original version said canned were fine. I’d been using fresh in a slightly more complicated version, but I don’t think it matters much. How much? Depends on how much you want to make. That isn’t meant to sound smart alecky. My last iteration used a 14.5 oz can of stewed tomatoes. Someone had said canned whole tomatoes work better than diced, which I had been using. Sadly, when I put the tomatoes in the blender, I saw teeny tiny bits of celery. The horror! I decided not to throw out the batch, hoping all would be well. A sensitive palate can detect the teeniest tiniest hint of celery, but it’s fine. Back to tomato theory. Fresh tomatoes ought to make a huge difference, and I don’t understand why they don’t. So it’s obviously much cheaper to use canned. Either way, if the final result is too watery/thin, I drain it with a colander. (Side note: Our mother had for some reason learned can sizes. The one I used is technically a #300 can. You, too, can explore this bit of info here. That doesn’t appear on the product but serves a purpose for commercial cooking—prisons come to mind. This video shows how they’re made from the show of the same name; the narrator enjoys her puns at the beginning “airtight reputation,” for example.)

Cilantro is the word we use in the US and Canada for an herb used throughout the world. A more common name, coriander, is also used but here usually as the ground or whole seeds. Not everyone likes it. Some people find that it tastes like dish soap, likely based on a genetic response. People do study these things. Since we buy cilantro in bunches, there’s not so much a measuring issue as a preference one. The stems are too bitter, in my opinion, so I cut off the top part and discard the rest. At about 39¢ a pop, it’s not a big investment. I’d guess I use about ½ cup usually. The rest usually ends up getting tossed. In case you have some who don’t like cilantro, I’d recommend two batches. This recipe calls it a key ingredient, but it also suggests using green pepper if you don’t like jalapeno. EEK! This recipe calls for 2 tsp. cumin and 2 tsp. sugar. I’d say no, but I guess you can try. I also don’t add garlic.

Onion adds not just heat but also flavor. I’m not a raw onion fan, but it has to be here. The variety doesn’t matter particularly—red, yellow, or white. Each has its devotees. The red ones are expensive, so I wouldn’t use one in an otherwise cheap dish. Plus the flavor is a bit different. Flatter onions are milder and sweeter, or at least someone told me once, and I believed them. I don’t use green onions because I don’t think they go in a blender well. How much? Again, to taste. About ¼ to ½ cup. (The Onion used to be a premier satire site. Not so sure any more. And then we have the Great Onion Recall of August 2020 which resulted in millions of onions being tossed before their time “out of an abundance of caution.” The risk of salmonella, you know.)

Jalapeño. You’ve heard about the Scoville Scale for measuring the level of heat. A jalapeño resides down near the bottom with 2500 SHU. A bell pepper has none, and Anaheim and poblanos have 500-1000. The chart goes up to 16 million, which—though it doesn’t say—must be fatal. I once burned my hands as I worked with jalapeños to can them. Seeds or no seeds, they are spicy. As newlyweds, we swaggered into a restaurant in Santa Fe and assured the wait staff we were from Texas so, sure, we’d take the green sauce. We slunk out, since it was way too spicy to actually eat. Lesson in humility learned. They probably do that to all the Texans. Because of the science of receptors, heat is more personal than anything else on this list. Adjust accordingly.

Lime juice. Half a lime if juicy, whole thing if it’s not. Bottled is okay if you have to, but go easy since it’s not a good substitute for fresh. And why not lemon, you may ask? I once read a recipe that called for chopped nuts. As in by hand. The instructions said that if you didn’t know why the nuts had to be chopped rather than ground, then you had no business making said dish. Technically, I don’t know why not lemon. It just is. Since you are anticipating a “to taste” here, I’ll just say it’s hard to get too much lime juice out of a real one, unlike a lemon. Rule of thumb: It’s easier to put in more but impossible to take out too much.

Salt is a wonderful thing. Someone I know once said you can eat anything with a little salt and a little oil. Yet I hope we’re never called upon to do such a thing. It’s one of the basic five taste groups along with sweet, sour, bitter, and savory, a relatively new addition with receptors discovered in 2007. It’s also called umami, the Japanese word for “tastes good.” Salt can also ruin a lot of things, so add it last and incrementally. The pepper is just a chemical burn, not a flavor, remember.

Throw it all in a blender but don’t make it a soup. Once it’s all finely chopped, stop and start adding the salt. It will keep about two weeks in the fridge, though it doesn’t last that long.

What to serve it with? Tortilla chips, of course, but what kind? White corn, yellow corn, thick, thin, ruffled, round, triangled. Cheap, expensive, homemade (do you do that?), salted. Sorry. Too many choices. Eggs, quesadillas, nachos. I like a salad dressing that is equal parts salsa and sour cream. Great on a taco salad, naturally.

So, how can something so simple be so good? I don’t know. It’s not really all that simple. Just that good.

Meet Larry Jefferson, a Real Santa


A native of Nashville, Arkansas, Santa Larry now works at the Duncanville UPS office, where our Mariah discovered him during hours of form signing and faxing. She came home saying she’d met Santa, with a literal twinkle in his eye. I believe (well, yes, that too) that his entire person twinkles: His laugh has deep tones reminiscent of theNorth Poler’s Ho! Ho! Ho! He has a beautiful beard. And he is quite famous. He allows that being the first African-American Santa at the Mall of America brought headlines, and still do. Interviews exist galore: NPR, The Undefeated, ABC13 in Chicago, NBC, The Daily Mail (UK), his alma mater Henderson State University, Tom Joyner, Texas Monthly, WFAA, Joy Reid, The Daily Show, Time, to name a few. This July 25 (!) on WFAA. Although this year will be a challenge, Christmas will come, and Santa will be here…and there…and everywhere. How does he manage? Santa has his ways. Why write about him in August in a pandemic in a time of widespread unrest? That “a” is intentional. Larry is part of a cadre of Santas through The Santa Experience MN. So while he is not “the” Santa, he’s going to be your favorite.

Christmases Past

Rural Arkansas, a Christmas Eve years ago. (Santa is ageless, so we can’t say just when). A young boy sees it all:  Billions of stars twinkling, the grandeur of nature is on display. The lights from the house shed their warming glow. The scents of traditional family treats—German chocolate cake, strawberry cake, turkey and ham and dressing. He and his ten siblings have drawn names for gifts and must be creative to make up for the lack of worldly wealth. Sisters and brothers, grandparents and grandparent come together, “rich in God’s good grace and the true meaning of Christmas.” Christmas—always thrilling—was a time when he’d wonder what God would have him do.

When did our real Santa realize he was to be Santa? 1999. In the military (Army, a captain), he could not have a real beard so he used a pretend one and a $30 Santa suit. When he retired in 2016, our Santa grew a real beard and learned his craft in Santa schools in Denver and Dallas and Branson. Yes, he was a “meant to be” Santa, and the beautiful beard is a plus. Its colors do change from time to time, but Mrs. Claus does know how to tweak its magic, chemically speaking.

Christmas Present

This year, ah, the differences. It’s not going to be wise to say Santa’s laugh is infectious, or that his kindness and generosity are contagious. No, Santa will be remote this year in order to protect himself and the children. He plans lots of virtual visits and will revamp his website to accommodate personal contacts instead of attending parties and visiting schools.

To say our Santa has been active is an understatement. Among his commitments have been the South Dallas community plus venues in New York, California, Chicago (Museum of Science + Industry), as well as the Mall of America.  He will appear in the 2020 DeSoto Christmas parade and for Williams Chicken at Change for Change at Southwest Center Mall.

These days, too, Christmas in July holds special meaning. Thinking the showing of A Christmas Carol (1984) on our interview day was providential, I learned from our Santa that several networks see this as a time to bring joy, peace, and happiness early. And perhaps we can add—always.

What about that nice vs. naughty issue? Santa Larry has the best answer ever: He tells children to CONTINUE being good. How powerful is that! No naughty children appear on his list—every child has some form of good in them, he emphasizes. But I added: Some children can be, well, challenging. Again, Santa comes through. At the Mall of America, his group has a special room reserved for special needs children, a quiet place where they can be safe and be themselves.

Christmases Future

Christmas will always be with us, as will Santa. To Larry, that means “the gift we have already received which is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Gratitude is always in season, he explained.  And I offered him a gift: Christmas is about the Presence, if not the presents. He liked it, I think.

Yes, Larry Jefferson was the first African-American Santa at the biggest mall in America, but that has never been his focus; “Santa doesn’t have a color,” he added. His goal is to be Santa for All. He hopes to include his Mrs. Claus in more outings so children can see her participation, working with him as a unit, as a father and a mother especially so little girls can identify with her.

It seems, then, a great circle: love and joy and peace and hope in the past, now, and into the future. It’s a hope not easily won nor even easily understood. The saint on whom our practice of gift giving comes—Saint Nicholas of Myra—lived in the 3rd -4th centuries, so not much is confirmed about him. Sometimes he’s called Nicholas the Wonderworker. Larry is one, too. He said in another interview he has changed the world. I agree.

Listen to two of his favorite Christmas songs: Jingle Bells and “Mary, Did You Know?” here with Patti Labelle (Is that Gladys Knight doing backup?) and here with Pentatonix. So enjoy, then go do some joy yourself.  Twinkling, if you can…

Duty of Enmity: A Tale of Two Joneses

When I first heard of Mr. Jones, a feature film based on the life of Gareth Jones, I thought it might be one to miss. The more reviews I read, the more I knew it would be a difficult necessity. Two years ago, my family and I saw a play about the Ukrainian famine (Sickle in Chicago). At the end, we were all in tears. A microcosm of a few people reflected the horrors of millions dying of starvation. This very brief description of the events includes the official line that the famine was a success in establishing the power of the Communist party. That Mr. Jones was made seems almost miraculous, given the current urge to forget history.

Written by Andrea Chalupa (who, in spite of her name, comes from a Ukrainian family), the screenplay is her first. It’s not perfect, but neither does it seem to have a particular agenda other than telling the story. The frame is George Orwell (introduced by his real name, Eric Blair) as he writes Animal Farm. Again, micro versus macro in explanations of the horrors of Stalin. Chalupa wrote George Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm, available on Amazon. So there is that link. As a journalist, she begins with “Follow the money” as Jones tries to learn where Stalin get the funds to build everything in Russia. Someone says, “Wheat is Stalin’s gold.” That gold was stolen, along with literally every piece of food in the country. This article discusses the link between Walter Duranty, the writer for the New York Times who became a shill for the government. He didn’t say “To make an omelet, you have to break some eggs,” but that is his message. The eggs are lives; the deaths are in the millions, as many as 12 million, in a so-called “noble cause.”

So, what can be done? Educating people seems a lost cause in the best of times, but perhaps connecting some dots will help. Rejecting cancel culture would be a start. A young friend asked recently about those films we used to watch in the 60s about nuclear holocaust. Duck and Cover is not one I remember, but the ridiculosity of it all is clear enough: If we were bombed, we were doomed. More relatable, When the Wind Blows (1989) includes the title song by David Bowie and focuses on a British couple caught in a nuclear ICBM strike of MAD (mutually assured destruction). That never happened, or at least hasn’t yet. Perhaps nations really did learn, with the possible exception of North Korea. At least, war is not the stuff of my current dreams. My list is short:

  1. Read Animal Farm. It’s very short (60 pages), easily understood, and universally brutal. Power corrupts, etc. It is online here and available at your favorite bookseller. We read it in high school; a grandchild is reading it currently. Today’s title comes from the book. The second Jones is the farmer. The animals are encouraged to hate humans until they aren’t.
  2. Watch Mr. Jones. It says 16+ for the rating. A scene from a party shows debauchery. A hand over the screen will work, but it isn’t for children. Starring James Norton (Grantchester), Vanessa Kirby (The Queen) and Peter Sarsgaard (Knight and Day) round out an excellent supporting cast.
  3. Write the Pulitzer committee and ask them to reconsider their reconsideration of revoking Walter Duranty’s 1932 prize. Here is the address. They have their reasons, of course, and I will give them mine. Sometimes it becomes necessary in the course of human events…An action, even if symbolic, will be mine.